Monthly Archives: October 2013

From Militant Modernism, Owen Hatherley

“An alternative to either this sulky aestheticism or a total surrender to the demands of capital can only be enabled by an expansion of the apparatus: in a short passage pregnant with potential Brecht imagines that the Lehrstücke’s participants, usually active Communists, acting anywhere other than a conventional stage, would all have to have their own personal cinema apparatus. The freedom outside the new technology is meaningless. ‘To say to the intellectual worker that he is free to renounce the new work tools is to assign to him a freedom outside the production process’, and hence to render him utterly neutered, no threat to things as they are.” …

Cinema constantly exhibits a potentiality that, for all its employment as a mere money-making machine, can be turned on its head. Its essentially collective production is an exemplar of that: ‘it is the essence of capitalism and not something generally valid that ‘unique’ and ‘special’ artefacts can only be produced by individuals and collectives only bring forth standardised mass commodities.’ What if the collective and mass form could create something ‘unique’?

These passages are about Brecht’s relation to the cinema, but they seem equally valid as comments about social media, and why talk of abstaining from them is misguided. Social media are clearly the new work tools of the cultural worker, the Virno-ian “virtuoso,” and though those tools are being used to facilitate exploitation, they can’t be “renounced” without resigning oneself to irrelevance. 

Instead, the tools can be used to form collective subjects, or to undermine the ideology of independent individualism that capitalism has adapted itself to rely upon.

But as there is no collective life without norms, the question isn’t how to become post-normative as such but how to respond to the urgency to engender other kinds of anchors or magnets for new social relations and modes of life. The psychoanalysts talk about the inevitability of “taking up a position” within a normative structure but in my view the project of detaching from toxic norms that bind the social to itself in its dominant mode reveals how dynamic the normative reproduction of life is both in subjective and structural terms. Bifo Berardi talks about neoliberalism as a response to increasingly powerful demands by workers for social equality and democracy (and there is no equality in capitalist terms); likewise the “culture wars” are responses to the emancipatory activity of people of color, migrants, and sexualized subjects. All of those responses have had serious structural consequences politically and economically and in the sensoriums of the beings affected by them. So it matters to fight for better normative representations of the social, not just because they provide the affective satisfaction of being-in-common but because they affect the very infrastructure that organizes time, health, care, intimacy

from Depressive Realism: An Interview with Lauren Berlant

A few passages from Eva Illouz’s Why Love Hurts

Below are some passages clipped from Eva Illouz’s Why Love Hurts, a book I thought was hamstrung by its attempt to access the self-help publishing market as well as critique it. Its basic argument seemed incontestable: that structures of feeling exist. What we desire is constrained by social conditions, and the ideology of romantic love supports male supremacy and has been shaped by it. Sociological, not psychological or biological, explanations must be enlisted to explain social relations and social behavior.

Sexual and romantic freedom is not an abstract practice, but rather is institutionalized and embedded in a contested but still powerful patriarchy. This has generated new forms of suffering in the shape of inequalities arising from the different ways that men and women feel, experience, and monitor their sexual freedom in competitive sexual fields.

I’m on board with all of that, even if it’s a bit old news. Laura Kipnis’s Against Love in many ways covers that territory more persuasively for a popular audience. What I found most unconvincing about Illlouz’s book (aside from the fact that it frequently quoted Maureen Dowd and Modern Love columns from the New York Times as evidence) was its explanation for why women were somehow more dependent on love and relationships for self-esteem than men are. I don’t think self-esteem is the relevant analytical principle for this asymmetry (think both genders suffer an equal lack of self-esteem, though for varying reasons); instead “emotional labor” or “shadow work” seems more useful — men leverage their power to make women do more of this work, which manifests as a fixation on relationships. Often I had the sense Illouz was arguing backward from received wisdom about what men and women want (i.e. what Modern Love describes), taking as fact what is actually the ideological product worth explaining.

