Tuesday, June 23, 2009

This is your TV on Drugs

As something of a preliminary observation it is curious that three of the cable networks known for their high end shows (the sort that end up in TV critics list, box sets, and in “Stuff White People Like”) have programs that deal with the “war on drugs”: HBO has The Wire, Showtime has Weeds, and AMC has Breaking Bad. Except these shows aren’t really about the “war on drugs,” at least exclusively; even The Wire, which has the strongest claim for authenticity and spends the most time on the details of the drug trade, ultimately makes drugs something like a refracted lens from which to observe the decline of the American city. In each of these shows the drug trade becomes the equivalent of the monster or alien in old horror movies: the question is what does it signify, what does it stand in for?

One might wonder what is happening culturally and politically for the “war on drugs” to become a metaphor. After all it has not gone away, it still makes money and fills prisons. It has seemed to have faded into the background of cultural consciousness, however, so much so that it can never function as narrative material all on its own, it must stand for something. In some sense genres are constituted by this symbolization, film-noir, the western, the samurai film, or the sci-fi film are all defined by their mythologization of their narrative basis, it is symbolic of something. However, in all those cases the symbolism takes place after the fact, or with respect to an imaginary condition, with the war on drugs we are mythologizing our reality.

I do no plan to write about The Wire here, having done that before, but I should say that The Wire remains for me the gold standard of what can be done with the medium of television. Since The Wire ended last year I have searched in vain for something that might fill its void. To use my own drug metaphor: I have been searching for the television equivalent of methadone. I have tried Rome, Deadwood, Mad Men, Generation Kill, and now Breaking Bad, to varying degrees of success. I have watched some of those until the end and some have trailed off, but I have not written about any, until now.

One of the many ways that The Wire has spoiled me has to do with its particular narrative structure. The Wire eschews the trappings of what passes for depth, the flashbacks and dream sequences that give us privileged access to the interior of a character, in favor of a focus on the institutions that structure an individual’s actions. This institutional perspective is combined with an egalitarian aesthetic in which minor characters will come to the forefront while major characters will fade into the background, at least temporarily. There are no minor characters on The Wire, at least no minor characters who might not become central in a later season. This has left me very impatient with the more conventional structure of a show with its major characters, given depth, and minor characters, defined in terms of stereotypes.

The plot of Breaking Bad is fairly simple: Walter White, a chemistry teacher finds out that he has inoperable lung cancer and goes into the drug business (crystal meth) in order to provide for his families future. (I hear that this basic plot is similar to Weeds, which I have never seen). This basic plot is complicated by the fact that his brother is a high ranking DEA officer, and his business partner Jesse is a failed former student. It is by and large a character study, or two character studies, however, it is less interested in the socio-economic structures of the crystal meth trade than it is on the effect of this trade on the individuals involved.
Despite all of this I have found Breaking Bad compelling.

Walter White is played by Bryan Cranston, an actor most famous for his part as the father in Malcolm in the Middle. He has a comic actors talent for slapstick, and in the first season he uses this talent to embody the indignities of contemporary existence. He is an enthusiastic teacher, but his enthusiasm is played to a comic effect in front of an audience of bored students. Money is tight, so after school Walter works at a carwash where he washes some of the same student’s cars. At first his diagnosis, and descent into crime, liberates Walter, he becomes a man between two deaths, as it were. His death sentence has been pronounced, so he is a free man. He uses this freedom to not only embark on a new life as a drug kingpin, but to stand up to the daily indignities of life—quitting his car wash job and standing up to obnoxious jocks and yuppies. It would be wrong, however, to see Walter as a rebel, as someone liberated from all societies norms; his entire criminal enterprise is all about one over-arching masculine ideal, being a good provider. It is one thing to escape the fear of death, a fear that keeps us from taking risks, it is another thing altogether to escape our most internalized ideologies. Walter, the formerly mild mannered chemistry teacher, can face down a drug kingpin, even commit murder, but he cannot stand the idea that his family would take money from others.

