Saturday, July 17, 2010

"His Subconscious is Militarized": Mapping Inception

Of all of the fantastic dreamscapes that fill the screen in Inception, freight trains driving down city streets, fights in zero gravity, and cities that collapse into the sea, the most fantastic is perhaps the film’s premise. I am not referring to the idea that, through a combination of drugs and technology, people are able to enter each other’s dreams, but to the fact that in the world of the film it is supposedly easier to extract an idea than it is to plant one, the inception of the film’s title. The entire history of ideology, from those first ideologists, the priests, to the modern entertainment-military-industrial complex, would seem to testify to the contrary: it is very easy to implant ideas. However, given that the film is about just this, an attempt to implant an idea, it is possible to see the film as a narrative about the narrative articulation of ideas themselves: an idea can only be planted, can only become an inception, if it is simple enough and resonates with some kind of emotional core (I am sure that you can find those exact words in some book that claims to teach you the art of screenwriting).

Beyond this premise it is hard not to see resonances with contemporary society in this film. At its core it is a heist film. We have the first act in which the team is assembled: a group that includes, as is de rigueur, an old pro haunted by his past, who hopes to make everything right with one last job; a few new members, whose initiation will provide the necessary exposition; and a few seasoned professionals, each identified by a particular talent or skill (chemist, master of disguise, etc.). The film’s twist is what is generally makes up the background of the narrative, the obsessions and memories of the characters, are not just alluded to, but become part of the narrative as they enter each others dreams. This is especially true of Cobb (played by Leonard DiCaprio) whose absent children and dead wife have a way of showing up in the most inopportune times in the dreamwork, the latter with often deadly results.

It is worth reflecting on this dimension of the film, especially since it makes a rather drastic departure from the standard tropes of the heist film. Somewhere, I forget where, Fredric Jameson writes that the heist film is perhaps one of the few places where work, in its utopian dimension, is represented in contemporary pop culture. Heist films are about the job, the job defined not in terms of fragmentation and isolation, but in terms of a community founded in and through specialization, labor as transindividuation. There are a few directors who have made this masculine professionalism, the work of the heist, the explicit subject of their films, such as Jean-Pierre Melville and Michael Mann, and they stress just that, the professionalism of the heist, work separated from the mess of personal life. Inception is marked departure from that norm, its central character, Cobb can barely keep his life together, and the figments of his personal life show up in the middle of his work day. This of course jeopardizes the mission, but there is also the suggestion that he is good at what he does not in spite of his neuroses, but because of them. His obsession with dreams and memories makes him good at entering and manipulating the dreams of others.

In this respect it is superficially similar to Splice, another film in which work, in this case the work of genetics research, is simultaneously jeopardized and propelled by unresolved trauma. Taken together these two films can suggest a changing “affective composition” of labor. Labor is no longer marked by the rigors of professionalism, that would leave a home life separate from a work life, but is thoroughly permeated by all of one’s existence. As Nina Power writes, “From top to the bottom of the employment pool, whether one is a jobseeker being retrained for work or a CEO manipulating contacts, your bodily existence at work comes to coincide with the CV that neatly summarizes where you’ve been and how you made profitable use of your time.” This complete exposure, CV-ification of life beyond professionalization, is not without its risks. We have all heard the story of someone being fired for a facebook picture, blog post, or something on twitter. This is exactly how the scene in the film where Ariadne (Ellen Page) discovers Cobb's secret plays out: it is like she has accidentally stumbled upon some pictures on his laptop or his browser history, and wants to inform her coworkers. The work relations of the film are unavoidably personal, all too personal.

Comparisons between The Matrix and this film are unavoidable, both take place within a “consensual hallucination,” a shared dreamspace, and both have interesting innovations at the level of effects: “bullet time” in the former, and zero gravity in the latter. The Matrix was closely tied to its historical moment, the late nineties, in the way it offered an allegory of the anxieties of the early days of the internet. Everyone could go anywhere and become anything, as in the case of ultrahip avatars armed to the teeth, but surveillance was also everywhere in the form of the agents of the matrix. As I have suggested above much of the difference between these two “virtual reality” films has to do with the intimacy of the latter film, the way it breaks down any division between professional self and private self (let alone the stoic cooler than cool avatars of The Matrix) This transformation makes sense given that the internet has become all the more intimate in the ten years that separates these films: it is no longer the place where one fabricates an identity, as in the old chat rooms, but the place where one discloses one’s identity down to the most embarrassing details.

