Friday, August 21, 2015

Rancière's version of surface reading

Rancière's running theme in The Emancipated Spectator is this: people aren't stupid. They're not "dupes" of some system of control; they can very well read into their circumstances, and the human capacity for knowledge of such circumstances should not be limited by finger-wagging (and self-serving) intellectuals who, having once scoffed at a society of the spectacle overrunning the populace, now scoff at the belief in the society of the spectacle (as residing, now in a range of popular-culture and business management segments of society). Rather than being content, as are Boltanski and Chiapello, to demonstrate how "the artistic critique" took root in business cultures (admittedly, a line of argument, in congruence with Virno, that I continue to find compelling), Rancière argues that such unveiling merely repeats a cycle in critical thought, and, worse, a pernicious tradition of treating spectators, and students, as ignoramuses (a favorite word of Rancière's).

I'm not sure that Rancière is not participating in one more version of "after critical theory," but I appreciate the radically democratic impulse of his writing. He calls for an end to the always-new, but his thought nevertheless folds into the same cycles of novelty that power academic, artistic, and consumer discourses. It's all fine and good to declare that we should stop assuming positions of critical authority (and admittedly, such positions are tedious), but how might this look? And why wouldn't it fold into these cycles of novelty?

This is worth thinking about in terms of the post-sixties avant-garde that took shape in the early moments of Reagan and Thatcher, and it's a good reminder to resist the temptation to see the artists and writers of this era as benighted, fooled by their love of Barthes and Baudrillard into believing in false outsides.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Rage, and order

It's strange, in some ways, to abandon conspiracy theory at the moment of its triumph (though one could argue that it's simply telegraphed and amplified further than in previous decades). I was reading over some of my old notes, and found this, which seems entirely applicable to the Tea Party/Gun God era of public discourse:

Conspiracy theory is the code at work in the text, that which works to overcome the text, to overwrite it with structure, latticework, trunk and branches. In Deleuze and Guattari's terms, conspiracy theory seems to “reterritorialize” instead of “deterritorialize.” Paradoxically, the notion of “managerialism” is the imaginary regime summoned by conspiracy theory. These are the hierarchical connections—arborescent, even—amongst men that haunt—overwrite--even a seemingly progressive, forward-looking text like Neuromancer. On some level, conspiracy theory might seem to resist coded space, but in fact it reinforces it. Moreover, it desires it. Conspiracy theory expresses a longing for structure, for discipline. It's the guard in the tower.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Violence as a non-out in Cosmopolis

I am reading an old (1990) Katherine Hayles article, one of her thrilling romps through genetics, information theory, and literature, focused on what she calls "the parataxic mode of being ... the physicality of creatures who can interact in unanticipated ways with their environment ...juxtaposed with their status as arti-
facts that express the information coded within them" (408). She uses White Noise as an example of a text that navigates such parataxis, beginning in the overcoded information of the supermarket, proceeding through Jack as "the sum of his data" and ending with the seemingly weightlessness-evading violence of Jack shooting Willie Mink. Hayles notes a long-observed idea in DeLillo studies, that in one view of his fiction "Only violence, preferably as random and brutal as possible, can crack the slick surfaces of fetishized commodification and restore the connection and immediacy that embodiment entails" (411). I wonder, then, what the twist is on the violence in Cosmopolis: it is unplanned? It is mediated more heavily by the gun itself? (I'm tempted to say yes, but that feels too easy in terms of the rest of my article; on the other hand, Packer is fascinated by the gun's technology, the necessity of saying "Nancy Babbitt" to it to get it to unlock. But is the violence here the same as Oswald's violence or Jack's violence or the violence in Mao II? I suspect it is not, but I need to think about it more.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Derivitive as creating ontologies

I'm reading the fascinating account of derivatives by Edward LiPuma and Benjamin Lee, Financial Derivatives and the Globalization of Risk, in which the authors describe derivatives as a particularly powerful form of fiction, one that allows financial analysts to abstract risk and value from the sociohistorical events that make them up, and so to create the very measurements of risk that they allege to be accurate accounts of the underlying world:

