Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Faux + Homey =Fauxmey (or Foamy)

In the film Up in the Air the term Fauxmey, a combination of faux and homey, is coined to describe the little touches of hominess used by hotels, such as the “Fresh Baked Cookies” available at checkout. This is a clever little turn of phrase, but it is also incredibly risky one for a Hollywood movie, especially one released over the holidays, to utter. Fauxmey is what Hollywood specializes in.

Up in the Air has been embraced by some as the first real film of the current economic depression. On the surface this would seem to be the case; the film’s central character Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) works for an unnamed company that is sent into to do the dirty work of laying off thousands of employees. As the film begins, however, it is his job that is in jeopardy as his company contemplates replacing the expensive flights cross country with firing by teleconference. Economic insecurity, the thing that Americans flock to the theaters to avoid, would seem to be given center stage. This expression of the current age comes heavily mediated by the homilies that are the stock and trade of Hollywood.

Bingham is presented not so much as someone who lays people off for a living, lagging slightly behind the migrating flows of capital to inform people that their position is no longer available, but as someone who makes flight, movement, and instability a virtue. As he remarks in narration, the airport lounge, first class seat, and hotel bar are his home. (And you know what they say, anyone who questions the virtues of home and family in the first act, will discover find themselves longing for them in the third.) He expresses the virtues of displacement and movement every time that he informs someone that they have been terminated (a word that he is careful not to use). In a speech that is reminiscent of Machiavelli’s discussion of the good fortune of Romulus, Moses, and others, a good fortune that is nothing other than being cast out of the existing order, he states that “everyone who ever founded an empire or started a company sat in that chair, and was able to do so because he sat there” (rough paraphrase). Losing one’s job is represented as an opportunity to follow one’s dream, as a chance to become one’s true self. In case that is not clear enough, Bingham also moonlights as a motivational speaker, delivering speeches with the title “What is in Your Backpack?” which argue for emptying the proverbial backpack of the various impediments and attachments of home and family. Life is movement, he declares, summing up the virtues of the neoliberal subject.

These three different testaments to the virtues of movement are somehow both overkill and contradictory. There are of course fundamental differences between the mobility of flying first class and the flexibility of being fired from your job after seventeen years of hard work and dedication. Bingham works hard to not so much conceal these differences but to model the mobility of his life with the mobility of capital. His goal in life is to accumulate ten million miles with his airline, a goal that is seemingly devoid of any end other than pure quantitative accumulation. He does not plan to do anything with these miles; accumulation is its own end and justification.

As fast as Bingham moves, however, it is not fast enough. As I stated at the beginning, Bingham is being outpaced by technological innovation itself, by virtual networks that make airline travel obsolete. Part of the film’s drama has to do with irony of the master of mobility being confronted with the horrors of stability, with having to stay in one place. That is part of the drama, but only part. Eventually Bingham is lead to desire family and stability. He is tempted in part by a new jet setting lover named Alex (Vera Farmiga) and by a return home for a family wedding. I will spare you the details, but let you know that you get all of the requisite scenes of dramatic reversal of values, including a last minute dash through an airport. It is not love unless there is a last minute run through a crowded place to stop a wedding or reunite with a spurned lover.

(Spoiler Alert) What is surprising and curious, albeit not as clever as the film thinks, is that it does not pursue this direction. One assumes that Alex, being a woman, secretly desires home and hearth. However, this turns out not to be the case, or not exactly. This is conveyed in a scene in which Alex describes her perfect man, a stable good natured lover of children with a nice smile. Alex already has those things, a husband and kid: her relationship with Bingham is not some frustrated desire for the corporate bad boy who will never settle down, but simply an affair on the road. He is just one of those transgressions that one allows oneself while in travel, like watching lots of television. Bingham is  thus rejected, his attempt to become a family man fails. In a response to this he returns to the sky, to a life in transit. In doing so he meets his goal, he flies ten million miles and gets a special elite business card and meets the pilot. The film ends with Bingham singing the praises of the open sky, but now it is not so much the sky of ten million miles, of a pure quantity, but a sky of special perks, of hospitality and the warm smile of Sam Elliot (playing the embodiment of folksy charm yet again).

Oddly enough the film would seem to end with a praise of the fauxmey, of the false charms of corporate perks. People are shown to be unreliable and disloyal. In their place we have the reliable world of corporate rewards in which loyalty always comes with perks. To put it in Deleuze and Guattari’s terms, the film is less a celebration of deterritorialization, of pure mobility, but of reterritorialization, of the codes of home and friendship that have become part of every brand. This celebration of fauxmey at the level of content is duplicated at the level of form. The film quite famously cast actually downsized individuals to flesh out the emotional intensity of people losing their jobs. These individuals are shown are in the closing credits, discussing the virtues of family against the world of work, lessons learned from losing their jobs. These statements contradict the overall arch of the film, but no matter, they reassure us of its seriousness and concern.

