Monthly Archives: September 2011

"The Soviets of the Multitude" — interview with Paolo Virno

This interview with Virno, conducted by Alexi Penzin (of chto delat), helped clarify some things for me about how the collectivity of the multitude is supposed to work in theory. The idea is still predicated on what seems to me a faith-based notion of the general intellect, but here the general intellect becomes a political organizational principle, leading to neo-Soviets that challenge the state’s monopoly on decision-making by co-opting its provisional functions.

1. Penzin describes artists as the ultimate expression of post-Fordist “living labor”: “contemporary art provides the quintessence of virtuosic practices: the subjectivity of the contemporary artist is probably the brightest expression of the flexible, mobile, non-specialized substance of contemporary ‘living labor.’ ” Interesting. This is part of my suspicion of performance artists, and narcissist art: at its core, it is an expression of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism perfected would consist of a world where we are all performance artist-entrepreneurs creating value through their innovative lives, all of which will be atomized and mediated and reprocessed within the various commercial/advertising social-media networks — a world where the perpetual making of personal subjectivity is the generalized productive process powering the economy. (A legitimate question is whether that is so bad — the question Virno, et al., pose by reconfiguring such uber-neoliberalism as a sort of communist liberation.) I think there is something sinister in the real subsumption of selfhood, the condition in which we can only have identity on such terms, as a mediated, reified consumer-good-like product — one that comes with a great deal of insecurity and unmitigatable risk. (Has there ever been an alternative?, cynics might ask.)

2. Penzin describes Virno’s view of subjectivity by way of Gilbert Simondon: “You take as a point of departure Gilbert Simondon’s conception of the collective as something that is not opposed to the individual but, on the contrary, is a field of radical individualization: the collective refines our singularity. Recalling Marx’s notion of the ‘social individual,’ which presupposes that the collective (language, social cooperation, etc) and the individual coexist, you elaborate quite a paradoxical definition of Marx’s theory as a ‘doctrine of rigorous individualism.’ ” Virno refers to Vygotsky. But the premise is the same before the I comes a primordial us. Vygotsky: “the real movement of the development process of the child’s thought is accomplished not from the individual to the socialized, but from the social to the individual.” Virno posits that this is an ongoing move that echoes throughout our lives: “We constantly have to deal with the interiority of the public and with the publicity of the interior.” This view of subjectivity corresponds to the idea of capitalist society providing the preconditions to experience a particular form of possessive individualism as subjectivity, one that is then represented in ideology as being “natural” and/or “rational.” We must be socialized into individualism, as paradoxical as that may sound. For Virno, virtuosic post-Fordist labor is the performance of this transformation, of the social becoming simultaneously individuated in a group of subjects working together: “The virtuosic execution stages this transformation. If we think of contemporary production, we must understand that each individual is, at the same time, the artist performing the action and the audience: he performs individually while he assists the other’s performances.” The emphasis on “performance” is not accidental — his theory basically posits the performance of the self’s individuality among others as the main mode of production, as the way post-Fordist production happens.

3. Penzin sums up Virno’s theory of “human nature” as permanent precarity under neoliberalism:

As you say, what we nowadays call “human nature” is the basic “raw material” for the capitalist production. “Human nature” interpreted as a set of “bio-anthropological invariants,” as a kind of potentiality referring to the faculty of language, to neoteny as the retention of juvenile traits in adult behavior, to “openness to the world” (i.e. the absence of fixed environment), etc. You state that these anthropological invariants become sociological traits of a post-Fordist labor force, expressing themselves as permanent precariousness, flexibility, and the need to act in unpredictable situations. Post-Fordist capitalism does not “alienate” human nature, but rather reveals it at the center of contemporary production, and by the same move, exposes it to apparatuses of exploitation and control. Former ways of easing the painful uncertainty and instability of human behavior through ritual mechanisms and traditional social institutions melt into air.

Neoliberalism takes some aspects of our species and configures them as mandatory atomization and competitive entrepreneurialism, as requisite and ongoing insecurity, as the “permanent revolution” of capitalism in action.

4. I wish I understood what this meant in practical terms: Virno says, “If examined as productive realities, the micro-collectives you mention have mainly the merit of socializing the entrepreneurial function: instead of being separated and hierarchically dominant, this function is progressively reabsorbed by living labor, thus becoming a pervasive element of social cooperation. We are all entrepreneurs, even if an intermittent, occasional, contingent way.” How exactly do these ad hoc collectives socialize the entrepreneurial function? Is he talking about nonprofits replacing for-profits? Or something more nebulous? If we are all entrepreneurs, what is wrong with neoliberalism harnessing that potential? What good is it to characterize creativity as entrepreneurial? That seems to imply zero-sum competition for economic resources via innovation, spurious or otherwise. Seems like cooperation would replace entrepreneurship rather than emulate it. I need someone to explain this passage to me — has something to do with these new work organizational forms as enacting an “enterprising subtraction from the rules of wage labor.” Seems like he is talking about free labor, collaborative consumption, crowdsourcing, wealth of networks kind of thing. The freely supplied labor of many is whittled down to something productive/useful that is “owned” collectively.

