More on negation, affirmation, and desire

Part of the problem with discussions of affirmation and negation is that the words are being used in too many different senses. On the one hand, for instance, there is Herbert Marcuse’s prescient critique of “affirmative culture” (prescient, since what he meant is something that is more obnoxiously and oppressively ubiquitous today than it was in Marcuse’s own time) and (echoing Adorno, and ultimately a certain side of Hegel) his call for a practice of negativity to expose what is lacking in these social affirmations. In many ways, although he is in a certain sense out of date, and although he was criticizing the managed fordist society of the 1950s and 1960s, which ironically now seems both freer and more egalitarian than the neoliberal society we live in today — despite all this, Marcuse’s arguments for negativity in certain ways seem fresher than ZIzek’s.

On the other hand, there is Deleuze’s critique of the negative, which is really an criticism of Kojeve’s reading of Hegel as being about the “labor of the negative,” the idea that negation is a form — indeed the form — of work and creativity and the movement of history. (When a carpenter makes a chair, he/she is “negating” the piece of wood out of which the chair is made. The French revolution “negated” the monarchy. Etc.). Deleuze’s argument against negation is really an argument that this “negation” is an extremely impoverished way to look at creativity (which Deleuze describes rather as the actualization of the virtual, a process in which something New is created). It is also an argument against the related Kojeve/Lacan idea that desire equals lack, so that the movement of desire would be the same as the work of negation throughout history. Deleuze programatically rejects this on both the personal and the social/historical levels. (I will return to this in a moment).

So the Adorno/Marcuse version of negativity is really rather different from the negativity that Deleuze rejects — they come out of very different ways of reading Hegel, and they refer to very different processes. Deleuze rejects the Kojeve/Hegel view of negativity as the proper form of production; but the negativity of Adorno and Marcuse is not a form of production or of labor; to the contrary, it is something that resists the capitalist world’s relentless drive to production. (This role of negativity as resistance corresponds to the Body without Organs in Deleuze and Guattari’s thought: the BwO is their attempt to think non-production or anti-production in an alternative way to that of negativity).

Now, Zizek’s negative, I think, fuses elements of both of the strains that I have just described. Via Lacan, Zizek goes back to Kojeve’s labor of the negative, which Lacan transforms into the idea that desire equals lack. But Zizek, unlike Lacan, also wants this negative to work socially/historically/politically in the ways that Adorno and Marcuse want it to, as something that disrupts and subverts the facade of “false totality” and “affirmative culture” we are faced with today. Both of these strands come out of Hegel, but do they really fit together?

I am inclined to think that they do not. Because, once you have defined desire as lack, you are committed to a whole metaphysics of (economic) scarcity and (psychological) unfulfillment. These end up being conceived (as they are by Zizek) as bedrock conditions that will exist in any social formation whatsoever; anything that says otherwise is condemned as delusive fantasy, as a denial of the fundamental antagonism of the Real, or a denial of the knot of castration, or what have you.

Now, I tend to be as leery as anyone of utopian thought (at least, insofar as “utopian” means a vision of static perfection, without any sort of tension or difficulty or dissatisfaction — the actual use of the idea of “utopia,” in a theorist like Ernst Bloch, is actually much more complex than this). But I think that Zizek’s militant anti-utopianism goes further than this, and that it makes difficult, or impossible, the very sort of negativity, with its critical and transformative function, that we find in Adorno and Marcuse. This is why — as per the discussions on this blog, and others, over the last week or so, in regard to Zizek’s reading of 300 — the only negativity Zizek can think of in the current political context is a fetishization of “discipline” and “sacrifice” in opposition to the alleged hegemony, in our neoliberal culture, of “hedonistic permissivity [sic]”. For all Marcuse’s criticisms of the pseudo-satisfactions of consumer society, and even for all his advocacy of a dose of straightforward political repression in order to oppose the “repressive tolerance” and “repressive desublimation” of American bourgeois society — for all of this, I cannot imagine Marcuse finding the jouissance that Zizek does in discipline and sacrifice. This is because he has a more sharply honed vision of Hegelian negativity than Zizek does.

This gets back to a point I was trying to make before, in the previous post; which is that the critique of desire-as-lack in Deleuze should not mean a regime, instead, of unlimited affirmation — while Deleuze opposes affirmation to negation in his Nietzsche book, his later work gives the critique of negation without posing affirmation per se as its alternative.

Metastable Equilibrium sheds useful light on this whole question by quoting Dan Smith on desire and ethics in Deleuze:

Your drives have been constructed, assembled, and arranged in such a manner that your desire is positively invested in the system that allows you to have this particular interest. This is why Deleuze can say that desire as such is always positive. Normally, we tend to think of desire in terms of lack: if we desire something, it is because we lack it. But Deleuze reconfigures the concept of desire: what we desire, what we invest our desire in, is a social formation, and in this sense desire is always positive. Lack appears only at the level of interest, because the social formation, the infrastructure in which we have already invested our desire has in turn produced that lack. The result of this analysis is that we can now determine the proper object of a purely immanent ethics, which is neither my conscious will, or my conscious decisions, but neither is it my pre-conscious interests (say, my class interest, in the Marxist sense). The true object of an immanent ethics is the drives, and thus it entails, as both Spinoza and Nietzsche know, an entire theory of affectivity at the basis of any theory of ethics.

To all which, I would add that the whole issue really goes back to Kant, and to Kant’s understanding of desire, which is very different from the Hegelian account of desire as lack or negativity with which we are so familiar. Kant defines desire as “the power of being the cause, through one’s presentations, of the actuality of the objects of these presentations.” That is to say, desire, for Kant, is what determines the will. It cannot be understood in terms of negativity and absence, for it is an active, autonomous power of the mind. The ‘object of desire’ is not something that the subject lacks; to the contrary, it is what the subject imagines and creates. The act of desiring is the cause, and the existence of the desired object is the effect. This means that, as Deleuze and Guattari put it, desire produces the real. Anti-Oedipus is, in this respect, a rigorously Kantian book, and Deleuze’s critique of desire-as-negativity is really an elaboration of what you might call Kant’s implicit response to the way that Hegel hijacked and assimilated his work.

Now, of course most of our desires are not fulfilled. But Kant insists that the empirical existence of failed and unfulfilled desires does not contradict his formulation of desire as productive. For even when a desire turns out to be “insufficient,” so that the corporeal forces it calls on are unable to fully actualize its object, there is still a positive “causal relation” between the desire as a mobilization of force, and the effect towards which it was striving. It is only in this sense that there is “lack”; and this is why Deleuze and Guattari insist that lack only exists insofar as it is “counter-produced” by the social system in which our positive desires are invested. Capitalism, for instance, creates abundance on an unprecedented scale. But capitalism also needs to produce lack — to deny that very abundance it produces to the very people who produce it — in order to perpetuate itself, since its entire logic (what Deleuze and Guattari call its “axiomatics”) is grounded in the notion of perpetual competition over perpetually scarce resources. That a tiny capitalist class thus gets to appropriate the surplus that is taken away from everyone else is only a sort of side-benefit; it’s what happens when the supreme goal of a society is capital accumulation rather than expenditure or even just pleasure. This is also why consumer society, no matter how vehemently it exhorts us to spend money, or to “enjoy,” is never so fully hedonistic as Zizek seems to think. Zizek’s notion of the superego imperative to enjoy does capture something of the way that consumer spending is in fact deeply “disciplinary” and disciplined, as Roger says in his comments on my previous post. But the superego theory is utterly unable to illuminate the deeper, productivist logic of capitalism that stands behind this compulsion — for that we need, dare I say, Marx rather than Freud or Lacan, and a Kantian/Deleuzian understanding of the structure of desire rather than a Hegelian/Lacanian one.

The remaining question, for me, is this. If we accept, as I think we should, Deleuze’s critique of Hegelian negativity in the forms of desire-as-lack and the Kojevian labor-of-the-negative, to what extent can we still deploy negativity in the Adorno and Marcuse sense? I think that this is possible — which is also to say that the Frankfurt School’s version of Hegel can be reconciled with Kant in a way that Kojeve’s version of Hegel cannot — but the way of doing this is still something that needs to be worked out. (And, though I know that my current tendency to drag Whitehead into everything must be wearying to some people, I can’t help wondering if Whitehead’s logic of relations — which is very different from Hegel’s logic — isn’t a good place to start).

Negative or oblique?

K-punk, summarizes and responds to both my last post and antigram’s somewhat parallel critique of Zizek on 300.

Though largely agreeing with my points (and especially with antigram’s crucial insistence that the “discipline and spirit of sacrifice” lauded by Zizek only make sense as “strategic/organizational principles” for a left movement, not as the “values” in themselves Zizek seemingly wants them to be), k-punk also says, responding to my (overly formulaic, perhaps) discussion of the tiresomeness and impoverishment of Zizek’s rhetoric of negativity, that “it is unhelpful to reject Zizek’s mechanical ‘labour of the negative’, as Steve does, in the name of the Deleuzean interdiction on negativity. Deleuze’s abjuring of the negative is surely equally as wearisome as Zizek’s brandishing of dialectical negativity.” Any mere celebration of the positive, k-punk adds, “remains in thrall to a dreary and reductive model of Good Health, which it prosecutes with all the zeal of a happy-clappy Anglicanism.”

Actually I largely agree with this. Deleuze himself is at his least convincing when, as in the early Nietzsche book, he seeks to expel the negative, converting it to affirmation, via a process that itself seems just as ‘dialectical’ as anything ever dreamed up by the epigones of Hegel (the negative magically turns into the positive, when it goes to the extreme of what it can do, and becomes “active destruction”). Affirmation is at best a merely ethical stance; it doesn’t work either as an aesthetics or as a politics. And at its worst, affirmation is just as hideously and insidiously new-agey happy-faced as k-punk says. While I am inclined (for reasons I have written about before) to prefer the pluralism of William James to the labor of the negative in Hegel, I do take Zizek’s point (and Jodi Dean’s) that such pluralism, in its evasion of real antagonism (or of what the Lacanians would call the antagonism of the Real) always threatens to end up preaching “turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream…”

And so, to the extent that I merely recycled this sort of critique of the negative, I was evidently being sloppy and taking some dubious shortcuts.

