Archive for February, 2008

Daniel Plainview

Wednesday, February 20th, 2008

Stephanie Zacharek complains that Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance as Daniel Plainview in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood is an enormous misfire:

Day-Lewis doesn’t so much give a performance as offer a character design, an all-American totem painstakingly whittled from a twisted piece of wood… I recently received an e-mail letter from a professional actor who was dismayed both by Day-Lewis’ performance and by audiences’ response to it: “Weird how so many people confuse ‘acting that you can see’ with great acting,” he wrote — as concise and honest a summation of the way we want to be impressed by craft as I’ve ever read…. Day-Lewis plays emotions, not objectives — that is, he decides on the emotion, or the effect, instead of allowing the emotion to emerge from the situation. We may know what Plainview is feeling (or not feeling) by the look on his face, but Day-Lewis, hampered by his heavy brocade cloak of technique, is less effective at navigating the fine gradations of action necessary to define a supposedly complex character. Why does Plainview feel and act the way he does? We never know… His performance in “There Will Be Blood” is wrought, not felt: It shows the grit of discipline and forethought but lacks spontaneity, fire, life… Day-Lewis portrays Daniel Plainview as if he were playing to a mirror, not an audience. The character’s self-loathing comes off, paradoxically and unintentionally, as a manifestation of an actor’s self-love…. Caught in the trappings of supposed greatness, [Day-Lewis] is just an actor, a puppeteer pulling a series of color-coded strings to make us think and feel.

(via Green Cine)

I quote this remarkable critique at length because I think it is a brilliant description of Day-Lewis’s performance. Except for one thing. Everything that Zacharek deplores about the performance is precisely what, to my mind, makes it so great. Day-Lewis’ performance “lacks spontaneity, fire, life,” because Daniel Plainview as a character is entirely devoid of these attributes. He’s an empty shell, a hollow man, a mask without a face, a collection of annoying tics and raging drives with no interiority behind it.

Or — to cite yet another blog — as American Stranger rightly put it, “Plainview is not really a character, not a psychological or biographical portrait of a human being, but a mask. There is more than a void behind it (no existentialism here) but far less than a man. ‘He’ is simply capital embodied in the shape of a familiar archetype…”

Day-Lewis’ mannerism is perfectly suited to this sort of (non)character. I think of the moment when the preacher boy Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) comes to Plainview to ask to bless the opening of the well. Plainview pauses (discomfited), then says (in a slightly stilted manner) words to the effect of how kind of you, yes, I will be glad for you to do that. And then, in the very next scene, Plainview ignores Eli entirely when he is opening the well, bringing forth Eli’s sister instead, keeping his face blank so as to offer no response to Eli’s own first imploring, and then angry looks.

At the end of the film, in Plainview’s final confrontation with Eli, Day-Lewis plays the part no differently; there is therefore a weirdly discomfiting disconnect between affective expression and action. And this is true of everything he does in the film. No matter how crazed, raging, and over-the-top Plainview’s words and actions are, the acting is not over-the-top at all; it remains bizarrely, overly mannered, and therefore disconcertingly flat and distanced.

And this utterly mannered “inauthenticity” is in fact the most terrifying thing about Plainview: it would be far more comforting if he were to rant and rage, or even just to hint at an inner life (no matter how inaccessible to us) in the way that Orson Welles does as Charles Foster Kane, or that John Huston does as Noah Cross in Chinatown (to name just some of the performances to which Day-Lewis’s has wrongly been compared).

For Plainview has no feelings to hide, let alone to express or to confess; as “capital personified,” he is truly Homo economicus, every move and gesture calibrated according to some calculus of utility maximization. One of the charming paradoxes of capitalist society is precisely that human beings almost never act in the ways that they are supposed to, according to “rational choice” theory or neoclassical economic theory; only Capital itself “behaves” this way. Even Plainview’s rashest and most impulsive acts, like the murders he commits, are crimes of calculation, or at least of mechanism, rather than crimes of passion. (Of course, murder is not “utility maximizing” if you get caught and prosecuted; but we are given little sense that Plainview ever will be).