5. That’s how Penzin seems to develop the idea anyway:

under the conditions of post-Fordism, collective work can be organized through “subtraction” when the result of the work is inferior to the sum of the collective effort. This becomes a sort of exception, an unexpected innovation (“the whole is less than the sum of the parts”). On the other hand, if not considered in terms of products, such collective work produces a feeling of strong subjectivity and strength, valorizing each member of the collective.

The last bit is a hopeful assertion, it seems to me; that those whose effort is subtracted will still feel like a meaningful part of the team and affirmed in their individual contribution. Virno replies with a similar faith-based claim, that this mode of production creates a ghostly surplus, a sort of accursed share: “Nowadays, the quota of collective intelligence that is thrown away in the production of goods is not physically destroyed, but somehow remains there, as a ghost, as a non-used resource that is still available. The power that is freed by the sum of the parts, even if not expressed in its whole, meet a very different destiny. Sometimes it becomes frustration and melancholic inertia, or it generates pitiless competition and hysterical ambition. In other cases, it can be used as a propeller for subversive political action.” He just asserts that this energy exists, waiting to be unleashed or corralled or channeled or dissipated. It may very well be that the extra collective intelligence in social production is wasted, used up, extinguished, dissipated in the act of production and does not linger, does not generate a resource for resistance. This supposed energy is akin to Shirky’s digital surplus — a theoretical possibility that may not manifest itself.

6. Penzin and Virno have an exchange about real vs. formal subsumption of the general intellect. Penzin attributes to Virno the idea that formal subsumption has returned with post-Fordism, in contrast to the Negrian view that real subsumption has proceeded further, subsuming more of everyday life. “Referring to Marx’s dichotomy, you say that this means a return to ‘formal subsumption.’ Therefore, capitalists do not organize the whole chain of production process, they just capture, and commodify, spontaneous, ‘self-organized’ social collaborations and their products.” I think that is how understand the business model of social-media companies — they provide the playing field for self-creating labor that can be harvested for other purposes, made profitable for the field providers. Facebook is the social factory. Virno articulates it using a motif Zizek has also used: contemporary work conditions “order us to be spontaneous” — this contradiction, Virno calls formal subsumption. It seems to me that to the degree that this command is general, you get the sort of psychic maladies that Bifo talks about in his nutty e-flux articles. Living that contradiction is psychic precarity; it is a manifestation of capital’s impossible demands for endless innovation, endless accumulation, appropriating and devouring everything subjects need to sustain themselves spiritually (to get all metaphysical myself).

7. I thought Virno’s summation of his intellectual tradition was pretty compelling:

The critique of that modern barbarity that is wage labor, dependent on the employer, the critique of that “monopoly of the political decision” that is the State — these were our references in the 1960s and 1970s, and they still are today. These references made us enemies of the real and ideal socialism. From the beginning, our tradition longed for the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the CPSU. It was divorced from the culture and the values of the “labor movement,” and this allowed it to understand the meaning of the labor fights against the wage. It recognized capitalism’s devotion to “permanent revolution,” to the continuing innovation of the labor process and ways of life, in order to avoid astonishment or lament, since the production of surplus value is no longer connected to the factory and sovereignty does not coincide any more with the nation-states.

He goes on to connect this with the new soviets, how they can work to dismantle the state. “The leagues, the assemblies, the soviets — in short, the organs of non-representative democracy — give political expression to the productive cooperation that has at its core the general intellect. The soviets of the multitude produce a conflict with the State’s administrative apparatuses, with the aim of eating away at its prerogatives and absorbing its functions.” I wish that came with specific concrete examples too. Does he mean the way Palestinian groups and the Taliban provide welfare services to win consent? Does he mean something more spontaneous and less tactical? Such a view can easily devolve into compassionate conservatism, where the state retreats from welfare-state functions but retains the monopoly on violence and power, using it to protect capitalist interests and the “level playing field” market and the legitimations that stem from it.

Bauman’s Consuming Life, cont’d

The corpse of this text has grown cold for me — read it to long ago to make much sense of my notes at this point. But I won’t be able to let it go until I dutifully record them here.

See if I can remember where I left off — the book is open on my desk to this marginal note: “consumption to consumerism — life organized around consumption as work, not as an opposition, though, but an integration.” Bauman is extrapolating from Mary Douglas’s work on the uses of consumption to organize communities and identity, to illustrate who is inside and who is outside and so on. Identity derives not from performing some useful production for society but from consuming in an overtly meaningful way respected by the community. Whether one has thee capability to consume in this way may or may not be a consequence of having done some productive work at some point. Bauman stresses that identity derives from consuming rather than producing in consumerist societies; I think it leads to consuming being synonymous with producing, albeit on the level of signs — as Baudrillard’s work suggests, consumerism is a matter of the production and circulation of signs; it requires a society in which signs are fungible, readily malleable, liquid, as Bauman would say.

