Transcritique (part 2: Marx)

What happens when Kojin Karatani reads Marx’s “critique of political economy” through the lens of Kant’s Critiques? This is the big question of the second part of Transcritique. Excuse me for once more dipping into the murky (and not very elegantly written) world of Marxist theory, and moving through the issues somewhat ploddingly, repetitiously, and overly academically, with a lot of Philosophy 101-style paraphrasing of basics. Unfortunately, this is the only way I can make these matters clear to myself.

In Karatani’s account, Marx delineates the “transcendental conditions” of a capitalist economy. But these conditions involve Antinomies, which can only be traversed (since they are never definitively resolved) by a process of continual “parallax,” or shifting of focus between one position and another. A Kantian “transcendental deduction” occurs in the form of what Karatani calls “transcritique,” a shuttling back and forth between the disparities generated by the shifts in perspective. Karatani discusses at great length the various parallax shifts in Marx’s argument; as Marx moved from Germany to France to England, he also moves from the critique of German idealism (Hegel and the young Hegelians), to the critique of French “utopian” socialism and political theory, to the critique of British empiricism and political economy. (I will pass over the interesting way that Karatani reads Marx’s essay on The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte as a “critique of national politics” (151), putting forward a theory of the State that, according to Karatani, the later Marxist tradition has failed to take the full measure of).

Marx, in a certain sense, repeats the Kantian Antinomy between idealism and empiricism, by working through the parallax between Hegelian dialectics, on the one hand, and British empiricism and utilitarianism, on the other. But more specifically, Marx examines such an Antinomy within the tradition of British empirical political economy itself. On one side, there’s the political economy of Ricardo, grounded in the labor theory of value: Marx is commonly regarded as the great inheritor of this tradition. But on the other hand, there is the political economy of Samuel Bailey, who criticizes Ricardo (in 1825) on the grounds that there is no intrinsic substance of value, neither “labor time” nor anything else. Bailey argues instead that value is a purely relational (today we would say “structural”) phenomenon: it exists only as a marker of the way that commodities are related to other commodities for which they can be exchanged. Karatani suggests that Bailey is the forgotten precursor of the neoclassical economics that was developed in the later 19th century and still holds sway in “bourgeois economics” today. The neoclassicists, like Bailey, reject the labor theory of value, or any other theory of intrinsic value; they claim that values are only formed “on the margin,” in the process of sale and purchase, as affected by shifts in supply and demand. From the point of view of neoclassical economics, Marx is simply dismissed as irrelevant, on the grounds that he still holds to the essentialism of the labor theory of value. Of course, this serves as a perfect alibi for neoclassical economics to ignore all the issues that Marx brings up: questions of the ownership and distribution of capital, of exploitation, in short, of class. Instead, neoclassical economics only considers questions of “efficiency” and “utility”: it takes the politics out of “political economy,” and becomes just plain “economics” instead.

Karatani claims that Marx’s reading of Bailey shook him out of his previously unquestioned Ricardianism, in the same way that Kant’s reading of Hume shook him out of the “dogmatic slumber” of idealist rationalism. Karatani doesn’t give any evidence for this claim; nor could I discern any special importance given to Bailey when I took a cursory glance at Marx’s discussion of Bailey in Theories of Surplus Value. But whether or not Marx actually got important insights from Bailey, I do find Karatani’s overall account of Marx’s thought plausible and convincing. Some Marxist economists (such as Stephen Resnick and RIchard Wolff) have long argued that Marx rejects Ricardian essentialism. Karatani argues that Marx’s “critique of political economy” operates precisely in the Antinomy, or parallax, between the labor theory of value, on the one hand, and Bailey’s (and the neoclassical economists’) positivistic dismissal of value theory altogether on the other. Karatani notes, first, that even the theory of surplus value was not original to Marx; left-wing Ricardians had already developed it as an explanation for profit and exploitation, in much the same way that the leftist Young Hegelians, like Feuerbach, had already developed a theory of alienation, and a critique of religion, upon which the young Marx originally drew, but which he later rejected as inadequate. As for the other half of the antinomy, Karatani notes that “Bailey’s skepticism [regarding the labor theory of value] is similar to Hume’s criticism that there is nothing like a Cartesian ego cogito” (5). And just as Kant responds to Hume by saying that Hume is right, in the sense that the Cartesian ego does not substantively exist, but also that Hume is wrong, in that the unifying form of the ego must nonetheless be posited as a transcendental condition of apperception — so similarly, according to Karatani, Marx rejects Ricardian essentialism (the labor theory of value in its classical form), but also insists, against Bailey’s (and later, neoclassical) nominalism, that a “transcendental reflection on value” (6) is necessary in order to make sense of capitalism as a system.

In other words: just as what Kant calls “apperception” would break down entirely, if it were truly as atomized as Hume maintains it is, so the capitalist order would cease to function altogether, if it were truly as atomized and relativistic as Bailey and, after him, the neoclassical marginalists, claim. What keeps perceptual experience together, Kant says — what allows it to maintain some sort of identity through time — is indeed an “I”; but this “I” is not substantial as the Cartesian tradition claims, for it is merely an empty form, “a transcendental subject of thoughts = x” (First Critique, A346/B404). (This could bring us to a consideration of Marx in terms of Kant’s Paralogisms as well as his Antinomies. I won’t pursue this here, as Karatani does not mention it; but it is something I want to think about further, and write about at some later point. Deleuze and Guattari describe the “paralogisms” of psychoanalysis in terms that derive from Kant’s critique of the paralogisms of Rational Psychology). In a parallel way to how the empty, transcendental form of the “I” keeps subjectivity together through time, so the transcendental category that Marx calls the “value-form” keeps the capitalist economy together, allowing it to replicate itself through time, impelling and indeed compelling it to expand through time. Marx is making a Kantian “transcendental” argument, when he posits the double value-form of the commodity (use-value and exchange-value) against both Ricardo’s essentialist (substantive) labor theory of value, and against the nominalist, positivist and ultimately neoclassical rejection of the very category of “value.”

This kind of reading leads directly to the so-called “transformation problem,” one of the most vexing questions in Marxist political economy. Basically, in Volume 1 of Capital Marx uncovers the structure of exploitation in terms of “surplus value”: roughly, the incommensurability between the value of labor-power itself as a commodity (i.e. what the workers are paid) and the value of the commodities produced by labor. The excess of the latter over the former is abstracted and extracted from the labor process by the capitalist; it is the source of the accumulation of capital. In Volume I, Marx is writing on a very high level of abstraction, describing the structure of capitalist society as a whole. In Volume III of Capital, however, Marx is trying to write about individual capitalist enterprises, and about the actual mechanism of prices, and the actual distribution of profit. How does one get from the abstraction of “value” to the actual prices of individual commodities, and from the abstraction of “surplus value” to actual profits? It’s well known that Marx’s mathematical model for making this “transformation” is flawed; and that indeed the problem is mathematically intractable — the equations can only be solved under very special, limited, and unrealistic conditions — which is why Marx, like Ricardo before him, was unable to solve them. Many critics have seen this impasse as a fatal contradiction within Marx’s own thought; neoclassical economists argue that, in light of the impossibility of any transformation, “value,” “surplus value,” and “exploitation” are irrelevant concepts altogether, and that the economy can be best understood by looking only at prices and profits.

Now, I’m not competent to discuss the whole history of the transformation problem, and the various attempts Marxist political economists have made to move between value/surplus value and price/profit, rather than throwing out the former and only retaining the latter. (There’s also the neo-Ricardianism of Piero Sraffa, which I don’t understand very well, but which at the very least reinstates the project of looking at the entire national or world economy as a system, as against the atomism of microeconomic, marginalist approaches). The basic point is not to correct Marx’s mathematics — which cannot be done, given the presuppositions of the problem — but to question those presuppositions themselves. The whole problem of transforming values into prices itself seems to depend on the idea of capitalism as a closed, synchronic system in a state of equilibrium — which is what most economists, classical and neoclassical alike, in fact presuppose — but elsewhere in Capital Marx argues that such a view is entirely inadequate, since capitalism is a process that necessarily unfolds in time, and that it is never in a state of equilibrium. Crises, Marx argues, are endemic to capitalism. They are not (as neoclassical economists assume even today) mere aberrations or temporary departures from the norm of equilibrium. Rather, crises are intrinsic to the movement of capital, they are even what pushes it forward. Crises are unavoidable because of the temporal factor. If anything, crises and business cycles are the norm; equilibrium is a fictive idealization, an abstraction: and not even a very useful one. There is no good reason to prefer the mathematical abstractions of neoclassical economics (which, as I’ve noted elsewhere, arise really from misunderstandings of 19th century, pre-quantum and pre-relativity physics) to the “transcendental” abstractions worked out by Marx.

When you consider the process of capitalist production and circulation temporally — when you look at capitalism diachronically instead of synchronically — then the transformation problem simply becomes irrelevant instead of insoluble. With an open future and its contingencies, goods can go unsold, equilibrium can no longer be presupposed, and what Karatani, following Marxist tradition, calls “trade cycles” — the boom-and-bust patterns we are so familiar with today — are always present as tendencies (that is to say, they are what Marx calls “tendential” processes: they are not predictable or inevitable, and countervailing factors can always dampen or even reverse them, but the tendency for them to happen is immanent to the whole capitalist process). Karatani therefore argues that value and surplus value, as posited in volume 1 of Capital, are the transcendental conditions of possibility of capitalism. Value and surplus value are the preconditions that make it possible, empirically, for capitalists to extract profit. But value and surplus value are themselves never encountered empirically. Empirically, we only encounter prices and profits. “Thus,” Karatani writes, “the insistence of neoclassical economists that the concepts of value and surplus value are false is in total accord with the everyday consciousness of the agents” (242). (This doesn’t mean that capitalist subjects suffer from “false consciousness”; but rather, that — as Zizek might say — the “ideology” of prices and profits is itself an objective part of social reality: as I discuss below).

Karatani suggests, therefore, that the often-alleged “discrepancy” between Volumes 1 and 3 of Capital is actually quite similar to what happens in Kant, “whose first critique tackles the issue of subject in general, but whose third critique engages in the issue of plural subjects” (243). Similarly, Marx deals with capital in general in Volume 1, and with the perspectives and actions of individual capitals in Volume 3. Volume 1, like the First Critique, is about universal structure: the transcendental conditions of possibility for all experience. Volume 3, like the Third Critique, is about singular experiences, and how you get from these multiple singularities to the transcendental conditions that they both generate and presuppose. In Volume 3, “Marx deals with plural capitals, while at the same time transcendentally asking how it is empirically possible that they realize profit or the rate of profit” (243).

Just as the Third Critique involves an Antinomy between 1)the universal nature of aesthetic judgment (the fact that it demands to be accepted universally) and 2)the ungrounded singularity of any individual aesthetic judgment (the fact that it cannot appeal to any preexisting concepts for justification), so Marx’s Volume 3 involves an Antinomy between 1)the grounding of price in value, and of profit in surplus value (Thesis: Ricardo); and 2)the independence of price from value and of profit from surplus value (Antithesis: Bailey). In this Antithesis, price is determined relationally, and independently of any notion of value, by supply and demand; while profit, from the point of view of the individual consciousness, is simply “price of production minus cost price” (241), and labor-power (sometimes today renamed, in neoclassical theory, “human capital”: quite a wonderful catachresis, since — by a mere shift of terminology — it simply spirits away the entire difference between capitalist investment, and workers selling their labor-power as a commodity) is just another input into production costs. Anybody who has read Capital knows how much time Marx spends criticizing the latter set of assumptions. But the criticism is necessary, precisely because these “ideological” assumptions do necessarily exist as “objective illusions”: for they constitute the actual manner in which individuals confront the market as buyers and sellers, consumers and owners. As for the other side of the Antinomy, the Thesis: the Ricardian labor theory of value is also an objective illusion, insofar as it is understood as an empirical actuality (something we encounter within experience) rather than as a transcendental condition of experience. We only encounter “surplus value” in and for itself in the way that we encounter time, space, and causality in and for themselves. They are conditions of experience, rather than things that we encounter within experience.This is why, Karatani says, “Marx’s labor theory of value and Ricardo’s are fundamentally different”; for Marx, “it is not that input labor time determines the value, but conversely that the value form (system) determines the social[ly necessary] labor time” (244). And, “while for the classical economists, labor value is just a replacement of the equilibrium price that is established within a unitary system, Marx began his whole analysis from manifold systems, and hence came to need the concepts of social and abstract labor value” (227-228).

These considerations lead Karatani to emphasize the importance of circulation, and of money, within Marx’s analysis of capitalism. There’s long been controversy as to why Marx begins Capital Volume 1 with a discussion of the commodity form and of money (and of commodity fetishism), before he gets to the theory of surplus value. Louis Althusser even advises readers to skip these chapters when reading Capital; Althusser sees them as a Hegelian throwback, and as a distraction from Marx’s main argument. Karatani, to the contrary, argues for the centrality of these chapters to Marx’s entire project. Indeed, for Karatani these chapters are the site of a rupture (what Althusser calls an epistemological break) with Marx’s earlier, more tentative theories: because they are the place where Marx develops the crucial notion of the value-form: “all the enigmas of capital’s drive are inscribed in the theory of value form… Value form is a kind of form that people are not aware of when they are placed within the monetary economy; this is the form that is discovered only transcendentally” (9).

The theory of value-form turns on the dual nature of commodities: that they are at once both use-value and exchange-value. This sundering is only possible because of the role of money. Money is a universal equivalent, a special commodity that stands in for all other commodities. As a result, there is a radical “asymmetricity… inherent in the form of value” (200) between money and all other commodities. The use-value of money, unlike the use-value of all other commodities, has nothing to do with its sensuous properties. Marx contrasts money as a transcendental form with “the substantial aspect of money such as gold or silver. To take it substantially is, to Marx, fetishism” (196). SInce its use-value is purely formal or transcendental, money doesn’t have to take the form of precious metals; it can be made of paper, or even (as is generally the case in transnational finance today) be entirely virtual. “Anything — anything — that is exculsively placed in the general equivalent form becomes money; that is, it achieves the right to attain anything in exchange” (7). Nonetheless, the fetishism of money — the confusion of the transcendental with the empirical — is impossible to get rid of, since such a reification or fetishization of money is intrinsic to the functioning of the capitalist economy as such. Money, Karatani says, “is like a Kantian transcendental apperception X, as it were… money as substance is an illusion, but more correctly, it is a transcendental illusion, in the sense that it is hardly possible to discard it” (6).

The core problem in Marx’s Antinomy of value is that both sides ignore the actuality of money as universal equivalent. For Ricardo and the classical political economists on one side, and for Bailey and the neoclassical school, down to the present day, on the other, money itself is considered to be of no importance. For Ricardo, money simply measures the labor inscribed in commodities as their value; for Bailey, value is relational, but he pays no attention to money as the medium in which these relations are expressed and worked out. “Bailey overlooked a simple fact — that commodities cannot be exchanged directly” (194). Both Ricardo and Bailey see money as transparent, in the same way that traditional metaphysics sees language as transparent. Even today, as Doug Henwood puts it in his fine book Wall Street, “in (neo)classical economics, money is held to be neutral – a mere lubricant to trade, but not a force in itself”; economics builds “paradigms that often ignore money and finance completely, or treat it as an afterthought.” Marx, to the contrary, insists on the opacity of money and finance. As a universal equivalent or transcendental form, money does not merely put external terms (objects sold as commodities) into relation; it molds and alters those terms by the very fact of equating them (money as universal equivalent is what transforms things into commodities in the first place). Similarly, financial speculation — such as is overwhelmingly present in global markets today — is not just an illusion distracting us from the “real” economic activity that takes place in production. Or better, financial speculation is an illusion, but a transcendental one: its illusoriness is itself an objective force, one that drives the entire process of production and circulation. It is not Marxist political economy, but neoclassical economics, that reduces everything to production and to utility, and thereby ignores the structural and material importance of the delirious, ungrounded flows of finance capital that constitute the largest part of economic activity today.

Karatani even sees the central role of money in the capitalist world economy as a kind of return of the repressed. The classical economics of Smith and Ricardo was a reaction against the mercantilists, who “naively” imagined that money itself, in the form of of gold and silver bullion, was the source of national prosperity. But Marx, in his transcritique, plays off the mercantilists against the classicists. Karatani notes that Marx begins his discussion of money with the figure of the miser, who hoards monetary wealth instead of spending or investing it. The miser is the equivalent on an individual level of mercantilism on a national level. But the opposition between mercantilism and classicism returns at the heart of capitalism itself, in the difference between Marx’s two formulas of circulation: C-M-C (commodities are sold for money, which in turn is expended to acquire other commodities) and M-C-M’ (money is expended for commodities, which in turn are used to acquire more money). The first formula corresponds to the experience of individuals as workers, selling their labor-power as a commodity in order to obtain (through the mediation of money) those commodities that they need to survive, subsist, and reproduce. The second formula corresponds to what Marx calls the “self-valorization of capital,” its reproduction on an expanded scale, i.e. capital accumulation. Capitalism at its most “advanced” actually returns to a sublated (as Hegel would say) version of miserliness/mercantilism, in that its ultimate goal is money itself, rather than the things that can be acquired through the medium of money. This is why “capital’s movement has to continue endlessly. Indeed this is interminable and without telos” (209). This endless accumulation for its own sake is the return of the repressed, the re-emergence of (mercantilist) money (money as fetish) after the classical economists, and the neoclassical ones as well, have denied its significance.

Paying attention to money also means paying attention to circulation. Karatani points out that, even if surplus value is extracted in production, it needs to be realized in circulation, i.e. the commodities have to be sold. This has several consequences. For one thing, the success of circulation is contingent; it is always possible that given commodities will not be sold, and that surplus value therefore will not be realized, and capital will not be accumulated. Second, circulation takes time; the “turnover” of capital is never instantaneous, though there is continual pressure to make it happen faster and faster. Third, surplus value itself, as a transcendental form, is predicated on a discontinuity, or incommensurability, between heterogeneous registers of value. In Marx’s most direct formulation of the theory, there is a discontinuity in the realm of production between the value of the worker’s labot-power as a commodity, and the value of the commodities produced by that labor power. But when surplus value is realized in the realm of circulation, the incommensurability is one between the two circuits C-M-C and M-C-M’. These registers are discontinuous with one another, because the first is about simple self-reproduction (I sell my labor power in order to be able to buy the commodities that allow me to survive and sell my labor-power again tomorrow), while the second is about expansion and accumulation, a process that is free from day-to-day urgency. Karatani might well have quoted Deleuze and Guattari here, who note that “it is not the same money that goes into the pocket of the wage earner and is entered on the balance sheet of a commercial enterprise” (Anti-Oedipus 228).

One can think here also of the role of credit. Money and finance/credit allow the separation of acts of exchange (purchase and sale) in time and space. “C-M (selling) and M-C (buying) are separate, and precisely for this reason, the sphere of exchange is infinitely expandable in both space and time” (207). But this separation too occurs in different, incompatible ways. Consumer debt has been at the center of the expansion of the American economy in the last severalo decades. But consumer credit is ultimately finite; individuals are enslaved to debt, since they need constant inflows of money just to pay for daily necessities. If I were to quit my job, I wouldn’t be able to pay my mortgage and my credit card balances. Business and financial credit, on the other hand, is for all intents and purposes infinite. Business credit allows for the indefinite deferral of any final reckoning. As Karatani says, “credit enforces capital’s movement endlessly at the same time that it hastens capital’s self-reproduction and eliminates the danger involved in selling” (219).Note that, in America today, bankruptcy laws for individuals have just been made far more rigorous, to the benefit of banks and credit card companies. On the other hand, for corporations, bankruptcy is most often just a formal procedure, allowing the corporations to cut wages and benefits as part of their “reorganization.”