This ideal of a provider becomes increasingly pathological in the second season, as Walter destroys his position as father, husband, and teacher in order to make more money. In order to save his family he has to destroy it. [Spoiler Alert] I know that some people are frustrated with the much hyped season finale, as the scenes of destruction that were flash-forwarded to all season proved to be something else than the dramatic showdown with Mexican cartels. However, the real devastation happened a few seconds prior, as Walter proved incapable of recognizing his family’s respect, only seeing the need to make more money. The money starts out as something of an insurance policy, later a way to pay for cancer treatment, in the end it becomes its own end, a pure symbol of masculine power.

There is a way in which Walter's arc is structurally similar to Stringer Bell from The Wire. With Stringer the central narrative was one ascent, a Horatio Algers, by the bootstraps story of one man's attempt to go from drug dealer to real estate investor; accept that it was a dark perversion of this narrative, in which the two, dealer and business man, are shown not to be so different. The drug trade exposes the ruthless calculation that is at the core of capitalism. Walter's story is a story of a fall from respected family man to meth dealer, but the refraction is the same. What the show exposes, or pathologizes, is not so much the ruthless capacity to calculate, but masculinity itself, at least an ideal of masculinity as the provider.

As a final remark I will add that one of the interesting things about the show is that is in many ways a show about knowledge and its limits; chemistry first and foremost, which functions as the shows central metaphor (the composition and decomposition of relations, the storing and release of energy) while simultaneously serving as an actual mode of thought. Walter is ingenious at using chemistry to solve every problem from a dead car battery to a dead body. However, Walter is clueless about how the drug trade works, this is where Jesse his former student comes in. Much of the shows dark humor comes from the bickering conversations between the chemistry teacher and low level drug dealer, each ignorant about the other’s basis of knowledge. Ultimately the show deals with another limit of knowledge, not that of chemistry or the streets, but a fundamental ignorance about oneself. Despite all of his knowledge Walter reacts to everything emotionally, going from despair to rage. To risk a Socratic cliché, he does not seem to know himself, and this, and not the Mexicans or the DEA will be his undoing.

In the past few weeks I have also been reading a lot of Bernard Stiegler's cultural and political criticism of contemporary society. (More on that later) One of the things that he stresses is that modern hyperindustrial society is a society of pulsions, of drives, not desire. Our current media stimulates us to feel anger, humiliation, lust, etc., while destroying any sense of shared values, of the sublimated values necessary for desire. Despite his intelligence, Walter is very much a figure of this regime of affects, he feels a deep sense of anger, humiliation, and, at times, pride, but all of these affects are immediate and unyielding. He is less a character, a person with a history and a place and society, than a collection of affects and drives.

In the end this might explain the centrality of the "war on drugs" as a metaphor for understanding contemporary society. It offers the clearest illustration of need, addiction, and greed, of the market as the source of all our pain and pleasures.

Friday, June 19, 2009

What We Strive For

This is going to sound terrible, but I will say it anyway: the problem with any living philosopher, or political theorist is that they go on living. When a philosopher dies a space opens up between their texts and whatever contemporary problem or situation which one might want to address. It is debatable that Spinoza would recognize himself in the idea of the multitude, or if Bergson would embrace the vitalist accounts of contemporary society, but this does not matter. As long as a philosopher is still alive, capable of commenting on current events, then it is tempting to take their word as the last word on the matter at hand.

This seems like an oddly appropriate way to introduce Massimo De Angelis’ The Beginning of History: Value Struggles and Global Capital. De Angelis is not explicitly concerned with the tricky matter of offering an interpretation of a living philosopher, but he does offer a different interpretation of school of thought than its living epigones. The school of thought is autonomist Marxist, and the epigones in question are Antonio Negri and Maurizio Lazzarato, who have replaced class composition and self-valorization with immaterial labor the end of value. De Angelis presents the difference as “between a politics that looks to creative, immaterial workers almost as the vanguard of the revolution and those like myself who look instead to the Zapatistas and other similar commoners, especially the indigenous, the peasants, the just in time factory workers in the ‘free trade zones” of the third world, the peasant mothers, the slum communities struggling in a variety of contexts for livelihoods and dignity.”