It is also possible to see a different kind of intimacy in the way in which the film deals with one of the real limits of a film set in dreams or virtual reality. One of the problems with making movies within dreams (or virtual space) is that dreams are not real and thus without consequence. There must be some sense of risk for narrative to work. The standard way to resolve this is the old “die in your dream and you die in real life.” (or die in the matrix and you die in real life) The film eschews that cliché; if you die, you wake up. This means that the real threat, the real danger is not death but harm, pain up to the limit of death. There has been a lot of discussion about torture in popular culture as of late, and there is very little of that in Inception, at least explicitly. What we get instead of torture, or the image of torture, is its generalization into the narrative of the film as a kind of biopolitics. Death is no longer an issue, but physical pain and psychic destruction are an ever-present possibility. This vulnerability is compensated for by the fact that, in the world of the film, everyone’s subconscious (the film uses this term rather than unconscious) is populated by vaguely hostile “projections.” Which can, given proper training, become militarized, rendering literal the old grafitti about a cop in everyone’s head.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film, and the one that it has the most to say, at least indirectly, about the current world is in its representation of time. Gilles Deleuze argues that montage is always an indirect image of time. Even the most clichéd montages, the training montage of the boxing/martial arts film or the falling in love montage of a romantic comedy, give us time, but time that is generally homogenous and empty, the quantitative addition of moments into a transformed situation. The standard action movie montage, the parallel action associated with D.W. Griffiths, is often based on an acceleration of cuts, and tension, that assumes a shared time. The imperiled innocent and the hero rushing to the rescue are part of the same moment, separated only by space. Inception ends with three parallel montages, three actions that must be carried out in order for the mission to succeed, but they take place within different temporalities. In the film, dream time is more intense (the brain is working faster) and thus faster than waking time, five minutes in the waking world equals an hour in the dream. The rate of time speeds up at deeper levels of dreams, in the dreams within dreams, so much so that a few hours of waking can become years in dream time. Thus, in the final moments of the film, the action cuts between three different temporalities all of which are happening at different rates, a siege of a mountain fortress takes as much time as a van falling off of a bridge. (The film incorporates two common aspects of dreams: the difference of time, a short nap can produce a dream that seems to last for hours, and that dreams are always in media res, in the middle of things, without a clear beginning.)

This disjunct temporality, which is visually compelling, becomes all the more interesting viewed through the narrative of the film itself. The final third of the film, the heist itself, all takes place on a Sydney to Los Angeles flight. Such a flight is necessary for the team to knock out, through drugs, their target, or mark, long enough to enter his dream space in order to plant the idea. At the same time, or almost, their “inception” will provoke the sponsor of their heist to make an important phone call, a phone call which will transform the legal status through a kind of incorporeal transformation. The disjunct temporality within the dream time, is reflected in the much more mundane disjunctions in every day time, in which a phone call can travel exponentially faster than a jumbo jet. (The setting in the trans-Pacific flight also draws together the unavoidable biological passivity of sleep with the modern waiting of flight, a time spent disconnected from cellphones, smartphones, and the internet: a period of interminable waiting for the modern business class who never move as fast as capital). We live not in one time, but in multiple times, multiple times which no longer add up to a unified present. The question "what time is it there?" carries more weight than we tend to think. Here the film’s different locales, the globetrotting that is required of a spy movies, Kyoto, Paris, and Marrakech, all of which are situated in their different historical moments, as parts of a disjunct world where bullet trains coexist with street cafes, and the walls of medieval cities. All of which brings to mind Louis Althusser’s critique of the homogeneity of historical time, the Hegelian moment where everything coexists in one essential contradiction. Against this it is necessary to think of the differential history, the coexistence of different times, of what could be called a past, present, and future existing all at once (although Althusser rejects those terms as well, since they suggest a standard time, a normal present from which things could be identified as past). As Althusser writes, “The specificity of these times and histories is therefore differential, since it is based on the differential relations between the different levels within the whole: the mode and degree of independence of each time and history is therefore necessarily determined by the mode and degree of dependence of each level within the set of articulations of the whole.” One could take this further, given the narrative of the film, and suggest that subjectivity, the stuff of neuroses and obsessions move at a rate that is much slower than the technological and political transformations of the world. Or, more to the point, at the exact moment that the film tries to represent absolute interiority, the different subjective times of dreaming, it actually gives us absolute exteriority, the coexistence of different rates of time that define postmodern existence. Its failures are its successes, which is the best that one could expect from a Hollywood film.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Composition and Decomposition of the Radical Imagination: Remarks on Class Composition

