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Immaterial Production

Historically speaking, production is the act of transforming material objects into marketable commodities. Today, however, this activity has extended beyond the physical world. As Maurizio Lazzarato argues, contemporary relations of production are not so much about acting on material bodies as they are about acting on minds and subjectivities. The immaterial or virtual, in other words, closely accompanies the actual in modern industrial processes.

Power here operates less and less on material earth and more and more on perceptions, desires and attention. Modern technologies operate on minds, capturing the imaginations of viewers. The constitutive role of television, cinema and the internet, after all, is to capture belief and attention, in contrast to producing tactile things.

That the immaterial is becoming more central to production is not by accident. “Before products can be sold, or even made, attention and memory must be captured by the technologies that work on publics” (Read, p. 97).

This is especially true in the case of surplus production. Given the inherent dynamic of capitalism to increase production on a continually larger scale, thereby threatening a crisis of over-production, surplus stockpiles of goods must be absorbed in some way to keep the wheels of capitalism turning. Forestalling this crisis is none other than marketing and advertising, which are used to bolster consumer demand.

Material Consulted

Eugene Holland, Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus

Brian Massumi, A User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia

Jason Read, “The Fetish is Always Actual, Revolution is Always Virtual” in Deleuze and Marx, ed. Dhruv Jain

Thinking Politics in The Dark Knight Rises

In as much as one can draw any generalizations about the Dark Knight Trilogy, its political punch is found principally in its hidden meanings. The revived Batman film series operates at a double register; that is, two distinct, but interconnected, levels. On a first, tentative level we can say that the films sedate and distract us from reality through idealizations of friendship, family, romance, politics, economics or whatever. If Hollywood sells anything, after all, it is entertainment. But on the obscene underside, these fantastic films tell a different story. Here, the true referent is our current socio-political conjunctures.

It is no secret that Nolan’s last Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises (hereafter TDKR), does not directly approach its true (political) focus. Rather, the film maintains its authentic topic at a distance. But why must TDKR obfuscate its true historical reference? Because any serious challenge to the existing order quickly engenders guarded attitudes. Nowhere is this more accurate than with respect to lost causes; namely, politically radical ones.

Here one thinks, for example, of totalitarianism. Far from being a meaningful theoretical concept, forcing us to acquire new insight about political alternatives, the notion of ‘totalitarianism’ actually prevents us from thinking. The motif of revolution is so monstrous that the slightest inclination of engaging in political projects that aim to undermine the normal state of affairs and transform reality is immediately denounced as ethically dangerous and illegitimate. In other words, it is dismissed as potentially ‘totalitarian’.

It is no small matter then that the form of TDKR makes it possible to neutralize this prohibition against thinking about grand solutions. What the movie does is nothing less than take into account the very idea of applying a radical political project directly to reality. Such a politics (whatever remains of it) dares to directly confront the entire field of state power. That the movie dreams about a grand, all-encompassing, leftist strategy of directly taking over the state apparatus at all is significant, even if it is not really meant seriously as a project that we might try to live.

It has now become fashionable to assert that those who still insist on fighting the entire domain of politics are stuck in the old paradigm. The new (postmodern) politics adopts a different, apparently more modest mode of engagement. Rather than directly confronting the state or bombarding it with impossible demands, the new politics creates spaces outside the scope and control of state power to tinker with its edges. Since the state has betrayed its responsibility for justice, extra-statal practices are required to change the social structure themselves.

The basic predicament of our capital-saturated society is whether to resist the state with out-and-out revolution or from effective localized subversion. Should movements directly engage the state in a highly centralized form of political organization or remain closer to the mode of functioning as nomadic groups? One does not have to be a profound observer to see that this conundrum is shared by the final Batman movie.

Bruce Wayne believes that insisting on demands from those in power is futile. They simply cannot be fulfilled. This belief of Bruce Wayne is nowhere more apparent than in his exchanges with Alfred. Alfred dares to raise the thorny issue that Batman should hang up his cape and assist those in power through other, more civic, means: “The city needs Bruce Wayne. Your resources, your knowledge. It doesn’t need your body.” During another scene Alfred pointedly asks, “Aren’t the police supposed to be investigating that?” To which Bruce Wayne replies, “They don’t have the tools to analyze it.” Few can disagree with Alfred’s response that “They would if you gave it to them.”

Bruce Wayne rightly calls into question this flat solution, noting that “One man’s tool is another man’s weapon.” This is, after all, the same symptomatic point that emerges apropos of every new social gesture: true revolutionary potential is exploited and then betrayed by the very system it originally contradicts. Consequently, Bruce Wayne keeps the cape and continues to act in the shadows, effectively pulling the strings of political life from the periphery.

It is no small coincidence that Bruce Wayne also lives a philanthropic life beyond the cave, highlighting as it does the same commitment to transforming society outside the ambit of state power. And not wholly unlike the work of charity by George Soros or Bill Gates, the immense donations to public welfare – in this case to orphanage homes – reestablishes a balance to the capitalist system, thereby postponing its crisis, which in this context involves unemployed youth uniting in the sewers and forming a revolution.

Here it is worth pointing to the fact that the film’s villain, Bane, also recognizes the ethical call engendered by the experience of injustice and wrongs. At the same time, the political procedure is clearly different. Rather than remain in the backwaters of society (read sewers) with the downtrodden, Bane and his brawlers openly struggle for hegemony.

Surprisingly, the film’s main antagonist proves to be a very philosophical rebel (not completely unlike the other villains of the trilogy). He explains his actions in terms of the failings of the ruling order. Bane does not rebel because he is infected by godless immorality, but because the rulers of Gotham City have shirked their responsibilities in protecting those with no proper place in society. For this reason, the politically organized underworld is truly a product of misrule, ethically impelled to turn against its oppressors and create something radically new. In the language of Bane, it is “necessary evil.”

