Volume 9, Number 3 (October 2012)
Author: Craig Anderson
In the work The Cinematic Mode of Production: Economy and the Society of the Spectacle, Jonathan Beller adeptly identifies the current challenge facing post-Marxist scholars regarding efforts to locate, analyze, and (re)conceptualize resistance strategies under the forms of transnational capitalism that appear totalistic as new regimes of work colonize the body and the intellect and infect culture at all levels; where “every movement and gesture is potentially productive of value” (2006: 198). His question strikes at the core of the conundrum that faces critical theorists as they look for sites where resistance can take place, for the articulation of modes of being which resist commodification as a prevailing logic, for ways in which culture can be spoken, employed resistively, and creatively redesigned. His underlying concern is how to avoid a mere re-run of filtering our critique through the well-worn conceptual underpinnings of modernity (such as “subjectivity,” and “consciousness,” modes that are intertwined with the egregious core values of imperialism and patriarchy that comprise the European capitalist project). What is crucial about Beller’s concern is that as the prospect of a new revolutionary politic involving collective social struggle seems an impossibility (and, I would add, due to the obvious way the “failures” of the tyrannical articulation of the Marxist project rest firmly and painfully in memory), how, then, do we proceed? Has contemporary capitalism, as asserted by Stephen Duncombe (2007: 495) merely deftly adopted, commodified and thus co-opted forms of resistance, rendering them impotent through equivalence? If the twin processes of socialization to new modes of capital through a) a highly media-saturated socio-cultural environment which distracts and occupies desire as it reinforces materialist, consumptive values, and b) the post-Fordist, information technology regimes of work which Beller says “burrows into the flesh” (not just the corporeal, but the brain as “flesh”; 2006: 200) produce little more than tiny spaces or avenues for a “response,” then, are considerations regarding resistance simply imaginative flights of fancy or pipedreams? Even if these resistance models represent a creative re-working or addendum to the economic reductionism of earlier Marxist critiques, do they fail to present a paradigm shift that holistically and accurately engages with globalized production processes where, as Slyvere Lotringer notes, “life itself is put to task”? (Baudrillard, 2007: 29)
The purpose of this essay is to engage with this line of questioning in two ways. First, I will outline forms of resistance that critical theorists have deemed as shaped by and intertwined with contemporary capitalism. The focus, in particular, will be on communication technologies and their impact within the socio-cultural realm both at the level of reception and via modern labour practices (the post-Fordist informational/cultural economy that Alberto Toscano says entails an extension of “exploitation to the whole social field” (2007: 74). Secondly, the essay will assess more formal resistance models that suggest that new social forces unleashed by the globalization of capitalism represent an inimitable potentiality for unifying disparate political elements across the globe in a broad-based movement with which to counter the extant violent pauperization and disenfranchisement endemic to capitalist accumulation. I will begin by analyzing resistance in the realm of the social as defined by Jean Baudrillard. The focus will be on the period in Baudrillard’s writing (announced, in particular, at the 1985 lecture, The Masses: The Implosion of the Social in the Media, presented at the University of Melbourne) that obsessively deconstructs and yet optimistically flirts with a purportedly media-saturated Western universe. This “universe” is one in which simulation colonizes and supplants the former “real” world of the socio-political; and by extension effectively undermines the foundational interpretive value systems of truth, the quantifiable “objective” reality, and the political subjectivity informing modernity. Baudrillard’s analysis of the entropic nature of this alternate realm and the resistance it engenders will be contrasted to the modes of resistive being identified by Paolo Virno, or the “emotional situation” (1996: 13) of ambivalence that is a connective and yet not unsurprising pose by members of the modern technologically-based labour force. Lastly, our concern here will be with the more “traditional” revolutionary situation that Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have asserted has been borne out of the exigencies of the current functions (their diffuse yet crystallized nature) of globalized capital; a phase of capital that they dub “Empire.” Resistance, as it concerns us here, will be viewed according to the plausibility of the interpretation at play, with the overarching question of the inventiveness, the creativity, of the assessment/critique and the strength of the prescriptive conclusions.
II. Jean Baudrillard – the “evil genius” of the social, ironic resistance to media representation, saturation, and escape
Before I attempt to unpack the silent, yet arguably passive, mass resistance that is engendered at the level of reception due to the proliferation of media forms from the late 1970’s onward, it is important to highlight, in brief, the connective overarching shift in production that Baudrillard insists is totalizing. As noted by Douglas Kellner, modernity is characterized by Baudrillard as an era centred “on the production of things – commodities and products – while postmodernity is characterized by a radical semiurgy, by a proliferation of signs” (1989: 2). This proliferation of signs, adds Kellner, most effectively enabled through avenues of broadcast media (television, in particular), involves a paradigmatic shift in which the media can no longer be said to “represent” reality. This would be a “reality” of modernity in which we remain at the level of ideological (re)production and where attempts to garner consent – in a manner akin to the model of “hegemony” described by Antonio Gramsci (cf. Stuart Hall’s iteration, 1985: 16) – persist and hold sway. Or, put another way, in the reworking of this thesis by Louis Althusser, this reality is one in which ideology is transmitted via multiple “ideological state apparatuses,” (1971: 11) the media being one site of the reproduction of the system of production. For Baudrillard, however, the “reality” staged by mass media is one that no longer provides the receiver with a privileged meaning (such as the assertion of a dominant political/economic ideology). The receiver is in a state of digestive disarray because where once solidified, meaningful discourses reigned, which would be the reign of content (and of privileged signifiers and signifieds), now content has been supplanted by the vehicle transmitting the messages. This is the point at which Baudrillard converges with Marshall McLuhan, albeit he eschews McLuhan’s positive reliance on media vehicles as capable of “producing sociality” (Merrin, 2002: 378). The media, in its relentless dissemination of information – in particular (advertising/marketing) simulacra that increasingly contain interchangeable but detached referents – no longer demarcates between privileged meaning and thus is unintentionally complicit in destroying and fragmenting the modern subject, and not only that. It also marks the end of radical critiques – in particular, explains Baudrillard, those arguments, like that of Hans Enzensberger, who, in a distant echo of Walter Benjamin, suggests that mass media can be a realm in which a radical re-socialization or new consciousness takes effect (1988: 207).
