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.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Abstract Materiality: In Praise of Alfred Sohn-Rethel

Materialism has always been the bastard stepson of philosophy. Its very position is paradoxical, if not impossible. It must use concepts and arguments to conceptualize and argue against the primacy of concepts and argument. Materialism is predicated on the principle that material forces and relations determine thought, not the either way around. This perennial problem is even worse today. If Marx was in some sense the most sophisticated materialist philosopher, elevating the material beyond the brute materiality of the body, to locate the material in the conflicted terrain of social relations, then one could argue that even this version of materialism is in jeopardy today. The economy, the last instance of materialist philosophy after Marx, can no longer be identified with the machines and noise of the factory, it has become digital, immaterial. What then remains of materialism when the economy has become ideal, determined more and more by the idealist category par excellence, speculation, and even labor has been declared immaterial, intersecting with beliefs and desires? At least the beginning of a response can be found in the seemingly paradoxical concept of “real abstraction.” This term, introduced by Marx, takes on a central importance in the work of Alfred Sohn-Rethel, where it is no longer a methodological necessity, but the cornerstone of a philosophy that seeks to understand the material basis of abstraction itself. 

In order to clarify this concept, or to clarify the specific way in which it intersects with materialism, it is necessary to clarify what is meant by materialism. I have already shown my cards in this respect, demonstrating that I define materialism through Marx, and, more specifically in this context, the Theses on Feuerbach. Without engaging in all the tensions and paradoxes that these theses demand, I will extract a general definition of materialism from them: First, the primacy of practice, of acting, over contemplation (from Thesis One) and second, the primacy of relations, specifically social relations, over constituted things (drawn in part from Thesis Six). With these in mind we can now turn to Sohn-Rethel’s use of the concept of real abstraction. Sohn-Rethel’s understanding of real abstraction takes as its starting point Marx’s presentation of the commodity form in the opening of Capital. Sohn Rethel reads these passages to extract a thought of practice; contrary to what one might expect, it is not drawn from Marx’s distinction between concrete and abstract labor, but from the exchange relation. What Sohn-Rethel stresses is that in the act of a commodity exchange one may be focused on the concrete qualities of the commodity, its use value, but acts as if its quantitative exchange value really mattered, it is this after all that governs exchange. “It is the action of exchange, and the action alone that is abstract. The consciousness and the action of the people part company in exchange and go different ways” (Sohn-Rethel 26). This is the scandal that Marx’s thought represents for philosophy: it is not just that “consciousness is determined by life” in terms of the content and concepts that make up ideology, but that the very form of thought, abstraction, is determined by practice. The practice of exchanging does not so much constitute exchange value but constitutes its separation from use, a separation from the thing as material use value and value as an abstract quantity. Despite the fact that this abstraction takes place practically in the sphere of the market, it is this abstraction that makes possible the abstractions of thought: all of which are dependent on abstract space and time as their constitutive conditions. Practice is primary to thought, but practice is less labor as some kind of metabolic relation with nature than second nature: the relations of exchange and the division between exchange and use that constitutes the form of social activity.

Sohn-Rethel’s focus on exchange rather than labor as the activity constitutive of thought may seem strange, undermining Marx’s fundamental assertion that society is best understood from the mode of production not distribution. Sohn-Rethel does not so much dispense with labor, but justifies his selection through a theory of social relations, what he calls a social synthesis. Sohn-Rethel’s idea of a social synthesis is an attempt to answer the question as to how society coheres, holds itself together: in other words, why is there society rather than nothing? A problem that is particularly vexing in a society defined by competition. As Sohn-Rethel writes: “How does society hold together when production is carried out independently by private producers, and all forms of previous production in common have broken asunder? ” (Sohn-Rethel 29). The answer is the social synthesis, and the particular form that this synthesis takes in capitalist society. Basically, a capitalist society is held together through the abstract concepts of value, and the abstraction that it makes possible, despite the fact that physically, at the level of laboring bodies and the accumulation of use values, it remains distinct. We labor in isolation and consume in the privacy of our home, but the condition of both this production and consumption is the totality of relations of value. Sohn-Rethel refers to this as a society of appropriation, in which society is socialized at the level of appropriation, or exchange. It is a society unified in the head, despite its isolation in the laboring or consuming body. This unity does not entail a particular content, a set of ideological beliefs but a form: the form of abstract value as a quantitative unit. A society of appropriation is distinct from a society of production: the latter would imply not only different social relations, but different forms of thought, no longer predicated on the radical divide between the physical object and abstract unit.

Sohn-Rethel’s social synthesis is ultimately not just a theory of how society holds together, but how thought holds together as well. As Sohn-Rethel writes, “forms of thought and forms of society have one thing in common. They are both forms” (Sohn-Rethel 17). A social synthesis expresses this identity of thinking and society. Thus, it constitutes another blow to the claims of idealist thought, if not philosophy itself: it is not just that the abstraction is primarily practical rather than conceptual, but that thought is not the attribute of an individual consciouness it is a social process through and through, it is common.

The two materialist theses that I outlined at the beginning, the primacy of practice and the primacy of social relations, become an emphasis on the primacy of exchange as an activity constitutive of thought and society as a social synthesis. These concepts converge in the idea of real abstraction: abstractions that are lived prior to being thought, and are social before being individual. Or, put differently, thought is irreducibly social because it is irredeemably practical, structured by practice. Having defined the basic contours of Sohn-Rethel’s materialist philosophy, we can now return to the initial question as to the question of materiality today. The final chapter of Intellectual and Manual Labor lays out a particular interpretation of Marx’s methodology. As Sohn-Rethel argues Marx’s central works were always a critique of political economy, rather than a direct exposition of capitalist reality: materiality is always approached through a particular form of thought (Sohn-Rethel 195). This suggests that philosophical texts can always be interrogated against the present at the same time that they make such an interrogation possible. We can then ask where do we stand with this concept of real abstraction today: what does it make possible, and what are its limitations. First, there is the way in which it posits a particular split in the intellect. The intellect is immediately social: the fundamental conceptual schemas of thought are produced by social relations, but this sociality is lived differently than it is constituted. The basic forms of its thought are social, the abstract entities of space and time, but unconsciously so, consciously the focus is on the specific qualities of the commodity in question. This is the division between use value and exchange value, only now it explains the genesis of thought not value. “Nothing could be wrapped in greater secrecy than the truth that the independence of the intellect is owed to its original social character” (Sohn-Rethel 77). Sohn-Rethel’s assertion could be used to make sense of Marx’s formulation in the Grundrisse of the fundamental paradox of capitalist social existence:

Only in the eighteenth century, in 'civil society', do the various forms of social connectedness confront the individual as a mere means towards his private purposes, as external necessity. But the epoch which produces this standpoint, that of the isolated individual, is also precisely that of the hitherto most developed social (from this standpoint, general) relations (Marx 223)

Only now these developed relations do not just concern the interconnected relations of civil society, but the relations constitutive of thought. To cast it into a different conceptual vocabulary, Sohn-Rethel’s thought is rigorously transindividual, in that the individual, even the solipsistic individual, acting in competitive isolation or fulfilling its own independent desires on the market, is an effect and condition of social relations, relations that exceed its comprehension precisely because they are relations.

At the same time as Sohn-Rethel’s reading casts light on the present, illustrating the constitution of an intellect that is at once separate, individual, and social, collective, it is also tied to particular labor conditions, that of “private individuals who work independently of each other” (Marx 165). The social synthesis of appropriation presupposes that labor cannot be the ground for the social synthesis: exchange and not labor forms the basis of society. There is thus a sense in which Sohn-Rethel’s analysis is all too dependent on Marx’s formulation from the chapter on commodity fetishism, in which labor is carried out in isolation. Such a formulation already seems to be in tension with Marx’s analysis of cooperation in Chapter 13 of Capital, in which labor is socialized through the cooperative relations of the factory. The idea of individuals working independently of each other would appear to be already anachronistic at the time of Marx’s writing, let alone in the present. Sohn-Rethel’s does not base the entire idea of the social synthesis of appropriation on the isolation of work: it is more central that the work is governed by the division between the head and hand. This division, as he demonstrated with his analysis of Taylorism, is not just predicated on the dominance of the head over the hand, but on a dominance in which the head is determined by the abstract relations of time and space. The science underlying scientific management is founded on the abstract quantity of time, not the singular case of this or that laboring body. Taylorism is the culmination of the synthesis of appropriation on labor, both in the sense that it is determined by the demands to make a higher concentration of technology profitable by keeping it working at a faster rate and in that its science, like all sciences, is based on the abstractions constituted by the exchange relation. However, this more sophisticated understanding of the synthesis of appropriation would seem inadequate to a present dominated by what has been alternately called cognitive capital or immaterial labor. As Sohn-Rethel argues, one of the fundamental characteristics of capitalism is the resocialization of labor, a trend which has continued to this day. Labor has become more social, moving out of the factory to the call center and the public relations office. This limit can be drawn with respect to two points: first, the post-fordist present can be defined by an increased tendency in the socialization of labor, in which labor is no longer carried out by isolated producers, but actively incorporates socialization and communication. Second, the abstractions of the present are not limited to the commodity form, or even money, but include highly speculative forms of finance capital. Drawing the lines of intersection of these two points, the new socialization and new abstractions, is necessary to comprehend the present.

With respect to the former, real abstraction, Paolo Virno has suggested that the present is defined by a fundamental mutation of the real abstraction. Virno argues that the real abstractions that Sohn-Rethel addressed had one defining characteristic: equality. The socialization of the labor process, the transformation of work in post-fordist capitalism as an activity that is not so much governed by an absent and indifferent intellect, but animated by a plurality of paradigms and concepts, fundamentally changes the nature of the real abstraction. Virno argues that the concept that best illustrates the real abstraction of contemporary capitalism is not the abstract equivalent of exchange value, but what Marx referred to as the “general intellect,” the concepts, paradigms, and knowledges embodied in machines and subjectivity. As Virno writes:

Whereas money, the “universal equivalent” itself incarnates in its independent existence the commensurability of products, jobs, and subjects, the general intellect instead stabilizes the analytic premises of every type of practice. Models of social knowledge do not equate the various activities of labor, but rather present themselves as the “immediate forces of production (Virno 1996, 22)

It is no longer the abstractions of appropriation that constitute the basis for the social synthesis, but the relations of production. However, these relations are not the unity of the head and hand that Sohn-Rethel juxtaposed to societies of appropriation. Virno argues that the general intellect, the abstract formulas, paradigms and concepts, have not disappeared, but have become internal to experience. As Virno writes:

Innumerable conceptual constructions, embodied in as many techniques, procedures, and regulations, orient the gaze and serve as the premises of any operation whatsoever. Direct perception and the most spontaneous action come last. This is the historical situation that comes about once the split between hand and mind manifests its irreversibility; when the autonomy of abstract intellect conditions and regulates the social productive process, on the whole and in every one of its singular aspects. (Virno 2001, 171)

Whereas Sohn-Rethel’s concept of the social synthesis of appropriation was based on the radical division between the practical abstraction, exchange value, and the concrete thought, use value, Virno presents a situation in which this division is not so much overcome, but internalized: abstraction is directly sensed. In Virno’s writing this sense defines the affective tonality of the present: the rise of cynicism and opportunism, as affective compositions predicated on the absence of any equivalence between different rules, structures, and norms become not just the basis for action, but experience as well.