Now, beyond the rhetorical heavy-handedness of this point, which is ultimately about two different ideas of the common, De Angelis is primarily concerned with how one sees the possibilities for struggle in contemporary capitalism. De Angelis primarily takes issue with Hardt and Negri’s claim that in empire capital no longer has an outside. For De Angelis capital is permeated by outsides, by commons; in fact, the system of capitalism is best understood as a conflict of values between commons, all of the various ways in which human beings produce and reproduce their means of existence, and enclosures, which subordinate that production and reproduction to capital’s drive to realize surplus value.

I have to admit that these grand statements are perhaps the weakest elements of the book: the discussion of the “outside,” in particular, is so slippery that it often seems worth jettisoning altogether. It is equally convincing to say that capital has no outside, as it is nothing but outside and the same activities—housework, babysitting, and community gardens—can be presented as exterior to capital, based on other values, or interior, since they ultimately reduce the cost of labor power. However, that does not mean that the book itself is weak. In many ways it functions best not as a polemic, but in terms of its own specific argument about the nature of capitalism. Most interesting is the way that De Angelis understands the specific way in which the market regulates cooperation. The market has to be seen as a particular mode of cooperation, a paradoxical mode of cooperation that can only function through antagonism.

“The problem with the market as the central order through which the co-producing social body reproduces livelihoods is in the fact that, paradoxically, it makes people cooperate socially by threatening each others’ livelihoods, subordinating each singularity to the artificial rule of an increasingly demanding clock, and thus turning any innovation, any creative idea, any new product of human communication and ingenuity, no matter how well its use values might solve certain problems, into a force threatening someone else’s livelihood, into a benchmark with the power of disciplining.”

In capitalism whatever invention helps my livelihood, whatever policy attracts jobs to my region, can only destroy other’s livelihoods, other ways of living in some other location. This is the unavoidable effect of competition. In order to theorize this relationship De Angelis borrows the concept of the conatus from Spinoza. Conatus is defined as the general striving, the persistence in being, that defines everything, including such artificial bodies as capital. Capital has its own particular striving, to realizing profit. De Angelis uses the idea of conatus to describe the way in which capital functions by grafting its conatus unto our strivings (or maybe it is the other way around). The point is that without alternatives to capital, to commons, every attempt to improve one’s condition, to produce and reproduce one’s existence necessarily involves aligning one’s actions and energies with that of capitalism. Thus De Angelis analysis invokes Marx’s idea of prehistory, as a fundamental alienation of our striving and powers. As Marx writes, “This fixation of social activity, this consolidation of what we ourselves produce into an objective power above us, growing out of our control, thwarting out expectations, bringing to naught our calculations, is one of the chief factors in historical development up till now.”(That is from The German Ideology, the actual remark about prehistory is in the Contribution, but the fundamental point is still the same. De Angelis’ title reflects the importance of this idea.) Much of what De Angelis says stems from this basic idea of capital as a condition for human activity that can only undermine it. Thus De Angelis is not so much concerned with charting the losers of capitalism, the lives destroyed and untold ecological damage, but on pointing out that capitalism is a system that necessarily pits humanity in a system of competition that remains unseen.

“Some of us win, and some of us lose; in either case we are involved in perpetrating the system that keeps us reproducing scarcity when in fact we could be celebrating abundance.”

