Archive for June, 2006


Thursday, June 29th, 2006

The Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies has just published three reviews of my book Connected, together with my reply, here.

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.

Commodity Time

Tuesday, June 20th, 2006

Commodities bring us into a special relationship with time. That is to say, commodities are at the heart of how we relate to ourselves. For time is the privileged medium of our inner lives; it is the very substance of introspection. As Kant puts it,”time is nothing but the form of inner sense, i.e., of the intuiting we do of ourselves and of our inner state.” And in the world of commodities, this “inner sense” is organized around the rhythms of consumption — or, more precisely, of buying. Commodities seem to beckon to us from an eternal now, a perpetual present. The time to buy is always right away. There’s an urgency to it, brooking no delay. “I needed to buy them now” (Scott Westerfeld, So Yesterday) could be the mantra of every shopper.

The whole experience of shopping is focused upon a magic moment,the delirious instant of acquisition. In its splendid isolation, the commodity narrows time — and therefore the self — to an infinitesimal point. Becky Bloomwood,the heroine of Sophie Kinsella’s Confessions of a Shopaholic, knows this feeling well: “That moment. That instant when your fingers curl round the handles of a shiny, uncreased bag — and all the gorgeous new things inside it become yours. What’s it like? It’s like going hungry for days, then cramming your mouth full of warm buttered toast. It’s like waking up and realizing it’s the weekend. It’s like the better moments of sex. Everything else is blocked out of your mind. It’s pure, selfish pleasure.”

So the inner experience of commodity time is that of a perpetual imminence: a pure present, without retentions and protentions, always on the verge of simply fulfilling itself. This “now” marks a rupture from the past, from anything that came before. And it doesn’t really look towards the future,either,since the act of taking possession is itself the point, rather than anything I might actually do with the items that I have just bought. As Jameson puts it, in the world of commodities we experience “a series of pure and unrelated presents in time… the breakdown of temporality suddenly releases the present of time from all the activities and intentionalities that might focus it and make it a space of praxis; thereby isolated, that present suddenly engulfs the subject with undescribable vividness.” This present is a moment of solipsistic fullness,heavy with a feeling of “just-about-to”; everything trembles on the verge of revelation. Jameson compares this experience to the clinical condition of schizophrenia, with its “breakdown of the signifying chain.” When the commodity stands forth, or shines, duration shrinks to zero,and consciousness contracts to an infinitely dense, dimensionless point.

That’s what it feels like to be a consumer. But in the Age of Aesthetics, the same temporal structure also defines the process of production. The whole point of corporate aesthetic innovation, as we have seen, is really “aesthetic ageing”: to obsolesce and efface whatever came before, to eliminate the trace of the past in the present. And the novelty of the “latest and greatest” isn’t really directed towards the future either; since once a commodity is offered for sale, it is already set to be obsolesced and replaced in its own turn. The punctual present is the ideal state, or the limit, towards which capitalist production always strives, with its continual efforts to reduce circulation time to a minimum, and to accelerate the rate of turnover. In the Age of Aesthetics, just-in-time production and instantaneous communications have allowed Capital to come closer than ever before to this limit, to a pure present purged of all memories of the past and all anticipations of the future.

Of course, such a pure present is impossible. It cannot be sustained; it would not be a “present” any longer, if it were sustained. The absolute instant of production and consumption vanishes in the very movement by which it is posited. Capitalist production never actually attains its limit-ideal, for all that it pushes closer and closer to it. Even in the age of “business @ the speed of thought” (Bill Gates), production and distribution still require a finite, and not negligible, amount of time. And if Becky Bloomwood (or any other consumer) were able to remain in her state of ecstasy, how could she ever be induced to go shopping again? Consciousness itself, as Bergson says, requires a certain thickness of duration: “when one wishes to prepare a glass of sugared water one is obliged to wait until the sugar melts. This necessity for waiting is the significant fact.” Even in the Age of Aesthetics, we still have to wait. We can’t actually inhabit the punctual, schizophrenic present of commodity time. Becky is always being brought down from her shopping raptures by some unpleasant intrusion of the outside world: a voice that “interrupts my thoughts,” or — most often — a reminder of bills that have to be paid. Becky’s Visa cards and lines of credit are always overdrawn; and this, if nothing else, reintroduces duration into her life of sheer consumption.

