Jonathan Beller’s "Paying Attention"

For a while I have been interested in the way that attention can add value, as a form of immaterial labor that enhances the sign/symbolic value of things — the attention that attenuates meaning. Attention qua attention may not entirely qualify as this sort of labor yet, but it may in the data trail that our attention produces online. This can be monetized in the connections it produces, the associations. “People who liked this also liked that” — that sort of thing. One offers this data by virtue of using online media; even if one establishes credibility as an innovative tastemaker, one couldn’t, as things stand, withhold the data trail one creates — one can only choose disconnectivity. That sort of pursuit of isolation seems appealing only when you consider how you are being “ripped off” and having your identity-making “stolen” from you by marketers. But the climate of social media makes such conclusions seem reasonable, “realistic,” ideologically appropriate.

Thinking about attention as capital implies that we are alienating our own attention span, abstracting it rather than allowing it to be a spontaneous consequence of our inner motivations. We spend attention rationally, as an investment or to win the exchange, rather than as a consequence of finding ourselves absorbed, giving over our attention with no expectation of future reward, simply for the pleasures of being engaged in the moment. Imagining we have some attention as capital to invest rationally for profit seems to spring up with the idea that we are a personal brand whose equity must be built. But if we are a brand investing our attention, what sort of “being” is behind those concepts to actually profit from the activity, and what form does the “profit” actually take? Mustn’t our being engrossed in something be in its own reward? Otherwise, we have abstracted ourselves out of life itself. (Which is to say “value” to the individual is a matter of being engaged in something, absorbed with it. Otherwise the value is strictly theoretical, unable to be actualized. It’s frozen, dead like Marx says of capital generally, which is why he occasionally expresses an ironic pity for capitalists, who are turned dead inside.)

Jonathan Beller’s The Cinematic Mode of Production: Towards a Political Economy of the Society of the Spectacle is about these ideas, I think, but I haven’t yet read it. In the meantime, I’ve read this 2006 essay in Cabinet, which presumably condenses the core ideas. In the essay, he also concludes that the “final subsumption of our cognitive-linguistic capacities by capital (and its huge industries dedicated to the production of signs) is the mark of the real subsumption of society by capital and the full economicization not only of culture but of what was once called ‘human.’ ” That is, there is nothing beyond capital for its own sake — no humans outside the system who are “using” capital for some other noble end, or even for self-satisfaction. The self disappears into capital; it is an effect of its circulation, not the thing that does the circulating. (That circulating happens automatically, presumably on account of the total system set in motion as capital was subsuming everything.) That we can talk about the “attention economy” without sounding insane means that the facility has been subsumed by capital, can be understood by its logic of measuring, commoditizing, circulating, and profit-seeking.

Beller’s essay is densely theoretical and to my mind needlessly obscure, but interesting nonetheless. Still think a lot of what he’s arguing has been superseded by recent and more comprehensible analyses of social media. Actually, Virno, whom Beller cites at the end, is way more lucid on the subject of the “general intellect” that our various media organize. Total mediation of experience means that all of that “general intellect” is captured in exploitable form and can be alienated from the common, privatized as proprietary information.

Beller draws on some of the management/marketing hoopla about the “attention economy,” which is “built upon the premise becoming conviction, becoming fact, that human attention is productive of value.” As I understand it, that is not the same as when our attention is the product being sold. When attention can be reliably measured, it can be monetized, it can be brokered and sold. This has long been the case with Nielsen’s measuring “audiences” broken into demographics for mass media (“selling eyeballs”), but new internet micromedia and emerging social media have put individuals’ attention span into play. In the economic climate of measurement and metering, we shouldn’t assign (give is now the wrong word) our attention to anything without receiving something in return. Awareness of this “opportunity” is what threatens to prompt our self-exploitation. We are tempted to withhold genuine attention we would naturally give to something in hopes of some other reward than the fact we have been seduced. Beller describes this as a matter of humans being reduced (or reducing themselves in exchange for spectacle-pleasures) to a medium for data. (In his estimable prose: “This brutal calculus that renders human biomass into a mere substrate for information, is symptomatic of the qualitative transformation of the cinematic mode of production into the world-media system”)

