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first world problems: mckenzie wark on boredom

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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. 


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July 3, 2014 at 12:03 pm

ads without an audience / an audience without ads

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From Choire Sicha’s review of Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future in the current Bookforum

Put most simply: “The primary business of digital networking has come to be the creation of ultrasecret mega-dossiers about what others are doing, and using this information to concentrate money and power.” There is, quite literally, no future in this for almost any of us. Apart from this sprawling system of digital vampirism, publishing in general (books and newspapers especially) has taken a major hit from technological change—as did, you know, the lives of people who made cars and worked in offices. (The number of people in the labor force in America has now returned to the levels of the late 1970s, also known as the heyday of postwar economic malaise.) Colleges may very well be next—Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen said earlier this year that “higher education is just on the edge of the crevasse.” So might various science industries, or home health care, or international shipping, or taxi drivers, or accountants, or who knows what. We can each in turn go to our deaths giving away our value for some other entity’s benefit while working in industries that are losing their value as well, all for someone else’s disruption game.

The “creation of ultrasecret mega-dossiers” which, of course, as of now are generally used to fuel logarithms in order to serve us up ads on the websites that we visit to see the very stuff that no one’s being paid to produce anymore. As Sicha notes, this process has or threatens to put us all out of work: the media, artists, writers, and next educators, scientists, health care workers, shippers, taxi drivers, accountant – the list heads off toward encompassing just about everyone employed in post-industrial first world society.  (Even the bankers and hedgefunders are turning into machine minders and point of sale contact assistants).

But of course, there’s a massive historical irony haunting this process – one that is both very old and utterly new. The value of these universal archives of marketing-friendly information declines as the general financial welfare of the population declines – it’s useless running ads for those without money to spend, and the system itself threatens to make us all into just that. The situation takes the shape of a national or global version of the Walmart that moves into a rural town, undercuts the local shops, destroys the livelihoods of those that live town, and eventually is left with no one to sell to and thus closes up shop.

The situation feels ripe for the emergence of some sort of new, post-modern Fordism, where it dawns on the information industries that they themselves need to maintain some sort of consumer base to sell to, just as Henry Ford realised that if his own workers couldn’t buy his cars, there wouldn’t be many customers left over to sell to. If not, it seems we’re tending towards the situation in Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, where the ads somehow keep rolling, even though there’s barely anyone left to view them.


Relatedly, a strange situation is emerging at the intersection of internet technologies and television. See this post by Jessica Lessin, which I found via a David Carr article in the New York Times.

For more than a year, Apple has been seeking rights from cable companies and television networks for a service that would allow users to watch live and on-demand television over an Apple set-top box or TV.

Talks have been slow and proceeding in fits and starts, but things seem to be heating up.

In recent discussions, Apple told media executives it wants to offer a “premium” version of the service that would allow users to skip ads and would compensate television networks for the lost revenue, according to people briefed on the conversations.

Consumers, of course, are already accustomed to fast-forwarding through commercials on their DVRs, and how Apple’s technology differs is unclear.

It is a risky idea. Ad-skipping would disrupt the entrenched system of television ratings—the basis for buying TV ads. In fact, television broadcasters sued Dish Network when it introduced similar technology last year.

On the other hand, it is no secret that fewer and fewer people are watching commercials thanks to DVRs; networks may very well be eager to make, rather than lose, money off the practice.

It is a “risky idea,” for both parties, but what is interesting is that the added loops of the situation bring to the fore some of the strange effects that I’d like to label the “metaphysics of advertising.” (I’m following from Marx’s description of the commodity in the section of Capital on commodity fetishism – “A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” (italics mine).

At any rate, in the case of the television negotiations, the advertisement is there at once to bring to market the value of the customers’ eyeballs, but also as a sort of ransom-able distraction from the content itself. I.e. one side pays to put them in, the other side pays to have them taken away. In a sense, we’re drawing close to the situation I blogged about yesterday with what I called the “Sisyphusian capitalism” of Goldman Sachs’s entry into the commodity handling business, where they draw a rent simply by slowing an economic process down. Could one imagine a situation where the advertisements are included solely so that they might be destroyed? 