The dynamic of commodity time is best captured, I think, in Deleuze’s account of the event. We have seen how difficult it is to distinguish between genuine events of creation (or production), and the “pseudo-events” of advertising and marketing (or consumption). But Deleuze introduces a more useful distinction, one that goes to the heart of the event itself,and that can apply to both production and consumption. An event, he says, is not exhausted by its actualization in the present. There is also — and here Deleuze crucially cites Maurice Blanchot — “that part of the event which cannot realize its accomplishment.” This is “the future and past of the event considered in itself, sidestepping each present, being free of the limitations of a state of affairs.” The schizophrenic pure present of commodity time is haunted by an unrealized past/future, by a surplus that is superadequate to any possible realization. On the side of production, this is the surplus that capital appropriates, and without which it would be unable to valorize itself, or to expand — but whose traces of otherness it is unable to eliminate. And on the side of consumption, this unrealized residue is the source of that sense of displacement, of not coinciding with myself, that I feel sometimes at the mall, even in the midst of my most ecstatic bouts of shopping. This unrealized, past/future dimension of the event introduces a gap into the present: a glitch or a hitch in the smooth process of capital’s self-valorization. Commodity time is riven by something spectral and impalpable, not properly present, a sort of hauntology.

I Am A Sex Addict

Friday, June 16th, 2006

Caveh Zahedi‘s I Am A Sex Addict is a brilliant film. (It’s playing in several cities across the country, but not in Detroit; I saw it on Comcast cable pay-per-view).The set-up is simple: Zahedi, playing himself, recounts the story of his sex addiction — specifically, his obsession with prostitutes — and how this addiction/obsession wreaked havoc on his various relationships over the years. All of Zahedi’s films are autobiographical; most of them involve (as this one does) re-enactments of real incidents in Zahedi’s life. Sex Addict brings these techniques to a new level; I think it is his best work to date.

What’s great about the film is the way it balances honesty and artifice, directness and reflection. Zahedi, wearing a tuxedo and about to get married, addresses the camera, addresses us. His tone is wry and somewhat detached; which is probably the only way anyone could recount something as potentially embarrassing and self-discrediting as the story Zahedi has to tell. Amidst a wealth of digressions, asides, and self-reflective comments, we hear about compulsive encounters with prostitutes, about struggles against compulsion and moments of giving into it, about ecstatic and spiritual moments, about honesty that wounds, about jealousy and depression and botched communication. The direct narration is mixed with re-enactments in a number of styles, including jump cuts, freeze-frames and low-res footage and animation. Actresses stand in for the women in Zahedi’s life; but we also get home-movie footage of the actual women in question, as well as asides on who the actresses themselves are. The re-enactments are not naturalistic; they employ various sorts of repetition (e.g. different prostitutes giving Zahedi what seems like the same blow job), sets that call attention to their own inauthenticity (San Francisco standing in for Paris, for instance), and various sorts of stylization in the acting (Zahedi’s screams as he is being pleasured, for instance).

We have a kind of cliche sense that confessional honesty needs to be delivered in a tone of wrenching anguish. One of the most noteworthy things about I Am A Sex Addict is the way that it demolishes this cliche. Has there ever been a film that is so raw in its self-revelations, and at the same time, not only so wry in the telling, but so highly mediated? The point, I think, is that there is no contradiction here, no opposition between truth and artifice. We live in a hypermediated world, and the media are part of the reality of that world. Godard said somewhere that film is not an image of reality, but rather the reality of that image. And that’s precisely what’s happening in Zahedi’s film. His relation with the video camera is as much a part of his subjectivity as any of the obsessions that he recounts and reenacts onscreen. The story of how he made the film, and of the divergence between the actresses on screen and the real people they portray, cannot be disentangled from the story of his addiction and how he overcame it.

