While reading Sven Lütticken’s new piece in the New Left Review, I was led to click through to a piece by McKenzie Wark called “#Celerity: A Critique of the Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics.” While I don’t want to go directly into the “accelerationism” issue here – those of you who’ve been reading me for awhile have a sense of where I stand on the matter – I would like to flag up one paragraph that speaks (despite itself?) to the big problem that I have with what we might call neo-Situationist thinking.
3.2 It’s a question of whether boredom with the commodity economy will work fast enough, as it spreads from the overdeveloped world to the underdeveloped, to open up a new path before metabolic rifts like the climate crisis forces the planet toward more violent, disorganizing, and frankly fascist ‘solutions’ to its problems. Already in China factory workers are starting to get restless. Beyond that, there’s only so much cheap labor left on the planet to exploit. Meanwhile, in the overdeveloped world, a rather novel regime of value extraction is finding ways to extract value from non-work. Search engines and social networking find ways to extract value from activity regardless of whether it is ‘work’ and without paying for it. It’s a kind of vulture industry, parasitic on frankly successful popular struggles to free vast tracts of information from the commodity form and circulate it freely. But having beaten back the old culture industries with this tactic, the social movement that was free culture finds itself recuperated at a higher level of abstraction by the vulture industries and their ‘gamification’ of every aspect of everyday life. So: any alter-modernity project has to bypass the expansion of the old commodification regimes across the planet, but also these curious new ones, dominant in the overdeveloped world, but tending now to transform information flows everywhere.
The “question” at play in the first sentences is whether “boredom” will spread fast enough from the overdeveloped world to the underdeveloped to best the onset of “metabolic rifts” like climate change. It’s a foolish – and yes, foolishly accelerationist question – and it’s one that provides space for a sloppy slippage in terms in the first few sentences. “Already in China factory workers are starting to get restless.” Boredom has turned into “restlessness,” and restlessness is indeed something like boredom. But of course the factory workers in China aren’t restless because they’ve over-gorged in the fruits of “overdevelopment.” They are “restless” because they are being worked to death to provide the materials of this ostensible “overdevelopment.” (The more you think about it, in the context of this paragraph, “restless” is an absolutely horrifying word to use to describe the existential situation of those generic Chinese factory workers.) Wark’s slight of hand blurs the lines between the one and the other – casting Foxconn workers as in a sense “catching up” with our existential plight as they contemplate throwing themselves down staircases…
The perspectival problems continue in the next sentence – “Beyond that, there’s only so much cheap labor left on the planet to exploit.” Whether or not that’s true – I seriously doubt it – what are we to make of this statement in context? What will happen when the world “runs out” of cheap labour? Presumably there’s a possibility that global capitalism is in fact potentially about to solve the problems of uneven distribution of goods (and with the goods, “boredom.”) If it doesn’t – in the context of this paragraph – it doesn’t really matter anyway. We’ll all be toast.
In general, any argument that structurally equates (and I’m not even sure that’s not too generous a word for what’s afoot here) the exploitative tedium of Chinese factory work with our bored entrapment in the “gamification” of our tweeting or Facebooking is focalised from a perspective that so desperate to project hysterically one’s own (middle class, academic, first world) life-experience as the very model of the global drama of exploitation.
In short, this paragraph (and Wark’s argument as a whole) is grounded in a fantastical resolution of the real problems of worldwide inequality – a resolution necessary so that Wark’s hipster dilemma’s can take center-stage in the drama of global politics. Or to put it another way, whenever anyone founds their political argument on the concept of boredom, I reach not for my gun but for my World Atlas. Boredom may be a worry for “us” (us here in the “overdeveloped” world, even us trapped in the gears of a socio-economic system based on the festina lente temporality of precarity), but it’s not a pressing problem for the world, no matter what the spoiled youths of ’68 had to say about the subject.
One of my brilliant PhD students quoted this passage from Charles Baudelaire’s A Painter of Modern Life in his thesis:
Dandyism appears especially in those periods of transition when democracy has not yet become all-powerful, and when aristocracy is only partially weakened and discredited. In the confusion of such times, a certain number of men, disenchanted and leisured ‘outsiders’, but all of them richly endowed with native energy, may conceive the idea of establishing a new kind of aristocracy.
It’s tempting to rewrite this for our times. It doesn’t require much of a transformation to do this.
Hipsterism appears especially in those periods of transition when democratic meritocracy has not yet completely disappeared, but when a new aristocracy is being born out of what remains of it. In the confusion of such times, a certain number of men, disenchanted and leisured ‘outsiders’, but all of them richly endowed with the inherited and rapidly redoubling spoils of their ancestors, may conceive the idea of establishing a new kind of aristocracy.
