Friday, April 24, 2009

The Play of Form and Content: Scattered Remarks on Popular Culture, Part Two




It is no secret that I enjoy Joss Whedon’s work. Enjoy is the operative word: while other shows such as The Wire are more intellectually and politically engaging, Whedon’s shows and movie, Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Serenity, and Dr. Horrible, have always been about enjoyment. Thus it was with a great deal of anticipation that I tuned into the first episodes of Dollhouse. I was almost immediately disappointed. I wasn’t sure why, my first thought was that everything I enjoyed from previous shows was missing. Whereas past shows had ultimately focused on the development of the relationships amongst an ultimately likable group, Dollhouse actively makes this impossible.

The premise of the show is a mysterious organization, the dollhouse, that supplies individuals, “dolls” or “actives,” who can have any memory, personality, or set of skills implanted in their minds only to be erased later. This means that the show effectively presses the reset button, at least with the central characters, every episode. The characters who are not actives, the staff of the dollhouse and the FBI agents investigating them, are mired in deception and intrigue. There are moles within the organization and multiple spies. On the one hand disconnection, the impossibility of relationships, or connection; on the other hand, relationships that are never what they seem.

At this point it is perhaps worth pointing out that the enjoyment I referred to above, the relationships amongst likable characters, is perhaps the ideological degree zero of television, the “imaginary relationship to the real relations of production.” Television series, successful and loved ones, offer an imaginary family or group of Friends that one can meet up with every week. Perhaps then Whedon’s show is a kind of self-critique of television, a show that refuses connection, refuses to offer the viewer a place “where everybody knows your name.” This is possible, especially since the fact that the show’s central characters hit the reset button mimics the other unstated presupposition of television: the repetition underlying television series, that every week, after all the mad cap adventures, everything goes back to square one. The show pits one unstated presupposition of television against another. (These two elements of television, the linear and the episodic, are often in contradiction; case in point, The X-Files in which the repetition of the conflict between skeptic (Scully) and believer (Mulder) was in extreme tension with the linear development of the alien conspiracy.)

This might be the case, especially since Whedon has often struggled with network executives who have wanted shows that were more “serial” in nature; shows without complex histories of characters and involved plots, shows that can be consumed and resold as independent units. (It is interesting to note that television seems to be dividing along these lines: cable television is generally characterized by shows that are linear, while network television sticks to the “procedurals” and “sitcoms” that function without history) However, I think that it might be going too far to see the show as television’s self critique. At the same time the show has become, if not more enjoyable, at least more interesting in recent weeks, and this enjoyment has something to do with the way in which the show touches on the core of television, fantasy and repetition.

When the show began, its premise was that the dollhouse served elite clientele with people, the actives, who could do anything, be anyone, and forget it all when it was over. There are many problems with this premise; most importantly it is hard to believe that such a high tech service would be needed to serve the needs of the ultra-wealthy. The technology just seems overkill; why couldn’t the wealthy and powerful just hire regular call girls and hostage negotiators? However, recent episodes have begun to suggest that this premise is something of a ruse. The dollhouse does not serve the wealthy, but secretly controls them by controlling their fantasies. This idea that control operates not through overt power, or even wealth, is underscored by the show’s repeated insistence on the constitutive nature of fantasy. The show returns again and again to the question as to the difference between a relationship with an active, with a programmed individual with whom one cannot have a history, and a relationship with a “real” person. The people involved in the dollhouse, the people who run it and are served by it, stress that illusion, fantasy, is not seem deviation from “real relationships” but constitutive of them. As Adelle DeWitt, the woman who runs the dollhouse, says on the episode that I am watching as I type this: “Illusions aren’t worthless, they are at the heart of most relationships.” If fantasy, idealization, or imagination is part of every relationship, if these fantasies sustain us, then how does one distinguish between a real and fake relationship?

This emphasis on fantasy as constitutive of reality and control is complicated by a second theme, that of resistance. The press surrounding the show has stated from the beginning that the arc of at least the first (and possibly only) season had to do with the central character, Echo, eventually recovering her memories, and presumably resisting the dollhouse. This bit of detail may have been released early as an attempt to ward off criticism. Whedon is famous for his strong female characters, and, as many critics have pointed out, dollhouse breaks with that element of his reputation as well. The question remains where will this resistance come from? Will it be some core of the self that cannot be erased? Or is it just a glitch in the system? I am pleased to say that the show has been refreshingly ambiguous on this point. Suggesting at times that resistance is transcendental, stemming from an element of the self that perseveres through the multiple erases; while, at other times, suggesting that the tendency to exceed the program is an effect of some other technology, a mind control chemical, or even other attempts to manipulate the program. Resistance is then sometimes presented as external to the machinery of control, some core self, and sometimes as nothing other than the noise internal to the machine itself. In the first case it is dependent upon some idea of an essence, of something that cannot be produced. In the second, however, resistance is nothing other than the excess of every program over its parameters.