That there is more going on in the film than simple run-of-the-mill violence is obvious enough. What makes the character of Bane so convincing is not the explosion of physical strength as such, but the concrete twist he gives it. The politics of revolutionary justice embodied in Bane is that of radical egalitarian violence. Rather than fighting on the side of the hierarchical social order, Bane’s excess of power is on the side of the part of no-part, defined here as the unaccounted for of society.

It is important not to overlook the fact here that Bane’s bodily discipline, concentration, and strength of will is what qualified him for the villain role in TDKR. For Nolan, “With Bane, physicality is the thing.” According to the original story, the childhood and early adult life of Bane was spent in a penitentiary environment where, it would seem, he possessed nothing. Indeed, the aged-out orphans of Gotham City similarly had nothing to their name.

This is significant, given that those who have nothing have only their discipline. Here, true freedom can only be regained through extreme corporeal discipline and the spirit of sacrifice, in which one is ready to risk everything. (As the critical reader will perhaps suspect, this sounds close to something like ‘fanatical fundamentalists’ who have only their discipline, their capacity to act together).

What takes place in TDKR is the event of momentarily canceling status quo realities and redistributing social control. Here, the all-too-easy liberal-democratic gesture is rendered inefficient at breaking out of Western modernity and its political deadlocks. Here, one is forced to actively think about grand solutions and lost causes.

The basic lesson is that Bane’s political commitments were clearly right steps in the wrong direction. Taking control of Gotham City was an appropriate gesture, the best thing he ever did, the only tragedy being that he was almost right. The authentic Event momentarily unleashed unprecedented forces of social transformation, a moment in which everything seemed possible. The misfortunes of the fate of revolutionary terror therefore confront us with the need – not to reject in toto, but – to reinvent true political options.

And thus we welcome the fact that “true ideas are eternal, they always return every time they are proclaimed dead.” God forbid that we might take them seriously…

 

Material Consulted

Eugene Holland, “Beyond Critique” in Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus

Slavoj Žižek, In Defense of Lost Causes

____, Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?

____, “Mao Tse-Tung, The Marxist Lord of Misrule” in Slavoj Žižek Presents Mao

____, “Dictatorship of the Proletariat in Gotham City

The End of Capitalism

Almost no one denies, in our own age, that the cult of Capital is the all-encompassing, ubiquitous horizon through which various subjectivities are constituted and certain individuals are given clear advantage over others; a totalizing system which has become increasingly difficult to resist and harder to escape. What ingredients of political thought, then, are adept to critically interrogate the comfortable normality of the capitalist social machine and provide an actual process of transformation so that the way things are might be otherwise, an account that has real worldly-historical purchase?

Convincing as this account may first appear—the vision of households, subjects, and industry coming together and operating in harmony under capitalist hegemony—there is more going on here then simply raising the thorny issue of how we break away from the static scene of Capital. On closer inspection this monolithic image is problematic insofar as it represents social existence (economy, polity, culture, subjectivity…) as part of the same complex (e.g., capitalist hegemony). Although theorists delineate capitalist hegemony as a unified, singular, and totalizing entity in the hope to see it destabilized or replaced, they nonetheless generate a representation of the social world that is endowed with performative force. As J.K. Gibson-Graham argue in The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It), “The project of understanding the beast has itself produced a beast.”

But the economic classification of an increasingly capitalist world system is a product of (dominant) discourse only. It does not reflect actuality. Capitalism, rather, is at loose ends with itself. An alternative social depiction to capitalist hegemony thus “might represent economic practice as comprising a rich diversity of capitalist and noncapitalist activities and argue that the noncapitalist ones had until now been relatively ‘invisible’ because the concepts and discourses that could make them ‘visible’ have themselves been marginalized and suppressed.” We might begin with, for instance, the proliferation of the self-employed who appropriate their own surplus labor or the uncounted work of unpaid domestic laborers who invisibly reproduce society.

It is illegitimate and inaccurate to speak of capitalism in terms of a unifying entity (in the same way it would be to speak of the US as a Christian nation, or a heterosexual one) because such social descriptors erase and obscure differences. While feminists have long departed from “holistic expressions for social structure”, conceptions of capitalism as hegemonic, ubiquitous, systematic and so on are still prevalent and resilient.

It follows from this virtually unquestioned view of capitalism as the dominant form of economy that noncapitalist and anti-capitalist sites come to inhabit the social margins in the realm of experiment (as recently illustrated over at Necessary Agitation). As J.K. Gibson-Graham contend: “it is the way capitalism has been ‘thought’ that has made it so difficult for people to imagine its supersession.” (There is little doubt that the archive of my blog unflatteringly reflects the same point). As the authors go on to argue, what needs to be fostered instead is a theory of “economic difference;” conditions under which the economy might be “less subject to definitional closure,” whose identity is not fixed or singular.

The alternative of “theorizing economic difference, of supplanting the discourse of capitalist hegemony with a plurality and heterogeneity of economic forms” is akin to what Manuel DeLanda attempts in ‘Deleuze, Materialism and Politics’. Following Deleuze and Guattari’s analysis of double articulation (the selection of materials out of a wide set of possibilities—first articulation—and the arrangement of these loosely ordered materials into a more stable form—second articulation) with which to conceptualize the process through which material form and identity are generated, DeLanda extends this micro-macro distinction to strata operating at infinitely different scales (rather than only two levels of scale: ‘the molecular’ and ‘the molar’).

