It’s probably inappropriate to review a book about four films when one has only seen one, and by far the shortest (it’s a music video), of the four. So this isn’t a review so much as an appreciation of Steven Shaviro’s Post-Cinematic Affect, along with some half-digested notes I made while reading it, but which I haven’t been able to synthesize into what would constitute a proper review. Due to time constraints (which will continue for a while), I’ll share them as is. (I would also recommend Chris Vitale’s response to the book.)
I’ve been a fan of Shaviro’s work since a web search for “Dhalgren” led me directly to Shaviro, who it turned out was a fan of the book by Samuel Delany that was formative in my early intellectual development. I was 13 at the time I read Dhalgren, and I hadn’t read anything quite like it until then (or much like it since). I had come across Shaviro’s writings earlier, but I’ve followed them more diligently — and been inspired by his writing on science fiction, films, music, politics and culture over the years (his Stranded in the Jungle provides a great snapshot of how widely his tastes range) — since chancing onto his site. His turn to Alfred North Whitehead in the book Without Criteria accompanied a move in my own thinking toward Whitehead’s process-relational understanding of the universe. Since then, Shaviro and I have found ourselves on the same side of the process-objects debates that have been staged here and on other blogs.
Post-Cinematic Affect is a short work. Much of it appeared as an extra-length article in Film-Philosophy, and most of the rest is readable here and there online, but I would urge you to buy the book to support Zero Books’ laudable effort to make philosophy affordable. Its shortness, however, and the small sampling of films it discusses, belies a depth of argumentation that generates rich insights on media, capitalism, affect, allure, celebrity culture, and much more.
The book is, as Shaviro describes it, a work of “affective mapping,” an attempt to map the “contemporary condition” that is closing in around us in the post-9-11 world of neoliberal, hyperflexible capitalism, a capitalism whose calculative logic of infinite exchange has penetrated into the depths of our being. Shaviro closely examines four films: Olivier Assayas’ Boarding Gate, Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales, Mark Neveldine’s and Brian Taylor’s Gamer, and the Grace Jones/Nick Hooker music video “Corporate Cannibal.” The first three all received middling responses from critics and from the viewing public — to call them flops, at least in the case of the first two, wouldn’t be off the mark — but Shaviro argues that all can be read as both symptomatic and aesthetically productive engagements with the reality of hypercapitalism. All, in his words, “bear witness” to the “state of affairs” of the “world of hypermediacy […] and ubiquitous digital technologies,” the world of neoliberal, networked and endlessly metamorphosing capital (p. 131). This is a “world of crises and convulsions” that is “ruthlessly organized” around the relentless and singular logic of commodification and capital accumulation, a world of “modulation, digitisation, financialization, and media transduction” (132).
Shaviro’s goal in this book is not to moralize or denounce the symptoms of cultural malaise characterizing this world, nor to wax nostalgic about how things were before it came into being. It is instead to identify the “aesthetic poignancy of post cinematic media,” media that assume that “the only way out is the way through”– through a world without transcendence, and through an exacerbation or radicalization of capitalism “to the point of collapse,” as Benjamin Noys puts it (136). Shaviro is aware that as a “project of affective and cognitive mapping,” such “accelerationism” is politically dubious, but he argues that with its exploration of “the contours of the prison we find ourselves in” it is aesthetically productive and useful (137). And these four films capture, in one way of another, key pieces of that accelerationist aesthetic.
I won’t go into the specifics of his analysis of the four films. But together they make up a minor tour de force of symptomatic reading, “minor” mostly because of the book’s modest length. Post-Cinematic Affect is rather like a single incision into an object that’s co-extensive with the contemporary hypercapitalist condition, but an incision so clean, precise and deep as to hit the very core of that condition.
The films, in Shaviro’s reading, signify a shift whose contours crucially include the following:
(1) First, a shift from classical cinema, which was analogical and indexical, a cinema of individuated presences and a duration of bodies and images, to digital video, which is processual, combinatorial, and dividual, an articulation and combination of forces; from cinematic montage, characterized by a mimetic, hypotactic, and striated space, to digital compositing with its simulacral, paratactic, and smooth space; from analogue cinema, in which image was primary and sound was supplementary, to post-cinematic media in which sound is primary and images supplement and illustrate it (as in television and music videos); and from the time-image, or rather a perpetually repeated movement out of the movement-image into the time-image (in Deleuze’s terms), to an exhausted and imploded temporality;
(2) Secondly, and more broadly, a shift from a (Foucauldian) disciplinary society, in which individuals were molded into subjects according to relatively fixed parameters spanning a series of disciplinary/organizational spaces, to a flexible society of ongoing, never-resting and never-sated modulation, where continuous recombination is a basic necessity for keeping up with the twists and turns of ever-unfolding hypercapitalism.
