Friday, January 30, 2009

Anthropogenesis, Part One: More Remarks on Stiegler

A few posts ago I said that I was going to write a little about Paolo Virno and Bernard Stiegler. Initially I stated that I was going to examine the two as “Left-Simondonians,” as two thinkers that use Simondon to analyze the current conjuncture, specifically the current situation of capital. What initially interested me was the way in which the came to very different conclusions about the current situation. This is still the point that I want to get to, but before I do I want to reframe their respective projects through the general problem of “anthropogenesis.”

The term “anthropogenesis" defined as the study of the origin of humans, is drawn from the work of André Leroi-Gourhan. As a concept and general problem it underlies both Virno and Stiegler's work, but it is more central to Stiegler’s work, whose constant discussion of Leroi-Gourhan and the archaeological record reveals how concerned he is with the origin of humanity. In many ways this idea of “anthropogenesis” is structurally similar to Simondon. For Simondon the individual, the privileged starting point of Western metaphysics and politics, has to be considered as part of a process, not its beginning or ultimate endpoint. In a similar way, anthropogenesis locates humanity, the human, as part of a process and not the ultimate beginning or end. In each case a term, the individual or the human, is criticized not by simply being done away with, but is critically resituated with respect to practices and technologies. What was once posited as origin and end is placed in a dense network.

For Bernard Stiegler humanity begins, when memory ceases to be something interiorized, part of the synthesis of consciousness, and becomes something objectified, embodied in physical structures. “Memory is objectified when it is technically synthesized.” This objectification can be something very basic, even a simple tool, such as a flint axe, embodies a memory, a particular way of comporting oneself, of holding the arm and hand. This memory, embodied in particular technologies and devices, constitutes the basis of a common culture, a “we.” Following Simondon this “we” does not stand apart from an “I,” but is constituted by it. For Stiegler it is necessary to posit the overdetermined articulation of the individuation of an “I,” a “we” and a “what”: less cryptically, at each moment we are dealing with the constitution of a collectivity, of individuality, and of technology. Individuation is historical; it is dependent on the existing technical conditions.

However, something fundamental changes when we get to modern technology, to films, television, and the internet, what Stiegler refers to as the “industrialization of memory.” These technologies do not just create a memory in the passive sense, in the sense of the habits and comportments that underlies any technology; such as the layout of “QWERTY” keyboard, which is the condition of my writing, itself an act of individuation, and your reading, which is individuation as well. As Stiegler says I can only individuate myself if I individuate you, which in turn individuates some third thing, some shared culture. To write is to transform one’s readers, a transformation that cannot take place unless some third thing, in this case philosophy is also transformed. Sorry, I got a little off track there, the crucial point is that this overdetermined articulation is dependent on a difference of time, my time is not the same as my culture. It existed before me and will outlast me; I cannot help but bring a diachronic dimension to its structures. I am invariably out of sync with the very culture milieu that creates me. That difference, which produces a differential of individuations is lost in the industrialization of memory. When I watch a film, or the television, its time becomes mine. I can only follow the movie if I subordinate my times to its time.

Ultimately Stiegler’s point is that modern technology, and with it consumer capitalism, does not allow for the constitution of a “we” or an “I.” The individuals watching do not have the sufficient difference to be constituted as “I’s.” Nor do they make up a “we.” A television audience does not make up a “we”: the population of TV Land is always one. What we are left with is neither a “we” or an “I” but a “they.” I think Stiegler is onto something here: a television audience is neither individual, after all they are watching the same thing, nor collective, since they are isolated in their sameness. It is a kind of serialized isolation. However, I think that he is too quick to conclude that this is a loss of self, of individuation. It seems to me that much of the last fifty or so years of pop-culture, and with it cultural studies, has been obsessed with the question of how to reconstitute individuality and collectivity in the face of the serialized “they” of “industrialized memory.” Fan culture, slash fiction, and ironic distance are all ways to remake some sense sense of self, of collectivity, in the face of a culture that is addressed to “they” to everyone and no one at once.

As something of an aside I should point out that recent transformations in technical/popular culture are thoroughly ambivalent. In some sense technologies such as youtube and wikipedia represent a complete mediation of memory. If I think of an old music video or the opening credits to Land of the Lost, there is no need to simply try and recall it, I can watch it on Youtube. If I have trouble remembering some random fact I can always look it up on wikipedia or google it. Nothing is lost, everything is retained. There is no more hazy nostalgia; no more difference between my memory at that of culture in general. At the same the very presence of all these bits of collected video, not to mention extended wikipedia pages on the life story of Nightcrawler, reflect the individual and idiosyncratic interests of a few individuals.

Ultimately Stiegler seems to identify the loss of self and collective associated with the “industrialization of memory,” a loss of primary narcissism and collectivity, with a kind of cultural destruction. The second essay from Acting Out, as essay that I have been drawing from here, is based in part on the journals of Richard Durn, a Frenchman who stormed his city’s town hall, killing eight people. The loss of self and community is a disease.

