[iDC] "The first rule of data centers is...

Jonathan Beller jbeller at pratt.edu
Sun Jun 28 16:23:31 UTC 2009

Methodology, Consciousness and Class

Dear Margaret, Brian, Mark, Sean, all,

I’m several posts behind and in the middle of moving for the summer so  
will likely get further behind this week, but I wanted to respond to  
some of the points being raised about method and class and also to  
express my appreciation for the brilliance of your engagements here.  
This is one of the most stimulating discussions I have participated in  
in some time.

First of all I want to agree with Margaret (and also my understanding  
of Trebor’s position on mediological method) that we do need the  
specifics of case studies – no doubt about it. So for me the answer to  
Margaret’s question regarding deductive and inductive approaches to  
the socio-political analysis of media formations, “Don’t we need  
both?” is “Yes, emphasis on both.” My objections to case studies have  
never been to considering the specific aspects of any form of  
interactivity – indeed much of my own work utilizes close textual  
analysis and semiotics – in other words the very specific treatment  
using a set of codes applicable to certain media received in the  
context of specific and historically institutionalized modalities of  
interface. The real target of my statement against some types of case- 
studies that I have come across is the boosterism that comes with  
certain brands of platform fetishism. The celebratory tone of too many  
sentences about media innovation smack of the lusty greed of would-be  
capitalists, of writers who are talking to a super-ego that is their  
hypostasis of the market itself – these are folks who would sell out  
if they only could. Such an approach, which is easier to sustain if  
you are just looking at clean people and their clean machines, posits  
once again the hegemony of capitalist society. Such a position is, of  
course, perfectly ordinary and completely normal, which is part of the  
reason why it is among the most heinous and insidious blights on our  

I am not here accusing anyone of the wholesale embrace of these  
qualities. In fact my purpose here is more to detail the tendencies  
and temptations that also lay claim to our own creative power, even as  
we are called by the marginal, the subaltern and the oppressed. If we  
take the claims being made about cognitive capitalism seriously, then  
it is precisely along these vectors (among others) that revolutionary  
creativity is being channeled off and expropriated. Methodologically  
speaking then, I am proposing that the war that we all feel to be  
present in some way or another, also reaches us at the level of the  
utterance. Without being self-important or overly dramatic, we must be  
aware of our own participation in world-making. The politics of our  
activity is not just in “the what” of what we analyze, but “the how,”  
where the how includes the very dispensation of the figures we  
generate and the sentences we write.

In the end, these statements don’t amount to much more than the not  
too surprising conclusion of a recent psychological study of  
pedagogical practices that shows that people are less likely to make  
racist statements when they are speaking in a multi-ethnic context.  
This study does not say that the presence of racialized others in a  
quasi-democratic space such as the classroom cures white people of  
their racism, it just emphasizes the intellectual benefits of  
difference and the capacity of people to recognize and respond to  
difference in positive ways once they are removed from their racially  
and historically homogenized comfort zones. No more would the constant  
and pressing awareness of global suffering and apocalypse necessarily  
cure people of their internalized capitalism (in the ideological- 
theological sense). Still, it is a start because it may create a  
context for the emergence and development of the more radical strains  
of our constitutions to take root and become more defined and  

This particular view of consciousness, which really borrows from  
Marx’s idea (developed by Bahktin-Volosinov) that language is first  
and foremost social and that language is practical consciousness feeds  
directly into some of the issues of class consciousness that have been  
under discussion on another string. I was writing about this a few  
days ago to post it there, but I may as well tie it in with what I  
have already said above.

Not to be too futurological/Leibnitzian, but as nodes of the world- 
media system each of us contains elements of the totality in various  
proportions, proportions that vary with our space-time-connections.  
This may sound far-fetched (fetched from yonder Neal Stephenson  
novel?) in the context of a Marxist discussion of class, but even the  
people who are close to armed struggle, as members or allies of the  
various communist movements, are aware that gender and race are also  
operative in the overdetermination of forms of consciousness. For  
feminism, Intersectionality was an important term for a few years --  
the term specified not only that there were various schemas of  
overdetermination that affected consciousness and experience, but that  
there were also various coalitional possibilities that presented  
themselves in the struggle for rights, welfare and social justice.  
 From what I understand today’s actually existing communist movements  
are at pains to pursue the practical critique of class relations while  
transforming their practices to be adequate to recent progress in the  
understanding of gender, race and sexuality. Of course, this  
complexity of the materiality of the determinations of consciousness  
creates internal schisms as well both at the level of the party and  
the individual.

