Archive for July, 2008

Iron Man (proposal)

Tuesday, July 29th, 2008

Here’s a brief abstract I wrote for a prospective paper (to be submitted in several places) about Iron Man.


Iron Man stands apart from other comic book superheroes in several striking ways. His superpowers do not come from an alien origin or a spider bite; rather, they are products of postindustrial technology. There are other superheroes whose powers are technologically based, such as Batman; but Iron Man’s cutting-edge engineering could not be further removed from Batman’s artisanal use of technology. It is also noteworthy that where most superhero costumes are disguises used to preserve anonymity and strike terror into foes, Iron Man’s suit is actually the literal source of his powers. In addition, although Tony Stark/Iron Man is a millionaire-turned-crimefighter just like Bruce Wayne/Batman, there’s a sharp contrast between Batman’s vengeful, almost sociopathic, outsider status, and Stark’s highly networked public persona, who stands at the center of corporate and military power.

For all these reasons, Iron Man is a fairly unique figure. Many American superhero stories of the last fifty years can be diagnosed as male-adolescent compensation fantasies: the nerd is empowered to strike back at his tormentors, and achieve the glory of saving the world. But Iron Man puts a strange twist on this scenario. For in his case, the redemption- and power-fantasy is also a fantasy of the military-industrial-technoscience complex, and ultimately of Capital itself. Corporations are recognized as “persons” under the law, and Tony Stark is very much the personification of a corporate entity. Iron Man’s technological triumphs, his ambivalent relations with the US military and intelligence communities, and his vulnerabilities as well (the shrapnel that threatens to enter his heart, and the alcoholism that is his constant temptation), all cross the line that separates individualist psychodramas from allegories of the ways that libidinal forces directly invest the socius (as Deleuze and Guattari would put it).

For this essay, I look beyond the recent Iron Man hit movie to consider a wide range of Iron Man’s incarnations in Marvel comics. I will pay some attention to Stan Lee’s invention of the character as a Cold War figure in the early 1960s, and to the depiction of Tony Stark’s corporate struggles and problems with alcohol in the comics of the 1970s and 1980s; but my main focus will be on Mark Millar’s, Warren Ellis’, and Matt Fraction’s radical reinterpretations of the character in the last several years. My aim is neither to critique the ideology of Iron Man comics, nor to claim that the book is somehow deeply subversive; but rather to use this comic book series in order to develop some ideas about how social fantasy works in our era of neoliberal globalized capitalism and of post-Cold War, post-9/11 paranoia and surveillance.

Grace Jones, Corporate Cannibal

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2008

“Corporate Cannibal”, the new Grace Jones video (directed by Nick Hooker) is utterly astonishing. Jones is 60 years old (!); and this is the first new work she has released in close to twenty years. But “Corporate Cannibal” is anything but safe and nostalgic.

Corporate Cannibal

The video is in black and white, and the only images that appear on the screen are those of Grace Jones’ face and upper body, black against a white background. But Jones’ figure is subject to all sorts of electronic distortions. The most common effect is one of elongation: her face is stretched upwards, as if she had an impossibly long forehead, as if her notorious late-80s flattop haircut had somehow expanded beyond all dimensions. Or else, her entire body in silhouette is thinned out, gracile (if that isn’t too much of a pun), and almost insectoid. The image also bends and fractures: her mouth stretches alarmingly, her eyes bulge out and expand across the screen like some sort of toxic stain. And sometimes Jones’ figure multiplies into two or three distorted, and imperfectly separated, clones. Nothing remains steady for more than a few seconds; the screen is continually morphing, and everything is so stylized and disrupted that we don’t get a very good sense of what Jones actually looks like today. Her facial features remain somewhat recognizable — Grace Jones has never looked like anyone else — and at a few moments, we get a brief almost undistorted close-up of her eyes, nose, and mouth — but there is something monstrous as well about this individuated “faciality”; and in any case it is gone almost before we have had the time to take it in.

Corporate Cannibal

The electronic manipulation of Jones’ image throughout the video is reminiscent of the ways that Nick Hooker manipulated images in his earlier videos — except that those earlier videos are in full color, and they generally appear trippy and pyschedelic. There is nothing of that feel in “Corporate Cannibal,” which is altogether violent, ferocious, and sinister. This is due partly to the starkness of the black and white; and partly to the harsh minimalism of the video, which returns insistently to the same few distorted poses, even though it is unstable and continually in flux. Hooker’s color videos are about free-flowing metamorphosis; but “Corporate Cannibal” is about modulation, which is something completely different. I mean that modulation is schematic and implosive, rather than free-floating and expansive. The modulations of “Corporate Cannibal” don’t give us the sense that anything can happen, but rather one that no matter what happens, it will be drawn into the same fatality, the same narrowing funnel, the same black hole (again, I am not sure whether this is the right pun), the same code of electronic processing and morphing. There is no proliferation of meanings, but rather a capture of all meanings, as they are drawn down into the same obsessive grid of distortions and transformations.

Although the video’s background is white, and Grace’s figure is black (again, can we separate how this works and what it means pictorially, from how it works and what it means racially?), nonetheless the video as a whole does not suggest any sort of figure-background relationship. It is rather the case that Jones’ distorted body is a signal traversing an (otherwise blank and empty) field — there is nothing there besides this figure, no background at all. This also means that the video is not a “picture” or a “representation” of Jones’ face or body; the video image does not refer to a source or model beyond itself. Rather, Jones’ figure is itself the electronic image or signal — rather than an external referent to which this image/signal would refer. Indeed, at the very start of the video, and at certain moments within it, it is impossible to decide whether what we are seeing is a manipulation and distortion of Jones’ figure, or whether it is just “noise” or feedback, an artifact of the electronic manipulation field itself. For Grace Jones’ body and voice are themselves, already, electricity, light (or darkness) and sound, digital matrix and intense vibration. The video is modulating Jones-as-signal, rather than distorting some pre-existing image-of-Jones-as-real-body. The electronic image is itself a visceral embodiment of Jones, rather than being an immaterial picture of an embodiment that would exist elsewhere. And Hooker is not manipulating her image, so much as he is modulating the electronic signal that she already is (and, presumably, doing this at her command).

