Jonathan Beller’s new (but long in preparation) book, The Cinematic Mode of Production: Attention Economy and the Society of the Spectacle, is, I think, the most important work of film theory since Deleuze’s two Cinema volumes appeared more than two decades ago. Or, even better, forget the qualifier “film”: Beller’s book is the first important work of aesthetics, or of “theory” generally, of the new century. (I don’t usually find myself agreeing with Le Colonel Chabert; but the Colonel is right on the mark as concerns Beller).
The Cinematic Mode of Production actually accomplishes what many of us have been trying to do for some time now: to give an account of the crucial role of aesthetic culture — what Adorno called the “culture industry,” what McLuhan called the electronic media, what many thinkers have called the “postmodern” — in our age of globalized, neoliberal capitalism. Fredric Jameson argued, nearly a quarter century ago, that, in the postmodern era, “everything in our social life — from economic value and state power to practices and to the very structure of the psyche itself — can be said to have become ‘cultural’ in some original and yet untheorized sense” (Postmodernism 48). And he added that this dominance of the ‘cultural’ needed to be understood in terms of the development of mass-dissemination media (film, television, video, and — in the years since he wrote — digital, computer-based media as well; together with telephony and other media of instantaneous global communication). But neither Jameson nor anybody else has been able to theorize this process, to give an adequate account of just how it works. Until now. Beller’s book is at once audacious in its overall conception, cogent in its almost obsessively detailed argumentation and presentation, and far-reaching in its implications. Nobody who wants to deal seriously with the fate of “culture” in this age of astonishing new technologies, and equally overwhelming new mutations in the forms of exploitation and domination, will be able to ignore this book.
Beller argues that “cinema” (a term that needs unpacking, as I will discuss below) is not just the typical art form (or what Jameson would call the “cultural dominant”) of the last century; but that it has become — actually and not just metaphorically — the reigning mode of production of what we now know as “post-industrial” capitalism. That is to say, it is not only the case that the dominant world economy of today — with its massive production and circulation of commodities, and its continuing accumulation of capital, through the extraction of more and more surplus value in processes of hyperexploitation — is represented, or epitomized, in the cinematic production, circulation, and accumulation of images. But also, these basic economic processes (production, circulation, exploitation, and accumulation) are actually accomplished in and through the cinema. Capitalism today is machined, or machinated, by the cinematic apparatus above all. We have passed, in the course of the past century, from an industrial mode of production to a cinematic one.
In making this assertion, Beller draws heavily, not just on Jameson, but also on Horkheimer and Adorno, with their analyses of the culture industry; on Guy Debord, with his prescient intuition (in The Society of the Spectacle) that, in media society, “the spectacle is capital to such a degree of accumulation that it becomes an image” (Paragraph 34); and on Baudrillard, with his accounts of a society of hyperreal simulation. But he fleshes out the work of these theoretical precursors in several ways. Beller takes full account of the fact that, today, the commodification of experience, of the everyday, and of “leisure time,” has progressed still further than Horkheimer and Adorno imagined; and that the proliferation of media images that we take for granted today has exceeded even the hyperbolic terms of Debord’s account. And he registers the full force of Baudrillard’s descriptions of simulation, but thankfully without giving way to Baudrillard’s reactive hysteria, or Baudrillard’s compulsion to throw out the (Marxist) baby together with the bathwater (of a certain tired metaphysics of Labor and Production).
[Side note: It is remarkable how quickly Baudrillard — whose apocalyptic rhetoric was oh-so-chic in the late 1980s and early 1990s — has gone from being a prophet of urgency and extremity to somebody whose observations are now so banal, obvious, self-evident, and taken-for-granted, that it is scarcely possible to imagine any longer what the fuss was about, or why anyone thought there was something earth-shattering about making such assertions. Today, Baudrillard just seems like a nostalgic whiner, yearning for a past that never existed, and failing to grasp that what he described, with rhetorical grandiosity, as “the extermination of the Real”, is in fact nothing more than capitalist business as usual.]
