Archive for the ‘Age of Aesthetics’ Category

Capitalism, Consumerism, and Waste

Monday, July 21st, 2008

No system of exploitation is ever total, just as no machine is ever one hundred per cent efficient. There is always some friction, some entropy, some dissipation of heat. In every process of transformation, some energy is lost. And this is true of capitalism as well. When social production is organized and appropriated by the monstrous body of Capital, Deleuze and Guattari say, then “a part of the libido as energy of production [i]s transformed into energy of recording (Numen)”; and again, whenever some of the circulated social product is consumed, “a part of this energy of recording is transformed into energy of consummation (Voluptas).” The crucial point, in both cases, is that only “a part” of the energy can be carried over from one form to another. The rest is lost. This sets a limit upon the overall accumulation of capital.

As Georges Bataille reminds us, non-capitalist economies often value and celebrate the very experience of loss, so that economic waste becomes a source of non-economic authority, power, or prestige. But capitalism rejects the logic of “unproductive expenditure,” and seeks instead to overcome this loss, or at least to reduce it to a minimum. Neoclassical economists fetishize efficiency, and construct idealized mathematical models from which all waste and friction have been magically eliminated. And in practice, capitalist innovation is largely driven by the compulsion to abolish waste, and to exploit every last bit of potential. Under the threat of competition, businesses are always trying to squeeze more out of the connective synthesis of production, to appropriate a greater portion of its energies. They accomplish this by increasing the productivity of labor: that is to say, by intensifying the extraction of what Marx calls relative surplus value. But of course, no matter how far this process is carried, full efficiency is never achieved. There is always something lost, and therefore always room for further intensification and further savings.

The disjunctive synthesis of recording also involves a necessary loss. This comes in the form of what Marx calls the faux frais of the circulation process. There will always be some “cost of circulation, which does not add anything to the values converted,” but rather “means a deduction from the product.” Now, Marx himself has great difficulty in determining just which activities in the sphere of circulation entail such a loss, and which are in fact productive (value-adding). And we may well agree with Jonathan Beller that, in the age of communicative or aesthetic capitalism, “the circulation of capital” must itself be “grasped simultaneously as productive and exploitative,” involving the direct extraction of surplus value every bit as much as production proper does. Nonetheless, this does not suffice to eliminate the faux frais of “storage costs, maintenance costs, protection costs, interest on capital etc., without counting the waste and spoiling which nearly all commodities suffer when they are inactive for long.” Neither bookkeeping, nor the storing of unsold inventory, nor anti-theft protection is costless — even though these practices may well serve to protect against other, greater costs. In circulation and distribution, no less than in production, some value is always leaking away, subtracting itself from the divine energy (Numen) of “self-valorizing” capital.

Energy is also dissipated in the conjunctive synthesis of consumption. In theory, wage laborers under capitalism should only receive the minimal income that is needed to replenish their expenditure of labor power, and reproduce their conditions of existence — so that they are available to work for another day. But as Marx notes, these conditions of existence are themselves historically variable: “the number and extent of [the worker's] so-called necessary requirements, as also the manner in which they are satisfied, are themselves products of history, and depend therefore to a great extent on the level of civilization attained by a country.” For instance, in the developed world today, things like televisions and mobile phones — not to mention toilet bowls, and toilet brushes to clean them — are included in the “means of subsistence” that workers receive in exchange for the sale of their labor-power. (This is one area in which union activity, and other forms of so-called “reformist” political activity, do indeed have concrete, observable effects upon the quality of people’s lives). In any capitalist society, the level of replenishment, or the excess of historically determined “necessary requirements” over literal bare subsistence, must be marked as an unavoidable deduction from the accumulation of capital.

Another way to put this is to note that workers are also consumers. As Kojin Karatani puts it, capitalism’s alienation of its workers, and its consequent “separation between the spheres of production and marketing,” leads to a situation in which “laborers are totally equal to consumers… It is not that individual workers buy the very same things that they produce, but that in totality… laborers qua consumers buy what they produce.” One result of this identification is a displacement of attention from production to consumption, leading to “the illusion of the consumer subject that plays a major role in consumer society.” By privileging consumption, neoclassical economics elides the labor process altogether. It ignores questions of the organization of production (connective synthesis) and of the allocation of resources (disjunctive synthesis). Instead, it focuses exclusively upon the individual consumer’s “preferences” and “choices” under conditions of supposed scarcity. (Deleuze and Guattari would call this a “segregative and biunivocal” use of the conjunctive synthesis). In this way, neoclassical economics makes considerations of efficiency mandatory; and it renders both exploitation and waste literally unthinkable. Within the neoclassical framework, there is no way to conceptualize them at all.

Nonetheless, consumerism is not a mere ideology. It would be wrong to say, as old-fashioned Marxists sometimes used to do, that we are “really” workers rather than consumers. Rather, these two functions are always intertwined. Consumerism is an “objective” illusion, one that effectively functions, and has actual consequences, in our everyday lives. The prospect of dissipation through consumption is a necessary compensation for the tedium of productive labor. As workers, we are almost entirely constrained. We have to continue working, just in order to survive; and we have to obey the orders we receive in the workplace. And even though we acquiesce in these harsh conditions, the surplus of our productive activity is still stolen from us. There is nothing uplifting or liberating about productive industrial (or, for that matter, post-industrial) labor; which is why the old-line Marxist (Stalinist or Stakhanovite) glorification of the “heroic worker” is so ludicrous and grotesque. If this were all, then wage labor would be little different from slavery. And indeed, David Graeber precisely argues that “industrial capitalism [i]s an introjected form of the slave mode of production… what one buys when one buys a slave is the sheer capacity to work, which is also what an employer acquires when he hires a laborer. It’s of course this relation of command which causes free people in most societies to see wage-labor as analogous to slavery, and hence, to try as much as possible to avoid it.”

But this is only one side of the story. Deleuze and Guattari say that, when we return to the scene of production as consumers, we are given a sort of compensation or bribe: we recover a “residual share” of the surplus that was stolen from us in the first place. There is always a “residual energy” returning to us in the form of enjoyment: a “residual share [une part residuelle],” a “recompense [un salaire],” a “reward [une prime].” There is always “a share [une partie] that falls to the subject as a part of a whole, income [un revenu] that comes its way as something left over” — however feeble and inadequate this sum may be. Indeed, Deleuze and Guattari suggest that the subject per se is most accurately “defined by the share of the product it takes for itself [la part qu'il prend au produit], garnering here, there, and everywhere a reward [la prime] in the form of a becoming or an avatar, being born of the states that it consumes and being reborn with each new state.” The subject, so defined, has “no ego in the center”; it is “nothing but a series of singularities… collecting everywhere the fraudulent premium [la prime frauduleuse] of its avatars.”

It is no accident that Deleuze and Guattari’s terms for describing this subject are primarily economic ones, referring neither to wages nor to “profit of enterprise,” but to revenue derived from the ownership of property (interest or dividends). The subject of the conjunctive synthesis (the “schizo”) is a sort of rentier: not a prosperous one, but a pathetic figure of faded grandeur, such as we might find in the pages of Balzac, who barely ekes out a living from his various sources of income. Of course, the overwhelming majority of wage earners are not actually property holders even in this limited sense (except to the extent that the more fortunate among them might have paid off the mortgages on their homes, or might have saved some residues of their earnings in pension funds invested in stock and real estate). But Deleuze and Guattari seek to emphasize the radical incommensurability between the roles of worker and consumer, even though the same people are usually both. We are forced, as Karatani says, to buy back as consumers the very goods that we initially created as producers, and that were taken away from us. This “alienation” is the reason why my subjective jouissance as a consumer has nothing to do with my objectified toil as a producer. I do not consume in the same way that I produce. Even the money that I spend wastefully and gleefully, as a consumer, on (as Deleuze and Guattari say) “an imposed range of products (‘which I have a right to, which are my due, so they’re mine’)” seems utterly disconnected from the money that I earn painfully in wages or salary — despite the fact that it is, of course, exactly the “same” money. It is only, and precisely, in such a climate of disconnection that “acts of consumption” can be exalted as our only possible “expressions of freedom.” Or, as Graeber puts it, “rather than one class of people being able to imagine themselves as absolutely `free’ because others are absolutely unfree,” as was the case under slavery, in consumer capitalism “we have the same individuals moving back and forth between these two positions over the course of the week and working day.”