However, I’d still defend my main point, which was about obliqueness. The crucial point is not to affirm, but to move in new directions. To create.* We need to get out of the trap of merely reversing, or giving the exact opposite of, a dominant discourse. The important thing is not to reverse direction, but to move in another dimension altogether. Any three points describe a plane, a flat field upon which vectors of antagonism may be locked in battle (excuse the mixed metaphors). Obliqueness means, not staying on the plane, but moving off along another axis, in a third spatial dimension. (This has little to do with “affirmation.” It probably does have something to do with what Deleuze calls “transversality,” but I don’t want to base my own argument on a call to the authority of Deleuze).

To put this in political terms. I am unhappy with the alternatives we seem to be offered on the Left today. On the one hand, there is Hardt/Negri’s vision of a spontaneous rising of the multitude, or Gibson-Graham‘s cheerful sense that lots of inventive practices already exist, so that we have already somehow reached “the end of capitalism as we know it.” On the other hand, we get pseudo-Leninist calls to discipline and sacrifice and a ruthless rupture with everything already existing, so that we may emulate the Khmer Rouge, and enforce the new order with “terror (ruthless punishment of all who violate the imposed protective measures, inclusive of severe limitations of liberal ‘freedoms’).” These equally seem like fantasies to me (fantasies precisely in the Freudian/Lacanian/Zizekian sense of mechanisms devised to cover over and disavow the intolerable contradictions of the real). It’s not that I have any solutions to offer (I am essentially clueless), and a prospective solution will most likely have nothing whatsoever to do with Nietzschean/Deleuzian affirmation. But isn’t there something wrong, and painfully constricted, with Zizek’s fantasy of negativity and terror as the only riposte to Hardt/Negri’s implausible utopianism? Isn’t this a situation where we most need to move obliquely? Isn’t the problem, perhaps, that both negativity and obliqueness strike us as little more than clever advertising slogans? (“obey your thirst”; “think different”). I’m all to aware that we have reached the point where positivity and affirmation are all too comfortably ensconced in the business schools; but negativity (whether in ZIzek’s version, or that of Adorno, or that of the Situationists) is ensconced there also.

So the solution is ?????

*Reading and rereading Whitehead lately has gotten me over my phobia towards the words “create” and “creativity,” my shuddering sense that they are arts-and-crafts-speak, which I have a perhaps snobbish repulsion towards, or Montessori-child-rearing-speak, which — now that I have small children — I tend to reject, because, in the guise of encouraging independence of thought and individual development, it in fact seems to me to be geared to reproducing and reinforcing the obnoxious sense of entitlement that well-do-do people in this society already have way too much of. [I’m aware of Whitehead’s interest in educational reform, and I believe he had some interest in Montessori; but that is a subject for more research, and for another discussion altogether]. One of the things I am hoping to get around to writing about this summer is the way in which “creativity” works in Whitehead (Steven Meyer says that Whitehead in fact invented this word, or at least introduced it into common usage in the English language). For Whitehead, creativity is neither the sturm und drang of Romantic genius (of which Montessori-style promotion of the child’s innate inventiveness would be the baby version), nor the restless cycle of fashion, the continual flood of “innovation” without any greater purpose that is so familiar to us in consumerist society. Rather, it has something to do with how we can negotiate the given — “stubborn fact” — without either merely submitting to it, or imagining that we can just think it away. Whitehead’s notion of creativity has much in common with the aesthetics of sampling and remixing, that we see expressed in so much “postmodern” art, that is theorized by people like Paul Miller/DJ Spooky, and that stands in a very ambiguous relationship to the ubiquitous market; and also with Marx’s sense that “men [sic] make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please.”


Zizek is typically, and willfully, perverse in his praise of 300 (found via Dejan): everyone else on the Left has denounced the film as a fascist spectacle, allegorically praising militarism and the American war in Iraq, so of course Zizek must instead praise the film as a revolutionary allegory of struggle against the American evil empire.

Now, I still haven’t seen 300 (I don’t get to see many movies except on DVD these days), so I obviously can’t judge whose reading is more ‘correct.’ But that can’t stop me from wondering to what extent Zizek’s contrarianism is just a sort of idiotic macho one-upmanship (as in: I can be even more outrageous and anti-commonsensical than anybody else), of the same sort that is routinely practiced by right-wing political economists like David Friedman and Steven Landsburg (who delight in arguring, for instance, that Ralph Nader’s safety regulations caused automobile accidents to increase), or evolutionary theorists like the guys (whose names escape me at the moment) who wrote about how rape was an adaptive strategy.

There is something drearily reactive about always trying to prove that the opposite of what everyone else thinks is really correct. It’s an elitist gesture of trumpeting one’s own independence from the (alleged) common herd; but at the same time, it reveals a morbid dependence upon, or concern with, the very majority opinions that one pretends to scorn. If all you are doing is inverting common opinion, that is the clearest sign possible that you are utterly dependent upon such common opinion: it motivates and governs your every gesture. That is why you need so badly to negate it. Zizek totally depends upon the well-meaning, right-thinking liberal ideology that he sets out to frustrate and contradict at every turn. His own ideas remain parasitic upon those of the postmodern, multicultural consensus that he claims to upset.

Zizek, unlike the free-market economists and evolutionary theorists, justifies his contrianism in Hegelian terms; he’s performing the negation of the negation, or something like that. But this is exactly Deleuze’s Nietzschean point, that a critique grounded in negation is an utterly impoverished and reactive one. Zizek’s favorite rhetorical formulas all always of the order of: “it might seem that x; but in fact is not the exact opposite of x really the case?” Zizek always fails to imagine the possibility of a thought that would move obliquely to common opinion, rather than merely being its mirror reversal; and that is why I find him, ultimately, to be so limited and reductive.

Even a far better recent article by Zizek, on Robespierre and revolution, suffers from this sort of defect. Glen of Event Mechanics pointed me to this piece; Glen rightly observes that Zizek is in fact quite good here when he expounds on the view of revolution-as-event that we find in Deleuze, and in Foucault’s much-maligned (but wrongly so) comments on the Iranian revolution. To see the hope and promise of the revolutionary event, despite all that goes wrong when that revolution is later institutionalized, is essentially a Kantian position, and one that I think is necessary for us to maintain today; it is our absolute, categorical moral obligation to reject the ideology of No Alternative, and to act as if something other and better than today’s universal market capitalism were possible. We know that there will always be a gap between this moral imperative and whatever empirical accomplishments we manage to make; the revolution will always disappoint to some extent (we can, and should, try to make it less disappointing rather than more, but we will never entirely succeed); yet we may not give it up and acquiesce in the “actually existing” system of systematic injustice.

Zizek almost makes this point — but this is again where his reactivity, his will to the negative, reasserts itself and spoils everything. Zizek moves from a Kantian recognition of the gap between the noumenal and the phenomenal, or between our obligations and their (always incomplete) realization, to a Hegelian bridging of that gap via the creaky mechanisms of negation. He moves from Deleuze’s and Foucault’s Kantianianism regarding the hope of revolutionary action, to his tiresome and glibly romanticized Hegelian praise of “terror” and “ruthless punishment” as a means of institutionalizing the revolutionary event. There are the usual invocations of Lenin and even Stalin (once again, we get Zizek’s communism as a matter of anybody except Tito).

A lot of this recalls the debate, a year or so ago, on this blog, and also here, with contributions also by K-punk and Jodi among others, around the question of revolution and “subjective destitution” as raised in V for Vendetta. I am not sure I am able to revive that discussion here — if for no other reason than because (as I said) I haven’t managed to see 300. But I have to comment, at least, that the thing I found most repellent in either of the Zizek articles I am discussing was the following:

In today’s era of hedonist permissivity as the ruling ideology, the time is coming for the Left to (re)appropriate discipline and the spirit of sacrifice: there is nothing inherently “Fascist” about these values.

This is the sort of slippery slide, fueled by the spirit of negation, that I think needs to be rejected as much as acquiescence in the actual world system needs to be rejected. There is a real analytic acuity behind identifying what Zizek calls “hedonist permissivity as the ruling ideology”: this has to do with the way that, for today’s neoliberal capitalism, it is much more effective to turn something into a commodity than to ban it or censor it or otherwise repress it. Anything can be commodified, and by that fact alone what has thus been packaged and offered for sale is deprived of any radical efficacy, any potential for real change. The difference of the future from the past, or what Whitehead called “Creative Advance,” is neutralized by being drawn into the structures of the market, of “individual choice” in a condition of overall “scarcity,” etc etc ad nauseam.

However, the neoliberal nostrum of the market as a regulatory mechanism for everything is a utopian (or more properly, dystopian) ideal that doesn’t actually work out in practice, which is why — as Wendy Brown in particular has written about — neoliberalism needs to be supplemented by neoconservatism, with its harshly repressive moralism. Neoliberalism without neoconservatism threatens to explode into violence and chaos, or otherwise go astray. Whereas neoconservatism on its own — the homophobic and patriarchal strictures of the fundamentalist Christian Right in America, for instance — would lead to the stagnation or collapse of capitalist productivity; which is why neoconservatism is always presented only as a supplement to neoliberalism, its Biblical moralism sugar-coated with a bizarre sense of the individual, or more often the family, as a sort of economic enterprise in its own right, to be treated with a combination of market discipline and New Age-y regimes of healing and self-regulation.

Zizek, I think, does indeed grasp this dynamic quite well. But he goes astray, yet again, when he essentializes and psychologizes the situation in terms of his theory of the superego command, or imperative, of enjoyment. In other words, he sees the psychological dilemma of meaning and groundedness — the reason why neoconservatism is needed as a supplement, why neoliberalism by itself cannot produce the social cohesion necessary for the “market mechanism” to function at all — as the root of the problem, and totally ignores the way the whoe process is driven by the drive of capital accumulation (reflected in the neoliberal replacement of all other social forms with that of the market).