In this way, Day-Lewis’ performance gives us a precise and powerful sense of just how “inhuman” and “monstrous,” capital-logic, or action according to so-called revealed preference, can be. Marx famously compared Capital to a vampire, dead labor feeding on living labor. There Will Be Blood suggests that the more accurate figure would be a zombie: Capital as undead, as animated from the outside by raging vitalistic forces, and utterly unable to “subjectively assume” these forces. Capitalism as a form of acting that gives (in Zacharek’s words) “a stylized performance rather than a naturalistic one.”

However, I must add that, in its stylization and antirealism, Day-Lewis’ performance precisely is naturalistic — understanding “naturalism” in the sense of Zola’s novels, or of von Stroheim’s Greed (the film of which There Will Be Blood is, as it were, the postmodern version). Naturalism, as Deleuze says in his discussion of von Stroheim, “describes a precise milieu, but … also exhausts it.” We do not get psychological portraits in naturalism, rather, “impulses are extracted from the real modes of behavior current in a determinate milieu, from the passions, feelings, and emotions which real men experience in this milieu” (Cinema 1, page 124). Day-Lewis’s performance is extracted from the milieu of feral-capitalist-early-20th-century-California in the same way that silver, and then oil, are extracted from the ground (hence the overwhelming physicality of Plainview digging underground in the almost wordless first ten minutes of the movie, as well as the visceral violence of the oil rig on fire, which conveys a “phallic” emotional charge in a way that Plainview himself — in Day-Lewis’ rigorous performance — never does). Plainview is a creature of “impulses” that never become “subjectified.” (The absolute equivalence between naturalist “impulse” and capitalist “rational calculation” is not in the least paradoxical, though it is a delicious irony of capitalist society, and one that could never have arisen in any other sort of social formation).

The way that Day-Lewis “inhabits” the (non)character of a soulless man who is entirely a vessel of Capital is even more astonishing than the way that, nearly two decades ago, he was able to inhabit the body and soul of a man ravaged by cerebral palsy, and inwardly triumphant over his outer adversity. In a few days, we will see if the Academy has the wit to award Day-Lewis a second Oscar.

Dubious quote of the week

Tuesday, February 19th, 2008

Barbara Ehrenreich, in The Huffington Post, on Obama:

“We, perhaps white people especially, look to him for atonement and redemption.”

But isn’t that precisely the problem? Obama as “Magical Negro”, absolving white people of their racist guilt? (thanks to Minister Faust for this reference…).

From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain

Tuesday, February 19th, 2008


Minister Faust‘s SF novel, From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain, had me laughing from the first page to the last. But the book is also a mind-boggling, multi-leveled allegory of racism and corporate fascism in America today. Dr. Brain is so chock-full of references to pop culture figures and political events alike that it is virtually a roman a clef — except that the people and events it refers to inhabit the Marvel and DC universes as well as the one we actually live in. (There’s an excerpt from the novel here).

From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain presents itself as a psychological self-help-manual-cum-case-history for comic-book superheroes: Unmasked!: When Being A Superhero Can’t Save You From Yourself. The author of this self-help book, and thereby the narrator of the novel, is one Dr. Brain (or, more fully, Dr. Eva Brain-Silverman), a sort of Dr. Phil for the “extraordinary abled.” She has her hands full, dealing with superhero malaise and depression. All the major supervillians have been defeated, leaving thousands of superheroes with nothing much to do. With no target upon which to focus their crime-fighting energy, they are flailing about without any sense of direction, and falling prey to petty bickering, and to various forms of self-destructive behavior. It’s the superhero equivalent of post-Cold War anomie: with no Evil Empire left to fight, there is no sense of purpose, no source of morale. Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” has left all the superheroes feeling worse than useless. Pending the invention of a new enemy (which of course will turn out to be “terrorism”), the superheroes need Dr. Brain’s help in order to attain “self-actualization.”

The superheroes signed up for Dr. Brain’s therapy include such figures as The Flying Squirrel, Omnipotent Man, Power Grrrl, and the X-Man. The Flying Squirrel could best be described as a combination of Batman and Dick Cheney; he’s a quasi-fascist vigilante with all sorts of high-tech wizardry in his “utility belt,” and also the multimillionaire head of a multinational corporation which has a lock on the media, as well as the defense and surveillance industries. Omnipotent Man is a doofus-y, and naively hyperpatriotic, version of Superman (he comes from the planet Argon — instead of Krypton). Power Grrrl is sort of like Britney Spears with superpowers (though it turns out, in the course of the book, that this is mostly an act: Power Grrrl, unlike the real Britney, is pulling her own strings). X-Man, the key figure around whom the narrative turns, is an angry black militant with the super-ability of “logogenesis”: manifesting his words as actual things.