There’s a beautiful moment near the end of the film where Zahedi recounts (and shows via animation) a Greek myth that I ididn’t know. It’s the story of the Sirens. These were singers whose beautiful songs lured sailors to their destruction. The familiar story, in the Odyssey, is about how Odysseus manages to outwit the Sirens, by putting wax in his sailors’ ears so they can’t hear the song, and having himself tied to the mast of the ship so that he cannot suicidally throw himself into the ocean when he hears them. But Zahedi tells a less familiar story: Jason and the Argonauts also escaped the Sirens; they did this by having Orpheus on board with them. Orpheus played a song that was so beautiful that it simply overwhelmed the poisonous beauty of the Sirens’ song. Zahedi is referring to his own (third and current) marriage, with which the film ends; the music of his current love, he tells us, has overwhelmed his prostitute obsession. But I Am A Sex Addict is itself also this more beautiful song, the transmogrification of pain and anguish into an art noteworthy for its clarity, distance, and lightness of touch.

In Milton Lumky Territory

Saturday, June 10th, 2006

In Milton Lumky Territory is one of Philip K. Dick’s non-science-fiction (i.e. “realist”) novels, that he wrote in the late 1950s, but that wasn’t published until after his death. It’s quite an affecting book, based on that 1950s obsession, the figure of the traveling salesman (cf. Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman). It’s set in Idaho — Boise, mainly, though the characters get all over the West when they are on the road — and really concerns the dreams and dead ends of small-town America (as it was already starting to vanish when Dick wrote the novel). What’s peculiar (and compelling) about it is the way it drowns itself in the hopelessly mundane. Most of the novel is about Bruce Stevens’, the main character’s, quest to make a killing by getting a franchise for, and selling, imported Japanese electronic typewriters. He never succeeds, but the way the novel obsessively details his quest, the deals he cuts, the tests he makes, the things he learns about typewriters, and the endless hours he puts in driving from Boise to San Francisco to Pocatello to Seattle to Boise to Reno and back to Boise — all this becomes almost surreal, just because the focus is so narrow, so doggedly persistent, so unrelieved by adventure or difference.

The eponymous Milton Lumky is not the protagonist of the novel, but a subsidiary character, somebody Bruce Stevens meets: a bitter, twisted, cynical and ironic traveling salesman who seems to embody what Bruce might be in danger of turning into, if he weren’t so unimaginative and all-American. But Bruce is incapable of insight; he seems never to have emotionally outgrown his teen years. Besides his fixation on selling typewriters, 24-year-old Bruce meets and marries a woman, Susan, who is ten years his senior, and who in fact had been his fifth-grade teacher. Bruce veers back and forth between submission to, and adolescent rebellion against, this maternal figure. Susan comes off as willful and smothering, but in a way that is sufficiently enigmatic (and sufficiently desirable to Bruce, and perhaps to the author as well) that she never fits into the misogynistic, castrating-bitch type who so often crops up when Dick writes female characters. The relationship is clearly doomed from the beginning, and the interaction between Bruce and Susan veers between self-deception and sheer incompatibility. Except that the novel ends, remarkably, with a regressive fantasy, in which Bruce — after having walked out on Susan for good — first reverts back to the fifth grade, and his fixation on Susan as his teacher, and then flashes forward from that to imagine them together, raising Susan’s daughter and running a small business, in reasonable contentment if not outright bliss. It’s a “happy ending” that the entire rest of the novel belies, and that startles because, as a fantasy, it is so pallid and humdrum — clearly Bruce cannot imagine anything other or better, and if he could, he would only drown in Milton Lumky bitterness — or worse. It’s as if this narrow, constricted universe were the only alternative to, or the only defense against, the schizophrenic horrors of Dick’s later, and greater, fiction. The oppressive ontological solidity of the novel is the flip side of, and just as alienating as, the continually shifting and collapsing realities of Dick’s major SF novels.

The New

Saturday, June 10th, 2006

Another rough draft from The Age of Aesthetics. Part of the problem here is that I have two oppositions which don’t necessarily fit together. One is modernist innovation, always involving antagonism, in contrast to corporate-promoted innovation today, which is non-antagonistic. The other is micro-social and micro-political collective innovation, versus the corporate capture and privatization of innovation. These two schemas of the politics of innovation don’t quite coincide the way my argument would like them to.

