[iDC] 45 RPM (media history on heavy rotation)

Brian Holmes brian.holmes at aliceadsl.fr
Sun Aug 30 16:01:57 UTC 2009

Armin Medosch wrote:

"In my humble opinion discourse on new media has suffered from 
too much 'idealism' in the broadest meaning, and also from too 
much preference on culture as a separate category to the 
detriment of study of the political economy of which those new 
media phenomena are a part."

I totally agree and for that reason I like this text a lot. Much 
of my own work has been devoted to similar attempts to place 
communications technologies within a broader political-economic 
narrative. Like Arnim I am an admirer of Raymond Williams' book 
on TV, subtitled "Technology as Social Form." I would only 
encourage people to go further in this direction, and to examine 
more deeply the place of communications in the relation between 
networked corporations and sovereign national power that 
characterizes the contemporary political economy.

Communications are just one piece of a much more interesting 
puzzle: nothing is ever simply an "expression" of some other, 
more fundamental determinant, but there are patterns of 
reciprocal self-reinforcement between very diverse sets of social 
processes, so that they temporarily combine into an order, a 
recognizable paradigm. The temporary order exists, and the 
delimitation of separate periods or phases is justified, because 
social functions have to be regular enough to become intuitive, 
to be predictable, to work for a majority of those involved. Of 
course periods can still be cut up in different ways, depending 
on the level of generality that you want to explore. Forty- to 
sixty-year Kondratieff cycles have been used a lot to "explain" 
the successive phases of industrial capitalism, but it only gets 
interesting when you include a broad mix of social, cultural, 
political and economic factors in the picture whose dynamics you 
are trying to analyze.

The real contradictions and stresses that will eventually cause 
the regular flow of a period to shift are multiple indeed, they 
cannot be analyzed from within a single field of inquiry. The 
idea of the German media-theorists that Armin mentions, whereby 
specific media technologies become the "subjects of history," is 
bad Hegelianism and phony Marxism imho. It does not, to my 
knowledge, internalize such crucial aspects as the global 
division of labor, which has shaped the development of electronic 
media so deeply in the age of transnational outsourcing and 
financialization. But how different are the ecstatic theories of 
someone like Lev Manovich? To isolate communications technology 
from the society in which it takes form will never give much 
insight into the changing shape of society in the future.

So let's move to the issue that has caused some debate here: 
Fritz Haug's commodity aesthetic (Warenaesthetik). I find the 
application to Facebook, the iPhone etc quite convincing. There 
are now a lot of similarly aestheticized products that promise 
satisfying self-images and affective relations, as palliatives or 
ersatz consolations for for the angst and separation of 
hypermobility, the violence of social and even personal 
relations, the degradation of living environments etc. And for 
those who have been involved with any aspect of free software, 
there is something immediately convincing about the notion that 
Web 2.0 offers only the "aesthetic semblance" of use value, 
stripped of any familiarity with or any chance to participate in 
the productive relations that actually create those values. Yet 
it seems to me that Haug's description of commodity fetishism in 
a consumer society has to be updated for the prosumer society, 
where not only does the commodity look at you with the eyes of a 
lover, the better to loosen the money from your wallet, but at 
the same time, the image of self created by association with the 
commodity is understood and fantasized by the buyer as a way to 
augment the tradability of his or her own human capital, that is, 
one's own exchange value on the market (which is usually a 
speculative market, trading on appearances and potentials). 
Communicational commodities thus address themselves both to the 
consumer and to the (proto-)capitalist which neoliberal society 
has trained all of us to become. And I believe that this 
fundamental relation between individual desire and speculative 
production is also covered over by the reticulated "surface" of 
the communicational commodity.

Ultimately I wonder if the concept of use value can really catch 
all that is at stake - and all that is foreclosed - in the highly 
aestheticised experience of contemporary commodities. Remember 
that for Marx, use value was the dialectical other of monetary 
exchange value, within a strictly reductive nineteenth-century 
English worldview where Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill are 
at one with Adam Smith and David Ricardo. Neither use value nor 
exchange value is conceivable outside their relation to each 
other. Together they compose a "form" of human life in society. 
What we need to ask is how the commodity, or indeed, aesthetic 
semblance, helps to create and maintain that basic form in each 
new phase of capitalism -- or how, every forty to sixty years, 
the commodity helps to create a new kind of world, a new system 
of regularities linking production, consumption and desire. It 
would be very interesting to hear more about Haug's ideas on how 
the commodity creates a world. And here arises another crucial 
question: Could a world be created out of pure use values, 
independently of any aesthetic semblance?