The novel’s brilliance has much to do with its exuberant linguistic and conceptual inventiveness. Faust gleefully rings the changes on all sorts of pop culture sensations and scandals, with superheroes as the celebrity targets of paparazzi and gutter journalists. The lives of the superheroes abound in episodes of drug addiction, hidden sexual fetishes, nervous breakdowns, and bitter family disputes — not to mention miscegenation, still a matter of shock and bewilderment, shame, hysterical confusion, and disavowed fantasies in our supposedly “post-racial” society. Even aside from the main plotlines, the book abounds in throwaway allusions to superheroes run amok, and to crazed scientific experiments and neo-colonialist endeavors that leave catastrophic “collateral damage” in their wake. Faust is brilliant in seeing superhero comics as the key to understanding the construction of social reality in a world dominated by the military-entertainment complex.

Faust also mixes and matches styles and languages, with everything from groaner puns (we meet supervillains like Zee-Rox, who can imitate anything, and Sara Bellum, who has terrifying mental powers), to ridiculous dialect-speech (Omnipotent Man’s gee-gosh-Norman-Rockwellesque-cornball-middle-American lingo; or the Germanic accent of Wonder-Woman-like superhero Iron Lass, originally a goddess from the Norse pantheon), to hyperbolic racial invective, to tabloid-style excited overstatement, to hilariously convoluted psychobabble and grotesque mixed metaphors. On one page, X-Man disses another superhero of color as “a slack, slick, loose-dicked, willingly no-self-control, no-zipper tan-man who maks out his mind to convince himself he isn’t a senseless, thoughtless, shiftless, aimless, brainless, oversized pants-wearing, forty-ounce-loving, penis-fixated, self-underrated supreme champeen of galactic niggativity” (page 148, quoted again on page 331). On another, Dr. Brain confides to her readers that “unraveling the bandages covering Kareem’s and Syndi’s psychemotional wounds was exhaustive work, since their bloodied psychic linens were so crusted together they’d congealed into experiential gore” (page 298). At still another point, Dr. Brain asks her patients to consider “how many of the psychemotional barnacles attached to the ship of my consciousness am I willing to burn off in order to sail freely across the ocean of well-adjustedness?” (page 225).

And so on.

But beneath all this exuberant postmodern linguistic play, From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain is a serious socio-political novel, focusing on the continuing impact of race and racism in America today. (Predominantly in USA/America, although Minister Faust himself is Canadian). X-Man’s “neurosis,” for which Dr. Brain endeavors to treat him, is in fact grounded in his experience of what W.E.B. DuBois famously called double consciousness:

this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness,– an American, a Negro; two warring souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

X-Man is divided — and therefore unable to attain what psychobabble would call an integrated selfhood, or in Dr. Brain’s terms “self-actualization” — by the fact that, on the one hand, he cannot escape or transcend the perspective of general American culture; yet, on the other hand, he can only feel alienated, excluded, and condemned by that culture. As he bitterly says at one point, he’s expected to stand for Truth, Justice, and the American Way; but this is a double bind, because the American Way is in fact incompatible with Truth or Justice.

What this means is that X-Man’s “psychemotional” (a favorite Dr. Brain word) torment and dysfunction — amply dramatized throughout the novel’s lurid, often ludicrous pulp plot twists — cannot be understood in entirely personalistic terms. Such torment and such dysfunction have a crucial (and crucially determining) social dimension. This is arguably true of all forms of so-called “neurosis” (indeed, I would make such an argument), but it is particularly evident in the case of racialized American double consciousness.

Throughout From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain, X-Man’s double consciousness is narrated to us from a point of view that is absolutely unable to discern it. Dr. Brain, with her forcedly-cheerful self-help philosophy, is an unreliable narrator — X-Man even accuses her explicitly at several points of being an unreliable narrator — to the extent that she continually misunderstands and misframes everything that X-Man says to her. She contextualizes all of X-Man’s complaints as being pathological and neurotic, a result of “insubordination and racial antagonism” (page 27) — even when they are pretty clearly rational. Above all, Dr. Brain diagonses X-Man as suffering from RNPN (Racialized Narcissistic Projection Neurosis), whereby people of color (and superheroes of color) have a chip on their shoulder about past racism that supposedly no longer exists. According to Dr. Brain, X-Man has a pathological need to see himself as a victim, so that he can blame his own failures upon others. Unable to deal with the fact that white people accept him without racism, he has a compulsive need to act out in order to arouse their hostility towards him, so that he “prove” that racism still exists, allowing him then to act aggrieved and to play the victim.