In Baudrillard’s view it becomes impossible to know effects due to the extensive nature of postmodern media absorption. Created in the process is an undifferentiated mass society whom the media, in their reluctance to let go of modern representation models, still attempt to speak to and about. This is an attempted process of political identification and two-way communication that Baudrillard characterizes as a futile one. It is this ludicrous situation that Baudrillard describes, via the example of opinion polls, in The Masses: The Implosion of the Social in the Media. Fortunately, for Baudrillard, we don’t just float hopelessly in what Kellner calls “the black hole of signs and information,” (1989: 3) but are freed from the burdens of representation and participation, burdens that constitute a continuation of the ruse underlying the modern political project.
Noting that mass media forms prevent any meaningful response (nothing outside that of a simulated, or symbolic response) from the receivers to whom they are addressed, Baudrillard explains that his former anxiety regarding this “monopoly” of unilateral communication has abated, even as he has left his former insistence that the codes at play could be subverted (1988: 208). No, instead, a natural (or inherent) response can be identified: silence. This alarming silence on the part of the masses, he explains, is not “a sign of passivity and of alienation, but to the contrary an original strategy, an original response in the form of a challenge; and on the basis of this reversal I suggest to you a vision of things which is no longer optimistic or pessimistic, but ironic and antagonistic” (Ibid.). Thus, the silence is an active response that entails a refusal of the system of representation, in particular forms of representation such as opinion polls (and their attendant wash of statistical renderings). The simulated public sphere created by the media, explains Baudrillard, fails at representation because it assumes that a “system of meaning” (the tangible needs, wills, values and opinions of the public to whom the media makes its address) can be quantified and made palpable through simulation. The illusory dialogue created by the effort of the media to represent the mass is thus one that is inherently paradoxical, for example, how can the media objectively grasp and articulate opinions and desires (reality as such) through an imaginative staging of that same reality? Although Baudrillard describes the effect as one which produces in us a “radical uncertainty” (ibid: 209) regarding our desires, and creates a stuporous state, it does, nonetheless, have a liberating character:
This is our destiny: subject to opinion polls, information, publicity, statistics; constantly confronted with the anticipated statistical verification of our own behaviour, and absorbed by this permanent refraction of our least movements, we are no longer confronted with our own will. We are no longer even alienated, because for that it is necessary for the subject to be divided in itself, confronted with the other, to be contradictory. Now, where there is no other, the scene of the other, like that of politics and society, has disappeared. Each individual is forced despite himself or herself into the undivided coherency of statistics. There is in this a positive absorption into the transparency of computers, which is something worse than alienation. (Ibid: 210).
Notwithstanding the hyperbolic and totalizing elements of this critique, what is novel about the situation is that the social can no longer be located, or expressed. Thus we are “freed” from the burdens of representation, or, as Baudrillard articulates it in In The Shadows of The Silent Majorities, freed also from the burdens of “revolutionary convictions” (2007: 49), which presupposes resistance to the reproduction of ideology in media content and relies on identifiable political subjects. The absorptive, implosive nature of unfettered media proliferation thus engenders a disturbing silence as media practitioners attempt in vain to define the mass public; a silence “that refuses to be spoken for in its name” (Ibid.). The silence that comes as a “response” involves the death of the social realm that was a foundational element in the construction of liberal capitalism and, correspondingly, as the constitutive, experiential realm where Marxist class consciousness could be activated: “inaccessible to schemas of liberation, revolution and historicity; this is [the social’s] mode of defense, its particular mode of retaliation” (Ibid). In essence, the shift into a reliance on information technology by the capitalist system in its post-Fordist phase thus appears as an end game in which capital (and modernity) flirts with the potential undoing of its own once immutable categories of representation.
In this “subtle revenge” (1988: 213) of the masses to the reification of the social through media forms, Baudrillard raises the question as to whether there is some internal social resistance to being “willing partners in the game of truth, in the game of information,” or put differently, to the attempt at the objectification of the social. (Ibid.) Baudrillard wonders if there is element to the social – what he dubs the “evil genius” (ibid: 212) – that is innately immune (as a body resists disease) to this attempt. The refusal in silence, of silence as an active acknowledgement of the simulated yet distorted “(hyper)reality” produced by opinion polls and statistics, appears as a resistance (Baudrillard calls it an “original” strategy – ibid: 215) that is somehow immanent. It is an appraisal of a situation in which freedom is attained not by a bulwark resistance model where the public actively demands democratic recognition in one scenario or the right to ownership of the means of production in another, but rather by disappearance – disappearance from the scene of politics. There is a type of relief, argues Baudrillard, in being free from the will, as well as from rational choice and, ultimately, political participation. As the simulated reality created by the media assumes the mantle of the game of representation, responsibility and even politics, and despite our appearing to play along with this game, what is actually present is a deeper refusal:
We might argue that there exists another philosophy of lack of will, a sort of radical anti-metaphysics whose secret is that the masses are deeply aware that they do not have to make a decision about themselves in the world; that they do not have to wish; that they do not have to know; that they do not have to desire. The deepest desire is perhaps to give the responsibility for one’s desire to someone else (Ibid).