Corporate Cannibal

In this sense, “Corporate Cannibal” is the latest in a long history of Grace Jones’ reinvention of herself, via the rearrangement of her body. Jones’ performances in the 1980s can be contrasted with those of Madonna. Both singers emerged from the world of disco, and from a culture of campy performance that was largely associated with gay men. Both became gay icons, as women “performing” femininity rather than naturalizing it. Both flaunted an aggressive sexuality that was at odds with the old-style patriarchal norms of what women should be like. And both grasped the ways that this post-second-wave-feminism sexual “freedom” was deeply complicit with consumerist commodification, i.e. with the way that it was not just particular objects that worked as commodities, but that lifestyles, personalities, etc., were themselves increasingly being commodified.

And yet, despite this common ground, there was (and is) a vast difference between these two performers. Madonna put on and took of personas as if they were clothes; indeed, the clothes were often what made the persona. The brilliance of this strategy was the way it suggested that everything was postmodern surfaces, or styles. There was nothing beneath the surface, no depths and no essences. Every “identity” was factitious; and this allowed Madonna to play with them, freely and pleasurably. Because these personas were all stereotypes and fictions, none of them had any real consequences, none of them were irreversible, and none of them had any cost other than the up-front financial one.

Grace Jones’ transformations were altogether more troubling, more aggressive, and more transgressive. In a sense, these transformations were incised more deeply in the flesh, for all that they were (no less than Madonna’s) a matter of clothes and styles and the powers of the fashion world. In part, Jones’ transformations were “deeper” than Madonna’s because they had to be: without Madonna’s white skin privilege, Jones couldn’t treat her self-mutations as casually as Madonna did. She couldn’t retreat to the anonymity that was the implicit background of Madonna’s performances, the neutrality and lack-of-depth that existed (or rather, didn’t exist) behind all the costumes. Grace Jones (nee Grace Mendoza), as a black woman, is always already “marked” as a body — in a way that Madonna Ciccone is not; which means that she cannot simply dismiss depth, and present a play of pure surfaces, the way that Madonna can. She had much more at stake in her metamorphoses than Madonna ever could have had.

And so, if Madonna’s transformations were always playful and fantasy-like, Grace Jones’ transformations were considerably harder and harsher — which doesn’t mean that they were devoid of pleasure, but that Jones’ own pleasure in them was not necessarily something that she shared with her audience — her figures, unlike Madonna’s, are not necessarily ones you can identify with. (Think of the difference between the coyness of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” and the Ballardian savagery of Jones’ “Warm Leatherette”). Another way to say this is to say that Jones is definitely a dominatrix, while Madonna isn’t (even if she sometimes plays around with the edges of s&m). Yet another way is to say that, while Madonna plays with the image of “femininity,” pointing out its artifice, its artificiality, and its inessentiality, Grace Jones instead blasts this “femininity” apart, blows it up altogether. Her metamorphoses always have a transgressive edge. She assaults the divisions between male and female not with a cozy androgyny, but with a cold and forbidding, ungenderable more-than-masculine hardbody. She similarly assaults the divisions between white and black by simultaneously embracing the worst stereotypes and snarling Fuck You at them. In messing so seriously with both gender and race, Jones pushes beyond the human, transforming herself (before it became fashionable) into a posthuman or transhuman, a robot; or even more, as k-punk suggests, into a chilly and affectless object-machine, whose “screams and the laughter seem to come from some Other place, a dread zone from which Jones has returned, but only partially. Is it the laughter of one who has passed through death or the scream of a machine that is coming to life?”

The difference between Madonna and Grace Jones is therefore both affective and ontological. Where Madonna is playful, Jones is playing for keeps. And where Madonna critiques subjectivity by suggesting that it is just a surface-effect with nothing behind it, Jones critiques it by actually delving beneath the surfaces, or into the depths of the body, to discover a dense materiality that is not subjective any longer. Jones no longer accepts the subordination that Western culture has so long written into the designations of both “woman” and “black”; but she does this neither by recuperating femininity and blackness as positive states, nor by claiming for herself the privileges of the masculine and the white; but rather by subjecting the whole field of these oppositions to radical distortion, to implosion, or to some sort of hyperspatial torsion and distortion.

“Corporate Cannibal” is entirely consistent with Jones’ past experiments, and in fact pushes them to a new extreme. Our technologies have ramified and changed since the 1980s, and Jones has followed them by emerging as the new video flesh (in a manner that was prophesized by Cronenberg’s Videodrome, a film that came out at the same time as Jones’ greatest hits — the early/mid 1980s — but that today, in “Corporate Cannibal,” is no longer a matter of prophecy and science-fictional extrapolation, but simply one of sheer present actuality). In the video, Jones is frightening, ferocious, predatory, vampiric. She has become pure electronic pulse, materiality of the electronic medium (which we were always wrong to consider intangible, dematerialized, or disembodied) — and she will utterly devour and destroy (convert into more image, more electronic pulse, more of herself) whatever thinks it might be able to stand apart from the process.

