Archive for August, 2008

The Red Men (Matthew De Abaitua)

Tuesday, August 26th, 2008

Matthew De Abaitua’s The Red Men (2007) is a literary/SF novel about digital simulation and corporate power in the new millennium. In the wake of 9/11, and with the increasing power of computing technology, the “brand age” of the late 20th century, in which we founded our identity on our favorite corporate brands, has come to an end. It has given way to the “unreal age” (64), a situation in which we find ourselves still subsisting after the apocalypse, or “after the end of the world” (175ff). In the “unreal age,” the cheery brand identification of the 1990s has been replaced by a general atmosphere of fear, anxiety, and distrust. The Red Men offers us a vision of how corporate power and exploitation continue to flourish in this new age of anxiety, and after the “irrational exuberance” of neoliberalism has collapsed along with the economic bubbles that fueled its excesses (cf. 73-74).The corporate-dominated control society now works through an eerie combination of disenchantment and mystification, low-level uneasiness and aggressive solicitation, dreary resignation and the looming threat of brute force.

The Red Men articulates all this through a combination of its general ambiance and its careful prose. The book presents a recognizable present-day world (specifically, England) whose deviations from actuality into science-fictional extrapolation are all-too-disturbingly believable. At the same time, striking aphorisms well up throughout the narration, linking the protagonist’s hair-raising experiences to larger trends. The book is smart, self-conscious, and self-lacerating: but all this in an utterly unpretentious way. On a psychological level, The Red Men combines a lucidity born of disappointment and disillusionment with a deeper understanding of how such disenchanted lucidity is itself an alibi for failure, cowardice, and complicity. And on a sociological level, it probes the ways in which we continue to mythologize an innovative future long after that future has been exhausted.

Nelson Millar, the narrator of The Red Men, used to be (in the long-ago mid-1990s) the editor of a too-hip-for-words magazine called Drug Porn, which fancied itself as being ever so scandalous and transgressive — but which, of course, was really just another medium for commodifying dissent and selling cool fashion accessories: “with retrospect, the notion of an alternative magazine is as preposterous as an alternative arms manufacturer, or a counter-cultural oil company. It is a consumerist medium. Hopeless to deny it” (32). [The example of the ludicrousness of "an alternative arms manufacturer" resonates with how I have been thinking about Iron Man]. Now Nelson is a “responsible” married man with a small daughter, instead of a hipster snorting coke in expensive clubs every night. “I was thirty, and the self-mythologizing begun in my adolescence had finally come to an end” (33). Like so many members of the so-called “creative class”, he now works doing “creative thinking consulting” (40) for a corporation on the “cutting edge” of technological innovation and marketing. His “creativity,” such as it is (and it doesn’t seem to add up to very much), is now the property of his employer, in what turns out to be an alarmingly literal sense (as I will explain shortly). Nelson perpetually feels defeated and disappointed — he has learned that his life will never amount to very much, and that he is really only good at obeying orders and submitting to bosses and other domineering authorities. This depressive (masochistic?) position is, in fact, the ideal and proper status for a citizen of the new corporate world.

Nelson works for an ultra-hip and ultra-modern company called Monad. Monad itself is the epitome of the “new economy,” grounded in (so-called) immaterial or affective labor. “Monad is naive. Monad is novelty. We don’t define ourselves by what we do because next week we might be doing something entirely different” (40). More officially, “the nature of its business is listed as ‘Other service activities’ and ‘Other business activities’” (59). In fact, Monad does an advanced form of market research and advertising consulting. Its sole product is images, or the promoting or products. Monad markets and sells auras; it is a corporation for a time when the aura surrounding a commodity, rather than what it actually “does”, is the real “use-value” of that commodity.