Beller argues that cinematic images are not just representations of capital, but that they actually are capital. In several senses. First of all, in the sense of circulation. In Marx’s account, capitalism is characterised by the commodity form, and by the incessant circulation of commodities. Without this circulation, all the exploitation in the world would come to naught. Profit (surplus-value) could not be realized, and production would come to a halt (as indeed happens in times of crisis, i.e. depression). But commodities, as Marx famously argued, are marked by a curious duplicity, that of the split between use-value and exchange-value. We (as workers/consumers) are presumably buying commodities for their use to us. Yet we pay for them in an exchange of equivalents (we get money for our commodified work, and we purchase commodities — necessities and luxuries — with that money), a process which foregrounds their exchange-value rather than their use-value. Commodities are objects of desire, or fetishes, because the “value” that seems magically stored in them, rather than on account of how we actually might make use of them. Thus the split, or alienation, of workers from what they produce by means of their labor (since the products of that labor are expropriated from them) is mirrored and doubled by an alienation, on the side of the object produced, of its monetary worth (its exchange-value) from what it actually does, or even from the desires and fantasies that it sustains (all these can be chalked up to use-value, which — contra Baudrillard — has nothing to do with any sort of nostalgic essentialism — as I discussed here). The exchange-value of the commodity is something more like its aesthetic appeal, or the value it embodies as a brand, as an object of prestige or emulation, as an entirely stereotypical and conventional sign of what is nonetheless imagined to be a personal “expression.” [You might say that things like prestige, expression, and emulation, which are the very point of pre-capitalist systems of exchange, but which are banished from the (supposed) rationality of exchange in capitalist society, return in spectral, alienated form as exchange-value]. And this is why, as Debord postulated and as Beller explains in great detail, the commodity increasingly tends to the status of an image.
So the tendency towards abstraction and rationalization that drives capitalist commodity exchange (and that, indeed, renders this exchange possible in the first place) can be described as a becoming-image of the commodity, which is to say, of all objects and subjects, of everything and everyone. Consuming commodities increasingly means consuming their images: buying them because they are “cool”, identifying with their brands, extracting experiences (which is to say, affects) from them, and moving through the process of their circulation and consumption at an ever-increasing speed. And cinema (together with its successors in video and television, and in digital media) is what most fully realizes this becoming-image. Think of the great scene in Godard’s Les Carabiniers (not mentioned by Beller), in which the father and son come home from the wars, and display to the wife and sister the plunder from their travels: postcards of all the wonders of the world). Beller describes cinema, in great detail, as a machine for circulating images and their affects, for exchanging them one for another, for inciting us to consume them in their very distance (or “alienation”) from us, and for swallowing up the entirety of society and social action (production) in this fantasmagoria of images and their circulation.
Beller argues all this, amazingly, through a bravura reading of Dziga Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera — the avant-garde, revolutionary Soviet silent film of the 1920s that is also Lev Manovich’s reference point for his (much more formalistic) account of the post-cinematic Language of New Media. In Beller’s reading, Man With A Movie Camera succeeds in giving a self-conscious and critical account of how society is bound together in processes of the circulation of commodities, but fails to move beyond critique and actually provide an alternative (“socialist”) mode of circulation. Later cinema “forgets” Vertov’s critique, but continues unconsciously to embody the circulation processes that Vertov at least gave us a critical awareness of, at the same time that he fell victim to it.
Beyond, or beneath, circulation, in Marx’s account of capitalism, lies production. (Though I am not sure that “beyond” or “beneath” is the proper preposition to use here). Beller’s second, and even more audacious, thesis, is that cinema is a scene of production, as well as being one of circulation. Production, for Marx, is where exploitation takes place, where surplus value is actually extracted from laboring workers — although this surplus-value can only be realized through a successful round of circulation. To say that cinema is productive is to say that labor is performed there — that the spectator or consumer is also a worker, and that the act of watching films or television or something on the Net is — literally, not just analogically or metaphorically — an act of productive labor, for which the spectator is paid (but paid less than the value produced, so that surplus value can be extracted).