While Virno’s distinction captures much of the present, defining a new social synthesis that is predicated less on the equivalent abstractions of money and exchange value than on the flexible rules and relations of a service and information based economy, its risk is that it makes it appear as if appropriation, which is to say the subordination of all of this to the accumulation of surplus value, has disappeared. To return to Sohn-Rethel’s distinction our society is still very much a society of appropriation, even if the terms of that appropriation have moved away from the simple equivalence of exchange value. It is at this point that the two shifts addressed above converge, the social dimension of labor and the new formulas of appropriation. As writers such as Matteo Pasquinelli, Maurizio Lazzarato, and Antonio Negri have, in different veins, argued, there is a connection between the socialization of labor, between a labor that has internalized various modes of knowing and sensing, and the speculative dimension of contemporary appropriation. This can be seen in the phenomena of rent or real estate value, which is often inseparable from the transformation of modes of knowing and perceiving, the cliché of the connection between gentrification and aesthetic production. A similar connection between speculation and the internalization for forms of knowledge and relations runs through the constitution of various forms of appropriation from the constitution of brand identity to the formation of the value of stocks. In each case speculation is speculation on the constitution and transformation of knowledges and operative paradigms, beliefs and desires. These are merely meant as sketches of a problem posed, not a fully developed theory. The central point, however, is that appropriation operates not through the abstraction of equivalence but through the speculation on differences.

In making sense of this connection between the new forms of labor and new forms of accumulation, in trying to understand the new social synthesis, it is important to keep in mind two of Sohn-Rethel’s fundamental points. First, a social synthesis is both a form of society and a form of thought, as such it constitutes a kind of common. However, and this is the second point, it is not directly perceived as such: central to Sohn-Rethel’s understanding of the social synthesis of appropriation is the way in which it constitutes a divide between the way this form of thought, which is also a form of subjectivity, is split between the social dimension of its constitution and the individual dimension of its apprehension. For Sohn-Rethel the fully socialized abstractions of value make possible an isolation and fragmentation of its apprehension. Thus, following Sohn-Rethel we can ask what are the formations of isolation and fragmentation produced by the transformations of the social synthesis? Virno’s argument about cynicism and opportunism offers a glimpse of what ways a social synthesis constitutes its own specific relations of asociality. The paradox that Marx saw in the eighteenth century, between the most developed relations and fragmentation and isolation, has only deepened since then: now it takes the form of Virno’s cynic who sees every rule, every structure as artificial and contingent, and the modern subject of neoliberalism, who views every relation as the basis for accumulating human capital. Sohn-Rethel’s analysis of the real abstraction has the merit of revealing the social synthesis, the common relations underlying such fragmentation and isolation. Grasping the rift between the social constitution and asocial perception of this constitution is the task of a materialist philosophy, overcoming it is the task of a communist politics.

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Jargon of Inauthenticity

A casual reader of Adorno, and I am afraid that is all that I am, cannot help but notice his repeated use (or at least a translators repeated use) of the prefix pseudo. Here is a quote from the famous chapter on the Culture Industry (co-authored with Max Horkheimer) in which the term first appears:“From the standardized improvisation in jazz to the original film personality who must have a lock of hair straying over her eyes so that she can be recognized as such, pseudo-individuality reigns.”

Horkheimer and Adorno at first utilize the term to address what remains of individuality in the standardized products of the culture industry: character is reduced to a lock of hair, a funny hat, a hint of ethnicity. “Personality means hardly more than dazzling white teeth and freedom from bodily odor and emotions.”As Horkheimer and Adorno write:

Mass culture thereby reveals the fictitious quality which has characterized the individual throughout the bourgeois era and is wrong only in priding itself on this murky harmony between universal and particular. The principle of individuality was contradictory from the outset. First, no individuation was ever really achieved. The class-determined form of self-preservation maintained everyone at the level of mere species being. Every bourgeois character expressed the same thing, even and especially when deviating from it: the harshness of competitive society.
The use of species being in this passage is strange, the assertion of "mere species being" would contradict Marx's use, suggesting more of the reduction of man to an animal rather than a universal potential. Species is cast in an a strictly biological sense.However, I see their basic point about the status of the individual. As much as the bourgeois philosophy of possessive individualism asserts the individual as its foundation, the competitive relations that are its basis produce an underlying similarity of behavior, namely, individualistic competition. The result of this is paradoxical, individuals are similar in their fundamental isolation and competition. Individuality is to some extent always pseudo-individuality.

One could explore that this means for a rereading of the political anthropology of bourgeois philosophy and political economy, but my focus is on this idea of “pseudo”. The prefix "pseudo "also makes a prominent appearance in Adorno’s essay on “Free-Time.” Pseudo-activity is the term that Adorno uses to describe the various hobbies and other activities that people use to fill their time. These activities are pseudo-activities in that their terms and conditions of the activities are determined in advance: all is left to do is “paint by numbers,” follow the instructions, or fill in the blanks. Paint by numbers is Adorno’s dated example, I prefer Guitar Hero as a contemporary example of pseudo-activity. With respect to this definition of pseudo-activity, Adorno begins to outline some of the ways in which this prefix functions. As Adorno writes, “Generally speaking there is good reason to assume that all forms of pseudo-activity contain a pent-up need to change the petrified relations of society. Pseudo-activity is misguided spontaneity.”

This statement about pseudo-activity would seem to apply to pseudo-individuality: in each case there is a genuine striving, a genuine attempt to assert something, activity or the individual. The “pseudo” turns it and warps it, ultimately undermining it, producing individuals who are the same and activity that is nothing but busy work. "Pseudo" makes it possible for Adorno to have it both ways, to recognize the simultaneous illusion and the real drive underlying the illusion.

Adorno’s use of pseudo-activity would seem to fit into a general paradox that defines the twentieth century. This paradox is caught between a tendency within the critique of metaphysics in which the distinction between essence and appearance breaks down. This metaphysical tendency is countered by a tendency within social and political thought in which the task is to recognize the role of appearance, of spectacle and simulacra in modern life. One the one hand there is the rejection of the distinction between essence and appearance, of real society versus its image; while, on the other, there is a renewed importance in understanding the “powers of the false.” Capitalist society is recognized as a spectacle at the exact moment that that distinction between image and reality breaks down. (This paradox explains much of the thought of the later Baudrillard and other “postmodern” thinkers.) Adorno’s use of the prefix “pseudo” is poised between these two tendencies:

I have some other thoughts that tie this idea of pseudo to Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, in which his critique of theocracy could be understood as a pseudo-democracy, but I do not have time to develop them here. The end point would have been to bring this full circle to discuss fascism, and fascist tendencies as pseudo-democracy, but that is going to have to wait for another time.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Reductions/Amplifications of the Political

