Monthly Archives: September 2010

"Enlightenment as Mass Deception" revisited

From an article in Fast Capitalism 2:2, “Compliance Fiction: Adorno and Horkheimer’s ‘Culture Industry’ Thesis in a Multimedia Age” by Sam Caslin.

Basically, Caslin uses Adorno to call bullshit on “co-creation” — marketers’ beloved exploitation of consumers to do their job for them: “the actions of the Firefly/Serenity fans suggests an increasing rationalization of consumer culture whereby fans are no longer required to simply consume passively but to become actively involved in the mechanisms of production and market creation.” In the same vein as Holt’s awesome article about consumer refuseniks.

Co-creation is not an escape from passivity so much as it is a voluntary plunge into deeper exploitation at the level of fandom, of libidinal investment, or whatever you want to call it. The fans would deny that they are being exploited at all, of course, which moves them to a different level than those who cynically “see through” advertising and marketing but use the products and champion the brands anyway.

A good point about the limits of the term “culture industry”: “the culture industry thesis critiques a specific type of gentrified, mass-produced artefact aimed at legitimating capitalism” — that is, what defines culture industry product is that it engenders a specific sort of consumer, or audience that is predisposed to function within capitalism and would feel threatened when it is threatened — it inculcates a dependence on capitalist structures for obtaining pleasure and self-knowledge, the commodities of knowledge and recognition and social know-how that have been disembedded from earlier modes of distribution. Entertainment is reified, etc., experience is commodity to collect rather than an immersion in the present unmediated (if such an ideal is possible).

“although consumers may have some power within consumer society this only negates the potential for them to have power over consumer society. Modes of production cannot be controlled or challenged from within.” This also seems like it might apply to the internet and digital media — if social media is the problem itself, it can’t really be used to undo itself. Social media is a new way for capitalism to homegenize experience and re-present it as “content.” What we win through such media strengthens the system that is depriving us of a larger freedom.

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žižek on love

In this essay in the New Left Review, Zižek makes some interesting claims about the nature of love, some of which I think I have read or heard elsewhere — he seems to recycle certain of his own arguments. Anyway:

Love is a choice that is experienced as necessity. At a certain point, one is overwhelmed by the feeling that one already is in love, and that one cannot do otherwise. By definition, therefore, comparing qualities of respective candidates, deciding with whom to fall in love, cannot be love. This is the reason why dating agencies are an anti-love device par excellence.

That echoes to a degree Eva Illouz’s argument in Cold Intimacies about the efficiency of relationships conditioned by modern communications technologies and technologies of the self. But it is an almost commonplace idea, really: Love strikes us as a compulsion, a craziness, an overwhelming of our resistance or our reluctance or our comfortable, established ways. It forces us to be different, to go against our grain.

Later Zižek, discussing possible modes of Left resistance in the era of biopower and so on, he declares: “An act is more than an intervention into the domain of the possible — an act changes the very coordinates of what is possible and thus retroactively creates its own conditions of possibility.” That seems an even better definition of love, a leap into an impossibility that afterward seems to have been inevitable, inescapable.

What makes that leap possible? How do we act in the face of what is impossible? Falling in love perhaps models how we can suddenly find ourselves acting without an operative sense what is “realistic” or possible. “We will be forced to live ‘as if we were free’. We will have to risk taking steps into the abyss, in totally inappropriate situations; we will have to reinvent aspects of the new.” Revolution would require a collective love for an idea that enchants each of us as if we were the only one.

Flexibility and resistance

Though I don’t think the coining of “altermodernity” is helpful, Micah White makes a good point in this essay:

Could it be that while we’ve been smashing boundaries and crossing borders, consumerism has quickened its global expansion by piggybacking on our identity-blurring efforts?
And now, entering a new era of humanity where postmodernity is slipping into altermodernity, we find that the binaries we rejected are not only blurring but finally collapsing. Unable to say with any certainty what is real or virtual, human or animal, organic or genetically modified, some wish to resuscitate again, but this time with nostalgia, the failed antimodern project of shattering distinctions. While the chorus – composed now of cyberpunks and activists joined by capitalists and technocrats – rejoices in the indistinguishable difference between online and offline, organic and synthetic, man and machine, the most crucial distinction of all – that between resistance and complicity – is collapsing as well. Unless we can discover a way to critique the system without furthering the system, we shall be lost.