De Angelis’ engagement with Spinoza is rather limited; he just borrows the word conatus to refer to a general striving that can be applied to living things, or abstract structures, such as capital. One has to wonder, however, given the immense literature on Spinoza, if there is not more room to consider this idea of the alienation of conatus. Such a concept almost seems fundamental to Spinoza’s philosophy. The critique of superstition in the Appendix to Part One of the Appendix of the Ethics, develops an idea that God is nothing other than a projection, and thus a misrepresentation of our human, all too human striving. The same could be said of the critique of scripture in the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus. Now this might seem like an unnecessary philosophical digression, but as De Angelis makes it clear one of the fundamental problems of the struggle of values, is seeing the commons that we produce and reproduce in our day-to-day actions, commons that are enclosed by capital. This was Spinoza’s problem as well. As Antonio Negri writes, “In other words, in the postindustrial age the Spinozian critique of representation of capitalist power corresponds more to the truth than does the analysis of political economy.”

Perhaps the most interesting chapter from a theoretical perspective is the chapter on Hayek and Bentham. This is an important chapter in its own right. One of De Angelis’s central points is that markets, distribution, have to be seen not simply as mankind’s tendency to “barter, truck, and exchange,” but as a disciplinary mechanism. Comparing Bentham and Hayek draws out interesting similarities; both philosopher’s were interested in creating an apparatus that utilized the partial and incomplete perspective of isolated individuals to create an effect of discipline and control. What is perhaps more striking, however, is the light that this analogy casts on the work of Michel Foucault. Christian Laval has criticized Foucault for failing to grasp that Bentham was as much interested in the market as he was in prisons, and he saw the former as functioning by a kind mutual surveillance. (“Le premier dispositif panoptique, c’est la société elle meme comme espace d’intersurveillance”). In Foucault’s recently published lectures he makes a distinction between discipline, which is seen as more rigid and structured, and neoliberal governmentality, which is more flexible. What De Angelis suggests is that perhaps neoliberal society is a more abstract and less personal form of discipline, and not some flexible alternative.--control, security,or neoliberal governance. We are disciplined by the market, an impersonal form of evaluation that is nothing more than the effects of the striving of others.

De Angelis also argues against the dominance of linear temporality in Marxist thought: the idea of communism as something that necessarily comes after capitalism. Instead De Angelis sees multiple temporalities at work, times of valorization and reproduction. There are alternatives in the present, not just in the distance future. The commons are not the culmination of capital, but its persistent shadow. De Angelis book also demonstrates that the same is true of theory. The linear progression that makes immaterial labor the necessary end result of class composition, or governmentality the necessary corrective to discipline, is only one possibility. Every text, like every society is riddled with possibilities.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Class Composition in Reverse

I recently started reading Massimo De Angelis’ The Beginning of History: Value Struggles and Global Capital, as part of some reading I am doing on the concept of the commons, and I definitely recommend it. I plan to put together some notes and something like a review as soon as I finish, but in the meantime it provoked me to write the following. In part De Angelis’ book constitutes something of a return to first principles, a return to some of the original ideas of autonomist Marxism. This return is in part explicitly aimed against the contemporary turn in post-autonomist Marxism towards the ideas of “immaterial labor” and Empire. This is what I plan to address in a week or so, or whenever I finish the book.

What struck me recently, however, is the way that the book reframes the autonomist concept of “class composition.” It is class composition, the analysis of the social, technical, and political composition of work, as both cause and effect of struggle, that underlies such concepts as “mass worker” and “social worker.” De Angelis expands the concept of class composition, however, to include reproductive work, following Dalla Costa in arguing for the centrality of unwaged housework to the production and reproduction of capital, renaming it community composition. But the basic tenet remains the same, the tenet that “the forms, the objectives, the dynamics of social conflict are linked to the ways people relate to each other in the places of production and life within a certain historical context.”

