Monthly Archives: August 2014

Vija Celmins


Keld Helmer-Petersen


The acquisition of my tape recorder really finished whatever emotional life I might have had, but I was glad to see it go. Nothing was ever a problem again, because a problem just meant a good tape and when a problem transforms itself into a good tape it’s not a problem any more. An interesting problem was an interesting tape. Everybody knew that and performed for the tape. You couldn’t tell which problems were real and which problems were exaggerated for the tape. Better yet, the people telling you the problems couldn’t decide any more if they were really having the problems or if they were just performing.

During the 60s, I think, people forgot what emotions were supposed to be. And I don’t think they’ve ever remembered. I think that once you see emotions from a certain angle you can never think of them as real again. That’s what more or less has happened to me.

I’m sure others have highlighted this Andy Warhol observation, which anticipates a common feeling about social media. The idea that the “reality” of problems stands in contrast to how they are performed doesn’t really make sense anymore. The performance is already built into the problem; now something is not a problem unless it can be performed. Whether performing it well solves it is a different question. Perhaps there is relief in the distance one gains from oneself by performing oneself, particularly when one feels beset by problems. A world in which problems are replaced by performances is almost utopian.

I wouldn’t argue that emotion is not real or that people have “forgot what emotions were supposed to be,” but rather that people are confronted with the fact more clearly that emotions are relational and not proprietary. They happen between people; i.e. “affects circulate,” whereas emotions were “supposed to be” some spontaneous expression of the inner truth about an individual. If we forgot that definition, it’s for the best since it was never the case.

Just because an emotion is performed doesn’t mean that it is not “real.” Spontaneous reactions can be false. I think Warhol is saying that he has done away with the fetish of spontaneity. 



hipster neoliberalism

Here are a few leftover notes I took while reading Lordon’s Willing Slaves of Capital, material that I didn’t incorporate in the essay I posted at New Inquiry. 

1. Lordon argues that neoliberalism entails a process of lining up workers’ desires with the demands of capital so that they are synonymous. This extends to such a degree that workers believe they are fully autonomous in electing their pursuits, which just happen to serve the capitalist order. It becomes necessary at the margins for capital to eschew management altogether:

Of course, the ideal of the totalitarian practice of the neoliberal makeover of souls is that it should be merely transitional, reaching as fast as possible its (oxymoronic) horizon of free wills permanently conforming (‘consenting’), so that once the norm has been perfected and engrammed the normalising scaffolding can be withdrawn. The goal is reached when employees, ‘moving entirely of their own accord’ and without needing to be further co-linearised, strive in the organization’s direction and bring it their power of acting unreservedly as a perfectly voluntary commitment.

What’s somewhat surprising is that Lordon labels this perfectly, permanently conforming self-directed servant of capital as an artist.

a good number of recent studies in the sociology of work discovered in the figure of the artist a pertinent metaphor, and even more than a metaphor, a common model, for those employees reputed to have personal qualities of strategic importance to their company, notably ‘creativity’.

The artist is the self-motivated producer par excellence; all that is required is to keep the artists besotted on their own creativity, so they don’t recognize how it suits and is shaped by capital. “Is not the artist the very emblem of ‘free will’, and the unreserved commitment of the self?” Lordon asks. 

Art critic Ben Davis makes a similar case in his book (I reviewed it here), and I’ve argued before along these lines more broadly: Social media make us all performance artists, and then as artists we work away at producing content for the capitalist companies that are positioned to harvest the work product of our self-construction and self-expression. I wrote a post called “Worker = Hipster” back in July 2010 about how the capitalist economy necessarily turns leisure into work in order to have labor to exploit, turning leisure consumption into “skills” that can valorize capital (i.e. make brands more valuable, etc.) If only I had neoliberalist jargon in my arsenal then, I would have called it “Hipster Neoliberalism” and turned it into a book or something.    

Lordon thinks that the transformation of workers into artists potentially threatens the entire hierarchy of capitalism. “If indeed the artist is a possible and desirable avatar of the worker, and from capital’s own point of view, then the very idea of employment as a relation of hierarchical subordination is fundamentally called in question.” If capitalism can run on worker autonomy, why bother to get rid of it? HIs answer is that capitalism will only ever turn an elite strata into artists and even these elites are basically deluded if they think they are not confined with capitalism’s horizons. Like Davis, I am inclined to think that artists become the alibi of the entire neoliberal ideology of risk-bearing individuality as the apotheosis of the self. Their brand is strong, and becomes a strong example to the rest of us that we can find “creative” fulfillment within the world as it is by working hard on ourselves.

