Another rough draft from The Age of Aesthetics. Part of the problem here is that I have two oppositions which don’t necessarily fit together. One is modernist innovation, always involving antagonism, in contrast to corporate-promoted innovation today, which is non-antagonistic. The other is micro-social and micro-political collective innovation, versus the corporate capture and privatization of innovation. These two schemas of the politics of innovation don’t quite coincide the way my argument would like them to.
Anyway, here goes…
“The only way weâ€™re going to survive is to innovate our way out of the box,” says management guru Tom Peters. “Weâ€™re down to one idea, which is innovation.” This statement is interesting both for its desperation, and for its certitude. The “box” of habit and routine is fatally constricting us. We must innovate, Peters says, because our very survival depends upon it, and because there is nothing else we can rely on. Permanent “management revolution,” based on the principle of “thriving on chaos,” is the only way to go. But innovation itself, or “thinking outside the box,” is the one thing that Peters does not ever doubt or question.
Innovation and the New remain our highest values in postmodernity and the Age of Aesthetics, just as they were in the age of twentieth-century modernism. The categorical imperative of our productive endeavors is still to “make it new.” But the sign of this imperative has been reversed; it has flipped over from negative to positive. Modernist creation was fundamentally antagonistic: “there is no affirmation which is not preceded by an immense negation” (Deleuze). “Making it new” had avant-gardist, anti-capitalist, or at least subversive and anti-conformist connotations;it was always opposed to the standardization and repetitiveness of mass production. (Even the fascist side of modernism â€” as in the Italian Futurists and Ezra Pound â€” was anti-capitalist in this sense). But today,in a world of flexible production and lifestyle marketing, the imperative to “make it new” is enthusiastically embraced by Capital. After all, corporations themselves are now mindful of diversity, and opposed to standardization and repetitive mass production. And so they embrace a perpetual newness that is upbeat and free of ntagonism. Continual “reinvention” is the watchword, both in corporate organization (the focus of Tom Petersâ€™ interest) and in product design and marketing.
Does this mean that the very notion of change and the New has been compromised? Haug suggests that capitalist “aesthetic innovation is… basically aesthetic ageing â€” [marketers] are not interested in the new as such. Their determining aim is the outdating of what exists, its denunciation, devaluing,and replacement.” In this sense, the perpetual novelty of aestheticized commodities never actually leads to anything radically New. For capital itself cannot innovate. The New always comes from the outside,from beyond,or from below; all a corporation can do is internalize this outside, by channeling the flows, appropriating the innovations for itself. As Lazzarato beautifully says, paraphrasing Gabriel Tarde: “Everything first happens by multi-consciousness, and it is only afterwards that an invention manifests itself through a uni-consciousness… Invention is thus always an encounter,a hybridization,and a collaboration among a multiplicity of imitative flows â€” ideas, habits, comportments, perceptions, sensations â€” even when it takes place in an individual brain.” Encounters and hybridizations cannot be programmed or planned in advance; they are always contingent and unpredictable. The future remains open, with an undecidable margin for maneuvering. Every real event involves a moment of excess, a surplus of what happens over its provoking causes and necessary conditions. Innovation thus continually emerges,without warning, from what William James calls the “quasi-chaos” of moment-to-moment experience.
In this way, change is both continual and incremental. It takes place in a series of small, discrete steps; yet the additive effect of all these states is to produce a continuous chain. Or to state the paradox in other terms: innovation is at once singular and common, individual and collective, personal and anonymous. Somebody must have been the first person to play the blues, or to bake a pizza, or to wear a baseball cap backwards. But such singular innovative acts mean little by themselves. They only signify because they are part of a chain. Each micro-innovation depends on other micro-innovations that came before it; and each is taken up in subsequent adaptations and alterations. If these innovators have not become rich and famous from their work, if even their names have been forgotten, this is because their innovations usually pass undetected, as they are absorbed into the textures of everyday life. In any case, the innovations do not really “belong” to their inventors, for they are parts of an ongoing process that was going on before them, and that extends far beyond them. Innovation is thus the restless movement that William James calls “experience,” Bergson calls “elan vital,” and Whitehead calls “creative advance.”