The result is that Zizek displaces and misrecognizes both the motor force of capital accumulation, and the force of the Kantian categorical imperative. By identifying “hedonist permissivity” as the problem — when it is really just a product of the forces of capital accumulation — he in effect gives the exact same analysis of postmodern capitalsim as the fundamentalist Christian right does, and offers a pseudo-solution (discipline and the spirit of sacrifice) that, like theirs, only serves to preserve the world market system from its own disaggregating tendencies. Discipline, the spirit of sacrifice, and the embrace of terror also function as a sort of grotesque parody of the categorical imperative, the result precisely of betraying it by institutionalizing it. (Zizek defends the appeal to terror in the Robespierre article as a form of what Badiou calls “fidelity to the event.” I don’t know Badiou well enough to either support or reject this reading; but from a Deleuzian point of view, it is precisely a betrayal of the event to seek to incarnate or effectuate in this way; rather than practicing a “counter-effectuation,” which is how fidelity to the categorical imperative can in fact be maintained despite all inevitable disappointments).

Perhaps it is all too easy, in the wake of how the 1960s counterculture has become the official market culture (or one of its cultures) in the 21st century, to invoke Emma Goldman’s famous statement about how, “If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution.” But the denunciation of “hedonist permissivity” is certainly not the way to go — Zizek’s loathing for this, like the similar loathings on the part of fundamentalist Christians and Jihadist Muslims, is a false response, based upon a misrecognition of the basic problem. (The Jihadists are responding, in their own way, to the depredations unleashed on the world, and the Muslim world in particular, of predatory capitalism; but their solution is as bad as, or worse than, the problem, and bespeaks only the way that any liberatory or creative alternative has been systematically blocked by the marketization of everything). I don’t think emulating either the Spartans or Robespierre is much of a solution to the mess, and the exploitation, we find ourselves in. Zizek’s theories are little more than yet another demonstration, or symptom, of the situation that he himself has pointed to: the fact that, in the current climate, we find it difficult to imagine any alternative to capitalism; that in fact we find it easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Zizek’s thought itself is one more demonstration of our current blockage of imagination.

The Virtual and the Future

Sorry there has been so little posting lately — but for the past several weeks, every free moment has been devoted to writing my talk for the Deleuze conference that is coming up this weekend. The subject of my talk is “Deleuze’s Encounter With Whitehead.” Unfortunately, I haven’t quite managed to finish the paper, or get to the end of what I am trying to say — but perhaps this is just as well, since the paper has also gotten too long, even if I finished I wouldn’t be able to get through it in the time provided.

The part I have finished — the part I will be giving at the conference — is really little more than “Whitehead 101 for Deleuzians.” I work through Whitehead’s notion of events, show how important this notion is for Deleuze’s own thinking of the event, and compare Whitehead’s and Deleuze’s treatment of some of their most important common predecessors (Spinoza, Leibniz, Hume, and Kant). This leads up to a comparison between the virtual in Deleuze and the potential (also known as “eternal objects”) in Whitehead. I argue that both Deleuze’s virtual and Whitehead’s potential are “conversions” of Kant’s transcendental argument. They seek to define conditions of actual emergence instead of Kant’s conditions of (mere formal) possibility; but they join Kant in refusing to allow these conditions to be hypostasized as belonging to some radically other, transcendent realm. And they posit their transcendentals, not (as Kant does) to answer the epistemological question of how we can know, but instead to answer the (ontological? kairological? temporological?) question of how change is possible, or of how to account for a future that is not predetermined by the past.

However, this discussion is really just a preliminary to the argument that really interests me — and this is the part I have not written yet. I want to argue that Whitehead’s eternal objects offer us a better way to talk about change and becoming than the orthodox Deleuzian vocabulary of virtuality provides us with. And I want to suggest, similarly, that Whitehead’s notion of God provides a more useful alternative to Deleuze and Guattari’s formulations about the Body without Organs. Whitehead defines God – or at least what he calls “the primordial nature of God” – as the “graded envisionment” of all eternal objects, i.e. all potentials. The vision of God accounts for “how the actual includes what (in one sense) is ‘not-being’ as a positive factor in its own achievement.” Whitehead’s God, like the Body without Organs, is a non-totalizing and open “whole”, and can be regarded as the “quasi-cause” or “surface of inscription” for all events, in such a way that it does not determine these events, but allows precisely for their indeterminacy and continuing openness to difference in the future. But in a powerful way the notion of God (at least Whitehead’s notion of God, I don’t see how this would apply to anyone else’s) is a more flexible, more empirical, more pragmatic notion than D&G’s BwO is. Which means that it is, in a way, more accountable, more open to “temporal” considerations (like how to think the monstrous body of Capital) as well as to aesthetic ones (like how to conceive the affective qualities and implications of post-cinematic formal/technological developments). So I trying to ask Deleuzian questions — ones that Whitehead never thinks about — but arguing that these questions are better answered (or worked through) in Whiteheadian terms than in Deleuzian ones.

Will this work out or make sense? I don’t know. So far all I have is an intuition, and a project. I don’t know what will happen when I get the time to work through the actual argument.

Better post this now; I gotta go to the airport.

Hallward on Deleuze

I just finished reading Out of This World: Deleuze and the Philosophy of Creation, Peter Hallward’s recent (2006) book on Deleuze. Hallward knows Deleuze’s texts very well. His formulations are quite lucid and quite powerful, and he systematizes Deleuze, or shows the fundamental unity of Deleuze’s philosophical project, in a way that most of Deleuze’s interpreters and followers have not been able to do. But Out of This World is fundamentally one-sided, so much so that it ends up being altogether misleading. In this respect, I find that I am in agreement with Glen’s critique of the book.

In a certain sense, Hallward takes Deleuze’s own methodology and turns it against him. Deleuze’s treatment of the philosophers he writes about is a complicated one: one that is obscured more than it is explained by Deleuze’s flippant and notorious comment about impregnating the past philosopher from behind, in order to produce a monstrous offspring. Deleuze is always closely attentive to the words, and the concepts, of the thinkers he is writing about. He quotes them a lot, and paraphrases their points using their own vocabularies. At the same time, Deleuze never provides an interpretation of the thinkers he is discussing; he is uninterested in hermeneutics, uninterested in teasing out ambiguities and contradictions, uninterested in deconstructing prior thinkers or in determining ways in which they might be entrenched in metaphysics. All this is in accord with Deleuze’s own philosophy: his focus is on invention, on the New, on the “creation of concepts.”

It’s not a matter of saying, for instance, that Plato and Aristotle and St. Augustine were wrong about the nature of time, and Kant or Bergson are right. Rather, what matters to Deleuze is the sheer fact of conceptual invention: the fact that Kant, and then Bergson, invent entirely new ways of conceiving time and temporality, leading to new ways of distributing, classifying, and understanding phenomena, new perspectives on Life and Being. A creation of new concepts means that we see the world in a new way, one that wasn’t available to us before. This is what Deleuze looks for in the history of philosophy, and this is why (and how) he is concerned, not with what a given text “really” means, but rather with what can be done with it, how it can be used, what other problems and other texts it can be brought into conjunction with. Deleuze writes about philosophers whose ideas he can use, or transform, in order to work through the problems he is interested in.

Deleuze’s Nietzsche and Philosophy, for instance, systematizes Nietzsche’s thought to a remarkable extent, an extent that Nietzsche himself never reached, and would most likely have actively scorned. (“The will to a system is a lack of integrity”). So Deleuze certainly does not provide an “accurate” or “complete” reading of Nietzsche. What he does, instead, is to select from Nietzsche, and transform Nietzsche; and to create, thereby, a postmodern and poststructuralist Nietzsche, a Nietzsche who is far more useful for thinking the problems of the late twentieth century (and now, the twenty-first), than the Nietzsches of Heidegger, of Bataille, of Derrida, of Hitler, or of Walter Kaufmann ever were. (This is not to say that these other Nietzsches are less accurate than Deleuze’s, or less viable — only that they do not provide us with the same tools that Deleuze’s Nietzsche does).

[I should say something here about Deleuze’s book on Kant; for this is the one time when Deleuze proclaims himself to be writing a book about an “enemy.” But in fact Deleuze’s relationship to Kant is more ambiguous than such a characterization implies. Deleuze’s “transcendental empiricism” owes a lot to his selective, transformative reading of Kant’s “transcendental idealism.” And in the Preface to the English translation of the Kant book, despite calling Kant an “enemy,” Deleuze also credits him with four revolutionary, poetic formulas: these are the ways in which Kant, too, is a creator of concepts, ones that Deleuze takes up and transforms in their own turn.]

Now, Hallward brilliantly systematizes Deleuze, extracts a consistency (as Deleuze says a reading of a thinker aways should) from Deleuze’s words and ideas, and shows us what new concepts Deleuze created. But whereas Deleuze takes up this approach in order to make past philosophers useful, and to shed light on Deleuze’s own problems, Hallward does it in order to render Deleuze useless, to deny that Deleuze is at all relevant to discussions of materiality, of subjectivity, of affectivity, and of political change, to dismiss Deleuze’s importance for any of the problems Hallward himself is interested in. In this sense, Out of This World is ultimately an assassination attempt: like the recent books on Deleuze by Badiou and by Zizek, it seeks to perform an exorcism of Deleuze, to purge contemporary theoretical thought of his presence.