In asserting this, Beller builds upon, but goes beyond, Horkheimer and Adorno’s vision of the commodification of leisure time. Movie and television watching is productive labor, for several reasons. In the first place, looking is productive of value because of what is sometimes called the “network effect”: the more a network or platform or piece of software is used, by more and more people, the more valuable it becomes. Beller argues that, similarly, the value of an image increases the more it is viewed; when we look at an image we are also looking at all the previous glances at it by others. The more people use the Windows operating system, or listen to music on their iPods, the more value is added to Windows and to the iPod, so that these commodities outdistance their competitors. In the same way, celebrity operates by a sort of positive feedback: it feeds upon, and is amplified by, its own success. The more people watch Brad Pitt movies (or for that matter, papparazzi photos of Brad Pitt in “real life”), the more the celebrity value of Brad Pitt increases.
In the second place, and even more importantly, cinema spectatorship (and its equivalents or replacements in television watching, computer game playing, and so on) is a kind of affective apprenticeship, an education (or better, a molding) of the senses. McLuhan taught us that any change in media works over our senses entirely; though Beller scarcely acknowledges McLuhan at all, his work can be read as an example of the McLuhanite Marxism I have long called for. As Beller argues, our perceptions and affects, and through them our entire subjectivity, are shaped and processed by how we interact with images, how we use (and are used by) media. Cinema makes each of us into the sort of psychological subject that meets the requirements of capital (i.e. that allows it to extract from us as much surplus value as possible). And more, cinema then itself enacts this very process of attraction, by capitalizing on our awareness, our effort, and our attention. This is most obvious in terms of content (if one thinks of product placement in movies and television shows, for example); but it works most profoundly in terms of form (the medium is the message), as we are in effect paid (in pleasure and affective intensity, if not in money) in return for the capture of our attention (which, like labor-power in Marx’s account, is a finite and therefore scarce resource) as itself a saleable commodity (think of television advertisements, or today the kind of individually-targeted advertising tha Google provides on the Web). The cinema machine extracts surplus labor-power from us, in the form of our attention; it pays us for this by affording us the resources that allow us to renew and reproduce our labor-power (in this case, our attention) so that surplus value can be extracted from it anew. The exchange is always a formally equal one, which nonetheless always involves a surplus on one side of the equation (so that Google grows and grows while we in effect tread water, or run continually, like the Red Queen, merely in order to stay in the same place).
Just as Beller uses Vertov to make his argument about cinema as not just a commodity among others, but the very scene of the circulation of commodities, so he uses Eisenstein — referring both to his extensive writings on the theory of film, and to his first feature, Strike (1925) — to examine how cinematic spectatorship is a form of productive labor. Beller goes into great detail on Eisenstein’s interest in, and use of, the disciplinary techniques of Pavlov (in the realm of individual psychology) and of Taylor (in the organization of the workplace). The Soviet Union’s adoption of Pavlovian psychology, together with its importation of Taylorist management techniques from capitalist America, are crucial to the story of how the Soviet state ended up reproducing the oppressive logic of capital, rather than resisting it. “The calculated orchestration of the audience’s emotions and activities, so much a part of Eisenstein’s filmwork, was in many ways in direct contradiction to the explicit thematics of Eisenstein’s films” (p. 127). But no McLuhanite will be surprised that the dictatorial form of the medium wins out over the supposedly liberatory content. Eisenstein’s instrumental rationality, his view of the audience as a target to be manipulated, or as a mass of individuals whose consciousness would be re-forged and transformed by his despotic cinematic machine, makes Eisenstein into much more the self-conscious inventor of the manipulative Hollywood template, than a revolutionary alternative to it.