I realize that I have been neglecting this blog as of late, and, to be honest, that is not going to change in the next few weeks. I am at the point in the semester when anytime that I have for writing is dedicated to upcoming presentations or other crashing deadlines. Of course this is not a crisis, but I feel the imperative to post even if few people ever come to this blog. Caught between the imperative to post and the lack of time to write I scrounged around looking for anything that I have written in the past year or so that has not found a home. Well, I have this piece which is essentially homeless: I presented versions of it, but its breadth of references (Aristotle, Locke, Hegel, Marx, Rancière) give it a widely speculative, if not rambling, quality. No journal or book would accept this, it is the kind of thing that only gets published if you are famous and dead. Parts of it have been expanded to become the basis of actual publications, but the rest has been left to "gnawing criticism of the mice" or their twenty-first century digital equivalent. I realize that I am not exactly selling this, so I should mention that there is much in this that I am committed to: the critique of social contract theory, the oblique approach to the Hegel/Marx relationship, and the distinction mentioned in the title, all seem like worthwhile ideas.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Violence and the Common: Truth is Structured Like a (Science) Fiction Part Two

It has been said that every generation invents its own Marx: colonialism, alienation, commodity fetishism, and living labor have all at one time or another occupied center stage as different texts are discovered and different vicissitudes of struggle emerge. If this is true, and I realize that I have done little to do back it up here, then it could be argued that the Marxist themes that define the present are violence and the common. The first, violence, is primarily examined through the concluding chapters of Capital on primitive accumulation. Although this is not the only point of reference, the overt violence of primitive accumulation has also made possible a renewed examination into the structural violence of capital, the anonymous violence of day-to-day exploitation. Alternately, the common appears first and foremost as the commons, as the commonly held resources, such as land and woods, that primitive accumulation destroys. It is also not limited to that, however, there is also a reading of the common that works through the concept of species being and Marx’s writing on cooperation in the factory to articulate a different sense of the common. Not the common as a thing, but potentialities and relations internal to subjectivity.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Vietnam is in Our Boardroom: Or, Everyone is a Colonist to Someone

Shelton has been doing a great job with this season of Mad Men over at his blog. I do not want to intrude, but I had a few thoughts about this week’s episode. First, I have been rereading Kristin Ross' May ’68 and its Afterlives, a book that I still think is very important, albeit a bit too heavily influenced by Rancière. This last point is not so much meant as a criticism of Ross or Rancière, it just reflects a general problem: how to theorize an event that is itself the impetus behind so much thought, so much theory? Interpreting it through the lense of one theorist (why not Deleuze, Badiou, Foucault, the situationists?) seems like an unfortunate reduction. But, I digress…

Anyway, at some point in her book she discusses the role that the anti-colonial struggles, Algieria and Vietnam, played in radicalizing French politics, making way for the famous events of May. One example of this is the phrase “Vietnam is in Our Factories.” The phrase is taken from a Fiat strike in Turin, but in Ross’ view it captures some of thought and action of the French sixties, in which the direct and brutal exploitation in the colonies exposed exploitation at the heart of the West. Such an idea can even be traced back to Marx, who recognized the necessity of primitive accumulation, and thus of violence in the more open colonies. As Marx writes, “In the old civilized countries the worker, although free, is by a law of nature dependent on the capitalist; in the colonies this dependence must be created by artificial means. ”

What does any of this have to do with Mad Men. Well after watching last weeks episode I thought about the phrase that Ross cites, or my own twist on it. This was my reaction to the brutal and shocking scene at the center of this week’s episode. [Spoiler alert] I am referring to the scene in which the hapless secretary, Lois, runs over Guy Mckendrick’s foot with a lawn mower in the offices of Sterling-Cooper. The riding lawnmower is Ken Cosgrove’s trophy from his latest victory, securing the John Deere account. This scene, which is shot with all of the conventions of cinematic violence (the blood that spatters across the faces and shirts of Sterling Cooper’s junior executives), is a shock because it is such a departure from the show’s aesthetic of smoldering understatement. What does it have to do with Vietnam? Well for starters in a few moments before, at the company party, members of the staff were discussing the escalating war in Vietnam. The blood and screams that follows a few seconds later feels like an interruption of traumatic reality at the heart of the shows fantasy of the sixties. One of the interesting things about this season is the way in which blood and violence has gradually begun to enter the show’s frame: Gene’s war souvenir, the self-immolation of a Monk, and Medgar Evers’ ghostly presence. The bloody foot, and the shattered life of a young man, is then just part of the escalation.

Beyond that, the scene got me thinking about the way in which the particular episode is all about colonizers and colonized. First, there are the obvious references to Sterling Cooper’s new British owners (I forget the company name) arriving for an inspection visit on the eve of the Fourth of July. Beyond that the episode is riddled with visual cues of empires that have fallen: Japanese and British armor decorate the halls, a member of the company is sent to the new offices in Bombay, and so on. Beyond these literal colonies there is the way in which the past weighs on the present. The moment before the violent explosion of blood is also framed by Joan and Peggy’s discussion of their different attempts to deal with the crushing weight of patriarchy: Joan’s attempt to marry her way out of the office and Peggy’s difficult climb into the male dominated world of copywriting. Their different routes out of the restricted life of secretary have led to conflicts between them, but Peggy is trying to make peace, a peace founded upon a recognition of their shared condition as women in the sixties. Lastly, there is the story that frames the episode, Sally Draper’s difficulty in dealing not so much with the death of her grandfather, but his apparent rebirth in the form of her brother. (After all, he looks the same, and even sleeps in the same room). What can these be, but the ultimate colony: the way in which the past, dead labor, constantly determines the fate of the future. Sons try to be their fathers, daughters are shaped to be like their mothers (complete with Barbie) and colonies eventually become colonizers.

Thus, to close with Marx:

“The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.”