This polemical intent stands behind every page of Hallward’s book, behind his very particular selection and transformation of Deleuze. Hallward works by means of omission and selection, reducing Deleuze to just one aspect of his thought, and acting as if the rest didn’t exist at all. Again, I stress that this is Deleuze’s own method of proceeding; the question is not one of representing Deleuze “accurately,” but of the ends to which Hallward’s selective transformation of Deleuze is put. Hallward seeks to present Deleuze as entirely a philosopher of the virtual, one who seeks merely to escape and to destroy the actual. Therefore, he triumphantly concludes, Deleuze is entirely an idealist and a spiritualist, at best uninterested in matters of this world, and at worst actively celebrating domination and oppression. At one point, drawing together Deleuze’s comments on Spinoza’s political writings, he presents Deleuze as, in effect, a Stalin or Hitler of the virtual: “the immediate political implication” of Deleuze’s philosophy, he writes, “is clear enough: … the more absolute the sovereign’s power, the more ‘free’ are those subject to it” (139). This is a quite tendentious, and indeed conservative, reading of Spinoza’s politics; I would hesitate to assert so sweepingly reductive a summary of Spinoza, much less of Deleuze, despite my uneasiness with Hardt and Negri’s too facile, but throroughly Spinozian, distinction between constitutent and constituted power. And at the very end of the book, despite disclaiming any polemical intent (“before you disagree with a book that is worthy of disagreement, you have to admire it and rediscover the problem that it poses” — 159), Hallward nonetheless entirely dismisses Deleuze’s thought with the remark that “those of us who still seek to change our world and to empower its inhabitants will need to look for our inspiration elsewhere” than in Deleuze” (164).

Out of context, these remarks would strike most readers at all familiar with Deleuze — even those who are not “Deleuzeans”, and have their reservations about Deleuze — as absurdly over the top. But the cunning and brilliance of Hallward’s writing is that he selectively shapes his citations of Deleuze (and of others) precisely in order to force this conclusion. He will quote, for instance, some of the more ‘spiritualistic’ statements from Bergson’s last (and least interesting) book, The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, and attribute them directly to Deleuze, with the alibi that, although “the description of such action is explicitly mystical in Bergson but only implicitly so in Deleuze,” nonetheless “this difference, at least, is largely insignificant” (21). In this way, the book betrays a sort of prosecutorial zeal to track down the least signs of mysticism, aestheticism, and other “crimes” against materialism, and to hold Deleuze responsible for them.

Hallward’s book on Deleuze is much more lucid and careful complexly articulated than Zizek’s book on Deleuze, but the two books share similar agendas. Zizek presents Deleuze as the complicit thinker of yuppie class privilege and multinational capitalism, by transforming Deleuze’s attempt to analyze such phenomena (something that Zizek himself only does in the most desultory fashion, by converting social and economic determinations into psychological ones) into an endorsement of them. Similarly — but perhaps even worse — Hallward uses Deleuze’s interest in creativity and the New, and in the virtual and the ways that it exceeds the actual, to transform him into a religious and quasi-fascist aesthete, who would (in effect) “experience [humankind’s] own annihilation as a supreme aesthetic pleasure” (to be a little unfair on my own side, by thus citing Benjamin’s description of fascism as if it were Hallward’s description of Deleuze — which I think it is, implicitly; but Hallward never says quite this explicitly).

Now, Deleuze is often quasi-dualistic, or two-sided. He often argues for a “reciprocal determination” between different levels of reality, as between the virtual and the actual (since the virtual is, precisely, “real without being actual”). [See James Williams for an excellent discussion of “reciprocal determination”]. And Deleuze often presents seeming opposites as being, not dialectically opposed, but rather alternate directions (or tendencies, or vectors) along a continuum. Thus there is a continuum between the schizophrenic and the paranoiac poles of experience under capitalism, between molar and molecular forms of organization, between the rhizomatic and the arborescent, etc.; and an action can be more or less territorializing or deterrritorializing (or both, in different senses), depending on situations and circumstances. This is precisely what Zizek dislikes about Deleuze — there is never an absolute opposition, never a moment of pure negativity. Deleuze argues, in effect, that there are always degrees of difference, rather than absolute ruptures, even between conservatism and reform, or between reform and revolution. This seems right to me — it is a way out of the apocalyptic posing of alternatives to which both “infantile leftists” and reactionary alarmists are all too often prone.

But Hallward takes a very different tack against Deleuze than Zizek does. Hallward (whose ultimately loyalty, as far as I can determine, is to Badiou rather than to Lacan) argues that Deleuze’s formulations of duality and reciprocal determination are in fact always one-sided and unidirectional. Deleuze, he says, presents us with “a theory of ‘unilateral distinction’ ” (152). What this means is that the virtual creates the actual, rather than the reverse; virtual forces are creative, and actual forms are merely created; the “line of flight” of deterritorialisation is not a reaction to the territoriality from which it escapes, but actually the creative force that produces that territorialization in the first place; in Nietzschean terms, active forces always have priority over reactive ones, even though all our concrete, empirical experience is of the latter. Therefore, in his endeavor to affirm active forces, to rupture stratifications and territorializations, etc., Deleuze necessarily rejects everything that is in favor of a pure potentiality (more accurately, virtuality) that always stands in excess of its actualizations. The productive or creative process is exalted at the expense of anything that is actually produced. Deleuze cannot value anything in the world, because from his unworldly perspective all worldly things are compromised.

I need to emphasize that this reading of Deleuze is indeed as brilliant and insightful as it is unfairly one-sided. Deleuze does in fact affirm the ontological priority of process over product, of creativity over objectivity, of affirmation over critical negotiation. The recognition that the forces of the virtual are always in excess of that which they produce or actualize is crucial — Deleuze’s key move is precisely to insist upon inadequation as excess, against the Lacanian view that inadequation is lack, or inconsistency, or a gap in Being. And yet, and yet… This view of indequation as affirmative is precisely how Deleuze insists upon comprehending and embracing the actual, in order the better to transform it. It is this latter aspect of the Deleuzian movement that Hallward explicitly, and repeatedly, denies. Hallward polemically rejects the association of Deleuze’s thought with “fleshly materialism” and “complex processes of material emergence and physical transformation” (176), just as he utterly ignores the ways that Deleuze (both in the books co-authored with Guattari, and in certain of his own essays, like the great “Postscript on the Societies of Control”), expressly uses his concepts of transformation to understand the inner functioning of “late” (or post-Fordist) capitalism.

Let me put all this in another way. Deleuze always insists on grasping the virtual , as it were “behind” the actual. He tries to trace the ways that the virtual involves, not just the Kantian “transcendental conditions of possibility” for whatever exists in actuality, but in addition a sort of transcendental account of the actual emergence of what exists in actuality. This is precisely what Deleuze means by “transcendental empiricism.” Philosophy, for Deleuze, is an endeavor to grasp these real conditions of emergence — the virtual that generates the actual. In this sense, Deleuze adapts the projects of Spinoza and Leibniz — their endeavor to comprehend the actual determination, or “sufficient reason” of phenomena — to a post-Kantian or neo-Kantian framework. (I think that the way in which Deleuze thus remains a post-critical, post-Kantian thinker, is the crucial aspect of his thought that tends to be ignored by commentators of all stripes). But Hallward presents this investigation of the virtual, of its transcendental conditions of emergence rather than of mere possibility, as a spiritual quest to escape the actual altogether, to dissolve the phenomenal and ascend into an entirely immaterial, spiritual realm of pure creativity. I think that this is a fatal and crippling misunderstanding (although, in fairness, it is simply the mirror inversion of the enthusiastic, unproblematized calls to “construct the Body without Organs” that one hears all too glibly from all too many ostensible Deleuzians). Indeed Hallward is quite relentless in the way that he explicitly takes up all of Deleuze’s warnings against a transcendent reading, one that would turn the immanence of becoming into a separate and transcendent realm, and twists them into more reasons to see Deleuze as a thinker who traduces and rejects the actual. In Hallward’s account, the Nietzschean celebration and affirmation of Life is really just another version of the religious and metaphysical denial of Life that Nietzsche is always so ready to criticize; this strikes me as more valid as a criticism of Nietzsche, than as one of Deleuze.

The real issue here, I think, is Deleuze’s unabashed aestheticism (an attitude he shares with such of his contemporaries as Foucault and Barthes). Hallward devotes an entire chapter to Deleuze’s appreciation of art and literature, to the ways in which Deleuze exalts works of art as expressions of the virtual, of becoming, of transformation (rather than seeing them as ideological formations subject to critique). If there’s anything that Left and Right today agree upon, it’s the absolute incompatibilty between aesthetic values and political ones. As Marx said, “the philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” Hallward, like most self-respecting leftists, absolutely rejects any mode of thought, such as Deleuze’s, that overtly valorizes “contemplation” and aesthetic experience for its own sake. But this attitude is precisely mirrored on the right, in the way that neoconservative art critics like Hilton Kramer and Roger Kimball exalt the supposedly transcendent values of art, in opposition to any sort of politicization (either of art, or of experience more generally).

This unseemly coincidence of Left and Right is something that Deleuze, among his many virtues, helps us to get away from. For there is no contradiction between Deleuze’s valuing of aesthetic contemplation, and his insistence (with Guattari) that Being is always, in the first instance, political. Just as there is no contradiction (but rather, a mutual implication) between Deleuze’s insistence that everything is historical and contingent, and his insistence upon what he calls “eternal truths” (echoing Whitehead’s formulations about “eternal objects”). Contemplation is not the “interpretation” that Marx decried, but precisely a mode in which philosophical interpretation is suspended. In the aesthetic, we no longer explain things away, as philosophical apologetics have so often done; instead, we are forced to feel the intolerable intensity of the actual. Hallward reads this as the paralysis of any possibility of action; but it is rather, for Deleuze, a necessary condition and generative factor in any sort of truly radical action, any action that does not just reproduce and ratify the order of things as they are. And “eternal truths” or “eternal objects,” which are highlighted precisely in aesthetic contemplation, are absolute singularities, relations and qualities that cannot be generalized, but only communicated in their very refusal to be pacified and subsumed. For Deleuze, the aesthetic is not a sufficient condition for the political, but it is a necessary one. And if aesthetics is not subordinated to politics, this is because both are necessary, and both irreducible.