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July 30, 2013 at 9:58 am

“against the grain”: on critical perversity

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At the place where I teach, we still have the students do two courses (one at the beginning of their time with us, and one at the end) in “practical criticism.” We don’t call it that (we just call it “criticism”) but that’s what it is. If we were an American institution, we’d think of it descending out of what is termed “The New Criticism,” but because we are where we are, it’s seen as an import from Cambridge. As the folks to the north-north east describe it on their department website:

Practical criticism is, like the formal study of English literature itself, a relatively young discipline. It began in the 1920s with a series of experiments by the Cambridge critic I.A. Richards. He gave poems to students without any information about who wrote them or when they were written. In Practical Criticism of 1929 he reported on and analysed the results of his experiments. The objective of his work was to encourage students to concentrate on ‘the words on the page’, rather than relying on preconceived or received beliefs about a text. For Richards this form of close analysis of anonymous poems was ultimately intended to have psychological benefits for the students: by responding to all the currents of emotion and meaning in the poems and passages of prose which they read the students were to achieve what Richards called an ‘organised response’. This meant that they would clarify the various currents of thought in the poem and achieve a corresponding clarification of their own emotions.

If you’ve been a reader of this site for awhile, or are familiar with my work in “the real world,” you might think that’d I’d buck against this model of instruction. Any good materialist critic of course should. It approaches the literary work in isolation of its context – the work as an ahistorical entity that emerged autonomously and without the frictional influence of the writer who wrote it or the world that the writer wrote it in.

But on the other hand – and this is why I not only do not buck against it but actively enjoy teaching on this course, perhaps more than any other – it is an extremely valuable method for enabling students to develop “against the grain” critical insights about texts. In the absence of astute attention of the “practical criticism” variety, it’s very difficult for students (or, really, anyone) to develop convincingly novel interpretations of texts. The close attention to the words on the page, and the dynamics of their interaction, not only sets the stage for an appreciation of the “value added” that comes of distilling whatever contextual and personal issues inform the piece once the history is added back in, but, due to the multiplicity and idiosyncrasy  of possible interpretations, provides an opening for critical newness – for the saying of something provocatively different about the work.

So how do I teach “practical criticism”? In the seminar groups that I lead, I model and encourage the following “flow chart” of thought: Anticipate what other intelligent readers of this piece might say about it. Try to imagine the “conventional wisdom” about it that would emerge as if automatically in the minds of the relatively well-informed and intelligent. And then, but only then, figure out a perverse turn that you can make within the context of but against this conventional wisdom. “Of course that seems right, but on the other hand it fails to account for…” “On first glace, it would be easy and to a degree justifiable to conclude that…. But what if we reconsider this conclusion in the light of….”

Students tend to demonstrate resistance, early on, to this practice. For one thing, especially in the first year, they don’t really (and couldn’t possibly) have a fully developed sense of what the “conventional wisdom” is that their supposed to be augmenting, contradicting, perverting. At this early stage, the process requires them to make an uncomfortable Pascalian wager with themselves – to pretend as though they are confident in their apprehensions until the confidence itself arrives. But even if there’s a certain awkwardness in play, it does seem to exercise the right parts of the students’ critical and analytical faculties so that they (to continue the metaphor) develop a sort of “muscle memory” of the “right” way to do criticism. From what I can tell, encouraging them to develop an instinct of this sort early measurably improves their writing as they move through their degree.

But still (and here, finally, I’m getting to the point of this post) there’s a big problem with all of this. I warn the students of this very early on – generally the first time I run one of their criticism seminars. There’s a big unanswered question lurking behind this entire process. Why must we be perverse? What is the value of aiming always for provocative difference, novelty, rather than any other goal?  Of course, there’s a pragmatic answer: Because it will cause your writing to be better received. Because you will earn better marks by doing it this way rather than the other. Because you will develop a skill – one that can be shifted to other fields of endeavour – that will be recognised as what the world generally calls “intelligence.” But – in particular because none of this should simply be about the pragmatics of getting up the various ladders and depth charts of life – this simply isn’t a sufficient response, or at least is one that begs as many questions as it answers. What are, after all the politics of “novelty”? What are we to make of the structural similarity between what it takes to impress one’s markers and what it takes to make it “on the market,” whether as a human or inhuman commodity? What if – in the end – the answers to question that need (ethically, politically) answering are simple rather than complex, the obvious rather than the surprising?

In my own work, I’m starting to take this issue up. And I try to keep it – when it’s appropriate – at the centre of my teaching, even if that can be difficult. (And there’s the further matter that to advocate “simple” rather than “complex” answers to things is itself an “against the grain” argument, is itself incredibly perverse, at least within an academic setting. There’s a fruitful performative contradiction at play that, in short, makes my advocacy of non-perversity attractively perverse!)

I’ll talk more about what I’m arguing in this new work some other time, but for now, I’m after something else – something isomorphic with but only complexly related to the issues with “practical criticism” and the issues that it raises. It has to do with politics – in particular the politics of those of a “theoretical” or in particular “radically theoretical” mindset, and the arguments that they make and why they make them.