Finally, this crazed consumerism is the way that the capitalist mode of production manages a loss that it incessantly disavows, but that it cannot actually escape. Unproductive expenditure may well be the very point of the conjunctive synthesis of consumption. For this synthesis continually exempts or extracts something from the otherwise infinite processes of production and circulation. It provides a terminus for the otherwise aimless and limitless movement of the valorization of capital. For the conjunctive synthesis marks the point at which the circuits of money and commodities (C-M-C and M-C-M’) are broken, so that exchange comes to a momentary end. In the residual subject’s jouissance, the commodity is withdrawn from circulation, in order to be used up or destroyed. The conjunctive synthesis thereby deducts something from capital accumulation. And yet, without this synthesis and its deductions, the capitalist economy could not function at all. As Marx and Engels tell us, even in the ‘normal’ situation of bourgeois society, “a great part not only of the existing products, but also of the previously created productive forces, are periodically destroyed.” Or, as David Harvey puts it, since capital is always in danger of being choked by overproduction and overaccumulation, it must continually resort to “violent paroxysms” of “the devaluation, depreciation, and destruction of capital.” Specifically, this is what happens on a major scale in moments of economic crisis. But on a minor or “molecular” level, the conjunctive subject or consumer is itself always in crisis — and it can only alleviate this situation by indulging in another round of shopping, purchasing, and consuming.

The Problem of Taste

Tuesday, July 15th, 2008

When we are free only as consumers, the market replaces all other forms of contestation and valuation. Conflicts that might have been resolved at other times through violence and coercion, or consensus and negotiation, or voting, or other political processes, are now adjudicated entirely through cost-benefit analysis and the mechanism of prices. This also means that the only form of judgment is aesthetic judgment. Questions of empirical fact and of the understanding (Kant’s First Critique), together with questions of morality (the Second Critique), are displaced into questions of taste (the Third Critique). And since questions of taste have no objective basis, they can only be resolved by seeing how the sum of individual choices plays out in the marketplace. It could scarcely be otherwise, once we assume, with Virginial Postrel, that the market can provide for everybody’s wants, and that we can simply “look away from the stuff we don’t like.”

However, the great fantasy of market adjudication rests on what Kant would call a paralogism. Kant cites two great “commonplaces about taste”: first, that “everyone has his own taste”; and second, that “there is no disputing about taste.” These would seem to go along with the premises of free-market theory. But Kant goes on to tell us that aesthetics is not merely subjective; it is about more than just personal preferences. Indeed, for Kant, a question of mere preferences, like my choice between vanilla and chocolate ice cream, isn’t really an aesthetic question at all. The difficulty of aesthetic judgment comes from the fact that we demand “other people’s necessary assent” to our aesthetic claims — even though we also know that these claims have no objective basis. My aesthetic judgments are irreducibly singular, but at the same time they appeal to a sensus communis. Although they are groundless, they are “put forward as having general validity (as being public)” — they are never merely a private matter. The result, Kant says, is that we continue to quarrel about taste, even though we know we cannot dispute over it.

The difference between disputing and quarreling, Kant says, is that, in the case of disputing, “we hope to produce\ldots agreement according to determinate concepts, by basing a proof on them, so that we assume that the judgment is based on objective concepts.” That is to say, disputes can be adjudicated by reference either to facts, or to agreed-upon norms. But quarrels cannot be resolved in such a way. They are indeterminate, irreducible, and without higher appeal. They offer no built-in path of reconciliation. This is precisely why Postrel counsels us to “look away” from our aesthetic disagreements, instead of continuing to argue about them. And yet, such arguing never goes away. Even as atomized consumers, we do continue to quarrel over our tastes — “and rightly so,” as Kant remarks. We must quarrel, because our aesthetic judgments, however singular and ungrounded they may be, are nonetheless public and communicable. Every expression of aesthetic taste thus makes the presumption that society does indeed exist, and that it is more than just an agglomeration of “individuals and families.” Aesthetically considered, the social is not a matter of identities, but one of differences and singularities. It is guaranteed, not by any supposed norms of “communicative reason,” but by the very fact that we quarrel in the absence of such norms.

The upshot of all this is that the question of “taste” remains a problem for the aesthetic capitalism that is premised upon satisfying it for everybody. In spite of personal differences and ostensible market indifference, not all tastes are equal. Some tastes are in fact more socially prestigious — today we would say cooler — than others. Veblen long ago remarked that social judgments of taste involve “invidious” distinctions. Today, Scott Westerfeld, in his novel So Yesterday, reminds us that “most people aren’t cool,” and “will never be cool,” no matter how avidly and expensively they consume — and the way they dress proves it. Even that great democrat Andy Warhol, who claims that “I never met a person I couldn’t call a beauty,” nonetheless finds some expressions of taste interesting, and others just corny. “When I see people dressed in hideous clothes that look all wrong on them, I try to imagine the moment when they were buying them and thought, ‘This is great. I like it. I’ll take it.’ You can’t imagine what went off in their heads to make them buy those maroon polyester waffle-iron pants or that acrylic halter top that has ‘Miami’ written in glitter. You wonder what they rejected as not beautiful — an acrylic halter top that had ‘Chicago’?”

The Third (Conjunctive) Synthesis

Monday, July 14th, 2008

The connective synthesis of production is presubjective or transsubjective; the disjunctive synthesis of recording is estranging and asubjective. It is only in the third synthesis, the conjunctive synthesis of consumption, that “something on the order of a subject can be discerned” for the first time. This subject is not the traditional philosophical one. It is too insubstantial, too fleeting and transitory. It emerges abruptly and unexpectedly; and it dissolves just as quickly. When feeling swells beyond a certain point, so that a threshold is crossed, a subject is precipitated into existence. It comes forth with an exhilarating cry: “So that’s what it was… So it’s me! … It’s me, and so it’s mine…” Describing the jubilation of this me, Deleuze and Guattari replace the Cartesian cogito with a more fundamental sentio: “the basic phenomenon of hallucination (I see, I hear) and the basic phenomenon of delirium (I think…) presuppose an I feel on an even deeper level, which gives hallucinations their object and thought delirium its content.” Descartes’ cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”) is a logical deduction, giving rise to a necessary, eternal truth: my act of thinking proves that I really exist. But Deleuze and Guattari’s sentio ergo sum (“I feel, therefore I am”) registers a contingent, ephemeral process of emergence: I only exist to the extent that I feel, and in the very instant that I feel. The subject is not a stable, persistent entity, but a momentary flash of self-enjoyment, an ecstatic tremor of jouissance.

The subject of the conjunctive synthesis is therefore “a strange subject\ldots with no fixed identity, wandering about over the body without organs, but always remaining peripheral to the desiring-machines.” That is to say, this subject is a product of its experiences, rather than being their ground or their precondition. Here Deleuze and Guattari are thinking less of Descartes than of Kant, whose formulations they both extend and invert. In Kant’s subtle revision of Cartesianism, the cogito no longer refers to a substantial entity. Instead, it designates a formal condition of all experience, “the original synthetic unity of apperception.” Kant says that my various experiences hang together by virtue of the fact that I am able, at least in principle, to claim them all as mine. No matter what particular “ideas” or “presentations” fill my mind, and no matter what I perceive or feel, “the I think must be capable of accompanying all my presentations.” This cogito need not refer to a thinking substance, as it does in Descartes. It need not even imply an actual psychological process; the possibility of there being such a process is enough. My presentations still necessarily belong to me, “even if I am not conscious of them as being mine.” The formal possibility of adding an I think to the contents of my thought, whatever they may be, is thus the basis for the “synthesis” of “everything manifold in intuition” into a “thoroughgoing identity.” This “combination” of presentations into a conjunctive unity is something that “cannot be given through objects, but — being an act of the subject’s self-activity — can be performed only by the subject himself.”

For Deleuze and Guattari, in contrast, the subject is the outcome of the conjunctive synthesis, rather than its underlying principle. It is not what drives the synthesis, but what gets synthesized. “For Kant, the world emerges from the subject”; but for Deleuze and Guattari, as for Whitehead, “the subject emerges from the world.” The conjunctive synthesis is therefore not a fait accompli, but a process that needs to be renewed at every moment. Experience first happens, as it were, without me; it is only afterwards that I am able to claim it as “mine.” And my sense of being a “self” is not the basis for this claim, but rather a consequence of it. The I think — or better, the I feel — indeed accompanies each of my presentations; but for Deleuze and Guattari, this means that it comes after them, emerges from each of them, and extracts “a residual share” of their content as a sort of “recompense” for its perpetual dispossession. The subject is a supplement, a marginal epiphenomenon, a “mere residuum.” It is “a spare part adjacent to the machine,” a byproduct of processes that both precede it and go beyond it. It remains “peripheral” to the breaks and flows of the connective synthesis of production, even though it is impelled by the energy of these breaks and flows. And it is continually displaced along the “fluid and slippery” surfaces of the disjunctive synthesis of distribution, even as it “can situate itself only in terms of the[se] disjunctions.” The subject of the conjunctive synthesis neither makes anything, nor accumulates anything. All it can do is consume, dissipating both its objects and itself in a process somewhat like what Georges Bataille calls sumptuary, nonproductive expenditure.