All this is made explicit in the lyrics to “Corporate Cannibal”: but conversely, these lyrics only have their extrarordinary effect because they have found the proper regime of images to make them operative. Jones’ voice is at first wheedling (“Pleased to meet you/ Pleased to have you on my plate”), before it turns stentorian, imperative, and threatening; and at the end of the song it modulates again, beyond words, into a predatory growl or snarl. She is telling us flatly that she will destory and devour us (“I’m a man-eating machine… Eat you like an animal… Every man, woman, and child is a target”). She is a vampire, but not a romantic one: rather, the song expresses Jones’ absolute identification with Capital as a vampiric force (remember that Marx long ago described capitalism as vampiric: “Capital is dead labor, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks”). Jones sings: “I deal in the market… A closet full of faceless, nameless, pay-more-for-less emptiness… You’ll pay less tax but I will gain more back… I’ll consume my consumers.” Her lyrics absurdly juxtapose the cliches of corporate-speak (“Employer of the year”) with those of pulp horro (“Grandmaster of fear”). All this is set against a grinding, dissonant musical accompaniment, with harsh backbeats and shrieking guitars that are, however, more downbeat than metal (a number of blogs have compared the music to that of Massive Attack a decade ago, at the time of their album Mezzanine).

The overall effect is terrifying, although the terror is overlaid with an awarness of the cliches or stereotypes of that which induces terror. This is extreme expression for a world in which there are no longer any extremes, because everything can find the niche in which it is marketable. Grace Jones is forcing us to confront the way in which, today, even the transgression that might have thrilled us twenty-five years ago is little more than another marketing strategy. Or the way in which, beyond all those discourses about race and gender and “the body,” the only thing that is “transgressive” today is Capital itself, which devours everything without any regard for boundaries, distinctions, or degrees of legitimacy; which “transgresses” the very possibility of “transgression,” because it is always only transgressing itself in order to create still more of itself, devouring not only its own tail but its entire body, in order to achieve even greater levels of monstrosity. Or, as Dejan puts it, in the video “you can see directly the intimate bond between animation and the mutability of Capital,” as Jones’ electronic mutations or modulations track and embrace and coincide with the metamorphoses of Capital itself, in our world of delirious financial flows and hedge funds and currency manipulations and bad debts passed on from one speculator to the next — all of which depend upon, and indeed energize, the same digital technology that also makes Nick Hooker’s video manipulations possible. I think that “Corporate Cannibal” — with its continual modulations and deformations that are no longer just on the surface of the world but inhabit and shape its depths, and with its violent Weird energy (in the sense of post-Lovecraftian “weird fiction” with its simultaneous slight hokiness and intense anxiety and dislocation) — gives the most profound expression or articulation that I have yet come across to the affect of the vertiginous “globalized network society” we live in today.

Capitalism, Consumerism, and Waste

Monday, July 21st, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Winnipeg

Tuesday, July 15th, 2008

Guy Maddin has really been on a tear lately. With Cowards Bend the Knee (2003), Brand Upon the Brain! (2006), and now My Winnipeg (2007), he has been making the best films of his career. My Winnipeg is a little different from the others, in that it is ostensibly a documentary. It is supposedly Maddin’s personal portrait of his home town, though it mixes actual documentary content with material that is hallucinatory and fantasmatic — both in relation to the actual history of Winnipeg, and in relation to Maddin’s own personal history.

What this means in practice is that there is less emphasis on plot than in most of Maddin’s films — My Winnipeg does not have all the overwrought twists and turns of melodrama with which Maddin’s earlier films are packed, and instead is more of a free-floating, nonlinear collage. Actual documentary footage is mixed with fake documentary footage,real and fake present-day footage, and bizarre “reenactments” (together with shadow-puppet reconstructions and some stock footage). The emotional center of the film is autobiographical (or so Maddin claims) — the central character is supposedly “Guy Maddin,” and there’s a lot of material reminiscent of the family triangle in Cowards Bend the Knee! — with the mother’s beauty parlor and the father’s work for the hockey team — and of the monstrous mother of Brand. But this is mixed with accounts of Winnipeg’s history — some of which is, more or less, true (like an account of the Winnipeg general strike of 1919), but most of which is evidently invented (such as the claim that Winnipeg is especially noteworthy for its large number of sleepwalkers).

In fact, sleepwalking provides the major organizing metaphor for My Winnipeg. The film starts with “Guy Maddin” (played by an actor, though the voiceover which provides the film’s narration is, I believe, actually Maddin’s own) asleep on the train, trying to leave town. His voiceover monologue speaks of his continual attempts to leave the city, and his utter inability to do so. Winnipeg is a dream, a fantasmagoria, from which he is unable to awaken. The city is filled, Maddin tells us, with sleepwalkers wandering through the snow, back to their childhood homes, to which they still possess keys, and where the current owners are legally obligated to let them back in. Maddin himself, and all Winnipeggers, are ceaselessly trying to return to a past that they cannot recapture, though its ghosts (or hauntological traces) are everywhere and cannot be effaced. Maddin has always used deliberately degraded black and white film footage, shot in styles that emulate silent film, in order to show us images that are explicitly in the past tense, rather than the present (of course film is actually in the past, but most films strive to give us the illusion of heightened presentness and presence. Film’s extraordinary immediacy and intensity gives it a sense of presence almost by default, and this is what Maddin is always engaged in fighting against). Here he raises this pastness to a meta-level: nearly everything that he shows us no longer exists, and his documentary images are signs of this having-perished.

CIty history and family history run parallel. The “Forks” — the triangular confluence of rivers around which the city was built — is conflated with the (similarly shaped, i.e. vaginal) lap of the mother, from whom Maddin seems unable to tear himself away. The film slips back and forth between an evocation of the past of the city as a whole, and a series of “re-enactments” of Maddin’s own childhood, in which (within the film) actors are hired to play the young Maddin and his siblings, while Mother is played — so we are told — by herself in old age (though in fact, the role of the mother is played by none other than the great Ann Savage, known to film buffs because of her amazing performance as the absolutely meanest and most evil of all femme fatales, in Edgar Ulmer’s Detour, more than sixty years ago). The mother is smothering and controlling, yet at the same time oddly comforting; she is monstrously alive and monstrously present, no matter how old (whereas the father is long dead, and is only evoked evanescently, as a sort of absence). Bits of family history get reenacted, often in multiple takes (we see Savage practicing her lines, with clapboards announcing the shots — her role is the most crucial in the film, but it is always a rehearsal for a primal scene that cannot be evoked directly, perhaps because it only exists as “past”).