“[F]inancial derivatives also shape a new means of grasping historical events, in that they presuppose that the market can reimagine and reduce sociohistorical processes, no matter how seemingly incommensurable or complex, to terms of abstract, quantifiable, and hence manageable risk.[…] The financial derivative thus has an underlying categorical structure based on its ability to ontologize real-time event structures. The social fiction made real is that aculturally derived technologies of understanding—especially the development of particular differential equations for modeling time-bracketing transactions—permit (post)moderns to parse any event structure into its naturally occurring components, to abstract these components from the event structure and from their temporal flows, and to assign a calculable and quantified value to these components, thereby allowing agents to entertain the expectation that they can predict and manage future events (135).
Derivatives thus act as a kind of critical theory, asserting abstract, disconnected versions of the social world which are nevertheless interconnected in the financial sphere. Like certain kinds of postmodern fiction, they assert misidentified truths about the world that become their own predictions of the future, substituting socially constructed versions of connectedness for actual connections.

I'm not sure how accurate this analogy is. But it certainly seems at work in Cosmopolis.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Of neoliberalism and subjectivity

On the first page of their influential volume, Do Economists Make Markets, the sociologists Donald MacKenzie, Fabian Munesa and Lucia Siu describe the eminent economist Jeffrey Sachs, who served as an advisor to Bolivia in the 1980s, famously implementing "shock therapy," in which the Bolivian government spent much of its remaining reserves of foreign cash to remove pesos from circulation. He also eliminated government subsidies, removed import tariffs, and linked the Bolivian economy to the U.S. dollar, all in the name of enabling Bolivia to pay back its debt to the IMF. In short, Sachs implemented what has come to be called a neoliberal agenda. As MacKenzie et. al. observe, though, Sachs himself later questioned his application of purely academic theories to the specific case of Bolivia:
Later, Sachs was to muse on his meager understanding of the country to whose leaders he gave his crucial advice. It was only in a conversation a couple of years after his 1986 visit that he realized that Bolivia's physical geography was a fundamental feature of its economic situation, not merely an incidental fact. "Of course I knew that Bolivia was landlocked and mountainous.... Yet I had not reflected on how these conditions were key geographical factors, perhaps the overriding factors, in Bolivia's chronic poverty.... Almost all the international commentary and academic economic writing about Bolivia neglected this very basic point. It bothered me greatly that the most basic and central features of economic reality could be overlooked by academic economists spinning their theories from thousands of miles away" (Sachs 2005, p. 105) (1).
It strikes me that this conflict--between a universally-applicable solution for Bolivia, despite its mountains, and an "on the ground" solution in tune with Bolivia's specific situation--is also the conflict at work in Cosmopolis. In wanting to believe himself a universal subject, in desiring to transcend the earth, Eric Packer is acting just like Sachs. The very notion of a one-size-fits-all solution seems bound to Packer's singular identity. It is thus that the problem of subjectivity--the anti-Cartesian assertion about partial selves, and identifiable in Butler, Lacan, and Foucault--returns to haunt the Latourian/Callonian notion that all actors act in relation to a series of actants. Partial subjectivity, ill-fitting universal solutions--these are cut from the same philosophical cloth. It's quite possible, actually, that neoliberalism and old liberalism have something in common this way.

(Their point, of course, is about economics as a science intervening in the objects it observes: "economics is at work within economies in a way that is at odds with the widespread conception of science as an activity whose sole purpose is to observe and study, that is to 'know' the world" (2).

Monday, May 6, 2013

The inevitability of Sandy Hook conspiracy theories

In reading the surprisingly vibrant conspiracy theories circulating around the Sandy Hook tragedy, I'm struck not by the narrative form of these theories--they are typical in their way, finding "inconsistencies," alleging the participation of "crisis actors" who stood in as parents and other spokespeople, asserting the inconsistent release of film, and so on. Instead, I see this episode as indicative of a new inevitability around conspiracy theorizing: not that anything can be turned into a conspiracy, but that every issue must become a conspiracy. I'm not sure, really, if the Internet simply makes visible the same subset of the population who have always made such assertions. Subcultures of conspiracy theorists have existed for many years, but before the Internet, these scubcultures would have faced difficulty getting media attention; but now, researchers at CNN or MSNBC looking for a story need only log onto Facebook or Infowars to find people willing to make wild allegations. Similarly, likeminded ideas flourish in the unchecked comment boards of these sites.