According to DeLanda, “double articulation is, in its simplest version, the process of joining parts to yield a whole with properties of its own. Since most component parts are smaller than the whole they compose, the part-to-whole relation is a relation between small and large scales.” It would be a mistake, however, to treat the macro and micro as absolute scales. There are never only two scales operating in material or social processes: every entity that is perceived as an autonomous whole is itself populated by component parts, and those parts in turn have their own parts…. “A more adequate approach,” argues DeLanda, “would be to treat them as relative to a particular scale.”

For this reason it is problematic to employ terms like ‘society as a whole’ in our theorizing, for the largest entities are every bit as singular and unique as the smallest. “In general, what needs to be excluded from a materialist social ontology are vague, reified terms like ‘society’ (or ‘the market’, ‘the state’, etc.) Only hacceities (individual singularities) operating at different spatio-temporal scales should be legitimate entities in this ontology.”

The need to keep scale distinctions in mind is particularly evident when considering political economy, as noted by J.K. Gibson-Graham above. DeLanda is similarly uneasy with all-encompassing terms like ‘capitalist society’ or the ‘capitalist system’, but takes his cues from Fernand Braudel’s The Perspective of the World who, in 1986, said that “We should not be too quick to assume that capitalism embraces the whole of western society, that it accounts for every stitch in the social fabric.” Rather than simply interested in the ontological clarification of stratum functioning at different levels of scale, DeLanda sees a political implication here: “Politically it is impossible to effect any real social change if the targets of one’s interventions are non-existent entities.” If the target of protestors is some vague generality, such as ‘the global capitalist system,’ the likelihood at being effective in their interventions is low, even if the movement is well-theorized.

DeLanda’s concern over the lack of real targets in social justice movements echoes Levi Bryant’s response to the Occupy Wall Street movement, who similarly argues here that OWSers have lost sight of the concrete. Both seem to come to the same conclusion: challenging the capitalist social system without engaging at the infrastructural dimension will end up “leaving the basic structure of the system in tact.”

 

The paradox of politics in the works of Deleuze

In the polemical piece ‘Molecular Revolutions’ in Deleuze and Politics, Isabelle Garo correctly argues that a Deleuzian mode of politics retains a paradoxical character, an insurmountable aporia between engagement and disengagement. This is in part due to the fact that Deleuze’s conception of the economy is as a philosopher. No doubt Deleuzian theory gives ample attention to the economy and the market, but at no point does Deleuze deal with economic issues from a tradition of scrupulous historical and economic research. On the contrary, Deleuzian economic analysis is situated on the ground of an ontology of flows and becoming.

The privileged ontology of Deleuze, as we all know, in the words of Garo, “presents itself as a heightened form of attention to the concrete diversity of things as a respect for their constitutive multiplicity” (p. 57). This is chiefly done through the concept of desire, characterized by flows or exchanges of energy, which Deleuze and Guattari famously describe as belonging to the infrastructure itself. The vague expression of flows is considered to be the most important consideration of Deleuzian philosophy, constituting “the heart of an ontology that is vitalist in inspiration” (p. 58). On this view the conventional Marxist distinction between base (the domain of production) and superstructure (the realm of culture) is eschewed, leading to the leftist conclusion that everything is political.

The thematic of flows demonstrates the conviction that the dimensions of the real are indistinct but at one and the same time effectively sidelines political mobilization. This is so because while the notion of flows celebrates destabilizing movements, small events and molecular contestations, it nonetheless evacuates all content out of politics as such. The strictly formal exposition of politics, on the other hand, is “reduced to repressive state practices of surveillance and control”—that is, the maintenance of the normal state of affairs. In short, political specificity is canceled out in favor of a nebulous dispersion of abstract, deviant flows while a more traditional idea of politics is relegated to the intransigent State apparatus and its constitution. Inherent to the Deleuzian approach and its particular politics then is an underlying tension or aporia between the miniatruization of politics on the one hand and the relatively autonomous sphere of State politics on the other.

To be more precise, the State sphere plays a specific role under capitalism. For Deleuze and Guattari, capitalism has “haunted all forms of society as the vital flow which tirelessly seeks to throw off all constraints” (p. 60). Capitalism, otherwise stated, is nothing more than the dissipative, regressive or decomposing tendency inherent to life itself. This systematic deterritorializing or decoding movement, in the parlance of Deleuze and Guattari, seeks at all times to overcome obstacles and barriers to its dynamic self-expansion, embodied par excellence in the flows of commerce and trade under capitalism. The State, consequently, “is nothing other than that which opposes limits to these flows” (p. 60). In other words, the State apparatus is burdened with the responsibility of managing capital flows and blocking them from becoming uncontrollable.

So how does one conceive of the end of capitalism, the momentous abrupt turn in history away from the market and its so-called ‘laws’ and towards, say, socialism or communism? From this perspective, since regulating the flows of capital is crucial to its very functioning as per the State, “the only thinkable and even desirable possibility is to go to the limits of the present system” (p. 61). Shockingly, this definition of ‘politics’, the pursuit and acceleration of mercantile flows, is an entirely liberal approach: a process that finds its clearest expression in economic and financial deregulation. Indeed, this analysis comes closest to the liberal thought of such thinkers as Hayek, a far stray from Marx to be sure.

Although Deleuze is without a doubt indebted to Marxist ideas, if the scattered remarks on Marx that haunt Deleuze’s work is anything to go by, he is ultimately making use of a quite heterodox Marx. By constantly reworking borrowed Marxian concepts as “a momentary support in order to move off in a new direction” or in an effort “to produce something new”, Deleuze never provides a precisely elaborated coherent commentary on Marx (p. 63). What Deleuze offers instead is a smattering of spectral, allusive and indirect remarks on Marx, which are, we might add, notoriously anti-Hegelian and dialectic-adverse in character.