Take this article that appeared yesterday on The Guardian‘s “Comment is free” website. The title of the piece (which of course was probably not chosen by the author, but is sanctioned I think by where the piece ends up) is “What might a world without work look like?” and the tag under the title continues, “As ideas of employment become more obscure and desperate, 2013 is the perfect time to ask what it means to live without it.” While the first two-thirds of the article is simply a description of the poor state of the labour market, it is the end that gets to the “provocative” argument at play.

But against this backdrop – rising inflation, increasing job insecurity, geographically asymmetrical unemployment, attacks on the working and non-working populations, and cuts to benefits – a debate about what work is and what it means has been taking place. Some discussions at Occupy focused on what an anti-work (or post-work) politics might mean, and campaigns not only for a living wage but for a guaranteed, non-means-tested “citizen’s income” are gathering pace.

The chances of a scratchcard winning you a life without work are of course miniscule, but as what it means to work becomes both more obscure and increasingly desperate, 2013 might be the perfect time to ask what work is, what it means, and what it might mean to live without it. As Marx put it in his 1880 proposal for a workers’ inquiry: “We hope to meet … with the support of all workers in town and country who understand that they alone can describe with full knowledge the misfortunes from which they suffer and that only they, and not saviours sent by providence, can energetically apply the healing remedies for the social ills that they are prey to.”

In other words, the best place to start would be with those who have a relation to work as such – which is to say nearly everyone, employed or otherwise.

It may be a somewhat bad faith line to allege that “interesting perversity” rather than some well-founded and straightforward belief is at work behind an argument of this sort, but in the absence of any substantive suggestions of what the answers to these questions might be, or in fact why these are the right questions to ask at the moment, what else are we to assume? It is provocatively perverse to suggest, at a time of stagnant employment rate and when people are suffering due to the fact that they are out of work or locked in cycles or precarity, that we might do away with work altogether. It isn’t the standard line – but it’s a line that allows the author to avoid repeating the conventional wisdom about what a left response to such a crisis might be. This in turn affords an avenue to publication, as well as a place in the temporary mental canons of those who read it.

Unfortunately, of course, the Tories (and their ideological near-cousins in all of the other mainline parties) are also asking the same sort of questions about a world (or at least a nation) without work. How might one keep the tables turned toward what benefits employers? How might one keep wages (and relatedly, inflation) low but still spur “growth”? How might one manage this system of precarious non-work, at once depressing wages but keeping the employable populace alive and not building barricades. In short, the question of “What a world without work might look like” is a question that is just as pressing to the powers that we oppose as to people like the writer of this article.

We’ve seen other episodes of the same. During the student protests over tuition increases (among other things) I myself criticised (and had a bit of a comment box scrap over) the Really Free School and those who were busily advocating the destruction of the university system…. just as the government was doing its best to destroy the university system. That many of those making such “radical” arguments about university education were themselves beneficiaries of just such an education only made matters more contradictory, hypocritical, and frustrating.

In short, in countering some perceived conventional wisdom, in begging questions that seem to derive from a radical rather than a “reformist” perspective, the author (and others of her ilk) ends up embracing an argument that is not only unhelpfully utopian, but actually deeply compatible with the very situation that seems to provoke the advocacy of such a solution. I can’t help but sense that the same instinct towards perversity that makes for a good English paper – and, perhaps even more pressingly, a good work of  reputation-building “theory” – is what drives a writer to take a line like this one at a time like this. One might counter that I’m being a bit of a philistine – that I’m closing off avenues of speculative thought and analysis. I’m not. I’m just wondering what the point of writing all this up in a questi0n-begging article in a popular publication is, an article that does little more than raise unanswerable questions and then ends with what might as well be the banging of a Zen gong.


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January 4, 2013 at 2:11 pm

jobs for all

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Jameson in the NLR in 2004 on full employment and utopia:

Marx’s anti-humanism, then (to use another term for this position), or his structuralism, or even his constructivism, spells a great advance over More. But once we grasp utopianism in this way, we see that there are a variety of different ways to reinvent utopia—at least in this first sense of the elimination of this or that ‘root of all evil’, taken now as a structural rather than a psychological matter. These various possibilities can also be measured in practical-political ways. For example, if I ask myself what would today be the most radical demand to make on our own system—that demand which could not be fulfilled or satisfied without transforming the system beyond recognition, and which would at once usher in a society structurally distinct from this one in every conceivable way, from the psychological to the sociological, from the cultural to the political—it would be the demand for full employment, universal full employment around the globe. As the economic apologists for the system today have tirelessly instructed us, capitalism cannot flourish under full employment; it requires a reserve army of the unemployed in order to function and to avoid inflation. That first monkey-wrench of full employment would then be compounded by the universality of the requirement, inasmuch as capitalism also requires a frontier, and perpetual expansion, in order to sustain its inner dynamic. But at this point the utopianism of the demand becomes circular, for it is also clear, not only that the establishment of full employment would transform the system, but also that the system would have to be already transformed, in advance, in order for full employment to be established. I would not call this a vicious circle, exactly; but it certainly reveals the space of the utopian leap, the gap between our empirical present and the utopian arrangements of this imaginary future.