Attention as “creating value” is something slightly different. This makes attention into a kind of labor that seizes upon a thing and makes it richer. Knowing that you looked at a painting, say, and possibly commented on it and interpreted it could make it a more valuable object to everyone else. Beller writes: “Phenomena such as the cult of the celebrity or the fetish for the painted masterpiece are revealing—the celebrity is not an individual but a social relation characterized by the accumulation of attention, and similarly the masterpiece accumulates the value of all of the gazes that have fallen upon it.”

At one level, this is another way of conceiving network effects — the more people who use certain thing, the more utility it has for all the users and the more value it has for the owner of the network — and presumably the more the owner can ultimately charge for its use. With social networks like Facebook, the users aren’t charged directly; instead the value of their attention is expropriated and sold to advertisers. So this is not that different from the classic radio-TV model, nothing has really changed except the programming, which Facebook gets for free. “Network effects” measure utility benefits to users but also measure the size of the captive audience for the marketers parasitically attaching themselves to that utility (assuming the utility for users is not in the “information” that ads supply — not as safe an assumption as it might seem).

But Beller has something different in mind. He associates moving images with assembly lines, and sees film viewers as paradigmatic attention-laborers. Then he drops this passage on our heads:

This new machine-body interface known as the cinema acted directly on the imagination to harness attention as a force of social production. The visible world and the Imaginary (the unconscious) became technologically linked and constantly retooled to create an industrial technologization of the Imaginary that today has become generalized. Moving images, the utilization of which valorizes their media as well as modifies spectators, result in the continuous modification of a collective, variegated operating platform that images the world and its relations in exchange for pleasure, social “know-how,” what-have-you. Thus “the image” creates the techno-social modifications necessary to engineer the adaptive forms of social cooperation that have become the pre-requisites for the preservation of capital and capitalist hierarchy.

What? Need help. I think he’s saying that watching movies changes viewers by changing the sort of pleasure available to them, and then in exchange for that pleasure. These changed viewers are then more likely to reproduce the social relations needed for what sometimes gets called post-Fordist or postindustrial capitalism — a capitalism that exploits worker cooperation and communication (or the “general intellect”) to a greater degree. The key idea, I guess, is that cinema is a way (a “technology”) to unlock the “Imaginary” to systematic exploitation — making “spectacle” and “images” into salable commodities. The result is “socially produced stupidity”: Beller asserts that “Americans are stupid by design.”

In other words, cinema uses entertainment as manipulation; it is culture-industry product; it is a vector for ideological fine tuning. The media are the “practical organization of attention” and represent “the viral penetration of the logistics of capital into the life-world that turns revolutionary desires (for self-realization, for survival) into the life-blood of a growing totalitarianism.” I’ve probably said similar things about Facebook. It reproduces the conditions that have allowed for inequality, thereby making them worse.

Not sure why he needs to stress visual culture when the problem is mediatization, which occurs in language as well. I suppose visual culture reifies images and accustoms us to that idea that they are on-demand, that pleasurable experience can be reliably bought. Beller wants to argue that capitalism has a vested interest in making culture more visual and less verbal; I don’t think this distinction matters all that much; language and images can be equally degraded, and neither has a special, pure relation to being or reflexivity. Everything is always already mediated (reality and TV are “inseparable,” as Beller says), but in language and images, right? I also don’t think this lens helps clarify the plight of the “slum people,” as Beller calls the people in impoverished cities outside of the major economies.

I kept waiting for Beller to define the “value” he’s talking about attention creating, but this is simply assumed. People want your attention, thus it is valuable, thus value is created. But value here is divorced from any notion of ultimate utility. I wanted a look into attention as meaning-making.

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