One is tempted to say, No duh. Capitalism thrives on constant change and on circulation, not the rigidity of binary oppositions and the structures and hierarchies derived from them. Capitalism promises the chance to perpetually remake the hierarchies around terms that favor you; that’s why so many can be induced to participate and support it — they internalize resistance to capitalism into the system as healthy competition.

Resistance is always becoming complicity because of the labile nature of capitalism; it changes to co-opt resistance practices and make them lifestyle products. Thus subjects have to keep moving without necessarily becoming flexible in the post-Fordist sense and useful to capital as incubators of cool. The practice of resistance becomes the constant, inflexible thing, even though the specific nature of what is resisted must always be changing and perhaps intensifying. We must be ever flexible in our permanent resistance to novelty as an end in itself.

Time discipline and social networks as bridge to new forms of it

The Fast Capitalism article I discussed int he previous post directed me to E.P. Thompson’s essay “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism” (pdf). It’s makes for turgid reading, but it pays off in the last few sections.

Of note: He points out that the language used to sell the idea of rigorous time-keeping shifted:

There were a lot of timepieces about in the 1790s: emphasis is shifting from “luxury” to “convenience”; even cottagers may have wooden clocks costing less than twenty shillings. Indeed, a general diffusion of clocks and watches is occurring (as one would expect) at the exact moment when the industrial revolution demanded a greater synchronization of labour.

Time-discipline became ubiquitous, so it become “convenient” to obey it more perspicaciously — no longer a luxury of the master imposing discipline; the discipline became internalized and a pressing psychological issue for workers themselves.

In the second to last section, he asks a key question:

In mature capitalist society all time must be consumed, marketed, put to use; it is offensive for the labour force merely to “pass the time”. But how far did this propaganda really succeed? How far are we entitled to speak of any radical restructuring of man’s social nature and working habits?

This is interesting in light of the supposed lax morals of, say Greece or Mexico, whose slack (from the point of view of industrial time discipline) workers are described thusly by one “engineer of growth” as Thompson derides them:

His lack of initiative, inability to save, absences while celebrating too many holidays, willingness to work only three or four days a week if that paid for necessities, insatiable desire for alchohol — all were pointed out as proof of a natural inferiority.

So is the price to pay for an orderly capitalist democracy the subjection to an intense and unpleasant propaganda about time-thrift and to have workers subjected to all sorts of scrutiny to prevent their shirking? Is that price worth paying? Should we envy Greece rather than regard them as Michael Lewis does as self-centered cheats who are incapable of civic duty?

Resisting time-discipline, Thompson argues, is always and everywhere a key site of resistance to capital, to the sort of subjectivation that capitalism imposes, well delineated in some industrial propaganda Thompson quotes:

Wilbert Moore has even drawn up a shopping-list of the “pervasive values and normative orientations of high relevance to the goal of social development” — “these changes in attitude and belief are ‘necessary’ if rapid economic and social development is to be achieved”:
Impersonality: judgement of merit and performance, not social background or irrelevant qualities.
Specificity of relations in terms of both context and limits of interaction.
Rationality and problem-solving. Punctuality.
Recognition of individually limited but systematically linked interdependence.
Discipline, deference to legitimate authority. Respect for property rights . . . .
These, with “achievement and mobility aspirations”, are not,
Professor Moore reassures us, suggested as a comprehensive list of the merits of modern man . . . The “whole man” will also love his family, worship his God, and express his aesthetic capacities. But he will keep each of these other orientations “in their place”.

These are the values Lewis takes as being basic to civic life — but that is only so in capitalist culture, where time discipline and wage incentives are all taken for granted. Duty becomes work discipline, not social life in the moment.

The problem of imposing time-discipline, Thompson notes, “may appear as it did in the early years of the Bombay cotton mills, as one of maintaining a labour force at the cost of perpetuating inefficient methods of production — elastic time-schedules, irregular breaks and meal-times, etc.” Hmmm. That sounds suspiciously like post-Fordist work arrangements that blur work and leisure and allow for more worker flexibility (and less employer responsibility for their welfare). We appear to be returning to a pre-industrial attitude about work and leisure, only without the life-skills to handle it.