The subject of the conjunctive synthesis is nomadic and intermittent. It neither endures through time, nor remains fixed in space. It is always in process, always in passage, always dying and being reborn. As it moves over the monstrous body of capital, it passes through “an unlimited number of stationary metastable states… and the subject is born of each state in the series, is continually reborn of the following state that determines it at a given moment, consuming-consummating all these states that cause it to be born and reborn (the lived state coming first, in relation to the subject that lives it).” Each of these “lived states” is a different manner of being, a different model of selfhood, a different fashion or style. Each of them involves different “phenomena of individualization and sexualization”: different “civilizations” or “races,” or what Foucault would call different modes of subjectification and self-cultivation, and different aesthetics of existence. The conjunctive subject passes through these states, one after the other. It never remains in any single configuration for long. It scavenges and exhausts whatever resources it can find in a given state, and then resumes its search elsewhere. Through all this, it is engaged in a desperate struggle for survival; it is rarely more than one step away (or one paycheck away) from foundering for good. Much like one of Paul Di Filippo’s “neohumans,” the conjunctive subject lives in the interstices of the monstrous body that serves as its host, dodging macrophages and lymphocytes as it “walk[s] through mazed passages crimson as blood, and [rides] the sticky turbid currents through large arteries.”

And yet, there is something splendid and glorious about the subject of the conjunctive synthesis — despite its marginality and its transience. For it lives an “experience of intensive quantities in their pure state, to a point that is almost unbearable — a celibate misery and glory experienced to the fullest, like a cry suspended between life and death, an intense feeling of transition, states of pure, naked intensity stripped of all shape and form.” In other words, it lives a purely aesthetic condition. The existence of the conjunctive subject, with its strange euphoria, is absolute, unconditonal, and intransitive — or, if you prefer, autistic, auto-affecting, and solipsistic. This subject exhibits what Whitehead (characterizing living things in general) calls “a certain absoluteness of self-enjoyment.” It does not recognize, or relate to, anything beyond itself — not even the occasion that provokes it, and that it consumes. The sentio, Deleuze and Guattari say, is “a pleasure that can rightly be called autoerotic, or rather automatic.” In this condition, I relish the feeling aroused by a “presentation” in itself and for its own sake, “no matter how indifferent I may be about the existence of the object of this presentation” — which is precisely Kant’s definition of the “pure disinterested liking” that is required for any “judgment of [aesthetic] taste.” And it is of no consequence whether the feeling in question be pleasant or painful, positive or negative; the intensity is all that matters. For “even suffering, as Marx says, is a form of self-enjoyment” (Deleuze and Guattari are citing the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, in which Marx says that, in a fully emancipated world, even “suffering, humanly conceived, is an enjoyment of the self for man”).

This is why, in the world of aesthetic capitalism, we are free exclusively — and quite precisely — as consumers. The conjunctive synthesis of consumption is the only one of the three syntheses in which we are able to make free, or formally unconstrained, choices. For as Kant tells us, “only the liking involved in taste for the beautiful is disinterested and free, since we are not compelled to give our approval by any interest, whether of sense or of reason.” The first (connective) synthesis, the production of production, is something like a physics, or a mechanics, of bodies and their energies. Roughly speaking, it corresponds to the phenomenal world of Kant’s First Critique, and to what Kant calls the “interests of sense.” For the world of production is driven by sheer material need: we are compelled to sell our labor-power, simply in order to survive. The second (disjunctive) synthesis, the production of recording, is something like an ethics, or a politics, of social organization and distribution. Roughly speaking, it corresponds to the noumenal, moral world of Kant’s Second Critique and to what Kant calls the “interests of reason.” The world of distribution and circulation is driven by the constraints of the market. These constraints appear to us as ineluctable laws in the face of which there is No Alternative — so that (as Kant says of the moral law) “we are objectively no longer free to select what we must do.” But the third (conjunctive) synthesis, the production of consumption, stands apart from both of these sets of interests or compulsions. Therefore it corresponds, roughly speaking, to Kant’s Third Critique, with its aesthetics of sensibility and enjoyment. The world of consumption is the only one that “leaves us the freedom to make an object of pleasure for ourselves out of something or other.”

The Connective and Disjunctive Syntheses

Monday, July 7th, 2008

The monstrous body of capital — the socius, or the Body without Organs — is massive, imposing, and unavoidable. It defines the very situation in which we live. It is the milieu that all our thoughts and actions presuppose, the environment to which they all refer, the context in relation to which they alone have meaning. In this sense, capital truly is a “divine” force: it suffuses itself into everything, and it subsumes everything. But this divinity is not the end of the story. The monstrous body of capital is indeed everywhere; but for all that, it is not everything. It has grown to be a “transcendental condition” — but it is not transcendent. In Kantian terms, its status is regulative and not constitutive. Or as Marx puts it, the “laws” of capital logic are only “tendential” ones; they are not totalizing or deterministic. The body of capital is therefore not-all. For one thing, it is never satiated; this means that some margin always remains beyond its grasp, some activity that has not yet been capitalized and appropriated. For another thing, it remains infested by parasites, the remnants that it has been unable to transform into itself. As Deleuze and Guattari say, “the surface of this uncreated body swarms with them, as a lion’s mane swarms with fleas.” We ourselves are these fleas; and even as the body of capital strives to eliminate us, it also cannot exist without us. Just as God needs a creation that is separate from himself, and free to disobey him and err in its ways: so capital requires an external source of inputs, as well as an external dumping ground for outputs. It needs conditions that are not yet its own, and also those that are no longer its own. It must always demand additional ‘raw material’ to subsume, and it must always demand an outlet for the results of this subsumption. In short, capital is not really “self-engendered”; it needs both producers from whom it can extort productive labor, and consumers to whom it can sell its products.

In Deleuze and Guattari’s account, therefore, the Body without Organs is only one of three “syntheses” that together compose the “transcendental conditions” of capitalist existence. The socius is the matrix of surplus appropriation, and then of circulation and distribution. It operates what Deleuze and Guattari call a disjunctive synthesis, or a synthesis of recording, “of distributions and of co-ordinates that serve as points of reference.” But such a process cannot continue indefinitely, all on its own. The disjunctive synthesis of capital is not a perpetual motion machine; it is not a closed, self-contained, self-renewing system. Contrary to the assumptions of neoclassical economics, it is not an equilibrium system. Rather, it is what Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers call a dissipative structure, a far-from-equilibrium conductor of flows of energy. If the socius were only able to feed back upon itself, and live upon its own resources, it would either suffer a short circuit and quickly burn out, or else slowly succumb to entropy. This is precisely why it is not-all. In order to function, the disjunctive synthesis must be preceded by a connective synthesis, a synthesis of production, or “of actions and of passions”: a fuel upon which the body of capital is able to feed. And it must be followed by a conjunctive synthesis, a synthesis of consumption or consummation (consommation), “of sensual pleasures, of anxiety, and of pain”: a spark of self-enjoyment that discharges tensions and reboots the entire reproductive process.

The socius can be described as a disjunctive synthesis, because of the way that it captures all production, appropriates or “attributes” this production to itself, and then divides and distributes the fruits of this production, according to a “system of possible permutations between differences that always amount to the same as they shift and slide about.” Capital is not a substance, but a process and a relation: a process of continual metamorphosis, and a series of “relationships between… producers,” that “take on the form of a social relation between the products of labour” (Marx). In its “constantly renewed movement,” capital does not “prefer” one form to another, or even one path of transformations to another. The channels of circulation and the objects of distribution are therefore always changing, even as the outcome of the process — the “valorization” of the capital being circulated, thanks to the sale and consumption of the product, and the consequent “reflux of money to its starting point” — remains the same. The disjunctive synthesis comes down to a play of differences that do not make a difference, or of choices that have no consequence or significance. “No matter what two organs are involved, the way in which they are attached to the body without organs must be such that all the disjunctive syntheses between the two amount to the same on the slippery surface.”

Deleuze and Guattari’s first synthesis, the connective synthesis of production, can be identified with the actual labor process: that is to say, with “purposeful activity’” that transforms the world. The young Marx of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts describes this process as “Man’s species being,” involving the worker’s immediate relation to “nature,” or to “the sensuous external world.” For nature is “the material on which [the worker's] labor is manifested, in which it is active, from which and by means of which it produces.” Deleuze and Guattari follow this definition when they present the connective synthesis as “universal primary production” in the course of which human “industry” has a “fundamental identity with nature as production of man and by man.” Strictly speaking, this process is not (or is not yet) subjective. In Marx’s terms, the individual human being is not yet separated from “the life of the species” as a whole, nor from nature, which is humanity’s “inorganic body.” In Deleuze and Guattari’s terms, similarly, there can be “no distinction between man and nature: the human essence of nature and the natural essence of man become one within nature in the form of production or industry, just as they do within the life of man as a species.”