This leads to a liquid self-identity, to insatiability as an index of one’s capacity for “life” — which is quantified in terms of commodities consumed.

On the road to the society of consumers, the human desire for stability has to turn, and indeed does turn, from a principal systemic asset into the system’s major, perhaps potentially fatal liability, a cause of disruption or malfunction. It could hardly be otherwise, since consumerism, in sharp opposition to the preceding forms of life, associates happiness not so much with the gratification of needs (as its ‘official transcripts’ tend to imply), as with an ever rising volume and intensity of desires, which imply in turn prompt use and speedy replacement of the objects intended and hoped to gratify them; it combines, as Don Slater aptly put it, an insatiability of needs with the urge and imperative ‘always to look to commodities for their satisfaction’

Consumer societies rely on subjects who are compelled to accelerate their consumption as a way of experiencing it as pleasurable and meaningful; this compulsion requires vigorous ideological support, as such behavior generates a great deal of insecurity, ontological and otherwise. “Consumer society thrives as long as it manages to render the non-satisfaction of its members (and so, in its own terms, their unhappiness) perpetual.” (47) It must manufacture frustration and make it seem like an appealing new commodity.

The ideologically glorified acceleration leads to an accompanying feeling of perpetual harriedness. pleasure-disappointment cycles accelerate with consumption, which fragments into a series of disconnected moments, each an attempt to achieve a “big bang” of retail joy. Bauman suggests that integration of desires over time into a coherent identity becomes secondary to this impulsivity. At the same time, this fragmentation masks the effort required to sustain pleasure from consumption. It militates against connoisseurship as effort, offers connoisseurship as superficial cataloging of experiences. (36) He quotes Eriksen: “information society offers cascades of decontextualized signs…it becomes increasingly difficult to create narratives, orders, developmental sequences. The fragments threaten to become hegemonic.”

Procrastination emerges as a form of quasi resistance, necessary for keeping options open in accordance to consumerist ethos, but generally experienced as shameful. Sustained effort on one particular endeavor is at the same time a forfeiture of other consumption chances; procrastination is a flawed attempt to pre-empt inefficient consumption. Bauman, anticipating Bifo, identifies “melancholy” as another involuntary mode of resistance. Both are ways to suspend investment and flatten affect in response to an overload of information and resulting combinatory possibilities for identity construction. Bauman calls melancholy the “life strategy of last resort” that results from “the fatal encounter between the obligation and compulsion to choose/the addiction to choosing, and the inability to choose” (42).

Bauman claims that in consumerist societies “the pursuit of happiness – the purpose most often invoked and used as bait in marketing campaigns aimed at boosting consumers’ willingness to part with their money (earned money, or money expected to be earned) – tends to be refocused from making things or their appropriation (not to mention their storage) to their disposal.” Bataille’s concern with expenditure perhaps ties in here — the hidden yet compelling need to waste and destroy through consumption that on its face presents itself as a mode of accumulation of stuff for consumers. Always the hidden tension between consumerism as amassing material property and consumerism as effective demand and consumption — clearing the surplus for subsequent cycles of capitalist production. I think this is the best way to understand the elevated cultural profile of hoarding. Damaged subjects refuse to inhabit the mandatory contradiction and begin accumulating without wasting.

“Expenditure” (waste, deciet, etc.) thus serves the collective purpose of supporting a capitalist system even if it appears irrational, impulsive, destructive, gratuitous, etc., at the individual level. These are not malfunctions, but proof of functioning.

In consumer societies, “frictionless” exchange serves as a model for sociality, since affective labor (like all labor) can’t be regarded as pleasurable in its own right. All performance, Bauman notes, are “solo performances.” Instead of the pleasures of collaboration, consumerism seeks to structure such affective labor involved in cooperation, politeness, etc., as a competitive attention war, a game of status. The ethic of convenience that accelerates consumption hypostatizes and becomes a way to interpret affective labor as something that one must capitalize on, not “give away” for its own sake, or sake of collective solidarity.

Hence this disturbing observation:

It is just as Emmanuel Levinas adumbrated when he mused that rather than being a contraption making peaceful and friendly human togetherness achievable for inborn egoists (as Hobbes suggested), ‘society’ may be a stratagem to make a self-centred, self-referential, egotistic life attainable for endemically moral human beings – through cutting out, neutralizing or silencing that haunting ‘responsibility for the Other’ which is born each time the face of the Other appears; indeed, a responsibility inseparable from human togetherness . . .

Being “social” in consumer capitalism means being empowered to be selfish in the face of what Levinas believes are self-evident moral obligations. Society lets discard them in the name of productivity, etc. “Society” means permitting individuals to rationalize their choice of convenience over responsibility to others, calling it productivity. (Seems applicable to this.) Convenience is the means by which more and more of everyday life is subsumed to the individualist ethos and morality of endlessly acquisitive capitalism.

