How do we come to value the values we value? The question immediately suggests other questions: who is this ‘we’ that drops so easily from our mouths? What is this ‘coming to’ that signals lived temporal progression? What can ‘to value values’ mean other than to be magnetized by what magnetizes us (thus an affective orientation and economy), even if in refusal or ambivalence? And what are these ‘values’ that we all seem to acknowledge are hanging out there in the social field like ripe fruit for the picking?

I have been thinking these questions, lately, in relation to what are called the seven deadly sins. Inspired by the discussion of drug-time and non-productive time in Cressida Heyes’s new book, Anesthetics of Experience: essays on experience at the edge (Duke UP, 2020), I have begun to reconsider sloth.  Listening to Lydia Millet’s apocalyptic novel, The Children’s Bible (Norton, 2020), a story that impales the self-absorption and ineptitude of my generation for its climate crisis consequences, I have found a better angle for reconsidering Marx’s attention to capitalist greed.

In one of those realizations that really ought to have happened decades ago, I realized that the opposites of sloth and greed are not productivity and generosity. I began to wonder why not. (Arguably, temperance opposes greed, but the vector of action is different. Greed hoards, generosity distributes, but temperance prevaricates. It gives out and also pulls in, seeking the Aristotelian mean.)  Why is the opposite of sloth—or its modern iteration, laziness—not productivity?

This question took me back to Foucault and his account of the development of our society of norms

Reading Foucault alongside Merleau-Ponty, it is clear how much the student learned from the teacher. For Merleau-Ponty, the subject and world co-emerge through perception and action, from a field that is prior to or beneath perception and action, as he repeatedly notes in The Phenomenology of Perception (Landes translation, usually of en deçà de). The subject and world are, he writes, “geared into one another.”

From one perspective, we could say that Foucault acknowledges the phenomenological field that is prior to and in excess of perception but refocuses it as more overtly the weight of history and force of power (pouvoir/puissance). Foucault’s theoretical tools of genealogy and discourse extend Merleau-Ponty’s analyses to index a subject that is not so much ‘geared in’ to the world as fabricated and assembled by it. As Cressida Heyes notes, citing Joan Scott channeling Foucault, subjective agency (and resistance) are not so much “qualities of individuals” as “historical fields” (Anesthetic Experience, 33).

Heyes writes brilliantly from the precepts of critical phenomenology, a wrinkle in phenomenological discourse that aims to pull it into the same theoretical highway with Foucauldian genealogy, even while these approaches continue to occupy different lanes. Heyes takes her cue from Foucault’s attention to “edge experiences,” that is, lived moments that show up—as if in bas-relief—the constructed limits of the self and, therefore push toward a felt grasp of how the self might be constructed differently. Heyes asks whether we have agency during sleep or unconsciousness, and she wonders what feminists lose when we deprive agency and ‘experience’ from women who have been raped while drunk, drugged, or unconscious. Heyes also offer analysis of bourgeois women who are targeted by winemakers in ad campaigns for “Mommy Juice” (Anaesthetic Experience, 111), of women who adore plastic surgery precisely because they are unconscious when their “makeover” occurs, and even, bravely and beautifully, an account of the pain and process of giving birth to her son.

Heyes’ chapters assume Foucault’s accounts of the development of the so-called “society of norms.” In the early nineteenth century, this society of norms arose from intense socio-political efforts to constitute the capitalist worker. This worker was a new thing, a specific kind of subjectivity in a specific social order that was built not only from “orthopedic” practices on specific bodies (disciplinary power) but also from the gradual development of a social matrix of normalization. The society of norms is a complex social field orchestrated personally, spatially, institutionally, and discursively (particularly through the human sciences) around possible actions that fall out on a statistical range from normal to abnormal, with the circuits of power incentivizing the normal range of actions (biopower). Unsurprisingly, this statistical range of behavior is itself parsed quite carefully according to a society’s forces and relations of production. We know this because we know that while sloth or laziness is bad, leisure is, somehow good. That while some subjects sow wild oats, others are criminals. That greed is always ugly, except [ahem] when it’s just good business.

Heyes attends to modes of resistance against the capitalist subject formation, the pressures of which orient us to time and productivity in increasingly intense and brutal modalities. Heyes wants us to slow down. Her chapters theorize both prevailing norms about who and what can slow down, and why it is so hard to do so. She writes, “Agency is not just something exercised in a series of moments that happen in an open field of choice. My agency is also sustained or foreclosed by what other people say and do” (Anaesthetics of Experience, 74). Indeed. We are all caught up and geared in to an pluri-relational society of norms.

As I continue, in the wake of Heyes’s book, to think about how we come to value the values we value, it seems crucial to position the subjects who bear the virtues and vices of late capitalism, not as character types but as disposition types, as particular, crafted modalities for channeling certain practices toward certain ends.  What would it take to transvalue laziness to leisure? More than a self-help book. More than yoga or mental-health days or even collective resistance to neoliberal policies. It might take nothing short of the demolition of exchange relations altogether (cf. Deborah Cook, Adorno, Foucault and the Critique of the West).