The Subject Supposed to Recycle

Article excerpt

If Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism articulated the moral and theological coordinates of the subject of labor, how are these rearticulated today in the experience of the subject who consumes? The will to consume or not, and what to consume and how, has been a moral and religious problem since the most ancient times. And today these traces continue to haunt us, not just because we are now veritably surrounded by commodities, but because of the way in which we are today invited to respond to that situation.

Today we are supposed to recycle. We are told again and again of this need, and that it is good to do so. That we are supposed to take care to recycle has almost reached the level of a duty or moral law, and this moral law circulates in the way we symbolize acts of consumption. We are supposed to in the strong sense that we should, moreover we must, and to not do so would make us guilty of a breach. To choose not to recycle is an act of bad faith, a careless failure of duty, responsibility and care.

But who is the "we" of this moral imperative? Who is this subject who is supposed to recycle? Where do we locate, and is it possible to locate, the agent of this moral responsibility? These questions are fundamental if we are to understand this contemporary moral injunction, and because of this are crucial if we - but who this "we" is remains to be specified - are to respond to it.

Between Weber and today what is different is not the religious nature of economic action. Rather there has been a transformation from what Weber presents as the idea of salvation through "good works" and above all of the promise of labor without end, to the permanent threat of the apocalypse that will overcome us if we continue to consume in the way we do.1 Generalized risk of apocalypse, then, a risk that presents itself as the almost inevitable endgame of capitalist overconsumption. But this time the apocalypse is not a threat from the outside but rather something on which we can count, and for which we are all ultimately responsible.

We are responsible, many say, because it is our very own consumption choices, and the way that these coincide with production methods and distribution circuits that are clearly unsustainable, that are the root cause of the impending end of life on earth. But we have it in our own hands to forestall this apocalypse, and in this sense we are today invited into a care for the planet that is accompanied by an almost paranoiac "care of the self."2 It is these subjective correlates of this new moral imperative that I propose to bring into focus in this essay.

These dynamics, which are immediately raised by the notion of the subject supposed to recycle, can be seen more broadly today in the value that is put on sustainable or ethical consumption more generally. By this, we signal conscious efforts to make consumption choices that will have some broader benefits, often environmental but equally social, whether this is through choosing organic vegetables, fair trade coffee, dolphin-friendly tuna, ecological washing liquid, products from sustainable sources, or any of a range of carbonneutral or environmentally friendly products. Such products now clearly cover a significant area of economic activity, even if the consequences of such developments remain at present largely symbolic or "ideological," which is not to diminish their importance. So although I will focus here on recycling, I do hope that these considerations might offer something of a contribution to clarifying the moral, religious and metaphysical grounds of consumption in contemporary capitalism more broadly.

Before turning to the subject supposed to recycle and the two aspects ofthat subjectivity that I propose we need to analyze - guilt and freedom - it may be useful to consider certain aspects of the ontological status of the subject and object of recycling, and in doing so to demonstrate the implications of what will be one of our guiding concerns, that is, the place in the subject and object of recycling of the trace of the Other. …