Marx of course frequently attacks the fetishistic illusion that sees money as magically self-valorizing, as if no exploitation were needed to get from M, through C, to the larger quantity of M’. But Karatani notes that capitalist ideology in fact tends to elide what really happens in circulation, as much as it does what really happens in production: “the ideologues of industrial capital avoid the word ‘capitalism,’ preferring ‘market economy,’ which conveniently represents capital’s movement as people’s free exchange of things via money in the marketplace. This veils the fact that market exchange is at the same time the place for capital’s accumulation” (208). The difference between Marxist and neoclassical economics is not that the former emphasizes production and the latter looks instead to circulation; but rather that, in production and circulation alike, Marxist political economy focuses on the centrality of the process of capital accumulation, whereas neoclassical economics sees capital accumulation as merely a side-effect of an aggregate of equal exchanges between separate individuals.

Transcritique is not without flaws. Actually, I find some of the same limitations to the book as Zizek does, even though I resist Zizek’s attempt to turn Karatani’s Kantianism into a Hegelianism. For one thing, Karatani overemphasizes the idea that surplus value can only be realized in circulation; he seems to ignore its role in production altogether, and at times even to assimilate the profits of industrial and finance capital to those of merchant’s capital, which essentially depend upon arbitrage (profiting from the differences in pricing in two markets that are separate from another, a gap that the merchant alone bridges). But as I’ve already suggested, this “strange lacuna” (as Zizek calls it) is not fatal. For Karatani’s argument about the incommensurability between different economic registers applies as well to production as to circulation, even though Karatani only spells it out in the latter. Again, the key to all this is money (including credit) in its role as universal equivalent. Money is that which paradoxically gives a common measure to things that, in all other respects, remain incommensurable. Oppression takes place in other, and indeed often in harsher, forms in non-capitalist economies (feudalism, slavery). But it is only in a regime of money and commodity production that oppression takes the specific form of exploitation. And because of money’s universalizing power, because it works as a transcendental condition, capitalism tends to incorporate all other “modes of production” within its circle: this is what Marx calls the “formal” and “real” subsumption of all social forms under capital.

Karatani is also not very good at explaining how an alternative to capitalism, under present conditions, might arise. He puts his faith almost exclusively in LETS (Local Exchange Trading Systems), a form of association in which individuals and groups can exchange goods and services outside of the circuits of capital. While David Harvey, in his most recent book, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, does indeed suggest that LETS may be one of the more fruitful forms that contemporary resistance to capitalism can take, I find it scarcely credible that LETS by itself could somehow lead to the replacement of capitalism all by itself. But then, I find the other recent Marxist or quasi-Marxist proposals for overcoming capitalism — Hardt and Negri’s spontaneous uprising of the multitude, and Zizek and Badiou’s hyperromantic fantasy of a Leninist Event of radical rupture — to be just as unconvincing. We just don’t know what to do, and for now I will leave it at that.

What happens when Kojin Karatani reads Marx’s “critique of political economy” through the lens of Kant’s Critiques? This is the big question of the second part of Transcritique. Excuse me for once more dipping into the murky (and not very elegantly written) world of Marxist theory, and moving through the issues somewhat ploddingly, repetitiously, and overly academically, with a lot of Philosophy 101-style paraphrasing of basics. Unfortunately, this is the only way I can make these matters clear to myself.

In Karatani’s account, Marx delineates the “transcendental conditions” of a capitalist economy. But these conditions involve Antinomies, which can only be traversed (since they are never definitively resolved) by a process of continual “parallax,” or shifting of focus between one position and another. A Kantian “transcendental deduction” occurs in the form of what Karatani calls “transcritique,” a shuttling back and forth between the disparities generated by the shifts in perspective. Karatani discusses at great length the various parallax shifts in Marx’s argument; as Marx moved from Germany to France to England, he also moves from the critique of German idealism (Hegel and the young Hegelians), to the critique of French “utopian” socialism and political theory, to the critique of British empiricism and political economy. (I will pass over the interesting way that Karatani reads Marx’s essay on The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte as a “critique of national politics” (151), putting forward a theory of the State that, according to Karatani, the later Marxist tradition has failed to take the full measure of).

Marx, in a certain sense, repeats the Kantian Antinomy between idealism and empiricism, by working through the parallax between Hegelian dialectics, on the one hand, and British empiricism and utilitarianism, on the other. But more specifically, Marx examines such an Antinomy within the tradition of British empirical political economy itself. On one side, there’s the political economy of Ricardo, grounded in the labor theory of value: Marx is commonly regarded as the great inheritor of this tradition. But on the other hand, there is the political economy of Samuel Bailey, who criticizes Ricardo (in 1825) on the grounds that there is no intrinsic substance of value, neither “labor time” nor anything else. Bailey argues instead that value is a purely relational (today we would say “structural”) phenomenon: it exists only as a marker of the way that commodities are related to other commodities for which they can be exchanged. Karatani suggests that Bailey is the forgotten precursor of the neoclassical economics that was developed in the later 19th century and still holds sway in “bourgeois economics” today. The neoclassicists, like Bailey, reject the labor theory of value, or any other theory of intrinsic value; they claim that values are only formed “on the margin,” in the process of sale and purchase, as affected by shifts in supply and demand. From the point of view of neoclassical economics, Marx is simply dismissed as irrelevant, on the grounds that he still holds to the essentialism of the labor theory of value. Of course, this serves as a perfect alibi for neoclassical economics to ignore all the issues that Marx brings up: questions of the ownership and distribution of capital, of exploitation, in short, of class. Instead, neoclassical economics only considers questions of “efficiency” and “utility”: it takes the politics out of “political economy,” and becomes just plain “economics” instead.

Karatani claims that Marx’s reading of Bailey shook him out of his previously unquestioned Ricardianism, in the same way that Kant’s reading of Hume shook him out of the “dogmatic slumber” of idealist rationalism. Karatani doesn’t give any evidence for this claim; nor could I discern any special importance given to Bailey when I took a cursory glance at Marx’s discussion of Bailey in Theories of Surplus Value. But whether or not Marx actually got important insights from Bailey, I do find Karatani’s overall account of Marx’s thought plausible and convincing. Some Marxist economists (such as Stephen Resnick and RIchard Wolff) have long argued that Marx rejects Ricardian essentialism. Karatani argues that Marx’s “critique of political economy” operates precisely in the Antinomy, or parallax, between the labor theory of value, on the one hand, and Bailey’s (and the neoclassical economists’) positivistic dismissal of value theory altogether on the other. Karatani notes, first, that even the theory of surplus value was not original to Marx; left-wing Ricardians had already developed it as an explanation for profit and exploitation, in much the same way that the leftist Young Hegelians, like Feuerbach, had already developed a theory of alienation, and a critique of religion, upon which the young Marx originally drew, but which he later rejected as inadequate. As for the other half of the antinomy, Karatani notes that “Bailey’s skepticism [regarding the labor theory of value] is similar to Hume’s criticism that there is nothing like a Cartesian ego cogito” (5). And just as Kant responds to Hume by saying that Hume is right, in the sense that the Cartesian ego does not substantively exist, but also that Hume is wrong, in that the unifying form of the ego must nonetheless be posited as a transcendental condition of apperception — so similarly, according to Karatani, Marx rejects Ricardian essentialism (the labor theory of value in its classical form), but also insists, against Bailey’s (and later, neoclassical) nominalism, that a “transcendental reflection on value” (6) is necessary in order to make sense of capitalism as a system.

In other words: just as what Kant calls “apperception” would break down entirely, if it were truly as atomized as Hume maintains it is, so the capitalist order would cease to function altogether, if it were truly as atomized and relativistic as Bailey and, after him, the neoclassical marginalists, claim. What keeps perceptual experience together, Kant says — what allows it to maintain some sort of identity through time — is indeed an “I”; but this “I” is not substantial as the Cartesian tradition claims, for it is merely an empty form, “a transcendental subject of thoughts = x” (First Critique, A346/B404). (This could bring us to a consideration of Marx in terms of Kant’s Paralogisms as well as his Antinomies. I won’t pursue this here, as Karatani does not mention it; but it is something I want to think about further, and write about at some later point. Deleuze and Guattari describe the “paralogisms” of psychoanalysis in terms that derive from Kant’s critique of the paralogisms of Rational Psychology). In a parallel way to how the empty, transcendental form of the “I” keeps subjectivity together through time, so the transcendental category that Marx calls the “value-form” keeps the capitalist economy together, allowing it to replicate itself through time, impelling and indeed compelling it to expand through time. Marx is making a Kantian “transcendental” argument, when he posits the double value-form of the commodity (use-value and exchange-value) against both Ricardo’s essentialist (substantive) labor theory of value, and against the nominalist, positivist and ultimately neoclassical rejection of the very category of “value.”

This kind of reading leads directly to the so-called “transformation problem,” one of the most vexing questions in Marxist political economy. Basically, in Volume 1 of Capital Marx uncovers the structure of exploitation in terms of “surplus value”: roughly, the incommensurability between the value of labor-power itself as a commodity (i.e. what the workers are paid) and the value of the commodities produced by labor. The excess of the latter over the former is abstracted and extracted from the labor process by the capitalist; it is the source of the accumulation of capital. In Volume I, Marx is writing on a very high level of abstraction, describing the structure of capitalist society as a whole. In Volume III of Capital, however, Marx is trying to write about individual capitalist enterprises, and about the actual mechanism of prices, and the actual distribution of profit. How does one get from the abstraction of “value” to the actual prices of individual commodities, and from the abstraction of “surplus value” to actual profits? It’s well known that Marx’s mathematical model for making this “transformation” is flawed; and that indeed the problem is mathematically intractable — the equations can only be solved under very special, limited, and unrealistic conditions — which is why Marx, like Ricardo before him, was unable to solve them. Many critics have seen this impasse as a fatal contradiction within Marx’s own thought; neoclassical economists argue that, in light of the impossibility of any transformation, “value,” “surplus value,” and “exploitation” are irrelevant concepts altogether, and that the economy can be best understood by looking only at prices and profits.

Now, I’m not competent to discuss the whole history of the transformation problem, and the various attempts Marxist political economists have made to move between value/surplus value and price/profit, rather than throwing out the former and only retaining the latter. (There’s also the neo-Ricardianism of Piero Sraffa, which I don’t understand very well, but which at the very least reinstates the project of looking at the entire national or world economy as a system, as against the atomism of microeconomic, marginalist approaches). The basic point is not to correct Marx’s mathematics — which cannot be done, given the presuppositions of the problem — but to question those presuppositions themselves. The whole problem of transforming values into prices itself seems to depend on the idea of capitalism as a closed, synchronic system in a state of equilibrium — which is what most economists, classical and neoclassical alike, in fact presuppose — but elsewhere in Capital Marx argues that such a view is entirely inadequate, since capitalism is a process that necessarily unfolds in time, and that it is never in a state of equilibrium. Crises, Marx argues, are endemic to capitalism. They are not (as neoclassical economists assume even today) mere aberrations or temporary departures from the norm of equilibrium. Rather, crises are intrinsic to the movement of capital, they are even what pushes it forward. Crises are unavoidable because of the temporal factor. If anything, crises and business cycles are the norm; equilibrium is a fictive idealization, an abstraction: and not even a very useful one. There is no good reason to prefer the mathematical abstractions of neoclassical economics (which, as I’ve noted elsewhere, arise really from misunderstandings of 19th century, pre-quantum and pre-relativity physics) to the “transcendental” abstractions worked out by Marx.

When you consider the process of capitalist production and circulation temporally — when you look at capitalism diachronically instead of synchronically — then the transformation problem simply becomes irrelevant instead of insoluble. With an open future and its contingencies, goods can go unsold, equilibrium can no longer be presupposed, and what Karatani, following Marxist tradition, calls “trade cycles” — the boom-and-bust patterns we are so familiar with today — are always present as tendencies (that is to say, they are what Marx calls “tendential” processes: they are not predictable or inevitable, and countervailing factors can always dampen or even reverse them, but the tendency for them to happen is immanent to the whole capitalist process). Karatani therefore argues that value and surplus value, as posited in volume 1 of Capital, are the transcendental conditions of possibility of capitalism. Value and surplus value are the preconditions that make it possible, empirically, for capitalists to extract profit. But value and surplus value are themselves never encountered empirically. Empirically, we only encounter prices and profits. “Thus,” Karatani writes, “the insistence of neoclassical economists that the concepts of value and surplus value are false is in total accord with the everyday consciousness of the agents” (242). (This doesn’t mean that capitalist subjects suffer from “false consciousness”; but rather, that — as Zizek might say — the “ideology” of prices and profits is itself an objective part of social reality: as I discuss below).

Karatani suggests, therefore, that the often-alleged “discrepancy” between Volumes 1 and 3 of Capital is actually quite similar to what happens in Kant, “whose first critique tackles the issue of subject in general, but whose third critique engages in the issue of plural subjects” (243). Similarly, Marx deals with capital in general in Volume 1, and with the perspectives and actions of individual capitals in Volume 3. Volume 1, like the First Critique, is about universal structure: the transcendental conditions of possibility for all experience. Volume 3, like the Third Critique, is about singular experiences, and how you get from these multiple singularities to the transcendental conditions that they both generate and presuppose. In Volume 3, “Marx deals with plural capitals, while at the same time transcendentally asking how it is empirically possible that they realize profit or the rate of profit” (243).

Just as the Third Critique involves an Antinomy between 1)the universal nature of aesthetic judgment (the fact that it demands to be accepted universally) and 2)the ungrounded singularity of any individual aesthetic judgment (the fact that it cannot appeal to any preexisting concepts for justification), so Marx’s Volume 3 involves an Antinomy between 1)the grounding of price in value, and of profit in surplus value (Thesis: Ricardo); and 2)the independence of price from value and of profit from surplus value (Antithesis: Bailey). In this Antithesis, price is determined relationally, and independently of any notion of value, by supply and demand; while profit, from the point of view of the individual consciousness, is simply “price of production minus cost price” (241), and labor-power (sometimes today renamed, in neoclassical theory, “human capital”: quite a wonderful catachresis, since — by a mere shift of terminology — it simply spirits away the entire difference between capitalist investment, and workers selling their labor-power as a commodity) is just another input into production costs. Anybody who has read Capital knows how much time Marx spends criticizing the latter set of assumptions. But the criticism is necessary, precisely because these “ideological” assumptions do necessarily exist as “objective illusions”: for they constitute the actual manner in which individuals confront the market as buyers and sellers, consumers and owners. As for the other side of the Antinomy, the Thesis: the Ricardian labor theory of value is also an objective illusion, insofar as it is understood as an empirical actuality (something we encounter within experience) rather than as a transcendental condition of experience. We only encounter “surplus value” in and for itself in the way that we encounter time, space, and causality in and for themselves. They are conditions of experience, rather than things that we encounter within experience.This is why, Karatani says, “Marx’s labor theory of value and Ricardo’s are fundamentally different”; for Marx, “it is not that input labor time determines the value, but conversely that the value form (system) determines the social[ly necessary] labor time” (244). And, “while for the classical economists, labor value is just a replacement of the equilibrium price that is established within a unitary system, Marx began his whole analysis from manifold systems, and hence came to need the concepts of social and abstract labor value” (227-228).

These considerations lead Karatani to emphasize the importance of circulation, and of money, within Marx’s analysis of capitalism. There’s long been controversy as to why Marx begins Capital Volume 1 with a discussion of the commodity form and of money (and of commodity fetishism), before he gets to the theory of surplus value. Louis Althusser even advises readers to skip these chapters when reading Capital; Althusser sees them as a Hegelian throwback, and as a distraction from Marx’s main argument. Karatani, to the contrary, argues for the centrality of these chapters to Marx’s entire project. Indeed, for Karatani these chapters are the site of a rupture (what Althusser calls an epistemological break) with Marx’s earlier, more tentative theories: because they are the place where Marx develops the crucial notion of the value-form: “all the enigmas of capital’s drive are inscribed in the theory of value form… Value form is a kind of form that people are not aware of when they are placed within the monetary economy; this is the form that is discovered only transcendentally” (9).

The theory of value-form turns on the dual nature of commodities: that they are at once both use-value and exchange-value. This sundering is only possible because of the role of money. Money is a universal equivalent, a special commodity that stands in for all other commodities. As a result, there is a radical “asymmetricity… inherent in the form of value” (200) between money and all other commodities. The use-value of money, unlike the use-value of all other commodities, has nothing to do with its sensuous properties. Marx contrasts money as a transcendental form with “the substantial aspect of money such as gold or silver. To take it substantially is, to Marx, fetishism” (196). SInce its use-value is purely formal or transcendental, money doesn’t have to take the form of precious metals; it can be made of paper, or even (as is generally the case in transnational finance today) be entirely virtual. “Anything — anything — that is exculsively placed in the general equivalent form becomes money; that is, it achieves the right to attain anything in exchange” (7). Nonetheless, the fetishism of money — the confusion of the transcendental with the empirical — is impossible to get rid of, since such a reification or fetishization of money is intrinsic to the functioning of the capitalist economy as such. Money, Karatani says, “is like a Kantian transcendental apperception X, as it were… money as substance is an illusion, but more correctly, it is a transcendental illusion, in the sense that it is hardly possible to discard it” (6).

The core problem in Marx’s Antinomy of value is that both sides ignore the actuality of money as universal equivalent. For Ricardo and the classical political economists on one side, and for Bailey and the neoclassical school, down to the present day, on the other, money itself is considered to be of no importance. For Ricardo, money simply measures the labor inscribed in commodities as their value; for Bailey, value is relational, but he pays no attention to money as the medium in which these relations are expressed and worked out. “Bailey overlooked a simple fact — that commodities cannot be exchanged directly” (194). Both Ricardo and Bailey see money as transparent, in the same way that traditional metaphysics sees language as transparent. Even today, as Doug Henwood puts it in his fine book Wall Street, “in (neo)classical economics, money is held to be neutral – a mere lubricant to trade, but not a force in itself”; economics builds “paradigms that often ignore money and finance completely, or treat it as an afterthought.” Marx, to the contrary, insists on the opacity of money and finance. As a universal equivalent or transcendental form, money does not merely put external terms (objects sold as commodities) into relation; it molds and alters those terms by the very fact of equating them (money as universal equivalent is what transforms things into commodities in the first place). Similarly, financial speculation — such as is overwhelmingly present in global markets today — is not just an illusion distracting us from the “real” economic activity that takes place in production. Or better, financial speculation is an illusion, but a transcendental one: its illusoriness is itself an objective force, one that drives the entire process of production and circulation. It is not Marxist political economy, but neoclassical economics, that reduces everything to production and to utility, and thereby ignores the structural and material importance of the delirious, ungrounded flows of finance capital that constitute the largest part of economic activity today.