2. Lordon wants to redefine alienation in ways that suit his allegiance to Spinoza. Thus alienation cannot be a matter of escaping determinism and realizing a true self: “autonomy does not exist, and passionate servitude is ubiquitous,” he bluntly declares. Instead alienation should be understood as “the contraction of the scope of one’s effectuations” — the scope of activities that you help constitute and are constituted by is smaller when you are “alienated." 

His example of alienation — "the condition of the mind filled with too few things” — is addiction. 

Passionate exploitation fixes the power of individuals to an extraordinarily limited number of objects – those assigned by the master-desire. If the concept of alienation is worth rescuing, it would be for the sake of giving it the meaning of ‘the stubborn affect’ and ‘the occupation of the mind’ the condition of the mind filled with too few things, but completely so, thus impeded from expanding comfortably. It is in this sense that employees riveted to ‘their’ one activity-object, be it joyfully, are ‘alienated’, no differently than the cocaine addict, whose mind is entirely filled by images of white powder.

This makes me think of machine gambling, and the compulsions social media instigate by drawing on  the example of slot machines. (I wrote about that here.) Slot machines control users by schematizing the pursuit of rewards, and then calibrating the reward schedule to extract maximum “productivity” from the user. On a video poker machine, that means getting the player to keep sitting in front of the machine and pumping money into it; on social media, that means keeping users logged in and contributing their content and their feedback, all of which can be resold as data. 

Lordon offers another way of describing this phenomenon, as a systematic limiting of what one’s mind can think about. I have argued that  people seek these limitations out as a form of relief from oversaturation. Information overload, then, is a was of stupefying people under the guise of informing them; supplying too much information may prove a better way of constraining people’s horizons than censorship. Then it feels like the person’s own fault that they have narrowed themselves down to the limited number of topics and activities they can handle. Why do we let ourselves get oversaturated and stupefied? Maybe our isolation from other people disrupts the system by which we might otherwise filter our information to the scale of a healthy social life. 

Lordon’s Willing Slaves of Capital

I’ve found Frédéric Lordon’s Willing Slaves of Capital a bit hit or miss (often he seems to be merely finding ways to express platitudes in more complex language, though that may indicative of my own ignorance of the stakes). But he makes a few arguments that I found thought-provoking.

1. Lordon configures authenticity not as the basis of a kind of resistance to power (or servitude) but as the ultimate mark of obedience to it. The concept of one’s “true self” only appears as a knowable, consciously considered thing in order that it may be remolded to suit capitalism’s demands for the totality of one’s productivity. Authenticity should not be seen as a personal goal but as a employer demand. Or rather, if you are consciously pursuing the goal of authenticity, it’s because a job (or some freelance pursuit of human capital) is forcing you to.

Under neoliberalism, Lordon argues, employers have enough leverage to insist that workers’ desires align completely with that of employers, so that all their life force essentially goes into enterprise. He even provides this somewhat unnecessary Lacan-style chart to illustrate it:

The goal of employers under neoliberal conditions is to make d1 and d2 align completely (a=0). This is mainly a matter of getting workers to identify completely with their job, to see work as the forum for self-fulfillment (“meaningful work”) and to accept obedience as a kind of autonomy or volunteerism. 

The strength of the neoliberal form of the employment relation lies precisely in the re-internalisation of the objects of desire, not merely as desire for money but as desire for other things, for new, intransitive satisfactions, satisfactions inherent in the work activities themselves. Put otherwise, neoliberal employment aims at enchantment and rejoicing: it sets out to enrich the relation with joyful affects.

In other words, neoliberalism hinges on making people work for love rather than money.

But as with all things neoliberal, the burden for making this motivational shift falls on the employees: To qualify for jobs, they have to convince prospective employers that they want to work not just for the money but because they love what they job would entail and want to identify themselves with it completely. Workers need to make job tasks seem like things they spontaneously wanted to do anyway; they have to perform an implausible enthusiasm that seems more and more ludicrous the more employers expect it. After all, once one level of enthusiasm is performed, a more intense level must be reached for the next show to be persuasive.

