Monthly Archives: November 2011

thoughts inspired by Jacobin/Dissent panel on OWS

None of the speakers on the panel actually talked about any of this directly; the question of the hipsterization of protest was already on my mind. I think the complete absence of theory from the discussion had me daydreaming about protest as means for reshaping subjectivity and laying the groundwork for lasting social change. If capitalism produces the sort of subjectivity that allows it to perpetuate itself — if we learn to become selves and fulfill ourselves only by adopting capitalism’s incentive scheme — then resistance must ultimately be a matter of disrupting that subjectivity and creating a time-space where a different kind of subjectivity can be fostered. It seems to me that this is what the Occupy protests must do long-term, or else they are more or less irrelevant. All they would do is readjust the distribution creating by an inherently unjust and stress-producing system. Workers would still bear disproportionate social risks and absorb the stress and dissonance of capitalism’s contradictions in their own psychology; in other words, we’ll still be precarious and depressed.

But while the protests must be about reshaping subjectivity, they must not be about policing authenticity. The spaces of protest are not about generating a more genuine or more laudable individual identity. That is the pitfall of green consumerism or personal boycotts or other heroic stances that always resolve into one’s having improved one’s own cultural capital in some way without making much of a difference in the operation of the world. In fact, there’s some incentive in hoping the world continues to be bad and wrong so that one’s own gestures stand out as courageous and valuable. But even if there were a virtuous cycle of oneupmanship in terms of good deeds (“everyone drives a Prius, so now I need to go one step further and put solar panels on my roof”), the underlying structure of competitive individualism, so vital to capitalism, would be preserved, and along with it all the exploitation and Hobbesean mutual suspicion it justifies. It becomes easy to mistake winning status as virtue, an elision capitalism counts on for its ideological hegemony.

So the protests can’t be about maintaining some sense of what a genuine protester should look like, which means participants can’t get derailed into worrying about whether or not the protests are being hipsterized. Maybe only people like me actually worry about this, because hipsterism and the attention mongering and myopic behavior that goes along with it does seem alienating and off-putting. But I am prone to fall into such traps myself, engaging in zero-sum protection of the cultural capital it requires to pronounce someone else as inauthentic or narcissistic. What accusations of hipsterism or inauthenticity often amount to are pleas to preserve the private ownership of a resource — identity — that could be held in common.

Not saying anything new here, but since no one was saying it last night, I feel like I should. The protests offer an opportunity not merely for organizing electorally but for allowing for a new kind of subject to emerge, one that is collective in character and can exist comfortably in parallel with a private, individual self. Capitalism, particularly with its current emphasis of media and communications as a source of profit, prompts us to regard the public and private self as the same individualistic identity, negating the space for a civic persona. (This is Richard Sennett’s argument in Fall of Public Man.) Protest can allow for a public persona to be reclaimed through the process of struggle, which then becomes not a hardship or an ascetic procedure of self-effacement but a source of deep pleasure — this is why unlikely people report being energized by General Assemblies, when in the abstract they sound like tedious nightmares. The process becomes constitutive of a civic, collective self, which is liberating — it allows the private self to go private again, releasing us from the anxieties of ostentatious displays of identity. That means the use of social media is liberated from the personal-brand-building bullshit and becomes more about transmissions that orchestrate solidarity among politically engaged groups. In a sense, the personal ceases to be political; everyday life in public begins to be lived in a civic space rather than a commercial one, and private everyday life ideally starts to escape capture.

So the aim of the protests, I think, should be to permit the personal brand to be crowded off the stage by the return/emergence of a collective, civic subjectivity held in common and in parallel to a private self whose economic significance as a “prosumer” begins to be dismantled or more thoroughly anonymized. Paradoxically enough, I hope these highly public and publicized protests are actually about the re-creation of privacy.

individuation in the panopticon; the struggle for collectivity

From this post about Foucault By Jeremy Antley.