Karatani even sees the central role of money in the capitalist world economy as a kind of return of the repressed. The classical economics of Smith and Ricardo was a reaction against the mercantilists, who “naively” imagined that money itself, in the form of of gold and silver bullion, was the source of national prosperity. But Marx, in his transcritique, plays off the mercantilists against the classicists. Karatani notes that Marx begins his discussion of money with the figure of the miser, who hoards monetary wealth instead of spending or investing it. The miser is the equivalent on an individual level of mercantilism on a national level. But the opposition between mercantilism and classicism returns at the heart of capitalism itself, in the difference between Marx’s two formulas of circulation: C-M-C (commodities are sold for money, which in turn is expended to acquire other commodities) and M-C-M’ (money is expended for commodities, which in turn are used to acquire more money). The first formula corresponds to the experience of individuals as workers, selling their labor-power as a commodity in order to obtain (through the mediation of money) those commodities that they need to survive, subsist, and reproduce. The second formula corresponds to what Marx calls the “self-valorization of capital,” its reproduction on an expanded scale, i.e. capital accumulation. Capitalism at its most “advanced” actually returns to a sublated (as Hegel would say) version of miserliness/mercantilism, in that its ultimate goal is money itself, rather than the things that can be acquired through the medium of money. This is why “capital’s movement has to continue endlessly. Indeed this is interminable and without telos” (209). This endless accumulation for its own sake is the return of the repressed, the re-emergence of (mercantilist) money (money as fetish) after the classical economists, and the neoclassical ones as well, have denied its significance.

Paying attention to money also means paying attention to circulation. Karatani points out that, even if surplus value is extracted in production, it needs to be realized in circulation, i.e. the commodities have to be sold. This has several consequences. For one thing, the success of circulation is contingent; it is always possible that given commodities will not be sold, and that surplus value therefore will not be realized, and capital will not be accumulated. Second, circulation takes time; the “turnover” of capital is never instantaneous, though there is continual pressure to make it happen faster and faster. Third, surplus value itself, as a transcendental form, is predicated on a discontinuity, or incommensurability, between heterogeneous registers of value. In Marx’s most direct formulation of the theory, there is a discontinuity in the realm of production between the value of the worker’s labot-power as a commodity, and the value of the commodities produced by that labor power. But when surplus value is realized in the realm of circulation, the incommensurability is one between the two circuits C-M-C and M-C-M’. These registers are discontinuous with one another, because the first is about simple self-reproduction (I sell my labor power in order to be able to buy the commodities that allow me to survive and sell my labor-power again tomorrow), while the second is about expansion and accumulation, a process that is free from day-to-day urgency. Karatani might well have quoted Deleuze and Guattari here, who note that “it is not the same money that goes into the pocket of the wage earner and is entered on the balance sheet of a commercial enterprise” (Anti-Oedipus 228).

One can think here also of the role of credit. Money and finance/credit allow the separation of acts of exchange (purchase and sale) in time and space. “C-M (selling) and M-C (buying) are separate, and precisely for this reason, the sphere of exchange is infinitely expandable in both space and time” (207). But this separation too occurs in different, incompatible ways. Consumer debt has been at the center of the expansion of the American economy in the last severalo decades. But consumer credit is ultimately finite; individuals are enslaved to debt, since they need constant inflows of money just to pay for daily necessities. If I were to quit my job, I wouldn’t be able to pay my mortgage and my credit card balances. Business and financial credit, on the other hand, is for all intents and purposes infinite. Business credit allows for the indefinite deferral of any final reckoning. As Karatani says, “credit enforces capital’s movement endlessly at the same time that it hastens capital’s self-reproduction and eliminates the danger involved in selling” (219).Note that, in America today, bankruptcy laws for individuals have just been made far more rigorous, to the benefit of banks and credit card companies. On the other hand, for corporations, bankruptcy is most often just a formal procedure, allowing the corporations to cut wages and benefits as part of their “reorganization.”

Marx of course frequently attacks the fetishistic illusion that sees money as magically self-valorizing, as if no exploitation were needed to get from M, through C, to the larger quantity of M’. But Karatani notes that capitalist ideology in fact tends to elide what really happens in circulation, as much as it does what really happens in production: “the ideologues of industrial capital avoid the word ‘capitalism,’ preferring ‘market economy,’ which conveniently represents capital’s movement as people’s free exchange of things via money in the marketplace. This veils the fact that market exchange is at the same time the place for capital’s accumulation” (208). The difference between Marxist and neoclassical economics is not that the former emphasizes production and the latter looks instead to circulation; but rather that, in production and circulation alike, Marxist political economy focuses on the centrality of the process of capital accumulation, whereas neoclassical economics sees capital accumulation as merely a side-effect of an aggregate of equal exchanges between separate individuals.

Transcritique is not without flaws. Actually, I find some of the same limitations to the book as Zizek does, even though I resist Zizek’s attempt to turn Karatani’s Kantianism into a Hegelianism. For one thing, Karatani overemphasizes the idea that surplus value can only be realized in circulation; he seems to ignore its role in production altogether, and at times even to assimilate the profits of industrial and finance capital to those of merchant’s capital, which essentially depend upon arbitrage (profiting from the differences in pricing in two markets that are separate from another, a gap that the merchant alone bridges). But as I’ve already suggested, this “strange lacuna” (as Zizek calls it) is not fatal. For Karatani’s argument about the incommensurability between different economic registers applies as well to production as to circulation, even though Karatani only spells it out in the latter. Again, the key to all this is money (including credit) in its role as universal equivalent. Money is that which paradoxically gives a common measure to things that, in all other respects, remain incommensurable. Oppression takes place in other, and indeed often in harsher, forms in non-capitalist economies (feudalism, slavery). But it is only in a regime of money and commodity production that oppression takes the specific form of exploitation. And because of money’s universalizing power, because it works as a transcendental condition, capitalism tends to incorporate all other “modes of production” within its circle: this is what Marx calls the “formal” and “real” subsumption of all social forms under capital.

Karatani is also not very good at explaining how an alternative to capitalism, under present conditions, might arise. He puts his faith almost exclusively in LETS (Local Exchange Trading Systems), a form of association in which individuals and groups can exchange goods and services outside of the circuits of capital. While David Harvey, in his most recent book, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, does indeed suggest that LETS may be one of the more fruitful forms that contemporary resistance to capitalism can take, I find it scarcely credible that LETS by itself could somehow lead to the replacement of capitalism all by itself. But then, I find the other recent Marxist or quasi-Marxist proposals for overcoming capitalism — Hardt and Negri’s spontaneous uprising of the multitude, and Zizek and Badiou’s hyperromantic fantasy of a Leninist Event of radical rupture — to be just as unconvincing. We just don’t know what to do, and for now I will leave it at that.

Tropical Malady

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady, one of the most talked-about films of the new Thai cinema, is a beautifully opaque film. The first half is a low-key love story between two young men, one a soldier and the other not. The camerawork here seems almost documentary-like (restlessly moving handheld camera, ambient sound that often drowns out the dialogue, naturalistic shots that often seem carelessly framed and composed), until you notice all the strange discordancies (jump cuts; extreme jumps in time over a continuing soundtrack, so that it seems as if the same scene is continuing although the actors are wearing different clothes and it has changed from day to night, or it has clearly become the next day; extreme long shots when a fairly intimate scene is in progress). The result is less to distance us from the characters and their feelings, than to emphasize, rather sweetly, how the feelings themselves are tentative and uncertain, as these lovers are still just starting to get to know one another.

But around the middle of the film, everything suddenly changes. Now we have very self-consciously artful cinematography, with continuity rules mostly observed. A soldier (I couldn’t tell for sure if it was the same actor as in the first half), in the jungle and mostly at night, is tracking some sort of ghost or spirit. There is almost no dialogue. We have titles, superimposed on what looks like an ancient painting, telling us of a shaman who takes on the form of a tiger; there are also ghosts and other apparitions, not to mention a talking monkey (who tells the soldier that he must either kill the shaman/tiger, or be devoured by him). The screen is mostly dark; we barely see shapes emerging out of the shadows, it feels like we are on the edge of hallucination. The sound is ambient noises of the jungle. The pace is slow; there’s a lot of waiting. (Also, the soldier often pauses to peel off leeches from his legs and arms). The ending is ambiguous: the soldier confronts the tiger/shaman, and the scene turns back into the ancient painting.

Can we take this second part of the film as an allegory of desire? of its delays, its intense demands, its engulfing depths? That’s the best idea I have for understanding how the second part might relate to the first. But I think it’s more a matter of rhythms of affect, than it is of making literal sense of the narrative. Love starts in the everyday; but at some point it turns into an abyss (or, more accurately, it has already turned into an abyss: for the point at which it metamorphoses is something that we can only apprehend retrospectively). (Also, “abyss” is not precisely the word I want here; for what I am conceiving as the “abyss” of passion is something that, in Tropical Malady at least, unfolds horizontally, in the jungle at night: a slow movement through a menacing and marvelous labyrinth, perhaps, rather than a descent into the depths). In any case, we move from the everyday to a kind of giving, or willed loss, that can only be represented obliquely (that is only obliquely). It’s sort of like melodrama without any of the twists and turns, or ups and downs, that usually make up melodrama: a plotless and incidentless melodrama, which is of course an oxymoron, but in this case a necessary one.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady, one of the most talked-about films of the new Thai cinema, is a beautifully opaque film. The first half is a low-key love story between two young men, one a soldier and the other not. The camerawork here seems almost documentary-like (restlessly moving handheld camera, ambient sound that often drowns out the dialogue, naturalistic shots that often seem carelessly framed and composed), until you notice all the strange discordancies (jump cuts; extreme jumps in time over a continuing soundtrack, so that it seems as if the same scene is continuing although the actors are wearing different clothes and it has changed from day to night, or it has clearly become the next day; extreme long shots when a fairly intimate scene is in progress). The result is less to distance us from the characters and their feelings, than to emphasize, rather sweetly, how the feelings themselves are tentative and uncertain, as these lovers are still just starting to get to know one another.

But around the middle of the film, everything suddenly changes. Now we have very self-consciously artful cinematography, with continuity rules mostly observed. A soldier (I couldn’t tell for sure if it was the same actor as in the first half), in the jungle and mostly at night, is tracking some sort of ghost or spirit. There is almost no dialogue. We have titles, superimposed on what looks like an ancient painting, telling us of a shaman who takes on the form of a tiger; there are also ghosts and other apparitions, not to mention a talking monkey (who tells the soldier that he must either kill the shaman/tiger, or be devoured by him). The screen is mostly dark; we barely see shapes emerging out of the shadows, it feels like we are on the edge of hallucination. The sound is ambient noises of the jungle. The pace is slow; there’s a lot of waiting. (Also, the soldier often pauses to peel off leeches from his legs and arms). The ending is ambiguous: the soldier confronts the tiger/shaman, and the scene turns back into the ancient painting.

Can we take this second part of the film as an allegory of desire? of its delays, its intense demands, its engulfing depths? That’s the best idea I have for understanding how the second part might relate to the first. But I think it’s more a matter of rhythms of affect, than it is of making literal sense of the narrative. Love starts in the everyday; but at some point it turns into an abyss (or, more accurately, it has already turned into an abyss: for the point at which it metamorphoses is something that we can only apprehend retrospectively). (Also, “abyss” is not precisely the word I want here; for what I am conceiving as the “abyss” of passion is something that, in Tropical Malady at least, unfolds horizontally, in the jungle at night: a slow movement through a menacing and marvelous labyrinth, perhaps, rather than a descent into the depths). In any case, we move from the everyday to a kind of giving, or willed loss, that can only be represented obliquely (that is only obliquely). It’s sort of like melodrama without any of the twists and turns, or ups and downs, that usually make up melodrama: a plotless and incidentless melodrama, which is of course an oxymoron, but in this case a necessary one.

Transcritique (part 1: Kant)

Kojin Karatani‘s Transcritique is the most useful and important book of philosophy/theory that I have read in some time. (Thanks, Jodi, for pointing me to the book, and to Zizek’s review of it). I mean useful and important to me; it might be too narrow and specialized in focus for people who don’t share my particular preoccupations. For years I have been struggling to find ways to articulate Marx together with Kant: and that is precisely what Karatani accomplishes here. Karatani’s rereading of Marx’s Capital for the twenty-first century is not as sweeping as that of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri; nor does it have the vivacity and seductive wit of Zizek’s recent Marxist speculations. But perhaps it offers a more lucid account than either of what it really means to be encompassed on all sides, as we are today, by the flows of Capital, and by the supposed “rationality” of the Market.

In what follows, in order to explain Karatani I am going to move very slowly, and throw in a bit of Philosophy 101, just so that I can pin things down, and clarify them for myself, as carefully as possible. So please be patient, and bear with me.

Karatani’s basic move is to read Marx’s “critique of political economy” (the subtitle of Capital) as a “critique” in precisely the sense of Kant’s three Critiques. But what does Kant himself mean by critique — in contrast to the multifarious meanings the word has taken on in the two-hundred-odd years since? Most obviously, Kant asks the “transcendental” question: “what are the conditions of our experience?” For Kant, “all cognition begins with experience”; there are no supernatural or transcendent sources of knowledge. But experience (sensory data, perception, etc) does not itself come to us raw: it is always already structured in some way. Sense perceptions and other experiences already have a certain framework or structure. And this framework is (not transcendent, but) transcendental, which means that it does not “transcend” or go beyond experience, but it is also not itself given to us in experience (since it is always already presupposed by whatever experience we do have). Put this way, it might sound like we are stuck in a vicious circle: if all knowledge comes from experience, then how can we know about something that cannot itself be experienced, because it precedes and conditions any experience? Kant’s answer is to make a self-reflexive move (one that, after him, becomes characteristic of nearly all modern, or modernist, philosophy/theory): to have thought reflect back upon itself, to question itself, to scrutinize its own powers and limits. This is what he means by “critique.”

So far so good. But the particular way in which Kant does critique is not necessarily followed by his successors. Michel Foucault (in “A Preface to Transgression,” one of his best and most underrated articles) refers to “that opening made by Kant in Western philosophy when he articulated, in a manner that is still enigmatic, metaphysical discourse and reflection on the limits of our reason.” But Foucault goes on to say that Kant failed to sustain this “opening”; and that the two opposed lines of thought that followed Kant — “anthropology” (by which I think Foucault means positivistic scientific examination of Man as just another empirical object: which goes from 19th century positivism to so-called “evolutionary psychology” today) and “dialectics” (by which Foucault means Hegel and all the speculative thought that follows in his wake, thought that is overly subject-centered, that replaces Man, or his Reason, as the foundational point of speculation, and that concentrates on “the play of contradiction and totality” instead of upon Kant’s enigmatic self-questioning) — both repressed Kant’s “opening” and thereby returned to the overweening rationalism that Kant had rejected. The double bind of these two kinds of thought constructs “Man” as what Foucault, in The Order of Things, calls an “empirico-transcendental doublet.” In Foucault’s account, Kant is responsible for instituting this double bind — it is his solution to the conflicting claims of rationalism and empiricism — but Kant also offers a way out of it, a step back from it, a practice of “contestation” that avoids the dogmatisms of both positivism and dialectics.

This is where Karatani comes in and takes a fresh look at Kant. Karatani reads Kant’s “transcendental deduction” (his establishment of space, time, and causality as the transcendental preconditions of experience, in the first half of the First Critique) in the light of two other sections of the Critiques that are usually considered entirely separately: 1)the “Transcendental Dialectic” that forms the second half of the First Critique, and particularly Kant’s discussion of the Antinomies of Reason, cosmological ideas that come in contradictory pairs, which ultimately have to be judged as either both true (in different senses) or both false; and 2)Kant’s discussion of the problem of aesthetic taste, in his “Analytic of the Beautiful” in the Third Critique. (These are in fact the two sections of Kant’s works that I have been trying to work with, and work through, for over a decade; which in part explains why I found Karatani’s book such a revelation).

Kant’s Preface to the first edition of the Critique of Pure Reason begins with a discussion of the “peculiar fate” of human reason, “troubled by questions that it cannot dismiss… but also cannot answer.” This already suggests that the concerns of the “Transcendental Dialectic” are crucial to Kant from the beginning; and Karatani thereby reads the first half of the First Critique in the light of the second half. That is to say, you can’t separate Kant’s establishment of the actual conditions of our understanding from his concern to elucidate our unavoidable drive to always push beyond these conditions. One common way to read Kant is to say that he is a legislator, dictatorially setting forth the boundaries beyond which we must not push. But Karatani reverses this, suggesting that Kant’s experience of the discordances that come from pushing too far (in the second half of the First Critique) are themselves the positive basis of the limits that he sets up in the first half. The Antinomies of Reason are contradictory propositions (“the world is bounded in time and in space” vs. “the world is infinite as regards both time and space”) both of which seem valid from their own perspectives, but which cannot be true simultaneously. Kant’s “resolution” of these Antinomies is emphatically NOT to play them off each other as mutual negations, and thereby to “sublate” them into a higher formulation that self-reflexively incorporates both (which is the “dialectical” procedure later adopted by Hegel); rather, Kant shuttles back and forth between the perspectives of the two contradictory arguments, and establishes what he calls a “parallax” between them. That is to say, it is the unresolvable disjunction between the two perspectives, their otherness with regard to one another, so that they cannot be reconciled or made adequate to one another — it is this disjunction that opens up Kant’s “transcendental” reflection, and that provides the positive basis for the conditions presupposed by all experience.

Another way to put this is that the “resolution” to the Antinomies never happens all at once; each perspective can be addressed by “bracketing” the other one; but then we need to invert the procedure, and bracket what we previously privileged. This shunting back and forth is what Karatani means by “parallax.” And there is no higher synthesis of these contrasting bracketings, which is why, for Karatani, Kant’s critique is always a “transcritique,” a transversal movement from one perspective, or realm of experience, to another, without ever coming to a definitive fixity, or even a meta-level, a higher point of self-reflection. This lack of any fixity is why Kant’s transcendental conditions are always purely formal, rather than having any positive content (this holds true, of course, for Kant’s elucidation of morality in the Second Critique, as well as his elucidation of empirical understanding in the First); and it is why Kant insists that the Ideas of Reason can only have a “regulative” rather than a “constitutive” role — that is to say, why they can be used heuristically as a guide to our investigations, but not substantively as the actual inner principle of what we discover.

Now, Zizek actually gives a pretty good account of Karatani’s logic of the parallax, in his review of the book that Jodi cites (and provides a pdf for). And, after quoting Zizek’s paraphrase at length, Jodi is acute enough to remark: “Everybody is probably freaking out at this point, jumping up and down and screaming, BUT HOW DOES THIS WORK WITH HEGEL?” — My answer would be, precisely, that it doesn’t work with Hegel. Kant refuses to turn the Antinomies into negations; his reciprocal “bracketings” of the opposed perspectives do not interact with one another in the way that negations do in Hegel; there is no “labor of the negative” here. Rather, the basis of parallax is the stubborn positivity of both of its terms. This is precisely where Kant refuses (in Foucault’s term) to transform the “limit” into negativity, or into “the play of contradiction and totality.” This parallax is thereby the point at which Kant absolutely resists being subsumed into Hegel’s system, in the way that Hegel and Zizek want him to. Jodi answers her own question by saying, along with Zizek, that “the movement of negativity through Hegel is a kind of parallax, an account of the way ‘reality’ itself is caught in the movement of our knowing of it (and vice versa).” But this seems to me to be exactly wrong. To say that ‘reality’ itself is caught in the movement of our knowing of it is equivalent to saying that the Ideas of Reason can be used constitutively, and not just regulatively. Kant’s and Karatani’s parallax refuses such a move, and thus operates according to an entirely different logic than that of negativity. (Another way to put this: parallax doesn’t equate with negativity, but it also doesn’t negate negativity either — which would be a way of reinserting it into the Hegelian dialectic after all. Rather, it is radically other — oblique or orthogonal — to the movement of negativity).