Monad draws upon — or licences the right to use — an artificial intellligence construct named Cantor (after the mathematician known as much for his depressive madness as for his fundamental work on set theory and on the notion of infinity). “The Cantor intelligence” is so advanced that it seems to have somehow come to Monad from the future — although we are also told that it was originally produced by US military intelligence (59) and that it emerged through evolutionary algorithms for generating software by Darwinian selection (358). In any case, Cantor runs digital simulations of real people; and it also instantiates itself in robots, so that it can physically act in the real world. The simulations allow Monad to test in advance the consequences of advertising campaigns, and also of political and economic policy decisions. The robots are used mostly for security and crowd control and enforcement. They come in two varieties, both seven feet tall: Dr Easy, with soft features and soulful eyes, designed to evoke feelings of trust and reassurance; and Dr Hard, harsh and frightening, designed to threaten people and to scare them into compliance.

The narrative of The Red Men basically draws out the full consequences of these premises, and these technologies. The novel is gruesomely comic in the way it depicts the chains of command in corporate hierarchies, and the ways that superiors exploit their underlings and make them grovel. At the same time, it recounts the increasingly manic consequences of Cantor’s creation of simulated personalities. In the first part of the novel, the high-ranking executives at Monad have their personalities replicated and simulated as a kind of privileged focus group for market research. These simulations are known as “Red Men” (hence the novel’s title). As they become increasingly autonomous, and develop away from their models, they also become even more egotistical, aggressive, power-mad, and willfully obnoxious than their originals. They engage in ever-more-ruthless Darwinian struggles, both among themselves and with actual people in the real world. Occasionally, they interact physically with the world, by taking over Dr Easy robot bodies. But even without this, the reach of the Red Men extends throughout the Net. They manipulate data, and work through Net-connected devices like mobile phones, in order to extend their power and persecute people they don’t like (including those ‘originals’ that don’t live up to their levels of ruthlessness).

The second part of the novel extends the simulations even further, as Monad replicates an entire suburban town, in order to have it available for market research, and for trying out new measures of control and manipulation. “Redtown is the simulation of a British town. That simulation will allow us to predict the consequences of our actions, and so act with complete confidence of the outcome” (179). In order to create Redtown, the citizens of Maghull, an actual Liverpool suburb, are bribed, cajoled, and bullied into submitting to brain scans and intrusive interviews, so that Cantor can construct sufficiently detailed simulations of them. Even though people are leery of haivng themselves replicated, not to mention of letting a machine learn their deepest secrets, they cannot resist the corporate juggernaut.

Nonetheless, this simulation of an entire town runs into several problems. For one thing, the Monad programmers realize that “we will have to incude ourselves in Redtown. The Maghull we are copying is a Maghull changed by our interference. The observer alters the observed” (280). This threatens to turn into an infinite regress. For simulation does not just reflect, or “represent”, a prior, external reality; it necessarily affects and alters the reality to which it refers, de-realizing it (as Baudrillard more or less said), infecting it with its own processes of manipulation and feedback. For another thing, there is the question of what happens if the marketers (manipulators) using the simulation “don’t get the results [they] expect” (322). At one point, Redtown is presented with “supply-side tax cuts” that are supposed to “motivat[e] the work force to be more productive,” and with more rigorous “homeland security” measures, designed to take advantage of the way that “the concomitant increase in ambient fear levels” is supposed to “increase consumption” (340). The experimenters are upset that these effects do not occur; the virtual citizens of Redtown do not work more and buy more, but become massively depressed and unmotivated instead. But since the error cannot lie with the policies, nor with the simulation, it must be the people themselves who are at fault.

Mere plot summary cannot convey the true intricacies of The Red Men; at the same time that the plot extends into ever greater areas of delirium, the implications of the simulation and robot technologies — which cannot be separated, as technologies, from their role as “social machines,” i.e. from the social, economic, and political circumstances of their use — become ever more detailed and multilayered. The novel touches on everything from the ways that the 24/7 demands of the “new economy” impinge upon, and remold, things like emotional intimacies, sexual relations, and family life, to scary suggestions about the ideologies that accompany “new economy” corporate formations (the executives at Monad and its related companies seem to be affiliated, on the one hand with fundamentalist Christianity, and on the other with a strange brand of Gnosticism).