The second chapter of Consuming Life deals with “flawed consumers,” the have-nots who are held responsible for their own condition because to think otherwise would be to upend the ideology about consumer choice being equivalent to democracy. It would expose the hollowness of one’s own power.

Consumption, again, is not for pleasure. Bauman suggests that consumers view goods as personal-brand investments. Consumption has become production; attention to semiotic value of goods a kind of necessary capital. But the key effect for Bauman is self-commoditization — regarding oneself as a consumer good in a society that only knows how to measure the value of consumer goods:

The crucial, perhaps the decisive purpose of consumption in the society of consumers (even if it is seldom spelled out in so many words and still less frequently publicly debated) is not the satisfaction of needs, desires and wants, but the commoditization or recommoditization of the consumer: raising the status of consumers to that of sellable commodities…. Members of the society of consumers are themselves consumer commodities, and it is the quality of being a consumer commodity that makes them bona fide members of that society. (57)

We have no choice but to self-brand because it is the only way to take the measure of ourselves.

The entrepreneurial risks involved with self-commodification and identity building cannot be defrayed by government — they are beyond the welfare state and can be argued by neoliberalists to obviate it. Social success on the measure of identity invalidates collectivity as a goal — the point is to be recognized as a unique individual who has invested in personal brand wisely, who has consumed well, whose consumption tastes are valuable.

In consumer societies, groups are supplanted by leaderless “swarms” held to together by mediated imitation and tactical conformity. As a result, “Consumption is a supremely solitary activity (perhaps even the archetype of solitude), even when it happens to be conducted in company.” It generates no “lasting bonds,” Bauman avers, in the face of cultural theorists who claim consumption communities around culture-industry products. Bauman is thinking more about things like fast food:

We may suppose that the ‘unintended consequence’ of ‘fast food’, ‘take-aways’ or ‘TV dinners’ (or perhaps rather their ‘latent function’, and the true cause of their unstoppable rise in popularity) is either to make the gatherings around the family table redundant, so putting an end to the shared consumption, or to symbolically endorse the loss, by an act of commensality, consuming in company, of the onerous bondtying and bond-reaffirming characteristics it once had but which have become irrelevant or even undesirable in the liquid modern society of consumers. ‘Fast food’ is there to protect the solitude of lone consumers. 

Lost community is recast as convenience, which is designed to protect the subject’s ability to consume rather than confer and consort with others.

In chapter three Bauman discusses “consumerist culture,” which is distinguished by the inversion of productivist virtues, like procrastination, duration, endurance, etc. “The ‘consumerist syndrome’ is all about speed, excess and waste.” Hence, you can see hoarder shows as ideological training in this perspective. “The nightmares that haunt Homo consumens are things, inanimate or animate, or their shadows – the memories of things, animate or inanimate – that threaten to outstay their welcome and clutter up the stage . . . (99)”

He quotes Bourdieu on how “coercion” has been replaced by “stimulation” — a variant on the Frankfurt School/Foucauldian theme that people are dominated through pleasure and gratification. New desires are aroused and graitfied as a mode of control, as opposed to the inculcation of ascetic etiquette. This is sold as a kind of personal responsibility to please oneself — “you owe it to yourself to consume like you deserve.”

‘Responsibility’ now means, first and last, responsibility to oneself (‘you owe this to yourself’, ‘you deserve it’, as the traders in ‘relief from responsibility’ put it), while ‘responsible choices’ are, first and last, those moves serving the interests and satisfying the desires of the self.

This is the application of “enlightened self-interest” in consumerist terms — playing on the concept of the rational as the self-serving. And it’s our duty to be rational, after all.

Consumerist subjectivity also hinges on making waste rational, on instituting the pleasures of destruction and wasting, the relief of clearing the deck for further consumption, the necessity of being up to date in what you consume. “The ‘presentist culture’ ‘puts a premium on speed and effectiveness, while favouring neither patience nor perseverance.’ We may add that it is this frailty and apparently easy disposability of individual identities and interhuman bonds that are represented in contemporary culture as the substance of individual freedom.” Convenience is freedom from human interaction is freedom in general, an escape into the present away from death, responsibility. Then communications technology develops to accommodate this — allowing for control over disconnection (107). “The safety device that allows instantaneous disconnection on demand perfectly fits the essential precepts of the consumerist culture; but social bonds, and the skills needed to tie them and service them, are its first and principal collateral casualties.”

Identity ceases to be an incremental developmental process, but becomes liquid assembly of static signs, a constant burden requiring service, requiring display for validation, strategic development, etc. (111). “Rather than a gift (let alone a ‘free gift’, to recall the pleonastic phrase coined by marketing advisers), identity is a sentence to lifelong hard labour.”