So the narrating voice of From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain reproduces what has become the dominant ideology of our day: the claim that “we” are “beyond racism,” and that (as Dr. Brain herself puts it) “legislation and social progress have ensured that what was only a dream on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial a few decades ago has become a reality for all” (page 149). This claim allows white people to say, in all “good conscience,” that they are not racist (look! I watch Oprah! Look! I voted for Obama!), and that they only care about the content of someone’s character, not the color of their skin. To say this is to ignore all the ways that racism is institutional and socially embedded — it is to reduce the question of race to a matter of individual behavior, responsibility, belief, and “preference.” (This is, of course, the way that neoliberalism treats everything; since, as Margaret Thatcher said, “there is no such thing as society. There are only individuals, and families”). And the corollary of this ideology is to say that anybody who does worry about racism is simply hung up about it. In other words, black people are accused of themselves being racist (for the very reason that they perceive racism as existing), while white people get to congratulate themselves on being prejudice-free.

From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain effectively links the dominant American culture’s denial of its own racism, and self-congratulatory “multiculturalism,” with its therapeutic cult of self-help and self-responsibility. These moves are both aspects of the relentless personalization of everything that is a feature both of today’s global neoliberalism, and of a long American tradition of uplift and self-reliance. (This strain of American sensibility was already satirized by Herman Melville in his 1857 novel The Confidence Man). Dr. Brain’s advice to X-Man is to “begin by recognizing that you are an individual, not a social abstraction. Your destiny belongs to you, not to history, and whatever successes or failures you experience are of your own making. Take responsibility for your own happiness…” and so on and so forth (pages 150-151).

The novelistic brilliance of From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain has much to do with the irony by means of which this sort of psychobabbling drivel becomes the dominant voice of the novel — much as it is the dominant voice in American public discourse generally. As the novel moves towards its action-packed, slam-bang conclusion — as any tale of superheroes must — double consciousness is raised to a vertiginous pitch, as we simultaneously get X-Man’s account of political crisis and turmoil, and Dr. Brain’s dismissal of this account as mere paranoid projection. By the final pages, X-Man is dead, and the creepy Flying Squirrel is firmly in charge. We have witnessed what is basically a fascist coup d’etat combined with a racist mass lynching or pogrom; and the establishment of a new social order in which surveillance is ubiquitous, civil liberties are nonexistent, behavior is severely restricted and normalized, and multinational corporate profits are protected unconditionally. Yet this new world order is presented to the reader by the always upbeat Dr. Brain as a triumph of personal “self-actualization” and “psychemotional wellness,” as well as a set of unparalleled new marketing opportunities. In its offhanded and slyly ironic way, From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain both delivers a hilarious roller-coaster ride filled with comic book thrills and chills, and reminds us about what is really scary.

Cognitive capitalism?

Sunday, February 3rd, 2008

I just finished reading Yann Moulier Boutang’s Le capitalisme cognitif (Cognitive Capitalism). Boutang is the editor of Multitudes, a French journal closely associated with Toni Negri. The basic thesis of his book — in accord with what Hardt and Negri say in Empire and Multitude — is that we are entering into a new phase of capitalism, the “cognitive” phase, which is as different from classical industrial capitalism as that capitalism was from the mercantile and slavery-based capitalism that preceded it. This is a thesis that, in general, I am sympathetic to. On the one hand, it recognizes the ways in which 19th-century formulations of the categories of class and property are increasingly out of date in our highly virtualized “network society”; while on the other hand, it recognizes that, for all these changes, we are still involved in what has to be called “capitalism”: a regime in which socially produced surpluses are coded financially, expropriated from the actual producers, and accumulated as capital.