Adorno once compared the products of the culture industry to baby food, predigested. It is perhaps more accurate to say that they are chocolate chip cookies, microwave reheated and available at checkout.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

You Can't Kill a Ghost: Hegel, Hardt, and Negri

It was perhaps Foucault who first cast Hegel in the light of a horror movie, who argued that for all of his generation’s attempts to escape Hegel, they still might find him “motionless, waiting for us.” Like the killer in a slasher movie, Hegel springs out of the dark just when you thought he was dead. Perhaps a fitting fate for the philosopher who gave us the conceptual underpinnings of the contemporary sequel: the bad infinity, a series of differences that do not make a difference.

I thought of these remarks on Hegel, which suggest that all anti-Hegelianism will return to Hegel in some way or another, in reading Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Commonwealth. Hardt and Negri are famously anti-Hegelian, presenting an immanent constitutive tradition of Machiavelli, Spinoza, and Marx, against a political tradition of dialectic and mediation, made up of Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel. However, Hegel, or at least a ghost of Hegel makes an odd reappearance in this text, raising some interesting questions.

As the title suggests, Commonwealth is concerned with the common. The common is defined as that which exceeds state or private ownership, everything from natural resources to the second nature of language, knowledge, and habits that becomes the basis for wealth production but cannot be owned. (Hardt and Negri’s primary concern in Commonwealth is with the latter, second nature; they say little about the former. Michael Hardt recently made some interesting remarks about the distinction between nature, as the commons, and the common in Copenhagen.) The common is what capital exploits, but it is also what gives the multitude direction and consistency: the goal is to liberate the common from all of the corrupt institutions, which exploit its creativity and openness.

In what is perhaps the most interesting chapter in the book they outline the family, corporation, and the state as the three “specters of the common,” three institutions that corrupt and limit it. To return to the metaphor of a horror movie, the frightening theme would cue up right about now, suggesting that the monster is lurking about, just out of sight. The family, cooperation (or civil society), and the state are the three spheres of Hegel’s ethical life. Hegel’s presentation of these three spheres, in which the family is immediacy, all warm and confining; civil society, is the negation, competition as the war of all against all; and the state is the reconciliation of the two, individual freedom and ethical substance, is one of the places where Hegel risks collapsing into a caricature of himself. Which is unfortunate, since these passages constitute some of Hegel’s most important socio-historical writing, incorporating his reflection on the limits of political economy and its perspective on the state. It also suggests that politics should be understood in terms of the various institutions and relations that traverse it, relations which are also productions of subjectivity.

(The curious thing about this oddly spectral Hegel is that Hardt has written one of the better essays on the contemporary relevance of Hegel’s conception of civil society. In that essay, “The Withering of Civil Society,” Hardt follows Deleuze’s idea of a control society, arguing that Hegel’s civil society corresponds to Foucault’s disciplinary power. The very idea of civil society, situated between family and the state, demands heterogeneity and separation of institutions, each with their own norm and structures. In its place we have control which permeates all of these structures, subordinating to the same relations of debt; think of the breakdown of family, work, and school that confronts the modern university student, still at home, working, and already in debt. Finally, Hardt and Negri argue that the “withering away” of civil society often entails the creation of a simulation of society, such as the media, which simulates society without its conflicts. This historicization of the concept, as well as a specific mention of Hegel, is absent from Commonwealth.)

What is most striking, however, in this contrast between Hegel, Hardt, and Negri is the presence of this logical, or conceptual structure, that of the dialectic itself in the former. Hardt and Negri’s presentation of the corruption of the common contains many insights, but there is no real articulation of the relation between these three different sites. The family is presented as the primary institution in society for mobilizing the common as the sole paradigm for relationships of intimacy and solidarity. The family corrupts the common in limiting it, isolating it to what is essentially an extended narcissism: my family as a projection of myself. The corporation is then presented as a massive corruption of cooperation: it is the primary experience most of us have of cooperation, but it is cooperation subordinated to a false unity, that of the corporation as our common interest. Finally, the nation remains the “only community imaginable,” the only common basis for politics.

These remarks are interesting, and I share their fundamental idea that the task of any committed political philosophy is thinking the social relations, collectivity, or the common beyond the ossified structures of family, corporation, and nation. However, the contrast with Hegel demonstrates that it is not enough to posit each of these as institutions as corruptions of the common, it is necessary to grasp the relations between them. Hegel presents family, civil society, and the state not just as different corruptions of the common, but as a dialectical progression, defined by their relations, by contradiction and negation.

In Empire Hardt and Negri argued that various fundamentalisms, returns to family, religion, and the state, are themselves made possible by the abstractions and connections of capital. Which is to say that corruptions of one form of the common produce a kind of fetishization of other forms of the common: globalization produces a return to the family. In my view Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus, and the conceptual apparatus of deterritorializarion and reterritorialization remains a crucial and even exemplary way to think about these odd anachronisms of the present, but this would take us too far off topic.