(As something of a side note: I was always intrigued by Spike’s arc in Buffy. In that show Angel was the vampire cursed to have a soul. Spike didn’t have a soul, just a chip that caused pain whenever he tried to kill someone. However, this chip effectively changed his relations to others, setting him on the path to redemption. What then is the difference between a soul and a chip that shocks you when you are bad? This always seemed to be Whedon at his most Foucaultian: “The soul is the prison of the body.”)

I do not want to draw all of the theoretical connections that could be made out of these two points: control through fantasy and the immanence of resistance. Rather, I will conclude by saying, perhaps too late, that Dollhouse has potential; not the potential to be another Buffy, a reliable hour of entertainment, but to do what much good science fiction does; that is present the present to us in the form of a fiction. I feel that in saying that I have doomed the show because that is perhaps simply too much to expect from television.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Play of Form and Content: Scattered Remarks on Popular Culture

This weekend I happened to see the film State of Play: It was a compromise.

Occasionally, when watching a film, I feel as if I can imagine the moments of its articulation: the pitch meeting or writing session. Sometimes this is because the selling point of the movie is so obvious (“It is like Alien, but at sea” or “Like Rocky but with a female boxer”), but sometimes, as in the case of State of Play, it is because one can see the joints, the points where different ideas are hobbled together. (I should mention now that I have not seen the BBC original from which the film has been adapted, an omission that might throw my entire argument off kilter—oh yeah, and SPOILER ALERT).

In this case it is the way in which the film combines two different conspiracy theories, both of which are “ripped from today’s headlines.” The first, which could be broadly characterized as liberal or even left, has to do with the influence of a private security company (basically Blackwater) on the government. The second theory, which could be broadly characterized as conservative, has to do with Senator’s use of his power to carry on an affair with a young intern. Two different ideas of conspiracy, two different visions of corruption: one economic and the other moral. One can imagine these two plots as a way to please two different constituencies. Through most of the film these two different conspiracies are offered as two different explanation for the events of the film: a young, attractive senator’s aid appears to have committed suicide the very morning that the senator is to begin important hearings on the influence of the private security company. Much of the film is spent exploring the first conspiracy, which gives the film the feel of the great conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s, in which each new piece of evidence only extends the conspiracy to the highest corridors of power. In the films final twist, however, the story of infidelity, sex, and the abuse of personal power becomes the central story, in some sense effacing the other conspiracy.

This shift of narrative structure, content if I am going to justify my title, takes place against a much more overt struggle borrowed from the form. The central drama of the film, also ripped from today’s headlines, concerns the newspaper reporters that cover this story. The first reporter, played by Russell Crowe, is an old school print journalist, interested in following the story no matter where it leads. (In case you are wondering about his politics, it is possible to see a bumper-sticker for “Democracy Now” on his fridge, in what has to be one of the oddest bits of product placement committed to film.) The second, played by Rachel McAdams, writes for the paper’s blog, and is concerned primarily with gossip. The film borrows much of its narrative form from the “buddy film”: the two initially hate each other, but eventually learn to respect one another and in doing so emerge as victorious.. This is supposed to be situated within the crisis of print media: the paper has just been bought by new corporation, convinced that it can still get a profit from a dying medium.

The film is supposed to be a simple matter of good guys triumphing over these corporate forces, telling the true story despite market constraints. However, at this point the narrative compromises of the film contradict the story that it is trying to tell. At the exact moment that the film’s protagonists are victorious against market forces, stopping the presses to get the true story out, the film tells a different story. What the film reveals is that sex scandal will always outsell politics. That the real conflict is not so much between blogs and print, between young upstart bloggers and grizzled reporters, but between different ways of mapping and comprehending social space: one sees social forces and the abstractions of capital and the other sees only individuals and morality. There are different names for each in contemporary theory, science and ideology or axioms and recodings, but in our current conjuncture the latter seems to always win.

As Fredric Jameson famously remarked, the conspiracy film is an attempt to imagine the totality, capital. It is a kind of a degree zero of ideology critique: it imagines ideology within ideology itself. Impersonal social forces, capital and the state, are presented as the machinations of “evil individuals.” What makes State of Play frustrating is that it retreats from even this level of critique, ultimately returning the critique of institutions to the idea of corrupt individuals, individuals whose corruption is only ever a personal failing.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Anthropogenesis Part Three: Reification Reconsidered

This is a third in a series of posts on what I am calling, for lack of a better word, “Left-Simondonians”: A term that I define simply as philosophers/theorists who use the work of Simondon to understand and critique the current conjuncture. I do not know of any “Right-Simondonians,” and the term is obviously a slightly humorous allusion to post Hegelian thought. If the term has any justification at all it is in the fact that Simondon’s investigations of transindividuality and technology seem to be a necessary reorientation of thought in an age so mediated by technology but so lacking in collectivity. Now, I am not saying that he is our Hegel, just that we are desperately in need of new ways of thinking.