(I should also note, given Zizek’s interest in Karatani, that although I think Kant/Karatani cannot be recuperated in Hegelian terms, it can be brought into a useful connection with Lacan. The trick is to read Lacan in a more Kantian way, instead of a Hegelian one. Karatani himself suggests that Freud and Lacan offer a kind of “transcendental psychology,” and that their criticisms of other sorts of psychology, like Lacan’s denunciation of “ego psychology,” is very much akin to Kant’s deconsruction of rationalist psychology in the Transcendental Dialectic. Karatani even equates “Kantian illusion/Lacanian Imaginary; the form/the Symbolic; the thing-in-itself/the Real” (34). This seems to me to be right, especially seeing Kant’s noumenon or thing-in-itself as equivalent to the unattainable Real in Lacan. But Karatani goes on to say, and I concur, that he finds it more useful to read Freud and Lacan through Kant, than Kant through Freud and Lacan).

The other section of Kant that is especially important to Karatani is the “Analytic of the Beautiful” in the Third Critique. I find this especially important because critical fashion, for the last thirty years at least, has emphasized the Sublime as the crucial moment in Kant’s aesthetics, and has seen his discussion of the Beautiful as uninteresting, old-fashioned, and even as a kind of throwback to pre-critical and pre-Enlightenment thought, as opposed to the supposedly radical concerns of the Sublime. As far as I know (and my reading isn’t deep enough here, so I may well be missing some important recent work) Karatani is the only recent commentator, aside from Melissa McMahon and myself to find critical importance in Kant’s discussion of the Beautiful (for both Melissa’s article and mine, see the volume A Shock To Thought, edited by Brian Massumi). Basically, the Analytic of the Beautiful poses the question of singularity and universality. A judgment that something is beautiful is, according to Kant, completely ungrounded. It cannot be verified or falsified in the way that an empirical judgment of fact can be; nor can it claim absolute, “categorical” validity in the way that moral commandments do. Yet despite being ungrounded, an aesthetic judgment makes an implicit demand for universal assent. This is what separates aesthetic judgments from mere personal preferences. I love coffee ice cream, but that doesn’t mean that I expect (or want) coffee to be everybody else’s favorite flavor. But when I say that Proust is the greatest writer of all time, I am doing a lot more than just expressing a personal preference. Even if I say that this is just my own personal taste, and even if I know very well that Proust is not everybody’s favorite author, the very act of stating that “A la recherche du temps perdu is the greatest novel ever written” implies a claim going beyond the statement that it things are this way “for me.” Aesthetic judgments have no objective basis, but neither are they merely subjective. They are entirely singular — each case of judgment is unique, there are no broader rules under which aesthetic judgments can be subsumed, in the way that both empirical judgments and moral commands get subsumed under rules. And yet these aesthetic judgments claim universality, if only by the very way in which they are uttered.

Aesthetic judgment is crucial for Kant, Karatani argues, because it is the very place where the question of the “transcendental” first becomes problematic. In aesthetic judgment, singularity communicates with universality without any intermediate terms. There are no hierarchies of particulars and generalities, of species and genus; there is also no process of dialectical “mediation.” An aesthetic judgment can neither be generalized, nor mediated. Instead, each aesthetic judgment is a uniuqe; each one makes a claim upon others, upon the Other, without being able to appeal to any prior justification in order to back up or enforce this claim.

The problem of aesthetic taste in the Third Critique thus leads to an Antinomy, formally parallel to the Antinomies of the First Critique. Karatani suggests that these Antinomies, in their perpetual tension, are in fact the ungrounded “grounds” of the positive transcendental conditions derived in the first half of the First Critique. Though epistemology, the problem of cognition, comes first in the overt development of Kant’s system, and aesthetics comes in only much later, Karatani argues in effect that aesthetics is logically and ontologically prior to epistemology and cognition. For aesthetics is the place where questions of singularity and universality, and of the Other, are initially posed; and these are all necessary to the development of positive “transcendental” arguments.

In the “Analytic of the Beautiful,” as well, Kant distinguishes the claimed universality of singular aesthetic judgments from the general agreement that is the result of what he calls a sensus communis, that is to say of “common sense.” For Kant, the existence of the sensus communis is important in that it makes processes of communication and recognition possible. But the important thing about aesthetic judgment is that, although it relies upon the sensus communis, it cannot be reduced to sensus communis. “Common sense” is entirely empirical; it denotes something like the commonly accepted presuppositions, the consensus, of a given society or community. That is to say, it is something like “ideology.” But transcendental conditions can never be reduced to merely empirical ones, therefore they cannot come in the form of consensus. Transcendental reflection, as “transcritique,” must to the contrary move between incompatible and irreconcilable positions or “common senses.” Which is why all judgment, or all transcendental reflection, ultimately refers back to the paradoxes of aesthetic judgment.

I will stop here, and reserve the second half of my summary, Karatani’s reading of Marx, for another post.

Kojin Karatani‘s Transcritique is the most useful and important book of philosophy/theory that I have read in some time. (Thanks, Jodi, for pointing me to the book, and to Zizek’s review of it). I mean useful and important to me; it might be too narrow and specialized in focus for people who don’t share my particular preoccupations. For years I have been struggling to find ways to articulate Marx together with Kant: and that is precisely what Karatani accomplishes here. Karatani’s rereading of Marx’s Capital for the twenty-first century is not as sweeping as that of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri; nor does it have the vivacity and seductive wit of Zizek’s recent Marxist speculations. But perhaps it offers a more lucid account than either of what it really means to be encompassed on all sides, as we are today, by the flows of Capital, and by the supposed “rationality” of the Market.

In what follows, in order to explain Karatani I am going to move very slowly, and throw in a bit of Philosophy 101, just so that I can pin things down, and clarify them for myself, as carefully as possible. So please be patient, and bear with me.

Karatani’s basic move is to read Marx’s “critique of political economy” (the subtitle of Capital) as a “critique” in precisely the sense of Kant’s three Critiques. But what does Kant himself mean by critique — in contrast to the multifarious meanings the word has taken on in the two-hundred-odd years since? Most obviously, Kant asks the “transcendental” question: “what are the conditions of our experience?” For Kant, “all cognition begins with experience”; there are no supernatural or transcendent sources of knowledge. But experience (sensory data, perception, etc) does not itself come to us raw: it is always already structured in some way. Sense perceptions and other experiences already have a certain framework or structure. And this framework is (not transcendent, but) transcendental, which means that it does not “transcend” or go beyond experience, but it is also not itself given to us in experience (since it is always already presupposed by whatever experience we do have). Put this way, it might sound like we are stuck in a vicious circle: if all knowledge comes from experience, then how can we know about something that cannot itself be experienced, because it precedes and conditions any experience? Kant’s answer is to make a self-reflexive move (one that, after him, becomes characteristic of nearly all modern, or modernist, philosophy/theory): to have thought reflect back upon itself, to question itself, to scrutinize its own powers and limits. This is what he means by “critique.”

So far so good. But the particular way in which Kant does critique is not necessarily followed by his successors. Michel Foucault (in “A Preface to Transgression,” one of his best and most underrated articles) refers to “that opening made by Kant in Western philosophy when he articulated, in a manner that is still enigmatic, metaphysical discourse and reflection on the limits of our reason.” But Foucault goes on to say that Kant failed to sustain this “opening”; and that the two opposed lines of thought that followed Kant — “anthropology” (by which I think Foucault means positivistic scientific examination of Man as just another empirical object: which goes from 19th century positivism to so-called “evolutionary psychology” today) and “dialectics” (by which Foucault means Hegel and all the speculative thought that follows in his wake, thought that is overly subject-centered, that replaces Man, or his Reason, as the foundational point of speculation, and that concentrates on “the play of contradiction and totality” instead of upon Kant’s enigmatic self-questioning) — both repressed Kant’s “opening” and thereby returned to the overweening rationalism that Kant had rejected. The double bind of these two kinds of thought constructs “Man” as what Foucault, in The Order of Things, calls an “empirico-transcendental doublet.” In Foucault’s account, Kant is responsible for instituting this double bind — it is his solution to the conflicting claims of rationalism and empiricism — but Kant also offers a way out of it, a step back from it, a practice of “contestation” that avoids the dogmatisms of both positivism and dialectics.

This is where Karatani comes in and takes a fresh look at Kant. Karatani reads Kant’s “transcendental deduction” (his establishment of space, time, and causality as the transcendental preconditions of experience, in the first half of the First Critique) in the light of two other sections of the Critiques that are usually considered entirely separately: 1)the “Transcendental Dialectic” that forms the second half of the First Critique, and particularly Kant’s discussion of the Antinomies of Reason, cosmological ideas that come in contradictory pairs, which ultimately have to be judged as either both true (in different senses) or both false; and 2)Kant’s discussion of the problem of aesthetic taste, in his “Analytic of the Beautiful” in the Third Critique. (These are in fact the two sections of Kant’s works that I have been trying to work with, and work through, for over a decade; which in part explains why I found Karatani’s book such a revelation).

Kant’s Preface to the first edition of the Critique of Pure Reason begins with a discussion of the “peculiar fate” of human reason, “troubled by questions that it cannot dismiss… but also cannot answer.” This already suggests that the concerns of the “Transcendental Dialectic” are crucial to Kant from the beginning; and Karatani thereby reads the first half of the First Critique in the light of the second half. That is to say, you can’t separate Kant’s establishment of the actual conditions of our understanding from his concern to elucidate our unavoidable drive to always push beyond these conditions. One common way to read Kant is to say that he is a legislator, dictatorially setting forth the boundaries beyond which we must not push. But Karatani reverses this, suggesting that Kant’s experience of the discordances that come from pushing too far (in the second half of the First Critique) are themselves the positive basis of the limits that he sets up in the first half. The Antinomies of Reason are contradictory propositions (“the world is bounded in time and in space” vs. “the world is infinite as regards both time and space”) both of which seem valid from their own perspectives, but which cannot be true simultaneously. Kant’s “resolution” of these Antinomies is emphatically NOT to play them off each other as mutual negations, and thereby to “sublate” them into a higher formulation that self-reflexively incorporates both (which is the “dialectical” procedure later adopted by Hegel); rather, Kant shuttles back and forth between the perspectives of the two contradictory arguments, and establishes what he calls a “parallax” between them. That is to say, it is the unresolvable disjunction between the two perspectives, their otherness with regard to one another, so that they cannot be reconciled or made adequate to one another — it is this disjunction that opens up Kant’s “transcendental” reflection, and that provides the positive basis for the conditions presupposed by all experience.

Another way to put this is that the “resolution” to the Antinomies never happens all at once; each perspective can be addressed by “bracketing” the other one; but then we need to invert the procedure, and bracket what we previously privileged. This shunting back and forth is what Karatani means by “parallax.” And there is no higher synthesis of these contrasting bracketings, which is why, for Karatani, Kant’s critique is always a “transcritique,” a transversal movement from one perspective, or realm of experience, to another, without ever coming to a definitive fixity, or even a meta-level, a higher point of self-reflection. This lack of any fixity is why Kant’s transcendental conditions are always purely formal, rather than having any positive content (this holds true, of course, for Kant’s elucidation of morality in the Second Critique, as well as his elucidation of empirical understanding in the First); and it is why Kant insists that the Ideas of Reason can only have a “regulative” rather than a “constitutive” role — that is to say, why they can be used heuristically as a guide to our investigations, but not substantively as the actual inner principle of what we discover.

Now, Zizek actually gives a pretty good account of Karatani’s logic of the parallax, in his review of the book that Jodi cites (and provides a pdf for). And, after quoting Zizek’s paraphrase at length, Jodi is acute enough to remark: “Everybody is probably freaking out at this point, jumping up and down and screaming, BUT HOW DOES THIS WORK WITH HEGEL?” — My answer would be, precisely, that it doesn’t work with Hegel. Kant refuses to turn the Antinomies into negations; his reciprocal “bracketings” of the opposed perspectives do not interact with one another in the way that negations do in Hegel; there is no “labor of the negative” here. Rather, the basis of parallax is the stubborn positivity of both of its terms. This is precisely where Kant refuses (in Foucault’s term) to transform the “limit” into negativity, or into “the play of contradiction and totality.” This parallax is thereby the point at which Kant absolutely resists being subsumed into Hegel’s system, in the way that Hegel and Zizek want him to. Jodi answers her own question by saying, along with Zizek, that “the movement of negativity through Hegel is a kind of parallax, an account of the way ‘reality’ itself is caught in the movement of our knowing of it (and vice versa).” But this seems to me to be exactly wrong. To say that ‘reality’ itself is caught in the movement of our knowing of it is equivalent to saying that the Ideas of Reason can be used constitutively, and not just regulatively. Kant’s and Karatani’s parallax refuses such a move, and thus operates according to an entirely different logic than that of negativity. (Another way to put this: parallax doesn’t equate with negativity, but it also doesn’t negate negativity either — which would be a way of reinserting it into the Hegelian dialectic after all. Rather, it is radically other — oblique or orthogonal — to the movement of negativity).

(I should also note, given Zizek’s interest in Karatani, that although I think Kant/Karatani cannot be recuperated in Hegelian terms, it can be brought into a useful connection with Lacan. The trick is to read Lacan in a more Kantian way, instead of a Hegelian one. Karatani himself suggests that Freud and Lacan offer a kind of “transcendental psychology,” and that their criticisms of other sorts of psychology, like Lacan’s denunciation of “ego psychology,” is very much akin to Kant’s deconsruction of rationalist psychology in the Transcendental Dialectic. Karatani even equates “Kantian illusion/Lacanian Imaginary; the form/the Symbolic; the thing-in-itself/the Real” (34). This seems to me to be right, especially seeing Kant’s noumenon or thing-in-itself as equivalent to the unattainable Real in Lacan. But Karatani goes on to say, and I concur, that he finds it more useful to read Freud and Lacan through Kant, than Kant through Freud and Lacan).

The other section of Kant that is especially important to Karatani is the “Analytic of the Beautiful” in the Third Critique. I find this especially important because critical fashion, for the last thirty years at least, has emphasized the Sublime as the crucial moment in Kant’s aesthetics, and has seen his discussion of the Beautiful as uninteresting, old-fashioned, and even as a kind of throwback to pre-critical and pre-Enlightenment thought, as opposed to the supposedly radical concerns of the Sublime. As far as I know (and my reading isn’t deep enough here, so I may well be missing some important recent work) Karatani is the only recent commentator, aside from Melissa McMahon and myself to find critical importance in Kant’s discussion of the Beautiful (for both Melissa’s article and mine, see the volume A Shock To Thought, edited by Brian Massumi). Basically, the Analytic of the Beautiful poses the question of singularity and universality. A judgment that something is beautiful is, according to Kant, completely ungrounded. It cannot be verified or falsified in the way that an empirical judgment of fact can be; nor can it claim absolute, “categorical” validity in the way that moral commandments do. Yet despite being ungrounded, an aesthetic judgment makes an implicit demand for universal assent. This is what separates aesthetic judgments from mere personal preferences. I love coffee ice cream, but that doesn’t mean that I expect (or want) coffee to be everybody else’s favorite flavor. But when I say that Proust is the greatest writer of all time, I am doing a lot more than just expressing a personal preference. Even if I say that this is just my own personal taste, and even if I know very well that Proust is not everybody’s favorite author, the very act of stating that “A la recherche du temps perdu is the greatest novel ever written” implies a claim going beyond the statement that it things are this way “for me.” Aesthetic judgments have no objective basis, but neither are they merely subjective. They are entirely singular — each case of judgment is unique, there are no broader rules under which aesthetic judgments can be subsumed, in the way that both empirical judgments and moral commands get subsumed under rules. And yet these aesthetic judgments claim universality, if only by the very way in which they are uttered.

Aesthetic judgment is crucial for Kant, Karatani argues, because it is the very place where the question of the “transcendental” first becomes problematic. In aesthetic judgment, singularity communicates with universality without any intermediate terms. There are no hierarchies of particulars and generalities, of species and genus; there is also no process of dialectical “mediation.” An aesthetic judgment can neither be generalized, nor mediated. Instead, each aesthetic judgment is a uniuqe; each one makes a claim upon others, upon the Other, without being able to appeal to any prior justification in order to back up or enforce this claim.

The problem of aesthetic taste in the Third Critique thus leads to an Antinomy, formally parallel to the Antinomies of the First Critique. Karatani suggests that these Antinomies, in their perpetual tension, are in fact the ungrounded “grounds” of the positive transcendental conditions derived in the first half of the First Critique. Though epistemology, the problem of cognition, comes first in the overt development of Kant’s system, and aesthetics comes in only much later, Karatani argues in effect that aesthetics is logically and ontologically prior to epistemology and cognition. For aesthetics is the place where questions of singularity and universality, and of the Other, are initially posed; and these are all necessary to the development of positive “transcendental” arguments.

In the “Analytic of the Beautiful,” as well, Kant distinguishes the claimed universality of singular aesthetic judgments from the general agreement that is the result of what he calls a sensus communis, that is to say of “common sense.” For Kant, the existence of the sensus communis is important in that it makes processes of communication and recognition possible. But the important thing about aesthetic judgment is that, although it relies upon the sensus communis, it cannot be reduced to sensus communis. “Common sense” is entirely empirical; it denotes something like the commonly accepted presuppositions, the consensus, of a given society or community. That is to say, it is something like “ideology.” But transcendental conditions can never be reduced to merely empirical ones, therefore they cannot come in the form of consensus. Transcendental reflection, as “transcritique,” must to the contrary move between incompatible and irreconcilable positions or “common senses.” Which is why all judgment, or all transcendental reflection, ultimately refers back to the paradoxes of aesthetic judgment.

I will stop here, and reserve the second half of my summary, Karatani’s reading of Marx, for another post.

Use-Value and Exchange-Value

Another snippet from The Age of Aesthetics. This time, a little excursion into Marxist theory.

It is fashionable in certain strains of “postmodern” theory to denounce Marx as a metaphysician. Thus Mark C. Taylor discovers a “latent idealism” in Marx: he berates Marx for being unwilling to celebrate “the endless rustle of desire,” as manifested in the ungrounded flows of money and financial markets. Jean-François Lyotard similarly presents a Marx “offended by the perversity of the polymorphous body of capital,” and therefore demanding that this body be “put to death.” More prosaically, Jean Baudrillard describes Marx’s concept of use-value as old-fashioned humanist nostalgia, “the hypothesis of a concrete value beyond the abstraction of exchange-value, a human purpose of the commodity in the moment of its direct relation of utility for a subject.” Just as Derrida convicts metaphysics of trying to preserve presence from the myriad mediations and perversions of writing, so Baudrillard and the others (though not Derrida himself) accuse Marx of trying to preserve use-value — an ostensibly natural, transparent, and proper or literal term — from the dreaded perversions of exchange-value.