At the same time, the notion of revolution is renewed by Deleuze (and Guattari), but with a twist. The only real means of radical chance henceforth are ‘micro’: “politics is no longer a privileged sphere of authority”, its is rather the deployment and expansion of diverse deviant practices (p. 63). Revolution, in sum, is no longer the unraveling of an historical logic of development, but rather is redefined as a counter-culture.

In the eyes of Garo, and this is crucial, this thinking is ultimately reflective of a post-May ’68 renunciation of any project to change the current politico-economic conjuncture. For Garo, “with the rejection of any participation in the institutional game of parliamentary democracy as well as with the global critique of this form of governance”, the only potential cadence of change are minorities and their private forms of rebellious spontaneity (p. 64). Revolution itself, situated on the ground of a vitalist ontology, comes to stand for fleeting moments of individual upheavals that nevertheless leave the rhythm of capitalism fully in tact. Or, to use a slightly different formulation, private gestures of rupture are celebrated at the expense of the political unification of social struggles. On this line of argument, a Deleuzian political stance goes along with a position of withdrawal, a declared indifference with regard to any form of political activity.

For these reasons, my own assessment for how we imagine things being otherwise is, surprisingly, Žižekian. In Badiou, Žižek, and Political Transformations Adrian Johnston, as the title would suggest, analyzes the processes of transformation within given sets of circumstances, noting that for both Badiou and Žižek the “slow-moving inertia of status quo realities” is shattered by revolutionary events or acts, respectively, that abruptly shift the established run of things (p. xxix). But while it can be maintained that the Badiouian event and the Žižekian act both essentially entail positing a stark discrepancy between the structure of a situation and the sudden impact of alteration, there is (at least one) decisive difference between the two.

For Badiou, the state of a situation is suddenly interrupted disruptively by a mode of “politics-without-the-partystate, based on the purported disjunction between explosive events of subversive political ‘truth’…and reified regimes of institutionalized statist ‘knowledge’” (ibid.). In Žižek’s view, on the other hand, the stasis of repetition of a given situation is ruptured through “endorsements of strong socialist part-state apparatuses (justified by the need to ‘re-politicize’ the deceptively depoliticized economic sphere)” (ibid.).

In the opening of In Defense of Lost Causes Žižek presents an accurate assessment of the postmodern response to the current politico-economic conjuncture, a position we should now be quite familiar with:

the era of big explanations is over, we need ‘weak thought,’ opposed to all foundationalism, a thought attentive to the rhizomatic texture of reality; in politics too, we should no longer aim at all-explaining systems and global emancipatory projects; the violent imposition of grand solutions should leave room for forms of specific resistance and intervention (p. 1)

Although I have just started working my way through the text, it should be observed that Žižek is not sympathetic to this political bent. On the contrary, reality-shattering shifts are the work of mass-movements or, as he calls them, ‘grand solutions’. Indeed, this approach, though one I once pushed beyond the pale, increasingly sounds right, especially when the celebration of small events ends up confirming the dynamic of capitalism rather than undermining it.

An earlier version of this post was published @ Indigenous Ink

Mythic trickster narrative: Articulating the ‘truth’

Tricksters are known for telling great lies that contain a good deal of truth, but to understand their craft we must get past easy opposites that would differentiate falsity from veracity in the simple sense of contradicting truth. For what the trickster accomplishes in a “lie” is the subtle disruption of boundary markers erected to mark off the line between what passes as reason and fantasy. Rather than simply transgressing truth boundaries trickster artists call into question “assumptions about how the world is divided up” and skillfully remake “truth” on their own flexible terms (Hyde, Trickster Makes This World, p. 72).

Take the confidence man for instance, the covert American “reborn trickster” hero who gains the trust of others only to con them. Even though he violates the legal order he also “embodies things that are actually true about America but cannot be openly declared (as, for example, the degree to which capitalism lets us steal from our neighbors, or the degree to which institutions like the stock market require the same kind of confidence that criminal con men need)” (Ibid., p. 11).

Tricksters thus are a cut-above the common thief and liar; while they might appear to be foolish or clownish they certainly are not bereft of intelligence. This is because trickster is of two minds, at home in a neutral state of things, in contrast to criminals who merely violate previously decided rules (Ibid., p. 70). As a result of challenging culturally biased assumptions surrounding modern binaries and patriarchal mechanisms of sacrifice, for example, tricksters extricate themselves and others from some cultural traps, shed a crack of light on the ambivalent limbo of reality and create a few alternatives.

Deleuze, Marx and politics

How does Deleuze stand in relation to Marx? According to an interview conducted by Toni Negri in 1990, Deleuze is committed to the Marxist project, even if the methodology and instruments of Deleuze’s revolutionary theory is demarcated in specific ways from Marx. Deleuze defends his fidelity to Marx insofar as “political philosophy finds its fate in the analysis and criticism of capitalism as an immanent system that constantly moves its limits and constantly re-establishes them on an expanded scale” (‘Minor Marxism’ in Deleuze and Marx, p. 102). But rather than speak in terms of the final resolution of conflict or a self-moving teleology as Marx does, Deleuze envisions the contemporary political scene to be inhabited by lines of flight, minorities and war machines. Deleuze proposes a typology along different lines than Marx, forgoing the Marxian instruments of social contradictions, classes and the State apparatus that were so important to Marxist militant praxis. By speaking in terms of lines of flight, minorities and war machines rather than dialectical movement, Deleuze breaks with any logic of progress.