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Man is a Wolf to Man: An Appreciation of Wolfen

One could argue that the three classic monsters of American culture are the vampire, zombie, and the werewolf, each handed down by folklore and solidified in popular culture. (I am leaving the Mummy out of this, as well as Frankenstein’s monster which is not a generic type, but a specific monster) Of these three the first two are definitely dominant. They not only make up much of the films, comics, and TV shows, but they have proven themselves the most versatile in terms of both the kinds of stories they can tell and what they can symbolize. Vampires are truly polymorphous in their significations. They are situated everywhere that sex intersects with death and fear. Zombies have proven to be much more versatile, symbolizing everything from the drudgery of work to the insatiable desire to consume.

Werewolves have lagged behind their cinematic brethren for at least two reasons. The first is purely technical. The werewolf is difficult to pull off, it is hard to combine the figure of the wolf with that of a human in a way that looks both convincing and menacing. The new CGI technologies do not really help either, leaving us with oddly hairless werewolves in the case of the Underworld movies. More importantly the werewolf has not proven itself so adept at symbolization, at providing the subtext that makes a horror movie work. There is the general theme of the animal within, but this is almost too literal, too direct, in the case of the werewolf. When it comes to symbolizing unchecked desires, the id within, the vampire and zombie have the market cornered. Vampires have become such versatile symbols of sexuality that they can cover everything from queer identity (True Blood) to the fear and desire of a first sexual encounter (Buffy). Zombies cover a more inchoate desire or hunger, but one that has been linked to shopping ever since Romero’s zombies went to the mall. With sex and consumption covered there is very little left of unchecked desire for the werewolf to symbolize.

However, it is possible to detect a bit of exhaustion with each of the two big figures. When vampires become part of a series of novels about teenage abstinence and when zombies are part of a Woody Harrelson comedy, one has to ask how many more movies can be churned out. It is at this point that our attention turns toward the werewolf as perhaps the next big thing in movies. In order for this to happen the werewolf will have to find its place in some kind of symbolic economy.

(This idea, the idea of the monster as symbol, is not sophisticated at all; in fact, one could argue that it constitutes a kind of degree zero of film interpretation, cited by almost anyone who does not know the gaze from the look. That is precisely my interest in it, and in so-called genre films themselves, which demand at least a minimum of interpretation to be viewed at all)

All of this is really a preamble to writing a few words about Wolfen. I know that I saw this movie years and years ago, during an adolescence in which I watched a lot of monster movies. Infinite thought posted about the film recently, suggesting a secret connection between it and Chris Marker, at least at the level of documentary footage (scroll down to September 5th). This prompted me to watch the film again.

The opening scene situates the film within the universe of the post-Watergate paranoid thrillers and the early films of Cronenberg. It is a world in which total and complete surveillance is emerging as a reality, carried out by a global corporation in a sterile and imposing office tower. This corporation, ESS, is responsible for protecting the elite against such forces as the Red Brigades, NAM, and Red Army Faction (all mentioned by name in the film). Caught between these two global forces are the police, city coroner, and a scientist at the city zoo, their dilapidated offices stand in sharp contrast to ultra sleek interiors of the corporations and super rich. This is very much a film about urban space, about the layers of space as the new city is built over the old. The old city cannot be entirely effaced by the new--the ruins, Native Americans, and wolves remain. The spaces also constitute a kind of shorthand for the dynamics of power: the powerful inhabit the skyscrapers and the powerless dwell in the derelict spaces of old buildings, the middle ground is made up of small shops and overburdened structures of civil society.

The plot of the movie begins when the wolves (or, inexplicably, wolfen) attack and kill a wealthy real estate developer, his wife, and driver. (As something of an aside I should point out that these are wolves, at least in appearance, and not awkward half-wolf/half human creatures that I wrote about above. Their human part comes in through their intelligence, and the suggestion that they were once part of an original tribe of man and wolf, a kind of cross-species primitive communism) The police and private corporation (ESS) each conduct their investigation of the murders, and from that point forward the film becomes explicitly about what is seen and unseen. This is highlighted in the films primary special effect, a kind of wolf-vision, in which the wolf’s perspectives is shown in a kind of pseudo-infrared, seeing in the dark where humans cannot see. Less explicitly, the corporation turns its attention to the usual subjects, various international terrorist groups and even a disgruntled rich daughter, playing at being radical, subjecting them to the latest biometric techniques to distinguish truth from fiction. In contrast to this the cop, Dewey Wilson (played by Albert Finney) teams up with the city coroner (played by Gregory Hines) to investigate the margins of the city, derelict spaces and a Native American bar. All of the different actors of the film are distinguished as much by what they can see as what they look at.

The difference of vision is not just framed in terms of how the two investigation agencies look—the corporation rounding up subjects to place in their high tech monitoring equipment versus the street smart cop investigating leads—but ultimately in terms of what they see. Wilson’s investigation leads to an encounter with a group of Native Americans who have relocated to New York City to work in the construction industry. One of these, Eddie Holt (played by Edward James Olmos), plays the role of informant, explaining to Wilson the origin of the wolves that live at the heart of New York City. As Holt and an elderly native American explain to Wilson.

Eddie Holt: It's not wolves, it's Wolfen. For 20,000 years Wilson- ten times your fucking Christian era- the 'skins and wolves, the great hunting nations, lived together, nature in balance. Then the slaughter came.The smartest ones, they went underground into a new wilderness, YOUR CITIES. You have your technology but you lost. You lost your senses
Elderly Native American: In their world, there can be no lies, no crimes.
Eddie Holt: No need for detectives.
Elderly Native American: In their eyes, YOU ARE THE SAVAGE.