Next time I will try to write about Virno’s take on the transformation of the conditions of individuation.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Finance and the Production of Subjectivity

Christian Marazzi’s Capital and Language was written well before the current crisis, but that does not mean that it does not offer some terms with which to understand the current crisis. Most importantly it offers a context for understanding what he calls “financialization.” Financialization marks a fundamental change in accumulation, shifting money from household savings and union run pension funds to the stock market. This of course “liberates” a great deal of money, freeing up flows for profits. More importantly, at least in my view, is that it transforms the terms of antagonism. The opposition between work and capital, between wages and profits, is transformed when workers look to the stock market for their future. This in some sense divides the worker faced with downsizing, an act that will cut off wages but increase stock value. As Marazzi succinctly puts it, “In the name of his interests as a shareholder the salaried employee (in the public or private sector) is prepared to fire himself if Wall Street should demand it.” This is not just an isolated phenomena, as Marazzi argues financialization generates profits by destroying salaries and stable employment through mergers and acquisitions.

It is the subjective dimension of this that interests me, the way that financialization can be understood as a production of subjectivity. Maurizio Lazzarato underscores the subjective dimension in Les Révolutions du Capitalisme. As Lazzarato writes, “The workers are caught in a relation of exploitation when they sell their labor power [force de travail] to an entrepreneur, but they are implicated within a majortarian dynamic [dynamique majoritaire], when, for example their revenues are invested in pension funds.” Lazzarato’s use of Deleuze and Guattari’s distinction of major and minor is crucial, as it stresses that the worker as a minor position is destroyed by investment. As Deleuze and Guattari write elsewhere, in capitalism the most disadvantaged creature invests in the economy. Of course apologists for capital would argue that the extension of stock options to workers represents a massive democratization of wealth. However, I would argue that it is a less a matter of redistributing wealth than a transformation of the appearance of the economy. As Alain Badiou writes: “what is counted is the level of the stock market, the Euro, financial investment, competition, and so on: the figure of the worker, on the other hand, counts for nothing.” The economy is counted in terms of the market, wages count for nothing. This transformation of the account of the economy is also a transformation of subjectivity, we see ourselves as investors or potential investors.

If the current crisis is going to mean anything politically it must become a crisis of how capital is counted, and how we see ourselves as subjects of capital.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Who are we? What do we want?

Cesare Casarino and Antonio Negri’s In Praise of the Common: A Conversation on Philosophy and Politics is truly a pleasant surprise. As an admirer of both Casarino (whose book on Melville and Marx remains unfortunately overlooked) and Negri I was excited to read the book, my excitement was tempered a bit, however, when I saw that it was primarily made up of interviews. I am not a fan of interviews, specifically philosophical interviews, which tend to produce statements of clarification, rather than real insight. As the title suggests, the work is more of a conversation, with each side exchanging ideas, than an interview. This is partly what makes it rewarding to read, but a great deal of what makes the conversation interesting depends on Casarino’s ability to press Negri on key points. I found his engagement with Negri on the tone of Empire and Multitude to be particularly interesting. Casarino engages with Negri as a “fellow-traveler” a reader of Marx and Spinoza, committed to the general orientation of his thought, but not always the specific formulations and pronouncements. In the years since the publication of Empire Negri has been more interested in pronouncements than problems, pronouncements about the nature of political power, labor, etc. Politics might need pronouncements, but philosophy requires problems. The conversations expose not just the problems underlying the pronouncements, but the problematics, the orientation of thought.

I do not want to simply praise Casarino, but rather focus on the book’s central concern: the common. The “common” has become a term of increasing focus, bringing together ecological and technical concerns, as well as Marxists of the “new enclosures” and “immaterial labor.” It is also the focus of Hardt and Negri’s forthcoming book on the Commonwealth. The question then is: what does this concept, with its dense history, add to the existing discussion? Casarino suggests that it offers a way of thinking the point of differentiation of the multitude and empire (or capital), or more precisely, sees a difficult point of differentiation in the manner in which the “common” is both the condition and excess of production. As Casarino writes:

“The qualitative difference between capital and the common consists in positing surplus in different ways, in engaging surplus to different ends. Surplus value is living surplus as separation (in the form of value par excellence, namely, money). Surplus common is living surplus as incorporation (in the forms of the common, including and especially our bodies).”

In Casarino’s writing, and in the discussions that follow, the “common” becomes a manner of reframing and focusing the dualities that traverse both Negri’s work, dualities that hover around the central division between potential and actual, between the multitude in-itself and for-itself. What interests me about the common, however, is that it shifts the focus of Negri’s work (as well as other post-autonomists such as Virno) from the who, the constitution of the multitude as a kind of subjectivity, to the what, to the structures and institutions (borrowing Stiegler’s terms). Or rather, it stresses that there is no who without a what, no constitution of subjectivity without material structures and institutions. I think this focus makes it possible to think what I have often referred to as the paradox of contemporary capitalism: never have human beings been more social in their existence, but more individualized, privatized, in the apprehension of their existence. On the one hand, the simplest action from making a meal to writing an essay engages the labor of individuals around the world, materialized in commodities, habits, and machines, while on the other, everything, every social relation can be purchased as a commodity. This paradox is not just the conflict between two different productions of subjectivity, the emergent multitude, collective to the core, and the neoliberal subject, locked in a competitive struggle that defines its very existence. It is also a conflict between different structures and materializations of subjectivity, between the commodity, which privatizes desire, and the commons, inseparable from collectivity (incidentally Casarino has interesting remarks about the former). As Nick Dyer-Witherfood argues, if the elementary unit of capitalism is the commodity then the elementary unit of communism is the commons. Thus, as something of a conclusion, the politics of the future must produce both the multitude and the commons, subjectivity and its material conditions.