Grace Jones’s and Nick Hooker’s Corporate Cannibal serves as a reflection of this state of endless modulation. Jones plays herself as endless modulator of her own image, an image that “swells and contracts, bends and fractures, twists, warps and contorts and flows from one shape to another”, all the while projecting a certain style, a certain “singularity” of “Grace Jones” as celebrity icon, a “long string of Jones’s reinventions of herself.” Jones is the transgressive “posthuman” who, unlike Madonna who “puts on and takes off personas as if they were clothes,” cannot retreat into the anonymity of the unmarked (because white) artist. Jones, a black woman, is already marked to start with, and is therefore playing “for keeps,” devouring “whatever she encounters, converting it into more image, more electronic signal,” and “track[ing] and embrac[ing] the transmutations of capital” as she goes. Jones in this sense represents “the chronic condition of our hypermodernity,” a hypermodernity we, or most of us, cannot escape.
Shaviro points out that in this video there is no longer a reliable relation between figure and ground, or betwen stillness and movement, a pre-existing “structure of space” within which things happen. In the terms I develop in my Ecologies of the Moving Image manuscript, there is no longer any “frame” keeping the geomorphic-objectal separate and distinct from the anthropomorphic-subjectal; there is only continual modulation free of any stable parameters. While the argument I make there is that there has always only been a continual modulation within the frame, which itself is a kind of continual production in two directions (that of the subjective, or subjectal, and the objective/objectal), Shaviro’s argument is that that frame of reference has now been abandoned altogether.
This argument also reminds me of Sean Cubitt’s analysis of Emile Cohl’s 1908 film Fantasmagorie, which serves as Cubitt’s example of the fullest and best of cinematic potential — what Cubitt calls the “vector” as opposed to the “pixel” and the “cut.” (His use of these terms is idiosyncratic and I won’t try to define them here.) Cohl’s Fantasmagorie, in Cubitt’s words, is “a brief line animation in which a mischievous puppet, Pierrot or fantoche, and his environment change seamlessly. […] Flowers become bottles become a cannon; an elephant becomes a house; Pierrot becomes a bubble, a hat, a valise. The vector of Cohl’s line, as it draws and redraws itself, disrespects the frame edge and equally ignores the syntax of layering…” (75-76).
The point, for Cubitt, is this: while the “pixel” (which I replace in my book with the more straightforward term “spectacle”) “immerses us in the Real,” and the “cut” (which I call “narrativity,” and which is most clearly developed in classical, linear narrative) “transforms” the sensations elicited by the pixel “into signifieds, representations, the chain of cinematic objects,” thereby anchoring “motion in destiny,”
“the vector’s subjectivity is constantly launching itself outward, like a child playing, or even more like a playground full of children racing from game to game, personal to persona, utterly invested in what happens next. […] In the vector, there is nothing behind — everything is in front. […] The vector is eschatological: its future is open, governed only by hope.” (Cubitt, The Cinema Effect, p. 80)
The comparison, however, raises the question of the relationship between digital media in today’s hypercapitalism and cinema at its very origins, before it was tamed into the “classical regime” of cinematic production and aesthetics. Will digitality liberate cinema to be what it once promised to become, at least if Cubitt’s argument is correct? But Grace Jones’s performativity is of a different order than animator Cohl’s line-drawing. Any distance there may have been between the drawer and the drawn, between artist (Cohl) and performance (the film), has now evaporated with Jones’s ever changing mask behind which there is no unmasked wearer of masks.