Illouz claims that we experience disappointment because our actual relationships don’t live up to the ones we vicariously experience through media, but what makes us susceptible to vicariousness? Is that kind of pleasure in stories, in identification and fantasy, evenly distributed across genders? Who gets taught that skill, and where do they acquire it? Is it a habitus? My sense is that the possibility of enjoying vicarious experience develops as compensation for other forms of oppression and marginalization, various denials of autonomy.

Not that autonomy is everything, though. Illouz is too quick to oppose autonomy to attachment in order to explain “commitment phobia” as an overvaluing of autonomy. But autonomy and attachment are not necessarily zero-sum opposites. You can increase attachment to increase a sense of autonomy within a pertinent field of action. Again, the question is what set of ideological forces persuades us that these are zero sum, that “freedom of choice” is both an untrammeled good and should be extended to personal relationships. The book is good at illustrating how choice is often a positive spin on imposed insecurity. Only sometimes Illouz seems to neglect how that insecurity gets imposed (capitalism) and just vaguely attributes it to “modernity.”  (Seems like invoking “modernity” is often a way of depoliticizing capitalism.)

Anyway, I’m getting carried away with this off-the-cuff and not entirely fair critique, when all I wanted to do was save the passages for later use (as if I’ll ever stop finding things for later use and actually start using them).

Consumer culture put desire at the center of subjectivity, and sexuality became a sort of generalized metaphor of desire.

I agree with how this formulation decenters sexuality, makes it contingent on the economic. Desire emerges from the economic organization of a community or society, not from some overwhelming biological urge that demands a certain form of social organization.

Women were incorporated in consumer culture as sexed and sexual agents through the ideal of sexualized beauty that was aggressively promoted by the conjunction of economic sectors that solicited and constructed a self based on eroticism.

The gist here is that emerging capitalist order seized on the power asymmetries it inherited from the patriarchal feudal order to anchor its new framework of desire in objectified women. The vague language at the end of that sentence presumably refers to “the romantic self” that can define itself, and is encouraged to do so in terms of the endless pursuit of quantifiable objectified pleasure.

Such acts of explicit political will stand in contrast to traditional codes and symbols of love, which, because they are not explicitly formulated, seem to be more spontaneous and natural. Spontaneity, however, is indeed nothing but an effect of both the force and the invisibility of social scripts.

Fate can be the only way to explain love, because it accounts for feelings without explaining them.

These are both good reminders of the way “authenticity” and “destiny” are constructed in context, and indicate not the uniqueness of one’s soul or feelings but the degree to which they have been ideologically conditioned, prepared. The spontaneity of the love one experiences measures how well-conditioned by ideology one is. Like art, love is a realm we have set aside as being above examination and beyond articulation, and thus these are where the deepest ideological inculcation occurs. Our desires and our tastes must seem inherent and unquestionable for them to successfully perform the work of conditioning what we desire and what boundaries we won’t cross. So “love” has been liberated into a field of greater choice only to make the decision-making process underlying it more mysterious and ineffable, more subtly conducive of ideological propositions about who belongs where.

From Ivan Illich, “Shadow-Work” (pdf

Continuing the theme of “forced consumption.” The labor of manufacturing desire and consent for consumerism (and for white/male supremacy), of fostering resilience in subjects who might otherwise be overwhelmed with competing demands and anxieties.

Shadow work is a way of describing the effort we put into getting ourselves or others to attach themselves to various forms of oppression. I’d argue that “self-construction” along social media lines is a form of shadow work, as well as the things Illich lists. Also, prosumption and the forms of affective labor that re-enchant consumerism.

In short, the obligation to consume is fused with the obligation to build a self, and the family is the site where that fusion takes place. “Love” is the binding force.

We experience care and love as encouragement to enjoy becoming ourselves — that is, to enjoy being a consumer or a prosumer. Caring about someone becomes a matter of teaching them how to enjoy compensatory things, products. 

from Christine Delphy, “Patriarchy, Domestic Mode of Production, Gender, and Class”

Interested in the idea of “forced consumption” of care work that Delphy mentions in this essay: mandatory “enjoyment” of domestic goods produced is akin to the “fun” of consuming novelty and convenience in the broader consumerist economy.