At present in the realm of the popular, I think we need to reckon with  
an exponential increase in the number of schemas that organize what we  
think we are, and also endeavor to understand that these self/communal/ 
other understandings are often also ideal expressions of the dominant  
material relationships -- in other words, as Sean only half-ironically  
alluded to in an early post, we have the understanding that knowledge  
formations/general intellect/the chrornicles of lived experience are a  
means of production, and the question of class must be considered  
along lines that are partially produced by these machines.

We might consider that even as we have a multiplication of templates  
of intelligibility (from race, gender, nation to Sims avatars, to  
“Emo,” to next top model, to spectacular “terrorism”) that can be  
occupied sequentially or simultaneously for purposes of identification/ 
disidentification, etc., we also have a homogenization of modalities  
of interface. If approximately 90% of Americans think they are middle  
class, they might well be, at least part of the time, caught as they  
are between abjection and bare life on one side, and fascistic ego- 
maniacal, military-industrial, electronic-spectacular capitalist power  
on the other. This does not mean that the guy making 20K and the girl  
making 200K are the same, but they may have more in common with each  
other than they do with the one living on 2K or the one living on 20  
Million. Adorno, theorist par excellance of the culture industry,  
commented that the subjective differences between the classes are far  
less than the objective-material ones.

In my view this suppression of difference by means of infinite  
differentiation is possible because the cinematic/televisual/ 
electronic mediations are there to help us to produce this "class  
unity," for both “our own good” the good of “the economy” and we are  
exhorted to produce this “false community” as Debord called it,  
through our participation in a combinatory of separation and  
homogenization. We all do our own stuff, locally, linguistically,  
genderedly, ethnically, sexually and even nationally inflected, and we  
all do it on screens. That fact in itself provides no basis for a  
revolution, even if it does indicate something about our  
"class." (With ironic apologies to any screen addicted billionaires in  
the discussion group.)

Of course, none of this means that the screen class does not help to  
produce the plutocracy through their living labor, nor that it does  
not feed itself off the misery of the impoverished. What it does mean  
-- beyond the fact that the condition of possibility of both extremes  
beyond the screen is the screen itself -- is that the structures of  
recognition, identification, affiliation, commune-ication that might  
reveal the real relations of production in terms intelligible through  
the language of identity or self-constitution are among the sights of  
struggle. Alongside the illumination of knowledge it is the pulse of  
the sensorium, the flights of conscience, the organization of desire  
that is the domain of politics. For its is precisely these sensual and  
congntivie registers that have themselves been utilized to produce the  
complacency, disavowal and normalization that, while still perhaps an  
incomplete project, threatens to realize the real Orwellian warning:  
the totalitarian foreclosure of the future by means of the liquidation  
of the relevance of consciousness. Such a realization would be only a  
continuation and an advance of the catastrophe that has already  
befallen a huge, indeed unconceptualizeable portion of our species,  
which is to say, us.

Brian Holmes asked me if since the CMP I have

gotten further toward a

mode of articulation that can open up some resistant

activity _inside the belly of the whale_, which may not be

where we belong but is certainly where we are today?

I hope what I have said here will serve as a partial if overhasty  
answer to that question. I largely agree, Brian,  with your assessment  
in your prior post, both of the centrality of consciousness to  
political projects and furthermore that the answers to the fundamental  
problems of our time are not going to be found in squaring  
philosophical circles (a habit, particular now to only to writers from  
or identified with only a few relatively small European countries that  
still feel they need to read only themselves). I think that what I  
have been saying above concurs with your suggestion:

Isn't now the time to begin

developing research strategies that include a specific kind

of address, one that can elicit some socially cooperative

response to the failures of the Anglo-American political

economy of the last 30 years?

This proposal, for me at any rate, has everything to do with what I  
have been talking about as the politics of the utterance as well as  
with the efforts to locate the media instance in the context of the  
totality of social relations and hence hierarchical society and world  
history. To the case for consciousness, I would want to add that we  
need to know more about viscerality and affect and also to see these  
registers as zones for our own critical activity. Lastly, for now, I  
would want to emphasize the urgency of all this: The short version --  
and it speaks directly to what Sean’s invocation of Heidegger and  
humanity as standing-reserve – is that humanity en toto has become the  
substrate of all expression: the very medium of thought and feeling.  
How can what we say and do be adequate to that abiding reality?

