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The “heart” of Neo-Liberalism, blah, blah, blah

While I try to shrug off all this Neo-liberalism this, and Neo-liberalism that, as other blogsters are using fancy acronyms for Neo-liberalism as if they are busy making entries in the Merck manual, this one passage of qualifications and analogies from the Neo-liberal hating Levi Bryant I find interesting (yes, he has equated Neo-liberalism with Nazism recently):

While I do not disagree with Rowan William’s thesis that the picture of the human as an intrinsically self-seeking creature constitutes a false anthropology, I have noticed that there is a tendency to treat the core of neo-liberal capitalist ideology as consisting almost entirely of this false anthropology. What is missing in this conception of neo-liberal ideology is the legal and normative framework that underlies this way of relating to the world and others. On the one hand, in order for neo-liberal capitalist ideology to get off the ground it requires what what might be called a “pure subject” or a “subject-without-qualities”, not unlike Descartes’ cogito or Kant’s transcendental unity of apperception. At the heart of neo-liberal capitalist ideology (NLCI) is not so much a subject pursuing self-interest, as a legal subject functioning as the substrate of property, commercial obligations and debts, and divorced from social context and conditions of production.

One can see right away from the bolded material that analogies abound. Levi objects to an anthropological view being read as the core of Neo-liberalism, because there is a framework (legal normative) in which (?) a substrate operates (legal subject) onto which various formal economic relations adhere.  What Levi denies, in something beyond a point of emphasis, is that the “heart” or the “core” of Neo-liberalism is the self-interested subject. Instead it is a mere formalism of “subject” and its laws. To put it briefly, it’s not the self-seeking, self-interested desiring-subject, it’s the structured-subject (legally and philosophically) that is the troublesome kernel of Neo-liberalism. Let’s leave aside the kind of rhetorical slippage between philosophical “subject” and legal “subject” here, is it really correct to say that THIS is the core/heart of Neoliberalism (whatever that is)?

From my perspective the attempt to minimize the anthropological myth, the idea that human beings are essentially and naturally selfish beings, and instead draw a different heart/core made of some kind of structuralization, misses something. The entire legal and normative framework, we would say, came into existence and into justification in the very strong context of the belief that human beings are self-interested beings, essentially. The entire formalized drive towards privatization is made in response to this picture of humanity, it is naturalized within it. While I’m not sure who is saying that Neo-liberalism is nothing but this myth – David Graeber does make a vivid anthropological argument that “even” exchange is something that is done between enemies, suggesting that economic models of abstract equivalencies are necessarily mythologically self-interested ones – I am also unsure how much of the “framework” and its formalized subject could operate without it. In fact, as Spinoza knew just at the cusp of the Cartesian subject, one cannot cut off the conception of the cogito from the idea of its separate faculties of Willing and Judgment. In order undo the abstract subject, willing and freedom have to be radicalized. The desiring subject, how it desires, and what it desires for is integral to the very isolation of the said “substrate” of the subject in the first place. In fact, all of this stems to a great degree from Representational conceptions of knowledge and related questions of autonomy, freedom and desire.

I don’t really know what good finding the heart or the core of Neoliberalism does, other than create a kind of rhetorical force to steady the aim of our critique. But I do doubt that our narratives about how humans naturally (or if one is in Lacanian moods, structurally) desire are not every bit as important as the laws and norms that are created to regulate and shape those desires. I personally find the Neo-liberalism stigma mark to be something of a canard, designed by those that think “radical break”, getting “outside”, is the only way towards justice, but in any case, philosophies of “lack” (including much of what flows from Hegel, and those that hunger after essentialized “nothingness” or “absence” or “object”) have a great deal to do with foreclosing the possibilities of thinking about the “subject”, or better, the self beyond its normative product-buying, object-chasing behavior. One  also has to ask, as we pre-occupy ourselves with “objects” as essential and constitutive relations, are we not already caught up in economies (of desire, of real capital) which presuppose the “lack” which drives them, sinking deeper into our mental concrete the assumptions which secure the relations we would wish to change or improve upon.