It is worth noting, since the matter of the conflicts between “old” and “new” autonomist thought has been raised, that Nick Dyer-Witheford has argued for a revival of a compositional analysis with respect to the multitude. This analysis has the benefit of removing the multitude from a celebration of the new, situating it with respect to the conflicts that animate it. Thus, the emphasis on global relations and new forms of technology are maintained, but they have to be understood in relation to the local conditions and underdevelopments that act as counter-tendencies. Dyer-Witheford’s position seems to make the most sense to me, not only in that it moves us beyond the ridiculous argument of “everything has changed” versus “nothing has changed,” but that it also revives the idea of research, or worker’s inquiry. Ironically there is a great deal of research and inquiry underlying such concepts as “immaterial labor,” it is just that none of this research, which has appeared in such texts as Le Bassin de Travail Immatériel (BTI) dans la Métropole Parisienne, has not appeared in English, lending credibility to the idea that such concepts are the products of the philosopher’s abstraction rather than worker’s enquiry.

This is not the point that I would like to raise now, after all I have to save something for the review, I would like to discuss something entirely different, something that comes out of one of those contingent mental events that happens when one happens to read two things at the same time. In this case, it is a matter of reading Massimo De Angelis at the same time as I am preparing a class on the Frankfurt School. One of the things that strikes me is that there is, in the early works of Horkheimer and Adorno, at least, something like a thought of class composition, of the technological, social, and political constitution of a class. The major exception is that the class in question is no longer the working class, whose struggle drives capital, but the bourgeoisie, the ruling class.

At different and sporadic points, Horkheimer and Adorno make the point that the values and ideals of bourgeois philosophy, autonomy, freedom, conscience, relate to a particular stage of the development of capitalism. As Horkheimer writes:

“Admiration for nobility of character, fidelity to one’s word, independence of judgment and so forth are traits of a society of relatively independent economic subjects who enter into contractual relations with each other…Under the conditions of a monopolistic capitalism, however, even such a relative individual independence is a thing of the past. The individual no longer has any ideas of his own.”

The liberal subject, the subject of conscience, rights, and autonomy, is a product of liberal capitalism, capitalism of the small business, the entrepreneur, and the individual craftsman. (Although it might be more accurate to say that it is both effect and cause, producing its justification) Horkheimer and Adorno are less interested in describing this “liberal” phase of capitalism, or in nostalgia for its charms, than in charting what happens to these ideals under monopoly capitalism, the capitalism of large scale industry and the totally managed enterprise (in the form of fascism or even state capitalism). This transformation does not so much invalidate the ideals of liberal capitalism as it undermines their material basis. These ideals are necessarily transformed as their fundamental conditions, most notably the division between private and public, collapse. To quote Adorno from Minima Moralia:

“With the dissolution of liberalism, the truly bourgeois principle, that of competition, far from being overcome, has passed from the objectivity of the social process into the composition of its colliding and jostling atoms, and therewith as if into anthropology.”

Or to take a few more impressionist passages from Minima Moralia:

“As the professions of the middle-man lose their economic basis, the private lives of countless people are becoming those of agents and go-betweens; indeed the entire private domain is being engulfed by a mysterious activity that bears all the features of commercial life without there being actually any business to transact.”


“Whatever was once good and decent in bourgeois values, independence, perseverance, forethought, circumspection, has been corrupted utterly. For while bourgeois forms of existence are truculently conserved their economic precondition has fallen away. Privacy has given way entirely to the privation it always secretly was and with the stubborn adherence to particular interests is now mingled fury at being no longer able to perceive that things might be different and better.”

One could go on; in fact this idea of the decaying husk of bourgeois subjectivity becoming more malevolent as its conditions disappear constitutes something like a minor theme of Minima Moralia. With the loss of the independence and protection of private property, the private home that offered refuge from the demands of competition and the private industry of the small enterprise that rewarded honesty and inniative, the admirable moral qualities of bourgeois life disintegrate in the face of a generalized competition and “networking” that converts every social relation into a business contact. This description is a kind of “neoliberalism” avant la lettre, in which economic relations subsume all of society. It is also similar to the autonomist discussion of real subsumption, with the exception that it is less about the composition of the working class, than of the bourgeoisie that clings to its ideals long past their economic justification.

