Saturday, February 06, 2010

Sooner or Later Everyone Jumps the Shark: Parting Remarks on Dollhouse

The phrase “jump the shark” has come and gone as a snarky fundamental term of television criticism. Initially, it was used to refer to a show that had exhausted its premise and desperately devised some new element, an adorable cousin or a new career as a stuntman, in order to restore some life to the show. It is in that initial context that the term became the basis for a website, and later a book, before it became a term applied to everything and anything.

The program Dollhouse has most definitely jumped the shark, but oddly so in that it seems to have been conceived to do so from the beginning. As I wrote earlier, the show began as a creepy high tech version of Charlie’s Angels; became a political/corporate thriller, with shades of Manchurian Candidate; and ended with the end of the world as we knew it, borrowing heavily from Philip K. Dick and The Matrix along the way. (I say seems because the show was canceled halfway through its second season. It is possible that the apocalyptic ending was a last ditch way to conclude the show, and a great one at that, why not take the world with you.) What is frustrating about this, and may have led to the show’s demise, is that unlike most instances of “jumping the shark” the show it became was much more interesting than the show that began.

What interests me about the show is the link, the continuity, between these different genres. At the level of plot the transitions are made possible by the show’s technology, a device that makes it possible to upload or download any personality including, knowledge, skills, and memories, effectively rendering people into walking iphones with many “apps” to choose from. At the beginning of the show this technology is cumbersome, requiring people, “the dolls” or actives, to sit in a chair, but it eventually goes viral, making it possible to reprogram people at a distance. That is what connects the shows premise to its conclusion at the level of plot, but I am more interested in how the show functions at the level of the apocalyptic imaginary. What is it, besides the standard Frankenstein parable, which makes this a vision of the apocalypse?

As it has been noted elsewhere the show’s initial premise can easily be interpreted to be about exploitation. The dolls are ridiculously expensive prostitutes. They are not simply that, however, they are also the dream employees of capitalism. Skill, habits, and personalities can be uploaded and dumped. Moreover, these capacities can be developed without costly and difficult externalities, no need for schools, for research, or for urban spaces. (Although it is neverly entirely clear where they get the memories and skills of an anti-terrorism expert or dominatrix, if such knowledge is every paid for or if it is part of some high tech digital commons). When the “dolls” are not working they are the very picture of docility. They spend their days as relatively mindless drones practicing yoga, indulging in various creative pursuits, and eating healthy meals. Their dollhouse is modeled after a spa or the latest resort hotel: it is the dream of contemporary relaxation rendered as prison.

The dolls can be easily read as allegories of Paolo Virno’s interpretation of the general intellect. The term general intellect comes from the following passage in Marx:

“Nature builds no machines, no locomotives, railways, electric telegraphs, self-acting mules etc. These are the products of human industry; natural material transformed into organs of the human will over nature, or of human participation in nature. They are organs of the human brain, created by the human hand; the power of knowledge objectified [vergegenständlichte Wissenskraft]. The development of fixed capital indicates to what degree general social knowledge has become a direct force of production, and to what degree, hence, the conditions of the process of social life itself have come under the control of the general intellect and been transformed in accordance with it.”

Virno stresses that the centrality of the general intellect in the production process entails a fundamental shift in not just the structure of work but its emotional tonality as well. The general intellect has to be distinguished from the regime of abstract labor, in which the focus was on the commensurability between different types of labor, different laboring, subjects, which were rendered interchangeable. The exploitation of labor power presupposed equality as a real abstraction. This changes as knowledge, science and intellect comes to forefront of the production process. These different forms of knowledge are incommensurable. “They are not units of measure, but rather are the measureless presuppositions of heterogeneous operative possibilities.” With respect to the first “real abstraction,” abstract labor, there was always a contradiction between the ideal of equality and the reality of exploitation. The general intellect is defined not only by incommensurable forms of knowledge but also by the need for workers to constantly shift from one to another, as new jobs demand new skills and knowledges. There is no equivalence, no ground of comparison, between these different activities and skills.

Virno argues that this constant and groundless shifting produces a flexible kind of cynicism. “Cynics reach the point where they entrust their self-affirmation precisely to the multiplication (and fluidification) of hierarchies and inequalities which the unexpected centrality of production knowledge seems to entail.” The “dolls” are not even cynical because they never have to deal with incommensurability of the different types of knowledge. They never have to confront the contradiction between the affective demands of a care worker and a security worker because they are “wiped” clean each time. To quote Franco Berardi, “The worker does not exist any more as a person. He is just the interchangeable producer of microfragments of recombinant semiosis which enters into the continuous flux of the network.”

