Oink, Oink: To Live and Think Like Pigs
Oink, Oink: To Live and Think Like Pigs
Holden M. Rasmussen
"'We optimise as others breathe! We are the first generation to so perfectly 'internalise' all behaviours as scarcity behaviours! Nothing escapes this, including relationship problems, suicide, altruism previously confiscate by the intoxicating theories of the Pétroleuses.
'Take relationships, for example... Doesn't getting married mean coming up against a specific market of goods and services along withs its rules, investments (children) and its competition for rare resources (IQ, sex appeal, education, wealth) that stroke the utility curves in the right direction? Can a couple last if it doesn't suceed in increasing the utility function of both partners?'"
-Gilles Châtelet, To Live and Think Like Pigs, p. 111
From my childhood, I remember cheesy posters fabricated in the 80s affixed to the walls of my public schools’ libraries. They told me that “A Book Can Be Your Best Friend” and that “You Can Be Anywhere with a Book!” and other clichés in Impact font, looming over Alec Baldwin’s head. The haunting 80s kitsch aside, I meet a lot of people who echo these sentiments. Reading is an escape for some. In a hellscape, fantasy and science-fiction elements to a story provide that temporary get-away from an existence mediated by exchange, labor, and the capitalist division of time and life into discrete, artificial units. I’m suspicious of these desires for escape, but I indulge my own. How could one bear this life without a fantasy? Even the hardiest career-boys must daydream.
Incited towards boredom as response to the impotence market democracies require to function, I found myself reading To Live and Think Like Pigs: The Incitement of Envy and Boredom in Market Democracies by Gilles Châtelet. I felt refreshed, like how you feel after meeting someone who shares a niche but rich common interest with you. Having no genuine political opposition to exploitation in America, just having returned from a year studying abroad in a country not without its own problems but still kilometers ahead of the US in terms of intellectual culture, and feeling isolated due to a global pandemic and the cruel absence of effective mass-transit in the Salt Lake Valley, Chatelet turned out to be a good friend. A good here meaning, someone who shared my frustration without letting me forget about them or escape from them. Someone who forced me to reflect on my envy and boredom rather than flee from an authentic contemplation of my situation.
To Live and Think Like Pigs is a polemic against the growing complacency and political tepidity that emerged in market democracies (read: America and its cultural repositories) during the 1980s. Even though France had a nominally socialist president in the 1980s, Châtelet raged against what he knew to be an emerging trend towards intellectual mediocrity, political docility, and acceptance of the capitalist demand to produce profit for those who own capital. Even though his references are particularly French, translator and editor Robin McKay provides ample footnotes to orient the English-speaking reader. When Châtelet continually refers to popular French comic strip figures and A-list Parisians, you have a way of understanding what he means. Published in 1998 in France, Châletet’s book is relevant in the Anglosphere of 2020 since our world and its political order have not changed.
One example of the timeliness of To Live and Think Like Pigs is its identification and excoriation of the wide-held faith in some imaginary figure of ‘the average person.’ Politicians, journalists, scholars never seem to shut up about this average, ordinary figure. “What does the average person think?” “Does the average person think Biden can defeat Trump?” “Does the average person really care about anti-trust laws or violations of the Geneva Conventions?” “Does the average person read?” “Does the average person…” and so on, ad nauseum. Châtelet condemns the use and reuse of this figure as a myth meant to encourage mediocrity and normality. Liberalism encourages the creation of what Châtelet calls “vote fodder” and what Marx would call a surplus workforce, an army of average men that will vote to retain the status quo. These average women will do nothing exceptional, because they follow the rule, which is the mean. These average people will fall into line, self-regulate, and maintain the efficient, peaceful national machine.
Democratic Primary coverage by MSNBC had me audibly balk when pundits started praising Iowa Caucus-goers for trying to predict which candidate would appeal to their fellow citizens. “I like [insert any of the candidates’ names here since they’re all interchangeable], but I think people will like [repeat, but choose a different candidate] because they’re more moderate.” The average dominates, and it incites people to try to perform the impossible task of knowing of another person’s desires, consciousness, and experience. Yet, the pundits, the experts, they all loved that Iowans could perform ‘quick heuristics’ in some high school gym in a suburb that looks like all the other American suburbs. Châtelet’s criticism needs heeding, it would seem.
That is only one topic Châtelet takes in his polemic against liberal, market democracies, and he does not focus solely on the political use of statistics. He demonstrates breadth and depth of sociological knowledge by taking up the liberal attitude towards education, towards music and night life, towards the neoliberal parochializing of philosophy and mathematics by journalists, and much more.
The point I’m trying to make is this: you should read Châtelet if you feel you have nowhere to turn in a world that seems hellbent on keeping its current trajectory towards continued exploitation, martial violence, and ecological catastrophe. You should also read To Live and Think Like Pigs if you see nothing wrong with what the pundits, politicians, and journalists churn out today as an excuse for analysis and thought.
No stranger to political activism, Châtelet was a member of Parti communiste français (PCF) and associated with the Front homosexuel d'action révolutionnaire (FHAR). He joined the French communists during the upheavals of the 1960s and became a gay activist due to his time in California in 1969. He later studied at University of Paris XI where he obtained his PhD in pure mathematics in 1975. He wrote his thesis on differential topology. All of this to say that this book is not written from a purist’s perch of privilege nor is it written from a place of thoughtlessness. Châtelet was incisive, critical, and angry. He was, in the words of Alain Badiou, also full of life and committed to creating a life worth living. The quote I chose to open this brief essay exemplifies the type of caustic humor Chatelet employs not only to denigrate and insult people, but to model the type of piercing parody everyone should deploy to express their dissatisfaction with themselves, with each other, and the status quo. What is commitment without wit, after all?
Thinking back on Alec Baldwin's visage staring me down in Bountiful High School's library, I have to wonder how I got here, writing about a dead Frenchman who feels like a closer friend than most of the people daily. Is a book really a good substitute for a flesh and blood friend? Continually, my reading reminds me of the drawbacks of my tendencies. In this instance, how does my self-isolation aid and abed the individuation and alienation of people in market democracies? My frustration is arguably a symptom of the processes Châtelet describes in his short book on how we become mediocre and unthinking. Is not frustration just a response to boredom, an outlet for an otherwise inert, atomized organism? Perhaps, but nonetheless, as cliché as it sounds, books, like other forms of communication technology, do bridge our consciousnesses with those of others. They can help if we read the good ones. To Live and Think Like Pigs is one of the good ones.