I tend to think it could not, which means I accord an important 
place to aesthetic semblance in the very constitution of human 
beings and their capacity to do things in the real world. The 
reason why is that we seem to need both a complete image of 
ourselves in the world (a Gestalt) and a set of mental procedures 
that increase our mastery over the world (analysis, calculation, 
modeling, etc.). Both the Gestalt image and the analytical 
capacities are forged in the mind, in the field of 
representation, which I think is essential and not to be just 
discounted as the utilitarians did. What this means is that 
"aesthetic semblance" is crucial to the creation and use of 
tools, to productivity itself, as Cornelius Castoriadis saw very 
clearly. To use a tool you must have a representation of it, but 
you must also have a representation of yourself in your relation 
to the tool and its potentials; and furthermore, you must be able 
to move through that complex system of representations according 
to a specific kind of desire, in a prefigurative process that is 
generally called imagination. This is why Castoriadis could speak 
of "the imaginary institution of society."

There is a fantastic passage going to the heart of all this in 
The Savage Mind, which I once quoted in another context:

“To understand a real thing in its totality we always tend to 
work from its parts. The resistance it offers us is overcome by 
dividing it,” writes the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. He 
compares this analytic process to the effect of artistic 
miniatures: “Reduction in scale reverses this situation. Being 
smaller, the object as a whole seems less formidable. More 
exactly, this quantitative transposition extends and diversifies 
our power over a homologue of the thing, and by means of it the 
latter can be grasped, assessed and apprehended at a glance. A 
child’s doll is no longer an enemy, a rival or even an 
interlocutor. In and through it a person is made into a subject.”

The whole question is what kind of subject a person is made into, 
and what kinds of subjects we make ourselves into, through the 
imaginary relations that we maintain with instruments and tools. 
In many different ways, communicational commodities help make us 
into the subjects of contemporary capitalism. What they are 
crucially hiding, in the carefully maintained closure of their 
aesthetic semblance, is the collective capacity to imagine 
worlds, and therefore to awaken desires for worlds different than 
this one. If control over this capacity this has become so 
important in the current phase of capitalism, it is because of 
the intense contestation of the order of production and 
consumption in the period of transition around 1968, when Marx 
started to be massively read in the West, not so much for his 
labor theory of value as for his theory of alienation.

For a relatively brief time (maybe a decade) the shape that 
society would take was at issue, the way it would continuously be 
in a substantial democracy. What was essential in order to put 
the capitalist system back together again in the wake of that 
period of chaos and contestation was to regain the monopoly over 
a very important collective capacity, that of imagining a 
different world. If the imagination was going to come to power, 
as the 68 slogan called for, it would then become a strategic 
function in society.

For the majority of people, the commodity was primarily useful in 
the earlier periods of the industrial revolution, it served basic 
needs of reproduction, of survival. It was theorized as a "util" 
(still a technical term in economics). Then it became primarily 
pleasurable in the age of welfare-state Fordism, which Fritz 
Haug's theory addresses. It was a seductive mirror, a bourgeois 
accoutrement for the masses, the salable part of an audiovisual 
"star system" which is still tremendously influential. Now the 
commodity must also be disalienating. It must be communicational, 
which means it must promise community. Its ideological function 
is to knit prosumers into the network of an increasingly 
precarious world that is ideally blind to all that threatens us. 
The form of the commodity today is shaped by this larger function.

I believe we are now getting near the end of the phase of 
capitalism that started in the late 70s and early 80s, with the 
de-industrialization of former core countries and the onset of 
financially led globalization. That system is beginning to fall 
apart, less because of a pure crisis of profitability (Marx's 
falling rate of profit) than because of ecological and political 
contradictions in the neoliberal order. Some new period will 
ultimately cohere and replace this failed paradigm. As 
intellectuals and artists, don't we need to theorize and to 
provoke the crisis of the communicational commodity - rather than 
trying to perfect it?

best to all, Brian

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