Pret a Manger notoriously demands this kind of excitement from its fast-food workers (they are supposed to smile and make small talk with customers and rate other employees in terms of their team spirit and so on) — in Lordon’s words, such employers aim for “the ultimate behavioral performance in which the prescribed emotions are no longer merely outwardly enacted, but ‘authentically’ felt.” They have to smile and “really” mean it.

This puts employees in a “double bind” in which they have to “manufacture artlessness.” Since no one can actually succeed at this, it means that workers are (1) always having to work hard on their emotional disposition at all times and (2) they can always be disciplined or terminated for failing to successfully be emotionally “real.” What is “real” is determined by those who have the power to insist on what is real — in this case, employers who can withhold the means for survival.

2. Lordon defines “liquidity” in much the way I typically define “convenience” — a fantasy about “never having to take the other into consideration”: 

Keynes had already noted the fundamentally anti-social character of liquidity, as the refusal of any durable commitment and Desire’s desire to keep all options permanently open – namely, to never have to take the other into consideration. Perfect flexibility – the unilateral affirmation of a desire that engages knowing that it can disengage, that invests with the guarantee of being able to disinvest, and that hires in the knowledge that it can fire (at whim) – is the fantasy of an individualism pushed to its ultimate consequences, the imaginative flight of a whole era.

When convenience is trumpeted as a value, it’s really celebrating this kind of antisocial flexibility, the refusal to commit to any project and privileging instead the ability to switch at a moment’s notice to a more profitable alternative. Lordon argues that “liquidity in the narrow sense (financial liquidity) acquires a broad signification: the unconditional right of desire to do as it pleases.” It is a fantasy about money becoming pure potency, pure potential. Convenience reflects this same dream of noncontingent possibility, of being entirely self-reliant when it comes to pleasure, as if pleasure wasn’t intrinsically social.  

Sharing economy and subsumption

In wrangling with real and formal subsumption again in the previous post, I thought it might be useful to apply the terms to a concrete example (drawing from this post of mine form a few years ago), the emergence of the “sharing economy.” Does calling this “real subsumption” or not clarify anything?

1. The sharing economy works by mobilizing individuals’ spare or excess or “surplus” capacity, be it time, space, or commodities.

2. What prevents that surplus capacity from going back into the market is the lack of a network that can intermingle buyers and sellers, a marketplace that can operate in the background and not itself consume the excess capacity of participants. (If it takes a bunch of time and energy to get to market, the value of what you have to bring gets cannibalized.)

3. Sharing companies build out the platforms that establish the existence of marketplaces in the very background of everyday life, making them unobtrusive yet omnipresent (right there on your phone, you can always buy or sell labor power). 

4. Sharing-economy platforms thereby afford individuals greater opportunity to behave as enterprises while simultaneously turning their potentially communal existence into a field of competition. It makes the potential for collaboration and cooperation (sharing work and goods with neighbors etc.) into instances of mediated exchange between atomized individuals. The platforms become the middlemen for “social individuals” (see this Jason Read post) reduced again to isolated individuals.

5. Sharing-company platforms extend something like the wage form to social interactions that once escaped it, so it could be classified as subsumption. But real or formal? The platforms allow individuals to behave as capitalists at the same time that they are prompted to make more of their lives available for exploitation by middlemen/bigger-fish capitalists who are in position to aggregate and accumulate capital on a massive scale in the process (see the venture-capital valuations of Uber, Airbnb, etc.).

6. Sharing platforms commodify goods and services that were once very particular and contingent on nonmarketized, noncommodified social connections. That sounds like real subsumption, with “labor” taking a form dictated by capital’s needs. The hallmark of that is the form of the commodity — a good that circulates in order to valorize capital (not to provide social welfare or utility).

7. But the platforms also engage individuals in their particularity, getting them to be entrepreneurial and capitalistic (for the platform’s ultimate benefit). Sharing platforms commodify entrepreneurship; they subsume entrepreneurship and make it something that directly serves the interest of established larger-scale capitalists, while preventing the person-as-enterprise from become a large-scale capitalist in own right. The personal brand remains subsumed by the platforms that enable it, though the subjective experience of it may be more akin to the self-motivated “craft work” associated with “formal subsumption.”