This is obviously a first glance, as I have not even finished reading De Angelis’ book or rereading Minima Moralia, but a few conclusions follow. It seems to me that class composition must be extended across both sides of class struggle; it is not just the working class whose conditions are structured by the economic, political, and social constitution of its existence, so are the capitalists. As Alain Badiou writes,“Il faut concevoir la société impérialiste non seulement comme substance, mais aussi comme sujet.” (It is necessary to conceive of imperialist society not just as substance but also as subject). Subjectivity is not only on the side of resistance, it is not a matter of a class confronting a structure, multitude against empire, but of different subjectivities. However, the picture is not one of two necessarily opposed camps, in which the new global bourgeoisie confronts the multitude, but of the constant transformation of the terms of antagonism. As Negri writes, “The ontological aspects of subjectivity are produced in different (or rather, antagonistic) ways.” It seems to me that focusing on the composition means that the different elements, technical, social, economic and political do not have a necessary capitalist or anti-capitalist dimension. New technologies can lead to either the constitution of a new commons of information and knowledge or to new realities of surveillance and work. At the same time even an economic crisis, the destruction of the existing conditions for exploitation, can become part of a revolutionary or reactionary composition.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

The Industrialization of Nostalgia

“Capitalism is only a repetition” –Alain Badiou

In recent years the remake, or reboot, has ceased to be one sort of film that Hollywood produces to become its dominant form, at least when it comes to summer movies. The dominant films this summer, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Star Trek, Terminator: Salvation, Taking of Pelham 123, Land of the Lost, G.I. Joe, and so on are all remakes of something that existed in some form or another, comic book, television series, movie or cartoon. Of course much can be made of this transformation of contemporary, and I am sure that more qualified folks than I will weigh in on the issue. However, I thought that I would jot down the following thoughts.

“Let’s get an old movie, like something from the eighties.”—Overheard at a videostore

As the quote from Badiou makes clear, capitalism can be defined as the absence of history. It is what Jameson refers to as the eternal present. This criticism of capitalisms lack of historical consciousness is as old as Marx himself, and it takes on myriad forms. What specifically does it mean with respect to the Hollywood remake. It seems to me, and this perhaps the wrong way of looking at it, is that the assumption underlying the remake is that people, at least the dominant movie going audience, does not want to watch a film that is twenty or even ten years old. Special effects have changed, and this might explain the need to constantly update films, but I think that it is more than that. When one watches a film from even a few years ago one needs to possess a bare minimum of historical consciousness to orient oneself in terms of the technological, social, and cultural points of reference. You have to know when it is reasonable to expect someone in a film to use a cellphone, or a computer, both of which have become ubiquitous in contemporary films. Or, for that matter, what counts as the expected fashions of a period versus a personal affectation. This is only history at its most micro and quotidian level, there are also the historical events that structure the narratives of films. A remake removes the need for this minimal displacement: one no longer has to transport oneself to the cultural, technological, and social milieu of another period. One no longer has to transport oneself to the world of nineteen seventies in order to understand the Taking of Pelham 123; one no longer has to wonder why someone on the train does not just use a cellphone. The world is remade in the form of the present. “Look they are using an iphone.” Moreover, the stars, music, and clothing are all completely recognizable. Everything is ripped from the headlines of the latest celebrity rag. It is not accident that the films, once made and released on DVD, will end up on the adjecant rack at the supermarket checkout. Films have become much more disposable as the time between original and remake shrinks.