Baudrillard ultimately calls this a “vital” (ibid) strategy, one that constitutes a “spontaneous, total resistance to the ultimatum of historical and political reason” (Ibid: 217). Baudrillard goes so far as to say that this strategy of avoidance is “correlative of an ironic, joyful and seductive unconscious” (ibid) in which this silent commentary from the masses can be seen as an attempt to elude both alienation and the repressed desire as defined by Marxist and Freudian theorists, respectively. This silent strategy is, in Baudrillard’s mind, perfectly adapted to the conditions presented by the simulated reality constructed via continual bombardment by varying forms of media.
Before I level my own accusations at the possible implausibility of this theory based on the utter contempt shown for any effort at substantiation (or even for any commentary acknowledging the very specific privileged, Western context in which the analysis appears to have been made), I will turn to Deborah Cook (2007), who asks similar questions regarding the context of the critique and whether ironic “silence” can be said to entail actual resistance. For Cook, who first dispenses with the flawed view that early critical theorists (such as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer) held to a media transmission model in which consumers were merely duped by the media, offers that Baudrillard’s rendering (as well as that of John Fiske), while nonetheless optimistic, remains at best a partial hypotheses.
Baudrillard’s critique is one that, in its insistence that the “silent” absorption process was typical and wide-spread, actually works under a very simplistic reception model where what actually entails a passive response is elevated to the status of an active, original, political act. As Cooke interprets it: “silence is the strategy which the masses adopt to challenge the social and political status quo,” and “[b]y virtue of their silence, the masses disappear, their failure to respond makes it impossible to locate them, to analyse them, and finally, to manipulate them” (2007: 230). But for Cook, this interpretation could be seen not as a “joyful,” or creative unconscious act, but rather one signifying a deep despair or defeatist attitude towards the realization of the hegemonic nature of the capitalist status quo. An alternative view, she explains, referencing a general decrease in democratic participation, could be questioned thusly: “is the refusal of the majority of Americans to vote actually an attempt – conscious or unconscious – to outwit the social and political status quo in the United States, or is it simply an expression of despair, cynicism, or defeat?” (Ibid.) Cook says that Baudrillard’s critique, which appears as an appeal to a type of liberation that is Nietzschean in scope (in particular the refusal of the will), could easily be read as an admission by the masses that “the powers that be will win out in the end” (Ibid: 231).
Therefore nothing is actually gained, the game of a simulated reality and the massification process that attends it, which Baudrillard suggests is entropic in nature (there is an end to history, possibly), really will just mean business as usual for the elites. Cook emphasizes this problem by saying “[p]laying dead may be a ruse, but it is not one which subverts the status quo – the masses are ultimately the ones who get caught in the snare of their own lack of desire to will. They effectively hand power over to those they want to overcome” (Ibid.). Therefore, the ruse of the silent strategy can only trump the ruse of representation via media saturation if one believes that the process is entropic, that silence anticipates, as Lotringer wonders, if “the system will reverse itself, and, like a scorpion, bite its own tail” (Baudrillard, 2007: 27). Filtered through Cooke, we play dead only to stave off the threat of being stung, which is likely occur at any later date. Cooke also correctly proclaims that Baudrillard suffers from a type of hyperbolic paranoia (2007: 232). I would add that Baudrillard’s analysis, in focusing solely on the totalizing features of this postmodern stage of capitalism, amounts to little more than a new type of reductionist pose, one not too dissimilar in approach from older Marxist critiques which referred obsessively to the machinations of the base, refuting the legitimacy of experiential cultural resistance. As Cook notes, Baudrillard’s critique amounts to a “conspiracy theory of the machine, a technological hyper-determination which completely invades contemporary consciousness, rendering it helpless” (Ibid.). Correspondingly, and this is picked up by Douglas Kellner (1989: 2), there appears at work a privileging of a type of sociality that exists outside of the simulated one, a sociality that is more “authentic,” an interpersonal, interactional, and immediate form of sociality. Although this nostalgia is more evident in his earlier work, one wonders what goes on within the mass – the problematically undifferentiated mass – and Cook similarly asks this question when she explains that it is obvious that other forms of communication occur alongside the simulated realm. It is here that she references the efforts of theorists to ascertain the digestion of cultural discourses and their recirculation in “everyday speech and behaviour” (2007: 232). This concern was also central to the work of Michel de Certeau, who poses one central question guiding reception analysis: “once the images distributed by the telly and the time spent in front of the TV has been analyzed, we are still left with the question of what the consumer constructs (fabrique) with these images and during these hours[…] What do they construct out of what they absorb?” (1984: 52).