Here’s a summary paragraph of the book’s ideas — producerism has given way to consumerism; work no longer anchors identity but consumerism and mastering its code and manufacturing identity in media is an effort to restabilize it:

Contemporary society engages its members primarily as consumers; only secondarily, and in part, does it engage them as producers. To meet the standards of normality, to be  acknowledged as a fully fl edged, right and proper member of society, one needs to respond promptly and effi ciently to the temptations of the consumer market; one needs to contribute regularly to the ‘demand that clears supply’, while in times of economic turndown or stagnation
being party to the ‘consumer-led recovery’. All this the poor and indolent, people lacking a decent income, credit cards and the prospect of better days, are not fi t to do. Accordingly, the norm broken by the poor of today, the norm the breaking of which sets them apart and labels them as ‘abnormal’, is the norm of consumer competence or aptitude, not that of employment.

So is the answer a general boycott? a refusal to be effective demand to sustain consumerism? What induces subjects formed by consumerism to surrender the pleasures of it, if they are in a rough equilibrium with its insecurities and depredations?

Bonus notes:
Bauman quotes Alain Ehrenberg on the idea that suffering comes from a surfeit of possibility rather than from prohibitions. Seems a little myopic not to consider material deprivation.

Reputation systems are a mode of social deskilling.

Real and formal subsumption

I have been trying to read Negri’s Marx Beyond Marx. Frequently I have a hard time figuring out what is even at stake in the arguments he’s making; it seems as though he is trying to ground a proof of working-class agency in some finely wrought quasi-Hegelian piece of dialectical deduction. I don’t find this particularly useful, but I am still drawn to his reading of Marx’s ideas about technology and “real subsumption.”

What follows is my attempt to make some sense of those idea. To begin with, I found this definition, from the “What in the hell…” blog, useful in figuring out what some of the stakes are in Negri:

Marx defined real subsumption of labor in the “Results of the Immediate Process of Production,” the so-called unpublished sixth chapter of Capital Volume One (a translation here). Real subsumption is defined in contrast to formal subsumption of labor. Formal subsumption occurs when capitalists take command of labor processes that originate outside of or prior to the capital relation via the imposition of the wage. In real subsumption the labor process is internally reorganized to meet the dictates of capital. An example of these processes would be weaving by hand which comes to be labor performed for a wage (formal subsumption) and which then comes to be performed via machine (real subsumption). Real subsumption in this sense is a process or technique that occurs at different points throughout the history of capitalism. For some thinkers, such as Antonio Negri, real subsumption of labor is transfigured into real subsumption of society such that all of society becomes a moment of capitalist production. In this version of real subsumption is an epoch, a stage of capitalism within a historical periodization, analogous to postmodernity.

“Real subsumption” is akin, then, to post-Fordism or the “social factory”; the move from formal to real subsumption is arguably a matter of technological development, as directed by capitalism. Technology reorganizes society to lend support to the imposition of wage labor, and the commoditization of more and more of everyday life, of “living labor” or even life itself, as a presupposition, a given. So those of us who precede the “digital natives,” for instance, are subject to “formal” subsumption of friendship — suddenly being “paid” a kind of wage for translating their social lives into preformatted data. Digital natives will be subject to “real” subsumption, in that using social media, etc., will seem like the necessary precondition for friendship.

I don’t know how useful that jargon is, ultimately, but it captures an important “passage,” as Negri would say, in the conjoined development of technology and capitalism. Capitalism continues to expand as it must by subsuming more of social life to the way it organizes relations, configuring encounters as opportunities for commodification and profit extraction, as moments of competition between exchanging parties — as moments of class struggle, in Negri’s account.

The point of emphasizing the passage from formal to real subsumption is to highlight it as a point around which resistance can be organized. In general, if you accept that our being or subjectivity is economically determined, then the function of dialectical criticism is to open up imaginative spaces in which resistance to determinism can be conceived — cracking open the surface of relations to reveal hidden “contradictions” as moments of possibility, of alternatives, of autonomy and opportunity for self-determination.

A critique of technology can be organized around preventing the formal-to-real-subsumption passage, preventing the implementation of technology to grease the skids of this epochal transformation. One way is the “Luddite” approach of rejecting technology, breaking machines, clinging to outmoded work processes that may limit productivity gains but also prevent deskilling from being implemented by management through technology. Or to expand that to Web 2.0 conditions, one rejects social media to prevent social deskilling, the erosion of social skills. We refuse to let convenience and efficiency govern social lives, avoid the seductive trap of narcissism that technology lays out for us, and instead choose slow, more difficult social relations characterized by less frequent but more intensive face-to-face communications. The point is to resist the mediation of sociality, resist turning our various intimate communications into moments for capitalistic commodification, even when they promise to enhance our personal brand or bring us profit/attention/social recognition (on capitalism’s terms). But this strategy has the disadvantage of forcing those who adopt it to live separately from the mainstream of society, as conscientious rejectors, which ultimately isolates them and makes them an ignorable subculture within a capitalist society that proceeds without them.