I am not arguing for a return to the dialectic, the reference to Deleuze and Guattari should make that clear, but for at least a conceptualization of the relation between the different corruptions of the common. Finally, and I am aware that this heresy, it is worth asking the question as to what extent Hegel’s ethical life (Sittlichkeit) can be reconsidered as a kind of figure of the common, or, if at least not the common, then transindividuality. I take it as foundational that any new politics capable of countering capitalisms subordination of social relations to the imaginary atoms of individuals and the axioms of accumulation will require a new understanding of social relations, if not relations in general. It is also true that the language and concepts to develop this are sorely lacking. Philosophy has been dominated by the spontaneous ontology of individualism, and to what extent the common appears it appears in its corrupt form as family, nation, and corporation. In other words, philosophy has been dominated by ideology. Developing these concepts may require a rereading of the history of philosophy. Perhaps it is time to stop being so afraid of Hegel.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Post-Post-Modernism: Or, the Cultural Logic of Zombie Capitalism

Fredric Jameson’s Valences of the Dialectic is a book that is very similar to Archeologies of the Future. They are both massive tomes, comprised in part of new material and republished essays, that represent sustained meditations on the central and enduring concepts of Jameson’s thought, namely Utopia and Dialectics. Beyond such superficial resemblances they also function together. If the earlier book on utopia revealed something a dialectic of the very presentation of utopia itself, in which the later cannot be separated from its negation, from dystopia, then the latter reveals a utopian dimension of the dialectic itself: the goals of the dialectic, overcoming reification and the static binary between self and society, are inseparable from utopia, from a transformation of social conditions. This last point, which constitutes not so much a new position on the part of Jameson, but a new articulation of existing themes and problematics (after all, the essays in question go back over twenty years) will have to wait for a later post, after I finish the book on the dialectic.

At this point I would like to approach Valences of the Dialectic rather obliquely, from what it says about the more or less current conjuncture. Given that Jameson is most famous for describing “postmodernism” as the cultural logic of late capitalism it makes sense to ask where we stand now with respect to capitalism, late, resurgent, or dying, and its specific cultural logic. There are two statements that appear more than once in Jameson’s book, albeit in different formulations.

The first describes the present as a simplifying of the ideological dimension. As Jameson writes:

“What is paradoxical is that the crudest forms of ideology seem to have returned, and that in our public life an older vulgar Marxism would have no need of the hypersubtleties of the Frankfurt School and of negative dialectics, let alone of deconstruction, to identify and unmask the simplest and most class conscious motives and interests at work, from Reaganism and Thatcherism down to our own politicians: to lower taxes so rich people can keep more of their money, a simple principle about which what is surprising is that so few people find it surprising anymore, and what is scandalous, in the universality of market values, is the way it goes without saying and scarcely scandalizes anyone.”

One could see this as a much delayed fulfillment of Marx’s statement in The Communist Manifesto, where Marx argues that capitalism entails a reduction of ideology to its material base. All the illusions of religion and monarchy fall aside and “man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind.” The major exception being that in Marx’s account this clarity is the catalyst for revolution, while Jameson suggests that it is met with a shrug. We all know that the rich pass laws in their interest, and the best we can hope to do is to one day become rich so that we might do the same. Jameson could be describing a kind of universal cynicism that is synonymous with the post-modern condition.

However, the second description of the present suggests something else entirely. As Jameson writes in an often repeated formula:

“The dualism of culture and the economic has however come to seem unproductive, particularly in the third stage of capitalism (postmodernity or late capitalism), in which these two dimensions have seemed to dedifferentiate and to fold back in on each other: culture becoming a commodity and the economic becoming a process of libidinal and symbolic investment.”

On first glance one could say that this second statement contradicts the first, but that seems almost silly given that both of these statements come from a book on dialectics. However, the second does complicate the first. It is no longer that the economy, and with it the interests of class, emerges from an ideological cloud, but that the economy becomes its own kind of ideology (Think of the proliferation of investing magazines and television shows, aimed less at informing an invest class than produce this “economy as culture’). The trajectory of these two remarks follows Marx’s own trajectory from the Manifesto to Capital, from the holy that is profaned to the misty enshrouded realm of commodity fetishism.

Two provisional conclusions:

We are living in an age in which the category of ideology is increasing inadequate. This is not because it is metaphysically suspect, as Foucault and others claimed, but because it no longer adequately grasps the way society functions. One of the things that I like about the first quote is that it demonstrates that what is theoretically sophisticated is not necessarily political useful (a difficult lesson, and one coming from an odd place). However, the second quote points to the fact that this is not an “end of ideology,” but that new critical concepts are needed to make sense of this new order.

Second, and this is much more provisional, I think that understanding the combination of cyncism and libidinal investment in the economy might help explain the peculiarities of the current situation. We are cynical about capital's capacity to deliver any kind of just order, yet invested in it all the same. Zombie capitalism: desire lingering on, long after its rational has ceased.

Photo of Randall Park Mall, Cleveland, Ohio.