Sunday, September 25, 2016

SignsTaken For Desires: Capitalism and Representation

Illustration of The Penal Colony

In the recently published Dans la Disruption Bernard Stiegler writes,

"An epoch is always a specific configuration of libidinal economy around which is constitute as an ensemble of tertiary retentions (that is to say technical support of collective retentions) formed by their apparatus a new technical system which is also a retentional apparatus." 

Without going into all of the specifics of Stiegler's thought it seems to me significant that he draws together two points: an epoch is defined by a particular regime of desire and a particular technical apparatus of memory. This is significant because it seems to me, in a rough nutshell, precisely what Deleuze and Guattari were saying in Anti-Oedipus. I state this now not to state that Stiegler is unoriginal. Although it is worth adding in an author who so often cites his sources, or tertiary retentions, devoting long passages in his books to readings of Heidegger, Marcuse, Kant, etc., Deleuze and Guattari are scantly mentioned. My point is not to reduce Stiegler to what Deleuze and Guattari already said, but to briefly use Stiegler to reexamine what Deleuze and Guattari wrote. Anti-Oedipus is a text that I come back to again and again, struck by its insight into what I see as a central problem of contemporary thought, the intersection between the mode of production and the production of subjectivity, to use the parlance of our times (classical Marxist name of this problem is base and superstructure, or, in its Spinozist variant, the order and connection of ideas and things) and it is also a text that I do not recognize in the various attempts to claim it as accelerationist, affirmative, or whatever the latest trend might be. 

Stiegler's assertion that every epoch is a libidinal economy and an apparatus of retention brings to mind an aspect of Deleuze and Guattari's text that I have not known what to do with, that is the way in which every section, every social machine, appears with its own regime of representation. These regimes of representation, savage, barbarian, and capitalist, are a different technology, a different way of inscribing, and a different way of interpreting, a how and a what, or, to use the terms that Deleuze and Guattari will use in Mille Plateau, to  develop a kind of pragmatics, a form of expression and a form of content.

It would be difficult to sum up the various regimes of representation quickly. In Deleuze and Guattari's it all begins with blood and cruelty, with an immense mnemotechnics that gives rise to a memory (This is their Nietzscheanism) In order for something to be exchanged, for pain to pay a debt, they must first be rendered equivalent. This is followed by the writing of barbarian machine, overcoding the sign marked in the flesh with the word on paper, with the question of meaning.

"If we call the order of representation in a social system a plane of consistency, it is evident that this plane has changed, that it has become a plane of subordination and no longer one of connotation. And here, in the second place, is the essential: the flattening of the graphy onto the voice has made transcendent object jump outside the chain--a mute voice on which the whole chain seems to depend, and in relation to which it becomes linearized...It is perhaps at this juncture that the question "what does it mean?" begins to be heard, and that problems of exegesis prevail over problems of use and efficacy."

This despotic overcoding, the interlinking questions of meaning and authority, is a very different figure of literacy than the one put forward by Stiegler. In a word, or name, it is a difference between Kant and Kafka. For Stiegler, literacy, the spread of reading and writing, is the precondition of the citizen, the reader of the law and the writer of a new interpretation. For Deleuze and Guattari the prime example of the public use of reason is more "The Problem with Our Laws" than "What is Enlightenment." Reading is not the precondition of an active interpretation but of a subordination to a meaning that is always elsewhere and illusive. Deleuze and Guattari are not republicans, have no nostalgia for any republic of readers and writers, seeing the transcendence of meaning that underlies any reading. Original intent is a despotic function.

Deleuze and Guattari also differ from Stiegler in how they understand the demise of meaning in capitalism. For Stiegler it comes with the cultural industry, with the shift from writing to the temporal objects of television, film, and internet, all of which program consciousness. For Deleuze and Guattari capital's assault on meaning is to be found in all industry, not just the culture industry. Capital replaces the codes, the beliefs and interpretations that make up culture, with axioms, with quantitative relations between quantities, labor power and a wage. Nothing means, anything, or needs to, what matters is only that the axioms are in place. Axioms are without meaning or memory, they are externalized in the social and technical machines In Anti-Oedipus Deleuze and Guattari add to this a few lines about art and culture and capitalism, focusing on the way in which signification exists only the intersection of fluxes of content and expression. The lines in this section begin to set up the terms of content and expression that become central in A Thousand Plateaus. 

I am not sure where I am going with this, I have honestly found the stuff on regime of signs in A Thousand Plateaus some of the least interesting stuff. Now, however, I am tempted to say if read transversally, along with the passages of "mode of representation" in Anti-Oedipus, it is possible to see a basis of a materialism of representation, that does not, as in the case of Stiegler, rest entirely on the medium, on the transition from writing to images, but places the medium within the larger economic and political machines. Moreover, the question of the sign, of signification, makes it possible to read not only the two volumes of capitalism and schizophrenia together, but could expand into a reconsideration of the cinema books as well. 

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