One can alternatively proselytize for dropping out. One could try to use subversively the technology that capitalist development has brought, deploying it against the real subsumption it is designed to foster. In other words, one could use social-media technology to continually announce the dangers incipient within it.

That seems somewhat facile (the subsumption captures resistance; it makes Che into Che T-shirts) and open to accusations of hypocrisy (though it is basically what I do — I’m doubling down on hypocrisy here), which is probably why Negri and his followers advocate pushing through this passage, totalizing it, and seizing that complete unification of the working class in social life as always already production as the condition of the transition to communism. But such a program still seems like cooperating with capital, merely relabeling its prerogatives with radical terminology. At this point I am content to try and think about how formal and real subsumption are progressing on the front of everyday life. The relevant terminology for that seems to be things like affective labor, immaterial labor, emotional labor, erotic capital. One way of understanding neoliberalism, too, is to see it as the passage to real subsumption.

Anyway. Even when I can’t figure out what Negri is getting at in his glosses in Marx Beyond Marx, he consistently excerpts fascinating passages from the Grundrisse. I think this is pretty awesome, for example:

Capital’s ceaseless striving towards the general form of wealth drives labour beyond the limits of its natural paltriness [Naturbedürftigkeit], and thus creates the material elements for the development of the rich individuality which is as all-sided in its production as in its consumption, and whose labour also therefore appears no longer as labour, but as the full development of activity itself, in which natural necessity in its direct form has disappeared; because a historically created need has taken the place of the natural one. This is why capital is productive; i.e. an essential relation for the development of the social productive forces. It ceases to exist as such only where the development of these productive forces themselves encounters its barrier in capital itself.

This strikes me as a key idea about technology with respect to capital. Pursuit of profit (i.e. the elaboration of the capital relation) drives us to extend our ideas of what is “necessary” in life — beyond the classic Conan formulation of “Crush your enemies, see them driven before you and hear the lamentations of the women,” if you will. So cooperation with capital appears to be an extension of the self, McLuhan style — an opportunity to become more “all-sided” and thus consume/enjoy more, and regard these acts of consumption as fundamental to who are. That is, we start to regard consumption as “productive,” as expressing our basic capacity to do things. Marx seems to suggest here that “individuality” as we experience it is actually contingent on capitalism — the degree to which we are constituted by the relations it posits. This is why “individualism” should be held in some suspicion — this seems easier to do, actually, with the advent of technology, as this kind of individualism now so obviously manifests as personal branding. (Maybe there is some sort of negation of the negation at work. Individualism that was once a product of “real subsumption” suddenly seems an alien thing that we are obliged to operate, develop.)

It seems to me that we then come to depend on the technology, as it is embedded in capitalism, that elaborates consumption as opportunities for self-expression. Mediating consumption makes it appear productive: To the consumers, it makes it expressive of the self to an audience as opposed to a private moment of sustenance, and to capital, mediation makes consumption into data that is raw material for further production (i.e. it becomes more capital). We cooperate willingly with the subsumption process because it appears as a kind of liberation into a new of wonderful all-sidedness, even though these new sides are opened to us only as moments of exploitation, ultimately — the new sides are just new ways to work for someone else through the technology. But the hope is that we can reclaim these new sides to ourselves and render them autonomous from capital. That seems to be Negri’s hope anyway, and the healthy gist of the argument in Multitude as I understand it.

Gamification as ideological vector

Sorry about the abstruse title, but I couldn’t think of a concise way of summing up the point I want to make, inspired by this innocuous-seeming tout on Lifehacker for a browser extension that turns responding to emails into a game. (Also I’ve been reading Negri — not good for anyone’s prose style.)

This summmary touches on all the rhetoric that makes gamification so insidious:

The developer behind The Email Game reminds us of the time when getting email used to be fun, and says it can be again with the help of The Email Game. If you’re the type who can’t help but earn arbitrary points and badges in online games, The Email Game is perfect for you.

Each message you open or respond to starts a timer, and you’ll get points based on how quickly you decide what to do with it or how quickly and concisely you respond to it. Accumulate enough points and you’ll level up. In the end, the goal is to get you to play your way to a cleaner inbox and better email management habits.

Gamification delivers on what the internet promises in capturing people’s attention — it closes the trap the internet sets, locking us into patterns of compulsive productivity that have little to do with us, substituting placatory and infantilizing pseudo-goals for whatever motivations and larger personal aspirations we might otherwise have had.

The ruse behind gamification is to seize upon apparently innate human addictive tendencies, the irresistibility of having ourselves mirrored in quantified form, and exploit them for seemingly benign purposes of enhanced personal productivity or “fun”. Who doesn’t want to have fun? But gamification takes as its starting point that most tasks are inherently not worth doing (a generalization of the stultifying effects of the division of labor and the alienation of wage labor) and contrives a motivational system that precludes the possibility of working from inspiration, in accordance with some intrinsic personal desire, some self-conceived goal. Instead gamification tells us that no motivation we can draw on from our inner resources is likely to amount to anything — the soul’s vocation is irrelevant to relations in capitalist society. There’s no badge for not selling out.