Anyway, here goes…

“The only way we’re going to survive is to innovate our way out of the box,” says management guru Tom Peters. “We’re down to one idea, which is innovation.” This statement is interesting both for its desperation, and for its certitude. The “box” of habit and routine is fatally constricting us. We must innovate, Peters says, because our very survival depends upon it, and because there is nothing else we can rely on. Permanent “management revolution,” based on the principle of “thriving on chaos,” is the only way to go. But innovation itself, or “thinking outside the box,” is the one thing that Peters does not ever doubt or question.

Innovation and the New remain our highest values in postmodernity and the Age of Aesthetics, just as they were in the age of twentieth-century modernism. The categorical imperative of our productive endeavors is still to “make it new.” But the sign of this imperative has been reversed; it has flipped over from negative to positive. Modernist creation was fundamentally antagonistic: “there is no affirmation which is not preceded by an immense negation” (Deleuze). “Making it new” had avant-gardist, anti-capitalist, or at least subversive and anti-conformist connotations;it was always opposed to the standardization and repetitiveness of mass production. (Even the fascist side of modernism — as in the Italian Futurists and Ezra Pound — was anti-capitalist in this sense). But today,in a world of flexible production and lifestyle marketing, the imperative to “make it new” is enthusiastically embraced by Capital. After all, corporations themselves are now mindful of diversity, and opposed to standardization and repetitive mass production. And so they embrace a perpetual newness that is upbeat and free of ntagonism. Continual “reinvention” is the watchword, both in corporate organization (the focus of Tom Peters’ interest) and in product design and marketing.

Does this mean that the very notion of change and the New has been compromised? Haug suggests that capitalist “aesthetic innovation is… basically aesthetic ageing — [marketers] are not interested in the new as such. Their determining aim is the outdating of what exists, its denunciation, devaluing,and replacement.” In this sense, the perpetual novelty of aestheticized commodities never actually leads to anything radically New. For capital itself cannot innovate. The New always comes from the outside,from beyond,or from below; all a corporation can do is internalize this outside, by channeling the flows, appropriating the innovations for itself. As Lazzarato beautifully says, paraphrasing Gabriel Tarde: “Everything first happens by multi-consciousness, and it is only afterwards that an invention manifests itself through a uni-consciousness… Invention is thus always an encounter,a hybridization,and a collaboration among a multiplicity of imitative flows — ideas, habits, comportments, perceptions, sensations — even when it takes place in an individual brain.” Encounters and hybridizations cannot be programmed or planned in advance; they are always contingent and unpredictable. The future remains open, with an undecidable margin for maneuvering. Every real event involves a moment of excess, a surplus of what happens over its provoking causes and necessary conditions. Innovation thus continually emerges,without warning, from what William James calls the “quasi-chaos” of moment-to-moment experience.

In this way, change is both continual and incremental. It takes place in a series of small, discrete steps; yet the additive effect of all these states is to produce a continuous chain. Or to state the paradox in other terms: innovation is at once singular and common, individual and collective, personal and anonymous. Somebody must have been the first person to play the blues, or to bake a pizza, or to wear a baseball cap backwards. But such singular innovative acts mean little by themselves. They only signify because they are part of a chain. Each micro-innovation depends on other micro-innovations that came before it; and each is taken up in subsequent adaptations and alterations. If these innovators have not become rich and famous from their work, if even their names have been forgotten, this is because their innovations usually pass undetected, as they are absorbed into the textures of everyday life. In any case, the innovations do not really “belong” to their inventors, for they are parts of an ongoing process that was going on before them, and that extends far beyond them. Innovation is thus the restless movement that William James calls “experience,” Bergson calls “elan vital,” and Whitehead calls “creative advance.”

What happens when coolhunters ferret out these innovations, and when corporations learn to “thrive” on the chaos of their making? The process of change is interrupted, and the continuous chain of inventions is broken up. A particular innovation is isolated andidentified; that is to say, it is privatized, capitalized, broadcast widely, and marketed on a massive scale. It is stamped with copyrights, patents, and trademarks. It is no longer anonymous and common. It becomes visible, as a discontinuous novelty, and as a mark of distinction or prestige. The innovation has become a commodity; an unremarked, self-determined practice has been captured in the form of a fixed object (it has been “reified”). It is now something that people will gladly pay for. The flux and reflux of “experience” is organized into a series of strategic aesthetic innovations. As consumers, we are plugged directly into this product renovation cycle. We crave novelty in order to stave off boredom. We continually need infusions of fresh commodities, just as vampire-capital continually need infusions of “living labor,” and just as vampires in general continually need infusions of fresh blood.