Reality under capitalism is always mutating, for sure, but this does not necessarily entail a change for the better. According to Deleuze, singular entities are arranged in patterns to form collective assemblages, but these serial organizations do not imply an ascending development or determinate goal. For Deleuze, struggle never achieves any totalization of reality in which all elements of existence would function harmoniously or in unity. As critical theory has discovered, the unification of resistance forces simply ends up making the packaging and marketing work of capitalism all that much easier. The ‘untimely’ for Deleuze, in this regard, does not lead to any form of stable or enduring institution. “What we have, therefore, is a notion of militant praxis that, without giving in to the demands of power, but at the same time without aspiring to power, embraces—beyond government and opposition—the vocation of resistance” (pp. 104-5).

Existence, for Deleuze, is not a totality but a network or thick mesh of disparate singularities, which do not always fit together. Macro-assemblages or power formations, in this sense, despite their appearance to the contrary, are occupied by unstable, agitated and changing vectors. As Eduardo Pellejero puts it in ‘Minor Marxism’, “The social field is not composed by isolated and immutable formations: only stratifications of knowledge and power may give some stability to it” (p. 105). Pellejero again: “The social field leaks everywhere” (p. 105). State otherwise, lines of flight, minorities and war machines are constantly agitating from within the assemblages we are altogether familiar with and consider enduring.

Whereas there is no revolution as the end of history for Deleuze as there is with Marx, Deleuze nonetheless defends revolution as an agent of unrest. Rather than the radical and irreversible advent of a society finally totalised and reconciled amongst all its parts, Deleuze conceives of revolution as ephemeral and unpredicrtable events. Although these local events as opposed to the global advent of communism do not mark a clear major break from the established state of things and open up onto a new kind of society, Deleuze claims that such micro-revolutions still produce immanent and incalculable effects within the societies they historically fail.

The object of struggle, as a result, is not the fulfillment of a possible utopia, but the “multiplication of perspectives” (p. 106). Following these space clearing gestures new sensibilities and assemblages are asserted, making possible uncommon or novel visions of society not previously envisioned. According to Deleuze, this is the only strategy for the maturation or mutation of society: the de-stratification of structures and the re-arrangement of life and society. Alterations of society, in other words, are brought about by events that interrupt the normal flows and exclusions of life.

These mutations, consequently, have unpredictable results. Power formations, after all, have a great capacity for adapting to stimulated dissent and new types of human relations. Collective assemblages or systems, in other words, exhibit great shrewdness in maintaining stability despite constant semi-turmoil, even benefiting from such restlessness by recovering marginal inventions for the sake of its own growth and expansion. Lines of flight, as a result, are not necessarily revolutionary. It goes without saying, “these micro-revolutions do not lead automatically to a social revolution, to a new society, an economy or a culture liberated from capitalism” (p. 108).

More often than not such misfirings in the system are the required condition for the possibility of the machine to continue functioning properly. In this sense, the success of micro-revolutions depends upon how “the lines of flight that cross though a given society” are articulated by subjects who converge with these constructivist vectors (p. 108). For one to decode a system or an assemblage successfully and create an opening for new spaces of freedom, Deleuze tells us, requires one to move slowly and carefully; advice that is more commonsensical than profound. The essential point to bear in mind however is that

What matters is that, suddenly, we do not feel condemned in the same old way anymore; a problem which nobody could see a way out of, a problem in which everyobyd was trapped, suddenly ceases to exist, and we ask ourselves what we were talking about. Suddenly we are in another world, as Péguy said, the same problems do not arise anymore – though there will be many more, of course (p. 109).

Although this new form of criticism remains unsatisfactory for someone like Negri whose political work points to “the institution of a new constituent power beyond the Empire” rather than Deleuze’s alternative of “superficial and ephemeral resistance”, Deleuze gives a more compelling subversive grammar that fits better with the facts of the case (p. 109). Like Marx, Deleuze is concerned with the “creation of spaces of freedom, strategies of torsion of power, conquest of individual and collective forms of subjectivity, invention of new forms of life”, but unlike Marx, Deleuze does not have any doubts over the fact that we do not possess any reliable means to preserve resistance aimed at undermining knowledge and power from becoming compromised itself (pp. 109-10). For this reason, according to Deleuze, we are condemned to everlasting restlessness. “Deprived of any progressive project, of the idea that if we do everything possible things will improve, will change for the better— thus, aware of its tragic destiny—the struggle goes on” (p. 110). In short, what is required for Deleuze is the infinite movement of new struggles.

Deleuze stakes his entire political thought on the revolutionary potential of redistributing singularities and relationships. As Deleuze calls it, the ‘untimely’ is precisely this interruption of a specific situation or assemblage by way of drawing out novelty, discrepancy or molecular lines of flight therein. By this Deleuze does not mean the abolition of molar organization as such. Rather the “molecular re-distribution of power and knowledge” is an instrument for the transformation of molar organizations; viz., acknowledging and following the different compositions of power formations that keep colliding and do not fit, despite the attempts of molar assemblages to control them.

For Deleuze, like other agonistic thinkers such as Derrida, Žižek, Carl Schmidt, William Connolly and Rom Coles, the existence of dissent is inevitable. There are always going to be losers, including humans, trains, viruses and social contracts. But while Deleuze’s thought of immanence is beyond any reliance on a messianic structure in which a future revolution would bring history as we know it to a utopian end, Deleuze “still gives us reasons for resistance, to go on thinking, when it comes impossible to go on seeing certain things without doing nothing, or go on living as we do” (p. 111). Pellejero again: “We do not have faith in the advent of a new happy world, but we cannot renounce to the exercise of a resistant thought, in the difficult, unpredictable and dangerous intersection of our powerlessness” (p. 111).