Of all the various concepts, innovations, and interventions of “autonomist Marxism,” perhaps the most well known is the so-called autonomist hypothesis. This idea, first developed by Mario Tronti, and publicized by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, fundamentally argued that resistance precedes and prefigures exploitation. Tronti initially proposed this as a way of making sense of capitalism, where it was a kind of Copernican revolution: rather than begin with capital, understanding its structures and demands, the idea was to begin with the working class, with resistance to capital. (Despite the fact the Copernicus, and by extension Kant, is often used to make sense of this transformation, Tronti’s real point of reference, the one that he opens the book with, is the transition from Newton to Einstein, the fixity of laws versus the relativity of forces). Tronti’s thesis, which was first applied to an understanding of capitalism, has been expanded and generalized into an ontological principle. First, by Deleuze and Guattari, who smuggled Tronti’s thesis into the footnotes of A Thousand Plateaus, making it into a general point of opposition between their work and Foucault: “the diagram and abstract machine have lines of flight that are primary, which are not phenomena of resistance or counterattack, but cutting edges of creation…” Hardt and Negri’s reversal, in which the multitude must be seen to be at the basis of empire, follows both Tront’s specific use and Deleuze and Guattari’s general ontology.

What is worth noting is that there is a certain sense in which the Anglo American philosophical scene was particularly ready for this particular Italian import. The question of “resistance” was everywhere, at least everywhere in the Academy, during the last decades of the twentieth century. At graduate seminars and conferences the question was asked, often in response to a discussion of Foucault, “What about resistance?” The autonomist hypothesis arrived, cleansed of its militant origins (Tronti’s book has yet to be translated into English), to answer the question.

There is another element of autonomist thought, which has recently popped up in a few books. First, Franco Berardi has preferred to describe autonomist thought as compositionism. His point, at least in The Soul at Work, is to present this work as a third position, opposed to both Frankfurt School and Sartrean emphasis on alienation and the theoretical anti-humanism of Althusser. Compositionalism treats estrangement as a historical fact, rooted in the contemporary production process, but sees in this not the loss of some “laboring essence” but the positivity of refusal. As Berardi writes:

“Compositionalism overturns the issue implicit in the question of alienation. It is precisely thanks to the radical inhumanity of the workers’ existence that a human collectivity can be founded, a community no longer dependent on capital. It is indeed the estrangement of workers from their labor, the feeling of alienation and its refusal, that are the bases for a human collectivity autonomous from capital.”

The strategy of refusal, and with it the primacy of resistance, has to be placed in relation to the composition, to class composition, constituting a warp and weave of creation and containment.

All of which is something of a preamble to a brief discussion of Stevphen Shukaitis’ Imaginal Machines: Autonomy and Self-Organization in the Revolutions of Everyday Life.

“While it is difficult to treat class composition analysis as a coherent and unified whole, it is marked by several distinct characteristics. Notable among these is the consideration of class not as an immutable fixed identity, but as a constantly evolving form of social relations expressed through technical and political composition. Technical composition involves particular forms of labor that exist in a historical situation, while political composition expresses the formation of the working class as an evolving historical entity which develops through solidarity created through its struggle against capitalism.”

Shukaitis adds something crucial to this diagram, which makes up the bulk of his examination into the imagination, and that is the aesthetic dimension. Aesthetics is understood here not in the rarefied sense of the beautiful and the sublime, but in the much more fundamental and everyday sense of the way in which people experience, make sense of, and imagine their world. Aesthetics is then closely related to affects in the sense developed by Spinoza and Deleuze. It is necessary to discuss not just the technical composition of labor, the machines and division of labor, and the political compositon, the structures and institutions, from unions to parties, that workers use to express their interests, but also the aesthetic/affective dimension, how people perceive their work and lives, and what they see as possible. (This aesthetic/affective dimension is close to some of the work Rancière has done on the “distribution of the sensible” and Lazzarato’s work on the aesthetics of belief and subjectivity). Shukaitis has some great passages on the aesthetics of punk and the imagination of outer space in Sun Ra and other groups.

Shukaitis’ addition of aesthetics and affects to class composition is an important suggestion, one that opens up new lines of examination. (Berardi’s work on depression and economic uncertainty comes to mind) However, it also would seem to suggest the necessity of moving beyond the standard dualism of composition and decomposition, of the constitution or destruction of the working class. As I have suggested elsewhere on this blog, it is necessary to consider the antagonistic dimensions of class composition, that there are at least two classes being composed. As Shukaitis argues, in a chapter on the politics of precarity, experience and concept of precarity has not produced the same sort of mass mobilization in the US as it has in Europe. This is in part due to political and economic factors: the US has never had some of the same labor protections that are common place in Europe, protections that are themselves the effects of past struggles. However, it also seems that there is a strong aesthetic/affective dimension to this as well. Individualism and self-reliance are so much apart of the American political imaginary, an imaginary that is replenished daily, that it is difficult to imagine how people could ever turn precariousness, the economic norm of temporary and uncertain jobs (jobs which include access to health care and other resources) into the conditions for mobilization.

