24 September 2011 § Leave a Comment
I was alerted to the first of three great essays on the implications of semiocapitalism for embodied communication from Franco Berardi (Bifo) by Mark Fisher in a piece from New Left Project called “The Privatisation of Stress” (7 Sep. 2011):
- “I Want to Think: POST-U,” E-Flux 24 (Apr. 2011) [pdf];
- “Cognitarian Subjectivation,” E-Flux 20 (Nov. 2010) [pdf];
- “Biopolitics and Connective Mutation,” trans. Tiziana Terranova and Melinda Cooper, Culture Machine 7 (2005).
From “Cognitarian Subjectivation”:
Semiocapital puts neuro-psychic energies to work, submitting them to mechanistic speed, compelling cognitive activity to follow the rhythm of networked productivity [a.k.a. automatism — or the digital reprogramming of sensibility]. As a result, the emotional sphere linked with cognition is stressed to its limit. Cyberspace overloads cybertime, because cyberspace is an unbounded sphere whose speed can accelerate without limits, while cybertime (the organic time of attention, memory, imagination) cannot be sped up beyond a certain point — or it cracks. And it actually is cracking, collapsing under the stress of hyper-productivity. An epidemic of panic and depression is now spreading throughout the circuits of the social brain. The current crisis in the global economy has much to do with this nervous breakdown.
For a useful review of Bifo on such matters, see Michael Goddard’s review.
For the implications of semiocapitalism (“automatism”) for labour relations (“autonomy”), see Bifo’s essays
- “Info-Labour and Precarisation,” trans. Erik Empson, Generation Online (10 Feb. 2009), and
- “Welfare State and Democracy: Getting Free from Illusions,” . . . ment 1 (2011): 6-12.
Franco Berardi Bifo is a contemporary writer, media-theorist and media-activist. He founded the magazine A/traverso (1975-1981) and was part of the staff of Radio Alice, the first free pirate radio station in Italy (1976-1978). Like others involved in the political movement of Autonomia in Italy during the 1970s, he fled to Paris, where he worked with Felix Guattari in the field of schizoanalysis. During the 1980s he contributed to the magazines Semiotexte (New York), Chimerees (Paris), Metropoli (Rome) and Musica 80 (Milan). In the 1990s he published Mutazione e Ciberpunk (Genoa, 1993), Cibernauti (Rome, 1994), and Felix (Rome, 2001). He is currently collaborating on the magazine Derive Approdi as well as teaching social history of communication at the Accademia di belle Arti in Milan. He is the co-founder of the e-zine rekombinant.org and the telestreet phenomenon [of pirate mini-TV stations].
See the Wiki also.
For more essays, see Generation Online. His most recent book in English is Precarious Rhapsody: Semocapitalism & the Pathologies of Post-Alpha Generation, ed. Erik Empson & Stevphen Shukaitis; trans. Arianna Bove et al. (London: Minor Compositions, 2009; New York: AK Press, 2011) [pdf].
18 April 2011 § 4 Comments
In an interview with Alexei Penzin, amongst many other insights, Paolo Virno argues that the kind of micro-collectives characteristic of post-Fordist production, i.e., immaterial labour (see Chukhrov), “socialize the entrepreneurial function” to foster the kind of “social cooperation” that works against the monopoly of the state (86-87):
Micro-collectives, workgroups, research teams, etc. are half-productive, half-political structures. If we want, they are the no man’s land in which social cooperation stops being exclusively an economic resource and starts appearing as a public, non-stately sphere. (86)
In other words, such groups work together to make stuff, but they also work against (↑) the state monopoly on power (↓).
If examined as productive realities, the micro-collectives you mention have mainly the merit of socializing the entrepreneurial function: instead of being separated and hierarchically dominant, this function is progressively reabsorbed by living labor, thus becoming a pervasive element of social cooperation. (ibid.)
Entrepreneurship ceases to be a way for the state to drive workers (↓) — and the prerogative of enterprising individuals — and instead enables them to work together (↑ or rather ↔).
We are all entrepreneurs, even if an intermittent, occasional, contingent way. But, as I was saying, micro-collectives have an ambivalent character: apart from being productive structures, they are also germs of political organization. What is the importance of such ambivalence? What can it suggest in terms of the theory of the organization? In my opinion, this is the crucial issue: nowadays the subversion  of the capitalistic relations of production can manifest itself through the institution of a public, non-stately sphere, of a political community oriented towards the general intellect. (86-87)
The model for such micro-collectives are artists’ collectives, artists being the “virtuosos” of immaterial labour, exemplifying what Penzin calls “the flexible, mobile, non-specialized substance of contemporary ‘living labor’” (81).