This means, in a certain sense, that capitalism always lags behind. Its frenzy for innovation is a consequence of the fact that it is always late. It must engage in a continual struggle to catch up with what is already happening in the “street.” This time lag is what totalizing theories of administration (Adorno),manipulation (Haug), and programming (Baudrillard) always miss. The New always comes from outside. Capitalist appropriation and accumulation are entirely dependent upon there being something outside, something beyond the system’s circuits of production and reproduction. Therehas to besomething — some surplus — for Capital to appropriate and accumulate. Otherwise it will give way to entropy, and slowly wind down.

Nonetheless, this Outside is very difficult to discern. It seems too facile, for instance,when Lazzarato distinguishes between the “event” of public, collaborative creation, and the “simulacrum of the event” or “pseudo-event” (99) of advertising and marketing. For even if these can be separated in principle, the former is entirely seized and covered over by the latter in practice. Lazzarato claims that “the dynamics of the event and of multiplicity are indigestible by capitalism.” But isn’t this a sort of lazy, hip (or even hippie) Deleuzianism? One that ignores all of Deleuze’s (and Guattari’s) work on capitalism’s infinite capacity for “axiomatization” and “capture” (or appropriation)? Events and multiplicities are precisely the things that capitalism does digest. They are its prey, and they constitute the terrain upon which it establishes its empire.

It seems nearly impossible to disentangle the innovation that happens in the “street” from the ways in which that innovation is recuperated and commoditized. Our entire society is saturated and driven by trends in fashion, marketing, and consumption. The entire physical, sensible world — the world we see and hear (and feel and smell) all around us, in our homes and on the streets and in the shopping malls, as well as on TVand on the Net — is organized and defined by corporate practices of aesthetic innovation. Under these conditions, the New as such cannot be extricated from aesthetic capitalism’s incessant drive for obsolescence and novelty. Today, the New is inextricably tied in with entrepreneurship, and with marketing, advertising, and branding. The distinction here is a formal, Kantian one. The event of the New,the process of innovation,always impacts us from outside. It must be given to our “sensibility,” in order for there to be social experience at all. But the “schemata” of our understanding, the ways in which we apprehend and make use of these innovations, are only provided by the commodity form. It is only through the process of corporate capture and marketing that the New is actualized, or made present, in the world.

And after this, I need to say something about the Antinomy between theories of manipulation and programming (e.g. Adorno, Baudrillard), which offer no hope of resistance; and theories of the primacy of collective creation by the multitude (Lazzarato, Hardt and Negri) who are absurdly optimistic as to the prospects for resistance and change. Hardt/Negri and Lazzarato are right, as against Adorno, in asserting the ontological priority of “living labor” or “general intellect” over capital’s recuperation or appropriation of this labor and intellect. But they are willfully naive to think that this ontologically primary process is accessible without passing through the circuits of capital — the necessity of this passage (on the Kantian grounds I mention above) is what Adorno’s pessimism correctly apprehends, and it is also what fuels Zizek’s criticism of Hardt/Negri. Similarly, what is wrong with a lot of contemporary cultural studies it that it assumes the efficacy of “resistance” after the entry on innovation into the circuits of capital — hence all the stuff about “resistant readings” of TV shows, genre fiction, etc. — whereas in fact such resistance doesn’t come after subsumption by capital — at that point, everything is already complicitous, as Adorno would say — but only before, in this ontologically prior, but largely inaccessible way. There’s no easy solution to this (Kantian) antinomy; any push towards one will involve projections of morality and desire (the 2nd Critique) and/or aesthetics (the 3rd Critique) rather than anything empirically accessible.

Try Another World

Sunday, June 4th, 2006

For want of anything better, another excerpt from The Age of Aesthetics. This one is a bit rough — still needs work (too many undigested quotations, for one thing).