To develop all this needs a whole essay in itself — such a development is, in fact, one of the goals of my current research/writing projects. So I hope that you will excuse me for being so cryptic about this here. I just want to suggest that Hallward’s inability to imagine any conjunction of the aesthetic with the political is at the root of his rejection of Deleuze. I will add that, for me, what really needs to be rejected is not the aesthetic, but rather that nearly universal shibboleth of current academic and theoretical discourse, the ethical. Hallward rightly praises Deleuze for altogether rejecting “that most precious sacred cow of contemporary philosophy — the other” (92), for “avoid[ing] any inane reverence for the other as much as for the self” (159). I think that, in theoretical writing today, it is precisely the valorization of the ethical that blocks any effective understanding of politics; and that the ethical needs to be decomposed into the aesthetic, on the one hand, and the political, on the other. Hallward rightly values the political (as we find it, for instance, in Marx) against the ethical (as we find it in Levinas and Derrida); but he fails to grasp the crucial role of the aesthetic, and this is where his account of Deleuze falls short.

The Cinematic Mode of Production

Jonathan Beller’s new (but long in preparation) book, The Cinematic Mode of Production: Attention Economy and the Society of the Spectacle, is, I think, the most important work of film theory since Deleuze’s two Cinema volumes appeared more than two decades ago. Or, even better, forget the qualifier “film”: Beller’s book is the first important work of aesthetics, or of “theory” generally, of the new century. (I don’t usually find myself agreeing with Le Colonel Chabert; but the Colonel is right on the mark as concerns Beller).

The Cinematic Mode of Production actually accomplishes what many of us have been trying to do for some time now: to give an account of the crucial role of aesthetic culture — what Adorno called the “culture industry,” what McLuhan called the electronic media, what many thinkers have called the “postmodern” — in our age of globalized, neoliberal capitalism. Fredric Jameson argued, nearly a quarter century ago, that, in the postmodern era, “everything in our social life — from economic value and state power to practices and to the very structure of the psyche itself — can be said to have become ‘cultural’ in some original and yet untheorized sense” (Postmodernism 48). And he added that this dominance of the ‘cultural’ needed to be understood in terms of the development of mass-dissemination media (film, television, video, and — in the years since he wrote — digital, computer-based media as well; together with telephony and other media of instantaneous global communication). But neither Jameson nor anybody else has been able to theorize this process, to give an adequate account of just how it works. Until now. Beller’s book is at once audacious in its overall conception, cogent in its almost obsessively detailed argumentation and presentation, and far-reaching in its implications. Nobody who wants to deal seriously with the fate of “culture” in this age of astonishing new technologies, and equally overwhelming new mutations in the forms of exploitation and domination, will be able to ignore this book.

Beller argues that “cinema” (a term that needs unpacking, as I will discuss below) is not just the typical art form (or what Jameson would call the “cultural dominant”) of the last century; but that it has become — actually and not just metaphorically — the reigning mode of production of what we now know as “post-industrial” capitalism. That is to say, it is not only the case that the dominant world economy of today — with its massive production and circulation of commodities, and its continuing accumulation of capital, through the extraction of more and more surplus value in processes of hyperexploitation — is represented, or epitomized, in the cinematic production, circulation, and accumulation of images. But also, these basic economic processes (production, circulation, exploitation, and accumulation) are actually accomplished in and through the cinema. Capitalism today is machined, or machinated, by the cinematic apparatus above all. We have passed, in the course of the past century, from an industrial mode of production to a cinematic one.

In making this assertion, Beller draws heavily, not just on Jameson, but also on Horkheimer and Adorno, with their analyses of the culture industry; on Guy Debord, with his prescient intuition (in The Society of the Spectacle) that, in media society, “the spectacle is capital to such a degree of accumulation that it becomes an image” (Paragraph 34); and on Baudrillard, with his accounts of a society of hyperreal simulation. But he fleshes out the work of these theoretical precursors in several ways. Beller takes full account of the fact that, today, the commodification of experience, of the everyday, and of “leisure time,” has progressed still further than Horkheimer and Adorno imagined; and that the proliferation of media images that we take for granted today has exceeded even the hyperbolic terms of Debord’s account. And he registers the full force of Baudrillard’s descriptions of simulation, but thankfully without giving way to Baudrillard’s reactive hysteria, or Baudrillard’s compulsion to throw out the (Marxist) baby together with the bathwater (of a certain tired metaphysics of Labor and Production).

[Side note: It is remarkable how quickly Baudrillard — whose apocalyptic rhetoric was oh-so-chic in the late 1980s and early 1990s — has gone from being a prophet of urgency and extremity to somebody whose observations are now so banal, obvious, self-evident, and taken-for-granted, that it is scarcely possible to imagine any longer what the fuss was about, or why anyone thought there was something earth-shattering about making such assertions. Today, Baudrillard just seems like a nostalgic whiner, yearning for a past that never existed, and failing to grasp that what he described, with rhetorical grandiosity, as “the extermination of the Real”, is in fact nothing more than capitalist business as usual.]

Beller argues that cinematic images are not just representations of capital, but that they actually are capital. In several senses. First of all, in the sense of circulation. In Marx’s account, capitalism is characterised by the commodity form, and by the incessant circulation of commodities. Without this circulation, all the exploitation in the world would come to naught. Profit (surplus-value) could not be realized, and production would come to a halt (as indeed happens in times of crisis, i.e. depression). But commodities, as Marx famously argued, are marked by a curious duplicity, that of the split between use-value and exchange-value. We (as workers/consumers) are presumably buying commodities for their use to us. Yet we pay for them in an exchange of equivalents (we get money for our commodified work, and we purchase commodities — necessities and luxuries — with that money), a process which foregrounds their exchange-value rather than their use-value. Commodities are objects of desire, or fetishes, because the “value” that seems magically stored in them, rather than on account of how we actually might make use of them. Thus the split, or alienation, of workers from what they produce by means of their labor (since the products of that labor are expropriated from them) is mirrored and doubled by an alienation, on the side of the object produced, of its monetary worth (its exchange-value) from what it actually does, or even from the desires and fantasies that it sustains (all these can be chalked up to use-value, which — contra Baudrillard — has nothing to do with any sort of nostalgic essentialism — as I discussed here). The exchange-value of the commodity is something more like its aesthetic appeal, or the value it embodies as a brand, as an object of prestige or emulation, as an entirely stereotypical and conventional sign of what is nonetheless imagined to be a personal “expression.” [You might say that things like prestige, expression, and emulation, which are the very point of pre-capitalist systems of exchange, but which are banished from the (supposed) rationality of exchange in capitalist society, return in spectral, alienated form as exchange-value]. And this is why, as Debord postulated and as Beller explains in great detail, the commodity increasingly tends to the status of an image.

So the tendency towards abstraction and rationalization that drives capitalist commodity exchange (and that, indeed, renders this exchange possible in the first place) can be described as a becoming-image of the commodity, which is to say, of all objects and subjects, of everything and everyone. Consuming commodities increasingly means consuming their images: buying them because they are “cool”, identifying with their brands, extracting experiences (which is to say, affects) from them, and moving through the process of their circulation and consumption at an ever-increasing speed. And cinema (together with its successors in video and television, and in digital media) is what most fully realizes this becoming-image. Think of the great scene in Godard’s Les Carabiniers (not mentioned by Beller), in which the father and son come home from the wars, and display to the wife and sister the plunder from their travels: postcards of all the wonders of the world). Beller describes cinema, in great detail, as a machine for circulating images and their affects, for exchanging them one for another, for inciting us to consume them in their very distance (or “alienation”) from us, and for swallowing up the entirety of society and social action (production) in this fantasmagoria of images and their circulation.

Beller argues all this, amazingly, through a bravura reading of Dziga Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera — the avant-garde, revolutionary Soviet silent film of the 1920s that is also Lev Manovich’s reference point for his (much more formalistic) account of the post-cinematic Language of New Media. In Beller’s reading, Man With A Movie Camera succeeds in giving a self-conscious and critical account of how society is bound together in processes of the circulation of commodities, but fails to move beyond critique and actually provide an alternative (“socialist”) mode of circulation. Later cinema “forgets” Vertov’s critique, but continues unconsciously to embody the circulation processes that Vertov at least gave us a critical awareness of, at the same time that he fell victim to it.

Beyond, or beneath, circulation, in Marx’s account of capitalism, lies production. (Though I am not sure that “beyond” or “beneath” is the proper preposition to use here). Beller’s second, and even more audacious, thesis, is that cinema is a scene of production, as well as being one of circulation. Production, for Marx, is where exploitation takes place, where surplus value is actually extracted from laboring workers — although this surplus-value can only be realized through a successful round of circulation. To say that cinema is productive is to say that labor is performed there — that the spectator or consumer is also a worker, and that the act of watching films or television or something on the Net is — literally, not just analogically or metaphorically — an act of productive labor, for which the spectator is paid (but paid less than the value produced, so that surplus value can be extracted).

In asserting this, Beller builds upon, but goes beyond, Horkheimer and Adorno’s vision of the commodification of leisure time. Movie and television watching is productive labor, for several reasons. In the first place, looking is productive of value because of what is sometimes called the “network effect”: the more a network or platform or piece of software is used, by more and more people, the more valuable it becomes. Beller argues that, similarly, the value of an image increases the more it is viewed; when we look at an image we are also looking at all the previous glances at it by others. The more people use the Windows operating system, or listen to music on their iPods, the more value is added to Windows and to the iPod, so that these commodities outdistance their competitors. In the same way, celebrity operates by a sort of positive feedback: it feeds upon, and is amplified by, its own success. The more people watch Brad Pitt movies (or for that matter, papparazzi photos of Brad Pitt in “real life”), the more the celebrity value of Brad Pitt increases.