In the end this how Wilson does not so much solve the crime, but brings the narrative to a close, by recognizing that the savage and brutal attacks that he has been investigating are a kind of justice. He learns to see himself as savage, as outsider, to his own city. The wealthy real estate developer killed in the beginning was planning to convert the wolves’ space, the abandoned buildings they live in, hunting the sick and forgotten of the human pack, into condos and commercial development. In the final scene, when Wilson is cornered and surrounded by the wolf pack, he destroys the model of the new real estate development. This is an interesting reversal of the clichéd scene from horror and fantasy movies in which the protagonist has to destroy the magic amulet or some other cursed object in order to destroy the monster: the same magic which created the monster must be destroyed, restoring a natural balance. In this case the monster is us, and what has to be destroyed is not some primitive magic, but a symbol of urban gentrification. In the end what makes the movie interesting is how it solves the problem of the werewolf as symbol and subtext. The wolves are not symbols of some repressed animal nature, but are the return of the repressed, the vengeance of a population subject to genocidal slaughter.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Teenage Caveman: or, Leroi-Gourhan Explains the Eternal Appeal of Teen Movies

Years ago I purchased a used copy of André Leroi-Gourhan's Gesture and Speech . My purchase at the time was motivated by a vague memory of a few references to Leroi-Gourhan in Anti-Oedipus combined with a desire to have some kind of ultimate library, made up of all kinds of obscure yet important texts. It remained unread and even untouched for years, and I only picked it up at the end of the summer after reading some of Bernard Stiegler’s writing. My first impression, which was perhaps already indicated by the multiple references throughout Stiegler’s writing, was that Leroi-Gourhan is perhaps more of a central figure for Stiegler than I first thought, much more central than Simondon.

I expected that Stiegler developed his general idea of the connection between technics and memory from Leroi-Gourhan. After all, the central thesis of Leroi-Gourhan’s book is that mankind emerges with the first tool, the tool that even in its most basic instrumental function is inseparable from the exteriorization of a memory, that anthropogenesis is inseparable from the history of technology. As Leroi-Gourhan writes:

“The whole of our evolution has been oriented toward placing outside ourselves what in the rest of the animal world is achieved inside by species adaptation. The most striking material fact is certainly the “freeing” of tools, but the fundamental fact is really the freeing of the world and our unique ability to transfer our memory to a social organism outside ourselves.”

This idea, the idea that mankind constitutes a memory through tools, figures, and language, simultaneously constituting a who (a sense of ethnic identity) and a what (a material culture) is central to Stiegler’s philosophy. What I did not expect is that Leroi-Gourhan would have his own version of the destructive effects of the modern transformation of culture and memory. Whereas Stiegler’s concern is primarily with the way in which the industrialization of memory through film, television, and the internet precludes even the minimum amount of interaction on the part of the individual, Leroi-Gourhan is more worried about the standardization and massification of a global monoculture. As Leroi-Gourhan writes:

“An increasingly small minority will plan not only society’s vital political, administrative, and technical programs but also its ration of emotions, its epic adventures, its image of a life which will have become totally figurative—for the transition from real social life to one that is purely figurative can take place quite smoothly.”

Two interesting passages that I would like to remark on follow from this, or rather are associated, since one actually comes before it in the text. The first is a prediction about the future, which is interestingly wrong in the way that only a fifty-year old book can be. Leroi-Gourhan predicts that generations will be increasingly raised on pre-packaged and pre-constituted cultural memories (his analogy is canned food) so much so that the future cultural producers will have no raw material, no unmediated experiences from which to draw on. Thus Leroi-Gourhan predicts the following:

“Ten generations from now a writer selected to produce social fiction will probably be sent on a “renaturation” course in a park a corner of which he or she will have to till a plough copied from a museum exhibit and pulled by a horse borrowed from a zoo. He or she will cook and eat the family meal at the family table, organize neighborhood visits, enact a wedding, sell cabbages from a market stall…and learn anew how to relate to the ancient writings of Gustave Flaubert to the meagerly reconstituted reality, after which this person will no doubt be capable of submitting a batch of freshened up emotions to the broadcasting authorities.”

(I am going to just remark in passing how much this sounds like a George Saunders story)

The ten generations have not yet come to past, but I still feel secure in declaring this to have missed the mark. Leroi-Gourhan assumes that social literature needs to be drawn from some kind of ideal of unmediated experience, of nature. What he has missed is one of the defining characteristics of so-called postmodern culture: the way in which the plurality of genres, clichés, and manufactured experiences can itself become the raw material of culture. Films, books, and music do not need to refer to anything else than other films or books, cut up and reassembled. There is no need to sell cabbages in order to relate to Flaubert, not when one could write
Madam Bovary and Mole Men.

Leroi-Gourhan suggests that this ideal of a totally manufactured experience is an impossibility in the second passage.

“The age we live in is still filled with survivals from the past. The city worker still goes out to watch a soccer game, catch a fish, or attend a parade, and still has a life of responsiveness, restricted it is true but one that may stretch to taking part in the activities of a club. If we exclude the vital cycle, activities involving direct response are increasingly confined to adolescence and the pre-conjugal period, when direct participation is necessary to collective survival. Until we get to the stage already reached by the species of domestic animals that are best suited to productivity—the stage of artificial insemination—it would, for the time being, seem that a modicum of social aesthetics will continue to surround our years of social maturing.”

I am less interested in his remarks about the uneven development of cultural experience, despite the fact that is seems to be true, than I am in his allusion to a general theory of adolescence. As much of life becomes administered, subject to rules and structures, adolescence remains the last remnant of “activities involving direct response.” This is in part due to the vital cycle, to sexuality as a necessary component of human existence, but it is also due to the undetermined nature of identity (Leroi-Gourham makes a reference to adolescence and insect larvae.) In Leroi-Gourhan’s world-view, which mourns the loss of “ethnic” belonging, in the name of some mega-ethnic global culture, high school cliques are perhaps all that remains of transindividual culture, of groups that can be influenced as much as they influence one. One can always transform one’s clique by coining  a phrase, inventing a look,  or be the one who introduces an important aspect of music or literature. There are the last collective that we both constitute and are constituted by, everything that comes after, the school, the factory, the company, the army, etc., is less open to our interventions. I am not sure that I totally agree with all of this, but it does offer an interesting take on why we return to teen dramas again and again. They offer us a moment when we acted with drama and determination.

If you put these two remarks together, however, the derivative nature of modern culture and the endless appeal of adolescence, you get the endless remakes of High School dramas and John Hughes knock offs. Perhaps Leroi-Gourhan predicted the future better than I first thought.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Truth is Structure Like a (Science) Fiction: Notes on Moon and District 9

Last summer, and perhaps even the summer before, I did a series of blog entries on the summer blockbusters, viewing them for their subtle and not so subtle ideological dimensions. I have not done this at all this summer, in part because I have not seen many blockbusters this year. Aside from Star Trek, I just could not stomach this summer’s offerings. I have, however, seen a few films, two of which I want to write about now. These two films are Moon and District 9. At first glance it would make sense to write about them at the same time because they have generally been spoken of in the same breath of almost hyperbolic praise. They are said to represent a renaissance in science fiction cinema, a return of character, story, and concept in a genre long dominated by special effects, remakes, and marketing.