Jonathan Beller
Humanities and Media Studies
and Critical and Visual Studies
Pratt Institute
jbeller at pratt.edu
718-636-3573 fax

On Jun 28, 2009, at 4:01 AM, Margaret Morse wrote:

> Dear Brian and Jonathan,
> The only post I've made so far was bounced, so I doubt it is playing  
> any role at all in this discussion.  However, I'd like to correct an  
> assumption made here--that there is an either/or at stake in two  
> methodologies suggested here. Do they not amount to deductive and  
> inductive reasoning?  Don't we need them both?   Seeking out  
> examples and making distinctions via case studies and the like is  
> not trying for a "free pass" or attempting to "get off the hook" (of  
> what?).  There is something terribly wrong going on in our internet  
> work and playground that was so usefully compared to enclosure and I  
> begin to see some ideas getting stronger and gelling.  Please let's  
> not get distracted by polarizing assertions.
> Re the "standing reserve" and human as "biomass" all I can think  
> about was what I saw on Friday on a field trip to "Mittelbau Dora,"   
> now a memorial to an extreme example of the relation between high  
> technology and labor as profound human degradation.  I will hazard  
> briefly mentioning a few of the things I saw and heard remembered  
> inside the remains of an underground factory and slave labor camp  
> inside a gypsum mountain near Nordhausen, Germany.  In 1943 inmates  
> of Buchenwald were taken by train to Nordhausen to dig out what  
> could be thought of as a 6 kilometer long assembly line (via train,  
> not belt) for assembling V1 and V2 rockets.  Inmates lived and  
> worked and died in the mine; 1000 per bay slept together in unending  
> darkness while the second shift was working around them.  They were  
> exposed to the flying debris and particulates from blasts they  
> themselves set.  The idea was that particularly the skilled labor  
> left in their bodies could be extracted without cost beyond the food  
> wastes like potato peels they were fed;  their labor and their  
> extermination were the same thing.  The story goes on, of course and  
> some people do survive through pure power of will.  The experience  
> of being in this place is unlikely to ever leave my thoughts.
> There is a whole lot of difference--as is being pointed out with  
> other examples between this extraction of labor power and on the  
> internet.  This is not to minimize "playbour"  but it helps me to  
> set a benchmark.
> Margaret Morse
> On Jun 27, 2009, at 7:19 PM, Brian Holmes wrote:
>> Jonathan Beller wrote:
>>> As Mark says, "the server farms might better be described
>> as server
>>> "factories" -- spaces where the productive aspect of
>> monitoring is
>>> separated out from the range of monitored activities. The
>> fact that
>>> these spaces are private, commercial ones, is neither
>> natural nor
>>> necessary, but is the legacy of historical forms of
>> enclosure -- the
>>> continuation of enclosure as a form of separation (of
>> users from their
>>> date, data producers from the means of data processsing),
>> what Massimo
>>> De Angelis has described as a process of continuous
>> enclosure."
>> (...)
>>> As far as I am concerned, this statement also answers one
>> of the major
>>> methodological questions pre-occupying this list serve --
>> the one that
>>> would focus solely on the specific case-studies and would
>> do so in an
>>> effort to imply that there are certain non-exploitative
>> forms of
>>> interactivity. For the moment it seems that progress is
>> not foreclosed,
>>> certainly, not all agency or organizational practices are
>> the same -- by
>>> no means-- but it seems to me that none are entitled to a
>> free pass,
>>> none of us are going to get off the hook so easily.
>> Thanks, Mark and Jonathan, for your remarks which together
>> made a very welcome read for me. Indeed, none of us are
>> going to get off the hook so easily, because we are all
>> involved in a society which exalts predatory relations
>> ("healthy competition") and simultaneously tries to mask
>> them as the realization of human potential ("creativity,"
>> "excellence," etc.).
>> Throughout this decade, as mega-gentrification transformed
>> cities for the exclusive use of those with access to the
>> wealth-effects of financial capital, it was obvious that the
>> so-called creative industries were one of the masked faces
>> of the predatory principle, either offering artists and
>> other cultural producers the chance to be deluded into
>> thinking they too could take a share of profit, or
>> explaining that private-public partnerships would now
>> provide the opportunity of wonderful cultural interaction to
>> everyone for free. For example, according to Jean Burgess in
>> a recent post here, YouTube would provide "a more effective
>> vehicle for the popular memorialisation of television,"
>> essentially allowing people to freely construct monuments to
>> their own servitude! Now that the extent of the Ponzi
>> schemes and the insider trading has been revealed, why
>> should one trust the creativity consultants or any of the
>> characteristic forms of governance that emerged from the
>> late 1990s onward, or indeed, from the early 1980s onward,
>> when neoliberalism began?
>> To be sure, the continuing eagerness to believe in such
>> things is largely explained by the self-interest of the
>> believers. But it poses a real problem, the fundamental
>> problem of our time: How to help generate a political
>> consciousness -- a "class consciousness," to bring up the
>> terms of a previous discussion -- that can resist the