The principles of femininity (embodied in the mother’s beauty parlor) and masculinity (embodied in the locker rooms of the hockey arena, where the father worked as a trainer to the hockey players) go beyond the family and provide a key for organizing the history of the city as well. Nostalgic memories of heterosexual couples in the old city gradually give way to an increasingly lurid “secret history” of furtive gay and lesbian encounters. The male and female poles of the family increasingly emerge as separate, self-referential series. In this respect, Maddin’s psychosexual musings end up being more attuned to Proustian bisexuality and fundamental homosexuality, than to the Oedipal/Freudian register with which they begin.

Haunting images, as beautiful as they are surreal and ludicrous, continually appear and disappear throughout the film. There’s a buffalo stampede, and there are the cadavers of horses who flee in terror from their barn on fire in midwinter, only to be frozen in the middle of the river (the site of their heads and manes sticking out of the ice becomes the location for informal fertility rites). There’s the municipal swimming pool, built during the Great Depression (I am told that this facility really exists), in whose locker rooms strange homosexual encounters take place, both terrifying and intriguing the young Maddin. Not to mention the male beauty contests in the old Eaton’s department store (I think this is Maddin’s own myth or fantasy) and the exhibits of the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame in the Hudson’s Bay department store (which really exists).

Above all, there are the two buildings torn down during redevelopment in the past decade: the old Eaton’s, and the original hockey rink (minor-league hockey is now played in a new rink built on the site of the old Eaton’s). Maddin presents the interconnected destruction of these two edifiices as a crime against history and memory, a futile attempt by Winnipeg to erase its own past. Though Maddin himself repeatedly claims in the course of the film to be trying to escape his own past, his ghosts, and his city, it becomes more and more evident, not only that he cannot escape these things, but also that he does not really want to.

My Winnipeg ends by reverting both to the General Strike, and to the plight of the poor and dispossessed. Maddin tells us (in another of his — I presume — counterfactual constructions) that by city law, homeless people are not allowed on the streets, but forced to inhabit the rooftops instead. We see them there, warming themselves as best they can, and collecting fragments of “Happyland,” a Luna Park-style amusement park of the old Winnipeg that was (supposedly) destroyed in the monstrous buffalo stampede. From this depiction, Maddin imagines the figure of “Citizen Girl,” a heroic revolutionary straight out of Soviet silent film, who will restore the city, restore the rights of the poor, and bring back the old buildings (the shots of the demolition of Eaton’s and of the hockey arena are run in reverse). Absorbed in this final fantasy, Maddin never awakens, and never makes it out of town. The past is finally restored — but (as Deleuze says about Proust) restored as the past it is, rather than as the present it once was.

My Winnipeg is Maddin’s most hauntological film, as well as his most “political.” Even if we take the film’s political argument as tongue-in-cheek (and of course it has much more to do with the aesthetics of Soviet montage, than with the politics of the Soviet filmmakers), it still provides an overwhelming sense of how the vulnerability, yearning, humiliation, and ecstasy that pervade all of Maddin’s films are as much social as they are familial. Maddin has always played off campy humor against abject affect; but in this film, these two dimensions of feeling are more indiscernible than ever before, fusing in a kind of all-embracing ghostliness.

The Problem of Taste

Tuesday, July 15th, 2008

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

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

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

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

The Third (Conjunctive) Synthesis

Monday, July 14th, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay

Sunday, July 13th, 2008

I finally caught up with Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay, several months after it played in theaters, but still a few weeks before the official DVD release. I wasn’t disappointed; I adored it, and I certainly think it stands comparison with the first movie in the series. Part of what is great about the Harold and Kumar movies is that they are not serious political critiques in the guise of dumb hetero-boy stoner comedies. They really are dumb hetero-boy stoner comedies, and their politics has to be placed and understood in that context. This has a way of completely disarming the sort of ideology-critique that is the usual approach of cultural-studies types like myself when we discuss pop culture material of this sort. As with sophisticated television advertising, but perhaps even more so, it becomes pointless to “decode” ideological messages that in fact aren’t hidden or unconscious at all, but are calculatedly placed in the film (or ad) by the filmmakers (or ad-makers) themselves for well-understood stimulus-response reasons. A film like Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay has already done its own decoding of its messages, and its own desublimation of social reality — precisely because it is so overtly crass and commercial, in a way that, say, Brokeback Mountain is not.


In other words, we need, not to ignore, but actually to focus on, the stupid frat-boy dick and pussy jokes. Harold and Kumar’s fear, not just of being penetrated by, but even so much as touching, another man’s dick is the main focus of anxiety throughout the movie — and this, of course, is a normative part of American culture. It’s only within this premise that the film’s exposure of racism and latent fascism takes place. Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle already anatomized the racial hierarchy of America today; Guantanamo Bay rings changes on this, with specific reference to 9/11 and the “war on terror.” The uptight white folks on the plane take Kumar for an “Arab”; the Ku Klux Klansmen with whom Harold and Kumar have a close encounter take them for “Mexicans.” The over-the-top Home Security official who chases Harold and Kumar for the entire film (Rob Corddry) is particularly delirious when it comes to racial profiling. But all these incidents are framed by the basic trope of het boys’ fear of Another Cock — whether it’s that of the (also non-white) friend who helps them escape, and who has “Osama bin Laden” pubic hair, or that of “Big Bob,” the sadistic guard at Guantanamo Bay, who wants to force them to eat his “cockmeat sandwich” – a US government torture which is apparently far more terrifying than, say, waterboarding or forcing somebody to stand nude while being jolted with electricity like a human christmas tree. (Not to mention — speaking of penis jokes — the scene where Harold and Kumar are inadvertently peed upon by a drunken Ku Klux Klansman).