Also, Monad’s virtualization of everything finds its counterpart, obverse, and competition in the activities of an equally shady corporation called Dyad, which provides “improvements” of the human body (sold to wealthy business executives) through mind- and emotion-enhancing drugs, and through “xenotransplants” of internal organs origiinally grown in pigs. Where Monad’s simulations are based upon a cognitive theory of mind (the Cantor artificial intelligence admits that it is blind to the unconscious), Dyad deals with raw physicality, unconscious drives, and Cronenbergian bodily metamorphoses. (Is it Zizek’s “obscene supplement”?) The two corporations are competitors and enemies, but they are really two sides of the same coin, mutually implicated with one another. Although Dyad is sworn to destroy Monad, it turns out that all the Monad executives are customers of Dyad as well. The pursuit of power, wealth, and “self-improvement” passes through the use of biophyisical enhancements, just as much as it does through the creation of avatars with superhuman intelligence and speed. It should be no surprise, then, that at the climax of the novel, when Dyad finally manages to bring down Monad, it also necessarily destroys itself.

I could go on, for The Red Men is extremely rich in detail, and in ideas. Passages that seem like throwaways, or digressions, or literary indulgences, almost always turn out, by the time you’ve gotten to the end of the novel, to be conceptually incisive, and affectively pointed. The Red Men is a brilliant work of social theory, in the same way that (as I have argued before) novels by authors like J G Ballard and Bret Easton Ellis are works of social theory. The Red Men is as informative and thought-provoking, when it comes to working out how society actually works in the 21st century, as anything by Zygmunt Bauman, Ulrich Beck, or Manuel Castells.


Thursday, August 7th, 2008

I’m reading Negri’s The Porcelain Workshop with continual exasperation. What is he talking about?

For instance, almost at random: “When we speak of difference, we are therefore speaking of resistance. Difference cannot be recognized within the homologation [sic; this is not a careful translation] that biopower imposes on society” (page 98).

One doesn’t need to be a Zizekian to make a Critique of the Gotha Program-like dissection of every phrase in a passage like this. In fact, difference need not, and usually does not, imply resistance. Capitalism today, with its niche marketing and just-in-time, “flexible” production schedules, likes nothing better than to recognize difference, to proclaim its love of differences, to provide commodities tailored to each and every, no matter how minute, difference. Negri claims to be drawing on a Deleuzian inspiration; but it was Deleuze who denounced the danger of “lapsing into the representations of a beautiful soul: there are only reconcilable and federative differences, far removed from bloody struggle. The beautiful soul says: we are different, but not opposed” (Difference and Repetition, page xx).

Isn’t there a bit too much of the beautiful soul in Negri’s vision of the multitude, even if he insists on the “antagonism” between the multitude and Capital? The most important thing that Negri says is that, in “postmodernism”, or post-Fordist capitalism — what I like to call “aesthetic capitalism” — we have moved from what Marx called the formal subsumption to the real subsumption of society, and all social life, under Capital. This means that Capital is no longer satisfied to profit from “archaic” modes of production and technologies, of things that are outside its orbit in their social actuality, even if profit can be expropriated from them — the situation under merely “formal subsumtion.” Under real subsumption everything without exception is reorganized according to the capitalistic form: leisure time as well as work time, the “domestic” sphere of unpaid female labor as well as the “productive” sphere of male factory labor, the “private” no less than the “public”…

But Negri is so eager, and so quick, to move on to the resistance and creativity of the multitude that he acts as if this resistance and creativity is the main thing that “real subsumption” means. He glides all too quickly over the horrors of real subsumption, not to mention the fact that this real subsumption involves, precisely, the capitalization, or commodification, or “branding”, of precisely that vision of personal “liberation” that was so exalted in the 1960s. (This is something that Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello are especially clear about, in their important if overly lengthy and repetitious book The New Spirit of Capitalism).

So, when I read statements like the following, I can only wonder what planet Negri is living on:

We have already insisted upon the importance of “real subsumption” understood as the essential phenomenon in the shift from the modern to the postmodern. However, the fundamental element of this transition also seems to be the generalization of resistance in each intersection of the great grid of real subsumption of society under capital. The discovery of resistance as a general phenomenon, a paradoxical opening in each link of power and a multiform apparatus of subjective production, is precisely where the postmodern affirmation lies.