I think, however, that it takes a certain ill will to read Marx in this manner. For it is only in the context of commodity production that Marx introduces the idea of use-value in the first place. Things that are not commodities may be “useful in various ways,” but that does not make them use-values. Marx defines ‘usefulness’ pragmatically. Nothing is intrinsically useful in itself. The only indication that a thing is “useful” is the fact that it is actually being used by somebody. Usefulness is socially contingent; it’s a matter of ever-shifting human needs and desires. “The discovery of. . . the manifold uses of things is the work of history.” Marx offers no grounds for making a division between those uses that would be productive, natural and proper, and those that would be wasteful, artificial, and perverse.

It is only when things are commodities, produced for exchange rather than direct consumption — that is to say, when they have exchange-values — that they can be said to have use-values as well. This means that use-value is itself a feature of commodity production, rather than some more authentic state that would get lost or deferred in the course of that production. Though use-value has something to do with “the physical body of the commodity itself,” it is not immediately present in that body. For “use-values are only realized [verwirklicht] in use or in consumption,” just as exchange-values are only realized in sale and purchase. In other words, use-values, like exchange-values, are irreducibly contingent. The “realization” of a value is never guaranteed; there is always the chance that something will go wrong. Goods may languish in a warehouse unsold; or they may fail to satisfy the consumer in the expected manner (a machine breaks down, a piece of fruit goes rotten). This ever-present possibility of failure is what makes crisis endemic to capitalism. The commodity form is intrinsically defined by the gap between these two dimensions of value, by the fact that they never coincide. The duality of use-value and exchange-value drives the whole process of production and circulation.

The difference between use-value and exchange-value is much like that between the aura and technological reproducibility. Just as the aura is a retrospective effect of the mass production that it seems to oppose, so use-value is a retrospective back-projection from the exchange-value that it seems to contradict. It is only in an age of technological reproducibility that it can occur to us to worry about the authenticity of a unique, irreplaceable object; and it is only in an age of ubiquitous commodification that it occurs to us to worry about an object’s usefulness. Thus when Baudrillard writes that use-value “is only the effect of the system of exchange-value, a concept produced and developed by it,” he is not deconstructing Marx as he imagines, but simply repeating Marx’s own argument.

In short, use-value for Marx is not a proper “human purpose” for the object, in contrast to the cold, inhuman abstraction of exchange-value. Rather, use-value is also a kind of reductive abstraction. Use-value is best understood as being something like the ob jective correlative of those “revealed preferences” or “decisions on the margin” so beloved of free-market economists. The use-value of a commodity is the way it embodies “my way, for today” – so that I feel impelled to buy it. Far from seeking to recall us from exchange-value to use-value, then, Marx suggests that use-value is itself a crucial part of the mystique of the commodity-as-fetish. And it’s not Marx, but the neoliberal, free-market economists, who make the mistake of hypostatizing use-value, of endowing it with fundamental meaning, of attributing to it a transparent, “direct relation of utility for a subject.”

Another snippet from The Age of Aesthetics. This time, a little excursion into Marxist theory.

It is fashionable in certain strains of “postmodern” theory to denounce Marx as a metaphysician. Thus Mark C. Taylor discovers a “latent idealism” in Marx: he berates Marx for being unwilling to celebrate “the endless rustle of desire,” as manifested in the ungrounded flows of money and financial markets. Jean-François Lyotard similarly presents a Marx “offended by the perversity of the polymorphous body of capital,” and therefore demanding that this body be “put to death.” More prosaically, Jean Baudrillard describes Marx’s concept of use-value as old-fashioned humanist nostalgia, “the hypothesis of a concrete value beyond the abstraction of exchange-value, a human purpose of the commodity in the moment of its direct relation of utility for a subject.” Just as Derrida convicts metaphysics of trying to preserve presence from the myriad mediations and perversions of writing, so Baudrillard and the others (though not Derrida himself) accuse Marx of trying to preserve use-value — an ostensibly natural, transparent, and proper or literal term — from the dreaded perversions of exchange-value.

I think, however, that it takes a certain ill will to read Marx in this manner. For it is only in the context of commodity production that Marx introduces the idea of use-value in the first place. Things that are not commodities may be “useful in various ways,” but that does not make them use-values. Marx defines ‘usefulness’ pragmatically. Nothing is intrinsically useful in itself. The only indication that a thing is “useful” is the fact that it is actually being used by somebody. Usefulness is socially contingent; it’s a matter of ever-shifting human needs and desires. “The discovery of. . . the manifold uses of things is the work of history.” Marx offers no grounds for making a division between those uses that would be productive, natural and proper, and those that would be wasteful, artificial, and perverse.

It is only when things are commodities, produced for exchange rather than direct consumption — that is to say, when they have exchange-values — that they can be said to have use-values as well. This means that use-value is itself a feature of commodity production, rather than some more authentic state that would get lost or deferred in the course of that production. Though use-value has something to do with “the physical body of the commodity itself,” it is not immediately present in that body. For “use-values are only realized [verwirklicht] in use or in consumption,” just as exchange-values are only realized in sale and purchase. In other words, use-values, like exchange-values, are irreducibly contingent. The “realization” of a value is never guaranteed; there is always the chance that something will go wrong. Goods may languish in a warehouse unsold; or they may fail to satisfy the consumer in the expected manner (a machine breaks down, a piece of fruit goes rotten). This ever-present possibility of failure is what makes crisis endemic to capitalism. The commodity form is intrinsically defined by the gap between these two dimensions of value, by the fact that they never coincide. The duality of use-value and exchange-value drives the whole process of production and circulation.

The difference between use-value and exchange-value is much like that between the aura and technological reproducibility. Just as the aura is a retrospective effect of the mass production that it seems to oppose, so use-value is a retrospective back-projection from the exchange-value that it seems to contradict. It is only in an age of technological reproducibility that it can occur to us to worry about the authenticity of a unique, irreplaceable object; and it is only in an age of ubiquitous commodification that it occurs to us to worry about an object’s usefulness. Thus when Baudrillard writes that use-value “is only the effect of the system of exchange-value, a concept produced and developed by it,” he is not deconstructing Marx as he imagines, but simply repeating Marx’s own argument.

In short, use-value for Marx is not a proper “human purpose” for the object, in contrast to the cold, inhuman abstraction of exchange-value. Rather, use-value is also a kind of reductive abstraction. Use-value is best understood as being something like the ob jective correlative of those “revealed preferences” or “decisions on the margin” so beloved of free-market economists. The use-value of a commodity is the way it embodies “my way, for today” – so that I feel impelled to buy it. Far from seeking to recall us from exchange-value to use-value, then, Marx suggests that use-value is itself a crucial part of the mystique of the commodity-as-fetish. And it’s not Marx, but the neoliberal, free-market economists, who make the mistake of hypostatizing use-value, of endowing it with fundamental meaning, of attributing to it a transparent, “direct relation of utility for a subject.”

Benjamin, Warhol, and the Aura

Andy Warhol’s portraits (and self-portraits) suggest that personality, that unique inner selfhood that each of us cherishes, is just as much a commodity as anything else. Of course, we don’t all become famous and die young like Marilyn Monroe (whose image Warhol reproduced only after her death). But each of us has an exchange value, as a result of which each of us “changes into a thing that transcends sensuousness,” just as Marx says of commodities in general. Every commodity has a fetishistic aura (a pro jection of its exchange-value) that far exceeds its material and utilitarian properties as a mere ob ject (its use-value). In the same way, each of us has an aura that exceeds – and does not coincide with – our own consciousness or experience. As Warhol explains it: “I think ‘aura’ is something that only somebody else can see, and they only see as much of it as they want to. . . You can only see an aura on people you don’t know very
well or don’t know at all.” My aura, Warhol says, is different from my “product,” in much the way that exchange-value differs from use-value. My product is concrete labor, something I make or do through my own agency, like an artist’s paintings or an actress’ performances. My aura is not my product, however, because it is already myself-as -product, myself as I appear to other people, as I am present in the world as an object of exchange. That is to say, my aura is my exchange-value as a celebrity, in a society where everybody is famous for fifteen minutes. My aura is not an attribute, or a consequence, of anything that I actually do. It is independent of my agency, just as it is inaccessible to my awareness. My aura is an expression of how I am “famous for being famous”: like Edie Sedgwick in Warhol’s entourage, or like Paris Hilton today.

Walter Benjamin, of course, opposes the aura to the commodity, in his discussion of “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility.” For Benjamin, the aura is a quality that only exists outside of commodity production and technological reproduction. The aura of a natural ob ject is “the unique apparition of a distance, however near it may be”; that of a work of art is its “here and now. . . its unique existence in a particular place.” In both cases, the aura is a singular presence, associated with cult and ritual; it has a “unique value” and it makes a claim to “authenticity.” Conversely, commodity exchange and technological reproducibility lead to the destruction of uniqueness and authenticity, and hence to the withering of the aura. Benjamin posits the same logic of simulation that is later celebrated by Warhol: “from a photographic plate. . . one can make any number of prints; to ask for the ‘authentic’ print makes no sense.” But where Warhol sees the aura of celebrity as a result of this mutiplication of images, Benjamin only sees a cheap imitation: “film responds to the shriveling of the aura by artificially building up the ‘personality’ outside the studio. The cult of the movie star, fostered by the money of the film industry, preserves that magic of the personality which has long been no more than the putrid magic of its own commodity character.”

But can we really distinguish, as Benjamin wants us to do, between the sublime magic of the authentic work of art, and the “putrid magic” of the commodity? Is the aura of the Mona Lisa any different from the aura of Greta Garbo? In fact, Leonardo and MGM both provide us with images of enigmatic beauty; and we revere both images in the same way. For Walter Pater, the Mona Lisa “is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave. . . and all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes, and lives only in the delicacy with which it has moulded the changing lineaments, and tinged the eyelids and the hands.” Similarly, for Roland Barthes, “Garbo offered to one’s gaze a sort of Platonic Idea of the human creature. . . the essence of her corporeal person [is] descended from a heaven where all things are formed and perfected in the clearest light. . . The essence was not to be degraded, her face was not to have any reality except that of its perfection, which was intellectual even more than formal.” Pater and Barthes alike describe the enigmatic woman as a kind of eternal object, whose impassive perfection is unaffected by its material incarnation, or by the ravages of time. Garbo, like Mona Lisa, manifests a beauty – preserved in paint or celluloid – that stands out over and above her fleshly actuality; and this excess is precisely her aura.

In other words, the cult of the painting and the cult of the movie star are equally artifacts of commodity culture. The Mona Lisa is the most famous painting in the world; this is equivalent to saying that it is the most frequently reproduced. We would not be able to experience the aura of the singular painting that sits in the Louvre, if we had not seen its image reproduced so many times in books, on postcards, even on film and television. The heart of Benjamin’s argument is that “the whole sphere of authenticity eludes technological – and, of course, not only technological – reproducibility.” But that is precisely the point: the authenticity of the original Mona Lisa can only be perceived by way of contrast to its many inadequate, inauthentic replications. You can’t have one side of this duality without the other. And the case of Garbo is exactly the same, except that here the authentic original is not her portrait, but her soul. The enigma of Garbo’s personality – the mystery of the woman who wants to be alone – is generated by the multiple reproductions of her image in the movies. If this is a “putrid magic,” then so is that of Leonardo’s portrait. We may doubt whether the Mona Lisa even had an aura, before the invention of photography caused copies of it to be widely disseminated. (Benjamin indeed refers to “the kinds and numbers of copies made of it in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries”; these would of course include pre-photographic copies, in the form of drawings, engravings, and woodcuts). In any case, the aura is not an earlier mode of being, destroyed by the rise of technological reproducibility. Rather, the aura is itself a product of technological reproducibility, a kind of obverse or back-formation. It is only ever apprehended retrospectively, and by contrast.

In other words, the entire drama of the aura and its decay, or what Benjamin also calls the movement from “cult value” to “exhibition value,” is internal to the commodity form itself. Technological reproducibility itself is a consequence of commodity production and circulation, rather than the reverse (a point on which Benjamin remains ambiguous). Once full-fledged commodity exchange has taken hold, it is no longer possible to refer back to an earlier (pre-captialist or pre-industrial) state of things. We can only grasp that earlier state of things in commodity terms; for as Benjamin elsewhere writes, “even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he is victorious. And this enemy has never ceased to be victorious.” So what Benjamin describes in terms of historical process is actually a static duality, frozen in the Eternal Now of consumer/celebrity culture. Your aura is different from your product, Warhol says, but both of them are for sale. The difference between them is this. As Marx says in his description of commodity fetishism, relations between human beings – relations of labor and production – are transformed into “ob jective characteristics of the products of labour themselves.” My labor is embodied in my product; and to the extent that this labor is “work for hire,” this product is then taken away from me. And that is how it becomes a fetish. But the aura is not a product. In their auras, human beings actually are “things,” rather than just having their labor (and the social relations that determine that labor)
“alienated” from them and congealed into the form of things. It is not in exchanging products, but only by selling and buying auras, that, in Benjamin’s words, we reach such an extreme point of “self-alienation” that “humankind, which once, in Homer, was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, has now become one for itself.”

Andy Warhol’s portraits (and self-portraits) suggest that personality, that unique inner selfhood that each of us cherishes, is just as much a commodity as anything else. Of course, we don’t all become famous and die young like Marilyn Monroe (whose image Warhol reproduced only after her death). But each of us has an exchange value, as a result of which each of us “changes into a thing that transcends sensuousness,” just as Marx says of commodities in general. Every commodity has a fetishistic aura (a pro jection of its exchange-value) that far exceeds its material and utilitarian properties as a mere ob ject (its use-value). In the same way, each of us has an aura that exceeds – and does not coincide with – our own consciousness or experience. As Warhol explains it: “I think ‘aura’ is something that only somebody else can see, and they only see as much of it as they want to. . . You can only see an aura on people you don’t know very
well or don’t know at all.” My aura, Warhol says, is different from my “product,” in much the way that exchange-value differs from use-value. My product is concrete labor, something I make or do through my own agency, like an artist’s paintings or an actress’ performances. My aura is not my product, however, because it is already myself-as -product, myself as I appear to other people, as I am present in the world as an object of exchange. That is to say, my aura is my exchange-value as a celebrity, in a society where everybody is famous for fifteen minutes. My aura is not an attribute, or a consequence, of anything that I actually do. It is independent of my agency, just as it is inaccessible to my awareness. My aura is an expression of how I am “famous for being famous”: like Edie Sedgwick in Warhol’s entourage, or like Paris Hilton today.

Walter Benjamin, of course, opposes the aura to the commodity, in his discussion of “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility.” For Benjamin, the aura is a quality that only exists outside of commodity production and technological reproduction. The aura of a natural ob ject is “the unique apparition of a distance, however near it may be”; that of a work of art is its “here and now. . . its unique existence in a particular place.” In both cases, the aura is a singular presence, associated with cult and ritual; it has a “unique value” and it makes a claim to “authenticity.” Conversely, commodity exchange and technological reproducibility lead to the destruction of uniqueness and authenticity, and hence to the withering of the aura. Benjamin posits the same logic of simulation that is later celebrated by Warhol: “from a photographic plate. . . one can make any number of prints; to ask for the ‘authentic’ print makes no sense.” But where Warhol sees the aura of celebrity as a result of this mutiplication of images, Benjamin only sees a cheap imitation: “film responds to the shriveling of the aura by artificially building up the ‘personality’ outside the studio. The cult of the movie star, fostered by the money of the film industry, preserves that magic of the personality which has long been no more than the putrid magic of its own commodity character.”

But can we really distinguish, as Benjamin wants us to do, between the sublime magic of the authentic work of art, and the “putrid magic” of the commodity? Is the aura of the Mona Lisa any different from the aura of Greta Garbo? In fact, Leonardo and MGM both provide us with images of enigmatic beauty; and we revere both images in the same way. For Walter Pater, the Mona Lisa “is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave. . . and all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes, and lives only in the delicacy with which it has moulded the changing lineaments, and tinged the eyelids and the hands.” Similarly, for Roland Barthes, “Garbo offered to one’s gaze a sort of Platonic Idea of the human creature. . . the essence of her corporeal person [is] descended from a heaven where all things are formed and perfected in the clearest light. . . The essence was not to be degraded, her face was not to have any reality except that of its perfection, which was intellectual even more than formal.” Pater and Barthes alike describe the enigmatic woman as a kind of eternal object, whose impassive perfection is unaffected by its material incarnation, or by the ravages of time. Garbo, like Mona Lisa, manifests a beauty – preserved in paint or celluloid – that stands out over and above her fleshly actuality; and this excess is precisely her aura.

In other words, the cult of the painting and the cult of the movie star are equally artifacts of commodity culture. The Mona Lisa is the most famous painting in the world; this is equivalent to saying that it is the most frequently reproduced. We would not be able to experience the aura of the singular painting that sits in the Louvre, if we had not seen its image reproduced so many times in books, on postcards, even on film and television. The heart of Benjamin’s argument is that “the whole sphere of authenticity eludes technological – and, of course, not only technological – reproducibility.” But that is precisely the point: the authenticity of the original Mona Lisa can only be perceived by way of contrast to its many inadequate, inauthentic replications. You can’t have one side of this duality without the other. And the case of Garbo is exactly the same, except that here the authentic original is not her portrait, but her soul. The enigma of Garbo’s personality – the mystery of the woman who wants to be alone – is generated by the multiple reproductions of her image in the movies. If this is a “putrid magic,” then so is that of Leonardo’s portrait. We may doubt whether the Mona Lisa even had an aura, before the invention of photography caused copies of it to be widely disseminated. (Benjamin indeed refers to “the kinds and numbers of copies made of it in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries”; these would of course include pre-photographic copies, in the form of drawings, engravings, and woodcuts). In any case, the aura is not an earlier mode of being, destroyed by the rise of technological reproducibility. Rather, the aura is itself a product of technological reproducibility, a kind of obverse or back-formation. It is only ever apprehended retrospectively, and by contrast.

In other words, the entire drama of the aura and its decay, or what Benjamin also calls the movement from “cult value” to “exhibition value,” is internal to the commodity form itself. Technological reproducibility itself is a consequence of commodity production and circulation, rather than the reverse (a point on which Benjamin remains ambiguous). Once full-fledged commodity exchange has taken hold, it is no longer possible to refer back to an earlier (pre-captialist or pre-industrial) state of things. We can only grasp that earlier state of things in commodity terms; for as Benjamin elsewhere writes, “even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he is victorious. And this enemy has never ceased to be victorious.” So what Benjamin describes in terms of historical process is actually a static duality, frozen in the Eternal Now of consumer/celebrity culture. Your aura is different from your product, Warhol says, but both of them are for sale. The difference between them is this. As Marx says in his description of commodity fetishism, relations between human beings – relations of labor and production – are transformed into “ob jective characteristics of the products of labour themselves.” My labor is embodied in my product; and to the extent that this labor is “work for hire,” this product is then taken away from me. And that is how it becomes a fetish. But the aura is not a product. In their auras, human beings actually are “things,” rather than just having their labor (and the social relations that determine that labor)
“alienated” from them and congealed into the form of things. It is not in exchanging products, but only by selling and buying auras, that, in Benjamin’s words, we reach such an extreme point of “self-alienation” that “humankind, which once, in Homer, was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, has now become one for itself.”

Mark Anthony Neal on Jay-Z

I am happy to announce the second DeRoy Lecture of the 2005-2006 school year. Mark Anthony Neal, professor of Black Popular Culture at Duke University, and author of books on hip hop, r&b, and “black masculinity,” will be speaking about Jay-Z.