Although revolutionary praxis will be an everlasting work, there are already a multitude of agents of change or resistance, millions of people convicted every day by the current state of things, such as “people who die from diseases that a simple pill could cure, victims of collateral damage from anti-terrorist operations, but also students educated for unemployment, adolescents enclosed in urban ghettos or suburbs, elderly people without pensions or social security” (p. 111). But even if there is no creation of a utopia on the horizon, will we stop working and struggling for that reason?

Socio-economic activism updated!

Cynics are often the most accurate observers of reality precisely on account of their hostility. This is a particular attraction of philosophies of finitude: a permanent suspicion of meaning and motives. Developed through to its full consequences in Continental Philosophy, this means reason must turn against itself and overthrow its own sovereignty. The renunciation of rational mastery and the critique of illusory metaphysics are instances of this work. Nihilism, the breakdown of ultimate meaning and absolute truth, is clearly respectable in that it honestly assesses that there is no fixed frame of reference: humanity is always already embedded and thrown in a particular environment that colors our perception of the world. Nevertheless, our contingency upon history in the form of language, culture, society and so forth means that we are the makers and keepers of our own socio-symbolic existence, one order no less arbitrary than another.

With everything cast into doubt in this way it is no wonder that postmodernism has been the harbinger of resistive, subversive and disruptive strategies aiming to undermine common assumptions, destabilize conventional customs, and show that things can be otherwise. Beyond these negative gestures of sabotage philosophy must turn to the latter positive task of imagining and forming new worlds. This is the contemporary predicament: either accept the loss of truth altogether and limit oneself to “the interplay of multiple meanings” or revalue and transform the current vacuum of values by establishing a new balance to society.

This tension is faced by anyone who opposes or struggles against global capitalism. More to the point, we always belong to the systems we criticize.  Using conservative concepts in any revolution is inevitable, but their limits–it is hoped–can be exposed at the same time. The capitalist machine, on the other hand, functions precisely due to its misfirings and contradictions thus rendering futile the exhaustive efforts in exposing our contingency and unraveling inconsistencies. All the frantic activity (read: activism) that has gone into breaking apart the hegemonic global social order that poisons nature and gives certain individuals clear advantages over others has oftentimes been in vain and has instead actually fueled violent social organizations to grow. In fact it appears as though nihilism fits in quite well with capitalism: it can justify nothing so it tolerates everything and antagonistic games are allowed to continue as usual.

Is there then any solution on the horizon today? With lack of resolution and a long list of failed attempts and impotent intentions it is no surprise that the modern subject, myself included, has come to peace with incommensurability, pessimism and indifference itself. Perhaps the reason hipsterism is not a vibrant response to the (post)modern deadlock is precisely because the threshold of generating positive new alternatives, for the time being, has itself been reached.

At a different level, however, perhaps the most popular rebel-clique today really knows (implicitly?) what it is doing here. In some respects I think that hipsters are using apathy and irony to update the old activism of the previous century, to make it more believable for the 21st century (here I unquestionably lift the words from Shaviro written in a difference context – see here). What I mean by this is that hipsters, read in this light, are “making new equivalents” for those aspects of activism “that might otherwise now seem antiquated” and, therefore, are very much in-line with keeping activism “intact”, albeit making “revisionist updates” in parts that look wholly unlike the activism that most liberals have become familiar with.

Given the somewhat obscure character of this comment, one I am increasingly willing to be crucified on but nonetheless jejune and a tyro in, I will provide a short series of quotes that have significantly stirred me towards this position. The authors should not be altogether surprising.

But which is the revolutionary path? Is there one? – To withdraw from the world market, as Samir Amin advises Third World Countries to do, in a curious revival of the fascist “economic solution”? Or might it be to go in the opposite direction? To go further still, that is, in the movement of the market, of decoding and deterritorialization? For perhaps the flows are not yet deterritorialized enough, not decoded enough, from the viewpoint of a theory and practice of a highly schizophrenic character. Not to withdraw from the process, but to go further, to “accelerate the process,” as Nietzsche put it: in this matter, the truth is that we haven’t seen anything yet. (Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, p. 260)

…the withdrawal expressed by “I would prefer not to” is not to be reduced to the attitude of “saying no to the Empire” but, first and foremost, to all the wealth of what I have called the rumspringa of resistance, all the forms of resisting which help the system to reproduce itself by ensuring our participation in it—today, “I would prefer not to” is not primarily “I would prefer not to participate in the market economy, in capitalist competition and profiteering,” but— much more problematically for some—“I would prefer not to give to charity to support a Black orphan in Africa, engage in the struggle to prevent oil-drilling in a wildlife swamp, send books to educate our liberal-feminist-spirited women in Afghanistan….” (Žižek, Parallax View, p. 383)

The popularization of social criticism, part III

Perhaps the most easily identifiable if not most significant example of the phenomena in which specifically acute anti-consumerist or anti-institutional gestures are rendered in such a way as to serve capitalism and institutions themselves is modern or avant-garde art. Indeed, the two terms are almost interchangeable: ‘avant-garde’ is a term that implies being ahead of the game, original and advanced, borrowing its implications from the military usage which denotes a group of soldiers on the front line of battle. In the same way, to be modern is to be original in some respect. Thus, both terms share similar qualities, aspirations and associations by definition.

In particular, modern or avant-garde art is characterized by exploring “new and overlooked aspects of human experience” (Modern Art: A Very Short Introduction, p. 6). As such, the usual suspects of modern art are regularly provoked to transgress the conventions and apathy of institutional or establishment art and their corresponding values. Thus, what is discovered in the work of modern artists is typically shocking or strange. In a word, it forces one to think beyond habitual thought. One strategy it takes in this regard is satire, mocking both the history of art and its audience. In short, the driving force at the core of modern art is “a spirit of competitive innovation – a rage for the new.” (p. 20).