What happens when coolhunters ferret out these innovations, and when corporations learn to “thrive” on the chaos of their making? The process of change is interrupted, and the continuous chain of inventions is broken up. A particular innovation is isolated andidentified; that is to say, it is privatized, capitalized, broadcast widely, and marketed on a massive scale. It is stamped with copyrights, patents, and trademarks. It is no longer anonymous and common. It becomes visible, as a discontinuous novelty, and as a mark of distinction or prestige. The innovation has become a commodity; an unremarked, self-determined practice has been captured in the form of a fixed object (it has been “reified”). It is now something that people will gladly pay for. The flux and reflux of “experience” is organized into a series of strategic aesthetic innovations. As consumers, we are plugged directly into this product renovation cycle. We crave novelty in order to stave off boredom. We continually need infusions of fresh commodities, just as vampire-capital continually need infusions of “living labor,” and just as vampires in general continually need infusions of fresh blood.
This means, in a certain sense, that capitalism always lags behind. Its frenzy for innovation is a consequence of the fact that it is always late. It must engage in a continual struggle to catch up with what is already happening in the “street.” This time lag is what totalizing theories of administration (Adorno),manipulation (Haug), and programming (Baudrillard) always miss. The New always comes from outside. Capitalist appropriation and accumulation are entirely dependent upon there being something outside, something beyond the systemâ€™s circuits of production and reproduction. Therehas to besomething â€” some surplus â€” for Capital to appropriate and accumulate. Otherwise it will give way to entropy, and slowly wind down.
Nonetheless, this Outside is very difficult to discern. It seems too facile, for instance,when Lazzarato distinguishes between the “event” of public, collaborative creation, and the “simulacrum of the event” or “pseudo-event” (99) of advertising and marketing. For even if these can be separated in principle, the former is entirely seized and covered over by the latter in practice. Lazzarato claims that “the dynamics of the event and of multiplicity are indigestible by capitalism.” But isnâ€™t this a sort of lazy, hip (or even hippie) Deleuzianism? One that ignores all of Deleuzeâ€™s (and Guattariâ€™s) work on capitalismâ€™s infinite capacity for “axiomatization” and “capture” (or appropriation)? Events and multiplicities are precisely the things that capitalism does digest. They are its prey, and they constitute the terrain upon which it establishes its empire.
It seems nearly impossible to disentangle the innovation that happens in the “street” from the ways in which that innovation is recuperated and commoditized. Our entire society is saturated and driven by trends in fashion, marketing, and consumption. The entire physical, sensible world â€” the world we see and hear (and feel and smell) all around us, in our homes and on the streets and in the shopping malls, as well as on TVand on the Net â€” is organized and defined by corporate practices of aesthetic innovation. Under these conditions, the New as such cannot be extricated from aesthetic capitalismâ€™s incessant drive for obsolescence and novelty. Today, the New is inextricably tied in with entrepreneurship, and with marketing, advertising, and branding. The distinction here is a formal, Kantian one. The event of the New,the process of innovation,always impacts us from outside. It must be given to our “sensibility,” in order for there to be social experience at all. But the “schemata” of our understanding, the ways in which we apprehend and make use of these innovations, are only provided by the commodity form. It is only through the process of corporate capture and marketing that the New is actualized, or made present, in the world.
And after this, I need to say something about the Antinomy between theories of manipulation and programming (e.g. Adorno, Baudrillard), which offer no hope of resistance; and theories of the primacy of collective creation by the multitude (Lazzarato, Hardt and Negri) who are absurdly optimistic as to the prospects for resistance and change. Hardt/Negri and Lazzarato are right, as against Adorno, in asserting the ontological priority of “living labor” or “general intellect” over capital’s recuperation or appropriation of this labor and intellect. But they are willfully naive to think that this ontologically primary process is accessible without passing through the circuits of capital — the necessity of this passage (on the Kantian grounds I mention above) is what Adorno’s pessimism correctly apprehends, and it is also what fuels Zizek’s criticism of Hardt/Negri. Similarly, what is wrong with a lot of contemporary cultural studies it that it assumes the efficacy of “resistance” after the entry on innovation into the circuits of capital — hence all the stuff about “resistant readings” of TV shows, genre fiction, etc. — whereas in fact such resistance doesn’t come after subsumption by capital — at that point, everything is already complicitous, as Adorno would say — but only before, in this ontologically prior, but largely inaccessible way. There’s no easy solution to this (Kantian) antinomy; any push towards one will involve projections of morality and desire (the 2nd Critique) and/or aesthetics (the 3rd Critique) rather than anything empirically accessible.