The payoff for all these dumb jokes comes toward the end of the film, when Harold and Kumar, having jumped out of the plane that was bringing them back to Guantanamo, are clinging together in midair (since they need to share a single parachute) and realize (to their horror but also acceptance) that their dicks are touching. (Recalling the opening scene of the movie, when Kumar took a dump while Harold was masturbating in the shower; this shows how the problem of male bodies, and the fear of Another Cock, is right at the heart of the het boy’s friendship. For that matter, the dick-touching-while-skydiving scene is shortly after the scene where Kumar finally shows enough “sensitivity” to apologize to Harold for landing them in such a big mess — this sign of non-macho yielding is necessary, if they are to continue their friendship). A few scenes after the skydiving scene, and after Harold and Kumar have landed in George W. Bush’s Crawford ranch, Dubya is regaling them with joints laced with blow, while granting them Presidential pardons. Kumar asks Dubya why, if he likes to smoke weed so much, he sends people who smoke or possess pot to jail — doesn’t that make him a hypocrite? Dubya responds by telling Kumar that, if he likes getting hand jobs but doesn’t like giving them, he’s a hypocrite too. So what seems to matter is, not the acts themselves, but who’s zooming who, and who’s on top. This resonates with the Guantanamo scene in which Big Bob told Harold and Kumar that, in forcing them to suck his cock, they were being gay but he wasn’t. Of course, Dubya indicates, chuckling, that the Guantanamo “handmeat sandwich” is just about his favorite wild ‘n’ crazy thing of the entire War on Terror.

Indeed, I think the entire portrayal of Dubya as just another pothead slacker who feels oppressed by his father (just as Kumar does) is brilliant. [As Gordon mentions in his comment below]. The movie makes Dubya sort of sympathetic, while maintaining how clueless, and yet categorically sure of himself, he actually is. Dubya’s logic is, on the one hand (as I’ve already said) to say that pot smoking is ok for me and my friends, but not for the people I throw in jail — this is reminiscent of, for instance, Dick Cheney’s super-entitled sense that his own daughter should have complete freedom as a lesbian who is having a child, but it is ok to discriminate in all sorts of ways against lesbians who are not his daughter and her partner, or not members of the ruling class. In other words, by being hypocritical and possessing an overweening sense of entitlement, Dubya escapes being a moralist — which, in Harold and Kumar’s terms, would be much worse. At the same time, and on the other hand, Dubya tells Harold and Kumar, in effect, you should blame the things you don’t like — such as being tortured in Guantanamo — on the government, not on me. As if all the horrific thing our government is doing were not on Dubya’s own direct orders.

From a direct political point of view, this is no doubt reprehensible. But in terms of the film’s own crass logic, it is brilliant — in Bataillean terms, 1)it sets up Dubya as a figure of heterogeneity, a figure of exception rather than a representative of “normality”; while at the same time 2)it converts heterogenenous-Dubya from a figure of “sovereign” heterogeneity (which is how Bataille characterizes the fascist dictator) into one of “base” heterogeneity. (Cf. also in this respect Kim’s comment about how “James Admonian’s portrayal of Bush… is a monstrous and creepy thing. He looks like his skin is rotting off, and his eyes look like lizard eyes. So while he may seem funny smoking a joint and laughing with the boys, ultimately he is scary and somewhat demonic”). I mean it when I say that the film “converts” the figure of Bush: it doesn’t give a proper representation of him, but transforms him into something other, something phantasmatic. The idea that Harold and Kumar, once identified as “terrorists,” could ever escape the machinery of Homeland Security is of course a utopian one; it requires a utopian revisioning of Dubya as well. And this revisioning comes, not by turning Dubya into a “benevolent” despot, but by infantilizing and debasing him to the point where despotism becomes impossible. (Indeed, this is the same utopianism which finally leads the guy from the National Security Council, whom Mr. Homeland Security has been condescendingly insulting for the whole movie, to stop Mr. Homeland Security’s abuses, precisely because “It’s people like you who make the rest of the world think Americans are stupid.” It’s a matter of rescuing America’s image, which means both undoing its idiotic racial hierarchies and undoing its sense of sovereignty and self-entitlement).

Getting back to the homo/hetero divide as a structuring principle for the movie, one can perhaps see it at work, as well, in the way that Neil Patrick Harris, who has come out of the closet as gay in real life, portrays himself here as poontang-crazed (as well as blissed-out on mushrooms). It is noteworthy that, where Harris’ role in White Castle entirely referenced his iconic status as Doogie Hawser, here the Homeland Security fascist tells Harris that he worships him for his role in Starship Troopers, Paul Verhoeven’s tongue-in-cheek (?) homage to American xenophobia, militarism, and genocide. [Harris is of course wonderful, and it is worth sitting through the movie's credits to see his last-second resurrection].

Not to mention the film’s epilogue, where, having finally made it to pot-friendly Amsterdam, Harold sees the girl of his dreams kissing another guy — he runs over to confronther, only to discover that the other guy is (like his girlfriend) a model, that the kiss is only staged for a fashion shoot for High Times (of course), and that the male model is in any case totally gay. (Gayness, like pot smoking, is one of those things that is OK in Amsterdam, even though it is not legitimate in the USA).