This lack of distance also makes me wonder about Shaviro’s notion that Jones’s video be considered a “feat of homeopathic magic” with respect to the hypercapitalist society in which it is immersed. Shaviro writes:
“They [Jones and Hooker] do not claim to escape the mechanisms of the control society; rather, they revel in these mechanisms, and push them as far as possible. Their remedy for the malaise of the digital is a further, and more concentrated, dose of the digital” (p. 34*)
This furthering of the dose is, of course, not unlike what Deleuze and Guattari advocated in their classic works of the 1970s, and it is related also to Baudrillard’s “fatal strategies.” What I’m wondering about here is simply whether “homeopathy” is the most appropriate analogy. Homeopathic remedies are generally thought to operate by injecting a minute dose of the “hair of the dog that bit you” (before the bite itself) to trigger an immunogenic effect. They are, in a sense, a highly diluted form of vaccine — diluted, in fact, to the point that little if anything remains of the active substance, except in the “memory” of the water.
Jones’s video, on the other hand, like other forms of “accelerationism,” is more like an excessive plunge into the parodic or the obsessive, or perhaps the mimicry of the “master” by the “slave” (with its undercurrent of unease and potential threat). It is more magical than homeopathic, however, in its very performativity. A video like Cannibal Tales could be considered homeopathic within the larger body politic, but if it is fully expressive of the condition itself, then its critical capacity requires an audience capable of reading it a particular way for it to be anything other than what it appears. Homeopathic magic, I would argue (to the extent that such a concept makes sense), is less about the object, i.e., the remedy, than it is about the audience, or the object-audience relation; and in the case of any performer — Grace Jones, Madonna, Stelarc, Sacha Baron Cohen, or whoever — their critical and immunogenic action is a matter of their performativity being interpreted, utilized, assimilated, and activated in particular ways by audiences in real-world contexts.
This use of celebrity icons (and other elements of popular culture) is where the rubber hits the road, so to speak, and I think it’s also where the limits of the argument may begin to make themselves felt. Shaviro’s notion that everything has become reducible to, and in fact transcodable within, the infinite modulations of digital code, is itself an alluring argument. I made a version of it (pdf warning) several years ago in an article in which I drew on the work of Bill Bogard, Nigel Thrift, and others to present a “social science fiction” of a “soft” and “telematic” capitalism that brings economy, ecology, and culture into a convergent network of “interoperable” data streams. Once everything can be digitalized, the argument goes, it is infinitely exchangeable for other bits of data, leaving nothing left outside the digital and infinitely transcodable and interoperable data-world.
I still think of this critical analysis as a “social science fiction,” however (the term is Bogard’s), because it is a lens, a perspective, that accentuates certain features of the world, certain virtualities, at the expense of its full spectrum of possibilities. Like Jonathan Beller’s work on cinematic capitalism — which Shaviro advances and refines with his analysis of digitality — this view, I would argue, risks an overly pessimistic assessment of our situation. Charting a kind of inexorable logic of capitalist development, it omits the many ways in which we, in our everyday lives and the hopes that drive them, still find breathing room, spaces that are free or at least not fully subsumed within this logic, spaces of transcendence, resistance, or postcapitalist alterity.
People find these spaces, these moments, in likely and unlikely places: in friendship and family, in the aesthetic delights of artistic or cultural experiences, in community and political activism, in religious and spiritual practice, in sports and physical challenge, even in the rituals of trade and exchange. Of course some of us have the leisure to do this and others do not, and of course all of these are easily “tainted” by the whiff of commodification, calculation, self-promotion, and the like. But we persist because that inexorable logic of capital has not taken over everything.
Shaviro’s argument about modulation reminds me also of Catherine Malabou’s argument about “plasticity,” which she develops most fully in Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing. For Malabou, plasticity is a master key to the dawning/contemporary era; it is, as she puts it, “the systemic law of the deconstructed real, a mode of organization of the real that comes after metaphysics and that is appearing today in all the different domains of human activity” (Plasticity, p. 57). In an 2007 interview, Malabou comments:
“I don’t believe in transcendence at all. I don’t believe in something like the absolute Other, or in any kind of transcendence or openness to the other. So in this sense, as a Hegelian, I am quite convinced with Žizek that we’re living in some kind of closed organizational structure, and that society is the main closed structure. But at the same time, this structure is plastic. So it means that inside of it, we have all kinds of possibilities to wiggle and escape from the rigidity of the structure. What happens in the brain is the paradigm to figure out what happens in society as such. We are living in a neuronic social organization. And I’m not the only one to say it. The neuronic has become the paradigm to think what the social is, to think society and social relationships. So it is clearly a closed organization; if by closed we understand without transcendence, without any exit to the absolute Other. But, at the same time, this closed structure is not contrary to freedom or any kind of personal achievements or resistance. So I think that in such a structure, all individuals have their part to play.”