The Soul Crushed and Twisted by the Mechanical Arts – Plato

Plato’s Prisons of Techne

I repost here the quote from the Republic that in usual Platonic, imagistic language is full of potential truths. Here we find Socrates discrediting primarily the sophists, but really by virtue of a whole class of technically skilled [techne] workers, those whose power and knowledge consists in their experiences, and standing, as workers. In condensed fashion he runs the gambit from prisoners to technicians to mere machine workers. All of these he tells us, wish to gravitate, actually more, leap or fly to the prestige of philosophy:

Just as men out of prisons into holy sanctuaries are fleeing, so these joyous men out from technical arts are leaping into Philosophy, as if those being most intricate would hit upon the little art of themselves. For in comparison with the other arts the honor of philosophy even though abandoned is more magnificent. This is the flight of the many unaccomplished by nature, who from the technical arts and even workmanship, their bodies have been mutilated and their souls envined and even crushed through the mechanical arts.

Plato, Republic [495d]

Leaving the question of the sophists aside and picking up the word-image, we really have something here. There is the interminable sense that our experiences as workers confined to the techniques of our knowing and doing, caught within the demands of an economic and thereby psychic necessity, contort us, alter us. And Plato’s image is quite strong as he evokes the worker or technician (and some editors have thought that he had the military arts in mind, but the image carries through) whose body is maimed by the arts he practices. We see vividly the industry worker, or other friends of the “machine” who has lost fingers or received other bodily harm, even desk workers whose time in the chair have changed their posture. All of these graftings of a machinic upon the human body are rolled up into the image of the prisoner at the beginning of the passage, the one who is confined, shackled by circumstances of every degree. And all of these make for Socrates those who are unqualified to the seat of Philosopher. This is because, as the body is the image of the soul, it is not only bodies that have been exacted upon, it is souls, and here in the end forming a bookend to the prisoner the image is striking. The mechanical arts (by which we are to see mean arts, perhaps those of low craftsmen, even with the association of the weaver who is feminine), actually “envine”, they envelope and slowly twist and choke the soul, even eventually crush or pulverize it. What comes to mind for me is of a gear-working, a rack that out of its unnatural nature incrementally destroys the cognitive powers of the soul. Here “work” in every mechanical gradient becomes the equivalent of torture.

At a certain level we have condensed here all of the reasons why the economic freedoms of others become a high priority for us. For it is not just in political restriction that the voice and soul becomes contorted, but also that the very lived mechanical – and we read mechanical even in the most abstract sense of purposed and productive repetitions – states of workers are binding and cognitively contorting devices. At least that is the rhetorical picture. Aside from Plato’s political aim, the freeing of cognitions from devices remains a kind of halo of a hope, an attractor.

Scholastic Silence: How to Comtemplate

But in this ethical picture stands its opposite, the idea that the Philosopher is he who is not contorted, maimed or crushed. The one whose body and soul stands relatively whole, unpressured, the one who can see clearly, from a distance. It is there that Bourdieu’s critique of the “scholastic point of view” which I brought up in my last post, occurs. The production of the quietude of the Philosopher, the near monastic, let us say scholastic isolation from the contortions of mechanical art pressures, is, Bourdieu wants us to know, artificial. The cocoon and buffer that creates the gap between a world of devices and techniques exacted, and the imagined realm of reasons, has to be built. It has been constructed through labors which themselves are structured. And then it too is structured by internal devices and arts. What Bourdieu wants us to know is that when the philosopher adopts the scholastic point of view, he/she is likely carrying with him/her the vast train of social constructions (literal constructions) which enable that monastic cell of contemplation, and there is both a social and epistemic responsibility towards the excavation of those inherited and largely unconscious relations (an excavation that in some sense is retarded by flat ontologies who know only their surface).