All this is systematic, and interrelated. My point is not to try to suggest that homophobia and disavowed homosocial love are the subtexts of the movie; but rather, precisely, to show how they have been deliberately made the focus of a well-constructed screenplay. There is no point in trying to disconnect all this frat-boy, heterosexist humor from the fact that the smug, blond, WASP, politically well-connected, ruling-class Texan frat boy who Vanessa (Danneel Harris), Kumar’s ex-girlfriend (and, as we learn in a flashback, the person who first initiated him into pot smoking) is rescued from marrying at the last moment, is revealed to be the most vile and despicable character in the movie — even more evil than the crazed Homeland Security guy who literally wipes his ass with the Bill of Rights, since the ruling-class Texan’s class and racial privilege is what the Homeland Security guy is really protecting. [The WASP fiance here plays the same role that the WASP brokers at Harold's firm played in the first movie; dudes whose sense of entitlement is absolute, and who get their comeuppance for this from Harold and Kumar]. And this in turn cannot be disentangled from the corny moral, enunciated by Dubya but agreed to by Harold and Kumar, that to be patriotic you don’t need to love the government, you just need to love the country. As Harold and Kumar, and their immigrant parents — and apparently Dubya as well — quite emphatically do. Patriotism is the keynote of this film, just as consumerism was of White Castle.

I should also mention — since this is something that truly startled me — how little pot, and how little pot humor, there actually is in this movie. [In this respect, Guantanamo Bay is radically different from White Castle, not to mention from a film like Gregg Araki's wonderful Smiley Face]. Our boys get in trouble at the very start of the movie as a result of sneaking pot onto an airplane; and they share joints with Dubya near the end; but for most of the narrative they do without, and there’s very little stoned humor anywhere in the film. Instead, we get scenes like that of Kumar’s masturbatory fantasy of a three-way with his former/future girlfriend and an enormous bag of weed (a scene of bargain-basement surrealism, or lumbering alienation-effect, that works in the film precisely because it is too clumsily done to be plausible as a het-boy sex fantasy). Pot’s sort of charming/blank dissociation and floating quality is suitable as an analogue for consumerism, but much less so for national-security hysteria, unless you want to go the route of pot-fueled paranoia, which would have extinguished the film’s humor pretty quickly). [Neil Patrick Harris' mushroom hallucinations of a phallic unicorn are an entirely different matter; it's significant that the boys turn down his invitation to them to partake].

Jokes stop being funny when you explain them, and I fear that my making these connections in Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay risk obscuring the fact that the movie works — and, it really does work — affectively rather than cognitively. I am basically in agreement with Kim’s point that the movie’s humor works because it “propels us into the Zone of Discomfort which is maintained throughout the movie”; nearly every scene “ram[s] prejudices down our throats while forcing us to laugh and squirm.” What Kim is getting at, I think, is that the movie’s critique of racism, as well as its non-critique of homophobia and sexism, is something that comes from the inside, rather than from a critical distance; it is intensely embodied, rather than being analytically distanced. And this is precisely its value. It presents a matrix in which racism (which the film explicitly criticizes) and experiences of sexism and homophobia (which the film fails to criticize, or in relation to which it merely recapitulates dominant prejudices for their humor) are both lived experiences. And in which patriotism, and the exploitation of patriotic feelings for the purposes of fascist repression, are lived experiences as well. There are few recent films that delve as deeply as Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay does, into what it is really like, and what it really means, to live in America today — and this is not in spite of, but precisely because of, the film’s lack of a coherent political message, or of any aspirations to be Art.

The Connective and Disjunctive Syntheses

Monday, July 7th, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paolo Virno, Multitude: Between Innovation and Negation

Sunday, July 6th, 2008

Paolo Virno’s newly-translated book, Multitude: Between Innovation and Negation, is somewhat misleadingly titled, since it has very little to say about the concept of the multitude as featured in Virno’s previously-translated book, as well as in the work of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. Rather, it is a text composed of three essays, a longish one about jokes and the logic of innovation, flanked by two much shorter ones that deal with the ambivalent legacy of humanity’s linguistic powers.

The first essay argues against the notion, crystallized by Carl Schmitt but held more generally in the “common sense” of political philosophy and conceptual thought (from Hobbes, we might say, through Freud, right down to Steven Pinker), that any democratic or liberatory political theory is founded in the naive view that human nature is innately harmonious and good, whereas the more “realistic” view of the human capacity for “evil” mandates belief in a strong and repressive State. Virno argues, to the contrary, that if we are to worry about the “evil” in human nature — which is really our “openness to the world,” or our underdetermination by our biology, which is what makes it possible for us to have “a virtually unlimited species-specific ambivalence” — then we have all the more reason to worry about what happens when the power to act (to do evil as well as to mitigate it) is concentrated in something like the State’s “monopoly of violence.”

Theorists of the State, from Hobbes to Schmitt, posit the transition from a state of nature to a civil state, involving the rule of a sovereign (in the conservative version), or the rule of law (in the liberal version), as a defense against this innate aggressiveness that would be endemic to the state of nature. But Virno says that this transition is never complete; even a sovereignty based on laws still has to declare a “state of exception” in order to maintain its rule; and this state of exception is, in effect, a return to the never-surpassed “state of nature.” The state of exception is a state in which rules are never firm, but are themselves subject to change and reinvention. We move back from the fixed rules to the human situation that gave rise to them in the first place. Though the “state of exception” has often been described as the totalitarian danger of our current situation, it is also a state in which the multitude can itself elaborate new practices and new forms of invention.

The third essay in the book makes a similar argument, in a somewhat simpler form. Sympathy with others of our kind is an innate biological endowment of our species — here Virno makes reference to recent discoveries involving mirror neurons. But language frees us, for both good and ill, from this state of sympathy. Language gives us the power of negation, which is the ability to deny the humanity of the other (the Jew, the “Musselman,” the non-white) and hence to torture and kill them mercilessly. Since there is no possibility of returning to a prelinguistic state, the only solution to this potentiality for evil is to potentialize language to a further level, make it go meta-, have it reflect back on itself, in a “negation of the negation.” The power to objectify and kill is also the power to heal, to establish “reciprocal recognition.” Just as the state of exception is the ambivalent locus both of tyrannical imposition and of democratic redemption, so the potentiality of language is the ambivalent locus both of murderous destruction and of the elaboration of community, or of the multitude.