As I promised earlier, a while ago, actually, having written on Bernard Stiegler, I now want to focus on Paolo Virno. As an interview in Radical Philosophy makes clear, Virno’s has kept up a sustained engagement with Simondon’s work in terms of writing, editing, and teaching.

It seems to me that Virno’s engagement with the concept of the “transindividual” is situated between his engagement with Simondon and themes developed from Marx and the work of Alfred Sohn-Rethel. What I am interested is the point of intersection of those themes. First, Virno revives Marx’s notion of the social individual to describe not just an ontological fact, that people can only be individuated through society, but an economic reality, that social relations and shared capacities are at the center of contemporary productive relations. Second, and more importantly, here is how Virno offers a redefinition of the central Marxist concepts of reification and alienation through Simondon’s idea of preindividual reality:

“Reification is what I call the process through which preindividual reality becomes an external thing, a res that appears as a manifest phenomenon, a set of public institutions. By alienation I understand the situation in which the preindividual remains an internal component of the subject but one that the subject is unable to command. The preindividual reality that remains implicit, like a presupposition that conditions us but that we are unable to grasp, is alienated.”

With the exception of the use of the word “preindividual” Virno’s definition of reification is standard, almost textbook. Virno deviates from this standard definition, however, in making a distinction between reification and fetishism. In the standard Marxist version, developed from Marx to Lukacs, commodity fetishism is an example of reification or reification is developed on the basis of commodity fetishism. In the same interview Virno defines fetishism as follows, ‘Fetishism means assigning to something—for example to money—characteristics that belong to the human mind (sociality, capacity for abstraction and communication, etc.).’ The distinction that Virno makes here seems to be another way of cleaving through the real abstraction.

Virno develops the idea of real abstraction from the work of Alfred Sohn-Rethel. For Sohn-Rethel the real abstraction refers back to Marx’s analysis of the commodity form and money, abstractions that are all the more real because their realized through action, rather than thought. Exchange value is not entirely abstract, having no basis in use value, but it is an abstraction that is effected through the practical activity of exchange. In Virno’s earlier works he made a distinction between money, or the general equivalent, as a real abstraction and the “general intellect,” Marx’s description of the productive powers of science in the Grundrisse made famous by the autonomist tradition. In those texts the relevant distinction was between a real abstraction predicated on equality, money, commodities, even labor must be rendered interchangeable, and a real abstraction predicated on difference and flexibility, the paradigms and language games of the general intellect, which can always be replaced. This is Virno’s version of the transition from formal to real subsumption; a transition that has profound effects on the tonality of modern existence. In the first equality still retains some force while the second is associated with the rise of cynicism, with acceptance of the groundless nature of rules and structures. In the context of his discussion of Simondon, however, Virno makes a different distinction: alienation, fetishism, and reification are different ways of relating to the preindividual conditions of subjectivity (which Virno identifies as language, habits, and productive relations). Thus it is given that subjectivity is constituted by these preindividual conditions, which always exceed it, what differs is how it relates to these conditions, to its presuppositions. (In this way we are perhaps not that far from Hegel)

Virno’s definition of alienation, a presupposition that cannot be conditioned, comes closest to Stiegler’s critique of the “industrialization of memory.” I think each of these theoretical perspectives are perhaps different ways of comprehending the increased commodification of the preindividual. The preindividual conditions of language, habits, and productive relations, what we could call culture, comes to us now in the form of commodities rather than traditions. Commodities are pre-packaged, their conditions of production are inaccessible to us. Virno differs from Stiegler in adding to this the exploitation of the transindividual. Virno’s definintion of fetish and reification reflect the way in which the transindividual relations have become incorporated into structures and relations. The difference is that in reification the relational dimension remains explicit, while in the fetish these relations are obscured by a thing that takes on the qualities of the relation, the abstraction and relations. As Marx once put it, “money is the alienated ability of mankind.” If money is the paradigmatic of fetishization, then what is the corresponding instance of reification in Virno’s sense. Virno’s answer would seem to be the general intellect, but the general intellect remains largely obscured, appearing only in the texts that discuss it. As Marx argued the more labor becomes social and dependent on knowledge, the more it appears as the power of capital. Virno sometimes refers to this reification as a “non-state” public sphere, as the collective powers of social relations acting outside of the state. However, it seems that this is what needs to be produced.