The One Machinist of the 17th Century

In a way it is the Philosopher who knows least the mutilations of his/her body, the envinings of his/her soul, the pulverizations, due to the very quietude of contemplation. And to this great dis-orientation of thinking towards the mere mechanical, my mind turns towards the rise of the philosophy of the mechanical, the Dutch flowering of Cartesian mechanism. It seems here that most, if there was to be a philosophy that embraced the mechanical nature of thinking it would be found here. I wrote some time ago about the “hand of de Beaune” a brilliant mathematician who was working hard in the service of Descartes on the production of a fantastic automated lens-grinding machine :Descartes and Spinoza: Craft and Reason and The Hand of De Beaune. With somewhat of a coincidence de Beaune’s hand was severely cut just as Plato’s technician’s body was maimed. Descartes’ dream though was of producing machines which no hand would touch, pure, abstract machines, concretized maths, in a sense, those which would free the otherwise fettered human mind. Plato’s dichotomy duplicates itself, the machine as enemy to the mind because of the body, as well as its instrumental aid. As I have pointed out in my investigation of Spinoza’s lens-grinding, Spinoza was the only “worker” of the period, and in fact the only craftsman per se. While lens-grinding and machine fascination was an elite hobby among the new scientist riche, Spinoza was actually a worker, and engaged his lens lathe daily as a matter of his economic sustainance. Deep in this machinic age, only Spinoza new the machine in a fashion Plato’s Socrates could not. He knew it with his hands.

In an interesting fashion, Spinoza’s “scholastic point of view” embodies a unique self-reflective awareness that is encapsulated in his worker, machine status, as well as one might admit, his standing as an ostricized Jew. He occupied a position at the border, a stand-point, that made of his quietude a different sort of awareness. Born of the age of the machine, Spinoza understood the human being too as a device, a complex series of ordinations, to which other complex serieses of ordinations are connected, a “spiritual automaton” he called the human being. In this awareness the “worker” takes on a different place: Not that of “prisoner” to stand in dialectical opposition to the unmutilated man, but of machinic degree. Our work becomes an expression of machines, machines of which we never extricate ourselves. It is only that we need to choose our machines (those of which we are made) more carefully, with an eye to liberation. The gaze of leisure is to be questioned.

Blogged Quietism

In this view blogging of course becomes a significant phenomena. Some philosophical bloggers write out of a self-created cocoon to escape the twisting techne of university or college, forming however brief a contemplation of respite, engaging the machinic of the internet. Some blog in order to be able to speculate, to freely exhibit what they might be able to think, if they were allowed to. Yet, as we produce our ideas and disseminate them, to the degree that we do not embrace the machinic, we are fraught with generating the modes that have produced our monk-cell, unconsciously, not recognizing the shapes of our bodies and souls.

Atop this image of the mechanical arts that contort there is the artist, we might say, is also the self-artist. The one that grasps the inherent machinic character of the human, and purposely undergoes specific machinic contortions upon both body and soul, not to perfect, but to express (and to some degree soterologically free themself and others from) the specific techne of the world, as it stands. To take on the machine, in the way that a poet takes on a complex meter.

Freud and then Heine: Spinoza Does not Deny God, but Always Humanity

Freud and Spinoza on Kant’s Freedom

A few days ago I listened to the paper by Michael Mack (Nottingham), “Spinoza and Freud, or how to be mindful of the mind”  from the Spinoza and Bodies conference (audio here), and one quote really stood out, taken from Heine on Spinoza. Mack’s paper argues that Freud subverts the primary aim of Kantian philosophy: the autonomy of the human under and definition of Freedom. That is, the Copernican turn accomplishes a radical autonomy of man which is strictly modern, that the recursively defined categories of thought provide humanity with a kind of fresh space, a topos, upon which to do and be and make whatever they well, a cocoon of freedom. He doesn’t express it in this way, but I do. Freud takes this from Kant and the modern heritage in that he takes from the inside the autonomy that Kant attempted to carve out,  the “self”. I had never really thought if it in these terms, but one can see that it is precisely at the level of freedom that Spinoza’s Freedom and Kant’s Freedom collide, and one can see Mack’s point that Freud and Spinoza are on the same side on this, that the “self” is ever only partially free, and the sense that we are all exposed to causal forces far beyond our control, the ignorance of which deceives us into thinking we are freer than we are.