The lack of this element of the analysis – to analyze the actually occurring ironic “silence” as a strategy through ethnographic support – constitutes an incredibly assumptive pose on the part of Baudrillard to the actual lived reception of a highly mediatized realm. Although this is an obvious observation (the elephant in the room as it were), yet in Baudrillard there is little effort to substantiate the various claims he makes about reception. (Yet, if, as Douglas Kellner notes [2003: 12] that it is not only the categories of the modern subject have vanished, but also their attendant disciplines – the social sciences – then, really, there is no way of accounting for it and to attempt to do so is to exhume a dead subject.) This dovetails with a corresponding failure to differentiate the mass; in essence, and this is an insight that comes to us from reception analysis, generalizing on de Certeau’s question above: do we really all consume and digest mass media in a roughly similar vein? I will grant that the analysis I am pointing to occurred at a time prior to the proliferation of new media technologies (in particular that offered by the Internet) which afforded to individual users an unprecedented vehicle promising mass transmission, but other theorists writing at the time of Baudrillard’s “postmodern break” took “optimistic” views of televisual technologies (Raymond Williams, for example, in his 1974 work Television: Technology and Cultural Form). These views ascertained an opportunity for the articulation of cultural expressions that were not simply either nuanced or overt reiterations of the dominant ideologies of materialism, patriarchy and neo-colonialism. Of course, for Baudrillard, contrasted with Williams, the vehicle itself is culpable and the role of individual agents/corporations behind the transmission of content (which would put us back in the realm of ideological reproduction), is not analyzed in depth. Also, what the viewer or listener constructs out of what they absorb is largely beside the point, as the form of broadcast technologies are enveloping. As Baudrillard writes in the The Ecstasy of Communication (1983), positioning himself as a radio listener: “speech is free perhaps, but I am less free than before: I no longer succeed in knowing what I want, the space is so saturated, the pressure so great from all who want to make themselves heard. I fall into the negative ecstasy of the radio” (1983: 131-132) Baudrillard has remained consistent on this point; for example, in an interview with Philippe Petit in 1998, he says:
The media speak; that’s what they’re there for. They transmit the virus. They are the virus. Which means they exert an extraordinary fascination by way of catastrophes, accidents, violence, and all that sort of thing. It’s black magic which plays best. All virtual technologies propagate undecidability. But is it the virtual technologies which propagate undecidability, or our undecidable universe which manufactures the technologies of the virtual? It’s undecidable! It’s the same with the media. They aren’t responsible, they propagate irresponsibility, which is our mode of collective solidarity today. Citizens don’t consciously decide to watch television. They do it by a kind of attraction, intoxication. Each one is an intermediate point in the circuit, or on that Moebius strip of news and information. I have a notion that all of this virtual machinery doesn’t have information, knowledge or any genuine coming together as its real dimension, but an inclination to disappear. All that the new technologies have brought us have been types of images in which you immerse yourself with the possibility of modifying them. How can anyone think that you can enter a video image to make of it what you will, and that there will still be facts, events or values which can resist this electronic immersion? Everything will pass into this real sensory deprivation chamber that is the screens and the networks. (1999: 33).
Baudrillard refuses to relinquish the view that the objects, the machines, by the very nature of their current saturation in our daily lives (and, apparently, due to their ability to alter our psychic processes, which is obvious residue from McLuhan), will outstrip any effort we make to employ them in oppositional ways. Although, at least in this passage Baudrillard does mention members of the media as agents, agents who make decisions, rather than conflating them with the media vehicles, yet, on the other hand, his viral argument does just the same. A number of media scholars have provided palpable evidence of the “irresponsibility” of the media (cf. W. Lance Bennett, 2002), and their propensity to focus on de-contextualized tragedies, and to create a detachment from history in general through the speed in which information is relayed, yet their argument is that these discourses are rooted (often unconsciously on the part of individual reporters) in ideological reproduction. Yet, Baudrillard is beholden to the technologically determinist argument that new forms of “virtual” technologies have an overarching effect which delimits human agency. Correspondingly, he fails to consider the perspective, made forcefully by Raymond Williams (1974), that televisual technologies are embedded in an actual socio-political and cultural realm from which the technology was developed – television has a negotiated “social history” and a negotiable future – and finally, that human agency as it pertains to current use and potential alternative use is of primary importance (1974: 6).
Baudrillard also seems locked into the notion regarding the pole of objectivity (the modern project of representation and the reliance on “reality”), versus the pole of the simulation effect, which comes from the dissemination of interchangeable signs and codes and from the enrapturing sensory properties of the televisual technologies themselves. Thus the viewer, and this goes back to the argument made in his prior work during the 1980’s, only has agency in their ironic silence to the totalizing voices and images that bombard them daily. Decoding and deconstruction on the part of an active viewer is nigh impossible, even for Baudrillard himself, as noted above in his commentary on radio. What, then, of Maurizio Lazzarato’s insistence that video is an unexplored realm for transgressing the solid dictates of representation? (cf. Toscano, 2007: 83-84). I suggest that what Baudrillard refuses to relinquish is what Margaret Morse, writing in her essay The Ontology of Everyday Distraction (1990), calls the “paramount reality” (213). This paramount reality is counterposed to the distractive reality typified by the simulated realms established in post-Fordist America – California being the apex version of this – via television, the freeway, and the mall. In Baudrillard, the “paramount reality” is the privileged one where face-to-face communication and true sociality occurs, and this is underscored by Merrin’s (2002) discussion regarding the sharp contrasts between the types of technological determinisms on display in the work of Baudrillard and McLuhan. Baudrillard, argues Merrin, stresses that communication through structured technological means replaces human relations and reduces intensity via the “simulacral resurrection” (2002: 384) typical of formal communication technologies. The structured essence of these forms of communication equates to a type of “non-communication” (1992: 4) Merrin thus says that Baudrillard enacts a “dystopic reversal of McLuhan’s ‘global village’” (2002: 384), and that “instead of being brought together by our media, through them we avoid all contact with the singularity of the self and any real, reciprocal exchange to pass, like blind particles, on our programmed and individual trajectories” (Ibid.).
The question remaining, then, is this: is it necessary for theorists to employ or argue for specific resistance strategies? If the postmodern phase of capitalism has an unwittingly built-in becoming-for-death, then, really, what is the point of critical theory at all? On the one hand, what haunts Baudrillard’s work is the possibility of the growth of a new type of sociality that is primarily oral and interpersonal, rather than the one that currently holds sway in the West, in which we increasingly rely on communication (and by extension, simulated sociality) through heavily mediated channels. But, as Kellner notes, pointing out the obvious, earlier (but extant) forms of sociality – such as face-to-face communication – can be “just as manipulative, distorted, reified, and so on, as media communication” (1989:. 2). Baudrillard’s prescription for future theory seems vague, and yet optimistically ambivalent, just as it correspondingly seems to rely on the system exhausting itself through its inability to ensure ideological (re)production. As a “pataphysician,” which translates to “the science of imaginary solutions” (Jarry, 1967: 131), Baudrillard seems to think that the answer is a creative and playful flirtation via language with the existing conditions, and that to attempt a revolutionary theoretical model is to stay mired in the flawed drive for meaning. (Note here that there is little discussion of the “real” oppressive features of postmodern globalized capitalism in its productive processes; of the “real” struggle of millions, whether they are slum dwellers in Manila, immigrant workers in Europe, or Chinese factory workers producing cheap products for the North American market. They possibly still desire to be represented and accounted for in appreciable ways that outline the sheer injustice and violence that comes necessarily as a result of the logic/processes of capitalism; including its attendant materialism and foundational requirement for an endless usurpation of natural resources. Of course, this disenfranchised “multitude” is the primary focus of Hardt and Negri, who will be discussed below.)