When free production is described in this way, it may sound a bit too much like Rousseau’s “state of nature” (or perhaps, in Deleuze and Guattari’s version, like the aggressively outrageous anarchy of Otto Muehl’s Actions-Analytic Kommune, as presented in Dusan Makavejev’s Sweet Movie). But neither Marx, nor Deleuze and Guattari, ever suggest that such “production” actually has (or might ever once have had) an independent, objective existence; it is always intertwined with other social processes, or with other syntheses. In the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, Marx only evokes production in the context of a discussion about how human beings’ species-specific “life-activity has been systematically estranged from human beings themselves, leading to the isolation of “individual life in its abstract form.” The later Marx, abjuring such existential language, instead emphasizes the way that “the process of production must be a unity, composed of the labour process and the process of creating value.” But where productive labor is a living, social, and embodied process, value-creation involves all the abstraction inherent to the extraction and realization of surplus value. It is not the case, therefore, that free production comes chronologically first, and is only appropriated afterwards by the capitalist; rather, once the mechanisms of capitalism are in place, the capitalists themselves organize social production with the aim of extracting value.

Similarly, Deleuze and Guattari insist that the connective synthesis never takes place all by itself: “there is no such thing as relatively independent spheres or circuits: production is immediately consumption and recording, without any sort of mediation, and recording and consumption directly determine production, though they do so within the production process itself.” The connective synthesis of production is always already accompanied by the other syntheses, and in particular by the disjunctive synthesis of recording, which both organizes the connective process, and appropriates its products. In the connective synthesis, “there is no need to distinguish…between production and its product… The pure ‘thisness’ of the object produced is carried over into a new act of producing.” But in the disjunctive synthesis of recording, the product is taken out of the flow, separated from the production process of which it was a part. This is what transforms it into a commodity. In its “pure thisness,” it was “an ordinary, sensuous thing. But as soon as it emerges as a commodity, it changes into a thing which transcends sensuousness,” Marx says. In this process, the first (connective synthesis is branched upon, and subordinated to, the second (disjunctive) synthesis. This is why capitalism presents us with “a fetishistic, perverse, bewitched world” in which the “apparent objective movement” of the full body or socius appears to us as the motor of social reproduction. Although the disjunctive synthesis depends, both logically and materially, upon the connective synthesis, it always appears as if the second synthesis came first. And this appearance is itself a basic principle of social organization and social reproduction.

[Discussion of the third synthesis, the conjunctive synthesis of consumption, will follow in a later posting]

Paul Di Filippo, “Phylogenesis” (1988)

Monday, June 30th, 2008

“Life is tenacious, life is ingenious, life is mutable, life is fecund.” To consider what it means for us to live on — to survive, and to reproduce our social existence — as parasites on the monstrous body of Capital, we must turn from Lovecraft to Paul Di Filippo, a more recent writer of the fantastic, who also hails (as Lovecraft did) from Providence, Rhode Island. Di Filippo’s story “Phylogenesis” might be thought of as an account of what happens after Cthulhu arrives and devastates the Earth. The story does not explicitly refer to Lovecraft’s mythos; but it follows Lovecraft in giving its horror a biological-materialist basis, rather than a supernatural one. And if Di Filippo’s prose is as dry and understated as Lovecraft’s is florid and inflated, this follows from the way that our very understanding of life changed over the course of the twentieth century. Lovecraft’s early-twentieth-century teratological wonderment is a sort of inverse vitalism: it posits the monstrous proliferation of slithering tentacles, oozing, viscous fluids, and misshapen membranes as the underside, and the deliberate undoing, of the common assumptions of organic unity and integrity. In contrast, Di Filippo’s late-twentieth-century cool, efficient prose reflects the contemporary situation in which “a feeling for the organism” (Evelyn Fox Keller) has been entirely abandoned, and replaced by a view of life in terms of “biotic components,” about which “one must not think in terms of essential properties, but in terms of design, boundary constraints, rates of flows, systems logics, costs of lowering constraints” (Donna Haraway).

The premise of “Phylogenesis” is that an alien species of enormous “invaders came to Earth from space without warning… In blind fulfillment of their life cycle, they sought biomass for conversion to more of their kind.” As a result, “the ecosphere had been fundamentally disrupted, damaged beyond repair.” The invaders’ massive predation leaves the earth a barren, ruined mass: “the planet, once green and blue, now resembled a white featureless ball, exactly the texture and composition of the [invaders].” Human beings are reluctant to accept the hard truth that they cannot repel the invasion: “only in the final days of the plague, when the remnants of mankind huddled in a few last redoubts, did anyone admit that extermination of the invaders and reclamation of the planet was impossible.” The human agenda is reset at the last possible moment: with victory unattainable, survival — bare life — becomes the only remaining goal. There is no longer any environment capable of sustaining humanity; it is necessary, instead, “to adapt a new man to the alien conditions.”

And so the “chromosartors” get to work, genetically refashioning Homo sapiens into a new species. We are reborn as viral parasites, within the bodies of the spacefaring invaders. Most of the text of “Phylogenesis” lovingly recounts the physiology, psychology, and overall life cycle of this new parasitic humanity. The bioengineering is precise and efficient. Everything is optimized in accordance with the physiology and metabolism of the host, and in the interest of flexibility. Anything deemed superfluous to survival is unsentimentally jettisoned. The “neohumans”mate quickly, reproduce in great numbers (in “litters” of five or more), and mature rapidly. They exhibit both swarm behavior — ganging up together when necessary to overwhelm the host’s defenses — and nomadic distribution — “scattering themselves throughout the interior of the gargantuan alien” to reduce the chances of being all wiped out at once by the host’s counterattacks. Once they have killed their host, they go into hibernation within “protective vesicles,” in order to survive the vacuum of deep space until they can encounter another host. In this way, they are able to perpetuate both their genes and their cultural heritage. Since they unavoidably “possess a basically nonmaterial culture,” they only use light-weight technologies that have been interiorized within their bodies. They are especially gifted with “mathematical skill,” including a genetically-instilled “predisposition toward solving… abstruse functions in their heads.” Aesthetically, they are all masters and lovers of song, “the only art form left to the artifact-free neohumans.” Mathematics and music are the sole “legacy of six thousand years of civilization” that has been bequeathed to them. The lives of the neohumans are short and intermittent; they are “mayflies, fast-fading blooms, the little creatures of a short hour. Yet to themselves, their lives still tasted sweet as of old.”

China Miéville insists upon the radical novelty of Lovecraft’s “Weird fiction”: its “unprecedented forms, and its insistence upon a chaotic, amoral, anthropoperipheral universe, stresses the implacable alterity of its aesthetic and concerns.” In Lovecraft’s own time, this alterity was (among other things) a response to the dislocations of World War I. Today, Lovecraft’s Weird vision remains relevant because, as Miéville says, “with the advent of the neoliberal There Is No Alternative, the universe [i]s an ineluctable, inhuman, implacable, Weird place.” Di Filippo’s story, with its decidedly non-Weird rhetoric, figures a further step in the same process. It narrates the naturalization of Lovecraft’s inhuman implacability. It does this precisely by devising a brilliant strategy for adapting to catastrophic monstrosity. When There Is No Alternative — when it no longer seems possible for us to defeat the monstrous invasion, or even to imagine things otherwise — Di Filippo’s parasitic inversion is the best that we can do. The neohumans of “Phylogenesis” evade extinction at the hands of the monstrous aliens, by devising a situation in which their own survival absolutely depends upon the continuing survival of the monstrosities as well. The parasitic neohumans end up killing whatever host they have invaded; but their continuing proliferation is always contingent upon encountering another host. The extinction of the invaders would mean their own definitive extinction as well.

As far as I can determine, Di Filippo never intended “Phylogenesis” to be read as an allegory of Capital. Yet the traces are there, in every aspect of the story. The downsizing of the neohumans (adults are “four feet tall, with limbs rather gracile than muscular”), the rationalization of their design in the interest of mobility and flexibility, their uncanny coordination and ability to “monitor the passage of time with unerring precision, thanks to long-ago modifications in the suprachiasmatic nuclei of their brains, which provided them with accurate biological clocks,” the “inbuilt determinism” by means of which their sexual drives are canalized “for a particular purpose,” their severely streamlined cultural heritage, and the ways that even their nonproductive activities (singing and nonprocreative sex) serve a purpose as “supreme weapons in the neohumans’ armory of spirit”: all these are recognizable variations of familiar management techniques in the contemporary post-Fordist regime of flexible accumulation. The neohumans make use of the only tools that they find at hand. They parasitize and mimic the very mechanisms that have dispossessed them. And their emotional lives are effectively streamlined in a post-Fordist manner as well. Feeling an overwhelming sense of loss, and aware of all the ways that their potential has been constrained, they nonetheless conclude that “we just have to make the most of the life we have.” Both socially and affectively, Di Filippo’s neohumans are the very image of the multitude invoked by Hardt and Negri, and by Paolo Virno. They exercise a genuine creativity under extremely straightened circumstances, and produce, and themselves enjoy, an experience of the common. But Di Filippo recognizes, more clearly than Hardt and Negri and Virno do, the limitations of any “mobilization of the common” in a situation of “actually existing” capitalism.