Beller goes on to elaborate his argument, by specifying the actual ways in which the cinematic machine captures and capitalizes attention, molds the sensorium, and produces the particular form of subjectivity (a kind of lateral surface, without depths or interiority, without a grounding in any sort of “history,” and traversed by intensities or waves of impersonal affect) that we now recognize as “postmodern.” In the course of arguing this, he offers a radical rereading of Lacan (that I find brilliant, though it is so one-sided and tendentious that it will make orthodox Lacanians scream) in order to argue that the Freudian/Lacanian unconscious is itself an historical construct, an effect of capitalist social and economic relations. Beller also delightfully suggests that The Matrix is a “social-realist” film, and expounds on the virtues of Beavis and Butt-head Do America and Natural Born Killers as paradigmatic explorations of the cinematic mode of production today. (I cannot express how much I love Beller’s suggestion that Beavis and Butt-head Do America is, in effect, the “truth” of Wim Wenders’ insufferably pretentious Until the End of the World). But I will not further summarize Beller’s chapter-by-chapter argument, because I want to get on to some more general points.
In all his argumentation, Beller follows Marx and Marxist theory extremely closely, even though he adapts the theory to circumstances (the postmodern mediascape) that Marx never envisioned. To my mind, this is a much more fruitful revival of Marxist theory than one finds in the merely rhetorical/exhortational use of Marx that one finds (for instance) in Derrida’s Specters of Marx, or in the analogistic use of Marx one finds in Zizek (for whom surplus value becomes merely a premonition of Lacanian “surplus enjoyment,” so that exploitation, as a material process, is displaced by a subjective and psychological process that is merely transferred from an individual to a group level).
There is, however, one major revision Beller makes to Marxist theory. This is the recognition that, in the “social factory” (as the Italian Autonomists have called it) that we live in today, circulation is itself directly productive, and cannot be distinguished from production per se. That is to say, circulation no less than formal production is a process in the course of which value is added in the form of living labor, and surplus value is extracted. This contrasts with Marx’s own frequently repeated assertion that circulation involves a faux frais of production: that circulation costs are a wasteful consequence of capitalist inefficiency, and that for the most part these costs must be deducted from surplus value, rather than adding to it. I remember, when I first read Capital in a reading group, in graduate school, something like thirty years ago, how much difficultly we all had with Marx’s distinction between those parts of circulation which were productive, and those parts which were not. It seemed to us that Marx was (quite unusually) splitting hairs, or that he was making too much of a distinction that was more a transient problem of the 19th century, than something deeply (structurally) intrinsic to the movement of capital. Today, when we have passed from the “formal” to the “real” subsumption of all life processes under capital, and when everything we do (even outside the formal workplace) becomes a target for the extraction of surplus value, when capital puts our senses and our subjectivity to work, 24/7 — today all of circulation must be subsumed within production, as a place of exploitation rather than a faux frais. So I am very much in accord with Beller when he says that “if the circulation of capital is not grasped simultaneously as productive and exploitative, then there is no more Marxism… in cinematic spectatorship we are dealing with what the sociologists today call ‘disguised wage labor’.” (page 115).
In this way, Beller resolves a problem that has long been endemic to Marxist cultural and aesthetic theory. In endeavoring to describe the relation between “culture” and political economy, we have been stuck with the alternative of either adopting a crude reductionism that simply reduces the former to the latter, via some sort of reflectionism or functionalism (this is what has often been called “vulgar Marxism”); or else arguing periphrastically for the “relative autonomy” of the “superstructure” from the “base,” so that, although the latter is still acknowledged as determining the former, this is the case only “in the last instance,” and by means of a dubiously lengthy series of mediations (as Althusser writes almost plaintively, “the lonely hour of the last instance never arrives”). Beller cuts the Gordian knot of these unsatisfying alternatives, by proposing what seems to me to be (though he never calls it this) a Spinozistic solution. There is no dualism of base and superstructure in Beller’s model, just as there is no dualism of body and mind in Spinoza’s metaphysics. But neither is there collapse of one of these levels into the other — Beller rejects “vulgar Marxism” and cultural autonomy alike, just as Spinoza rejects mechanism and occasionalism alike. Instead, we have relations of immanence without identity. For Beller, in effect, money and image, finance and cinema, are different modes of the same substance (Capital), in much the same way that body and mind are different modes of the same substance (God) in Spinoza. Cinema and its images do not reflect or represent the Real of capitalism; they are that Real, under a different aspect. Capital logic and cinematic logic are, directly, the same logic, rather than the latter merely being a reflection or an illustration of the former.