Beyond such a superficial resemblance, a resemblance defined primarily by what they are not, namely, yet another effects driven remake, there does not seem to anything to link these two films. The first, Moon, is practically a one-man show, a meditation on isolation and identity, with a strong retro aesthetic. Its image of a moon base made of white plastic, as well as its use of models, would seem to place it in any earlier era. District 9 on the other hand is filmed using the faux documentary techniques and handheld camera made popular in recent films. It is also an action film that utilizes the recent CGI techniques, but one that in terms of its location, South Africa, and lack of a single recognizable star, does not resemble any other such film.

It occurs to me that if one begins to look at the narrative of each film, especially for the ideological dimensions referenced above, one arrives at other similarities. In each film we have a protagonist who begins as a functioning member of the existing society, who then, by discovering the true basis of that society, necessarily revolts against it. This is a common trope in science fiction, that of the outsider, a character who is outside of the world in question, a time traveler or visitor to an alien world. This perhaps due to the limitations of the genre itself. One of the difficulties of science fiction film (and literature) is that it must present a world that is alien to the viewer (or reader), some distant future, alternate history, or alien culture, but familiar to the characters in the story. In film in particular there are not a lot of good ways to solve this problem, there is the ponderous opening narration (“In a world…”), the scrolling screen made famous by Star Wars, or the break in the action where some sage like character explains everything, think Morpheus in The Matrix. The outsider character, such as Neo, solves some of the more awkward aspects of this in that it makes disclosing the world part of the narrative. However, these two films offer something like a variation on this, a character who becomes an outsider. In a manner of speaking, they are narratives of “consciousness raising,” perhaps even class-consciousness.


In Moon, the main character, Sam Bell, is completing the end of a three-year contract as the only human inhabitant of lunar mining colony. He has an accident that nearly kills him and because of this eventually discovers that he is a clone, one of many stored in a secret basement of the lunar base. Video footage of the base’s security cameras suggests that the three-year “contract” is actually the lifespan of each clone (shades of Bladerunner). This suggests an interesting legal loophole; if the contract in question has a clause that renders the contract null and void at the time of death, then the corporation running the moon base is in some sense honoring its contract, only employing the person in question for three years. That it then activates another clone with the same memories and personality cannot really be said to be a violation of the terms of the contract. Moon suggests that the old metaphysical problem of identity (am I the same person as my clone?) is destined to become the fine print in the labor contract.

Moon calls to mind one of the most rhetorically dense and conceptually rich passages from Capital. In this passage Marx distinguishes between the sphere of circulation, the labor market, where goods, including labor power are sold and the site of production. Marx’s point is that it is from this realm, that of the market, that we get our ideology of the free market, of exchange as a relation between equals in which individual self interest always prevails. As Marx writes:

“The sphere of circulation or commodity exchange, within whose boundaries the sale and purchase of labor-power goes on, is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. It is the exclusive realm of Freedom, equality, and Bentham. Freedom, because both buyer and seller of a commodity, let us say of labor power, are determined by their own free will. They contract as free persons, who are equal before the law…The only force bringing them together, and putting them into relation with each other, is the selfishness, the gain and the private interest of each….”

“Accompanied by Mr. Moneybags and by the possessor of labour-power, we therefore take leave for a time of this noisy sphere, where everything takes place on the surface and in view of all men, and follow them both into the hidden abode of production, on whose threshold there stares us in the face “No admittance except on business.” Here we shall see, not only how capital produces, but how capital is produced. We shall at last force the secret of profit making.”

In the hidden abode of production the equality that characterizes individuals in market relations collapses. As Marx writes, “He, who before was the money-owner, now strides in front as capitalist; the possessor of labour-power follows as his labourer. The one with an air of importance, smirking, intent on business; the other, timid and holding back, like one who is bringing his own hide to market and has nothing to expect but — a hiding.” In other words, the labor market is not at all like the market of goods, it is defined by a fundamental conflict, and asymmetry, between the worker with only his labor power to sell and the capitalist. The film displays this radical division between two realms. Underneath the lunar base there is a massive storehouse of clones (and the food to feed them). Within the base itself employer and employee may meet as equals, but beneath it lies a massive “reserve army of the unemployed”: the neutrality of the contract is contradicted by the technological and social conditions that remain out of sight. Only an anomalous accident brings Sam Bell face to face with his own clone, with his own expendability and exploitation, making it possible, in an act of solidarity with himself, for him to resist the system.

District 9 is also a film about an individual coming to recognize exploitation, only in this case it is not the central character that is being exploited. The film takes place in an alternate South Africa, where an alien spaceship has become stranded over Johannesburg for the last twenty-eight years. The aliens, referred to throughout the movie by the derogatory term “prawns” because of their crustacean/insect appearance, have been living in a giant ghetto since then. While the ship is technologically sophisticated the prawns do not appear to have the knowledge to master it, suggesting that they were part of the cargo, as food or slaves, and not crew. At the beginning of the film the aliens are in the process of being relocated to a camp far outside of the city. This is presented as a humanitarian gesture, as something that will lessen the conflicts between humans and aliens and the tendency for the aliens to be exploited by gangs. The film centers on Wikus Van De Merwe, an agent for the apparently private corporation, MNU (Multi-National United) that is charged with the task of managing the aliens. Early in the film we learn two things about Wikus: first, he has been promoted to a central role in the relocation project primary because his father-in-law is one of the people in charge of the organization, and, second, he truly believes in the idea of the alien’s containment and relocation. This second fact instantly sets him apart from some of the military and private police in charge of the district, who relish their ability to persecute the aliens at will. Wikus would rather cajole the aliens with cat food, something that is “like catnip to them,” than beat them into submission. In other words Wikus is the distillation of all of the recent headlines about private contract firms and NGOs: he has been promoted due to nepotism and connections (shades of Michael "Heckuva job, Brownie" Brown) and yet sincerely believes in his mission.