What is relevant is competition for its own sake, a theoretically unlimited need to beat others and to take satisfaction in that simple fact alone. And in return for this satisfaction, one voluntarily quantifies one’s behavior and allows oneself to be represented online as captured data. One participates in turning oneself into what Deleuze calls, in the “Postscript on Societies of Control” (pdf), a “dividual” — less a self than a floating set of code open to manipulation and reconstitution by outside institutional programmers. (Robert Gehl notes the link between Web 2.0 protocols and dividuation in this paper at First Monday.) Becoming a dividual allows, for example, recommendation engines and content filters to tell us what we want to have, what we want to know, and thus to a degree what we will become. The more we restrict ourselves to online activity — another bonus of gamification is that it weds us to online forums — the more data we generate about ourselves, and the more our “self” and our subjectivity can be redeployed, reconsitituted by outside institutions.

In online gamification, competition for its own sake requires no concrete opponents; their presence can be taken as implied by the openness of the network and is translated by the structure of many gamification schemes into a series of levels that can imply different percentiles of achievement. In this post, this tactic is explicitly stated in the idiom of role-playing games (“leveling up”), whose seemingly gratuitous appearance in the Lifehacker post serves to reinforce the alleged appropriateness of that language for articulating adult problems and personal goals. Life is a mere matter of the raw accumulation of quantities of experience and achievement, which leads to more or less linear progress up a hierarchy whose arbitrariness we accept unquestioningly. It’s a variant on the idea that the person who dies with the most toys “wins” — whoever is the most efficient and productive “wins” (no matter who profits by it). This, the post suggests, will restore the lost “fun” of engagement with the world, which always disappoints or burdens us with unwanted and ambiguous responsibilities. The game simplifies everything; it makes motivation clean and convenient.

But maybe gathering experience is not a game of quantities, not a matter of mere accumulation. Maybe convenient “fun” is not the only reason to rouse oneself to action. Maybe personal development is not a linear matter of acquiring more experience, more things. Gamification discourages us from seeing alternative possibilities to what is an essentially capitalistic imperative. “Accumulate! Accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets.”

Tidbits from Bifo’s "Time, Acceleration, and Violence"

This rambling essay by Franco “Bifo” Berardi is full of provocative yet unsubstantiated prophetic statements about semiocapitalism and the like, so naturally it appealed to me. His argument, such as it is, hinges on the relation of time, money and value: “capital is value, or accumulated time,” Bifo claims, drawing on the labor theory of value. Socially necessary labor time in the abstract is objectified and stored as money; labor time is directed into projects through investment.

But this way of understanding value and the meaning of money breaks down when one considers immaterial labor: “try to decide how much time is needed to produce an idea, a project, a style, a creation, and you find that the production process becomes semiotic, with the relationship between time, work, and value suddenly evaporating, melting into air.” The links between these concepts thus function in a purely ideological way — we think they denote equivalences but they mask inequities, exploitations.

Time is no longer an objective measure of labor (if it ever was), but begins to vary in intensity; it becomes subject to acceleration. Bifo argues that “if you want a growth in productivity — which is also a growth in surplus value — you need to accelerate work time. But when the main tool for production ceases to be material labor and becomes cognitive labor, acceleration enters another phase, another dimension, because an increase in semiocapitalist productivity comes essentially from the acceleration of the info-sphere — the environment from which information arrives in your brain.”

In tandem with this acceleration in productivity comes a sort of inflation in semiotic saturation: “you need more and more signs, words, information, to buy less and less meaning. It is hyper-acceleration used as a crucial capitalist tool.” There are more and more floating signifiers, but no one is sure what are the signifieds. This is source of endless competition — who gets to affix signifieds to signifiers with socially acknowledged authority. This is what it means to have cultural capital, to have “cool.” Bifo connects unbridled competition with fascism; what happens in semiocapitalism is perhaps a kind of fashion fascism.

Part of the point is that knowledge is inhibited by an overflow of data — individuals are becoming dividuals, to adopt Deleuze’s term. (See this paper by Robert Gehl) This makes subjects easier to control, makes us more susceptible to control by technology, to giving in to the way technology is developing to accelerate our consumption for its purposes rather than our own. We start consuming to keep up rather than to experience pleasure or to meet any other personal need.

When more signs buy less meaning, when there is an inflation in meaning, when the info-sphere accelerates and your attention is unable to keep up, what do you need? You need someone who makes things easy for you.

And that “someone” is pharmaceuticals, amphetamines, infantilizing GUIs, recommendation engines, and all the other so-called innovations that substitute convenience for engagement or experience. As Bifo concludes, “Our relationship to the world will become purely functional, operational—probably faster, but precarious.”