Of course, I don’t think Beller’s book is without flaws. There are things I disagree with, or have difficulty with. One of these concerns forms of response, or resistance. Beller fluctuates between a sense that capital logic is so totalizing, so all-embracing, that it is nearly impossible to escape it; and a contrary insistance, which is (unfortunately) more rhetorically asserted than theoretically articulated, that celebrates the possibility of resistance and revolution. This latter, optimistic strain takes the form of a repetition of Hardt and Negri’s thesis that the creativity of the working class (or, today, of the multitude) is primary, and that all the machinations of capital, which have resulted today in the nightmare of neoliberal, post-Fordist globalization, are merely secondary and defensive recuperations (or, in Nietzschean-Deleuzian parlance, reactive).
Yet little of the book’s concrete analysis supports this revolutionary optimism. Through most of the book, when Beller cites the possibility of an oppositional cinematic practice (or image practice) at all, he simply calls (rather lamely) for works that “relentlessly endeavor to decode the conditions of their own formation” (page 82, note 15) — which is just the old-style idea of self-reflexivity-as-critical-distanciation, something that was beloved of the avant-garde of the first half of the twentieth century, but that “postmodern” image practice has almost entirely co-opted and defanged. Anyone who watches contemporary music videos, for instance, knows that this strategy doesn’t work any more; the image/commodity’s explicit reflection on the the conditions of its own formation, only adds to its fetishistic allure.
The book ends with citations from theory (Angela Davis) and cultural practice (Immortal Technique) as examples of alternative, resistant cultural forms. The problem is both that these come across merely as isolated instances, and that the resistance they express seems to be articulated exclusively on the plane of content, so that they do not really address (or provide counter-examples to) the issues of media form that the book as a whole so powerfully addresses. (In fairness, I haven’t seen Beller’s other book, Acquiring Eyes, which he presents as the praxis-oriented companion text to The Cinematic Mode of Production. This other book is published in the Philippines, and is not available in the US through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or Powell’s — which tells you something about international systems of distribution).
I think that the properly “dialectical” answer to this dilemma is not to assert that capital is merely “reactive” after theorizing its nearly omnipotent power; but rather to look at th ambiguities, and points of breakdown, in capital logic (which is also to say, cinematic/image logic) itself. We know today that crisis (whether economic, or aesthetic/affective) no longer provides the leverage Marx thought it would have for dislodging or overthrowing the system, because Capital itself uses its unavoidable crises in order to rejuvenate itself. But this doesn’t mean that what Deleuze and Guattari call lines of flight, or points of undecidability, are impossible. It just means that, when Capital has swallowed, internalized, and extracted surplus value from every conceivable Outside, it is from within its horizon that we can, and must, find (or manufacture) new Outsides, new points of articulation. Beller is very aware of this sort of slippery, ambiguous, yet absolutely necessary margin of slippage within capital logic itself in his wonderful discussion of Vertov; but it seems to vanish when he gets closer to the present moment.
And this brings me to my other point of contention. Despite everything Beller says, and despite the power of his genealogy of the commodity-as-image, I remain unconvinced that “cinema” is the right word to use for the image/commodity mode of production that we find ourselves inside today, in the age of neoliberalism and post-Fordism. That is to say, while I find Beller’s genealogy entirely convincing, I wonder whether we haven’t reached a point where (as Beller likes to say) changes in quantity have led to a change in quality, as we move from cinema (imbricated with the Fordist assembly line) to television and video, and today to computer-mediated communications and digital media of expression. I don’t think we live in a cinematic age (or mode of production) any longer, but in another media regime entirely. This is a case, I am afraid, in which critical theory is failing to keep up with the metamorphoses of Capital itself, in which we still do not know how to be “as radical as reality itself.” Beller’s theorization therefore ultimately fails, in much the way that (according to his analysis) Vertov failed in his nonetheless brilliant and inspiring cinematic project. I certainly don’t have any of the answers that I find missing in Beller; but I think that, at the very least, The Cinematic Mode of Production is a necessary starting point for any future discussions.