It also seems that the zero-compromise climate that has arisen in recent years, a toxic product of right-wing radio, FOX news, gerrymandering, and the "blogosphere," has made such theories far more palatable. It's frightening, really, the lengths to which these voices go. They're driven by a increasingly impending sense of social breakdown, and likely the perceived sense that whiteness is on the decline. Guns become, in this context, a symbol of retaining agency. That may be a generous reading, though, one that assigns more rationality to these voices then they likely deserve. What likely happens is that the possibility of gun regulation becomes amplified, resignified every time it is deployed, so that even the specter of regulating some particularly militaristic guns, or requiring more universal background checks becomes the specter of a totalitarian government taking over rights. It's not so much that guns symbolize anything, as that the fight itself is enjoyable, and the persecution fantasy powerful.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The impossibility of the present in Cosmopolis

Famously, Cosmopolis concerns digital capital, with Eric Packer serving, in many accounts, as an extension of digitalized trading. But there's a problem with digital capital, of course: it's fundamentally an unrepresentable force. Is it computer code? Algorithms? Feedback loops? Flows of data? Concatenated trades, assimilable only as system? Partly as a result of this representational impossibility, Cosmopolis has an extremely tortured relationship with the present, functioning as a novel obsessed with the future but continually defending the future from an encroaching past. This tendency occurs most prosaically in Packer's irritated mutterings about how words like "skyscraper" and "automatic teller machine" and even "office" are offensively outdated, pointing their users back toward a twentieth century of more immediate dreams and out of the highly theorized, self-consciously now world of information flows, rapidly changing numbers, and infinitesimally measured units of time. Packer asserts himself to be simultaneous with these flows, a function of rapid market calculations, a kind of visionary who expresses his sublime (in the Kantian sense) digital world using the language of critical theory. I assert that DeLillo asks, in this novel, whether it is possible to grasp the present at all, and questions whether it is at all possible to comprehend the world we are to believe Packer is from. Of what electric sheep do androids like Packer dream, DeLillo asks, and it turns out that they dream of a world not terribly different than midcentury America--the era, say, of the Kennedy assassination.

For Packer may not believe in "office" as a term, but he certainly believes in it as a concept. His ostensibly high-tech limousine functions no differently than Kennedy's limo: as a cognitively convenient shorthand for power's expression in the industrialized twentieth century. (Oddly, Packer never examines the word "limousine" in his etymological critiques.) I believe this is intentional on DeLillo's part, and that Cosmopolis constitutes, in part, an extended meditation on either the passing of or persistence of a certain midcentury representation of power, or, alternately, the ways in which technological power has evaded its own conditions of representation. The limousine, in other words, is hopelessly nostalgic, as is the assassination Packer imagines. The networked disasters of climate change, cyberwar, and genetic modification are all unrepresentable through the neatly compelling narrative of assassination. Eric's dreams of assassination herald from the same era as the limo, and  the misplaced sense that individual bodies achieve meaning outside of the networks in which they are embedded. As much as Packer claims to be a creature of a hyper-networked present, then, he continually imagines a nostalgic past that likely, as Jameson asserts of Kennedy's war room, never existed as physical space with intact set of meanings.

What sorts of cognitive mappings are possible for digital capital? Cosmopolis doesn't answer this question, but poses instead an elaborate series of interesting failures. The novel installs itself in the same position as the anti-globalization protesters in one of its central scene: doomed to repeat dated versions of radical critique that never reaches its target.
It also strikes me that DeLillo, a writer who has spent his career trying to use the tools of critical theory to represent postmodern power, represents an idea figure to scrutinize the transition from identifiable, mappable versions of (masculine) power and the impossible representation of digital flows pantomimed by Packer.