Transcendental Monsters

Wednesday, June 25th, 2008

In a brilliant article that draws surprising parallels between Husserl’s phenomenology and the “weird fiction” of H. P. Lovecraft, Graham Harman (2008) argues that Lovecraft’s tales of unrepresentable monsters cannot be read in a Kantian register. Although at first sight “Kant’s inaccessible noumenal world seems a perfect match for the cryptic stealth of Lovecraft’s creatures” (337), in fact these monsters, “however bizarre. . . still belong to the causal and spatio-temporal conditions that, for Kant, belong solely to the structure of human experience. . . The terror of Lovecraft is not a noumenal horror, then, but a horror of phenomenology” (340-342). Lovecraft is a materialist, and there is nothing transcendent or supernatural about his monsters. Indeed, the true source of horror for Lovecraft is that, however much the monstrosities whose presence he evokes exceed all powers of human apprehension, so that they are literally indescribable and unvisualizable, they still belong to the same world as we do. Like us, they are empirical, contingent entities; they do not “float into the world from nowhere” (Whitehead 1978, 244). To think of them as “mystic beings,” noumenal, supernatural, or otherworldly, would in fact be a way of palliating their horror. For such a perspective would turn the sheer arbitrariness of their appearance into something ineluctable and fated, and therefore in some sense justified or “rational.”

Now, what Harman says about Lovecraft’s Old Ones is in fact true of Capital as well. For all its excess and monstrosity, Capital – like Cthulhu – is a body, and thereby an entirely empirical phenomenon. It “appears as [our society's] natural or divine presupposition” (Deleuze and Guattari 1983, 10), and “the energy that sweeps through it is divine” (13); yet capitalism is still a contingent, historical process, one that could have been otherwise. It has not existed forever, and it need not last forever. As Ellen Meiksins Wood cogently demonstrates, capitalism is not the “natural realization of ever-present tendencies” (2002, 3), such as the alleged innate human impulse to “truck, barter and exchange” posited by Adam Smith (11). For it is not an inevitability, but rather – much like the advent of Cthulhu – the fortuitous result of a contingent encounter. Capitalism was born out of the “extrinsic conjunction of these two flows: flows of producers and flows of money. . . On one side, the deterritorialized worker who has become free and naked, having to sell his labor capacity; and on the other, decoded money that has become capital and is capable of buying it” (Deleuze and Guattari 1983, 225). Both of these “flows” arose out of the decomposition of feudalism; but many other flows did as well, and there is no special reason, or structural necessity, why these two particular flows should have become more prominent than all the others, nor why they should have become conjoined with one another. The encounter that gave birth to capitalism need never have happened; and in any case, it happened only once (224).

Wood, more historically precise than Deleuze and Guattari, shows how it was only in post-feudal agrarian England that recourse to the market became, not just an opportunity (as it was for late medieval merchants in Italy, and early modern financial speculators in Holland) but an absolute imperative for both landowners and workers. “Markets of various kinds have existed throughout recorded history and no doubt before, as people have exchanged and sold their surpluses in many different ways and for many different purposes. But the market in capitalism has a distinctive, unprecedented function. Virtually everything in capitalist society is a commodity produced for the market. And even more fundamentally, both capital and labour are utterly dependent on the market for the most basic conditions of their own reproduction. . . This market dependence gives the market an unprecedented role in capitalist societies, as not only a simple mechanism of exchange or distribution but the principal determinant and regulator of social reproduction” (2002, 96-97).

In other words, there are markets without capitalism, but there is no capitalism without the absolute reign of the market. As Wood puts it, “this unique system of market-dependence means that the dictates of the capitalist market – its imperatives of competition, accumulation, profit-maximization, and increasing labour-productivity – regulate not only all economic transactions but social relations in general” (2002, 7). And this is the key to what I have been calling the monstrosity of capital. It is utterly contingent in its origins; and yet, once it has arrived, it imposes itself universally. Capitalism might never have emerged out of the chaos of feudal, commercial, religious, and State institutions that preceded it, just as Cthulhu might never have stumbled upon our planet. But in both cases, the unfortunate encounter did, in fact, take place. And it is only afterwards, in its subsequent effects, once it has in fact arrived on the scene and subjugated all its rivals, that capitalism is able – again, much like Cthulhu – to present itself retro spectively as an irresistible and all-embracing force. Capitalism arose “in a very specific place, and very late in human history” (2002, 95). But once it arose, it made market relations compulsory: as Wood says, the so-called “free market” became an imperative, a coerced activity, instead of an opportunity (6-7).

This puts an altogether different light upon the philosophical question of how to categorize monstrosity. Harman convincingly shows that Lovecraft’s horrors cannot be regarded as noumenal. But this is really just arguing against a straw man. For a proper Kantian reading of Lovecraft’s stories – as well as of Marx’s Capital, and of capitalism – must claim, not that the monstrosity in question is noumenal, but rather that it is transcendental, which is an entirely different matter. Kant always carefully distinguishes the transcendental from the transcendent. A transcendental condition is one that is universal and a priori, but that applies only to experience, and does not transcend or go beyond experience. That is to say, it emphatically does not refer to noumena, or “things in themselves.” The transcendental is not quite empirical, since it is not found within experience. But it is also, at the same time, nothing but empirical, since it can only be referred to experience. The transcendental is thus a strange borderline concept, neither containable within contingent, empirical existence, nor extending anywhere beyond it. At this border or limit there is indeed, as Nina Power puts it, an “eerie proximity of Kant and Lovecraft,” due to Lovecraft’s “internalisation of Kantian categories in the name of transcendental horror” (2007).

Kant says that a transcendental condition, such as time, “cannot be annulled” (1996, 86), but also cannot be represented directly. It can only be referred to indirectly, “by means of analogies” (88). We might well say, therefore, that the transcendental resists any sort of empirical description. When we try to describe it nevertheless – when we seek to evoke what Proust called “a little bit of time in its pure state” – we run into the same sorts of difficulties as Lovecraft’s narrators do when they try to describe the monsters they have encountered: “the very point of the descriptions is that they fail, hinting only obliquely at some unspeakable substratum of reality” (Harman 2008, 339). Yet this “unspeakable substratum” is not itself (as Harman amply demonstrates) transcendent, absolute, or otherworldly. It is a feature of our world, and only of our world. Such is the aporia of the transcendental: we encounter something about which we do not know how to speak, but which we also cannot pass over in silence.

This can best be grasped by contrast to Kant’s account of morality. Kant says that the moral laws that we must obey are in fact laws that we ourselves have imposed upon ourselves: they have been decreed by our rational, noumemal selves. But in the case of the understanding, there is no such rational agency, and no such noumenal authorization. The understanding is not autonomous, because it is confined to an empirical world that it cannot master. The constraints that it encounters are not ones that it has legislated, but ones that are already presupposed by the very fact of its existence. As Deleuze puts it, commenting on both Kant and Bergson, it is not that time is inside us, but rather that we are inside time: “it is we who are internal to time, not the other way round. . . Time is not the interior in us, but just the opposite” (1989, 82).

This sense that we ourselves are the effects of forces that are not ours, forces that surpass us and remain indifferent to us, could well be a formula for horror. Of course, neither Kant, nor Bergson, nor Deleuze presents it this way. But Benjamin Noys convincingly argues that “the vortex of seething time” is the ultimate form of horror for Lovecraft, exceeding any particular instance of one monstrous race of beings or another (2008, 282). What appalls us is less the inhumanity of Cthulhu, and the anteriority of the Old Ones with regard to us, than the larger truth of which these are merely symptoms: the utter “detachment of time from any relation to humanity” (281). More generally, we may say that monstrosity is transcendental because the very idea of the transcendental – as a condition to which we are subjected, but which we cannot locate, describe, or circumscribe in any way – is itself horrific and monstrous.

For Kant, of course, time itself does not have a genesis or a history, since all histories and all becomings must necessarily unfold within it. From a Kantian point of view – or, for that matter, from a Heideggerian one – our subjection to time is a general existential condition, one that must apply to all beings conscious of their own finitude. However, does such a formulation do justice to the uncanniness of the transcendental, the way that it ambiguously both belongs and does not belong to the empirical realm? Deleuze notes that post-Kantian thought criticized Kant’s “transcendental deduction” for being incomplete. The post-Kantians “demanded a principle which was not merely conditioning in relation to objects but which was also truly genetic and productive” (1983, 51-52). That is to say, they sought to define the transcendental as an ongoing process of construction, rather than as a fixed structure that is always already in place. The transcendental is actively “genetic and productive,” because it is a “synthesis,” a conjoining or putting-together, and not just a fixed result that has already been synthesized. Time as a transcendental condition is not just produced once and for all. It must be synthesized continually; and this ongoing action of synthesis, or production, is itself the experience of temporality to which we find ourselves subjected.

When Deleuze redefines the transcendental as an ongoing, genetic and productive synthesis, he moves from Kant’s transcendental idealism to what he instead calls transcendental empiricism. A synthesis defines the conditions of empirical existence; but it is itself an empirical process, immanent to the phenomena that it governs. For every synthesis is a contingent encounter of forces. It is a rearrangement or rearticulation of the empirical field – but one that arises from within that very field. Synthesis therefore paradoxically defines an a priori that nonetheless could have been otherwise. And this is precisely the way in which the monstrous body of Cthulhu, or the monstrous body of capital, is a transcendental horror. In both cases, we move from a contingent, empirical encounter, to the imposition of a transcendental conditon. Cthulhu might have missed our planet entirely, and the market might have remained an adjunct to other forms of economic activity, and f political and social life. But once Cthulhu has arrived, or once the market has imposed its relentless pressures at the very heart of the socius, there is no turning back from the full measure of monstrosity.