But both these essays are little more than footnotes to the long central essay, “Jokes and Innovative Action,” that is most of the book. Virno rather curiously takes Freud’s book on jokes as his primary text, despite disclaiming any interest in the Freudian theory of the unconscious. All his examples of jokes come from Freud; but he reclassifies these jokes in terms of their status as public acts of expression (“performative utterances” in a way, though precisely they do not positively refer back to institutions in the way that a performative utterance like “I sentence you to a year in prison” does), as gestures that disrupt the “normal” functioning of a rule, and as “paralogisms” (logical fallacies, or defective syllogisms).

The point behind all these classifications is a Wittgensteinian one. Most of the time, in “normal” situations, we apply rules to concrete situations unproblematically. But in fact a rule is never sufficient to dictate how it is to be applied in any situation whatsoever — any attempt to do so involves making a second rule to explain how to apply the first rule, then a third rule to explain how to apply the second rule, and so on in any infinite regress. There is always an incommensurability between abstract rules and pragmatic acts of applying those rules. We have to appeal, as Wittgenstein says, to actual practices in a given “form of life.” But these forms of life are themselves subject to change. A joke is a disruptive intervention in this process; it introduces an “aberrant” application of a rule, thus exposing to view the inherent incommensurability between rule and application. It throws us back upon the “form of life” in which the language game of which the rule is a part is embedded. It exposes the contingency of the form of life, the way it could be otherwise. It returns us to what Wittgenstein calls “the common behavior of humankind.”

Virno interprets this “common behavior” to be our species-specific biological endowment (basic “human nature”) — or with the “regularities” of human behavior that ultimately underlie all rules, but which explicit rules cannot fully encompass. The gap between an explicit rule and the way we can apply it refers back to this prior gap between rules and the regularities upon which they are based, but which they are never able to encompass. This is in turn the case because Virno — as we have seen –defines basic human, species-specific and biological regularities not as a fixed “nature” but precisely as an underdetermination, a reservoir of potentiality — something whose incompleteness can only be given fixed form by the still-more-indeterminate, and still-more-open-to-potentiality, power of language. Language is what fixes our biological potentiality into specific forms, but it is also (as jokes witness) what allows us to rupture any given fixity, and reconfigure things otherwise. Wittgenstein’s return to the “regularity” of empirically-observed human nature as the court of last appeal for what cannot be guaranteed or grounded by rational argument is also a kind of return to the state-of-exception-as-state-of-nature, or to the moment of emergece when language first emerges out of our innate drives, both reshaping and giving form to these drives, and opening them up to a still more radical indeterminacy.

Virno claims that this is what is happening, in miniature, in jokes when they twist intentions and laws, multiply meanings, and turn seemingly fixed principles into their opposites, or into sheer absurdity. He therefore takes the joke as a miniaturized version, or as a paradigm case, of innovation and creativity in general. The way that jokes play with and disrupt previously fixed and accepted meanings, is a small version of the way that any form of social innovation or creativity alters relations that were previously taken for granted or seen as fixed.

Ultimately, Virno says that jokes and all forms of social innovation play on the indeterminacy between grammatical statements and empirical statements — an indeterminacy that is the major focus of Wittgenstein’s last writing, collected in the volume On Certainty. Wittgenstein says, on the one hand, that certain statements are not in themselves either true or false — because they express the presuppositions that we are already taking for granted and pointing back to when we make any judgment of truth or falsity. For Wittgenstein, it is a weird category error to assert the truth of a statement like “I know that I have two hands” — because we do not “know” this, so much as we already presuppose it whenever we learn something, or come to know something. My sense of having two hands is precognitive (which is precisely why I do not have to check all the time to make sure that I really do have two hands, neither more nor less).

On the other hand, however, and at the same time, Wittgenstein says that this pre-knowledge is not absolute. Over time, there can be shifts in which sorts of statements are empirical ones (that can be true or false), and which statements are foundational or grammatical ones (already presupposed in an act of cognition). I might lose one of my hands in a horrible accident, for instance. Or some empirical fact might become so central to my understanding of everything that it would come to take on the form of a pre-assumed (grammatical) statement, rather than a merely empirical one. These things can and do change over the course of time. One language game morphs or mutates into a different one. For Virno, this is where social innovation takes place. Jokes are the simplest example of such a process of change: one in which “an openly ‘fallacious’ conjecture… reveals in a flash a different way of applying the rules of the game” (163), and thereby changes the nature of the game altogether, or allows us to stop playing one game and to play a different one instead. Virno expands this reading, in order to suggest that it really comprises a theory of crisis in Wittgenstein, so that his naturalism is something more than just a passive cataloging of various “forms of life” — something which he says is “stubbornly ignored by all of Wittgenstein’s scholars” (163).

How useful and convincing is all of this? To my mind, the best part of Virno’s argument is the last thing I mentioned: his parsing of Wittgenstein on the shadowy and always-changing boundary between the “grammatical” and the “empirical.” I think that this is a more informal and naturalistic version of what Deleuze calls “transcendental empiricism.” At any given moment there is a transcendental field that determines what is possible and what is not, and that delineates for us the shape of the empirical (which cannot be interpreted without it). At the same time, this “transcendental field” is not only not an absolute (in Kant’s language, as transcendental it is precisely not transcendent), but is itself something that has an empirical genesis within time, and that varies through time. (This is the point that I was trying to make in a previous posting: capitalism arises entirely contingently, but once it has imposed itself it takes on the shape of a transcendental, circumscribing both what we can experience, and how we can experience it).

