[Another excerpt from The Age of Aesthetics].
Horkheimer and Adorno, writing at the time of Fordist mass production, scorn the very notion of consumer choice: “That the difference between the models of Chrysler and General Motors is fundamentally illusory is known by every child, who is fascinated by that very difference.” Variations, in the form of distinctive individual traits, are “serially produced like the Yale locks which differ by fractions of a millimeter.” Such trivial differences “serve only to perpetuate the appearance of competition and choice”; beneath them, we find an “insatiable uniformity,” a “unified standard of value” for an entirely managed and rationalized culture.
Has any of this changed in the post-Fordist economy of flexible accumulation and niche marketing? Naomi Klein thinks not. Though transnational corporations today often give lip service to the ideals of multiplicity and variety, and especially ethnic diversity (as in the “united colors of Benetton” advertising campaigns), in reality “market-driven globalization doesn’t want diversity. . . Its enemies are national habits, local brands, and distinctive regional tastes.” We face “the strange combination of a sea of product coupled with losses in real choice.” Things are even more homogenized in the age of Starbucks and McDonald’s than they were in the age of Chrysler and General Motors. Multinational corporations that “promised a new age of freedom and diversity” in fact deliver endlessly repeated stereotypes. Each particular retail brand (like Starbucks, Ikea, or the Gap) has its own “distinctive quality,” as a point of identification for the consumer. But these one-dimensional distinctions in fact only serve the consolidation of corporate brand images, and the replacement of local, independent retail establishments by standardized multinational chains.
The problem with this line of argument is that it fails to address the question of why corporations should need to dissimulate in the first place. Why do they seek to maintain “the appearance of competition and choice,” even as they monopolize production and distribution, and abolish choice? Why do they pay lip service to “freedom and diversity,” if their actual goal is to suppress them? Why does Benetton advertise multiculturalism? Why does Apple stand for “think[ing] different,” and Starbucks for a warm, inclusive cosmopolitanism? It doesn’t seem adequate to say that these stances are nothing but lies and propaganda, designed to appease popular discontent, and to cover up what Horkheimer and Adorno call “the withering of imagination and spontaneity in the consumer of culture today.”
Slavoj Zizek, with his usual penchant for provocative inversions, argues that corporations really do promote diversity and choice – and that this is precisely the problem with them. For Zizek, “today’s capitalism already overcame the logic of totalizing normality and adopted the logic of the erratic excess.” For “the impersonal circulation of affects bypassing persons,” celebrated by such thinkers as Deleuze, is “the very logic of publicity, of video clips, and so forth in which what matters is not the message about the product but the intensity of the transmitted affects and perceptions.” Any appeal to diversity and multiplicity therefore ends up replicating the logic of Capital. Zĭzek even has the malice to suggest that Deleuze is the ultimate “ideologist of late capitalism,” and that Klein’s polemic against homogeneity would in fact “be applauded by contemporary capitalist modernizers. . . Is not the latest trend in corporate management itself ‘diversify, devolve power, try to mobilize local creativity and self-organization’ ? Is not anticentralization the topic of the ‘new’ digitalized capitalism?”
There is a genuine Kantian Antinomy at work here. We are faced with two incompatible propositions regarding the nature of Capital. “Each of them not only is in itself without contradiction, but even encounters conditions of its necessity in the nature of reason – except that, unfortunately, the counterproposition has on its side equally valid and necessary bases for its assertion” (Kant 1996, 454). Both propositions are simultaneously valid, and we can only shuttle back and forth between them, continually shifting perspective. The Kantian “solution” to such an Antinomy consists in grasping the way that both sides of the argument are equally right, and equally wrong – but each in a more limited way than might originally seem to be the case. We cannot move forward, and establish a dialectical synthesis between the two propositions (such would be the Hegelian move that Kant anticipates, and rejects in advance). Rather, we need to step back, and reflexively examine the presuppositions of the conflicting arguments.
The Antinomy of consumer choice is this. On the one hand, postmodern capitalism limits, and even abolishes, choice, in the interest of monopolistic accumulation. On the other hand, postmodern capitalism increases and proliferates choice, in order to saturate the market, and thereby both expand it and capture more of it. The “solution” to the Antinomy can therefore be stated as follows. Postmodern capitalism does indeed expand the range of choices we can make; but it does this by channeling choice exclusively, and restrictively, into the realm of commodity consumption. Zizek is right to argue that capitalism today is all about diversity and choice, and that the multiculturalist celebration of difference fits perfectly into its agenda. But he is wrong to condemn Deleuze as an “ideologist” of this process. In fact, Deleuze and Guattari offer a powerful critical analysis of late capitalism’s flows and “axiomatics” – something that Zĭzek himself conspicuously fails ever to do. For her part, Klein is right to insist that, in the regime of transnational corporations, with their ubiquitous logos and brand names, “options for unbranded alternatives, for open debate, criticism, and uncensored art – for real choice – are facing new and ominous restrictions” (131). But she is wrong to seize upon “real choice” as the alternative to capitalist domination; for “choice” itself is a term that only makes sense in the context of shopping, of individuals “limiting [their] expressions of freedom to acts of consumption.”
[This needs to be followed by an explanation of how “choice” really means “shopping,” as it comes down to selecting options from a “menu”, as the “rational choice” and “free market” ideologues like to call it; so that “choice” is not an adequate synonym for concrete freedom. Tim from The Wrong Side of Capitalism is right on point here, with his absolutely brilliant discussion of Girls Aloud vs. Sex in the City.]
[And, getting back to the Antinomy of Consumer Choice, the limitation that the arguments on both sides share is that they are all alike grounded in “cultural Marxism,” meaning that they are all more concerned with the logic of subjectivity than with the (more orthodoxly Marxist) logic of capital accumulation. I want to argue that this is an error, or a wrong turning. Horkheimer and Adorno focus on the administered society, on standardization and control — though they would probably acknowledge that this is ultimately a consequence of the drive for the accumulation of capital, this drive itself does not really attract their attention. On the other side, Zizek’s explanations of politics always focus upon “surplus enjoyment” rather than upon “surplus value”; though he concedes (in The Sublime Object of Ideology) that Lacan in fact derived the former concept from Marx’s formulation of the latter, he nonetheless ultimately privileges surplus enjoyment, the obscene superego supplement, etc. There’s a symmetry between Horkheimer/Adorno and Zizek, in that both focus on the psychoanalytic/psychosocial dimension — even if the former express it in terms of standardization, repression, and instrumental reason, while the latter expresses it in the form of excess, jouissance, and fantasy. Part of my overall argument in The Age of Aesthetics is that even, or especially, the “cultural turn” of today’s “late” (postmodern) capitalism needs to be understood in terms of capital logic, rather than through such psychosocial categories. This is not a foundationalist, or base/superstructure argument, but one closer both to Karatani’s understanding of Capital as a Kantian transcendental category for the social world today, and to Deleuze and Guattari’s insistence on the primacy (and the positivity) of social flows and investments.]