- “institution”: “Institutions constitute the way in which our species protects itself from uncertainty and with which it create rules to protect its own praxis” (85); the State has no monopoly on institutions.
- “general intellect” (a.k.a. the “social brain”): the human capacity for “public or interpsychical” cognition through communication (“thinking with words”). It is the “main productive force of matured capitalism” (84), i.e., work is now virtual — hence the phrase immaterial labour. It could also constitute the “foundations of a [non-stately] republic” (84).
In order to allow this subversion, the distinctive features of post-Fordist production (the valorization of its own faculty of language, a fundamental relation with the presence of the other, etc.) demand a radically new form of democracy. Micro-collectives are the symptom — as fragile and contradictory as they may be — of an exodus, of an enterprising subtraction from the rules of wage labor. (87)
This “radically new form of democracy” is non-representative. It doesn’t work through a parliament but through soviets, i.e., workers’ councils, as “tools for democratic self-organization” (82) [soviet, совет, Ru. "council, advice, harmony, concord"]. It suggests the possibility of a “democracy of the multitude,” of a “public sphere that is no longer connected to the State” (90). So,
the monopoly of decision making can only really be taken away from the State if it ceases once and for all to be a monopoly. [Thus, t]he public sphere of the multitude is a centrifugal force. (90)
Of course, we must avoid “the cancerous metastasis of the State,” i.e. bureaucratization, centralization, and “the glorification of labor,” i.e. collectivization, that happened in Soviet Russia (90). Communism need not signal a massification (→ a people’s revolution). And we must remembers that micro-collectives represent “both a danger and a salvation”: they could signal a fragmentation of society (-) or its politicization (+). Communism can instead signal a democracy of the multitude (→ the soviets of the multitude)
Chukhrov, Keti. “Towards the Space of the General: On Labor beyond Materiality and Immateriality.” E-flux 20 (Nov. 2010). Web.
Lazzarato, Maurizio. “Immaterial Labour.” Trans. Paul Colilli and Ed Emery. Generation Online. 6 Mar. 2008. Web.
Penzin, Alexei. “The Soviets of the Multitude: On Collectivity and Collective Work.” Interview with Paolo Virno. Mediations 25.1 (Fall 2010): 81-92. Web.
6 January 2011 § 3 Comments
Eukaryotic: (of the cells of any organism other than bacteria and archaea) w/ cells that contain complex structures enclosed w/in membranes, especially a distinct nucleus or nuclear envelope wherein reside organelles like mitochondria (genes).
“characterized by well-defined cells (with nuclei and cell walls)” (1957), from Fr. eucaryote (1925), from Gk. eu- “well (formed)” + karyon “nut, kernel” + -ote as in zygote.
(Vs prokaryotic — read prekaryotic, because such organisms are evolutionarily prior: w/o a distinct nucleus with a membrane or other specialized organelles.)
Eukaryotes represent a minority of organisms; in a human body there are ten times more microbes (prokaryotes) than human cells (eukaryotes).
Although the word might be unfamiliar, the idea is not: we are taught (and thus like) to think of ourselves/our selves as eukaryotic — as bodies with nuclear selves or brains ”inside” that identify us (our kernels or nuts!), that make us “what we are” (and unique) — and we are at some level anxious that we might in fact be prokaryotic: all surface, or empty or chaotic inside (and as ubiquitous and unexceptional as bacteria).
We — in ourselves/our selves — are flies in fly-bottles . . . but we’re worried that we’re empty bottles (or at best Klein bottles).
For Ludwig Wittgenstein, to philosophize is to unsee ourselves/our selves as such:
What is your aim in philosophy? — To shew the fly the way out of the fly-bottle. (Philosophical Investigations, sec. 309 [1958, 103])
He aims to disabuse us of two artefacts of Cartesianism — solipsism and psychologism:
We are flies stuck in fly-bottle selves (solipsism).
We are fly-bottle bodies with true fly-selves/-brains “inside” (psychologism).
I.e. to shoo the fly — the idea, basically a “grammatical fiction,” that “mental process[es]” are “inner” and thus able to be “private” — out of the (brain-)bottle (see the discussion of the “pain” language game: PI, secs 244-317 [89-104], especially secs 295-317).
David Foster Wallace’s The Broom of the System — not his best fiction by any means and about a third too long, but funny — attempts to think out this stuff.