In the first season the show offers two personifications of this loss of self in the form of two anomalous characters, two dolls who cannot be wiped. They accumulate the knowledge and personalities of multiple lifetimes, becoming legion as the bible would say. The first, Alpha, loses any sense of empathy or morality, becoming a bad reading of Nietzsche's übermensch. While the second, Echo, the shows heroine, becomes the personification of the multitude, the general intellect as superhero. In the second season this loss of self is socialized, extended across all of society. The show offers an immediate image of this in terms of individuals who walk around with a necklace of “memory sticks” (the little flash drives that have become the talismans of the immaterial laborer). On these sticks are not just powerpoint presentations or term papers, but subjective capabilities, from weapons skills to mercy. All these images, and the fears and fantasies they embody, seem like various ways to cognitively map the otherwise disorienting present, which places the power of knowledge objectified not just at the center of the production process but in all of our laps.

Form matches content in this case. “Jumping the shark” is nothing other than a drastic shift in operative paradigms, a new operating system, new job, or job description. The modern cultural forms of reboots and mash-ups (zombies with Jane Austen, and so on) seems strikingly appropriate to an economy of precarity and shifts in careers. The cultural logic of late capitalism may have been pastiche and irony, but the logic of real subsumption is the mash-up.

The situation of the Dollhouse also intersects with the situation of the informatization of production in its very layout. On the bottom floor are the dolls, confined in cells and waiting to be reprogrammed with the next set of instructions. They are the ultimate machine, utterly reprogrammable; or rather, they are the brain as machine, its fundamental plasticity and neoteny put to work: they are permanent children. On the floors above are their programmers, who work in an environment reminiscent of stories of tech start-ups before the dot-com bust: informal dress and a ready supply of snack foods and games. While the dolls are completely confined, the programmers are not only free but they constantly draw from a reservoir of knowledge that is freely available: flows of knowledge that depend on confinement in order to function. (Bittorrent sites coexistence with prison like compounds producing ipods.) Above the programmers is the CEO’s office, modern wood interiors and a stocked bar. Security traverses the entire structure.

This is at least how things appear as the outset, but as the show progresses it becomes more and more clear that this vertical model, itself a kind of panopticon, is permeated by horizontal flows of power. The real power does not move from top to bottom, at least not exactly. As I wrote earlier, the dolls only appear to be at the bottom of the hierarchy, they are actually apparatuses for the capture of the dreams and fantasies of the people on the outside. This was at least the second phase of the show, Dollhouse 2.0, in which everyone and anyone could be a doll, a programmed individual, or working under the influence of a doll. It was an image of complete control; not the complete control of the dollhouse compound, which operated through the rather crude technologies of surveillance cameras but a more flexible form of control (in Deleuze’s sense) that operated on memories, desires, and fantasies. As the technology progresses, however, even this control falls apart and the final version of the show, Dollhouse 3.0, suggests a future in which the ability to reprogram anyone and everyone with ease leads to a breakdown of society.

There is thus a certain sense in which Dollhouse presents a new version of the apocalypse, one that is explicitly technological and political rather than ecological. Thus, breaking with the pattern of contemporary popular culture where the apocalypse is either ecological or sublime, unexplained. In Dollhouse the apocalypse is brought about by the excess of information over subjectivity. This is the apocalyptic vision shared by such thinkers as Bernard Stiegler who point to a breakdown of the basic conditions of subjectivation brought about by the speed of communication and new technologies. To quote Berardi again, “The great majority of humanity is subjected to the invasion of the video-electronic flux, and suffers the superimposition of digital code over the codes of recognition and of identification of reality that permeate organic cultures.” Or, to put all of this in a more mundane context, it is the nightmare scenario of various columnists and pundits who predict a fragmented blogosphere of various subcultures (tea baggers, 9/11 conspiracy believers, etc.) who are entirely programmed by their specific media. However, this vision of the apocalypse is also very old, with all of the trappings of the Mad Max films, shoulder pads and a massive armored truck. Thus, in the end, revealing how stilted our imagination of the new actually is. Or, perhaps we are more programmed than we would like to think.


John Protevi said...

Great stuff! Too much really to comment on, but I did like the mention of brain plasticity. Don't know if you know Catherine Malabou's _What Should We Do With Our Brain_ but she talks about plasticity and capitalism in there as well.

unemployed negativity said...

I have heard of the book, but have not read it. It is definitely on my list now. I have primarily approached the term through Virno.

unemployed negativity said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Mathmos said...

I have to say, that series was a disappointment, at least the first season (I didn't get farther than that).

There was some "how far will rich people go!?" hand-wringing, some "human nature is evil" triteness, some really filler-grade material about the permanency of the human soul, all of it puerile, I thought.

The last episode of the season, one of the two post-apocalyptic episodes you address, was okay, even original at times. I regret having had to sit through a whole season of Joss Whedon to get to it.

PS: Interesting when you compare the cynical neuro-geek Topher as portrayed in the pilot episode, with the nerdy man-child they opted for in the series proper. His exchange with Boyd about the programmed-ness of everyday consumers was treading potentially interesting grounds for a Fox TV show. May be why the exec extirpated him.