This idea of the remake as effacing history can only, at best, account for half the picture. Why not just make new films, with current actors, under contemporary conditions? Why tarry with the past at all? Of course the standard explanation to this is that Hollywood has run out of ideas? But there must be more than this cliché, especially since the originals are not ideas, in any strict sense of the term. G.I. Joe and Transformers were basically half-hour long toy commercials, and has anyone seen the original Land of the Lost? There is nothing in the original that merits repeating. The remake does not use the original, its raw material, for its ideas, for some script or narrative. The remake utilizes the original, the TV show or comic book, at the level of memory. Contemporary philosophers such as Maurizzio Lazzarato and Bernard Stiegler have focused on the relationship between contemporary capitalism and memory, the latter even coining the phrase “the industrialization of memory” to describe the way in contemporary cultural commodities such as films or programs structure their own sense of temporality. I think that the modern remake is more of an industrialization of nostalgia, or, more to the point a primitive accumulation of nostalgia. The studio is not so much remaking the original film, but utilizing the name and associations to drum up nostalgia. There is a phrase that has become popular in various websites where people discuss film, a phrase that people use to condemn the various remakes and reboots, that phrase is “raping my childhood.” Now the trivialization of rape implied in the phrase is no doubt offensive, but it does get at something essential. Remakes are aimed at the childhood memories of a generation, They address us not as adults, but as children.

Such a hypothesis encompasses the many films that are based on cartoons, comics, and tv shows, but it does not explain the remaking of various films that were always aimed at adults. Here too I think memory is the issue; it is no longer the rosy tinted memories of childhood, but the simple fact that a name, a title, conjures up an association.

Nostalgia against history: there is no need to go outside oneself, to imagine other conditions, not when every film becomes one’s own private screening room. The may be raping your childhood, but the important thing is that it is your childhood.

Monday, June 01, 2009

I am an Animal, You’re an Animal Too: Matteo Pasquinelli’s Animal Spirits

This probably needs more critical work to qualify as even a book review, as is it is more of a book report on a book that I think is deserving of critical and political attention. It is worth writing about because I just happened to stumble upon this book in a little anarchist bookstore in Baltimore.

Understood polemically Matteo Pasquinelli’s Animal Spirits: A Bestiary of the Commons can be understood as an attack on certain reigning fetishes of the immaterial and the creative that pervade contemporary culture. These fetishes take many forms and are articulated in many contexts, from theoretical texts to popular texts such as Wired and Richard Florida’s writing on “creative cities.” Pasquinelli focuses more on the latter, on the popular and ubiquitious writers, which makes sense given the way in which these popular texts have had maximum effects; there is not a rust belt, or dying mill town, in the US that has not held city council meetings, Florida’s book in hand, on how to stimulate the “creative economy.” Pasquinelli primarily objects to the ideal of information or creativity that functions without conflict, noise, or, most importantly, exploitation: the idea underlying such slogans as “information wants to be free.” Against this ideal, Pasquinelli focuses on several ways in which the immaterial “spirit” continues to be burdened by matter, by its animality. Pasquinelli gives three general versions of this critique.

First, at least in the order of presentation, is Paolo Virno’s work on philosophical anthropology. In an essay, which I have discussed elsewhere (and that has also been discussed here), Virno contests the reigning idea that criticism of capital and of the state ultimately presupposes some idea of the fundamental goodness of human nature. This is the idea that fuels much of the discussion in undergraduate philosophy classes, pitting Hobbes and his epigones against the various versions of Rousseau. Against this Virno insists that man is evil, or, more to the point man is evil to the same extent that he or she is good: both evil and good stem from the fundamental fact that humanity is an excess of natural determination. For Virno politics should not suppress this fundamental indeterminacy, or ambivalence, by replacing the lack of instinctual determination by an artificial determination, a Leviathan that would compensate for nature by providing a second nature, law would replace instinct. Rather politics ought to cultivate this indeterminacy, as the human institutions of language and ritual do. What does this have to do with the idea of the creative commons? As Pasquinelli argues, the slogan “information wants to be free,” overlooks the conflicts and rivalry that animate even most immaterial production. (Anyone who works in academia is more than familiar with all of the petty antagonisms and jealousies, jealousies that persist even as the fruits of that labor are increasingly available on free online journals). Moreover, much of the internet is fueled by fundamentally anti-social drives, the netporn and warporn that drives sharing and innovation. Rather than seeing the commons as something that exists outside of drives to dominate and control, there is no commons without the antisocial tendencies that animate it. To cite Pasquinelli, “Collective intelligence is the ambivalent exoskeleton of the species: at once the basis for institutions of the common and an extension of humanity’s inborn aggressiveness.” I must admit that I was very interested to see Pasquinelli’s citation of Virno. This is not just because of my interest in Virno, but it suggests that Virno’s essay on evil offers an important reorientation of thought, that it might become a crucial point of reference.