>> interlocking structures of ideology and self-interest that
>> have paralyzed the capitalist democracies and kept all of us
>> locked into a mode of development that is clearly a dead end?
>> It seems to me that a contemporary reply to Marx's program
>> of class consciousness is the highest challenge to which one
>> can aspire, and the real reason for living as an engaged
>> intellectual. To take Christian's approach and to define a
>> class in itself, as an object of exploitation, will produce
>> some necessary knowledge of the processes whereby we are all
>> conducted to an increasingly predictable disaster; but from
>> my view it does not even make sense to carry out that kind
>> of work without any political horizon, without any address
>> to potential agents of transformation. I understand how Sean
>> can be led by the panorama of contemporary social reality
>> to Heidegger's sad old idea of humanity as a standing
>> reserve; but it's still a sad old idea, and the chances of
>> our fellow men and women effecting a metaphysical purge of
>> 3,000 years of Western ideas, as Heidegger demands, are
>> pretty slim. More promising to my eyes are the chances that
>> large numbers of people will resist the cultural enclosure,
>> immiseration, food poisoning, police repression, war and
>> ecological collapse that are now the visible signposts on
>> "the road ahead" of informational capitalism. For many
>> years, leftist intellectuals in the Anglo-Saxon countries
>> have been totally isolated by the rising credit-fuelled
>> prosperity of the middle classes, which continually opened
>> up spaces of professional neutralization for all but the
>> most committed and the most alienated fringes of those who
>> managed to get some kind of education. Now the situation is
>> somewhat different, as the pillage of the economy by the
>> predatory corporate state, in Britain no less than the USA
>> (and I wonder about Australia?), is such that current
>> generations are actually waking up to some degree, even as
>> the prospect of continuing sinecures for radical thought in
>> the university system goes down. Isn't now the time to begin
>> developing research strategies that include a specific kind
>> of address, one that can elicit some socially cooperative
>> response to the failures of the Anglo-American political
>> economy of the last 30 years?
>> I wonder, Mark, if this is a concern for you. Your recent
>> book strikes me as among the best in the domain of
>> surveillance studies, because instead of engaging in the
>> usual liberal "yes, there is some abuse, but you've got to
>> understand the reasons, the justifications, the necessities,
>> etc.," you instead home right in on the multiple and
>> converging trends toward the objectification of populations
>> through the data-mining and analysis of the vast quantities
>> of informatic traces that we now leave everywhere on our
>> journey through life (and not only through our heavily
>> fetishized uses of the Web). At the end of the book iSpy (I
>> always read the end first) you do not just make the usual
>> rhetorical appeal to reform, but you lay out a minimal
>> program for the achievement of democratic interactivity.
>> Good enough, but do you think it is good enough? Could you
>> imagine developing a different research strategy that would
>> retain the gains of critical paranoia -- the only approach,
>> imho, that allows one to begin perceiving the contours of
>> reality -- but not generate the dismal feeling of no exit
>> which, at this point in the game, tends increasingly to
>> reinforce the post-political paralysis of the consumed
>> societies?
>> I have a similar question for Jonathan, whose book The
>> Cinematic Mode of Production is probably the most original
>> work of Marxist aesthetics to be written in America since
>> Jameson's The Postmodern Condition. To convince yourselves
>> of that, just read the introduction that Jonathan sent in
>> his second post. The chapter on Vertov is extremely
>> inspiring, showing the Soviet filmmaker's attempt to render
>> the industrial production process conscious and available
>> for both critique and informed participation by the entire
>> population that partakes in it. Someone with a knowledge of
>> both global logistical processes and radical net culture
>> over the last twenty years could write a companion essay and
>> then we would at last have the feeling of living with open
>> eyes and beating hearts in the present! Of course, most of
>> the book is devoted instead to the zombie condition imposed
>> on people by a cinematic mode of consciousness that does
>> everything to obscure its own (and therefore, our own)
>> conditions of production. You write, with reference to
>> Adorno and the Frankfurt School, "Thus far, only the
>> negative dialectic allows us to think the political economy
>> of the visual and hence the paradigm of a global dominant.
>> Negation, however, has very serious limits that ultimately
>> may include it as among the psychopathological strategies
>> modulated by Hollywood." Have you gotten further toward a
>> mode of articulation that can open up some resistant
>> activity _inside the belly of the whale_, which may not be
>> where we belong but is certainly where we are today?
>> all the best, Brian
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> Dr. Margaret Morse
> Direktorin, Studienzentrum der Uni Kalifornien
> Professorin, Film and Digital Media
> University of California Santa Cruz
> memorse at comcast.net, morse at ucsc.edu
> University of California EAP
> Gosslerstr. 2-4
> Berlin 14195
> +49 (0) 30 838 57092
> Handy/cell Cell +49 (0) 171 99 00008

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