Antley quotes from Foucault’s lectures published as Psychiatric Power.

the panoptic design gives the center a means of obtaining ‘mind over mind’ power. This is accomplished by the individualizing nature of the panopticon, as it places the focus of the gaze, the body, on a singular subject. The result Foucault notes,
…means that in a system like this we are never dealing with a mass, with a group, or even, to tell the truth, with a multiplicity: we are only ever dealing with individuals. … All collective phenomena, all the phenomena of multiplicities, are thus completely abolished. (75)

Worth remembering in light of the difficulties of imagining collectivity or solidarity even in the cauldron of protest, and why it can seem as though protest is an ego-mode of political action akin to recycling, etc. “I am doing my part” without worrying about how or whether it fits into larger coordinations of action. Such political action reinforces the basis of panoptic society while seeming to enact the freedom to “make a difference.”

Antley suggests panoptic subjectivation can be thwarted with new technologies of augmentation that allow lateral communication between cells — that more or less supplant panopticon with a rhizomatic network structure. Not sure about that. My pessimistic thought is that the cells are dependent on the center for the subjectivity they have learned to treasure, and structure their protest and political participation in such a way as to preserve the center’s monopoly on authentication of selves. Social recognition still must flow through a “center” of some sort to be legitimized.

Against convenience

From ephemera 4(3): 233-245. “Controlling the Multitude” by Jussi Vähämäki (pdf):

Passage below is a good rant about the tyranny of design and its implicit goal of stymying us with convenience (my bold). Foreshadows Mark Fisher’s idea of “precorporation.” We expect our goods to come preconsumed, and that preconsumption is passed off as user-friendliness. The interface already encorporates and directs how a good will be used yet leaves users with positive feelings about the freedom the good supplies them — freedom from having to figure it out, freedom to use it immediately (albeit in the encoded ways laid out for them). I don’t think “commonplace” is the best word — I think the writer wants to suggest by it technological affordances that are once cliches.

The slogan of modern technology is ‘make things easy’; people have to have easy access to modern technology. They have to use it without noticing why they do this or that. The message is that people do not want to waste time, they do not want to read huge manuals before they start to play computer games or to watch a film from their DVD player. They want their food already semi-cooked as well as they want their lives already lived. The idea is that a good product is consumer-friendly, meaning it does not take time and thought, hesitation or frustration to consume it. A good product is easy to accept without discussion and without contestation. It must be familiar, natural, commonplace and self-evident. When you take the thing in your hand you seem to know how to use it, even if you are seeing the item for the first time in your life. Production process has to create self-evidences, commonplaces and anticipated items, products that in a way contain already the experience of the user/consumer. This means that ‘to make things easy’ the modern production system has to create customs and habits, slogans and phrases, styles and ideas (it does not create concepts, even though commonplaces do look like concepts and smell like concepts, they are only copies of concepts. They lack the contradictory or paradoxical character of a concept)….

‘Making things easy’, production of commonplaces, is production of goods or products that are structured like commands. It is production of ‘you have to’, production of a kind of Kantian moral imperative. This means that it tries to produce a sort of atmosphere in which you speak and work even if you have nothing to say or you are without a work. It creates humble and flexible personalities who are willing to learn and use every possible device, and who are always present for use.

That seems almost self-contradictory. Part of it seems to run against the idea that consumption has become more like production and is more active, or even self-actualizing. But I think design works as a series of soft commands that use aesthetics to secure our assent to tacit authority. The use of Apple products is paradigmatic for this. We don’t experience goods as commands but as affordances, opportunities, implicit expressions of fantasies of freedom, the autonomy of our vicarious imagination — that is, the limited, physical good is in our hands but it authorizes an imaginative flight of fantasy augmented by all the immaterial labor that has gone into that good.

We are commanded to be productive, just like in old-time factory discipline, only the discipline often takes the form of self-chosen entertainment consumption. User interfaces become covert shop-floor foremen.

Lazzaurato: "From Capital Labor to Capital Life"

From this article (pdf) in Ephemera 4(3) — a more arduous articulation of immaterial labor thesis, how consumption is productive and how the distinction is ideologically sustained.

first of all, the enterprise does not create its object (goods) but the world within which the object exists. And secondly, the enterprise does not create its subjects (workers and consumers) but the world within which the subject exists.