A key aspect for generations of modern artists has been the recognition that a picture is “not a window onto that world but a constructed image of it” (p. 14). For post-impressionists in particular, the function of art is not merely a mimetic representation of reality. The adherence or correspondence to visual reality is, after all, the least interesting aspect of art. For avant-gardism, on the other hand, the symbolic or expressive function of art is much more important. This facet of art was all the more intensified given the emergence of photography and printing which could mechanically reproduce images of reality. Artists no longer needed the skill or dexterity to represent reality since photography could quickly do so instead. Thus, art “no longer entailed a representational purpose” but combined objects or materials in order to produce works for more psychological purposes (p. 51). As such, an entire revalorization of what counted as art was underway. In fact, what now appears to be relevant is an almost obligatory aspiration in contemporary art to be kitsch. In other words, the dross of the art world is turned into gold. Art no longer plays by the same rules as before but dismantles the citadel of conventional art right along with its artists, curators, critics and art historians.

In addition to the novel and oppositional gestures it flaunts, modern art is socially rebellious, radically critiquing the obnoxious nationalism, sexism and market values of its present situation. In this way, avant-garde art is foremost a medium of culturally independent work that quietly subverts dominant images of modern society. Doubtless, this also includes strategies of contesting the hegemony of institutional art practices and powerful gallery-based museums. Modern artists have commonly responded to this problem by exhibiting their work in cafes and cabarets while private art academies have emerged in opposition to state schools. However, it goes without saying, modern art has mushroomed to the extent that entire museums now house works devoted entirely to modern art and state schools specialize in avant-gardism.

Even at its inception, modern art has been “caught between the market and marginality” (p. 39). Generations of modern artists have desired to be on the margins as outsiders, but have simultaneously required some semblance of monetary support. Perhaps more importantly, the second motor of modern art, in addition to the rage for the new, has been expressive creativity and individualism, an idiosyncrasy of avant-gardism that has fueled Western ideology and consumerism at the same time as it has resisted it. Indeed, the emergence of modern art has been central to the growth of Western capitalism itself. In perhaps my favorite line of the text, modern art is referred to in this manner:

For, despite the avant-garde’s cultural and social marginalization, those very motors that were driving its activities – the rage for the new and internationalism – were also driving modern, consumerist capitalism. At this consumerism was progressively extended through the mid-20th century, so the avant-garde became what one art historian has called the ‘research and development arm’ of the culture industry at consumerism’s centre (p. 27)

And as anticipated above, more and more public art museums are specifically ‘modern’, which entails a new avenue of consumption for books, reproductions, merchandise and even food. Thus, with the flourishing of the avant-garde movement came the growth of consumerism and commercialized entertainment in tow. Furthermore, the market of modern art would have have emerged had it not been for collectors with enough money who were willing to speculate on the then novel and unpredictable form of avant-gardism. So while artists resisted the reduction of their art to the status of a commodity, such a collapse was and still is in some respects inevitable. What is more, modern art has formed its own system of professionalization which is governed by strict, if tacit, protocols and criteria for recognizing certain artists as acceptably modern and rejecting others. In other words, modern art has become a dominant institution itself, even if it owes its roots to anti-institutionalism.

To be ‘modern’ today is to already have qualities that Western societies currently value – vitality, openness to the new, and responsiveness or relevance to the present moment, for instance. In fact, as discussed elsewhere, it seems as though social criticism and resistance to the status quo has itself become a popular way of participating as a consumer in market capitalism. Although modern art was not received well publicly at its inception, it has certainly become quite popular at this point in time. People have grown comfortable and familiar with it. What is novel today is old hat tomorrow (hence, capitalism must perpetually expand and open up new markets).

It is telling then that the currently popular style of street art is caught in the same predicament as modern art was previously, that is, the complicity or betrayal of resistance and marginality to commercial art. Employing its usual wit, the Economist recounts this latest trend:

In the past few years, as street art has exploded from variations on fat-lettered graffiti to sophisticated murals and stencils, works by its top practitioners have sold at auction for hundreds of thousands of dollars: a far cry from such art’s usually subversive origins. But whereas many street artists now create work expressively for galleries, starting out—and often, continuing—in the trenches of “outside” art is what gives them credibility and, ironic as it is, market legitimacy

Is there an alternative ending to all this? Is there a way to escape the commodified status of art? David Cottington, author of Modern Art, suggests there is: “Art as art still has power to move, enchant, and enlighten us as viewers” (p. 140). As such, art possesses the possibility of jarring us from our habitual and everyday forms of thought and encounter something new. This is what makes art so rewarding and enriching after all. This of course includes challenging the shortcomings of capitalism:

If we as viewers of modern art are to keep the faith of what motivated much of it in the first place, we are committed to an avant-gardist opposition to institutionalized modern art – that is, almost all of that art – which entails acquiescing in the abandonment of art as art, in favour of putting artistic creativity to the work of critiquing capitalist culture in other, more propitious, fields. But if we allow ourselves to enjoy the creations of modern artists in aesthetic terms, on the museums’ terms, whatever visual gratification we derive from the encounter with their artworks, we gain it through a misapprehension of what they meant by them… (p. 141)

Whether or not this is a satisfying conclusion I will let the reader decide. The point that the author seems to be making is that we should remain faithful to the original oppositional gesture, even if that means overturning the very fabric that we once supported as a means of resistance before it was compromised by the very system it contradicted.