I went through a period as a boy when I was obsessed with Mad Libs. Were they a UK thing too – or was there something similar? Basically, the player is given a set of prompts for parts of speech, various types of words, and the like. These are then plugged into a prewritten story, and of course much non-sequiturism and absurd hilarity (if you’re 8 or 9 years old) occurs. It’s sort of a poorman’s Oulipo, a vulgar literary surrealism for kids.
Anyway, tomorrow is the first day of summer, so the blurbs and related PR materials for all the middle-to-higher middlebrow fiction is starting to flow through the social media sieves. And as I skim this stuff, it’s impossible for me not to get a sense that the writers / agents / publishers responsible for its positioning on the airport news agents’ shelves and the tables at Waterstones or Barnes and Noble marked with the cardboard palm tree aren’t playing their own version of literary Mad Libs.
A young (doctor/student/yoga instructor) has suffered through (a divorce/ a bereavement / a layoff / pancreatic cancer) and decides to visit (Nepal / Laos / Peru / inner city Detroit). There she meets a (Buddhist school teacher / flamengo instructor / holistic gynaecologist / homeless savant) who teaches her to enjoy (food / dance / sex / her “curves” / abstract art) and, thus, life again. Upon returning to (London / New York / the family manse) she meets a (stock brocker / surgeon / idealistic social worker) and almost loses love… but ultimately, in the end, finds it.
Of course, one could compose similar rubrics for the various subgenres of this sort of stuff (the post-English Patient war romance, the self-discovery memoir, raunchy post-chick-lit chick lit, etc). (And hey, if you care to, post your own versions in the comments!) And further, of course, the fact that you can do this part of what makes genres genres – you could do the same for science fiction, the nineteenth-century realist novel, mid-century American “outsider” fiction, whatever.
But still, there’s something infinitely depressing about the implicit psychological profiling of the potential reader that seems to be running behind the construction of these blurs and the books that they stand for. Commercial publishers know their readers, I guess. Or at least they know the (ever fewer?) readers who are already buying their books. And these readers, it seems, at least according to the evidence available in the products on offer, stand at the book tables (or their html equivalents) going through a not very complex dance of identification and aspiration as they decide which book to purchase for their carry-on luggage or beach bag. Ah, that’s like me. That’s like me too. That’s not like me but I wish it were. Ooh, wouldn’t it be nice if it turned out like that…
(I’ve written about this process of identification in relation to the cover art of such novels before.)
Take for instance the work that can stand as an avatar of the middle range of the middlebrow stuff just as Ian McEwan’s Saturday can stand for the upper reaches of the form: Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. It’s a memoir, but it fits the rubric above so perfectly that it’s almost the platonic ideal of the genre – and undoubtedly has become a model that the book business looks to replicate over and over. Here’s a description of the work from wikipedia:
At 32 years old, Elizabeth Gilbert was educated, had a home, a husband, and a successful career as a writer. She was, however, unhappy in her marriage and initiated a divorce. She then embarked on a rebound relationship that did not work out, leaving her devastated and alone. After finalizing her difficult divorce, she spent the next year traveling the world.
She spent four months in Italy, eating and enjoying life (“Eat”). She spent three months in India, finding her spirituality (“Pray”). She ended the year in Bali, Indonesia, looking for “balance” of the two and found love (“Love”) in the form of a Brazilian businessman.
In this description, we can almost read the handwriting of the invisible hand that drives the publishing and marketing of such books: Our readers are almost all women, and what we all know about women is that women like to eat (even though they sometimes have to be coaxed into really going at it) and they like feelings and deepness and softcore “spirituality.” It’s even better if that leads (coaxes them into?) love and sex. It’s like a perfect dating experience – a dinner, followed by some deep conversation, and then, and only then, some sex – extended into a self-discovery memoir!
At any rate, what’s less interesting about all of this is to discover the venal cynicism of publishers and the vapid selection principles of some readers. It’s an old story, and not a particularly interesting – and perhaps not even entirely true – one. What’s more interesting, I think, is to consider, as I’m starting to do here, what we can make out of all that goes into the production of such products – especially at the spots where form intersects with baser motivations. That is, what I’m interested in is the semi-allegorical posture of the narratives to presumed customers lives, the socio-ideological substrate of the relations between the writing and the market, and what we might call, after Fredric Jameson, the nature of the political unconscious that somnolently calculates “Bali, Indonesia” as the reconciling synthesis of Italy and and India.
Two sentences from Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station:
In the distance airliners made their way to Barajas, lights flashing slowly on the wing, the contrails vaguely pink until it was completely dark. I imagined the passengers could see me, imagined I was a passenger that could see me looking up at myself looking down.