Neurocapitalism has, no doubt, become a piece of the larger shift toward this networked, telematic, modulatory kind of flexible capitalism, a society of immanent control, in Deleuzian terms — not one controlled by a transcendent sovereign power, but one controlled by the very networks that constitute it.
Even though the solution he offered remained much in the same vein as the problem itself, Deleuze, to my mind, suggested a more hopeful assessment than does Malabou, and I think Shaviro follows him in this respect — though I wish that were more fully developed in this book. Like Whitehead before him, Deleuze’s philosophy struggled to present a fully open future, so that if we take his philosophy seriously (and Whitehead’s, which Shaviro of course does), we aren’t living in a “closed organization” with bits of wiggle room here and there, as Malabou potrays it. Rather, we’re actually opening onto a new world in every moment, with plenty of resources to draw from to make that world more interesting. The social organization of the neuronic (to use Malabou’s term) offers possibilities for striation (capture, closure, hierarchy) and for smoothness (escape, becoming, new forms of relationality), and it’s not a singular “closed structure” at all but one that’s riven with multiplicities and is opening onto new fronts all the time.
That being the case, I’m left wondering if there isn’t a tension between the analytical-Marxist strand in Shaviro’s narrative — that which sees commodification proceeding in every pore of the individual and collective body politic — and the Deleuzo-Whiteheadian strand (which may overlap with a more utopian Marxist strand). For the latter, commodification may be occurring with every transaction, and mechanisms of control may be engendering themselves with every step and every breath, but so are new impulses toward truth, beauty, adventure, art, and peace — those five qualities of what Whitehead termed “civilization” in his Adventures of Ideas. If these six terms (including “civilization”) seem discredited to us, living in the wake of all the critical theory of the last 150 years, then it’s our task to reinvent them today.
When I watch the other three films, I’ll be thinking about whether and how they might contribute to that task. But I’m grateful for Shaviro for encouraging me to think these things at all.
A few favorite quotes:*
“Every act of transgression offers at least a backhanded compliment to the order, the norm, or the law that is being transgressed – since it is only the continuing power of that order, norm, or law that gives meaning to the action of defying it.” (p. 23)
“In the forty-three years that separate Red Desert from Boarding Gate, we have moved from an industrial society characterised by massive alienation, to a digitised and ostensibly ‘postindustrial’ one that ‘require[s] participation in depth’ (McLuhan 1994, 31) from everyone. Today, alienation is a quaint luxury that cannot be permitted to anyone any longer. In consequence, Antonioni’s poetry of exclusion and idle beauty is replaced by Assayas’ poetry of forcible involvement, relentless inclusion and compulsory monetisation. In Boarding Gate, Assayas’ poetic stylisations respond to the way that the society of cognitive capitalism and immaterial labour continually transforms affect into currency – and vice versa.” (p. 62)
“What action can still be meaningfully accomplished in the new ‘world space’ of endless circulation and modulation? What cinematic image of achievement can still be generated, in a world where all is time, where ‘time is money,’ where money is the ‘most internal presupposition’ of cinema, and where money always implies, as in Marx’s formula M–C–M’, ‘the impossibility of an equivalence…tricked, dissymmetrical exchange’ (Deleuze 1989, 77-78? What sort of subjectivity can remain true to itself, in a world where body and mind are measured and defined as flexible investments of ‘human capital’?” (p. 63)
“Indeed, time has been depleted in the world of Southland Tales, just like every other natural resource. The psychedelic drug Fluid Karma allows you to travel or ‘bleed’ through time. But this drug is just a by-product of the new energy source, also called Fluid Karma, that has freed America from its dependence on oil. Fluid Karma is produced by the Baron von Westphalen and his Treer Corporation; they manufacture it by capturing the motion of the ocean tides, a seemingly limitless source of energy. But of course, there is no such thing as a ‘perpetual motion machine’ (which is how the Baron describes Fluid Karma). The extraction of the ocean’s energy results in a kind of tidal drag that slows down the rotation of the earth. This leads in turn to a gradual running down of time itself and a rift in the space-time continuum. The leaking-away of time – its asymptotic approach to an end that it never fully attains – is both a major theme of Southland Tales and the principle behind its formal organisation of sounds and images.” (p. 88)
*Note: Page numbers here refer to the Film-Philosophy version rather than the zerO books version.