Ah, but, as always, the devil is in the details. And I didn’t find the details of Boutang’s exposition particularly satisfying or convincing. To be snide about it, it would seem that Boutang, like all too many French intellectuals, has become a bit too enamored of California. He takes those Silicon Valley/libertarian ideas — about the value of continual innovation, the worthiness of the free software movement, and the possibilities of unlimited digital dissemination — more seriously, or at least to a much greater extent, than they merit. The result is a sort of yuppie view of the new capitalism, one that ignores much that is cruel and repressive about the current regime of financial accumulation.

There, I’ve said it. But let me go through Boutang’s argument a bit more carefully. His starting point, like that of Hardt and Negri, and of Paolo Virno as well, is what Marx calls “General Intellect” — a concept that only comes up briefly in Marx, in the “Fragment on Machines” which is part of that vast notebook (never published by Marx) known today as the Grundrisse; but that has become a central term for (post-)Marxist theorists trying to come to grips with the current “post-Fordist” economy. (Here’s Paolo Virno’s discussion of general intellect). Basically, “general intellect” refers to the set of knowledges, competencies, linguistic uses, and ways-of-doing-things that are embedded in society in general, and that are therefore more or less available to “everybody.” According to the argument of Virno, Mauricio Lazzarato, Hardt and Negri, Boutang, and others, Post-Fordist capitalism has moved beyond just the exploitation of workers’ (ultimately physical) labor-power, and is now also involved in the appropriation, or the extraction of a surplus from, all this embodied and embedded social no-how. Rather than just drawing on the labor-power that the worker expends in the eight hours he or she spends each day in the workplace, “cognitive capitalism” also draws on the workers’ expertise and “virtuosity” (Virno) and ability to conceptualize and to make decisions: capacities that extend beyond the hours of formal labor, since they involve the entire lifespan of the workers. My verbal ability, my skill at networking, my gleanings of general knowledge which can be applied in unexpected situations in order to innovate and transform: these have been built up over my entire life; and they become, more than labor-power per se, the sources of economic value. Corporations can only profit if, in addition to raw labor power, they also appropriate this background of general intellect as well. General intellect necessarily involves collaboration and cooperation; it arises, through, and is cultivated within, the networks that have become so important, and of such wide extent, in the years since the invention of the Internet. In this way, general intellect can be thought of as a “commons” (as Lawrence Lessig and other cybertheorists say), or as the overall framework of what defines us now as a “multitude” (rather than as a particular social class, or as a “people” confined to a single nation, as was the case in the age of industrial capitalism and the hegemony of print media).

All this is well and good, as far as it goes. While I would note that the phenomena described under the term “general intellect” have not just been invented since 1975, but have existed for a much longer time — and have been exploited by capitalism for a much longer time — I don’t doubt that they have been so expanded in recent years as to constitute (as the dialecticians would put it) “a transformation of quantity into quality.” (See my past discussion of McLuhanite Marxism). Let’s provisionally accept, then, Boutang’s assertion that enough has changed in the last 30 years or so that we are moving into a new regime of capitalist accumulation. The question is, how do we describe this new regime?

It’s the form of Boutang’s description of this transformation that I find problematic. He says that the new cognitive capitalism is concerned, not so much with the transformations of material energy (labor-power) into physical goods, as with the reproduction of affects and subjectivities, of knowledges and competencies, of everything mental (or spiritual?) that cannot be reduced to mere binarized “information.” I don’t really disagree with this, to the extent that it is a question of “in addition” rather than “instead.” But Boutang leans a little too far to the opinion that “cognitive” or virtual production (what Hardt and Negri call “affective labor,” and what Robert Reich calls “symbolic analysis”) has displaced, rather than supplemented, the production and distribution of physical goods and services. The source of wealth is no longer labor-power, he says, nor even that dead labor-power congealed into things that constitutes “capital” in the traditionally Marxist sense, but rather the “intellectual capital” that is possessed less by individuals than by networks of individuals, and that is expressed in things like capacity for innovation, institutional know-how, etc.

Boutang claims that this “intellectual capital” [a phrase I hate, because an individual's skills, knowledge, etc. is precisely not "capital"] is not depleted daily (so that it needs to be replenished) in the way that physical labor-power is under industrial capitalism; rather, it is something that increases with use (as you do more of these things, you become better at them), so that the process of replenishment (learning more, gaining skills, improving these skills or virtuosities through practice) is itself what adds value. Also, this “intellectual capital” is an intrinsically common or social good, rather than a private or individualized one. It can only be realized through network-wide (ultimately world-wide) collaboration and cooperation. For both these reasons, the appropriation of this “general intellect” is a vastly different process from that of appropriating individual workers’ labor-power. All this is exemplified for Boutang in phenomena like online peer to peer file trading, and in the open source software movement — he sees collaborative production in the manner of Linux as the new economic paradigm.