Now, doubtless this always-open possibility of shifting the boundary between the empirical and the transcendental, or of turning one into the other, is where creativity and innovation are located. The bad, or mainstream, interpretation of Kant is the one that always insists upon the necessity of separating the transcendental (the regulative, the norm) from the empirical — that is how you get Habermas, for instance. A much better Kantianism is the one — it can be found explicitly in Lyotard, for instance; and I argue that it also works implicitly in Whitehead and in Deleuze) — that sees the gap or incommensurability between the transcendental/regulative and the empirical not as a barrier, so much as a space that is sufficiently open as to allow for innovative transformation.

So, to this extent I find Virno’s formulations (including his reading of Wittgenstein) extremely useful. But I also find Virno’s discussion curiously bland and incomplete, and this because of its failure (due to its “naturalistic” orientation?) to say enough either about aesthetics, or about political economy. I think, on the one hand, that the view of creativity and innovation implicit in Virno’s discussion needs to be thought at greater length within the framework of a post-Kantian aesthetics, and that this aesthetics needs to be affirmed precisely against the temptation (all too common in current academic discourse) to render it in “ethical” terms. (I won’t say more about this here, because it is the implicit argument of my entire book on Whitehead and Deleuze). On the other hand, I find Virno’s silence on matters of political economy quite disappointing in someone who explicitly presents himself as a Marxist or post-Marxist philosopher. Rather than deepening a sense of how we might understand the “multitude” in the framework of contemporary global capitalism, Virno opts for a much vaguer, and context-free, understanding of how social and cultural change is possible. He prefers to speak in terms of the State, and of the foundations of law and sovereignty, than in terms of modes and relations of production. I know my position here is an unpopular one, but I am enough of a “vulgar Marxist” to think that these sorts of political-philosophy distinctions are too vague and abstract to have any sort of traction when they are separated from “economic” considerations. (Again, this is an argument that needs to be pursued at greater length than I have the time or the patience to do here).

But the limitations of Virno’s argument in this respect are most evident when he discusses the forms of social change. Basically, he lists two. One of them is “exodus”: the Israelites, faced with the choice between submitting to the Pharaoh and rebelling against him, instead make the oblique move of leaving Egypt altogether. This for Virno is the exemplary situation of changing the parameters of what is possible, changing the rules of the game instead of just moving within an already-given game or form of life. The obvious reference, beyond the Bible, is to the Italian “autonomist” movement of the 1960s/1970s, which is the point of origin for Virno’s thought just as it is for Negri’s. Now, much as I admire the emphasis on obliqueness rather than dialectical oppositions, I also suspect that the idea of “exouds” is a too easy one — in the sense that, when capitalism subsumes all aspects of contemporary life, outside the factory as well as inside, it is as difficult actually to find a point of exodus as it is easy to make the declaration that one is doing so. “Lateral thinking” is a business buzzword more than an anti-capitalist strategy. Things like “open software” and “creative commons” copyright licenses are not anywhere near as radical as they sound — if anything, they not only coexist easily with a capitalist economy, but presuppose a capitalist economy for their functioning. All too often, what we celebrate as escapes from the capitalist machine in fact work as comfortable niches within it.

But Virno’s other form of change, “innovation,” is even more problematic. It seems to me to be symptomatic that Virno introduces his discussion of what he calls entrepreneurial innovation with the disclaimer that this involves “a meaning of the term ‘entrepreneur’ that is quite distinct from the sickening an odious meaning of the word that is prevalent among the apologists of the capitalist mode of production” (148); and yet, immediately after this caveat, he goes on to explain what he means by “entrepreneurial innovation” by referring to the authority of Joseph Schumpeter, the one theorist of the entire 20th century who is most responsible for the “sickening and odious” meaning that Virno ostensibly rejects. Virno insists that, for Schumpeter, “it would be a mistake to confuse the entrepreneur with the CEO of a capitalistic enterprise, or even worse, with its owner.” This is because, for Schumpeter, entrepreneurism is “a basically human aptitude… a species-specific faculty.” However, this disclaimer will not stand. On the one hand, the entrepreneur is not the same as the CEO or owner, only because the former refers to a moment of “invention,” whereas the latter refers to an already-established enterprise. When the businessman ceases to innovate actively, and instead simply reaps the fruits of his market dominance, then he has become a CEO instead of an entrepreneur. Bill Gates was a Schumpeterian entrepreneur in the 1970s; by the 1990s he had become just another CEO. The owners of Google, whose innovations surpassed those of Microsoft, are now making the same transition. Even if the entrepreneur is not yet a CEO, his actions are only intelligible in the framework of a capitalist economy. If the entrepreneur is successful, then he inevitably becomes a CEO. To say that Schumpeterian entrepreneurship is a basic human aptitude is precisely to say (as Virno doesn’t want to say) that capitalism is intrinsic to, and inevitablely a part of, human nature. (My own commentary on Schumpeter is available here).

I think that Virno’s reference to Schumpeter is symptomatic, because it offers the clearest example of how he fumbles what seems to me to be one of the great issues of our age: which is, precisely, how to disarticulate notions of creativity and innovation and the New from their current hegemony in the business schools and in the ways that actually-existing capitalism actually functions. VIrno fails to work through this disarticulation, precisely because he has already preassumed it. I myself don’t claim by any means to have solved this problem — the fact that we can neither give up on innovation, creativity, and the New, nor accept the way that the relentless demand for them is precisely the motor that drives capitalism and blocks any other form of social and economic organization from being even minimally thinkable — but I feel that Virno fails to acknowledge it sufficiently as a problem. In consequence, for all that his speculation in this book offers a response to the Hobbesian or Schmittian glorification of the State, it doesn’t offer any response to the far more serious problem of our subordination to the relentless machinery, or monstrous body, of capital accumulation.