There is much talk of membranes (read: fly-bottles), selves, and the drama of inside and outside. Here is a passage describing what happens when someone’s car air-con breaks down in the desert (the G[reat].O[hio].D[esert]):
Self and Other. Difference. Inside-Outside. Except the air conditioner is broken. The Outside is getting in. The heat is the Outside. It’s getting in, because the Inside’s broken. [. . .] The Inside lets the Outside in. [. . .] You sweat. [. . .] What does the Outside do? It makes you unclean. It coats Self with Other. It pokes at the membrane. And if the membrane is what makes you you and the not-you not you, what does that say about you, when the not-you begins to poke through the membrane? [. . .] It makes you insecure, is what it does [etc., etc. ad (paene) infinitum]. (136; see 136-38, 330-48)
In “Big Old Neon” (from Oblivion), DFW makes a better fist of Witt (as he calls him).
The story once again concerns the inside/outside thing, in particular, the problem of other minds, especially (and, additionally, as a fictional device), in Witt’s phrase, how to “find the right expression for our thoughts” to communicate unfraudently — without playing self-serving mind-games — with others (PI, sec. 335, p. 108). The protagonist’s ethical dilemma becomes an aesthetic one as he tries to tell his story as fully as possible (DFW even pokes his narratorial nose in at the end of the story to complete it [180-81]):
[M]any of the most important impressions and thoughts in a person’s life are ones that flash through your head so fast that fast isn’t even the right word, they seem totally different from or outside of the regular sequential clock time we all live by, and they have so little relation to the sort of linear, one-word-after-another-word English we all communicate with each other with that it could easily take a whole lifetime just to spell out the contents of one split-second’s flash of thoughts and connections, etc. — and yet we all seem to go around trying . . . to convey to other people what we’re thinking and to find out what they’re thinking, when in fact deep down everybody knows it’s a charade and they’re just going through the motions. What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant. [. . .] All I’m trying to do is sketch out one little part of what it was like before I died and why I at least thought I did it, so that you’ll have at least some idea of why what happened afterward happened and why it had the impact it did on who this is really about. Meaning it’s like an abstract or sort of intro, meant to be very brief and sketchy . . . and yet of course look how much time and English it’s seeming to take even to say it. (150-51, 152-53; see 166-67, 178-79)
His maximalist introspections echo Witt on the “speed of thought,” which presents a problem for writers because it generates an excess of material:
Suppose we think while we talk or write — I mean, as we normally do — we shall not in general say that we think quicker than we talk, but the thought seems not to be separate from the expression. On the other hand, however, one does speak of the speed of thought, of how a thought goes through one’s head like lightning; how problems become clear to us in a flash, and so on. So it is natural to ask if the same thing happens in lightning-like thought — only extremely accelerated — as when we talk and “think while we talk.” So that in the first case the clockwork runs down all at once, but in the second bit by bit, braked by the words.
I can see or understand a whole thought in a flash in exactly the sense in which I can make a note of it in a few words or a few pencilled dashes. — What makes this note into an epitome of this thought? (PI, sec. 318-19 [104-05])
Nonetheless, this aesthetic dilemma is the stuff of what we call fiction (which is really metafiction [about exposing the fictional illusion] or fabulation [about violating the reader's expectations]; see Waugh 148): poioumena [stories about storytelling], stream-of-consciousness, free indirect speech, interior/exterior focalization, unreliable narration, etc.
B/t/w, DFW also genuflects in his essay “The Empty Plenum” to David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress, which he describes as “a dramatic rendering of what it would be like to live in the sort of universe described by logical atomism,” viz. Witt’s early philosophy in the Tractatus — and “pretty much the high point of experimental fiction in this country” (Blake Butler, “DFW Praise Compendium”; see DFW’s “The Empty Plenum: David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress”).
- Marshall Boswell, “The Broom of the System: Wittgenstein and the Rules of the Game,” Understanding David Foster Wallace (Columbia, SC: USCP, 2003) 21-64.
- Blake Butler, “DFW Praise Compendium,” htmlgiant.com, 20 Apr. 2009, web, 6 Jan. 2010.
- James Caryn, ”Wittgenstein is Dead and Living in Ohio,” rev. of The Broom of the System by DFW, New York Times, 1 Mar. 1987: 22.
- David Markson, Wittgenstein’s Mistress (Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive P, 1988) [click to look inside].
- Larry McCaffery, “An Interview with DFW,” The Review of Contemporary Fiction 13:2 (Summer 1993): 127-50 [or pdf: read!].
- Lance Olsen, ”Termite art, or Wallace’s Wittgenstein,” The Review of Contemporary Fiction 13:2 (Summer 1993): 199-215.
- James Ryerson, “Philosophical Sweep,” slate.com, 21 Dec. 2010, web, 6 Jan. 2010.