One recurrent form of revolt within Western industrial capitalism, whether bohemian or beatnik, has often taken the form of flouting the urgency of respectable time values. And the interesting question arises: if Puritanism
was a necessary part of the work-ethos which enabled the industrialized world to break out of the poverty-stricken economies of the past, will the Puritan valuation of time begin to decompose as the pressures of poverty relax ? Is it decomposing already ? Will men begin to lose that restless urgency, that desire to consume time
purposively, which most people carry just as they carry a watch on
their wrists ?

If we are to have enlarged leisure, in an automated future, the problem is not “how are men going to be able to consume all these additional time-units of leisure ?” but “what will be the capacity for experience of the men who have this undirected time to live ?” If we maintain a Puritan time-valuation, a commodity-valuation, then
it is a question of how this time is put to use, or how it is exploited by the leisure industries. But if the purposive notation of time-use becomes less compulsive, then men might have to re-learn some of the arts of living lost in the industrial revolution: how to fill the interstices of their days with enriched, more leisurely, personal and social relations; how to break down once more the barriers between work and life.

I think social networks are fulfilling this function of helping people deal with the lost time-discipline — it preserves the urgency of time-discipline in the leisure/social sphere (consumption is already made urgent as work — the pressure for novelty, to keep up to be consuming as much as our time allows for and not miss anything, or waste any time not consuming commodities — that is, idling away and lazing about thee way workers used to, the dismay of social improvers/engineers of growth). Social networks make sure that behavior is still measured, monitored, and archived, while still absorbing free time once micromanaged by Taylorist bosses. Facebook is the new Taylorist boss.

It is the fulfillment of this:

If men are to meet both the demands of a highly-synchronized automated industry, and of greatly enlarged areas of “free time”, they must somehow combine in a new synthesis elements of the old and of the new, finding an imagery based neither upon the seasons nor upon the market but upon human occasions.

The social network is that new “imagery” — remains for me to explain that in detail I suppose.

Fast Capitalism, convenience etc.

I think a lot of technology gets pushed at us under the ideological aegis of convenience; we are supposed to adopt it because it will make our lives easier or make us more productive or efficient in our efforts to do things. But under capitalism, technology mainly serves to accelerate the circulation of commodities — changing the nature of them so that they circulate faster, or changing the nature of consumers so that they can consume more quickly, or addressing the means of circulation and streamlining there. The faster the circulation cycle turns over, the faster capital valorizes itself, the more it can be leveraged to soak up living labor, subsume it. You know the drill.

This is why I usually protest when someone touts the convenience of this or that as though that indicates something beneficial. We’re not talking about indoor plumbing anymore; these conveniences generally involve smoothing over our need to respect the desires of others and putting ourselves first — the field of convenience has been shifted to communication and cooperation. Convenience is now always to be mistrusted; call it the fascination of what’s difficult for the consumer capitalist/networked economy era. The network is always trying to subjectivize us in terms of flexibility and “convenience” and so forth; our duty is to make this process rise to the level of consciousness and attempt to resist becoming mere nodes. Otherwise we are merely strengthening capital’s grip on our ability to make a livelihood for ourselves. Also, the subjectivity of the node is not particularly secure or satisfying, especially considering the legacy of individualism we have inherited, the ideal of creating our own unique vocabulary for self-construction, for meaning. Networks help dismantle that, but supply nothing solid in return like what individualism replaced when it upended traditional societies.

Speed prompts surrender — to the allure of convenience, to the promises of the instant, to the alienation incipient in trying to pay more attention than we’ve got.

Anyway, that’s some stage-setting for notes I took while reading this poorly titled but interesting article: “Speed: Through, Across, and In — The Landscapes of Capital,” by Robert Goldman, Stephen Papson, and Noah Kersey. They parse the imagery of 1990s and early 2000s ads for megacorporations and banks and the like that seem to advertise capitalism itself to highlight the importance of speed to contemporary capitalist ideology. “The rule can be stated quite simply—there is a tendency toward the accelerated circulation of commodities in order to offset the tendency toward a declining rate of profit.”

Capitalism, as they point out, has always relied on time units to define value, and Marx developed an analysis of exploitation that hinged on surplus labor time being cozened out of workers. The corollary of this is that, as the authors point out, “our ‘common-sense’ understanding of technologies of speed connote a future liberation from material scarcity. In contemporary society, where time itself has become perceived as a scarce resource, appeals to instantaneity and immediacy are seductive.” I would add convenience to this, since it is generally understood as saving us time (by saving us the hassle of other people getting in our way, usually). Inevitably this leads to real-time being an ultimate value, an unquestioned ideal guaranteeing authentic presence and an illusory escape from being exploited through the workings of time. For this “powerful software” will always help us master up-to-the-minute details and keep us from being the market’s suckers.