District 9 is in some sense a story about a race traitor. Wikus becomes exposed to alien technology that gradually begins to alter his DNA transforming him into an alien. This makes it possible for him to utilize the alien’s weapons, which are bioengineered to interact with the alien’s physiology. He becomes a valuable commodity to the organization he works for, eventually destined to be harvested for his organs. Wikus eventually comes to learn that the truth of exploitation underlies the ideal of humanitarian aid. MNU’s real interest is not the private management of humanitarian aid to non humans, but weapons development. As Wikus is transformed, his allegiances shift as well, forcing him into an uneasy alliance with the aliens that he formerly managed with an air of superiority. The allegiance is never an easy one;  this is not a buddy movie. Wikus is reluctant to join the aliens, desiring nothing more than returning to normal, in part because he was formerly so complicit in the aliens exploitation, albeit unknowingly. The scenes in which he confronts his own complicity in what has happened to the aliens are some of the most powerful in the film. Wikus is thus an interesting sort of anti-hero, who sacrifices himself almost despite himself. Ultimately, it is the contradiction in his life that makes him a hero at all. He got to where he is through his connections, through his father in-law, but would much rather be behind a desk, making gifts for his wife. His failure to fully identify with the repressive aspect of his job makes it possible for him to turn against it. He believes too much in the public face he is supposed to present, that of benevolent aid to a wayward species, to see that its unofficial version, violent hatred and exploitation, is just as central, if not more so, to his function.

In the end that is what ties these two films together, they both present characters that believe very much in the ideas of rules and contracts, of the benevolence of the established powers and the rewards that come with following the rules. It takes a massive psychic and physical transformation, meeting one’s clone or being transformed into an alien, in order for them to arrive at a different understanding of society, to see that rules are more often than not masks for exploitation. They are us, the docile subjects of the modern neoliberal order, now only if we could meet our clone or get hit by massive amounts of alien DNA.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Don't get Mad, get Coopted: A Few Thoughts on Mad Men

Mad Men is perhaps unique among American Television and even popular culture in that its subject matter is history. By history I do not simply mean to say that it deals with a different time period, while such programs are rare, they do exist (for example Deadwood, Rome, etc.). Rather, it is historical in Foucault’s sense of a historical ontology of ourselves; in presenting life in a nineteen sixties add agency it continually examines the gulf that separates then and now.

History appears in the show in three ways.

In the first, it is a matter of creating a kind of alienation effect, of exposing the differences of habits, expectations, and ideals that separate the present from the past. In the first season especially, many of these differences are played for laughs, the kid running around the house in a plastic dry cleaning bag playing spaceman and the countless cigarettes consumed, provoke shock and a chuckle. The laughter punctuates the difference between then and now. In these moments it is the pure difference between then and now that stands out. There is no connection, no link, between the time when there was a bar in every office and now: difference precludes causality.

The second historical aspect has to do with the recognizable events and timelines that define the past: the election of John F. Kennedy, the death of Marilyn Monroe, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. These events frame the show, taking place off screen, or rather on screens, on the televisions in the homes and offices of the show, but are not part of the narrative. They are nonetheless immediate in their mediation. At times they are used to provoke action on the show, as was the case with the Missile Crisis, which precipitated several crises (most notably Peggy’s revelation to Peter) and resolved others (bringing Don Draper home) within the shows narrative. What is interesting about this second dimension of history is that it demands some kind of historical literacy on the part of the audience. This distinguishes the show from programs like Rome, which used historical material for the basis of narrative: it was possible to follow the entire series on its own, without knowing anything about the Roman Empire. With Mad Men one must know, or at least be willing to wikipedia, what happened in the nineteen-sixties in order to follow what is happening on the program. The more one knows about the past, the more the suspense increases and the more the show creates a highly ambivalent nostalgia about the past it depicts.

Finally, there is the third, and most interesting historical aspect of the program: the way that it functions as a kind of genealogy of the current historical moment. This has to do with its setting in a specific period in the age of advertising. As books like Thomas Frank’s The Conquest of Cool have argued, the show takes place on the eve of a revolution in advertising, which is also a revolution in consumer culture. This was the shift from advertisements that purported to convey some information about the product, men in white lab coats testing cigarettes, to adds that bathe the product in some kind of glow of sentiment or desire. The major events of this transition are depicted in the show in terms of the shift in smoking advertisements brought about by the discovery of the link between smoking and cancer, the shift from commercials citing "tar content" to Malboro men and the Volkswagen “Think Small” campaign. The show depicts the prehistory of the spectacle, of images that promise pleasure and happiness rather than just promote products.

In the show the catalyst of this shift in advertising culture is Don Draper, whose rousing pitches extol the sentiments of such products as the Kodak Carousel. Draper is able to do this in part because he always has one foot outside of the office, in the emergent counter culture. He spends his afternoons watching Italian and French post-war films, and, through his affairs, he has contact with the bohemian counterculture of New York. Draper’s contact with the critics of bourgeois culture make it possible for him to see the longing at the heart of it. Of course the details of life contribute to this as well, the fact that he is quite literally a self made man, who fabricated his identity out of the remains of another man’s. This makes him someone who had to self-consciously adopt the habits of his new status, rather than simply receive them. Some have suggested that he is talented at advertising because he is invented, absent, and one-dimensional. I have to admit that I do not find the Don Draper/Dick Whitman subplot to be as compelling as other aspects of the show. I think that the show could function without it, or, rather, without it the focus would be on something that is far more interesting: the way in which advertising has perhaps always channeled discontent resistance and rebellion to capitalism in order to serve consumer culture. This is perhaps a cultural version of the “autonomist hypothesis,” the idea that it is resistance to capital that shapes and prefigures capital itself. Mad Men is then a kind of history of the present. The dapper men and women of Sterling-Cooper, frustrated artists and writers, prefigure later age’s web designers and “ immaterial laborers.”