- David Foster Wallace, ”Big Old Neon,” Oblivion: Stories [not copyright; for research purposes only] (New York, NY: Little Brown, 2004) 141-81.
- —, The Broom of the System (New York, NY: Viking, 1987) [click to look inside].
- —, “The Empty Plenum: David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress,” rev. of the aforementioned, The Review of Contemporary Fiction 10.2 (1990): 217-39.
- Patricia Waugh, Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction (New York: Routledge, 1988).
- Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1953). There is a more recent edition, which differs only slightly from Anscombe’s original: Philosophical Investigations, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe, P.M.S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte, 4th rev. ed. P.M.S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte (Chichester, UK: Wiley Blackwell, 2009).
- Todd Woodlan, ”Play Nice: Conning the Text in David Foster Wallace’s The Broom of the System,” dropkickrocket.com, web, 6 Jan. 2010.
18 August 2010 § 3 Comments
In How Art Made the World, Nigel Spivey applies the idea of the peak-shift effect to art.
We are cognitively programmed to like the peak shift — exaggeration that essentialises what we perceive — by which the “pleasurable” element of a stimulus is refined to create a “super stimulus.” Jonah Lehrer describes peak shift in Psychology Today:
Whenever [herring gull chicks] see a bird beak, they frantically peck at it, begging for food. . . . But this reflex can be manipulated. Expose the chicks to a fake beak — say, a wooden stick with a red dot that looks like the one on the end of an adult herring gull’s beak — and they peck vigorously at that, too. Should the chicks see a wood stick with three red dots, they peck even faster. Abstracting and exaggerating the salient characteristics of a mother gull’s beak strengthens the response. [slightly ed.]
Similarly, we are drawn to peak shift features in art. As neuroaestheticist V.S. Ramachandran suggests, art doesn’t aim at realistic representation; it employs ”deliberate hyperbole, exaggeration, even distortion, in order to create pleasing effects in the brain” (“The Artful Brain” [2003 Reith Lecture 3] 171).
The distortion isn’t random: some forms of distortion have proved more effective in that they appeal to ”the figural primitives of our perceptual grammar” and have come to constitute the laws of artistic experience. (It seems to me that Ramachandran draws on the law of prägnanz [G. "pithiness"] from Gestalt Psychology: the idea that we tend to order our experience in a manner that is regular, orderly, symmetric and simple.)
Ramachandran posits ten laws of aesthetic experience — the number of and distinctions between the laws and their domains seem to me ill-defined and fairly arbitrary, but they are useful to understand how we perceive — and create — art (he has in mind visual art and assumes that vision evolved to discover objects and defeat camouflage):
- peak shift — exaggeration (hyperbole): play up what is distinctive in the object to draw our eye to “supernormal” features (cf. Analytical Cubism);
- isolation — understatement (litotes): limit our attention to the object to a single “modality” (cf. Color Field);
- grouping — holism (emergence): appeal to our desire to group the fragments of an object into a whole (on the basis of closure rather than mere proximity, cf. Pointillism);
- contrast — juxtaposition of opposites (antithesis): appeal to the wealth of information present in regions of change, i.e., edges (cf. Fauvism);
- perceptual problem solving — camouflage (crypsis): complexify the object to delay our reward (cf. Abstract Expressionism);
- symmetry — appeal to our preference for symmetry as marking out objects of interest, i.e., predators and prey, and mates (cf. Classicism);
- generic viewpoint — represent the object from a generic vantage point, breaking the rule only for effect (cf. trompe-l’œil);
- repetition, rhythm and orderliness;
- metaphor — analogy: point up a feature of a source object unexpectedly shared by the target object. (From “The Artful Brain” [short version] 48 [long version: 173], and The Science of Art: A Neurological Theory of Aesthetic Experience [with William Hirstein])
(Note that in The Science of Art, Ramachandran stops with eight laws, omitting laws 8 and 9 — which seem to me instances of law 6: symmetry.)
All the laws rely on the axioms that
- we see only what we need to (much is redundant in nature);
- we can focus on only one thing at a time (attention cannot be divided);
- we see step-by-step (we bootstrap); and
- we like aha-moments (we seek a reward).
Ramachandran also asks why we bother creating and viewing art. He gives four possible answers, favouring the last:
- once aesthetic laws have evolved, they can be artificially stimulated for pleasure (art as artificial sweetener);
- artistic activity manifests good hand-eye coordination and thus evolutionary fitness (art as personal ad);
- artefacts are status symbols (art as bling); and
- art as reality testing (art as simulation).