Think this is an interesting statement with regard to social media companies, which provide the space for self-creation but make no claims to produce anything or direct production overtly toward particular outcomes (the means to achieving the companies’ preferred products/outcomes are built into the architecture, the affordances for users). These companies create conceptual space that users can inhabit and create expropriatable value while remaining ostensibly autonomous and self-directed — self-actualizing, even.

Lazzarato later elaborates:

The ‘work’ of the company and its employees consists in a one-sided capture which aims at transforming the multiplicity of ‘collaborators’ (monads) into a multiplicity of ‘customers’. Its employees (not only engineers but also marketing people, lobbyists etc. trying to guarantee its monopoly) constitute an interface with the cooperation between minds, and their work activity consists of the neutralization and deactivation of the co-creation and co-realization of multiplicity. The power of arrangement, instead of being distributed in a heterogeneous way in the cooperation between minds, is concentrated in the cooperation of the company.

The necessity to brand manufactured goods leads to a semioticization of all things, which essentially makes all goods into lifestyle services:

All production is production of services, that is, a transformation of “the conditions of activity and the capacity for future actions of customers, users, and the public”, which in the end always aims at the ‘mode of life’.6 The service does not satisfy a pre-existing demand, but it must anticipate it, it must ‘make it happen’. This anticipation takes place entirely within the domain of the virtual by mobilising resources such as linguistic resources and language, communication, rhetoric, images etc. The anticipation of services by the virtual and signs has the advantage, on the one hand, to be able to use all properties of language, thus opening up the exploration of several possibles, and, on the other hand, to enable work on sense through communication.

In the sense that they depend on mutually agreed upon sign values in a population — on immaterial labor and cooperation — the goods now made are commons: “These goods, unlike the tangible, appropriable, exchangeable, consumable products of the capital-labour relationship, are intelligible, inappropriable, inexchangeable, inconsumable…. Any consumption of a common good can lead immediately into the creation of new knowledge or new masterpieces. Circulation becomes the fundamental moment of the process of production and consumption.”

The shift in how capitalism is organized (profits dependent on intellectual property rights, not property; not selling discrete goods so much as commandeering cooperative, value producing audiences) changes the nature of production in general:

Contemporary capitalist economy follows literally the cycle of capital accumulation described by Tarde: invention, as the creation of the possible and its process of actualisation in the souls (of consumers as well as workers), is the real production, whilst what Marx and the economists call production is, in reality, a reproduction (or a manufacture of a product or a management of a service even if in this case the things are a bit more complicated)…. the power of co-creation and co-realization, instead of being divided in a heterogeneous way in the multiplicity, is divided between the invention which is assigned to the company (and to the ‘workers employed’) and the reproduction which is assigned to the public/customers. The categories of political economy impose a division between ‘production’ and ‘consumption’ which does not hold any more in the cooperation between minds.

Political economy works idelogically to maintain a difference between production and consumption to mask the productive power of cooperation that capitalist exchange of semiotically rich goods yields.

Intellectual property has thus a political function: it determines who has the right to create and who has the duty to reproduce. The enterprise and the capital-labour relation not only prevent us from seeing the social dimension of the production of wealth, but they determine the new forms of exploitation and subjugation. Unemployment, poverty and precariousness are the direct result of the action of companies (and the politics of employment): the capture of social productivity imposes a social hierarchisation, a division between what is ‘productive’ and what is not. The company exploits society above all by exploiting workers.

That seems to be the creation story of the creative class.

The upshot of all this is that the new modes of producing collectively renderes traditional jobs and titles misleading — or rather it exposes the function they have mainly had in “societies of control” of rationalizing the status hierarchy.

The paradigm of work-employment is actively involved in, and complicit to, this destruction since it legitimizes the organizing mechanisms of power and appropriation in societies of control. On the one hand, it legitimizes the appropriation (largely for free) of the multiple relations constituting the worlds without any distinction between work and non-work, between work and life. On the other hand, it legitimizes and organizes a distribution of income still bound to the exercise of employment, to the subordination to a private or public superior.