The talk is tomorrow, Thursday, October 20, at 3pm, at Wayne State University in the English Department Conference Room (suite 10302, 5057 Woodward).

I am happy to announce the second DeRoy Lecture of the 2005-2006 school year. Mark Anthony Neal, professor of Black Popular Culture at Duke University, and author of books on hip hop, r&b, and “black masculinity,” will be speaking about Jay-Z.

The talk is tomorrow, Thursday, October 20, at 3pm, at Wayne State University in the English Department Conference Room (suite 10302, 5057 Woodward).

A History of Violence

I’m not sure how much I can add, belatedly, to what k-punk, girish twice, Chuck, Jodi — followed by k-punk’s reply and Jodi’s counter-replyJonathan Rosenbaum, and others have already said about A History of Violence. But I do think that it is David Cronenberg’s best film since at least Dead Ringers (1988). Quite some time ago, I wrote extensively about the body horror in Cronenberg’s early films: which meant a lot, and still means a lot, to me. I was a bit disappointed, however, about the way that Cronenberg’s distancing himself from genre, in order to embrace “art film,” got in the way of his adaptations of writers with whom he shared a sensibility (William Burroughs and J. G. Ballard). And I was still more disappointed, when, in his more recent films, even though sometimes with increased artistic power, Cronenberg moved away from that explosive sensibility altogether, and towards an implosive concern with the anguish of wounded white male interiority — a subject with which I have little sympathy, as I think that we (since I have to be included as part of that “we”) need to get over it, and go on to more important things than whining over our supposed (more fantasmatic than actually real) loss of privilege. (In fairness, I should note that my friend Bill Beard, in his excellent book on Cronenberg, not only gives a far less pejorative account of this progress, but also argues that such a process was in fact already the real concern of Cronenberg’s earlier films as well, despite all the posthuman exploration that I, among others, have read into them).

The editing of A History of Violence is very tight and powerful, like that of Spider. But the important thing is that A History of Violence for me is that the film is not psychological, not about interiority, in the way Spider definitely still was (and the way many of the Cronenberg films of the last fifteen years or so have been). By “not psychological”, I don’t mean not affective, but that the affect in some way is impersonal or transpersonal. In Spider, dread was tied in to the protagonist’s point of view: a POV that we know is distorted and fantasmatic, but which we cannot escape from, or get an independent perspective on, despite this knowledge. The epistemological deadlock — or better, prison — that is at the heart of that film was reinforced by the way in which the adult protagonist (Ralph Fiennes) appears in the frame as a silent observer of his own psychotically distorted childhood memories.

The editing and pacing of A History of Violence create a similar sense of dread, even when what is explicitly going on (the members of a picture-perfect nuclear family eating breakfast, pouring the dry cereal, etc.) is entirely “normal” and banal. But Viggo Mortensen, playing the protagonist, is so closed off and opaque that we can’t really read (or more accurately: feel) what he’s going through as subjective anguish. (I’m assuming anyone who has read this far has seen the movie, or at least knows the basic premise: Tom Stall, exemplary small-town family man, turns out to have a dark past as Joey Cusack, psychotic mob hit man). As Tom, Mortensen is simply too blank to “identify” with; as Joey, he doesn’t display any of the self-congratulatory feeling that even Clint Eastwood (wonderfully minimal in expression as he is) does ultimately allow himself when he is in vengeful mode. In an email exchange, Bill Beard suggested to me that Cronenberg and Mortensen are operating by subtraction: “A History of Violence produces something radical simply by subtracting standard conduits of viewer empathy from what is unmistakably a mainstream-movie framework.” So we get, for instance, generic small-town Americana such as is found in the paintings of Norman Rockwell, and in the films of Frank Capra and (more recently) Steven Spielberg; everything is literally as it is supposed to be, but some dimension of warmth (or smarminess) is unaccountably missing, and this makes it all rather creepy. I’d only add to Beard’s account that the greatness of Mortensen’s acting, in particular, lies in the way he switches from one to the other of his two ‘characters’ or personalities, so that ultimately he seems to be trapped in a no-man’s-land between them. He’s a man without qualities, which is why both of his personas seem unpsychological. The conventional way to tell this story would be to make one of the personas more basic, more in depth, revealing the other persona to be just a mask; but this is precisely what Cronenberg refuses to do.

All this is even more evident in the two extraordinary sex scenes between Mortensen’s character and his wife Edie (Maria Bello), which are at the heart of the movie. The first involves playacting, as Edie drags Mortensen-as-Tom off to a secret tryst in the course of which she dresses as a cheerleader, and they pretend to be making out while their (whose? hers, I think) parents are sleeping in the next room. The second is when Mortensen-as-Joey drags Edie down the stairs and brutally fucks her in what is at least a near-rape (she ultimately seems to consent, though it’s clear that she continues to feel loathing as much as desire). What unites these two opposed scenes is that they both seem similarly distanced and performative, except that there is no sense of any realer or truer self behind the mask of the performance. The first scene is a parody of what adolescence is supposed to be like; the second is a parody of what maturity or adulthood all too often turns out to be like. This is why I felt a bit queasy during the first scene, and found it almost as disturbing as the second one. Both scenes suggest a kind of void, and a failure of contact: the two people never really come together. (Is this what Lacan meant by declaring that “there is no sexual relation”?). It’s not a void that one can feel anguished about, however; for the selfhood, or sense of “thrownness” at least, that would allow one to feel anguish is precisely what is missing, what has been replaced by a void.

All this is to say that the split or doubling in A History of Violence is ontological, rather than existential or psychological. The split between Tom and Joey, and between the two sex scenes, of course corresponds to the two worlds of the film, both of which are themselves cinematic — and thereby social — fantasies: the wholesome, Capraesque or Spielbergesque small town (Ronald Reagan’s America, or George W. Bush’s red states) on the one hand, and the big-city-at-nighttime on the other. (I initially thought of film noir for these scenes; but on further reflection I’m reminded more of the big city in violent-revenge-fantasy films like Charles Bronson’s Death Wish, or, more recently, Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s Sin City — it’s not irrelevant that A History of Violence, like Sin City, is an adaptation of material that first appeared in comic book form).

The result is that A History of Violence offers us a kind of spookily abstract modeling of cultural formations: of American fantasies about family, the good life, violence, empowerment, and self-reinvention: and in particular of how these participate in the construction of masculinity. This is very different from exploring the disintegration of masculinity — or of American culture, for that matter — from the inside. I call this ‘abstract modeling’ not just because Cronenberg’s presentation is so distanced and subtractive, but also because in a very real sense the abstraction is all that there is: the “inside” — something more personal and subjective, that would give the abstraction existential density and individual quirkiness and variability — simply doesn’t exist. This is Cronenberg’s version of postmodern flatness: the depths do not exist, everything is visible and apparent. This also explains the title of the film: this move really is a “history,” in the sense that it tracks the emergence of violence, and the different forms it takes at different times and in different circumstances. Violence is generated — almost as a autonomic effect — out of tiny rifts in the social fabric, or in the fabric of social myth (I mean, in the myth of noir as much as in the myth of wholesome “we take care of our own” Americana). This is why we get the story of Jack (Ashton Holmes), Tom’s teenage son, who erupts with violence in a parallel way to his father: as if what came back out of the past in the father’s case were generated as it were spontaneously, out of his very need to struggle, as an adolescent, with the (entirely stereotypical) problems of autonomy from the father and coming to terms with normative formations of masculinity. (I think that Jodi’s reading of the film as the son’s fantasy is valuable in the way it works out the son’s perspective; but I don’t accept it as an overall reading of the film, because it overly psychologizes the film and privileges the son’s perspective more than the film itself does, and thereby gives that perspective too much existential weight, ignoring how the film suggests it is just another social cliche, another purely superficial mode of articulating an otherwise blank subjectivity).

To say that A History of Violence is ontological and historical, rather than existential and psychological; and to say that it shows violence to be itself a surface or superficial effect of a structure or abstract model that is itself all surfaces (I’m calling it a “structure”, but the point of this is precisely that there is no underlying “deep structure” in any sense of the term): to say all this is also to say that the dichotomy or structural opposition that the film presents us with is false, and that the film ‘deconstructs’ the opposition, rather than affirming it. In other words, A History of Violence is like a Moebius strip. At any given point, it seems to have two sides; but the two sides are really the same side, each is continuous with the other, and slides imperceptibly into the other. There is no way to separate the Capra/Spielberg side from the noir/revenge nocturnal side. The common interpretive tendency in cases like this is to see the ‘dark’ side as the deep, hidden underside of the ‘bright’ side, the depths beneath the seemingly cheerful surface. But in A History of Violence, everything is what it seems. Both sides, both identities, are surfaces; both are ‘superficial’; and they blends into one other almost without our noticing. The small town, with its overly ostentatious friendliness, is a vision of the good life; but brother Richie’s enormous mansion, furnished with a nouveau-riche vulgarity that almost recalls Donald Trump’s penthouse, is also a vision of the good life. In their odd vacancy, they are both quintessentially American (this could be, as Cronenberg has hinted, an allegory of America’s current cultural divide: blue states and red states, which actually are more continuous with one another than anyone on either side recognizes… this is something, perhaps, that only a Canadian could see, as it is invisible both to us Americans, who are too caught up in it, and to people from outside North America, who are too far away).

The Moebius strip would be Cronenberg’s version of the postmodern idea that there are no depths, only surfaces. Or (the same thing, to me) that there are affects, but not identities to be owners of those affects. And this two-sides-as-one would be why/how Cronenberg can be so unrelentingly grim, instead of having to resort to camp, in the ways that David Lynch and Guy Maddin both do (in the ways, I would say, that they are both forced to do, because of the extremities of their visions). K-Punk is right to assert that, for both Cronenberg and Lynch, it’s wrong to explain away the dualities and dichotomies of their films by saying that one side is the dream or fantasy or underside of the other. Rather, we have to grasp the total congruence of the film’s two halves (this comment would apply to Mulholland Drive as much as to A History of Violence. The difference is that where Lynch marks the two sides in the form of manic camp on the one hand and depressive bitterness and paranoia on the other, Cronenberg flattens both of them out, empties them both out. Lynch is thus a maximalist, Cronenberg a minimalist).

To say that Cronenberg’s vision in this film is ontological is also to say that he recognizes no hierarchy of levels. A History of Violence isn’t a film about existential male anguish, precisely because it works equally well, without privileging any one of these, as a study of the vacancy of the isolated inidividual, of the bourgeois nuclear family, of America as a fantasmatic formation or imaginary community, and of the “human condition” in the most general terms. But if it works most bitingly and corrosively on the level of family, this is because the Spielberg/revenge dichotomy-that-isn’t-one, which is Cronenberg’s largest cinematic reference point, tends to play out most overtly in terms of Family. The small town, of course, is grounded on the nuclear family, and its “family values”; Joey became Tom, in large part, by becoming a family man (which is why Edie worries, when she discovers the hidden identity, what the family really is, what their name is or could be). In Philadelphia, Richie makes a speech to Joey/Tom about why and how he never married & would never marry: it ties you down, makes difficulties, if you are married, then when you have a fling with somebody else (as you will inevitably want to do) you will have to do it with elaborate secrecy, etc. All this is a prelude to Richie’s trying to kill Joey, not in spite of, but precisely because of the fact that they are brothers (Richie never got as far in the mob as he wanted to, he says, because his family tie to his crazy brother held him back, just like getting married would). But by the end of the film — the last scene — being a married husband/father/family man is just as hollow as Richie’s life was — and retrospectively, it always was this hollow. Cronenberg rejects and undermines what is to me the one most absolutely offensive thing about all of Spielberg’s films (and about all of Spike Lee’s films too, for that matter): the absolute insistence on taking on the responsibilities of fatherhood, and thus restoration of a 1950s nuclear family, as an unquestionable and totally redemptive gesture. I hated that insistence before I had children; and now that I am a father, I hate it even more. The hollowness of the final scene of A History of Violence — the son getting out a setting for the place of the now-returned father at the dinner table — is devastating in its absolute oppressive rightness.

I’m not sure how much I can add, belatedly, to what k-punk, girish twice, Chuck, Jodi — followed by k-punk’s reply and Jodi’s counter-replyJonathan Rosenbaum, and others have already said about A History of Violence. But I do think that it is David Cronenberg’s best film since at least Dead Ringers (1988). Quite some time ago, I wrote extensively about the body horror in Cronenberg’s early films: which meant a lot, and still means a lot, to me. I was a bit disappointed, however, about the way that Cronenberg’s distancing himself from genre, in order to embrace “art film,” got in the way of his adaptations of writers with whom he shared a sensibility (William Burroughs and J. G. Ballard). And I was still more disappointed, when, in his more recent films, even though sometimes with increased artistic power, Cronenberg moved away from that explosive sensibility altogether, and towards an implosive concern with the anguish of wounded white male interiority — a subject with which I have little sympathy, as I think that we (since I have to be included as part of that “we”) need to get over it, and go on to more important things than whining over our supposed (more fantasmatic than actually real) loss of privilege. (In fairness, I should note that my friend Bill Beard, in his excellent book on Cronenberg, not only gives a far less pejorative account of this progress, but also argues that such a process was in fact already the real concern of Cronenberg’s earlier films as well, despite all the posthuman exploration that I, among others, have read into them).

The editing of A History of Violence is very tight and powerful, like that of Spider. But the important thing is that A History of Violence for me is that the film is not psychological, not about interiority, in the way Spider definitely still was (and the way many of the Cronenberg films of the last fifteen years or so have been). By “not psychological”, I don’t mean not affective, but that the affect in some way is impersonal or transpersonal. In Spider, dread was tied in to the protagonist’s point of view: a POV that we know is distorted and fantasmatic, but which we cannot escape from, or get an independent perspective on, despite this knowledge. The epistemological deadlock — or better, prison — that is at the heart of that film was reinforced by the way in which the adult protagonist (Ralph Fiennes) appears in the frame as a silent observer of his own psychotically distorted childhood memories.

The editing and pacing of A History of Violence create a similar sense of dread, even when what is explicitly going on (the members of a picture-perfect nuclear family eating breakfast, pouring the dry cereal, etc.) is entirely “normal” and banal. But Viggo Mortensen, playing the protagonist, is so closed off and opaque that we can’t really read (or more accurately: feel) what he’s going through as subjective anguish. (I’m assuming anyone who has read this far has seen the movie, or at least knows the basic premise: Tom Stall, exemplary small-town family man, turns out to have a dark past as Joey Cusack, psychotic mob hit man). As Tom, Mortensen is simply too blank to “identify” with; as Joey, he doesn’t display any of the self-congratulatory feeling that even Clint Eastwood (wonderfully minimal in expression as he is) does ultimately allow himself when he is in vengeful mode. In an email exchange, Bill Beard suggested to me that Cronenberg and Mortensen are operating by subtraction: “A History of Violence produces something radical simply by subtracting standard conduits of viewer empathy from what is unmistakably a mainstream-movie framework.” So we get, for instance, generic small-town Americana such as is found in the paintings of Norman Rockwell, and in the films of Frank Capra and (more recently) Steven Spielberg; everything is literally as it is supposed to be, but some dimension of warmth (or smarminess) is unaccountably missing, and this makes it all rather creepy. I’d only add to Beard’s account that the greatness of Mortensen’s acting, in particular, lies in the way he switches from one to the other of his two ‘characters’ or personalities, so that ultimately he seems to be trapped in a no-man’s-land between them. He’s a man without qualities, which is why both of his personas seem unpsychological. The conventional way to tell this story would be to make one of the personas more basic, more in depth, revealing the other persona to be just a mask; but this is precisely what Cronenberg refuses to do.

All this is even more evident in the two extraordinary sex scenes between Mortensen’s character and his wife Edie (Maria Bello), which are at the heart of the movie. The first involves playacting, as Edie drags Mortensen-as-Tom off to a secret tryst in the course of which she dresses as a cheerleader, and they pretend to be making out while their (whose? hers, I think) parents are sleeping in the next room. The second is when Mortensen-as-Joey drags Edie down the stairs and brutally fucks her in what is at least a near-rape (she ultimately seems to consent, though it’s clear that she continues to feel loathing as much as desire). What unites these two opposed scenes is that they both seem similarly distanced and performative, except that there is no sense of any realer or truer self behind the mask of the performance. The first scene is a parody of what adolescence is supposed to be like; the second is a parody of what maturity or adulthood all too often turns out to be like. This is why I felt a bit queasy during the first scene, and found it almost as disturbing as the second one. Both scenes suggest a kind of void, and a failure of contact: the two people never really come together. (Is this what Lacan meant by declaring that “there is no sexual relation”?). It’s not a void that one can feel anguished about, however; for the selfhood, or sense of “thrownness” at least, that would allow one to feel anguish is precisely what is missing, what has been replaced by a void.

All this is to say that the split or doubling in A History of Violence is ontological, rather than existential or psychological. The split between Tom and Joey, and between the two sex scenes, of course corresponds to the two worlds of the film, both of which are themselves cinematic — and thereby social — fantasies: the wholesome, Capraesque or Spielbergesque small town (Ronald Reagan’s America, or George W. Bush’s red states) on the one hand, and the big-city-at-nighttime on the other. (I initially thought of film noir for these scenes; but on further reflection I’m reminded more of the big city in violent-revenge-fantasy films like Charles Bronson’s Death Wish, or, more recently, Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s Sin City — it’s not irrelevant that A History of Violence, like Sin City, is an adaptation of material that first appeared in comic book form).

The result is that A History of Violence offers us a kind of spookily abstract modeling of cultural formations: of American fantasies about family, the good life, violence, empowerment, and self-reinvention: and in particular of how these participate in the construction of masculinity. This is very different from exploring the disintegration of masculinity — or of American culture, for that matter — from the inside. I call this ‘abstract modeling’ not just because Cronenberg’s presentation is so distanced and subtractive, but also because in a very real sense the abstraction is all that there is: the “inside” — something more personal and subjective, that would give the abstraction existential density and individual quirkiness and variability — simply doesn’t exist. This is Cronenberg’s version of postmodern flatness: the depths do not exist, everything is visible and apparent. This also explains the title of the film: this move really is a “history,” in the sense that it tracks the emergence of violence, and the different forms it takes at different times and in different circumstances. Violence is generated — almost as a autonomic effect — out of tiny rifts in the social fabric, or in the fabric of social myth (I mean, in the myth of noir as much as in the myth of wholesome “we take care of our own” Americana). This is why we get the story of Jack (Ashton Holmes), Tom’s teenage son, who erupts with violence in a parallel way to his father: as if what came back out of the past in the father’s case were generated as it were spontaneously, out of his very need to struggle, as an adolescent, with the (entirely stereotypical) problems of autonomy from the father and coming to terms with normative formations of masculinity. (I think that Jodi’s reading of the film as the son’s fantasy is valuable in the way it works out the son’s perspective; but I don’t accept it as an overall reading of the film, because it overly psychologizes the film and privileges the son’s perspective more than the film itself does, and thereby gives that perspective too much existential weight, ignoring how the film suggests it is just another social cliche, another purely superficial mode of articulating an otherwise blank subjectivity).