I think of moments such as these as “Ballardian moments.” Certainly Ballard wasn’t the first to turn at the crossroads of subjective reflexivity and locational relativity like this, but it is a move highly emblematic of his work. For instance, perhaps the best example, from Chapter 11 of Crash:
Waiting for Catherine to leave for her flying lesson, I drove my car towards the motorway, and within a few minutes had trapped myself in a traffic jam. The lines of stalled vehicles reached to the horizon, where they joined the clogged causeways of the motor routes to the west and south of London. As I edged forward, my own apartment house came into sight. Above the rails of the sitting-room balcony I could actually see Catherine moving about on some complex errand, making two or three telephone calls and scribbling away on a pad. In an unexpected way she seemed to be playing at being myself – already I knew that I would be back in the apartment the moment she left, taking up my convalescent position on that exposed balcony. For the first time I realized that sitting there, halfway up that empty apartment face, I had been visible to tens of thousands of waiting motorists, many of whom must have speculated about the identity of this bandaged figure. In their eyes I must have appeared like some kind of nightmarish totem, a domestic idiot suffering from the irreversible brain damage of a motorway accident and now put out each morning to view the scene of his own cerebral death.
We’ve already stood with Crash‘s narrator-protagonist on his balcony overlooking the motorways approaching Heathrow many times, and we’ve overheard him speculating about all of the micro-narratives that are playing out, barely discernibly or only implicitly below. For instance, from Chapter 4.
I gazed down at this immense motion sculpture, whose traffic deck seemed almost higher than the balcony rail against which I leaned. I began to orientate myself again round its reassuring bulk, its familiar perspectives of speed, purpose and direction. The houses of our friends, the wine store where I bought our liquor, the small art-cinema where Catherine and I saw American avant-garde films and German sex-instruction movies, together realigned themselves around the palisades of the motorway. I realized that the human inhabitants of this technological landscape no longer provided its sharpest pointers, its keys to the borderzones of identity. The amiable saunter of Frances Waring, bored wife of my partner, through the turnstiles of the local supermarket, thedomestic wrangles of our well-to-do neighbours in our apartment house, all the hopes and fancies of this placid suburban enclave, drenched in a thousand infidelities, faltered before the solid reality of the motorway embankments, with their constant and unswerving geometry, and before the finite areas of the car-park aprons.
We have here – and at so many other places in Crash - an intimation, if a fleeting one, of another sort of novel – a novel whose action would be comprised of all of the micro-activity, the infra-events, that take place in a certain place at a certain time… in this case, the non-neighbourhood on the periphery of the airport run-up. This is interesting enough, but what’s even more interesting is when – in passages such as the one above from Chapter 11 or the sentences from Lerner’s novel - the micro-narratives of the denizens of the Westway or the passengers on the planes into Barajas are imagined in turn into micro-perspectives on the protagonist himself. From one, many; or, from many, one.
Tao Lin’s Taipei likewise has a similar preoccupation with such perspectival shifts, this time borrowed from the visual aesthetic of Google Maps and its gods-eye perspective. “He visualized the vibrating, squiggling, looping, arcing line representing the three-dimensional movement, plotted in a cubic grid, of the dot of himself, accounting for the different speed and direction of each vessel of which he was a passenger – taxi, Earth, solar system, Milky Way, etc.”
Of course, it’s always been possible to conceive of the novel in terms of movements on the map from on high. Franco Moretti’s work, for instance, has long embraced this aerial perpendicularity. But it goes back far further than that – as is visible, for instance, in Nabokov’s famous cartographical rendering of Ulysses.
But it is something a bit different when the works themselves perform or at least hint at the possibility of arranging themselves in this way. Moments such as those above – with Ballard’s characteristically long before the technological media that has clearly been so suggestive to later writers – are intimations of the possibility of new configurations of the matrix of personality and perspective within novels that otherwise remain enfolded in relatively conventional models of narrative construction. But at the same time, these new configurations can also been seen as developments compatible with the foundational conceptions of modernist literary art. To slightly edit one of the touchstone statements from early in the development of modernist prose technique, in these moments we start to see literature lean towards a new maxim, though one not all that different from the old ones:
An author in his book must be like Google’s algorithms in their processors, or Instragram’s archives in the Cloud, present everywhere, and visible nowhere.
Can we have done with Molly Crabapple at some point soon? The self-appointed house artist of Occupy Wall Street (who cashed in even faster on the left-hip quotient of her radical turn than the most pessimistic of observers of the movement would have guessed for the most cynical of its fellow-travellers) keeps writing these articles about the Photoshopping of models and other female celebrities as some sort of neo-feminist form of détournage. She now writes for – among other things – Vice. I imagine that I don’t need to go into the politics of that. But here’s the latest example of what I’m talking about. Here we go:
To these feminists, Photoshop is to blame to unrealistic body standards, poor self-esteem, and anorexia in teenage girls. The campaign against Photoshop is the perfect cause for white, middle-class women whose primary problem is feeling their bodies do not match an increasingly surreal media ideal.