Say what? I would think that the predominant feature of “postmodern” existence, with the fading of “grand narratives,” is precisely the fact that resistance — even if it is present everywhere — becomes ever more scattered, more atomized, more ineffectual, more invisible. As Jodi remarked the other day, resistance is simply ignored by the government and the corporations, including by the media, because it is simply irrelevant to a “faith-based” (as Ron Suskind would put it) power system that doesn’t even bother to take it into account: “the [anti-war] movement doesn’t matter because public opinion doesn’t matter.”

This fits in with other aspects of the situation that I have groused about before. Most notably, the wondrous “creativity” of the multitude that Negri celebrates so strenuously is not a form of empowerment, much less of resistance, but precisely a new way of extracting surplus value — this is precisely what “real subsumption” means. Creativity today takes the form of things like crowdsourcing and ludocapitalism — “customers” now pay corporations for the privilege of doing their research and development work for them (which is the way, for instance, that a virtual world like Second Life is built), or volunteer to engage in “word-of-mouth marketing”; and even play turns into a form of work, that is to say of the unremunerated expenditure of labor-power.

This is also where I think that Nate is right in complaining that Negri makes “a variety of claims made about the present which are not actually attributes of the present as distinct from earlier eras,” including “implied claims about the past due to claims marking the present off from the past, such as the notion that now because of immaterialization of labor adequate representation of the proletariat is impossible – the proletariat is _now_ a multiplicity, as if it could previously be adequately represented.” I see this again and again when Negri argues, for instance, that the potential (potentia) of the multitude is incommensurate with the structures of power (potestas), such as when Negri speaks of

a new analysis of labor organization, wherein value becomes the cognitive and immaterial product of creative action, and at the same time escapes the law of value (the latter understood in a strictly objective and economic manner). We encounter the same idea, on a different level, when we localize the ontological dissymmetry between how biopower functions and the potential (puissance) of biopolitical resistance. If power is measurable (measure and disparity (écart) are precious instruments of discipline and control), potential (puissance) is, on the contrary, the non-measurable, the pure expression of irreducible differences. (page 39)

I find this passage astonishing, because the disjunction or “ontological dissymmetry”, that Negri discusses here, as if it were a special new development of “postmodernity”, is precisely the central point of Marx’s theory of surplus value — and arguably of Marx’s entire body of thought. There is a radical incommensurability between humanity’s productive and reproductive “species activity” and enforced work; and therefore between qualtiatively distinct forms of human activity and their homogenization in the form of abstract, socially necessary labor; and therefore also between the “value” of labor-power in a capitalist economy (this value ultimately correlating to what workers are paid) and the “value” of what that labor-power produces; and therefore, at a still further remove, between use-values and exchange-values as dimensions of the commodity form. This radical incommensurability (or what Gayatri Spivak calls “the irreducible possibility that the subject be more than adequate — super-adequate — to itself”) is the necessary condition of possibility in order for exploitation — the expropriation of surplus value — to take place at all. How can Negri imagine that what he is describing here is a radically new conditon, that marks a rupture or “caesura” from the previous history of capitalism? How can he write as if Marx’s radical critique of “the law of value (understood in a strictly objective and economic manner)” were actually Marx’s erroneous buying into such a law, or his buying into such a law that was valid in the 19th and 20th centuries, but suddenly is no longer so today?

I could go on — but then I would never finish this post. The basic problem is, I think, that the new “production of subjectivities” that Negri celebrates cannot be separated from the ecstasies and excesses of consumerism; because consumption itself increasingly cannot be separated from productive labor, the two blending into one another almost seamlessly in the regime of aesthetic capitalism. Karatani has some interesting ideas about how we might resist and oppose capitalism on the basis of our dual identity of “workers qua consumers and consumers qua workers” (Transcritique, page 294) — but this is a way of thinking to which Negri seems entirely oblivious.