This is several removes from the sort of precarity that comes with being food-insecure or undocumented or unemployed, but it is precarity nonetheless, an unsustainable relation to the realm of information that one comes to feel one must maintain to be employable or to have a valuable brand. We start to believe we must keep up with the flow of information in order to be able to produce meaning that has current value; we need to remain in tune with novelty. But the cycles of fashion are so rapid that it is nearly impossible to keep up; the edifice fractures into hyperparticular niches, all of which are defining their own versions of contemporary cool, and we can be masters of some few of these while the mass of other niches serve to keep us feeling inadequate, insecure.

RIsk rhetoric, neoliberal ideology, Langdon Winner

I recently read Langdon Winner’s The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology. It turned out to be more about environmental policy and politics than, say, media and information technology, the particular forms of tech I am looking for limits for. (Winner frequently mentions replacing nuclear power with solar power and devotes a chapter to the “appropriate technology” movement, sort of a proto-green movement with what strikes me as better branding.)

In the most interesting chapter to me, “Mythinformation”, Winner points out that while artifacts may imply political arrangements and path dependency constrains future political options, no technology obviates the need for collective action to shape the future of society. Nothing is inevitable in any technological development; technology is always shaped by (and then begins to shape) the social context in which it is embedded. The temptation to talk about what “technology wants” is an attempt to eliminate the political dimension of technology and let that context be shaped undemocratically by those with the most direct financial investments. That is, it is a plea to let capitalism dictate the use of technology to transform society in ways that make it more amenable to capitalist accumulation and the extraction of profit and the molding of behavior by individual incentivization. Politics is, to a large degree, a public debate about the parameters of acceptable social ideas; it makes no sense to pretend technology is (a) developed without a vision of society in mind and (b) that it dictates the future automatically. Winners and losers are not predetermined by a technology but by how it is adopted and developed and implemented, etc. “For those willing to wait passively while the computer revolution takes its course, technological determinism ceases to be a mere theory and becomes an ideal: a desire to embrace conditions brought on by technological change without judging them in advance.” This doesn’t go far enough; it is quietism in the face of parties protecting their status quo interests by co-opting technology.

It seems wise to remember, as Winner puts it, that “Those best situated to take advantage of a new technology are often those previously well situated by dint of wealth, social standing, and institutional position. Thus, if there is to be a computer revolution, the best guess is that it will have a distinctly conservative character.” It still requires political intervention to allow technology to address social inequities, no matter how magical the technology may seem.

What the ideology of technological determinism can mask is the choices we have about the tendency of capitalism to use technology to accelerate exchanging, to speed up obsolescence, and so on. The accelerated information-processing approaches to everyday life crowd out the slower “ways of knowing.” Tech determinism becomes a trojan horse for introducing and reinforcing capitalist values about the importance of individualism, convenience, efficiency and so on. It makes us “consumers of change,” as Winner notes, which corresponds with the subject position we;ve learn to adopt and inhabit comfortably.

Winner points out that “people must be convinced that the human burdens of an information age — unemployment, deskilling, the disruption of many social patterns — are worth bearing.” This is the primary positive ideology at work in the “information age” discourse — the benefits of social media, etc., make any sacrifices seem small, irrelevant, and to complain about them makes one ungrateful, inconsiderate, uncool. The general media worship of Steve Jobs epitomizes this.

Another aspect of the positive tech ideology is pushing convenience as more important than sociality. Winner notes how much of innovation heightens efficiency, productivity, and convenience at the expense of collective action, community- or social-bond-building collaboration. It tends to represent social interaction as a nuisance rather than an opportunity, turning social connection into something that is more contrived, deliberate, something that must be consciously chosen rather than evolving out of given circumstances. That can be represented as an advantage, as a stride toward authenticity since one would be choosing people who fit with the “real” them rather than having friends thrust upon them by circumstances. But those circumstances usually allow other people’s personalities to show in a genuine rather than contrived, controlled, personal-brand sort of way. Those circumstances allow for more genuine sociality, it seems to me, than the opportunities designed into the functionality of tech applications.

Winner mounts a critique of the rhetoric of risk management and cost-benefit analysis, the idea that society should accept small risks in order to receive the massive benefits of technology. Such discourse frames danger as something inevitable, reasonably manageable. Also it casts those who reject accepting more danger as irrationally phobic. The discussion of inescapable and necessary risk plays into the dissemination of entrepreneurial rhetoric, which leads to the ultimate celebration of risk as separating the capitalist heroes from the pretenders. Winner: “There is, then, a deep-seated tendency in our culture to appreciate risk-taking in economic activity as a badge of courage.” Those willing to take risks are courageous; those who aren’t are cowards. This leads to the “damn the torpedoes” brand of conservatism, Winner argues, in which technological innovations are introduced if profitable and then mitigated later if there harm becomes unmanageable, unmaskable. As Winner puts it, this sort of conservatism encourages society in “renovating human needs to match what modern science and engineering happened to make available.” This becomes an ethos of “We don’t know where we are going but we are on our way.”