Now, I am in favor, as much as anybody is, of violating copyright, and of open source (for things like academic publications as well as for software); but I do not believe that these can constitute a new economic paradigm — they still exist very much as marginal practices within a regime that is still based largely on private property “rights” and the extortion of a surplus on the basis of those “rights.” [I should say, as I have said many times before, that I am happy for my words to be disseminated in any form, without payment, as long as the attribution of the words to my authorship -- to use a dubious but unavoidable word or concept -- is retained]. Boutang is so excited by the “communist” aspects of networked collaboration, or general intellect, that he forgets to say anything about how all this “cognitive” power gets expropriated and transformed into (privately owned) capital — which is precisely what “cognitive capitalism” does. He optimistically asserts that the attempts of corporations to control “intellectual property,” or extract it from the commons, will necessarily fail — something that I am far less sure of. “Intellectual property” is an oxymoron, but this doesn’t mean that “intellectual property rights” cannot be successfully enforced. You can point to things like the record companies’ gradual (and only partial) retreat from insisting upon DRM for all music files; but this retreat coincides with, and is unthinkable without, a general commodification of things like ideas, songs, genetic traits, and mental abilities in the first place.

Boutang gives no real account of just how corporations, or the owners of capital, expropriate general intellect (or, as he puts it in neoliberal economistic jargon, how they capture “positive externalities”). He seems to think that the switch from mere “labor-power” to “general intellect” as the source of surplus value is basically a liberating change. I would argue precisely the opposite: that now capital is not just expropriating from us the product of the particular hours that we put in at the workplace; but that it is expropriating, or extracting surplus value from, our entire lives: our leisure time, our time when we go to the movies or watch TV, and even when we sleep. The switch to general intellect as a source of value is strictly correlative with the commodification of all aspects of human activity, far beyond the confines of the workplace. Just as the capitalist cannot exploit the worker’s labor per se, but must extract it in the form of labor power, so the capitalist cannot exploit general intellect without transforming it into something like “cognition-power” — and this is extracted from individuals just as labor-power is. When the division between physical and mental labor is made less pronounced than it was in the Fordist factory, this only means that the “mental” no less than the “physical” is transformed into a commodified “capacity” that the employer can purchase from the employee in a way that is lesser than, and incommensurate with, the “use” the employer gets from that power or capacity. Boutang makes much of the fact that cognition is not “used up” in the way that the physical expenditure of energy is; but I don’t think this contrast is as telling as he claims. The fatigue of expending cognitive power in an actual work situation is strictly comparable to the fatigue of expending physical power in a factory. And the stocking-up of physical power and cognitive ability over the lifetime of the workers entirely go together, rather than being subject to opposite principles.

Boutang seems to ignore the fact that the regime of “intellectual property” leads to grotesque consequences such as the fact that an idea that a Microsoft employee might have when she is taking a bath, or even when she is asleep (consider all the stories of innovative ideas that come to people in dreams, like Kekule’s discovery of the “ring” structure of benzene) “belong” to the corporation, and must be left behind if and when she moves on to another job. (Let me add that it is just as absurd to assert that an idea that I come up with from a dream “belongs” to me as it is to assert that the idea belongs to my employer. All ideas come out of other ideas; nothing I do is independent of all the store of “general intellect” that I draw upon).

Boutang also seems to buy into many other of the myths of cognitive capitalism. He endorses the idea that the “flexibilization” of employment (or what in Europe is often called “precarization”) is on the whole a good and progressive thing: it “liberates” workers from the oppression of the “salariat” (I am not sure how to translate this word into English — the “regime of salary,” perhaps?). Boutang goes so far as to point to the way “new economy” corporations in the late 1990s gave out stock options in lieu of higher salary as a harbinger of the way things are being rearranged under cognitive capitalism. This seems entirely wrong to me, because it is only a subset of highly skilled programmers, and executives, who get these options. As far as I know, the people who wash the windows or sweep the floors at Microsoft or Google do not get stock options. (I don’t think the people who sit at the phones to answer consumer complaints do either).