Ah, right. It’s the fat, lumpy bourgeois ladies that are angry about this – presumably not the ones who used to be topless models. But there’s something that we’re missing about Photoshop, and it’s something to do with out failure to understand Ahhht… Crabapple continues:
Photoshop, the belief goes, takes a true record of a moment and turns it into an oppressive lie.
But fuck Photoshop. Photos are already lies.
I’m a former model and current artist. I’ve learned this every second I’ve stared into the camera’s insect eye.
As we learn in the course of her piece, all photos are lies, therefore participation in the increasing deceptiveness of the form is actually a form of liberation for women, for young girls. The ability to tweak your Instagrams (leaving aside whether it’s a great idea to build up an endless collection of tweaked selfies, pragamatically or self-confidence-wise) is cast as a guerrilla action on the part of young women, canny as they are (clearly, according to Crabapple, as canny as her) in the arts of ironically-distanced self-presentation.
Retouching is post-hoc glamor. Pixels shellac images like makeup on a face. From Photoshop to Instagram, each tech iteration has made retouching more democratic—and more despised. The self-facing phone cam is a master class in how posing affects perception. Media concern-trolls Photoshop’s effect on teen girls. Meanwhile, teen girls use iPhone retouching apps to construct media of themselves.
A teen girl knows the lies behind photography best. When she takes selfies, she’s teaching herself what were once trade secrets. Now she’s the one who angles, crops, and blurs.
Just in case the argument isn’t clear, and you’re not sure which side you’re on, Crabapple drops the bomb – as it were – near the end of her piece.
To get a “true” photo, you need to remove artifice. This means removing art. Art’s opposite is bulk surveillance. Drones, CCTV, ultra-fast-ultra-high-res DSLR, our fingers stroking our iPhones or tapping at Google Glass.
Ok then… So if Photoshop = Art and Art is the opposite of surveillance, to deny the magazines the right to crop women into hourglass magnificence is, what? To advocate the bombing of family get-togethers in Pakistan? Or, at the minimum, to back the imposition of some sort of Airstrip One style CCTV regime?
That is to say, if I’m a little worried that my now eight-year-old daughter is going to start to feel chubby, and thus unselfconfident, and thus worthless, and thus not even in line to become – for instance – an NYC downtown art celebrity due to her incessant bombardment with women as unrealistically rendered as those in the magazines on the supermarket shelves, I’ve supported some sort of Drone War on women – or in fact, implicitly, the Drone War itself. Or is the point that, when she’s inevitably confronted by these insecurities, I should just have her download Photoshop Express onto her iPad and inflate and deflate as needed, until she has the sort of body that buys her a place at the marketplace of culture commerce today?
At any rate, in Crabapple’s rendering of it, the camouflaging of flab, or small boobs, or a pasty face, seems to be tantamount to the secreting of the children away from the Hellfire missiles that drop from the sky in parts far distant from the lower Manhattan where she lives. I guess that’s the sort of conjunction that one has to make to get on with one’s hypocritical existence as the former artist-of-Occupy, on the “entrepreneurial” side of the movement of course, peddling on with the Vice pieces, the bogus art, and, most of all, the position as yet another of our new radical class of post-feminist confidence women.
One might be tempted to think that the end of “net neutrality” might well be counterbalanced by the tendency of all things of the electronic sort to grow and thus outpace the attempts to enclose them. That is, what would a fast-lane really mean in a world in which all lanes are getting faster all the time?
But we’ve learned this lesson again and again in capitalist modernity, during the slow but steady war on all things held in common and distributed equally. The very minute a top-up option is added – and added, as it always is, as simply more good on top of a very good thing – the forces of neglect, disinterest, and deliberate sabotage begin to go to work eroding the old, non-topped up forms. Education, health care, old-age pensions, civil services of every type – it always works the same way. And now, from the looks of it, the internet as well.
Once the mega-corporations (which are getting more mega all the time) who man the pipes can sell special sections of the pipes to the mega-corporations that provide the expensive content, watch to see how long the older, slow-lane sections of the “information superhighway” are under-maintained, full of pot holes and lined with crab grass, despite the toll booth newly erected every few miles.
According to The Financial Times today:
In 1975, more than a decade before the Big Bang that deregulated the City, the average London financial services worker was paid about £3,800 a year, a salary that was outstripped by a sizeable proportion of other professionals. Academics were paid about £5,000, around a third more, while natural scientists and engineers received roughly 10 per cent more than finance workers.
Now the average London financial services salary is about £102,000 including bonuses while academics are paid about £48,000, natural scientists average about £42,000 and mechanical engineers £46,000.