The Body of Capital

Friday, June 20th, 2008

Let us say, then, that Capital itself is the monstrous flesh within which we, the multitude, find ourselves compelled to live. When “the specifically capitalist mode of production” has been well enough developed, Marx says, “capital. . . becomes a very mystical being, since all the productive forces of social labour appear attributable to it, and not to labour as such, as a power springing forth from its own womb” (1993, 966; cited in Deleuze and Guattari 1983, 11). It is by appropriating all the fruits of production, and attributing all this production to itself, that capital becomes the mystical being that Deleuze and Guattari call the socius, the full Body without Organs. This monstrous flesh is the womb, the belly, and the skin of our society. The body of capital is the site of all our encounters, the space within which all our desires are registered and distributed. It is the “fluid and slippery” surface (Deleuze and Guattari 1983, 15) across which money flows as a universal equivalent, enabling all conceivable metamorphoses from one form to another, or one substance to another. And the depths of this flesh also encompass the time that is our horizon. This includes the time of our “lived experience”: clock time, work time, leisure time. But it also includes forms of time that are alien to any subjective experience: the speed-of-light, nearly instantaneous time of electronic networks, the time-scale of what Marx calls the “turnover” of capital, and the future time that is counted and discounted, and made commensurable with the present, in the form of interest rates.

Of course, this monstrous flesh is “really” ours, ultimately ours. The body of capital can only function to the extent that it appropriates to itself, and attributes to its own creativity, what is actually the productive labor of the multitude. Capital’s claim to production “as a power springing forth from its own womb” is therefore a fiction, or an illusion. But it is an “objective” illusion, a necessary fiction. That is to say, this illusory appearance, this fiction, is itself an actual feature of the world we live in. The body of capital is not really the cause of whatever happens; but it really is what Deleuze and Guattari call the “quasi-cause,” or apparent cause. Money really works as a universal equivalent, to the extent that everyone accepts it as such; and capital really does succeed in becoming the motor of all production, insofar as it enforces its property claims by means of a whole arsenal of weapons: laws, institutions, customs, beliefs, disciplinary procedures, threats of violence, and other forms of coercion and persuasion.

A “mystical being” whose embodiment is secured by procedures that, for their part, are all too materially effective, Capital can only be represented and experienced “in the formless, mute, infant, and terrifying form of monstrosity” (Derrida 1980, 293). For it cannot be grasped within everyday experience. The socius, or “full body of capital,” is entirely composed of material processes in the phenomenal world; and yet, as the limit and the summation of all these processes, it has a quasi-transcendental status. That is to say, the body of capital is not a particular phenomenon that we encounter at a specific time and place; it is rather the already-given presupposition of whatever phenomenon we do encounter. We cannot experience this capital-body directly, and for itself; yet all our experiences are lodged within it, and can properly be regarded as its effects. The monstrous flesh of capital is the horizon, or the matrix, or the underlying location and container of our experience, as producers or as consumers. In this sense, it can indeed be regarded as something like what Kant would call a transcendental condition of experience. Or better – since it is a process, rather than a structure or an entity – it can be understood as what Deleuze and Guattari call a basic “synthesis” that generates and organizes our experience.

The “full body” or flesh of capital, therefore, is at the same time palpable and intangible – however much of an oxymoron this formulation might seem to be. We are always in contact with this ghastly flesh, but we are never actually able to “grasp” it. We do not have enough distance to apprehend it accurately; we can no more “see” it than a flea can see the dog within whose fur it is embedded. In our pragmatic, day-to-day experience, this capital-body is an alien enormity, that we cannot ever tear ourselves free from, but that we also do not own or control in any way. The experience of the capital-body is common to everyone; but this is only a suffering in common, rather than the production in common that Hardt and Negri would like it to be. Either as producers or consumers, our subjective activity is relentlessly atomized and scattered; the only unity is that of the socius itself. We scurry about in the folds and convolutions of this capital-flesh like lice or bedbugs. At best, we may manage to divert some of the flows of the body of capital, pervert them, and detourn them. We may even be able to reprogram the body’s “axiomatics” or “genetic code” here and there, just a little bit, the way that viruses do. But that is all. This capital-flesh oppresses us, but we are stuck within it. We hate it, but we are also compelled to love it, because we depend upon it for sustenance, and we cannot live without it. Understood according to the order of first causes, sub specie aeternitatis as Spinoza would have it, capital is parasitic upon the labor of the multitude. But existentially and experientially, the situation is rather the reverse: we are parasites on the monstrous body of Capital.

Monstrous Flesh

Tuesday, June 17th, 2008

Hardt and Negri tell us that, in postmodern society, “characterized by the dissolution of traditional social bodies,” what we experience instead is “a kind of social flesh, a flesh that is not a body, a flesh that is common, living substance” (2004,190, 192). Traditional social bodies were organic ones; the supposedly hierarchical organization of biological organisms was taken as a model for the proper hierarchical organization of society and State. Think of Hobbes’ Leviathan, or of Menenius Agrippa’s parable of the body in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. In these traditional social bodies, there is always a clear chain of command, and a clear division of labor among the society’s organs and members. Agrippa tells the plebians that they must always defer to the Senate, just as the other portions of the body must always defer to the belly, allowing it to appropriate the food that is the product of all their labors. In contrast to this classical image of the well-ordered body, the postmodern image of “this living social flesh that is not a body can easily appear monstrous” (192). For the living flesh is “unruly” and “insatiable”(193); it “always exceeds the measure of any traditional social bodies” (196). In the postmodern world, “the old standards of measure no longer hold. . . old social bodies decompose and their remains fertilize the new production of social flesh”(196). This new flesh breaks free of organic limits; instead, it is “expansive” and endlessly “productive” (197).

Hardt and Negri see this monstrous flesh as a figure of the multitude: that is to say, of a humanity that produces things in common, and that in fact produces the common altogether (xv). The multitude is irreducibly diverse: it cannot be identified according to any criterion of identity politics, or even of social class. At the same time, the multitude cannot be divided into factions or fractions, because its very existence is a matter of “communication, collaboration, and cooperation on an ever-expanding scale” (xv), across all boundaries, and through the mobilization of what Marx called “general intellect.” Thus the monstrous flesh “is common. It is elemental like air, fire, earth, and water” (193). At the same time, monstrosity is never just one. There are always a variety of monsters, which “testify to the fact that we are all singular, and our differences cannot be reduced to any unitary social body” (193-194). The multitude, with its ceaseless creativity and “constant innovation” (193), produces the social world that we live in today. And Capital,or Empire, only preys upon, and parasitically lives off of, this productivity of the multitude. Under capitalism, “the mutations of artificial life [are] transformed into commodities,” and the “metamorphoses of nature” performed by the multitude are “put up for sale” (196). Hardt and Negri urge us always to remember that the monstrous multitude is the true productive force; and that Capital, with its normalizing appropriations of this boundless productivity, is only secondary,reactive, and parasitic.

Hardt and Negri’s logic is in full accord with Marx’s analysis of surplus value.Marx describes the way that “capital is dead labour which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks” (1992, 342).Alternatively, in the Spinozian terms the Hardt and Negri share with Deleuze, capitalism operates by separating the living flesh from what it can do, and by accumulating and reinvesting the fruits of this separation. This process corresponds to the workings of what Deleuze and Guattari call the Body without Organs: “an enchanted recording or inscribing surface that arrogates to itself all the productive forces and all the organs of production (1983, 11-12). The Body without Organs is “a full body that functions as a socius. . . It falls back on (il se rabat sur) all production, constituting a surface over which the forces and agents of production are distributed, thereby appropriating for itself all surplus production and arrogating to itself both the whole and the parts of the process, which now seem to emanate from it as a quasi cause” (10). The socius is the monstrous body of capital, an entirely reactive force of “antiproduction” and repulsion (8), that nonetheless appropriates all production to itself by organizing and distributing it, according to a logic of “points of disjunction, between which an entire network of new syntheses is now woven, marking the surface off into co-ordinates, like a grid” (12). Thus the appropriation of surplus value is also its circulation and distribution, leading to the organization of what we know today as the “network society.”

In terms of how they describe social production, Hardt and Negri – like Deleuze and Guattari – are entirely in accord with Marxist capital logic. Against the mythology of mainstream economics, with its self-congratulatory tales of risky investments and heroic entrepreneurs, they recognize that capital is not in itself creative, and in fact originates nothing. Rather, capital privatizes the results of what is actually a common, and public, process. Through its ownership of the “means of production” (that is, of the fruits of past production that it has already appropriated), it is able to control and appropriate all new production, and to appear as if it were the source of that new production. But every patent, every copyright, every act of creativity, is only possible because we already stand on the shoulders of giants. And every private investment, every organized venture of art or science or technology, is rooted in the prior products of common labor and general intellect.