Along with this celebration of real-time comes the promise that all consumption can be instantaneous — that time is not a necessary input to enjoyment (and if it is, the thing requiring our time is flawed, broken, moribund, useless, phony, unpleasurable, etc.) Yet the depiction of this in ads, in culture generally — in ideology — is that this instantaneousness doesn’t make consumption frantic but peaceful. What is accelerated instead is work time — into a pointless blur that zooms by so we can get back to consuming, where real pleasure lies.

Hence the curious propensity for so much slow motion in television ads that aim to signify the advantages of speed in our lives. Whereas economic time speeds up in these representations, turning laborers into a ghostly blur, consumers/citizens live at an almost pastoral pace in civil society.

The authors move on to consider what sorts of friction can inhibit the accelerated circulation of commodities, slowing the velocity of circulation that increases valorization and passes for increased productivity. I’ve been enamored lately of the idea that friction is necessary to sanity, to a public sphere, to a civil society — so capitalism’s idealizing the elimination of friction strikes me as especially sinister. The authors point out rightly that the need for speed leads to expanded surveillance:

Not only must the organizational apparatus run friction-free, it must also at any given moment have the appropriate personnel along the supply chain to locate the position of any object (or the data simulation of the object) as it moves through the process. UPS presents itself as self-contained system that will accelerate the flow of objects and data while simultaneously tracking every element. Scanning technology and tracking numbers function to position every object in the flow. Increasingly, this technology has been applied to human movement across borders, through airport terminals, across toll bridges (EZ Pass), at cash registers, etc. Ironically, the need for speed results in an expanded demand for panoptic control.

Speed of the sort celebrated by capitalist ideology is only possible within an environment of total administrative control, anticipating/creating desires before we can experience an instant of confusion — desire replaced with perpetual distraction.

A gap opens between commodity, commerce time, and “organic time” — the supposedly natural pace of life inherent to human beings, but probably a nostalgic fiction. Authors are right to suggest that it is mere wishful thinking to assume that humans are internally limited and will react to capitalist acceleration with a broad move to slow consumption. Though there are inklings of a slow movement, these are fringe practices, enticing in part because they stand out against mainstream culture as oppositional.

The fantasy of innate organic purity is related to another phony escape from capitalism, the idea that one can travel light and shed goods and escape the capitalist cycle of accumulating junk. This merely plays into the mandate for post-Fordist flexibility, which reflects the immaterial nature of exploited labor under the new regimes of capital.

Capital flows everywhere and this new highly mobile elite both aids it and travels as lightly as capital does. Our young entrepreneur travels light in many senses. First, his technology is light, a wearable computer with a wireless connection to both the Internet and global communication network

Hence the “digital nomads” are not anti-capitalist at all — they are capitalist vanguardists. And their gadget technology to keep up with the speed on online culture makes them “cyborgs”: “Being a cyborg is a response to acceleration.” We are all cyborgs now.

Connectivity is a response to the erosion of connectedness from organic forms of life (if they exist).

On the rat race of consumption, once it becomes accepted as the route to self-satisfaction and is pushed toward instanteousness:

the satisfactions of such consumption are relatively short-lived, and even at that, incessant pursuit of immediate gratification may indeed contribute to a declining half-life of consumption-based gratifications. No single act of consumption is sufficient to achieve satisfaction; rather consumption must be engaged continuously. Here the immediacy of frenetic gratification forms the flip side of political-economic necessity — for the economy to function efficiently there must be ever-expanding consumption…. And while excessive speed may strike some as rebellious, it also takes shape in the underbelly of conformist consumption. As repetitive as they are is, the lyrics speak to more than just the pleasure of speed; they also speak to hyperactive addiction.

Speed circulates the meanings detached from their context faster, commodifying them and wearing them out.

A frenetic competition has unfolded amongst the corporate advertising industry as they race to stylistically differentiate the value of one good (a commodity) over another. Advertising is an industry that tries to build values by rearranging “the meanings of things. By tearing “meanings” from their contexts and stitching them back together advertising seeks to establish commodity symbols. But the constant circulation of cultural references needed to serve these engines of profit also runs the risk of devolving into a stew of meaninglessness.