The drive for aesthetic innovation goes far beyond the sale of individual products. “Ultimately,” Wolfgang Fritz Haug says, “the aestheticization of commodities means that they tend to dissolve into enjoyable experiences, or into the appearance of these experiences, detached from the commodity itself… By selling the commodity in the form of absolute consumption, the market remains unsatiated.” The aim of brands like Nike, Disney, Apple, Microsoft, and Sony is to market an experience, an entire lifestyle; to commodify a total organization of feeling and behavior. To fashion a world. “The corporation does not create the object (the commodity),” Mauricio Lazzarato writes, “but rather the world in which the object exists. It also doesn’t create the subject (worker or consumer), but rather the world in which the subject exists.” It’s Bill Gates’ world, or Steve Jobs’ world, or Disney’s world; we just live in it.

Aesthetic innovation, therefore, doesn’t just mean releasing a particular new product or design. It means creating a whole new world for that product or design to inhabit. And buying aesthetics is never just choosing one particular item over another. Rather, it means acceding to, adapting to, and learning how to live in this new world. It means adopting new habits, and moving to new rhythms. Every advertisement asks us, like the billboard looming over Gerard Depardieu in Jean-Jacques Beineix’s film The Moon in the Gutter (1983), to “Try Another World.” (It’s an advertisement for a brand of vermouth). The narrative of The Moon in the Gutter records the failure of Depardieu’s embittered working-class character to cross over into the hypercommodified dream world signaled by the billboard, and embodied in Nastassja Kinski’s elusive socialite. But the “look and feel” of the film — flawless surfaces, bright colors, sumptuous lighting, and carefully composed gestures — suggests the total triumph of commodity aesthetics, even for those who cannot afford to purchase its products. The world of The Moon in the Gutter is already entirely aestheticized and commodified,as if the whole story had been played out in advance. It’s a world where even Depardieu’s failure, disgust, and abjection are so perfectly sculpted, so carefully self-contained, as to offer no possibility of difference, no hope of an exit.

This is why advertising goes beyond particular products,to market the brand or the whole corporation. It is as if these stood apart,in a world of their own, beyond the commodities in which their value is embodied. Advertising today, Lazzarato says, is “an incitation, a solicitation, to adopt a manner of life, that is to say, to adopt a manner of dressing, a manner of having a body, a manner of eating, a manner of communicating, a manner of inhabiting, a manner of moving, a manner of having a style, a manner of speaking, etc.” It’s not what we have that matters, so much as how we act, and who we are. “What we call the market,” Lazzarato continues, “is really the constitution/capturing of a clientele.” That is to say, Apple doesn’t just want me to buy one of their computers; it wants me to become a customer, to become part of their clientele. And indeed, I identify myself as a Macintosh and iPod user,and I buy Apple’s products again and again. I am never done purchasing a lifestyle.

What Marshall McLuhan says about the innovative power of (technological) media applies as well to aesthetic innovation in product design and marketing. “All media work us over completely,” McLuhan says. “They are so persuasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical, and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered.” And again, “any invention or technology is an extension or self-amputation of our physical bodies, and such extension also demands new ratios or new equilibriums among the other organs and extensions of the body. There is, for example, no way of refusing to comply with the new sense ratios or sense ‘closure’ evoked by the TV image.” But Haug similarly notes that commercial aesthetic innovation “continually changes humankind as a species in their sensual organization, in their real orientation and material lifestyle, as much as in the perception, satisfaction, and structure of their needs.” For commodities “breed modes of behavior, structure perception, sensations, and power of judgment, shaping our language, clothing, and understanding of ourselves, our attitudes,and above all our relationship to our bodies.” Aesthetic innovation, in short, involves a remaking of the human body, and a mutation of the whole human sensorium.

In the Age of Aesthetics, we become monstrous: hybrids, chimeras, cyborgs. McLuhan attributes these changes to the new electronic media technologies of the twentieth (and now, the twenty-first) century. But we also need to grasp this monstrous metamorphosis as a process intrinsic to Capital itself, in its infinite, ever-expanding circulation, its relentless process of self-valorization. If Capital, in Marx’s famous phrase, is “vampire-like,” and if we as workers provide the “living labor” on which the vampire-capital feeds, then we as consumers are the vampire’s fanatical devotees, Renfields to its Dracula: heralds of its arrival, and celebrants of its exploitative excess.