Thus, it might be possible to argue for a certain predominance of the aesthetic/affective domain in making sense of politics, a dominance that follows the shift in technology, from production to simulation, and labor. It is not enough to ask what are the technological and political conditions of labor, one must also ask what are the affective and aesthetic conditions: how is it experienced and what do people think is possible? How else can one even begin to make sense of a country where the working class fantasizes about tax cuts while losing unemployment benefits?

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Confessions of Minerva’s Owl: Notes on Jameson’s The Hegel Variations

Any interpretation of Hegel is its own time comprehended in thought, this little twist on Hegel’s famous dictum perhaps best describes Jameson’s little book on Hegel. This little book, mostly focused on the Phenomenology of Spirit, follows The Valences of the Dialectic and precedes a recently announced book on Capital: Volume One. Taken together the three constitute something of a return to first principles by Jameson, a return to the fundamental sources of his thought after a lifetime of combining Marx, Hegel, and the dialectic to analyze everything from architecture to science fiction novels. The brevity of this recent book is especially welcome, it reads more like a lecture, or a conversation even, than a full on book.

As much as the Hegel book constitutes a kind of fundamental, and delayed, return to first principles, it is founded, as I have already suggested, on the fundamental idea that any rereading of Hegel will necessarily confront the specters of Hegelianism: the critique of teleology, totality, and idealism that have rendered “Hegelian” an epithet more than a description. Jameson restrains much of his “shotgun style” of writing, in which a given paragraph might include remarks on Wal-mart, the general intellect, and the utopian dimension of popular culture, in order to focus on particular passages from Hegel’s text. Which is not to say that this is an attempt at some kind of immediate grasp of what Hegel “really meant,” independent of reference and shifting context, just that these references are sparse, limited to the works that have framed Hegel, Kant, Fichte, and Schiller, and Hegelianism, Kojève, Lukacs, and Honneth. Jameson recognizes that Hegel comes to us as always already read, and thus any new reading will be in some sense a negation of a reified image of Hegel. To cite Hegel himself on this matter (in a passage that Jameson refers to often, albeit not in this particular monograph):

The manner of study in ancient times differed from that of the modern age in that the former was the proper and complete formation of natural consciousness. Putting itself to a test at every point of its existence, and philosophizing about everything that it came across it made itself into a universality that was active through and through. In modern times, however, the individual finds the abstract form ready-made; the effort to grasp and appropriate it is more the direct driving forth of what is within and the truncated generation of the universal than it is the emergence of the latter from the concrete variety of existence. Hence the task nowadays consists not so much in purging the individual of an immediate, sensuous mode of apprehension, and making him into a substance that is an object of thought and that thinks, but rather in just the opposite, in freeing determinate thoughts from their fixity so as to give actuality to the universal, and impart to it spiritual life. (Phenomenology of Spirit ¶33.)

As such Jameson’s intervention is at once a transformation of Hegel and a reexamination of what his thought might mean for us today: how we view Hegel and how Hegel views us. Its particular, and focused, sites of intervention are the dialectic, collectivity, and the master/slave relation; in this case the last is understood less as a particular stage of the Phenomenology than as a particular staging of the conflict between materialism (work, action, the body) and idealism (recognition) as well as a general reflection on the meaning of the revolution against feudalism.

It is possible to say that every reading of Hegel necessarily takes up a position on the dialectic itself. First and foremost Jameson’s particular intervention/interpretation takes aim at the schema of thesis/antithesis/synthesis, stressing that not only does Hegel never use such schematic language, but more to the point, such a schema produces a kind of rigidity that the dialectical thinking is meant to fundamentally destroy. The task of the dialectic is then “to think without positive terms,” to not so much resolve oppositions into some higher order, but to constantly think between two terms, between relation and contradiction. Of course this is a sentiment that one hears a lot about Hegel, what makes it interesting in Jameson’s case is the particular way in which he reads the opening passages of the Phenomenology. For Jameson the opening chapters of the Phenomenology, most notably “sense certainty,” are to be read less as stages in some kind of progression towards Spirit than they are dialectical destructions of the eternal temptations for thought, the common sense and everyday priority of things over relations. The dialectic is less a teleological progression towards some sort absolute than an eternal battle against reification: against the primacy of things and the tendency to posit concepts as things, what Hegel called Verstand (understanding).