But the making of new meanings, or the reivestment of them, is a site of exploitation and profit — we do the meaning-making work for free and then pay for the privilege of being associated with the symbols we have established.

Capital begins to make itself necessary as a means of establishing what is real, “authentic.” It becomes the medium of the real as opposed to the fantasy, image, and illusion that sustain us in a mediated everyday life of consumption.

A note about Trollope’s The Small House at Allington

The obvious thing about this novel is that it examines the sexual double standard with regard to constancy. Women love once and forever; men are “weaker” and love according to what suits them at a given point in their lives. Male love is contingent on the context, the environment the man finds himself in and how he assesses he social opportunities there; female love is for always, a contract signed in blood.

Why should this be? Of course, it is a ramification of patriarchy, but more specifically it has to do with women serving as guarantors of property transfers and then serving as illiquid stores of value after the key transaction they have facilitated has been executed. Women must be constant in their “love” so that property is passed along in an orderly fashion within approved family lines through marriages; this keeps “value” from becoming too mobile and disseminating itself more generally and yielding a more egalitarian society (or at least a society with enough mobility to make its losers restive and willing to rebel against the established order).

Trollope takes this for granted, which allows him to toss off lines like the following, summing up the whole of the patriarchal social structure in the height of its resistance to capitalism’s creative destruction. In this passage, Johnny Eames is embarrassed by his benefactor’s willingness to give him capital, which is a necessary prerequisite to his proposing to the jilted Lily Dale, niece of the squire.

He did not know whether it would be right in him to accept such pecuniary liberality from any living man, and almost thought that he should feel himself bound to reject the earl’s offer. As to the squire’s money, that he knew he might accept. All that comes in the shape of a young woman’s fortune may be taken by any man.

That’s a pretty naked, almost astonishing, statement of the rules governing social relations in the upper-middle classes in Victorian England. Men can’t give property to one another — that suggests a dangerous liberality that can upset the established hierarchy. Marriage functions as a vetting process that permits such transfers out of the family — or consolidates property according to the wishes of scions. (Not by accident does much of the novel’s plot revolve around Lily’s sister Bell refusing to marry her cousin Bernard Dale, an arrangement the squire demands. Not by accident does Clarissa have the same basic plot about compelled marriage for the sake of property management.) The point is that woman’s constancy certifies (perhaps only metaphorically, in the symbolic economy of novels) her fitness as a financial instrument that makes property liquid for a brief window of time within the constraints of social custom.

Lily Dale’s stubborn faithfulness to Crosbie, who dumped her for an aristocrat when he discovered she had no money to bring to a marriage, seems almost to make a deliberate mockery of the expectations placed on women. Having been valued once, she refuses to be repriced in a secondary market. She represents a kind of opportunity cost or a frozen asset; she refuses to facilitate the property shift the earl wants to engender for Eames’s benefit, and he is forced to work outside the established system, helping usher in its eventual destruction. Soon it will be impossible to use marriage to preserve the aristocratic order; soon there will just be capital circulating freely.

Here’s how she describes her stubbornness: “What can a heart be worth if it can be transferred hither and thither as circumstance and convenience and comfort may require?” She seems to believe that limiting herself to being used for only one exchange (that failed) preserves her value (in the form of self-worth). Another way to put that is that she has value to herself only when she can’t be exchanged or facilitate exchange; her self-value disappears when she becomes the mere conduit for value transfers between other parties. So she takes an unfair system to its absurd extreme to illustrate just how intransigent women must be to retain self-worth when they are begrudgingly permitted only one significant decision in their lives (who to marry). This is why some commentators interpret Lily Dale as being in love with herself and glad to be jilted — she gets to have the value of her choice continually reinforced with none of the unpleasantness of outgrowing that choice once consummated and watching its significance dwindle.

But the underlying tragedy her situation suggests is that women can’t feel themselves to be appreciated within the context of ordinary domesticity — the happy life that Crosbie is often depicted as imagining in despair from within the domestic hell of life with Lady Alexandrina. Instead female self-worth depends on being suspended in pre-matrimonial limbo, affianced but never married. They can only have a kind of fictitious, theoretical value that finds no expression in the everyday practice of adult love.