I can understand the anarchists’ resistance to the “jobs for all” demand in terms of their resistance to state-based solutions. I can’t, however, understand the casting of a demand like this one as “moderate,” “liberal,” or “Obama-ist.”

(And, yes, I understand that the OWS demand wouldn’t be “Jobs for All, Everywhere,” per Jameson’s paragraph.)

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October 23, 2011 at 12:40 pm

“imported from detroit”: superbowl ads

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I know this sort of thing has been done before… But what a conceptually tangled if viscerally stirring ad spin here. The usual American car marketing jingoism gets translated into a half-coherent riff about uneven internal development and productivist aesthetics. Check out, for instance, the strange pseudo-Ruskinism mixed with rust belt exoticism in “Because when it comes to luxury, it’s as much about where it’s from as who it’s for.” As well as, of course, the tag line of the ad as a whole, “Imported from Detroit.”

Most of the other ads from last night are banal crap. * But in ones like Chrysler’s, complete with the somnolent semi-logic of lines like the above, it is interesting to see what they dream that we are or could be dreaming.

On the other hand, quite funny that Chrysler is increasingly owned by Fiat, and so a more accurate ad would be about the politics and finance of one post-industrial city buying another via the mediation of the US government….

* All that I’ve found that was even mildly interesting is the Audi spot that seemed to position itself as the car of choice for slightly less twittish upperclass twits. And I suppose there’s something to be said about the Motorola ad, itself a winking sendup of Apple’s very famous 1984-themed ad that aired in 1984.

Of course there is an interesting difference between the two versions. If the stakes of corporate conflict translated into consumer choice once was registered in terms of the political thematics of Orwell’s novel (the subversion of IBM as the subversion of the totalitarian state), now buying a MotoPad vs. an iPad is allegorized through the minor key romantic plot of the novel. And even in doing so, diminished stakes again: instead of a righteous fuck in the woods, the best we can hope for is a Youtube video goofily edited into an electronic Valentine’s Day Card which leads this Julia not to drop her overalls but merely to take out her earbuds.

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February 7, 2011 at 9:21 am

classrooms without teachers

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From the NYT today.

Resolution: I will stop using the Sainsbury’s self-checkout machines, even if I finally have snooped the code that allows me to buy booze without waiting for “approval” from the employees. Here’s for maintaining the inefficiencies (and employment) involved in Actually Existing Human Presence!

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January 18, 2011 at 9:27 am

picket line

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Huh. Looks like I’m going to be going on strike next week. First time I’ve ever been involved in one of those. Luckily the union is (thus far) permitting us to run our exams… Was very worried about the idea of screwing up my students in service of the cause (exams aren’t easily rescheduled where I work… and they also make up just about all of my students’ marked profile… so it’s no trivial matter…)

I’m starting to have a feeling that things are about to get a wee bit pitched and contentious – even more they than already have been – in and around the UK higher education sector in the coming weeks before everyone goes home for summer break.

Was just talking tonight to my wife about how utterly disconnected I feel from politics. Not in the sense that my fundamental beliefs have changed or lightened – I’m still very much the same democratic socialist that I’ve always been. Just feel like I don’t have anything to say, any insight to contribute on that front – the front of politics writ large, politics played out on television and in the papers – anymore. Back in the early days of this blog (and the blog before that, in particular) I was constantly writing about the political churn, what was in the front sections of the papers, etc. Now, not so much.

But on the other hand… I’ve taken a small but significant step lately towards becoming more involved in my union, getting trained for further and grander participation in it. I am and have been haunted by the sense that people have me pegged out for university administration. I mean the upper bits – head of department, dean, whatever. I am the rare but true alpha male in a humanities department, one of those swaggering ex-athletes with a booming voice and an air of definitiveness about me when I speak in public. People like to be led by me, it seems. My dad was in management (erm, human resources) so there’s something about it all that makes sense.

But I’ll be damned before I go into it though – everyone knows that they carrot and stick you with a big salary and extracted promises to sort things out down on the farm, if you know what we mean. And I wouldn’t do that. But with the union – maybe there’s a place I can take all that half-oedipalized paternal training and put it to good use. And maybe in doing so, find for myself a place where my ever-more-humbled and generally-disenchanted political instinct can find somewhere new to set down roots. We’ll see…

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April 28, 2010 at 10:46 pm