8. Sharing-economy companies, if nothing else, make explicit the ways in which the benefits of cooperation can be stolen by capital. They subsume the surplus generated by the possibilities of collaboration and redistribute it upward while reinforcing the underlying ideological construct of a society of atomized individuals — the structure of society most suited to the conditions of “real subsumption,” of deskilled labor optimized for efficient management. 

9. Pursuing a social life in the midst of the sharing economy, or worse, by means of the sharing economy (making friends through Airbnb, or Facebook for that matter) deepens one’s isolation within capitalist society. It reformats the way you see your social connections in terms of opportunities to make a buck: That reformatting is what I take to be the essence of “real subsumption.” At that point you unavoidably view the social through the lens of the sharing-economy platforms and what they make of social connection and spare capacity. You inescapably assess your life in terms of the new chances to exploit yourself. Your consciousness (or subjectivity) is thereby subsumed. 

10. At some point the individual will cease to pursue the social within such a system and seek a way to escape or destroy it.





Formal subsumption corresponds to absolute surplus value, extracted by lengthening the working day; real subsumption produces relative surplus value, by intensifying the productive process.

This helps clarify some Marxist terminology that has always stymied me. I’ve always understood formal and real subsumption in terms of how the exploitation of labor was organized and where capitalists intervened. At first, craft production starts to be funded by capitalists and only eventually is the production process reorganized for the purposes of growth for growth’s sake,  prioritizing accumulation (over sustainability and harmony with some sort of organic community, if you believe that such a thing exists and is worth pursuing) as capitalists must. 

So this helps explain that far more concisely. Real subsumption is about increasing productivity of work process (using division of labor to increase output while deskilling workers); formal subsumption is about getting workers to work longer for less money (using leverage to make skilled workers accept a bad bargain for their labor power). Another way of putting that is that under real subsumption, work depends on the capitalist organization of labor and distribution (you are a cog in a big wheel; e.g. you get a job at a bread factory pouring bags of flour into giant mixing machines), whereas under formal subsumption, value-generating work can still be “invented” by the worker (you bake your artisanal bread but must sell it to capitalist middlemen).

According to Endnotes, Marx defines it as “the subsumption of the particularities of the labour-process under the abstract universality of the valorisation-process of capital.” In other words, capitalism makes labor into some generic input, giving inherited/accumulated capital more leverage in claiming the results of the production process (aka profit). This can simply mean converting craft work (small business entrepreneurship) into waged labor.

This, in turn, may drive workers to try to differentiate their specific labors, to make their particular labor seem uniquely significant — it can make workers prefer to become personal brands within neoliberally organized production. (Everyone is an enterprise in a small-business society, though some have way more “human capital” than others.) Are such workers really subsumed or formally subsumed, or maybe both, and does that matter to non-Hegelians?

The periodization of formal subsumption being supplanted by real subsumption is a bit misleading, because these forms of management coexist in capitalism; if real subsumption is “destined” to replace formal subsumption, the development is unevenly distributed across time, space, and industrial sectors. And it is not clear that one is worse than the other, whether real subsumption is destroying the more “authentic” possibilities of work under formal subsumption, or whether real subsumption is leading toward some sort of apotheosis of subsumption upon which capitalism turns itself inside-out and becomes communism, because capital has forced all workers to be both collaborative (subordinating self-interest to the productive needs of a group) and autonomous (self-managing) to such a highly efficient degree.

It is not clear to me whether the terms have any usefulness at all, quite frankly, but still I keep trying to clarify them in my mind, because of the unintuitive ways they link the forms of work and the forms of value, suggesting ways these could be shifted away from accumulation (which requires intensified exploitation) toward some other end.

I’ve tried to write about this stuff before, using subsumption as a way to try to explain capitalist subjectivity — how we seem to be pre-formatted to become what Lordon calls “willing slaves of capital.” If the production of subjectivity has been made subject to “real subsumption,” then capitalism and its incentives is built into the very processes of self-knowledge, as one’s own self-interest. I thought that new technologies, social media and so on, showed how that real subsumption has occurred and integrates new technologies to reinforce that ongoing process.

Though now I am confused. It’s clear that social media support a neoliberalist “person as enterprise” conception (see Dardot and Laval), that also seems to be an effort to counteract the abstractification process of “real subsumption.” It seems as the subsuming has gone to a third level for which there is no standard Marxist jargon for. (Need to discover some more unpublished prophetic Grundrisse.)

fragment on subsumption