The simulated reality portrayed daily through televisual technologies, as noted by Morse, provides us with a “phantom” (1990: 207) version of reality that provides a semblance of comfort and meaning. Baudrillard, however, says that we should dispense with our obsessions with finding a contrasting meaning and instead promote a full program of furthering illusion, and eliminate the desire to transformation or transcendence under a revolutionary program. “Analysis,” he says, is “unhappy, since it is borne of critical disillusionment” (1996: 104). He proposes instead to put language and theory to use to create illusion, and to:
[e]radicate within oneself every trace of the intellectual conspiracy. Spirit away the reality file to wipe out all of its conclusions. It is, in fact, reality which is fomenting its own disavowal, preparing its own ruin by way of our lack of reality. Hence the feeling that this whole affair – the world, thought, and language – has come from elsewhere, and might disappear as though by magic. For the world does not seek to exist more, nor to persist in existing. It seeks, rather, the wittiest way to escape reality. It seeks, by way of thought, what can lead to its doom. The absolute rule is to give back more than you were given. Never less, always more. The absolute rule of thought is to give back the world as it was given to us – unintelligible. And, if possible, to render it a little more unintelligible (1996: 105).
Whether this is a strategy of resistance is open to serious debate. It is, clearly, a strategy for theorizing, a full frontal derisive stance towards any systematizing of the world. It says: be happy with the ambiguity, or the ambivalence that comes with our current state, and escape through creativity, which is a pose that the regime of truth engenders anyway. Left out of this privileged account, as is touched on above, are those suffering from the economic affairs of “reality,” of the world.
III. Paolo Virno and unhappy ambivalence
If it can be argued that Baudrillard is “happy” in documenting ambivalence, or at least content to illuminate resistance strategies that appear most appropriately adapted to a media-saturated universe (at least at the level of reception), then, in turning to Paolo Virno, we can see an “unhappy” approach to the ambivalence arising within individual workers in the post-Fordist, globalized phase of capitalism. Virno, like Baudrillard, is describing resistance that is engendered by this current phase, this descriptive analysis takes place in the 1996 essay The Ambivalence of Disenchantment. Virno, however, fixes his gaze on the shift in the regimes of work. This would be, in particular, the adaptability and mobility required of workers who use communication technologies (and thus the increasing incorporation of the intellect), and the more notable macro-shift (what he calls a “double movement;” (1996: 13,4) that has been enacted by these regimes. The macro-shift is that, on the one hand, socialization processes now appear to take place outside of the system of production. Conversely, socialization processes themselves are now within the purview of the system of production, becoming “professional qualifications” (Ibid.: 26,7) Virno explains that:
[c]ontinuous change in the organization of labour has subsumed the complex of inclinations, dispositions, emotions, vices and virtues that mature precisely in socialization outside of the workplace. The permanent mutability of life enters into the productive process by way of a ‘job description’: habituation to uninterrupted and nonteleological change, reflexes tested by a chain of perceptive shocks, a strong sense of the contingent and the aleatory, a nondeterministic mentality, urban training in traversing the crossroads of differing opportunities. These are the qualities that have been elevated to an authentic productive force (Ibid.: 14,5).
In one sense, “postmodern” capitalism requires a (fractured) postmodern man or woman. Most importantly, with “life itself being put to task” (Baudrillard, 2007: 29), the old foundations that were destined to destruction under Marxist logic are no longer identifiable, they have moved into the body/mind, and there is no longer an agreed upon target where alienation principally flourished. Now, with a goalless contingency being a primary state of affairs in productive processes, and with no assurance or allegiance of the company as was once had in the paternalistic phase of capitalism that followed World War II, workers are forced into “opportunism,” an opportunism borne of the postmodern workplace but bleeding into every sphere of life. It causes an instability which is stabilized by being de rigueur. It is characterized, explains Lotringer, by “a sensibility to the possible, to the contingent, a capacity to size up a situation and act upon it.” (Ibid: 27) But this opportunism, explains Virno, is one that floats, one that works on chance and is guided by the fear engendered by the new regimes of work, in which adaptability is directly correlated to the inner workings of the productive process, the routinized instability that defines it.
Tied to this, says Virno, is a pose of cynicism. The remarkable contingencies of the postmodern workplace necessitate this cynicism, a cynicism that arises from the sensation or perception that the new regime of work is one in which a fluid practice of agency is both required and yet is squandered continually in our efforts to ward off fear, and to prevent ourselves from being today’s offal in an oscillating employment environment that affords little security. This “emotional situation” (1996: 12, 3) is felt widely, despite whether one is a manual labourer or a computer technician, because although they do not share the same specific types of labour, they all share the socialization that is required within this fluctuating but tactical regime of work. Overall, the picture presented, says Virno, means the “end of the society of work,” (18,9), a contradictory process that in one sense frees us from older constricting labour processes in which our identity was once rooted (and in which transformative political consciousness would more easily arise). Disconcertedly, however, there is now: “a profound sense of belonging to a temporal spatiality deprived of definite direction, detachment from every progressive conception of historical movement (that is, from that linear causal nexus of past, present, and future that has its very model, precisely in work), and a familiarity with states of things that essentially consist of systems of opportunities” (Ibid: 20,1).