However, even as Hardt and Negri follow Marx’s logic, they invert his metaphors. Where Marx describes capitalist appropriation as monstrous and vampiric, Hardt and Negri reclaim the image of the vampire (2004, 193), and the term of monstrosity, for the primary producers themselves, the multitude. And where Deleuze and Guattari present the Body without Organs as a monstrous body of appropriation,which “produces surplus value” even as it “reproduces itself, puts forth shoots, and branches out to the farthest corners of the universe” (Deleuze and Guattari 1983,10), Hardt and Negri regard the multitude itself as a monstrous flesh that metastasizes indefinitely. They celebrate the multitude’s tireless productivity, “producing in excess of every traditional political-economic theory of value” (192), and its drive to push beyond all limits and violate all norms. “The concept of the multitude forces us to enter a new world in which we can only understand ourselves as monsters. . . Today we need new giants and new monsters to put together nature and history, labor and politics, art and invention in order to demonstrate the new power that is being born in the multitude” (194).

To a certain extent, Hardt and Negri’s motivation for this metaphorical reversal is a good one. They seek to undo the traditional hatred of democracy, and disdain for the “mob,” that is endemic to so much Western political theory, from Plato through Hobbes and on into the twentieth century. They hope to reverse capitalism’s reduction of everything to the status of private property by affirming the radical impropriety, and therefore the monstrosity, of the common within a capitalist framework. And they wish to demonstrate that the “productive flesh,”with its carnivalesque frenzies and excesses, “does not create chaos and disorder,”but rather produces new forms of communication and connection (196-197). That is why they insist upon celebrating, rather than execrating, what has long been described as monstrous and dangerous. They urge us to greet the unpredictable transformations of life that are going on all around us today with wonder instead of dread (195-196). Above all, they cultivate hope for a future filled with potential,instead of resigning themselves to the grim prospects of accelerating exploitation and ecological collapse. In all these ways, monstrosity is a figure of hope.

Nonetheless, Hardt and Negri’s reversal is not entirely convincing. It seems too much of a forcible imposition. The vision of a monstrous multitude, with its joyous excess of uncontrollable flesh, is an inspiring fiction; but it is one that we can only bring ourselves to believe through a sheer act of will. For this vision fails to give sufficient weight to the harsh conditions of actually-existing capitalism. You wouldn’t know, from reading Hardt and Negri’s paeans to the creativity of the multitude, about the extreme degree to which our “habits and performances”(197ff.), and our “ability to adapt constantly to new contexts,” and to “solve problems, create relationships, generate ideas, and so forth” (201), are continually being incited, channeled, micromanaged, and packaged into saleable products – not just during the working day, but increasingly 24/7. Hardt and Negri write as if the creativity of the multitude came first, as if it were only at the last moment that capital stepped in, to appropriate this creativity and sell it in commodified form. But in fact, capital is always already there, always already monitoring and regulating everything that we do, even before the creative process begins.

It is true that the old Taylorist, hierarchical style of business management has largely been abandoned – at least in the developed world. But the new management style that has replaced it, with its emphasis on local autonomy and responsibility, and on horizontal networks rather than vertical, hierarchical chains of command, is not in any sense more open and liberating. What the creativity of the multitude comes down to, in postmodern globalized capitalism, is this. Today capitalism demands of its workers not just physical exertion, but mental exertion as well. In order to survive, we are forced to sell, not just our “labor power” (as Marx called it), but also our affective and cognitive powers, our abilities to think and feel and create, our aesthetic sensibility and our capacity for enjoyment. Capitalism does not just steal the fruits of these powers from us. It also organizes our very expression of these powers in the first place.

This is why we must finally regard capital – rather than the multitude – as monstrous. Indeed, the monstrous qualities that Hardt and Negri attribute to the multitude – its impropriety, its ceaseless productivity, and its continual breaking of taboos and transgression of all limits – are themselves really qualities of capitalism itself, which Marx and Engels long ago described as having “burst asunder” all that stood in its way (1968, 40), and as possessing a “voracious appetite” not for any particular “useful products,” but for “the production of surplus value itself” (Marx 1992, 344-345). Only capitalism values productivity for its own sake,without regard to the nature of what is produced. And only capitalism exhibits a radical impropriety, because this is simply the other side of its own property fetish.By reclaiming monstrosity for the multitude, Hardt and Negri inadvertently erase the monstrosity of capital itself.

What is to be done?

Thursday, June 12th, 2008

Now that I have handed in the final manuscript of my Whitehead book, I am trying to return to The Age of Aesthetics, the manuscript that I left unfinished two years ago, when various other and more pressing things (including the opportunity to write the Whitehead book) came up.

What follows is a quick and dirty, and overly compressed, attempt to clarify the larger stakes of this project:

Of course, there is a good reason why recent Marxist theory is so concerned with the problem of the subject. It is a way of raising the question of agency. What is to be done? How might capitalism be altered or abolished? It’s hard to give credence any longer to the old-fashioned Marxist narrative, according to which the “negation of the negation,” or the “expropriation of the expropriators,” would inevitably take place, sooner or later. Neither the worldwide economic collapse of the 1930s, nor the uprisings and radical confrontations of the 1960s, led to anything like the “final conflict” of which generations of revolutionaries dreamed. Today we are no longer able to believe that the capitalist order is fated to collapse from its own contradictions. It is true that these contradictions lead to turmoil, and to misery for many. Yet the overall process of capital accumulation is not necessarily harmed by these convulsions. If Capital could speak, it might well say, in the manner of Nietzsche’s Overman, that “whatever does not kill me, makes me stronger.” The genius of capitalism lies in its ability to turn to its own account whatever destabilizes it, and whatever is raised against it. In the absence of that old militant optimism, we are left with the sinking feeling that nothing works, that nothing we can do will make any difference. This sense of paralysis is precisely the flip side of our “empowerment” as consumers. The more brutal the neoliberal “reforms” of the last thirty years have been, and the more they have taken away from us, the more they have forced upon us the conviction that there is No Alternative.

This crushing demoralization is itself a testimony to Marx’s prescience. How else but with a sense of utter helplessness could we respond to a world in which Marx’s insights into the tendencies and structures of capitalism have been so powerfully verified? From primitive accumulation to capital accumulation, from globalization to technological innovation, from exploitation in sweatshops to the delirium of ungrounded financial circulation: all the processes that Marx analyzed and theorized in the three volumes of Capital are far more prevalent today, and operate on a far more massive scale, than was ever the case in Marx’s own time. By the late 1990s, all this had become so evident that Marx’s analytical acumen was admired, and even celebrated, on Wall Street. As the business journalist John Cassidy wrote in a widely-noticed and frequently-cited article in The New Yorker (1997): Marx “wrote riveting passages about globalization, inequality, political corruption, monopolization, technical progress, the decline of high culture, and the enervating nature of modern existence – issues that economists are now confronting anew. . . Marx predicted most of [globalization’s] ramifications a hundred and fifty years ago. . . [Marx’s] books will be worth reading as long as capitalism endures.”

From this point of view, the problem with Marx’s analysis is that it is just too successful. His account of the inner logic of capitalism is so insightful, so powerful, and so all-embracing, that it seems to offer no point of escape. The more we see the world in the grim terms of capital logic, the less we are able to imagine things ever being different. Marx dissected the inner workings of capitalism for the purpose of finding a way to overthrow it; but the very success of his analysis makes capitalism seem like a fatality. For the power of capital pervades all aspects of human life, and subsumes all impulses and all actions. Its contingent origins notwithstanding, capitalism consumes everything, digests whatever it encounters, transforms the most alien customs and ways of life into more of itself. “Markets will seep like gas through any boundary that gives them the slightest opening” (Dibbell 2006, 43). Adorno’s gloomy vision of a totally administered and thoroughly commodified society is merely a rational assessment of what it means to live in a world of ubiquitous, unregulated financial flows. For that matter, what is Althusser’s Spinozism, his view of history as a “process without a subject,” but a contemplation of the social world sub specie aeternitatis, and thereby a kind of fatalism, presenting capitalism as an ineluctable structure of interlinked overdeterminations whose necessity we must learn to dispassionately accept?