Not to mention that you’d never know from Boutang’s discussion that over a billion people in the world currently live in what Mike Davis calls “global slums”. William Gibson is right to say that “the street finds its own uses for things”; and there are certainly a lot of interesting and inventive and innovative things going on in the ways that people in these slums are using mobile phones and other “trickle-down” digital technology. (See Ian Macdonald’s SF novel Brasyl for a good speculative account, or extrapolation, of this). But all this goes on in an overall situation of extreme oppression and deprivation, and it can only be understood in the context of the “hegemonic” uses of these technologies in the richer parts of the world (or richer segments of the societies in which these slums are located).

Also, Boutang needs to account for the fact that WalMart, rather than Microsoft or Google, is the quintessential example of a corporation operating under the conditions of cognitive capitalism. Walmart could not exist in its present form without the new technologies of information and communication — it draws upon the resources of “general intellect” and the force of continual, collectively-improvised innovation for everything that it does. Also, and quite significantly, it focuses entirely upon circulation and distribution, rather than upon old-style manufacturing — showing that the sphere of circulation now (in contrast to Marx’s own time) plays a major role in the actual extraction of surplus value. Yet WalMart shows no signs of unleashing the “creativity of the multitude” in its workings, nor of replacing the “salariat” with things like stock options for its workers. On that front, its largest innovation consists in getting rid of the central Fordist principle of paying the workers enough so that they can afford to buy what they manufacture. Instead, WalMart has pioneered the inverse principle: paying the workers so little that they cannot afford to shop anywhere other than at WalMart. It might even be said, not too hyperbolically, that WalMart has singlehandedly preserved the American economy from total collapse, in that their lowered prices are the only thing that has allowed millions of the “working poor” to retain the status of consumers at all, rather than falling into the “black hole” of total immiseration. WalMart is part and parcel of how the “new economy” has largely been founded upon transferring wealth from the less wealthy to the already-extremely-rich. But this is a process that Boutang altogether ignores; he writes as if “neoliberalism” were some sort of rear-guard action by those who simply “don’t get” the new cognitive economy. In fact, though, neoliberalism is no mere ideology: it is the actual “cognitive” motor of cognitive capitalism’s development.

Boutang even buys into the neoliberal program, to the extent that he maintains that the role of financial speculation in the current postfordist regime is largely a benevolent one, having to do with the management of the newly impalpable sources of value in the “cognitive” economy. He denies that financial speculation increasingly drives economic processes, rather than merely reflecting them or being of use to them. He needs to think more about the functioning of derivatives in “actually existing capitalism.”

All in all, Le capitalisme cognitif buys into the current capitalist mythology of “innovation” and “creativity” way too uncritically — without thinking through what it might mean to detach these notions from their association with startups and marketing plans and advertising campaigns (and how this might be done). (As a philosophical question, this is what my work with Whitehead and Deleuze leads me to).

The book ends, however, with an excellent proposal. Boutang argues for an unconditional “social wage”: to be given to everyone, without exception, and without any of the current requirements that welfare and unemployment programs impose on their recipients (requirements like behaving properly, or having to look for work, or whatever). This social wage — he gives a provisional figure of 700 euros per month, or about $1000/month at today’s exchange rates) would be paid in recompense for the fact that “general intellect,” from which corporations extract profit, is in fact the work of everyone — even and especially outside of formal work situations. Boutang spends a lot of energy showing how this proposal is fiscally feasible in Europe today, how it would rejuvenate the economy (and thus lead, in the long run, to enhanced profits for the corporations whose tax payments would finance it). What he doesn’t say, however — and perhaps does not recognize — is that, even though this proposal is perfectly feasible in terms of the overall wealth of the world economy), if it were really adopted universally — that is to say, worldwide, to all human beings on the face of the planet — it would severly disrupt the regime of appropriation that he calls “cognitive capitalism.” This is yet another example of bat020′s and k-punk’s maxim that (reversing a slogan from May 1968) we must “be unrealistic, demand the possible.” The unconditional social wage is entirely possible in terms of what the world can economically afford, but it is “unrealistic” in terms of the way that “cognitive capitalism” is structured. Demanding it pushes the system to a point of paradox, a critical point — at least notionally.