We have a similar situation here to the one described by Baudrillard in his declaring the twilight of the modern subject: subjectivity is fragmented in a similar fashion in the thought of Virno. The difference is that Baudrillard, who provocatively states that regimes of production have met their ends as the era of simulation comes to dominate, for Virno this is taking place on the terrain of production. Either way, both are describing the tearing asunder of once solid foundations which afforded more stable identities: Baudrillard’s example is that of the individual becoming a schizophrenic (Kellner, 2003: 11), Virno’s perception is that of the individual becoming prey to a disenchantment that expresses itself in opportunism and cynicism. Baudrillard’s subjects also face a generalized fear, and a type of all-consuming confusion (Ibid.).
Virno, nonetheless, refuses to suffer disenchantment at the end of the old society of work, exhorting the Left to come to terms with the fact that their interpretive methods have now been rendered useless: “[w]e must recognize this end without satisfaction, but without regrets” (Virno and Hardt, 1996: 19). On the other hand, the rise of opportunism and cynicism must be faced with dissatisfaction, and Virno is adamant that they do not equate to any program of resistance, they represent a “degree zero,” (ibid: 24, 5) that cannot be resuscitated by any reconsideration or transvaluation. Nor, he adds, can we merely criticize the status quo in order to come to terms with it and placate our own moral quandaries. The situation is, however, not entirely without promise. Virno, and here he is closest to Baudrillard in terms of describing what happens experientially at the level of the self, explains that although we face continual uprooting within the new modalities of work, the state of utter immanence can result in a sense of belonging:
In a workplace dominated by information technologies, thousands of signals are received without ever being distinctly and consciously perceived. In a completely analogous way, our reception of the media does not induce concentration, but dispersion. We are crowded with impressions and images that never give rise to an “I.” This surplus of unconscious perceptions is, in addition, the mark of every uprooting we suffer. Exiles and emigrants, our sense of identity is bitterly tried, precisely because the flow of perceptions that never take root in the self-reflective consciousness is growing disproportionately. This perceptive surplus constitutes, moreover, the operative way of taking one’s place in an unknown environment. But uprooting no longer evokes actual exile or emigration. It constitutes, rather, an ordinary condition that everyone feels because of the continual mutation of modes of production, techniques of communication, and styles of life (Ibid: 29).
Although a “precarious” (Ibid: 30, 1) state, it is a shared state, hence the feeling of belonging, and Virno here points to exodus as a positive response, as this sense of uprootedness is widely felt. He contrasts this as a potential positive gesture, one set against opportunism, cynicism and fear, modes which he explains at bottom represent an acquiescence, modes that nevertheless are entirely understandable, situated as they are as types of adaptations to continual uprooting. The question is whether we can actually recognize and appraise the current emotional situation, without merely decrying it, and consider how oppositional modes might be constructed that don’t merely re-stage anachronistic methods of resistance, or instead, proceed through the simple recourse to a variation representing another form of disenchantment. This is Virno’s principle ambivalence, one that nonetheless contains traces of optimism.
The ambivalence that is evinced in Virno’s questioning, his discontent at yet understanding towards the emotional and psychological pose of cynicism and opportunism by the post-Fordist labour force – of individuals who face working conditions that at once employ lived experience as well as envelop the perceptual apparatuses – is nonetheless laced with hope. This hope is twofold. First, although the fragmentary nature of new productive practices results in a general sensation and experience of uprooting – and Virno here also notes the death of the formal resistive organizations to which we used to belong – there is still a concatenation of social forces:
And yet, alienation, far from eliminating the feeling of belonging, empowers it. The impossibility of securing ourselves within any durable context disproportionately increases our adherence to the most fragile instances of the “here and now.” What is dazzlingly clear is that belonging as such, no longer qualified by a determinate belonging “to something.” Rather, the feeling of belonging has become directly proportional to the lack of a privileged and protective “to which” to belong. (1996: 31,2)
It is this radical contingent state that we share, in which we “belong.” Yet, for Virno, this shared state has great potential for the articulation of a radical politic: “the feeling of belonging, once freed from any roots or any specific “to which,” entertains a formidable critical and transformative potential as well.” (Ibid) The second hope that Virno holds to is that there can be means with which to escape the trap of opportunism and cynicism, and not merely “moralize” in an empty fashion, but truly grasp the irreversible nature of the current state of capital – the mutable, disruptive, contingent nature of it – and work within this a new revolutionary program. This is, in essence, what Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have attempted to do with their book Empire (2000).
IV. Joyful, immanent resistance in Hardt and Negri
In defining their own multitude, or what they call a “new proletariat” (402) – making a specific distinction contrasted against earlier industrially or “base”-rooted Marxist class analyses – Hardt and Negri emphasize the positive aspect of belonging. This is a desire, united not specifically by a sense of a mutual recognition of fragmentation/contingency, but belonging by virtue of the way that labour has been unwittingly activated by the globalization of capital in to all social processes, all aspects of the corporeal and intellectual. Globalized capital, the Empire itself, unintentionally animates labour forces (and this is their nuanced affirmative critique that can be contrasted with Virno’s thought), engendering, broadly, holistic productive capacities that cannot be contained within regulated work strictures. Empire thus animates a latent life force residing in the social realm to which it can’t simply contain despite its colonization attempt:
In the passage to postmodernity, one of the primary conditions of labour is that it functions outside measure. The temporal regimentation of labour and all the other economic and/or political measures that have been imposed on it are blown apart. Today labour is immediately a social force animated by the powers of knowledge, affect, science, and language. Indeed, labour is the productive activity of a general intellect and a general body outside measure. Labour appears simple as the power to act, which is at once singular and universal: singular insofar as labour has become the exclusive domain of the brain and the body of the multitude; and insofar as the desire that the multitude expresses in the movement from the virtual to the possible is constantly constituted as a common thing (358).