To say that A History of Violence is ontological and historical, rather than existential and psychological; and to say that it shows violence to be itself a surface or superficial effect of a structure or abstract model that is itself all surfaces (I’m calling it a “structure”, but the point of this is precisely that there is no underlying “deep structure” in any sense of the term): to say all this is also to say that the dichotomy or structural opposition that the film presents us with is false, and that the film ‘deconstructs’ the opposition, rather than affirming it. In other words, A History of Violence is like a Moebius strip. At any given point, it seems to have two sides; but the two sides are really the same side, each is continuous with the other, and slides imperceptibly into the other. There is no way to separate the Capra/Spielberg side from the noir/revenge nocturnal side. The common interpretive tendency in cases like this is to see the ‘dark’ side as the deep, hidden underside of the ‘bright’ side, the depths beneath the seemingly cheerful surface. But in A History of Violence, everything is what it seems. Both sides, both identities, are surfaces; both are ‘superficial’; and they blends into one other almost without our noticing. The small town, with its overly ostentatious friendliness, is a vision of the good life; but brother Richie’s enormous mansion, furnished with a nouveau-riche vulgarity that almost recalls Donald Trump’s penthouse, is also a vision of the good life. In their odd vacancy, they are both quintessentially American (this could be, as Cronenberg has hinted, an allegory of America’s current cultural divide: blue states and red states, which actually are more continuous with one another than anyone on either side recognizes… this is something, perhaps, that only a Canadian could see, as it is invisible both to us Americans, who are too caught up in it, and to people from outside North America, who are too far away).

The Moebius strip would be Cronenberg’s version of the postmodern idea that there are no depths, only surfaces. Or (the same thing, to me) that there are affects, but not identities to be owners of those affects. And this two-sides-as-one would be why/how Cronenberg can be so unrelentingly grim, instead of having to resort to camp, in the ways that David Lynch and Guy Maddin both do (in the ways, I would say, that they are both forced to do, because of the extremities of their visions). K-Punk is right to assert that, for both Cronenberg and Lynch, it’s wrong to explain away the dualities and dichotomies of their films by saying that one side is the dream or fantasy or underside of the other. Rather, we have to grasp the total congruence of the film’s two halves (this comment would apply to Mulholland Drive as much as to A History of Violence. The difference is that where Lynch marks the two sides in the form of manic camp on the one hand and depressive bitterness and paranoia on the other, Cronenberg flattens both of them out, empties them both out. Lynch is thus a maximalist, Cronenberg a minimalist).

To say that Cronenberg’s vision in this film is ontological is also to say that he recognizes no hierarchy of levels. A History of Violence isn’t a film about existential male anguish, precisely because it works equally well, without privileging any one of these, as a study of the vacancy of the isolated inidividual, of the bourgeois nuclear family, of America as a fantasmatic formation or imaginary community, and of the “human condition” in the most general terms. But if it works most bitingly and corrosively on the level of family, this is because the Spielberg/revenge dichotomy-that-isn’t-one, which is Cronenberg’s largest cinematic reference point, tends to play out most overtly in terms of Family. The small town, of course, is grounded on the nuclear family, and its “family values”; Joey became Tom, in large part, by becoming a family man (which is why Edie worries, when she discovers the hidden identity, what the family really is, what their name is or could be). In Philadelphia, Richie makes a speech to Joey/Tom about why and how he never married & would never marry: it ties you down, makes difficulties, if you are married, then when you have a fling with somebody else (as you will inevitably want to do) you will have to do it with elaborate secrecy, etc. All this is a prelude to Richie’s trying to kill Joey, not in spite of, but precisely because of the fact that they are brothers (Richie never got as far in the mob as he wanted to, he says, because his family tie to his crazy brother held him back, just like getting married would). But by the end of the film — the last scene — being a married husband/father/family man is just as hollow as Richie’s life was — and retrospectively, it always was this hollow. Cronenberg rejects and undermines what is to me the one most absolutely offensive thing about all of Spielberg’s films (and about all of Spike Lee’s films too, for that matter): the absolute insistence on taking on the responsibilities of fatherhood, and thus restoration of a 1950s nuclear family, as an unquestionable and totally redemptive gesture. I hated that insistence before I had children; and now that I am a father, I hate it even more. The hollowness of the final scene of A History of Violence — the son getting out a setting for the place of the now-returned father at the dinner table — is devastating in its absolute oppressive rightness.

Accelerando

Charles StrossAccelerando (available for free download here) is a science fiction novel about the Singularity, the hypothesized point when radical increases in computing power — expressed both in neurological enhancements to our brains, and in the development of autonomous artificial intelligences — lead to an absolute discontinuity in history (the word was first used in this sense, as far as I know, by Vernor Vinge). Stross bases his novel on the “strong AI” hypothesis, and the arguments of such enthusiasts as Hans Moravec (who sees the human race as shortly to be surpassed and rendered defunct by artificial intelligences) and Ray Kurzweil (who similarly contends that “within 25 years, we’ll reverse-engineer the brain and go on to develop superintelligence”). Stross doesn’t question these dubious premises, but runs with them in the best SF manner, pushing them to their most delirious consequences. The book is an experiment in thinking through what it might mean to be human in a posthuman world; and beyond that, what it might mean to be (merely) posthuman in a world (or, I should say, solar system or galaxy) in which the development of computation on a massive scale has left anything ‘human’ far behind.

I think that Ken Macleod was the first SF writer to describe the Singularity as “the Rapture, for nerds”; but Stross uses the phrase on several occasions. And indeed there is much of adolescent-boy wish-fulfillment fantasy in the ideas of Moravec and Kurzweil. Getting rid of those pesky bodies, eliminating all of the resistance of materiality to the immediate fulfillment of our desires, guaranteeing us omnipotence and immortality… Stross concedes all of this, in a charmingly offhanded manner. All of information space is wired directly into people’s brains; you can always run subprocesses to consider alternate possibilities (should I have sex with this person? I’ll just run a simulation and see what it will be like); thanks to “programmable matter” and nanomachines, any object you want (food, clothing, shelter, furniture) can be instantaneously produced with just a snap of your fingers. Yet much of the humor of his book comes from the fact that, even with all of this, people are still hopelessly neurotic and confused. As Accelerando traces the history of three (or four, depending on how you evaluate the existence of clones furnished with the memories, as well as the phenotype, of their ancestors) generations of a single family, it keeps on looping back through the same manias, tics, and obsessions, from masochistic abasement to puritanical fear of sexuality to an almost hysterical lust for novelty. Perhaps this is only a longwinded way of saying that, no matter how outrageously manic the plot gets, with sentient lobsters running spaceships in the Oort Belt, and characters who are older than their own mothers, and people who decide to shed their human form and download their intelligence into a flock of pigeons (which gives a whole new meaning to the computer-science idea of “distributed intelligence”), everything seems to fit quite sensibly and ‘naturally’ into the course of things. Stross maintains the idea that human beings are so culturally flexible, so able to adapt to new circumstances, and to imagine alternatives, that almost anything is possible; while at the same time also proposing a vision of human-all-too-human nature stubbornly refusing to give up its primordial instincts, no matter how altered the circumstances and no matter how self-defeating the refusal. His narrative gains its flexibility and fun by walking the tightrope between these contradictory cliches, and refusing the Nietzschean pathos that might come by embracing either.

Accelerando also stands at an odd angle to the ‘utopian’ strain that so many critics (like Fredric Jameson) have seen as central to science fiction. The novel envisions a society of abundance rather than scarcity: but this seems to be the inevitable result of new, powerful technologies, more than it comes from any determined political vision. The only political issue that really seems to trouble the novel’s characters (at least in the earlier stages of the story) is in what circumstances artificial intelligences should be given the right to vote (and relatedly, whether multiple copies of the same personality should be allowed one-instantiation-one-vote). In Stross’s post-Singularity world, everybody is provided free with the basic necessities (which include neural implants and information access, as well as a reasonably comfortable supplies of food, clothing, and shelter). This would seem to be all gain and no pain: poverty is eliminated (as are wars and ethnic and religious conflict) with no need for a corresponding change in our fundamental capitalistic ethos. Relative scarcity, and money, still seem to exist when it comes to luxuries over and above the basic needs; people continue to scheme and plan and compete and act all “entrepreneurial,” even though there doesn’t seem to be much of anything for them to compete about. Actually, this shifts towards the end of the book — since “progress” and ease continue to be projected exponentially onward, eventually we find ourselves in a ‘world’ without State or commerce, and where “life is rich… endlessly varied and sometimes confusing,” but still recognizably grounded in communities of human beings “living in small family groups within larger tribal networks” (359-360). Again, Stross is playing with the paradox of everything changing and yet, fundamentally, nothing changing: a sort-of utopia achieved on the basis of abundance alone, confounding both those conservatives who believe that the fixed nastiness of “human nature” makes any hope of amelioration illusive and even dangerous, and those progressives who pin their hopes of improvement on the need, as well as the capacity, for human beings to fundamentally alter who they are. One of the most brilliant strokes of the book is that, though the Singularity undoubtedly occurs sometime during the course of the narrative (which extends from the year 2010 to what would be, in old Earth terms, the 23rd century), we never ‘see’ it happening, and cannot pin down precisely when it took place. Continuity and radical discontinuity are thus, like these other paradoxes, affirmed simultaneously.

But for me, the best parts of Accelerando have to do, not with its florid imaginings, but with its presentation of what really cannot be imagined. That is to say: its representation of posthuman artificial intelligences, those whose computing power is not limited by our carbon-based biology. These superhuman entities force the remaining enhanced human beings further and further away from the sun, to Jupiter, then to Saturn, then to the Oort Belt, then finally out of the solar system altogether. There isn’t room for both them and us; once they have simulated and assimilated us, they have no further use for us. It isn’t just that we don’t know what they want; beyond this, it is literally impossible for us to imagine what they might want. The scientific and philosophical reason for this is that these entities possess a higher-order consciousness than we do: “a posthuman can build an internal model of a human-level intelligence that is, well, as cognitively strong as the original. You or I may think we know what makes other people tick, but we’re quite often wrong, whereas real posthumans can actually simulate us, inner states and all, and get it right” (376-377). (So much for “the problem of other minds”).

But in terms of the narrative, these posthuman intelligences are like nothing so much as transnational corporations. . Remember that, already today, corporations are “persons” according to the law, even though they are not themselves conscious. Accelerando simply takes this legal fiction to the next level. The posthumans are “slyly self-aware financial instruments” (168) that have freed themselves from merely human parameters. No wonder that, in the course of the novel, they dismantle the solar system, pulverizing the planets and asteroids in order to convert them to computronium. For they strive to extract the maximum value (in the form of computational power) from all matter; their focus is on efficiency, and on the endless expansion and accumulation of computation, with no goal external to this accumulation itself. Money to them is “quantized originality — that which allows one sentient entity to outmaneuver another” (295). No measure of abundance can squelch their drive for competition. They are continually crunching data; for instance, they use all available historical traces to simulate as many as possible of all the human beings who have ever lived; after they’ve extracted what surplus-information they can by running the simulations, they download the “resimulated” (313) human beings back into flesh, where it seems they function as “cognitive antibodies” (340) programmed to keep the remaining augmented humans in line.

The posthumans have upgraded the old-fashioned “free market” to “Economics 2.0,” a system that is “more efficient than any human-designed resource allocation schema” (303). Economics 2.0 “replaces the single-indirection layer of conventional money, and the multiple-indirection mappings of options trades, with some kind of insanely baroque object-relational framework based on the parametrized desires and subjective experiential values of the players” (321). Human intelligence is incapable of participating in Economics 2.0 “without dehumanizing cognitive surgery” (315). In the framework of Economics 2.0, we can only function as “sapient currency units,” stockpiled for trade in “species futures” options (210). And all this seems to be the case, not only in our own solar system, but throughout the galaxy, which is littered with the ruins of superintelligent civilizations that have pushed the mania for accumulation to the point of implosion and extinction. Indeed, when the human protagonists of Accelerando finally meet an alien entity, not only does it take on the material form of a gigantic slug, but it turns out to be, rather hilariously, a “parasitic organism… the Economics 2.0 equivalent of a pyramid scheme crossed with a 419 scam” (295). Never has the classic SF scenario of First Contact with alien life been so deflated. Accelerando suggests (though perhaps not fully intentionally) that, not only is the Singularity near, as Ray Kurzweil maintains, but in fact it has already happened: less through the exponential increase in computing power and telecommunications networking (though that has certainly played a role) than through the neoliberal transformation — the deregulation of corporate activity, and the dismantling of the welfare state — of the last thirty years or so.

Charles StrossAccelerando (available for free download here) is a science fiction novel about the Singularity, the hypothesized point when radical increases in computing power — expressed both in neurological enhancements to our brains, and in the development of autonomous artificial intelligences — lead to an absolute discontinuity in history (the word was first used in this sense, as far as I know, by Vernor Vinge). Stross bases his novel on the “strong AI” hypothesis, and the arguments of such enthusiasts as Hans Moravec (who sees the human race as shortly to be surpassed and rendered defunct by artificial intelligences) and Ray Kurzweil (who similarly contends that “within 25 years, we’ll reverse-engineer the brain and go on to develop superintelligence”). Stross doesn’t question these dubious premises, but runs with them in the best SF manner, pushing them to their most delirious consequences. The book is an experiment in thinking through what it might mean to be human in a posthuman world; and beyond that, what it might mean to be (merely) posthuman in a world (or, I should say, solar system or galaxy) in which the development of computation on a massive scale has left anything ‘human’ far behind.

I think that Ken Macleod was the first SF writer to describe the Singularity as “the Rapture, for nerds”; but Stross uses the phrase on several occasions. And indeed there is much of adolescent-boy wish-fulfillment fantasy in the ideas of Moravec and Kurzweil. Getting rid of those pesky bodies, eliminating all of the resistance of materiality to the immediate fulfillment of our desires, guaranteeing us omnipotence and immortality… Stross concedes all of this, in a charmingly offhanded manner. All of information space is wired directly into people’s brains; you can always run subprocesses to consider alternate possibilities (should I have sex with this person? I’ll just run a simulation and see what it will be like); thanks to “programmable matter” and nanomachines, any object you want (food, clothing, shelter, furniture) can be instantaneously produced with just a snap of your fingers. Yet much of the humor of his book comes from the fact that, even with all of this, people are still hopelessly neurotic and confused. As Accelerando traces the history of three (or four, depending on how you evaluate the existence of clones furnished with the memories, as well as the phenotype, of their ancestors) generations of a single family, it keeps on looping back through the same manias, tics, and obsessions, from masochistic abasement to puritanical fear of sexuality to an almost hysterical lust for novelty. Perhaps this is only a longwinded way of saying that, no matter how outrageously manic the plot gets, with sentient lobsters running spaceships in the Oort Belt, and characters who are older than their own mothers, and people who decide to shed their human form and download their intelligence into a flock of pigeons (which gives a whole new meaning to the computer-science idea of “distributed intelligence”), everything seems to fit quite sensibly and ‘naturally’ into the course of things. Stross maintains the idea that human beings are so culturally flexible, so able to adapt to new circumstances, and to imagine alternatives, that almost anything is possible; while at the same time also proposing a vision of human-all-too-human nature stubbornly refusing to give up its primordial instincts, no matter how altered the circumstances and no matter how self-defeating the refusal. His narrative gains its flexibility and fun by walking the tightrope between these contradictory cliches, and refusing the Nietzschean pathos that might come by embracing either.

Accelerando also stands at an odd angle to the ‘utopian’ strain that so many critics (like Fredric Jameson) have seen as central to science fiction. The novel envisions a society of abundance rather than scarcity: but this seems to be the inevitable result of new, powerful technologies, more than it comes from any determined political vision. The only political issue that really seems to trouble the novel’s characters (at least in the earlier stages of the story) is in what circumstances artificial intelligences should be given the right to vote (and relatedly, whether multiple copies of the same personality should be allowed one-instantiation-one-vote). In Stross’s post-Singularity world, everybody is provided free with the basic necessities (which include neural implants and information access, as well as a reasonably comfortable supplies of food, clothing, and shelter). This would seem to be all gain and no pain: poverty is eliminated (as are wars and ethnic and religious conflict) with no need for a corresponding change in our fundamental capitalistic ethos. Relative scarcity, and money, still seem to exist when it comes to luxuries over and above the basic needs; people continue to scheme and plan and compete and act all “entrepreneurial,” even though there doesn’t seem to be much of anything for them to compete about. Actually, this shifts towards the end of the book — since “progress” and ease continue to be projected exponentially onward, eventually we find ourselves in a ‘world’ without State or commerce, and where “life is rich… endlessly varied and sometimes confusing,” but still recognizably grounded in communities of human beings “living in small family groups within larger tribal networks” (359-360). Again, Stross is playing with the paradox of everything changing and yet, fundamentally, nothing changing: a sort-of utopia achieved on the basis of abundance alone, confounding both those conservatives who believe that the fixed nastiness of “human nature” makes any hope of amelioration illusive and even dangerous, and those progressives who pin their hopes of improvement on the need, as well as the capacity, for human beings to fundamentally alter who they are. One of the most brilliant strokes of the book is that, though the Singularity undoubtedly occurs sometime during the course of the narrative (which extends from the year 2010 to what would be, in old Earth terms, the 23rd century), we never ‘see’ it happening, and cannot pin down precisely when it took place. Continuity and radical discontinuity are thus, like these other paradoxes, affirmed simultaneously.

But for me, the best parts of Accelerando have to do, not with its florid imaginings, but with its presentation of what really cannot be imagined. That is to say: its representation of posthuman artificial intelligences, those whose computing power is not limited by our carbon-based biology. These superhuman entities force the remaining enhanced human beings further and further away from the sun, to Jupiter, then to Saturn, then to the Oort Belt, then finally out of the solar system altogether. There isn’t room for both them and us; once they have simulated and assimilated us, they have no further use for us. It isn’t just that we don’t know what they want; beyond this, it is literally impossible for us to imagine what they might want. The scientific and philosophical reason for this is that these entities possess a higher-order consciousness than we do: “a posthuman can build an internal model of a human-level intelligence that is, well, as cognitively strong as the original. You or I may think we know what makes other people tick, but we’re quite often wrong, whereas real posthumans can actually simulate us, inner states and all, and get it right” (376-377). (So much for “the problem of other minds”).

But in terms of the narrative, these posthuman intelligences are like nothing so much as transnational corporations. . Remember that, already today, corporations are “persons” according to the law, even though they are not themselves conscious. Accelerando simply takes this legal fiction to the next level. The posthumans are “slyly self-aware financial instruments” (168) that have freed themselves from merely human parameters. No wonder that, in the course of the novel, they dismantle the solar system, pulverizing the planets and asteroids in order to convert them to computronium. For they strive to extract the maximum value (in the form of computational power) from all matter; their focus is on efficiency, and on the endless expansion and accumulation of computation, with no goal external to this accumulation itself. Money to them is “quantized originality — that which allows one sentient entity to outmaneuver another” (295). No measure of abundance can squelch their drive for competition. They are continually crunching data; for instance, they use all available historical traces to simulate as many as possible of all the human beings who have ever lived; after they’ve extracted what surplus-information they can by running the simulations, they download the “resimulated” (313) human beings back into flesh, where it seems they function as “cognitive antibodies” (340) programmed to keep the remaining augmented humans in line.