In the second place, and even more importantly, cinema spectatorship (and its equivalents or replacements in television watching, computer game playing, and so on) is a kind of affective apprenticeship, an education (or better, a molding) of the senses. McLuhan taught us that any change in media works over our senses entirely; though Beller scarcely acknowledges McLuhan at all, his work can be read as an example of the McLuhanite Marxism I have long called for. As Beller argues, our perceptions and affects, and through them our entire subjectivity, are shaped and processed by how we interact with images, how we use (and are used by) media. Cinema makes each of us into the sort of psychological subject that meets the requirements of capital (i.e. that allows it to extract from us as much surplus value as possible). And more, cinema then itself enacts this very process of attraction, by capitalizing on our awareness, our effort, and our attention. This is most obvious in terms of content (if one thinks of product placement in movies and television shows, for example); but it works most profoundly in terms of form (the medium is the message), as we are in effect paid (in pleasure and affective intensity, if not in money) in return for the capture of our attention (which, like labor-power in Marx’s account, is a finite and therefore scarce resource) as itself a saleable commodity (think of television advertisements, or today the kind of individually-targeted advertising tha Google provides on the Web). The cinema machine extracts surplus labor-power from us, in the form of our attention; it pays us for this by affording us the resources that allow us to renew and reproduce our labor-power (in this case, our attention) so that surplus value can be extracted from it anew. The exchange is always a formally equal one, which nonetheless always involves a surplus on one side of the equation (so that Google grows and grows while we in effect tread water, or run continually, like the Red Queen, merely in order to stay in the same place).

Just as Beller uses Vertov to make his argument about cinema as not just a commodity among others, but the very scene of the circulation of commodities, so he uses Eisenstein — referring both to his extensive writings on the theory of film, and to his first feature, Strike (1925) — to examine how cinematic spectatorship is a form of productive labor. Beller goes into great detail on Eisenstein’s interest in, and use of, the disciplinary techniques of Pavlov (in the realm of individual psychology) and of Taylor (in the organization of the workplace). The Soviet Union’s adoption of Pavlovian psychology, together with its importation of Taylorist management techniques from capitalist America, are crucial to the story of how the Soviet state ended up reproducing the oppressive logic of capital, rather than resisting it. “The calculated orchestration of the audience’s emotions and activities, so much a part of Eisenstein’s filmwork, was in many ways in direct contradiction to the explicit thematics of Eisenstein’s films” (p. 127). But no McLuhanite will be surprised that the dictatorial form of the medium wins out over the supposedly liberatory content. Eisenstein’s instrumental rationality, his view of the audience as a target to be manipulated, or as a mass of individuals whose consciousness would be re-forged and transformed by his despotic cinematic machine, makes Eisenstein into much more the self-conscious inventor of the manipulative Hollywood template, than a revolutionary alternative to it.

Beller goes on to elaborate his argument, by specifying the actual ways in which the cinematic machine captures and capitalizes attention, molds the sensorium, and produces the particular form of subjectivity (a kind of lateral surface, without depths or interiority, without a grounding in any sort of “history,” and traversed by intensities or waves of impersonal affect) that we now recognize as “postmodern.” In the course of arguing this, he offers a radical rereading of Lacan (that I find brilliant, though it is so one-sided and tendentious that it will make orthodox Lacanians scream) in order to argue that the Freudian/Lacanian unconscious is itself an historical construct, an effect of capitalist social and economic relations. Beller also delightfully suggests that The Matrix is a “social-realist” film, and expounds on the virtues of Beavis and Butt-head Do America and Natural Born Killers as paradigmatic explorations of the cinematic mode of production today. (I cannot express how much I love Beller’s suggestion that Beavis and Butt-head Do America is, in effect, the “truth” of Wim Wenders’ insufferably pretentious Until the End of the World). But I will not further summarize Beller’s chapter-by-chapter argument, because I want to get on to some more general points.

In all his argumentation, Beller follows Marx and Marxist theory extremely closely, even though he adapts the theory to circumstances (the postmodern mediascape) that Marx never envisioned. To my mind, this is a much more fruitful revival of Marxist theory than one finds in the merely rhetorical/exhortational use of Marx that one finds (for instance) in Derrida’s Specters of Marx, or in the analogistic use of Marx one finds in Zizek (for whom surplus value becomes merely a premonition of Lacanian “surplus enjoyment,” so that exploitation, as a material process, is displaced by a subjective and psychological process that is merely transferred from an individual to a group level).

There is, however, one major revision Beller makes to Marxist theory. This is the recognition that, in the “social factory” (as the Italian Autonomists have called it) that we live in today, circulation is itself directly productive, and cannot be distinguished from production per se. That is to say, circulation no less than formal production is a process in the course of which value is added in the form of living labor, and surplus value is extracted. This contrasts with Marx’s own frequently repeated assertion that circulation involves a faux frais of production: that circulation costs are a wasteful consequence of capitalist inefficiency, and that for the most part these costs must be deducted from surplus value, rather than adding to it. I remember, when I first read Capital in a reading group, in graduate school, something like thirty years ago, how much difficultly we all had with Marx’s distinction between those parts of circulation which were productive, and those parts which were not. It seemed to us that Marx was (quite unusually) splitting hairs, or that he was making too much of a distinction that was more a transient problem of the 19th century, than something deeply (structurally) intrinsic to the movement of capital. Today, when we have passed from the “formal” to the “real” subsumption of all life processes under capital, and when everything we do (even outside the formal workplace) becomes a target for the extraction of surplus value, when capital puts our senses and our subjectivity to work, 24/7 — today all of circulation must be subsumed within production, as a place of exploitation rather than a faux frais. So I am very much in accord with Beller when he says that “if the circulation of capital is not grasped simultaneously as productive and exploitative, then there is no more Marxism… in cinematic spectatorship we are dealing with what the sociologists today call ‘disguised wage labor’.” (page 115).

In this way, Beller resolves a problem that has long been endemic to Marxist cultural and aesthetic theory. In endeavoring to describe the relation between “culture” and political economy, we have been stuck with the alternative of either adopting a crude reductionism that simply reduces the former to the latter, via some sort of reflectionism or functionalism (this is what has often been called “vulgar Marxism”); or else arguing periphrastically for the “relative autonomy” of the “superstructure” from the “base,” so that, although the latter is still acknowledged as determining the former, this is the case only “in the last instance,” and by means of a dubiously lengthy series of mediations (as Althusser writes almost plaintively, “the lonely hour of the last instance never arrives”). Beller cuts the Gordian knot of these unsatisfying alternatives, by proposing what seems to me to be (though he never calls it this) a Spinozistic solution. There is no dualism of base and superstructure in Beller’s model, just as there is no dualism of body and mind in Spinoza’s metaphysics. But neither is there collapse of one of these levels into the other — Beller rejects “vulgar Marxism” and cultural autonomy alike, just as Spinoza rejects mechanism and occasionalism alike. Instead, we have relations of immanence without identity. For Beller, in effect, money and image, finance and cinema, are different modes of the same substance (Capital), in much the same way that body and mind are different modes of the same substance (God) in Spinoza. Cinema and its images do not reflect or represent the Real of capitalism; they are that Real, under a different aspect. Capital logic and cinematic logic are, directly, the same logic, rather than the latter merely being a reflection or an illustration of the former.

Of course, I don’t think Beller’s book is without flaws. There are things I disagree with, or have difficulty with. One of these concerns forms of response, or resistance. Beller fluctuates between a sense that capital logic is so totalizing, so all-embracing, that it is nearly impossible to escape it; and a contrary insistance, which is (unfortunately) more rhetorically asserted than theoretically articulated, that celebrates the possibility of resistance and revolution. This latter, optimistic strain takes the form of a repetition of Hardt and Negri’s thesis that the creativity of the working class (or, today, of the multitude) is primary, and that all the machinations of capital, which have resulted today in the nightmare of neoliberal, post-Fordist globalization, are merely secondary and defensive recuperations (or, in Nietzschean-Deleuzian parlance, reactive).

Yet little of the book’s concrete analysis supports this revolutionary optimism. Through most of the book, when Beller cites the possibility of an oppositional cinematic practice (or image practice) at all, he simply calls (rather lamely) for works that “relentlessly endeavor to decode the conditions of their own formation” (page 82, note 15) — which is just the old-style idea of self-reflexivity-as-critical-distanciation, something that was beloved of the avant-garde of the first half of the twentieth century, but that “postmodern” image practice has almost entirely co-opted and defanged. Anyone who watches contemporary music videos, for instance, knows that this strategy doesn’t work any more; the image/commodity’s explicit reflection on the the conditions of its own formation, only adds to its fetishistic allure.

The book ends with citations from theory (Angela Davis) and cultural practice (Immortal Technique) as examples of alternative, resistant cultural forms. The problem is both that these come across merely as isolated instances, and that the resistance they express seems to be articulated exclusively on the plane of content, so that they do not really address (or provide counter-examples to) the issues of media form that the book as a whole so powerfully addresses. (In fairness, I haven’t seen Beller’s other book, Acquiring Eyes, which he presents as the praxis-oriented companion text to The Cinematic Mode of Production. This other book is published in the Philippines, and is not available in the US through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or Powell’s — which tells you something about international systems of distribution).

I think that the properly “dialectical” answer to this dilemma is not to assert that capital is merely “reactive” after theorizing its nearly omnipotent power; but rather to look at th ambiguities, and points of breakdown, in capital logic (which is also to say, cinematic/image logic) itself. We know today that crisis (whether economic, or aesthetic/affective) no longer provides the leverage Marx thought it would have for dislodging or overthrowing the system, because Capital itself uses its unavoidable crises in order to rejuvenate itself. But this doesn’t mean that what Deleuze and Guattari call lines of flight, or points of undecidability, are impossible. It just means that, when Capital has swallowed, internalized, and extracted surplus value from every conceivable Outside, it is from within its horizon that we can, and must, find (or manufacture) new Outsides, new points of articulation. Beller is very aware of this sort of slippery, ambiguous, yet absolutely necessary margin of slippage within capital logic itself in his wonderful discussion of Vertov; but it seems to vanish when he gets closer to the present moment.