This common condition, the “expansive commonality”, is the “constituent power” (ibid.) of the multitude, which reacts with a desire to create community, a natural inclination against the parasitic, enervating, and life-negating features of the processes of Empire. Yet, the complexity, or paradoxical nature, of the activation of this social life force cannot be understated. Subjugation and exploitation happens alongside this activation of the social, yet they have an exponential character hitherto unseen:
[w]ith the real subsumption of society under capital, social antagonisms can erupt as conflict in every moment and on every communicative production and exchange. Capital has become a world.[…]Technological development based on the generalization of the communicative relationships of production is a motor of crisis, and productive general intellect is a nest of antagonisms. They pertain to the production of subjectivity itself, and thus they are at once proper and contrary to the processes of the reproduction of Empire. Crisis and decline are not a hidden foundation nor an ominous future but a clear and obvious actuality, an always expected event, a latency that is always present (Ibid: 386).
The sharp contrast with Baudrillard must be mentioned here. Exploitation does not factor in appreciably in his general thesis, mainly because of the way he privileges, or assumes, the primacy of the simulated realm of social production as the ultimate determining force. Of course, as aforementioned, disenfranchisement (a necessary feature/component of any phase of capitalism) is curiously left out of Baudrillard’s analysis after his “postmodern break.” As Kellner notes, this is because labour is absorbed into the simulated realm, becomes a sign without connection to a firm base: “[i]n this era, labour is no longer a force of production, but is itself ‘one sign amongst many’(Baudrillard, 1993: 10). Labour is not primarily productive in this situation, but is a sign of one’s social position, a way of life, a mode of servitude” (2003: 10) Although if it is now a “way of life,” which would appear much like the arguments made both by Virno and Hardt/Negri, the fundamental distinction is that although Baudrillard recognizes the subsumption of the social (at least if we follow Kellner’s appraisal) by postmodern capital, he defines its functioning not via a recourse to political economy (which he attacked in “The Mirror of Production,” 1975), but rather in its dissemination through simulacra, which cause a similar disruption to subjectivity as that described by Virno. Yet, whereas Virno wonders ambivalently about potential resistive modes, Hardt and Negri assert that the multitude are the unhappy offspring of global capital, but a force that has now been given even more ground for resistance, as the life force resists, at an ontological level, the new era of total production. Alienation, which remains central in the theses of both Virno and Hardt/Negri, is similarly not an issue in Baudrillard’s stated hyperreality that now defines the West, as we are sufficiently distracted in the media absorption process to not perceive our malaise, hence his stress on the postmodern subject as something akin to a schizophrenic.
Hardt and Negri, in defining this multitude – this potential global political subject forged in the current phase of capital – have not, however, identified an air-tight resistance strategy, even if its novel features, such as eschewing the dialectic, dropping transcendence, and celebrating instead immanence, are attractive and creative re-workings constituting a type of oblique Marxist critique. In attempting to understand how the multitude will proceed, which, as noted, is the inimitable correlative social force arising from the postmodern phase of capitalism, Hardt and Negri’s analysis seems strained at the point of prescription (notwithstanding their specific recommendations as to demands that accurately appraise the global labour situation). They admit as much in their response to a series of essays critiquing Empire in the journal Re-thinking Marxism (2001, Vol. 3/4). Hardt and Negri recognize that the project remains an open one: “we search for new bases for the will to revolt, the will to form a counterpower” (2001: 237). The problem is that the multitude does not speak coherently, and forms of resistance, their varying flashpoints and articulations across the globe (fundamentalisms, ethno-nationalism, fascism and other atavistic political enunciations), do not equate with the type of resistance they clearly hope for, such as their stated nostalgia for the Wobblies, and the challenge remaining is noted. (cf. 398-400).
A more intriguing argument in their explication of the “multitude” is the supposed propensity to authentic forms of community that connectively arise, and although this is foregrounded by Hardt and Negri, it remains an open question where both Baudrillard and Virno are concerned. For Baudrillard, the stress on authentic community (via his privileging of face-to-face communication) seems a waning interest in his later work, although one can’t help but wonder (sardonically) what the mass does in its silence, and generally because, as noted above, Baudrillard considers communication through technology, and in particular its mass vehicles, an illegitimate variation and thus not truly communication. Although outside of the purview of this essay, this question – whether there is a growing, collective desire for the return to more intimate and less mediated forms of social interaction – remains one to be examined in further depth as textual, computer-based communication formats proliferate. Virno’s sense of belonging through a collective recognition of the effects on the self vis a vis an indeterminate socio-economic realm is also an open-ended one. This is due to the fact that we arguably have not matured appreciably beyond the tendency towards a cynical adaptability (one that forestalls creative political resistance), or at the very least progressed to a thorough grasping of the tragic seriousness of the globalized phase of capitalism.
For Hardt and Negri, the ultimate question is how the multitude can be articulated as a political subject without homogenizing it, by promoting its heterogeneity and multiplicities, while preserving and fostering a sense of solidarity. “We need to develop a political theory without sovereignty” (2001: 242), they argue, the return of vanguard-ism a background fear. But, and this cannot be understated, the prescription contained within is clearly revolutionary in the older sense that it involves, on the one hand, past insurrectional techniques, “insubordination and sabotage, collective instances of revolt” (2001: 242), and on the other hand “the formation of cooperative apparatuses of production and community” (2000: 413). This latter emphasis is what sets Hardt and Negri apart from Virno, and, obviously, from Baudrillard, for whom community, it would seem, deserves little serious discussion. (Community, possibly, comes after the system “reverses itself” in devolution. – Baudrillard, 2007: 27).