The posthumans have upgraded the old-fashioned “free market” to “Economics 2.0,” a system that is “more efficient than any human-designed resource allocation schema” (303). Economics 2.0 “replaces the single-indirection layer of conventional money, and the multiple-indirection mappings of options trades, with some kind of insanely baroque object-relational framework based on the parametrized desires and subjective experiential values of the players” (321). Human intelligence is incapable of participating in Economics 2.0 “without dehumanizing cognitive surgery” (315). In the framework of Economics 2.0, we can only function as “sapient currency units,” stockpiled for trade in “species futures” options (210). And all this seems to be the case, not only in our own solar system, but throughout the galaxy, which is littered with the ruins of superintelligent civilizations that have pushed the mania for accumulation to the point of implosion and extinction. Indeed, when the human protagonists of Accelerando finally meet an alien entity, not only does it take on the material form of a gigantic slug, but it turns out to be, rather hilariously, a “parasitic organism… the Economics 2.0 equivalent of a pyramid scheme crossed with a 419 scam” (295). Never has the classic SF scenario of First Contact with alien life been so deflated. Accelerando suggests (though perhaps not fully intentionally) that, not only is the Singularity near, as Ray Kurzweil maintains, but in fact it has already happened: less through the exponential increase in computing power and telecommunications networking (though that has certainly played a role) than through the neoliberal transformation — the deregulation of corporate activity, and the dismantling of the welfare state — of the last thirty years or so.

The Girl From Monday

Hal Hartley, once a darling of independent film, has fallen from critical and popular favor as his films have become weirder and more abstract. Not many people besides me liked his 2001 film No Such Thing; and his most recent feature, The Girl From Monday (premiered at Sundance last winter, and currently distributed on DVD by Netflix — see the trailer here), seems to be even less popular. But it’s a strong film, haunting and at the same time deliberately frustrating and insubstantial.

The Girl From Monday was evidently made on an extremely low budget, and shot on digital video. In this respect, it somewhat resembles Hartley’s pre-millennium short The Book of Life, with which it shares many stylistic traits, notably the exploitation of the video for stop action, strange light diffusion, motion blur, and so on. The Girl From Monday adds to this mix desaturation (so that scenes shot in color look washed out, almost black and white) and lots of jump cuts and unexpected close-ups. The result is a film that is gorgeous in its relentlessly kinetic and fractured cinematography, although (or precisely because) its spare look is diametrically opposed to the photographic lushness that is commonly described as “gorgeous.”

In terms of genre, The Girl From Monday is a science fiction story, focusing on commodities and commodification (which is a sub-genre I’ve been especially paying attention to recently). But it’s also, this being Hal Hartley, a Godardian, highly self-conscious auteurist film. It doesn’t exactly have a straightforward plot, and it works more by digression and intense focusing on (seemingly irrelevant) details, than on conventional narrative momentum.

In any case, the movie takes place in a slightly-future New York (the look is entirely contemporary, and not at all “futuristic” — the only special effects are those of Hartley’s video cinematography) in which a “revolution” has given supreme power to an advertising agency. Everything is based on commodity acquisition; instead of the dictatorship of the proletariat, we have “the Dictatorship of the Consumer.” People receive exactly what they desire (assuming they can afford it); their desires are incited by advertising campaigns, which in turn are directed by focus-group surveys, whose choices are in turn circumscribed by corporate sales agendas… It’s a solipsistic closed loop, so that everyone is by definition maximally satisfied, while at the same time people’s ability to act is extremely circumscribed. High-tech police stand on alert on every street corner, and everyone has a bar code permanently tattooed on their wrist.

Everything in the world of The Girl From Monday is sexualized, and sexuality itself is entirely commodified. As the description of the film on Hartley’s website puts it, “Citizens are now public offerings on the stock exchange; each time they have sex and remain unattached their value increases depending on the current state of the market.” In contrast, any sexual act unaccompanied by market valuation (like fucking either for love, or simply for pleasure and enjoyment) is considered (at best) a shameful perversion (sort of like how masturbation was regarded in the 19th century).

Of course, there is an underground rebellion against this state of affairs, and Hartley’s male protagonist, Jack Bell (played by Bill Sage, who in both looks and affect is quite similar to Martin Donovan, the male lead in a number of Hartley’s earlier movies) is both an advertising executive responsible for the commodification of sex, and the secret leader of the underground. Jack is involved in typically Hartleyesque romantic situations (missed encounters, confused signals, discontents that fail ever to be articulated clearly) with two women, his co-worker Cecile (Sabrina Lloyd) who eventually joins the underground and gets sent to prison, and the Girl From Monday (Tatiana Abracos), an alien (from, we are told, “Star 147X in the constellation Monday”) who emerges naked from the sea in front of Jack’s eyes (despite the fact that he has seemingly committed suicide several scenes earlier).

Confused? The plot and background, as I am trying to recount them here, are in fact not a big part of the movie: they are presupposed by it more than they are narrated by it; they come out mostly as throwaways in Jack’s voiceover narration. Bear with me; as I’ll try to explain, it’s all pretext. What does matter is the aliens — or “immigrants,” as they are called in official euphemism — and apparently there are many of them; all acts of the underground are attributed to them, and by the end of the film we even discover that Jack himself is one, though he has apparently forgotten it. The aliens come from a planet where they don’t have individual identities, being all parts of one another; which means, also, that they don’t have bodies — they only incarnate themselves when they come to Earth. Some of the most beautiful scenes in the movie involve the nameless Girl From Monday learning how to use and to understand her body: how to eat and drink and piss and shit, how to have sex, even what it means to cry. From the official point of view, only such an alien — devoid of the endless commodity cravings of consumer capitalism — could possibly be opposed to the atomistic self-empowerment that is the watchword of the Dictatorship of the Consumer.

So on one hand, we have citizens obsessed with their own bodies and body-images, consumed by insatiable desires whose only expression comes in the form of commodities, and whose main activity is at once conspicuous consumption and relentless self-valorization — so that the consumer is identical with the capitalist, or better with Capital itself. On the other, we have aliens who are beautiful precisely because they seem so self-sufficient, which is because they do not know desire or need, which is in turn because they do not know separation (except in the shock of reification that occurs when they fall to Earth) which in its turn is because they don’t have bodies (though, interestingly, there is no suggestion of anything spiritual or mental or dualistic in this bodylessness; without a body simply seems to mean without lack, without deficiency or desire, which makes the definition of the alien into another closed circle).

What this all means is that the film is structured around a sort of Gnosticism — albeit (this being Hartley) a particularly wry and unapocalyptic one. We have fallen, not into materiality (the classical Gnostic lament), nor even into instrumental reason (the modernist paradigm) than into commodification itself (which makes for a postmodern Gnosticism). The only salvation would seem to come from a sort of slipping away, dissolving away, back into the non-personhood of the aliens. We are told that an alien can return home by re-immersing him/herself into the ocean from which he/she initially emerged; but also, that once you have become too caught up in the body, and in the desires of this world (of consumer capitalism), such a return becomes impossible. Jack says he is unable ever to return — the waves reject him (this is perhaps why his suicide early in the film leaves him untouched?), and at the end of the film, when the Girl From Monday does go back under the waves, Jack’s narration states that he will never know whether she made it back home, or just drowned. In any case, active resistance seems futile — it turns out that rebellion, sabotage, and the like, just as much as conformity and enthusiastic shopping, is good for business and serves only to increase sales.

Consumerism requires discontent; thereby, it also inevitably breeds a discontent with this very discontent. But no such “negation of the negation” will get us out of the consumerist trap. For such a move only breeds still more commodified desire. If you fail to be a properly self-valorizing subject, your punishment is to be commodified instead as an object (selling your labor as a commodity). Offenses against the spirit of the marketplace are punished by “hard labor” teaching high school; repeated offenses get you sent to the moon to do low-level service-sector work in a DisneyWorld-like theme park.

The one thing that “redeems” this unredeemable situation is the formal (visual and sonic) structure of the film. (Though “structure” is probably not quite the right word, for something so willfully fragmentary and impalpable). It’s not just the jump cuts and washed-out colors and self-referential-reminding-us-that-this-is-just-a-video-moments that do this — although these features do, as Adorno might put it, rupture any sense of formal closure, destroy the possibility of any “false totalization.” It’s also the way that Hartley’s camerawork and editing remain anchored in a sort of everydayness. Though we hear a lot about ultra-commodification, what we see on the screen is not Starbucks, but 89-cent cups of rotgut coffee from the local streetcorner bodega; and not interiors expensively set out with lavish but suitably minimal yuppie furniture, but ratty couches, fire escapes, and bookcases filled with random volumes. (One of the negative reviews I found complains, not just that the camerawork seems “cheap” and “grating” — which to my mind is precisely what is right about it — but also that “Hartley shot the movie in haphazard locations, nodding to the future with just a few elements of costume and prop design. So, for instance, the hero’s office features a copy of “The Beatles Anthology” on a shelf. Huh?” — which again, to my mind, is precisely the point).

There’s a beauty in this casual rundownness, just as there’s a beauty in Hartley’s characteristically precise blocking of speech, gestures, and movement, so that every statement seems to be said with a well of ironic reserve, if not actually put into “quotation marks”; and the actors’ gestures and movements are (not robotic, but) too clipped and carefully articulated to be expressive (they cannot be imagined as expressions of deeper inner mental states, but instead reinforce the principle of what-you-see-is-what-you-get, or “nothing is hidden”). This sort of beautiful reserve and distance in both the actors and the decors — and also in the perpetual incompletion of what the movie shows us, as editing and camera movement are similarly clipped and curt, never lingering in the “right” places (which is one reason why there is so much voiceover narration, since we need to be told what Hartley declines to show directly) — all this restraint and distance, which yet stubbornly remains within the ordinary (however extraordinary the science fiction premises of the whole film), serves, in its understated beauty, as the counter-instance both to the meretricious yuppie- and Donald Trump- beauty of the Dictatorship of the Consumer, and to the absolutely unrepresentable, sublime otherness of Star 147X. What the film actually shows us (and I ought to include in this, if I could write better about it, Hartley’s techno-y soundtrack) is what escapes the otherwise ubiquitous pressure and solipsistic closure of what it tells us, or narrates. Which means, I suppose, that The Girl From Monday succeeds precisely to the extent that it makes itself unmarketable — which in itself might be thought of as a classic high-modernist strategy; and also that (unlike a high modernist work) it seems to slip through one’s fingers, so that I cannot hold on to it, cannot find it memorable (since that would re-commodify it); so that — for all of Hal Hartley’s tics and idiosyncrasies — it seems almost anonymous.

Hal Hartley, once a darling of independent film, has fallen from critical and popular favor as his films have become weirder and more abstract. Not many people besides me liked his 2001 film No Such Thing; and his most recent feature, The Girl From Monday (premiered at Sundance last winter, and currently distributed on DVD by Netflix — see the trailer here), seems to be even less popular. But it’s a strong film, haunting and at the same time deliberately frustrating and insubstantial.

The Girl From Monday was evidently made on an extremely low budget, and shot on digital video. In this respect, it somewhat resembles Hartley’s pre-millennium short The Book of Life, with which it shares many stylistic traits, notably the exploitation of the video for stop action, strange light diffusion, motion blur, and so on. The Girl From Monday adds to this mix desaturation (so that scenes shot in color look washed out, almost black and white) and lots of jump cuts and unexpected close-ups. The result is a film that is gorgeous in its relentlessly kinetic and fractured cinematography, although (or precisely because) its spare look is diametrically opposed to the photographic lushness that is commonly described as “gorgeous.”

In terms of genre, The Girl From Monday is a science fiction story, focusing on commodities and commodification (which is a sub-genre I’ve been especially paying attention to recently). But it’s also, this being Hal Hartley, a Godardian, highly self-conscious auteurist film. It doesn’t exactly have a straightforward plot, and it works more by digression and intense focusing on (seemingly irrelevant) details, than on conventional narrative momentum.

In any case, the movie takes place in a slightly-future New York (the look is entirely contemporary, and not at all “futuristic” — the only special effects are those of Hartley’s video cinematography) in which a “revolution” has given supreme power to an advertising agency. Everything is based on commodity acquisition; instead of the dictatorship of the proletariat, we have “the Dictatorship of the Consumer.” People receive exactly what they desire (assuming they can afford it); their desires are incited by advertising campaigns, which in turn are directed by focus-group surveys, whose choices are in turn circumscribed by corporate sales agendas… It’s a solipsistic closed loop, so that everyone is by definition maximally satisfied, while at the same time people’s ability to act is extremely circumscribed. High-tech police stand on alert on every street corner, and everyone has a bar code permanently tattooed on their wrist.

Everything in the world of The Girl From Monday is sexualized, and sexuality itself is entirely commodified. As the description of the film on Hartley’s website puts it, “Citizens are now public offerings on the stock exchange; each time they have sex and remain unattached their value increases depending on the current state of the market.” In contrast, any sexual act unaccompanied by market valuation (like fucking either for love, or simply for pleasure and enjoyment) is considered (at best) a shameful perversion (sort of like how masturbation was regarded in the 19th century).

Of course, there is an underground rebellion against this state of affairs, and Hartley’s male protagonist, Jack Bell (played by Bill Sage, who in both looks and affect is quite similar to Martin Donovan, the male lead in a number of Hartley’s earlier movies) is both an advertising executive responsible for the commodification of sex, and the secret leader of the underground. Jack is involved in typically Hartleyesque romantic situations (missed encounters, confused signals, discontents that fail ever to be articulated clearly) with two women, his co-worker Cecile (Sabrina Lloyd) who eventually joins the underground and gets sent to prison, and the Girl From Monday (Tatiana Abracos), an alien (from, we are told, “Star 147X in the constellation Monday”) who emerges naked from the sea in front of Jack’s eyes (despite the fact that he has seemingly committed suicide several scenes earlier).

Confused? The plot and background, as I am trying to recount them here, are in fact not a big part of the movie: they are presupposed by it more than they are narrated by it; they come out mostly as throwaways in Jack’s voiceover narration. Bear with me; as I’ll try to explain, it’s all pretext. What does matter is the aliens — or “immigrants,” as they are called in official euphemism — and apparently there are many of them; all acts of the underground are attributed to them, and by the end of the film we even discover that Jack himself is one, though he has apparently forgotten it. The aliens come from a planet where they don’t have individual identities, being all parts of one another; which means, also, that they don’t have bodies — they only incarnate themselves when they come to Earth. Some of the most beautiful scenes in the movie involve the nameless Girl From Monday learning how to use and to understand her body: how to eat and drink and piss and shit, how to have sex, even what it means to cry. From the official point of view, only such an alien — devoid of the endless commodity cravings of consumer capitalism — could possibly be opposed to the atomistic self-empowerment that is the watchword of the Dictatorship of the Consumer.

So on one hand, we have citizens obsessed with their own bodies and body-images, consumed by insatiable desires whose only expression comes in the form of commodities, and whose main activity is at once conspicuous consumption and relentless self-valorization — so that the consumer is identical with the capitalist, or better with Capital itself. On the other, we have aliens who are beautiful precisely because they seem so self-sufficient, which is because they do not know desire or need, which is in turn because they do not know separation (except in the shock of reification that occurs when they fall to Earth) which in its turn is because they don’t have bodies (though, interestingly, there is no suggestion of anything spiritual or mental or dualistic in this bodylessness; without a body simply seems to mean without lack, without deficiency or desire, which makes the definition of the alien into another closed circle).

What this all means is that the film is structured around a sort of Gnosticism — albeit (this being Hartley) a particularly wry and unapocalyptic one. We have fallen, not into materiality (the classical Gnostic lament), nor even into instrumental reason (the modernist paradigm) than into commodification itself (which makes for a postmodern Gnosticism). The only salvation would seem to come from a sort of slipping away, dissolving away, back into the non-personhood of the aliens. We are told that an alien can return home by re-immersing him/herself into the ocean from which he/she initially emerged; but also, that once you have become too caught up in the body, and in the desires of this world (of consumer capitalism), such a return becomes impossible. Jack says he is unable ever to return — the waves reject him (this is perhaps why his suicide early in the film leaves him untouched?), and at the end of the film, when the Girl From Monday does go back under the waves, Jack’s narration states that he will never know whether she made it back home, or just drowned. In any case, active resistance seems futile — it turns out that rebellion, sabotage, and the like, just as much as conformity and enthusiastic shopping, is good for business and serves only to increase sales.

Consumerism requires discontent; thereby, it also inevitably breeds a discontent with this very discontent. But no such “negation of the negation” will get us out of the consumerist trap. For such a move only breeds still more commodified desire. If you fail to be a properly self-valorizing subject, your punishment is to be commodified instead as an object (selling your labor as a commodity). Offenses against the spirit of the marketplace are punished by “hard labor” teaching high school; repeated offenses get you sent to the moon to do low-level service-sector work in a DisneyWorld-like theme park.

The one thing that “redeems” this unredeemable situation is the formal (visual and sonic) structure of the film. (Though “structure” is probably not quite the right word, for something so willfully fragmentary and impalpable). It’s not just the jump cuts and washed-out colors and self-referential-reminding-us-that-this-is-just-a-video-moments that do this — although these features do, as Adorno might put it, rupture any sense of formal closure, destroy the possibility of any “false totalization.” It’s also the way that Hartley’s camerawork and editing remain anchored in a sort of everydayness. Though we hear a lot about ultra-commodification, what we see on the screen is not Starbucks, but 89-cent cups of rotgut coffee from the local streetcorner bodega; and not interiors expensively set out with lavish but suitably minimal yuppie furniture, but ratty couches, fire escapes, and bookcases filled with random volumes. (One of the negative reviews I found complains, not just that the camerawork seems “cheap” and “grating” — which to my mind is precisely what is right about it — but also that “Hartley shot the movie in haphazard locations, nodding to the future with just a few elements of costume and prop design. So, for instance, the hero’s office features a copy of “The Beatles Anthology” on a shelf. Huh?” — which again, to my mind, is precisely the point).

There’s a beauty in this casual rundownness, just as there’s a beauty in Hartley’s characteristically precise blocking of speech, gestures, and movement, so that every statement seems to be said with a well of ironic reserve, if not actually put into “quotation marks”; and the actors’ gestures and movements are (not robotic, but) too clipped and carefully articulated to be expressive (they cannot be imagined as expressions of deeper inner mental states, but instead reinforce the principle of what-you-see-is-what-you-get, or “nothing is hidden”). This sort of beautiful reserve and distance in both the actors and the decors — and also in the perpetual incompletion of what the movie shows us, as editing and camera movement are similarly clipped and curt, never lingering in the “right” places (which is one reason why there is so much voiceover narration, since we need to be told what Hartley declines to show directly) — all this restraint and distance, which yet stubbornly remains within the ordinary (however extraordinary the science fiction premises of the whole film), serves, in its understated beauty, as the counter-instance both to the meretricious yuppie- and Donald Trump- beauty of the Dictatorship of the Consumer, and to the absolutely unrepresentable, sublime otherness of Star 147X. What the film actually shows us (and I ought to include in this, if I could write better about it, Hartley’s techno-y soundtrack) is what escapes the otherwise ubiquitous pressure and solipsistic closure of what it tells us, or narrates. Which means, I suppose, that The Girl From Monday succeeds precisely to the extent that it makes itself unmarketable — which in itself might be thought of as a classic high-modernist strategy; and also that (unlike a high modernist work) it seems to slip through one’s fingers, so that I cannot hold on to it, cannot find it memorable (since that would re-commodify it); so that — for all of Hal Hartley’s tics and idiosyncrasies — it seems almost anonymous.