And this brings me to my other point of contention. Despite everything Beller says, and despite the power of his genealogy of the commodity-as-image, I remain unconvinced that “cinema” is the right word to use for the image/commodity mode of production that we find ourselves inside today, in the age of neoliberalism and post-Fordism. That is to say, while I find Beller’s genealogy entirely convincing, I wonder whether we haven’t reached a point where (as Beller likes to say) changes in quantity have led to a change in quality, as we move from cinema (imbricated with the Fordist assembly line) to television and video, and today to computer-mediated communications and digital media of expression. I don’t think we live in a cinematic age (or mode of production) any longer, but in another media regime entirely. This is a case, I am afraid, in which critical theory is failing to keep up with the metamorphoses of Capital itself, in which we still do not know how to be “as radical as reality itself.” Beller’s theorization therefore ultimately fails, in much the way that (according to his analysis) Vertov failed in his nonetheless brilliant and inspiring cinematic project. I certainly don’t have any of the answers that I find missing in Beller; but I think that, at the very least, The Cinematic Mode of Production is a necessary starting point for any future discussions.

DeLanda, A New Philosophy of Society

Manuel DeLanda has long been one of the most interesting (indeed, provocative) thinkers to work with Gilles Deleuze’s ideas — and to not just repeat Deleuze’s vocabulary and slogans, or apply them to a close reading of some work or artifact, but actually to rethink those ideas, and to rethink questions of history, society, and physical science with the help of those ideas. DeLanda’s latest book is quite refreshingly short and lucid, although it (rather immodestly) purports to offer nothing less than A New Philosophy of Society. (I should probably also cite the subtitle: “Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity”).

Manuel DeLanda has long been one of the most interesting (indeed, provocative) thinkers to work with Gilles Deleuze’s ideas — and to not just repeat Deleuze’s vocabulary and slogans, or apply them to a close reading of some work or artifact, but actually to rethink those ideas, and to rethink questions of history, society, and physical science with the help of those ideas. DeLanda’s latest book is quite refreshingly short and lucid, although it (rather immodestly) purports to offer nothing less than A New Philosophy of Society. (I should probably also cite the subtitle: “Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity”).

I find the book (like all of DeLanda’s work) extremely useful and thought-provoking, although my overall reaction is quite mixed. DeLanda actually does two different things in this volume. In the first two chapters, he argues, on philosophical grounds, for what he calls Assemblage Theory. The term “assemblage,” and the ideas behind it, are drawn largely from Deleuze, and Deleuze and Guattari; though DeLanda does not merely repeat Deleuze, but reformulates his arguments (and terminology) in some very crucial ways.

The remaining three chapters of A New Philosophy of Society are more empirical; with the help of theorists ranging from Erving Goffman to Fernand Braudel, DeLanda draws on the principles developed in the first two chapters in order to give a schematic account of how societies work on several levels, from that of the individual person (and even the sub-personal) and the “networks” in which he/she is directly involved, up to the larger aggregates which are “organizations and governments” on the one hand, and “cities and nations” on the other.

I like DeLanda’s basic argument: which is to insist on the exteriority of relations. Traditionally, positivist, atomistic thought has pretty much denied the importance of relations between entities: the entities themselves are the absolutes, and all relations between them are merely accidental. Thus neoclassical economics adopts a “methodological individualism” according to which “all that matters are rational decisions made by individual persons in isolation from one another” (4). On the other hand, what DeLanda calls the “organismic metaphor” (8) asserts that entities are entirely defined by the totality to which they belong, entirely constituted by their relations: “the basic concept in this theory is what we may call relations of interiority: the component parts are constituted by the very relations they have to other parts in the whole” (9). Hegelian thought is the most powerful example of this tendency, thought Saussurean linguistics and the “structuralism” influenced by it could also be mentioned.

Now, the partisans of both these views usually claim that the two opposed positions are the only possible ones: there are no alternatives. Partisans of methodological individualism simply deny the existence of units larger (or smaller, for that matter) than that of the “individual” (or at most, the patriarchal nuclear family): they see such formations as being metaphysical abstractions with no objective validity. Hence Margaret Thatcher’s notorious statement: “There is no such thing as society. There are only individuals and families.” Of course such “methodological individualism” is absurd, since it is contradicted by everything in our minute-to-minute and day-by-day experience. We are never as isolated as methodological individualism assumes, and we probably couldn’t survive for very long if we were. The very fact that we use language, that we use tools and techniques that we didn’t invent from scratch ourselves, let alone that we use money and engage in acts of exchange, belies the thesis. It’s a curious paradox that the most rabid partisans of methodological individualism tend to be free-market economists and rational-choice political scientists and sociologists, since their entire logic depends upon denying the very factors that make their arguments possible in the first place. But if you press the more intelligent methodological individualists, they will admit that their presuppositions are, indeed, “methodological” rather than ontological, that they represent a kind of abstraction, and that such a methodology, and such an abstraction, are necessary in order to avoid getting stuck in top-down, totalizing theories (their aversion to which is often justified with citations from Karl Popper, Isaiah Berlin, or Friedrich Hayek on the dangers of totalitarianism).

But on the other side of the divide, Hegelians and other proponents of the “organismic metaphor” are just as insistent that their systematic (or “dialectical”) ways of doing things are the only alternatives to the absurdities of atomistic reductionism. I can’t tell you how many arguments I’ve had with Marxists, Zizekians, and others over the years, who insist that my Deleuze-inspired objections to the very notion of totalization, or to the idea that events occur only through a dialectic of negativity (usually up to and including the “negation of the negation”), is untenable: they claim that, to reject these “relations of interiority” is ipso facto to lapse into the absurdities of positivism and atomistic reductionism. The same is true for partisans of various sorts of systems theory (all the way from followers of Niklas Luhmann, to devotees of the Lacanian Symbolic order), who tell me that I cannot escape their system, because anything I say against it already presupposes it, and is already positioned somewhere within it. (Hardcore deconstructionists, despite their denial of the very possibility of totalization or a coherent system, are nonetheless also in this camp: as they argue — just like Lacanians — that one can never escape the presuppositions and aporias of Language. Deconstruction is entirely a theory of relations of interiority, even though it recognizes that such relations are never completed but always still in process).

What DeLanda says — which is indeed what Deleuze said before him — is that we need not accept either term of this binary (nor need we be stuck in the aporia of shuttling endlessly between them). What Deleuze and DeLanda offer instead is not the golden mean of a “Third Way,” but rather a move that is oblique to the very terms of the opposition. What does it mean to affirm the exteriority of relations? As DeLanda explains it, an entity is never fully defined by its relations; it is always possible to detach an entity from one particular set of relations, and insert it instead in a different set of relations, with different other entities. For every entity has certain “properties” that are not defined by the set of relations it finds itself in at a given moment; rather than being merely an empty signifier, the entity can take these properties with it, as it were, when it moves from one context (or one set of relations) to another. At the same time, an entity is never devoid of (some sort of) relations: the world is a plenum, indeed it is over-full, and solipsism or atomistic isolation is impossible.

Put differently, no entity can be absolutely isolated, because it is always involved in multiple relations of one sort or another, and these relations affect the entity, cause it to change. But this is not to say that the entity is entirely determined by these relations. On the one hand, the entity has an existence apart from these particular relations, and apart from the other “terms” of the relation (i.e. apart from the other entities with which it is in relation) precisely insofar as it is something that is able to affect, and to be affected by, other entities or other somethings. On the other hand, what the entity is is not just a function of its present relations, but of a whole history of relations which have affected it — or of “aleatory encounters” (as Althusser might say) with other entities, over the span (temporal and spatial) of its existence.

DeLanda distinguishes between the properties of an entity (which are what it takes with it to another context) and the capacities of that same entity (its potential to affect, and to be affected by, other entities). “These capacities do depend on a component’s properties but cannot be reduced to them since they involve reference to the properties of other interacting entities” (11). An entity’s capacities are as real as its properties; but we cannot deduce the capacities from the properties; nor can we know (entirely) what these capacities are, aside from how they come into play in particular cases, in particular relations, in particular interactions with other particular entities.

What this means is that entites of various sorts and scales — persons, but also (to use DeLanda’s own list) networks, organizations, governments, cities, nations — are all entirely real. (DeLanda resists putting “society” in this list, because he fears that such a term implies the logical topmost point of a hierarchy, a category that includes everything. He insists that entities always come in “populations” — taking the term in the sense it is used in “population genetics” — so that there can never be one, all-integrating topmost entity. Though I take his point, I also see no objection, on his own principles, to talking about societies in the same way we talk about any other level of entities. More on that in a moment).

To say that both individuals and wider social formations (and narrower, sub-personal formations as well) are real, is to be committed to what DeLanda calls “ontological realism.” This is in opposition both to the neoclassical economists who only recognize the reality of the individual, and think that anything of broader (logical or social) scope is just a linguistic fiction; and to the Hegelians (and Hegelian Marxists, and perhaps Durkheimian sociologists as well) for whom only the social is real, and the individual is regarded as a linguistic or ideological fiction. This means also to think entities non-essentialistically (every entity is historically contingent: its existence and its properties cannot be inferred, let alone be deduced logically; for the entity exists only as an effect of processes over time which could have gone otherwise). And further, it is to recognize that all entities (not just living things, but everything) are mortal — they have dates of coming-into-existence and passing-out-of-existence, they are not platonic forms but occupy a finite and bounded stretch of time and space).

To my mind, this overall ontological argument is what is important about DeLanda’s work, rather than the particular way he constructs a theory of “assemblages” — using terms from Deleuze and Guattari, but altering and simplifying them when necessary — in order to meet the requirements of his ontology. I think that other formulations that meet these requirements are possible — and indeed, that some alternative formulations are preferable. In particular, I would point to Whitehead’s metaphysics, which I think is better (more useful, more capacious, more cognizant of change, and more open to possibilities) than DeLanda’s. Whitehead also theorizes the externality, and non-totalizability of relations: his “actual entities,” or “actual occasions,” are stubbornly “atomic,” while at the same time relating to, and influenced or affected by, other entities. Whitehead insists, both that no entity can be what it is in isolation from all other entities, and that no entity is entirely determined by these other entities: this margin of indetermination, which is the “freedom” of the individual entity, but it is better described as a contingent “decision” than as a set of “properties.” Also, Whitehead distinguishes between these “actual entities” and what he calls “societies,” or aggregations of entities that possess spatial extent and temporal duration (whereas the actual entities themselves in a certain sense produce temporality and spaciality, rather than being located within them).

