Thursday, August 28, 2008

Sorry, It's much worse: (somewhat less than a book report, even)

As something of a follow up to the recent post on Negri it makes sense to write a short review of sorts of Richard Sennett’s The Culture of the New Capitalism. Like Negri, Sennett ascribes to the view that there has been a radical transformation of labor, and that this transformation has effects that reach far beyond the economy to constitute a new basis for politics and a new articulation of culture. However, unlike Negri, Sennett is almost entirely pessimistic about this transformation.

Sennett’s sketch of the present focuses on two fundamental transformations of the structure of work. First, there is the demise of a certain model of hierarchy and bureaucracy, of the pyramid structure of the corporation. The loss of this is also a loss of a particular relation to time, to social capital, and ultimately to a particular kind of subjectivity. The subject of the hierarchical corporation worked to “climb the ladder,” accumulating knowledge, and social capital (defined as a particular investment in one’s social involvements). This also entails a particular involvement and investment in time, a time of delayed gratification, in which work is towards constructing a future. Ultimately Sennet is more concerned with the particular subjectivity that accompanies this structure, than the structure itself, that of the citizen/craftsman. This is the second transformation. Sennett defines the craftsman as someone willing to do something for its own sake, something which requires an objectification in an object or practice. As philosophers such as Aristotle and Arendt have argued, this “thing,” car, cake, law, or institution becomes the standard of the action.

These two things, the institution of delayed gratification and the ethic of the craftsman, overlap and reinforce each other in that both require a certain construction of the future, a certain ideal of stability. They are thus both destroyed by the way in which work has been reorganized by the twin specters of uselessness, automation and outsourcing. These have fundamentally restructured the organization of the corporation, from a hierarchy, in which one accumulates expertise and social capital, to a lateral system of networks, where one moves from job to job, starting over each time, never accumulating knowledge (because it is continually radically redefined) or social capital. In place of the craftsman the contemporary subject of work is defined by potential. It is this potential that is assessed in the various tests that start in the early years of life, and becomes the basis for future movement. This potential exists as something fundamentally unrealized and unrealizable, it is a vague ability to adapt to new situations, to respond to the situation, and to interact, to “work with people.” Sennett connects this to a fundamental change of attitudes, this subject as potential is caught between the anxiety of uselessness and the flexibility of adapting to new rules and structures. We are all little ipods, obsessed with potential that cannot be realized, all of that excess memory, and capable of indifferently switching in new programs, new rules, depending on the situation. In this way his work echoes themes in Paolo Virno's work regarding anxiety, cynicism, and opportunism.

It is important to stress that Sennett connects this ideal of the craftsman with a particular idea of the citizen. The citizen-craftsman is able to dedicate his or herself to the difficult task of constructing institutions and structures, structures that have a certain objectivity, which outlast the individuals that create them. More importantly the citizen-craftsmen is able to research issues and ideas, dedicating time towards the eventual good of knowledge and participation. In its place we now have the “citizen consumer.” The actions of the citizen consumer are modeled on the general trends in consumption in general. Sennett points out that contemporary production is based on more or less standardized products, which have slight variations of style or packaging. Politicians and political events take on the same structure, a fundamental homogeneity that underlies the various pseudo-events, the scandals and slight changes that make up the din of political coverage.

“So familiar are we with this crossover from consumer to political behavior that we lose sight of the consequences: the press’s and public’s endless obsession with politician’s individual character traits mask the reality of the consensus platform. In modern political performances, the marketing of personality further and frequently eschews a narrative of the politician’s history and record in office; its too boring. He or she embodies intentions, desires, values, beliefs, tastes—an emphasis which has again the effect of divorcing power and responsibility.”

Sennett’s skepticism regarding the liberatory effects of immaterial production is in part based on the shift from the production to consumption. Whereas Negri focuses almost exclusively on the production of subjectivity through labor, finding a subject which is communicative, ethical, and capable of organizing itself outside of the control of capital, Sennett focuses on consumption, finding a subject which is isolated and subject to the narcissism of minor difference.