Second, and perhaps more familiar, is the relationship between the various commons, or even “illegal” p2p sharing and capitalist exploitation. Celebrations of the “free” nature of shared music and other forms of digital media neglect to examine the way in which this circulation of content becomes the basis of other forms of exploitation. As Pasquinelli writes, “P2P networks may have weakened the music industry, but the surplus has been reallocated in favour of companies producing new forms of hardware or controlling access to the internet.” The sharing of content does not undermine commodification; it only shifts it to a different level, to different industries, from the cd to the ipod. In this instance the animal is no longer the antisocial drives inhabiting the internet but the parasite. The parasite in Michel Serres’ book of the same name is the third that interrupts any peer-to-peer relation. As a file is shared between two computers, a disc burned and handed to two individuals, there is always a third, the owner of the network, or the hardware, that profits from it. This leads Pasquinelli to declare, along with, Vercellone, that “rent is the new profit.” (Pasquinelli also develops this idea through a discussion of this essay by David Harvey). This new form of rent operates in terms of speed and time rather than space. The goal is to beat the eventual dissemination of whatever is produced.

Finally, this idea of rent allows Pasquinelli to take up the question of gentrification. It has long been a truism that “artists” function as the advance guard of gentrification. Pasquinelli goes beyond this cliché to find the social subject, and productive activity, underlying the new form of value in sky-high rents. If it is true that ‘the multitude is to the metropolis, as the working class is to the factory,” then the multitude must in some sense produce the skyrocketing rents of gentrification. Cities become more valuable when a history of associations and relations, a kind of symbolic capital, make an area desirable. Much work must be done to make a city, a neighborhood, or area desirable: not just the work that converts neglected buildings into lofts, but the work that transforms the associations and symbolic meaning of a neighborhood. The famous high rent neighborhoods of the world are defined by histories of experimentation: histories that generally encompass social as well as symbolic revolt. “Beneath the condos, the communes.”

These three criticisms of the fetish of code, of creativity, or the new commons, each invoke materiality, but in different senses. In the first, it is a matter of the materiality of the body, of the flesh, which connects us to the animal kingdom even as it distinguishes us from it. In the second case it is a matter of the materiality of capital, of the pursuit of surplus value in its various forms, profit or rent; it is an oddly abstract materiality. While in the third case it is a matter of the materiality of space and history. Matter is, as Althusser famously wrote, discussed in many senses, and the trick is relating these multiple senses, the multiple points in which the airless immateriality of the digital commons intersects with the matter of bodies, capital, and history. It is not a matter of celebrating the new digital commons or of denigrating it as the most recent form of techno-utopianism, but of understanding the relations that such a commons has with desires, profits, and exploitation. As Pasquinelli is quick to point out this commons only relates to a small portion of the economy, that which can be digitally produced and circulated, leaving open how all of this relates to other commodities, to other inequalities.

Pasquinelli’s book is perhaps more interesting for the problems that it poses than its solutions. No, that is not fair, there are very interesting analyses here, even if they are burdened at times by a syncretism that combines Ballard, Bataille, Harvey, and Marx. I have nothing against the combination of different perspectives: in fact, it beats the breakdown of thought into “Team Badiou” versus “Team Negri,” as if such academic divisions had anything to do with the world. Such combinations require real theoretical work in order to clarify the connections and limitations. In the end Pasquinelli’s book is a reminder of how much work needs to be done, work to sort out the overlapping intersections of matter and abstraction in contemporary life.