In the work of Hardt and Negri, then, resistance entails a double movement – “resistance” seen as inherently “being against” (2000: 211) the exigencies of globalized capital, with whatever tools of disruption work to further this at various nodal points. The second part of the movement entails the adoption, not of a revolutionary pose that dreams of an “outside” (ibid: 413), but one that “knows only an inside, a vital and ineluctable participation in the set of social structures, with no possibility of transcending them” (Ibid.) This is one of the novel features of their prescriptive analysis, and to an extent there is a resonance with Baudrillard here in that Hardt/Negri insist that representational politics are no longer useful, rather it is immanent activism that is given primacy. This activity should be, they suggest, the joyful end of resistance, one in which the nihilistic features of postmodern capitalism (their sheer brutality and banality, the “misery of power” – ibid.) are countered by a “project of love” (Ibid.) Although this prescription remains nebulous to a great degree, it entails at least a specific articulation of a socio-political possibility. It is one that faces, unflinchingly, the failures of the former utopian (but reductionist) models of Communism which failed to relinquish their reliance on “repressive state apparatuses” and delimited culture (and subjectivity) via a scientific brutalism and a life-negating political ethos and praxis.
In his assessment of the thought of Baudrillard, Virno, and Hardt/Negri, Sylvere Lotringer (Baudrillard, 2007) presents their differences as fundamental and yet they continue to orbit, to a degree, around one another. Baudrillard, explains Lotringer, reduces use value and exchange value in positing capitalism as now rooted in the proliferation of signs, whereas Hardt/Negri rely on use value to lionize human productivity to ground their resistance to Empire (Ibid: 29). Virno, on the other hand, while still holding to a valuation that is rooted in hailing authentic productive human capacities versus that of the capitalist principle of exchange, remains in ambivalence as he attempts to decide whether the multitude can even recognize itself (ibid.), beyond the sense of “belonging” to continual uprootedness and contingency. Lotringer notes that Baudrillard’s critique is a symbolic one (the logic of the code), as the system itself becomes more symbolic and indeterminate, media being, of course, the primary vehicle in which this paradigmatic shift occurs. This realm, says Lotringer, is where opposition occurs for Baudrillard. Although, as Cook has emphasized, this can hardly be an affirmative program of resistance as silence doesn’t necessarily result in appreciable change, rather, it can reflect a deep despair and can simultaneously give greater license to the status quo. On the other hand, if ironic silence is an important component and connective feature of the end game of simulation, well, then, we must wait to see what happens: as Lotringer says, “the dice are still rolling” (Baudrillard: 31). This is a simplistic but correct observation regarding resistance, as well as what alterations might occur. What is shared amongst all the authors, of course, is the view that labour is now a way of life. The notable distinction is that Baudrillard presupposes systemic devolution and correspondingly assumes the futility of a recourse to (political) subjectification in the modern sense. Hardt/Negri, however, presuppose that as disenfranchisement grows, coupled with the activation within postmodern capitalism of all the intellectual and corporeal elements of each subject (immaterial labour being the key realm of this shift), the ultimate result is a wide-spread desire to resist Empire. When we recognize ourselves as “multitude” corresponding to the exigencies of Empire, we then, naturally, turn towards community development. This recognition is still an open question in Virno, in particular in the work analyzed here.
I have specifically set aside the question of the problems of valorizing the productive powers of the multitude and of subjectivity itself – a valorization that is arguably incommensurate with the challenges faced by more vulnerable persons, in particular those with disabilities, whether intellectual and/or physical – as space does not allow for a proper discussion regarding this Marxist residue. Yet, I mention this issue because, for the intellectual disability advocacy movement as it currently stands, the creation of communities that are heterogeneous in make-up and yet rooted in an inclusive ethos/praxis is one that can serve as an addendum to the discussion thus far. (Cf. Culham and Nind, 2003) A possibly simplistic question to raise here occurs at the level of valuation:
consumerism/materialism as a connective system of values must be problematized thoroughly, especially as it defines much of the socio-cultural realm, and which, I would argue, and Baudrillard would likely concur (the objects themselves hold the greater power), has managed to maintain a stranglehold on desire and self-identification. Community, as posed by intellectual disability theorists, occurs through social interaction, friendship, love, appreciation for affective capacities, inclusion with respect to and support for difference, and a sense of mutual responsibility. Although this might seem Pollyanna-esque, it is not too far from the project of Hardt/Negri: socio-political practice involves on one level revaluation and on another transvaluation. Put another way, by Stephen Duncombe, “in cultural resistance lies the possibility of imagining and creating something different[…]people can create sets of symbols which reorder the coordinates of the present, and fashion new forms of social interaction that challenge old ways of organization. That is, counter-hegemonic cultures. And because cultural resistance is also often an activity of cultural representation and production it is particularly valuable. It provides the lived experience of creating and doing, instead of the current norm of buying and following” (2007: 498).
There is a certain arrogance and privilege behind Baudrillard’s assumption that we wait for the system (the social and political) to implode – in essence it does not take adequate stock of widespread suffering in a specific “real.” The open challenge that remains is how to create and resist in the terms of the present and conceptualize change as both lived process and aimed-for horizon, one that might nevertheless be painstakingly difficult.
About the Author
Craig Anderson studied journalism at Concordia University in Montreal (graduate diploma) and is hoping to return to Concordia this winter to finish his Master’s Degree in Media Studies. His journalism work has dealt with the intellectual disabilities rights movement (as does his Master’s thesis) and he is currently writing on issues surrounding concurrent disorders.
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