This sets up a tension between positing (not in the technical Hegelian sense) actual claims about reality and the necessary dialectical subversion of such claims. Jameson demonstrates this with respect to one of the boldest points he makes with respect to collectivity:

“Yes, Spirit is the collective, but we must not call it that, owing to the reification of language, owing to the positivities of the philosophical terms or names themselves, which restore precisely that empirical common-sense ideology it was the very vocation of the dialectic to destroy in the first place. To name the social is to make it over into a thing or an empirical entity, just as to celebrate its objectivity in the face of idealistic subjectivism is to reestablish the old subject-object opposition which was to have been done away with.”

As much as Jameson makes this assertion it is immediately subject to the necessary dialectical problematization through subsequent oppositions and tensions. (One of the subtexts of Jameson’s books is that it more or less argues for the superiority of the Phenomenology; a superiority that is not founded on the old opposition between dialectic form and Prussian authoritarian content, but on the unresolved nature of the phenomenology: its tendency to combine philosophical problems with historical events, fundamental problems of subjectivity with literary analysis.) The preponderance of collectivity makes an appearance twice in Jameson’s reading of Hegel. The first is in the section on sense certainy, in which attempt to give voice to the irreducible particularity of senses ends up speaking the universal. “Language is thus already a symbolic apprenticeship of Spirit as a collective reality beyond the individual; and even personal or private expression necessarily takes place within an already established collective framework and as a reaction against it.” However, that is not the only point at which the individual is made part of the collective, work does the same thing. This is a point that Hegel makes most strongly in the Philosophy of Right, but it makes its appearance in the Phenomenology as well in the labor of the bondsman and the work of culture. In work my concern with the matter at hand necessarily exceeds itself, as what I produce becomes a concern for others.

These different universalizations, different senses of collective, one founded by language and another by work, return us to the dualisms that define Hegel’s reception: idealism, materialism; superstructure and base; and master and slave. Jameson does not so much place Kojève’s reading of this final pair, master and slave, at the center of his understanding of Hegel, but recognizes that Kojève’s reading constitutes an unavoidable mediation of our reception of Hegel. As Jameson notes, with respect to the “master/slave” one splits into two: the master and slave dialectic gives us two dialectics, two recognitions, one based on the intersubjective recognition of individual to individual, and another recognition based on the slave’s recognition of self in the work of production. These two, or really three recognitions (the third being the recognition of self in political institutions that makes up much of Hegel’s philosophy), structure the post-revolutionary bourgeois world: we have the recognition of self by self in a world no longer defined by aristocracy, by official differences of birth; we have the recognition of the individual in the institutions and laws that defines democracy, these laws are supposed to be nothing other than the will of the people; and finally we have the recognition of the self in the world of work and consumption. (Although this final dialectic also splits into work and consumption, into the two sides of the commodity; one which presents us with alienation, the other with recognition, if not the constitution of identity). These three “recognitions” stretch the meaning of term, not to mention the dialectic itself, as they come into conflict. As Jameson defines the contemporary political situation:

“It is thus scarcely a distortion to posit the humanized world of consumer society as that externalization in which the subject can find itself most completely objectified and yet most completely itself. The contradiction begins to appear when we set this cultural dimension alongside the legal and political levels of late capitalism: for it is with these that the Kantian ethical citizen ought to identify himself, according to the theory, and in these that he ought to be able to recognize his own subjectivity and the traces of his own production. But this is precisely what does not obtain today; where so many people feel powerless in the face of the objective institutions which constitute their world, and in which they are so far from identifying that legal and political world as their own doing and their own production.”

There are suggestive remarks here about the current situation of late capitalism: in which people recognize themselves in the commodities they consume more than the laws and institutions that are supposedly based on their consent. (Of course it is worth noting that these laws and institutions often serve the corporations that produce the friendly egalitarian images that one identifies with). This is Jameson’s explanation of What is the Matter with Kansas? (Or, as Jameson puts it, “It is permitted to be wealthy, as long as the rich man is as vulgar as everyone else.”) However, such an interpretation remark is as limited as it is suggestive. Overall Jameson’s strategy is to combine the Maoist “one divides into two” with “two fuse into one”: Hegel’s recognition divides into two, perhaps three, recognitions; while Hegel is constantly being fused back into Marx.