All this explains why cultural Marxism turns away from Marx’s own “economism,” and back to the subject. It seeks after some voluntary principle: some instance that is not just passively determined, that is capable of willing and effecting change, and that escapes being caught up in the redundancy of capitalist circulation. By rehabilitating agency, and by foregrounding particular practices of resistance, cultural Marxism hopes to find some sort of potential for overcoming capitalism. This reinvention of the subjective element takes many forms. At one extreme, there is Zizek’s hyper-voluntarism, his fantasy of enforcing a rupture with capitalism, and imposing communism, by dint of a sheer, willful imposition of “ruthless terror.” At the other extreme, Adorno’s ultra-pessimism, his hopelessness about all possibilities for action, is really an alibi for a retreat into the remnants of a shattered interiority: a subjectivity that remains pure and uncontaminated by capitalism precisely to the extent that it is impotent, and defined entirely by the extremity of its negations. Despite their differences, both of these positions can be defined by their invocation of the spirit of the negative. Adorno’s and Zizek’s negations alike work to clear out a space for the cultivation of a subjectivity that supposedly would not be entirely determined by, and would not entirely subordinated to, capital. For my part, I cannot see anything creative, or pragmatically productive, in such proposals. Neither Zizek’s manic voluntarism nor Adorno’s melancholia is anything more than a dramatic, and self-dramatizing, gesture. That is to say, in spite of themselves they both restore subjectivity in the form of a spectacle that is, precisely, a negotiable commodity. In the world of aesthetic capitalism, critical negativity is little more than a consoling and compensatory fiction.

On the other hand, it is hard to say that those variants of cultural Marxism that present agency and subjectivity affirmatively, and without recourse to negation, do much better. J. K. Gibson-Graham tell us that the Marxist image of capitalism as a closed, voracious, and totalizing system is an error. They offer us the cheerful sense that a plethora of inventive, non-capitalist economic and social practices already exist in the world today. This means that we have already, without quite realizing it, reached “the end of capitalism (as we know it).” Indeed, Gibson-Graham come perilously close to saying that the only thing keeping capitalism alive today is the inveterate prejudice on the part of Marxists that it really exists. Apparently, if we were just a bit more optimistic, we could simply think all the oppression away.

For their part, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri are by no means so obstinately cheerful. Nonetheless, I am a bit taken aback by their insistence that globalized, affective capitalism has already established, not only the “objective conditions” for communism, but also the “subjective conditions” as well. The latter come in the form of the multitude as a universal, creative, and spontaneously collective class, ready to step in and take control of a world that has already been prepared for them. This is really a twenty-first century update of the messianic side of Marx’s vision: “The centralization of the means of production and the socialization of labor reach a point at which they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.” Thus we have come full circle, back to the position that we initially rejected: one according to which the restoration of agency is not needed, for the internal dynamics of capitalism themselves lead inexorably to its ultimate abolition.

Retconning History

Tuesday, June 27th, 2006

In the Age of Aesthetics, when we say that something is “history,” we mean not to honor it (as might have been the case in other times and places) but to dismiss it as obsolete and irrelevant. We collect mementos of the past, but we do not take History seriously as a process, or a force, or a source of meaning. It is nothing more than a collection of arbitrary styles. This is the situation that Jameson decries when he describes our world as “a society bereft of all historicity,” in which the collective past has become nothing more than “a vast collection of images, a multitudinous photographic simulacrum.” We have arrived, as Fukuyama claims, at the End of History. Hegel’s Absolute Spirit has realized itself in the form of an immense archive of digital images. And these images aren’t freely available. Their copyrights most likely belong to Corbis, a “privately held” corporation owned entirely by Bill Gates.

Today, we understand history as a vast database of “information.” We haven’t lost the past, so much as we have discarded a particular way of contextualizing and narrating it. As Alexander Galloway puts it, today we process past events through “a specifically informatic mode of cybernetic typing: capture, transcoding, statistical analysis, quantitative profiling (behavioral or biological), keying attributes to specific numeric variables, and so on.” Actually, Galloway is describing “the modeling of history in computer code” in the video game Civilization and its sequels. In the game’s programming, “the diachronic details of lived life are replaced by the synchronic homogeneity of code pure and simple.” But this is not just a feature of computer games. Civilization is noteworthy because it is symptomatic; it replicates the overall way in which, today, we relate to the past. For us, history is a matter of vast, impersonal algorithms unfolding under the constraints of certain initial parameters, and searching the “possibility space” of the human database.

This is more an effect of commodity culture, than it is one of information technology per se. We have replaced the old-style, Hegelian logic of history with the (idealized) logic of the market, celebrated by Hayek as a superhuman, cybernetic information-processing mechanism. The past is available to us as a conglomeration of items among which we can pick and choose, and buy, according to our individual “preferences.” The market mechanism defines our possibilities in the present, and colonizes our hopes and dreams for the future; so it’s scarcely surprising that it remakes the past in its own image as well. It’s not entirely accurate for Galloway to say that the concreteness of “lived life” has been replaced by the abstractions of computer code. For the point is precisely that “lived life” has itself become a matter of immediate cybernetic control, quite concretely and existentially, thanks to the ubiquity of the market in an era of flexible accumulation. As Galloway himself mentions elsewhere, “flexibility allows for… universal standardization (another crucial principle of informatic control). If diverse technical systems are flexible enough to accommodate massive contingency, then the result is a more robust system that can subsume all comers under the larger mantle of continuity and universalism.”

This is precisely how history is recuperated after its end, in the Age of Aesthetics. If we view history in this flattened, reified way, as a collection of images-as-commodities, it is only because we reflexively assume that the past is homogeneous with the present. But perhaps it would be more accurate to say, not that history has ended, nor even that we have lost the sense of historicity, but rather that the past itself — the very object of history — has (retroactively) changed. As an effect of postmodern simulation, Jameson says, “the past is thereby itself modified.” It’s worth looking more closely at this phenomenon. Retcons (short for “retroactive continuity”) are common in comic books, TV series, movie sequels, and fantastic literature: an event in the course of the narrative changes the meaning,the content,or even the ontological status of events occurring previously in the narrative. For instance, when the character of Dawn, Buffy’s sister, is introduced in season five of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, all the other characters remember her as having been present during the events recounted in the previous four years of the series,even though she never appeared in any of those episodes.

Retconning becomes a systematic, structuring principle in Ursula LeGuin’s science fiction novel The Lathe of Heaven. The protagonist, George Orr, has the power (or the affliction) of dreaming dreams that become retroactively true, that change the past as well as the future. For instance, George goes to sleep in an overpopulated world; he dreams of a plague; when he wakes up, the world has never been overpopulated, because a plague wiped out most of the population years before. And everyone still alive vividly remembers this plague, remembers the horrors that it caused. Only George himself recalls the old reality,the one that has been retrospectively replaced. But is this not the way that History actually works? It’s a commonplace that history is written by the victors. The past is never secure from the future. As Walter Benjamin puts it, history is always at risk, because “even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he is victorious. And this enemy has never ceased to be victorious.”

Is it possible that all of world history has been retconned? Such is the premise of John Crowley’s novel AEgypt, and its sequels: “once, the world was not as it has since become. It once worked in a different way than it does now; it had a different history and a different future. Its very flesh and bones, the physical laws that governed it, were other than the ones we know.” What changed the world, altering its past as well as its future,was a “disjuncture in time,” a series of catastrophic events in the early seventeenth century: “a storm of difference sweeping all the old world away, a storm composed of the Thirty Years’ War, of tercios, Wallenstein, fire and sword; of Reason, Descartes, Peter Ramus, Bacon, and of Unreason too, the witches on their gibbets aflame.” At the point of this crisis, modern scientific reason and quantitative calculation took the place of the Renaissance faith in magic; reason and calculation established themselves, retroactively, as always having been valid. The result is that today, it unavoidably seems to us that things have always worked the way they do now, and that people in the past “really dwelt in the same world I dwell in.” We cannot imagine things ever having been different. And yet the AEgypt tetralogy narrates an obsessive search for the signs of such a difference, for obscure traces that might have survived the catastrophe.

We may allegorize the “disjuncture in time” dramatized in AEgypt as the rise of capitalism — even though Crowley himself never explicitly puts it this way. For capitalism is, among other things, a vast machine for imposing its own retrospective continuity upon everything it encounters. As it moves from formal to real subsumption, it increasingly recasts everything in its own terms, and according to its own logic. It thereby transforms the contingency of its own emergence into a necessity. Capitalism’s totalizing ambition makes it unique in world history; indeed, it is only under capitalism that we can conceive such a thing as a world or universal history, and thereby such a thing as the end of history. As Deleuze and Guattari argue,”capitalism is the only social machine that is constructed on the basis of decoded flows, substituting for intrinsic codes an axiomatic of abstract quantities in the form of money.” That is to say, capitalism doesn’t just replace one set of qualitative distinctions (one “code”) with another set. Rather, it effaces qualitative distinctions altogether, by translating them into the terms of a universal equivalent (money as a uniform and purely quantitative distinction). For this reason, capitalism is “the limit of all societies, insofar as it brings about the decoding of the flows that the other social formations coded and overcoded.” This is what makes it so difficult, even for Marx himself, to comprehend “pre-capitalist economic formations” in other than capitalistic terms. We inevitably understand these other societies as embodying features of capitalism in utero; or else as engaged in warding off, resisting in advance, the futurity of capitalism’s advent. In this way, the grotesque picture of Homo oeconomicus — of human beings as nothing but rational, self-interested actors, each individual disconnected from all the others — is back-projected into all of history.