The distinction between “actual entities “and “societies” would seem to violate DeLanda’s dictum of a “flat ontology” (all entities at all scales have the same degrees of reality and sorts of properties) — though the “flat ontology” does apply for whatever we encounter in lived experience, since everything of this sort is a “society.” This seeming violation of the principle of flat ontology is something for which Whitehead has often been criticized. But what he gains by posing his ontology in this way is, among other things, that he is able to talk about change in a way that DeLanda is incapable of, and that he doesn’t need to share DeLanda’s phobia about extending his ontological realism to “society” itself. For DeLanda, saying that relations are external rather than internal means renouncing any sort of holism; Whitehead, however, is able to cheerfully embrace holism while at the same time posing the “whole” in such a way that it is irreducible to closure or totalization or full internal determination. For Whitehead’s actual entities are themselves events; whereas, for DeLanda, as much as he wants to proclaim the importance of (contingent) event over (fixed and closed) structure, events are still things that ‘happen to’ entities, rather than entities themselves. (For Whitehead, the things to which events happen are “societies” — which at the same time are composed of nothing more than these events, and the “routes of occasions” that link them together).

Note for further elaboration: a lot of this has to do with the way that DeLanda, through Deleuze, is ultimately channelling Spinoza, to whom the language of capacities to affect and be affected is originally due; and also Hume — again via Deleuze’s reading — in order to account for how the individual person exists as an “emergent property” of the assemblage of a quantity of impressions, ideas, and chains of association. Now, Whitehead writes a lot about Spinoza and particularly Hume, recognizing their importance but also their limitations, which have to do with the fact that neither of them think sufficiently in terms of events. Spinoza fails to think the event because of his absolute monism; Hume, because of his denial of “causal efficacy”, and development of a theory of mind entirely in terms of “presentational immediacy.” Where Deleuze uneasily juxtaposes Spinoza and Hume with Bergson, and DeLanda entirely ignores the Bergsonian side of Deleuze in favor of the Spinozian side, Whitehead is the one thinker who actually does — much better than Deleuze — integrate (using this term in the mathematical sense) Spinozian and Bergsonian imperatives. This needs to be explained further, in conjunction with Whitehead’s aphorism that “there is a becoming of continuity, but no continuity of becoming” (Process and Reality 35).

A lot more needs to be said about Whitehead — indeed, this is what I am hoping to write about in the months to come (for several talks that I have promised to give, and essays that I have promised to contribute to various anthologies). Hopefully my tentative formulation here of what he is doing, and how he both coheres with, and differs from, DeLanda, is not too cryptic.

The fact that DeLanda doesn’t say enough about, or give the right space in his theory for, becoming and events (which I think, would require more of a Whiteheadian language and approach than he is willing to adopt) leads to the other problems I have with his work. There’s a sense in which DeLanda adopts an overly cut-and-dried schematicism (dare I even say scholasticism?). Every phenomenon he discusses is classified in terms of its material and expressive components, its potentials for territorialization and deterritorialization, and so on and so forth. It’s quite disappointing, after DeLanda announces the openness that comes from rejecting the organicist internality of relations, that everything fits so neatly into these little boxes. Of course, this is always the problem with schematicim (going bck to Kant); but DeLanda seems inordinately and disappointingly reductive in the way that he schematizes. Deleuze is a big schematizer himself, of course; and it is important in certain instances to emphasize his schematicism, against those who see him (for good or for ill) as an undisciplined philosophical wildman. But on the other hand, there is a certain delicious poetic quality to Deleuze, and this is something that his acolytes all too often miss; this poeticism is entirely lacking in DeLanda.

The further result of DeLanda’s schematicism, and his inability to think about becoming, is that his actual discussion of society, in the later chapters of A New Philosophy of Society, is disappointingly bland, and entirely devoid of any consideration of such things as power, domination, inequality, or the production, appropriation, and distribution of a social surplus (I use this latter formulation to encompass both Bataille and Marx). He simply dissolves such things into a general description of aggregations of various sorts; he mentions negotiations and disputes between groups over the allocation of resources, but ignores the fundamental dissymmetry (and thereby, the antagonism) that are crucial factors in all such disputes. And he simply leaves out of his account the ways that Deleuze and Guattari, and Foucault as well, are deeply concerned with these issues. Marxists and Zizekians would probably argue that DeLanda’s omissions in this regard are an inevitable consequence of his pluralism and non-totalism. But it seems to me, again, that DeLanda’s (often expressed) hostility to Marxist formulations is not an inevitable consequence of his ontology; and that adopting this ontology (or better, the Whiteheadian version of it that I have tried to point to here) actually has significant advantages for Marxist theory, as well as for much else. All this is something I can only assert for the moment — a lot of my effort these days is devoted to working it out. So stay tuned. In the meantime, and to summarize, I think that DeLanda’s book is enormously valuable for the way it works out, and states so clearly, its ontological argument — even if DeLanda’s more concrete development from his premises is enormously disappointing.

Why Porn Now?

The German art magazine Texte Zur Kunst is planning a forthcoming issue “which deals with the production, reception and theoretization of pornography.” They are including a survey in which they ask a large number of people for brief statements about the status of pornography today, asking (among other things) Do you agree with the thesis of an increasingly pornographic logic of social relations and political conditions?” Here’s my response.

The German art magazine Texte Zur Kunst is planning a forthcoming issue “which deals with the production, reception and theoretization of pornography.” They are including a survey in which they ask a large number of people for brief statements about the status of pornography today, asking (among other things) Do you agree with the thesis of an increasingly pornographic logic of social relations and political conditions?” Here’s my response:

Why Porn Now? In fact, I don’t believe that Now is the time. Of course, there’s more stuff available these days than ever before: extreme porn, gonzo porn, DIY porn, and what have you. Explicit images are everywhere. No fetish, no kink, is so obscure that you can’t find a group devoted to it on the Net, complete with ready-to-download videos. But I find it hard to regard all this as a triumph of anything besides niche marketing. Today, in the era of globalization, electronic media, and post-Fordist flexible accumulation, everything is a commodity. We have reached the point at which even the most impalpable and evanescent, or intimate and private, aspects of our lives — not just physical objects, but services and favors, affects and moods, styles and atmospheres, yearnings and fantasies, experiences and lifestyles — have all been quantified, digitized, and put up for sale. It’s true, of course, that there are many social forces opposed to the proliferation of pornography, and more generally of sexual fantasies and possibilities. In the United States, voters routinely approve anti-homosexual ordinances, and politicians and preachers score points by demanding action to stem the flood of “obscenity.” But really, isn’t this hysterical moralism just the flip side of marketing? The main effect of these crusades is to give pornography, and more generally all forms of nonprocreative sex, the shiny allure of transgression and taboo. And that, in turn, only serves to stimulate the consumer demand for porn-as-commodity, and sex-as-commodity…

In fact, there is nothing more banal than the spectacle of a right-wing politician who turns out to have a passion for teenage boys, or the minister of a fundamentalist megachurch who is discovered to be hiring rent boys on the side. (I cite only the two most recent of the incessant pseudo-scandals that make headlines in the American media). It’s no longer possible to understand these pathetic closet cases in terms of Freudian repression, or the Lacanian Symbolic, or any of the old categories of depth psychology. Rather, their logic is a commodity logic: fetishism in the Marxist sense, instead of the Freudian one. All our affects and passions are perfectly interchangeable, subject to the law of universal equivalence. That is to say, all of them are commodities, detached from the subjective circumstances of their affective production, and offered up for sale in the marketplace. Today our fantasies and desires — indeed, “our bodies, ourselves” — seem to be outside us, apart from us, beyond our power. And this is a very different situation from that of their being repressed, and buried deep within us. Commodities have a magical attraction — we find them irresistable and addictive — because they concretize and embody the “definite social relations” (as Marx puts it) that we cannot discover among ourselves. In the fetishism of commodities, Marx says, these social relations take on “the fantastic form of a relation between things.” The secret sex life of the right-wing politician or preacher is thus a sort of desperate leap, an attempt to seek out those social relations that are only available in the marketplace, only expressible as “revealed preferences” in the endless negotiations of supply and demand. In short, such a secret life is nothing more (or less) than a way of getting relief by going shopping — which is something that we all do. This realization dampens down whatever Schadenfreude such incidents might otherwise afford me.

Therefore, I don’t accept “the thesis of an increasingly pornographic logic of social relations and poltical conditions.” To the contrary: there is nothing exceptional, central, or privileged about pornography and the “pornographic” today. Pornography simply conforms to the same protocols and political conditions, the same commodity logic, as do all other forms of production, circulation, and consumption. Porn today isn’t the least bit different from cars, or mobile phones, or running shoes. It embodies a logic of indifferent equivalence, even as it holds out the thrilling promise of transgression and transcendence — a promise that, of course, it never actually fulfills.

Is it possible to imagine a pornography freed from this logic? Perhaps some recent writings by Samuel R. Delany provide an alternative. In novels like The Mad Man and Phallos, Delany envisions a sexuality pushed to the point of extremity and exhaustion. There are orgies of fucking and sucking, elaborate games of dominance and submission, and episodes of violence and destruction, together with enormous quantities of piss and shit and sweat and cum. Yet there’s no sense of transgression in these texts. Instead, the meticulously naturalistic thick description places these episodes firmly in the realm of the everyday. Delany presents “extreme” sex as a form of civility and community, an adornment of life, a necessary part of the art of living well. Delany’s is the only writing I know that answers Michel Foucault’s call for an ethics/aesthetics of the body and its pleasures, freed from the dreary dialectics of sexuality and transgression. As such, it provides an alternative as well to the relentless commodification that permeates every corner of our postmodern existence.