The Popularization of Social Criticism, Part II

An inherent dynamic of capitalism is that it must perpetually defer its immanent crisis – that is, the very nature of capitalism is to continually expand its circulation of capital otherwise it will collapse. As such, capitalism must always be discovering and appropriating new markets. This is clearly evident in the commodification of resources that were previously considered public; for instance, water or information. Even more ominously, capitalism implicitly encourages and feeds off of its own contradictions. Thus, a certain part of the economic system frees ‘lines of flight’ that are specifically anti-capitalist but overtime can eventually be re-appropriated back into the system. For example, rogue scientists that innovate uncommon technology which threatens the system but can then be filtered, commodified and marketed. More profoundly still, diasporic groups that resist capitalism or globalization can and have easily been packaged into consumable identities (such as hippies, the beat generation, hipsters and so on).

Of course, this also goes for social criticism as such: an enormous market has emerged to satisfy the needs of ‘rogue’ intellectuals via books, music, films, etc. In short, resistance to capitalism is quickly co-opted and compromised by capitalism itself. As a final example, we can quickly reflect upon the sudden and widespread ethos of going green or eco-groovy. The resistance to industrial agriculture is certainly understandable and one that I support, but it has simultaneously spawned a whole new generation of faithful consumers looking to assuage their guilt of imminent ecological disaster. The point is as follows:

the more varied, and even erratic, the better. Normalcy starts to lose its hold. The regularities tart to loosen. This loosening of normalcy is part of capitalism’s dynamic. It’s not a simple liberation. It’s capitalism’s own form of power. It’s no longer disciplinary institutional power that defines everything, it’s capitalism’s power to produce variety – because markets get saturated. Produce variety and you produce a niche market. The oddest of affective tendencies are okay – as long as they pay. Capitalism starts intensifying or diversifying affect, but only in order to extract surplus-value. It hijacks affect in order to intensify profit potential. It literally valorizes affect. The capitalist logic of surplus-value production starts to take over the relation field that is also the domain of political ecology, the ethical field of resistance to identity and predictable paths. It’s very troubling and confusing, because it seems to me that there’s been a certain kind of convergence between the dynamic of capitalist power and the dynamic of resistance [Brian Massumi, 'Navigating Movements' in Hope, p. 224]

Deleuze and the IDF

One of the micro-topics I have increasingly become interested in as I study philosophy is the nature in which some philosophical positions or movements are complicit with capitalism (particularly, those that are strictly anti-capitalist themselves). I have mused on this insight elsewhere (here and here and here). Today I came across an interesting point raised by Žižek that discloses a strong parallel between Deleuze and the Israeli Defense Force. Although the extensive passage quoted at length is not capitalistic in nature per se, Žižek relates the self-revolutionizing principle inherent to capitalism here, a logic that requires resistance, the uncommon and the novel in order to perpetually defer its inherent contradiction from reaching a point of crisis.

It was recently made public that, in order to conceptualize the Israeli Defense Force’s urban warfare against thePalestinians, the IDF military academies systematically refer to Deleuze and Guattari, especially to A Thousand Plateaux, using it as ‘operational theory’ – the catchwords used are ‘Formless Rival Entities’, ‘Fractal Manoeuvre’, Velocity vs Rhythms’, ‘The Wahhabi War Machine’, “Postmodern Anarchists’, ‘Nomadic Terrorists’. One of the key distinctions they rely on is the one between ‘smooth’ and ‘striated’ space, which reflect the organizational concepts of the ‘war machine’ and the ‘state apparatus’. The IDF now often uses the term ‘to smooth out space’ when they want to refer to operation in a space as if it had no borders. Palestinian areas are thought as ‘striated’ in the sense that they are enclosed by fences, walls, ditches, road blocks, and so on:

“The attack conducted by units of the IDF on the city of Nablus in April 2002 was described by its commander, Brigadier-General Aviv Kokhavi, as ‘inverse geometry’, which he explained as ‘the reorganization of the urban syntax by a means of a series of micro-tactical actions’. During the battle soldiers moved within the city across hundreds of metres of overground tunnels carved out through a dense and contiguous urban structure. Although several thousand soldiers and Palestinian guerrillas were manoeuvring simultaneously in the city, they were so ‘saturated’ into the urban fabric that very few would have been visible from the air. Furthermore, they used none of the city’s streets, roads, alleys or courtyards, or any of the external doors, internal stairwells and windows, but moved horizontally through walls and vertically through holes blasted in ceilings and floors. This form of movement, described by the military as ‘infestation’, seeks to redefine inside as outside, and domestic interiors as thoroughfares. The IDF’s strategy of ‘walking through walls’ involves a conception of the city as not just the site but also the very medium of warfare: ‘a flexible, almost liquid medium that is forever contingent and in flux’.”

So what follows from all this? Not, of course, the nonsensical accusation that Deleuze and Guattari were theorists of militaristic colonization – but the conclusion that the conceptual machine articulated by Deleuze and Guattari, far from being simply ‘subversive’, also fits the (military, economic and ideologico-political) operational mode of contemporary capitalism. How, then, are we to revolutionize an order whose very principle is constant self-revolutionizing? [Slavoj Žižek Presents Mao: On Practice and Contradiction, pp. 26-27]

In what follows we are presented with a typical formulation of Žižek’s style, to raise an articulate and profound problem but only to answer it with a cliche quotidian response: in this case, in fewer words, be at peace with the conflict. The quoted remark is certainly disturbing, perhaps even more so for those enamored by Deleuze and his affirmative concept of difference. Although to the credit of Deleuze, I think he is well versed in the natural tendency of capitalism to axiomize – his word – the very forces that oppose it.

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