Finally, I would argue that the connection that Sennett (and others such as Negri, Virno, etc.,) explore between a mode of labor and a mode of social existence can and should be deepened. Sennett’s fundamental point of a transformation of time, from an ethic of deferred gratification to an ethic of anxiety and short term connections, should be examined and extended. It would seem that the most fundamental challenge in the present is the one that Virno outlines:

"What is involved here is the conceptualization of the field of immediate coincidence between production and ethics, structure and superstructure, between the revolution of labor process and the revolution of sentiments, between technology and emotional tonality, between material development and culture. By confining ourselves narrowly to this dichotomy, however, we fatally renew the metaphysical split between “lower” and higher, animal and rational, body and soul—and it makes little difference if we boast of our pretensions to historical materialism. If we fail to perceive the points of identity between labor practices and modes of life, we will comprehend nothing of the changes taking place in present-day production and misunderstand a great deal about the forms of contemporary culture."

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Diminishing Returns

Two of my favorite blogs (The Pinocchio Theory and What in the Hell…) have written about Negri’s recent books, namely The Porcelain Factory and Good-Bye Mr. Socialism, expressing disappointment. I have to admit that I share this disappointment. I am not going to address the specific texts in question, I read the former over a year ago when it appeared in French and am only halfway through the latter, but I agree with the fundamental point that with the exception of Kairos, Alma Venus, Multitudo Negri’s recent work does not touch the sheer greatness of The Savage Anomaly, Marx Beyond Marx, or Insurgencies (Constituent Power).

The criticism of these recent works (in these blogs and elsewhere) basically follows two fundamental points: First, the excessive confidence in the fundamentally creative and subversive nature of the existing labor practices and social relations, the multitude as a latent reservoir of revolution and, second, the misplaced emphasis on the present as a radical break with the past, immaterial labor as something fundamentally unseen. I do not want to address these criticisms here, rather I would like to focus on another problem, one that has to do with the provocations of Negri’s early works.

In The Politics of Subversion Negri makes a point which I have taken to be fundamental regarding his understanding of the production of subjectivity, in that book he writes: “The ontological aspects of subjectivity are produced in different (or rather, antagonistic) ways.” As Negri elaborates, there is a proletarian production of subjectivity, passing through the wage, through the social relations of cooperation, and into insurrection. Against this there is leveled a capitalist production of subjectivity that breaks down this collective subjectivity through competition and the market. In these passages Negri maintains in productive tension between what could be broadly described as post-structuralism, (namely, Foucault) in which subjectivity is effectively produced by discourses and relations of power, and Marxism, insisting on a duality of struggle, even if it is produced rather than given. This assertion in an early work is to some extent vexed by the problem of lapsing back into a dialectic, or what Negri refers to as an “antagonistic Manicheism”; that is to say it is a matter of maintaining antagonism without lapsing into the symmetry of opposites or the inevitable conflict of pregiven social substances.

It is this sense of the antagonistic constitution of subjectivity that is largely absent from Negri’s later works. In later works the networks and social relations of immaterial labor produced a subject that is wholly opposed to capital, untouched by the market, by neoliberal strategies. This is largely the case, but not entirely. In Empire Hardt and Negri cite Debord’s theory of the spectacle as a fundamental dimension of the antagnostic constitution of subjectivity, and not a misrepresentation of a given reality. As Hardt and Negri write: “The spectacle destroys any collective form of sociality—individualizing social actors in their separate automobiles and in front of separate video screens—and at the same time imposes a new mass sociality, a new uniformity of action and thought.” This idea of a production of subjectivity that passes through the media, through the “immaterial” technologies of television and the internet, and does not produce a multitude but something else also appears, albeit briefly, in Negri’s latest works. As Negri states in Goodbye, Mr. Socialism the public functions as a kind of capitalist production of subjectivity.“The public is a medium between people, class, and individuality: the people were formed by the State the class by the party, while the public is constructed from a mixture of the media, television, newspaper, and by small editorial production of the worst type…This public isn’t multitude at all.”

This discussion of the antagonistic production of subjectivity is not only more interesting than the endless repetition of the power of the multitude versus the empty shell of capital it is more useful as well. What we need are the tools for the analysis of the production of subjectivity. We need to understand the way in which the existing power structure, Empire, for lack of a better word, is produced and reproduced by the existing machines of consumption and production. To paraphrase Alain Badiou, who in turn was paraphrasing Hegel, “We must think Empire not just as substance but as subject.” Less cryptically we need to understand how Empire is not something out there, but in us, part of our subjectivity. Second, we need to understand the tools and techniques that make possible a counter production of subjectivity. Negri’s provocative statements regarding the changing status of labor, the emerging affective and intellectual dimensions, are an important part of this, but they are not the whole picture.