The paper is a wild ride at times, and Mack has the haltering verbal excitement of someone overly familiar with a history of ideas and some much neglected material that makes his reading engaging, at least to my ear. He exposes some, one wants to say sublimated, or at least seldom acknowledged even by Freud himself, influence of Spinoza on the father of psychoanalysis. Mack’s point falls off in the area of the Death Drive where he doesn’t do a sharp enough job of contrasting the admitted radical difference of Spinoza and Freud on this point, a chasm gap, surely on account of time .  For me, any comparison between Spinoza and Freud must at least start or end there. Where Mack is really strong is how he positions Freud and Spinoza towards Kant’s autonomy, and the subject of the Self.

In making his point about Freud, Spinoza and Jewishness, Mack brings the wonderful quote by Heine on the subject of Spinoza’s charged atheism. In an almost over-statement in response to the Pantheism Controversy, Heine declares, it is not God that is denied by Spinoza, but rather Man:

“Nothing but fear, unreason and malice could bestow on such a doctrine the qualification of atheism. No one has spoken so sublimely of Deity than Spinoza. Instead of saying that he denied God, one might say that he denied Man. All finite things are to him but modes of the Infinite Substance, all finite substances are contained in God, the human mind but the luminous ray of infinite thought, the human body but an atom of infinite extension. God is the infinite cause both of mind and of body, natura naturans.”
This starting point of Heine’s the erasure of Man, is the widescope though still concrete view that meets up nicely with Caroline Williams’s paper, already mentioned here:  Subjectless Subjectivity, A Geography of Subject: Beyond Objectology. Beginning with this erasure comes the integrated recomplexification of Man, humanity, Self, Subject, State, on an entirely different order. None of these abstract, cognitive boundaries are “kingdoms within a kingdom” but rather are shot through with material effects and forces beyond their knowledge, their autonomy.
Michael Mack’s paper is derived from a new book due out March 2010,  Spinoza and the Specters of Modernity: The Hidden Enlightenment of Diversity from Spinoza to Freud, Continum Books, something certainly to look out for.

US versus Stevens: The Affects of Law and Protection

The Market and Production of Affects: Ruling over Non-Communicative Expression

In 1999 Congress passed a statute aimed at stamping out an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 videos of perverse sexual interest, and distinct animal cruelty. It was conceptually organized with the child pornography Supreme Court case New York vs. Ferber (1982), which was decided such that States had the right to criminalized the distribution of even non-obscene depictions of children in sexual conduct partly upon the reasoning that prosecution of distribution of material in a “market” can be justified by virtue of its chilling, deterrent effect upon the crime of child abuse itself. The majority decision had several prongs to its reasoning (among them that the act of photographing a child in sexual conduct itself formed its own measure of abuse), but distinct was the thinking that government could restrict First Amendment restrictions through the logic of attacking markets without having to invoke the standard of obscenity.

The Congress aimed its statute at the production and distribution of so-named “crush videos”. In these videos dominatrix-like women in high heels or bare feet cruelly crushed to death small animals (chicks, kittens have been named). This statute makes it a crime to create, sell, or possess “any visual or auditory depiction” of “animal cruelty” if the act of cruelty is illegal under federal law or the law of the state in which the depiction occurred. What is excluded from this criminalization is any simulation of such an act of cruelty, which is not restricted under this statute.

The statute passed with very little relevance for nearly a decade without a single case of “crush video” prosecution, and an attested “drying up” of the market it was directed towards. This until a man was arrested for making and distributing dog fight videos under the logic of the statute, his conviction brought before the Supreme Court now, US vs. Stevens. In oral arguments before the court the Deputy Solicitor General, Mr. Katyal, argues in fact that the exclusion of simulated acts shows that the statute is not concerned with limiting the content of expression, but rather only its mode of production. As he claims,

MR. KATYAL: In one sentence, if — if – if Congress sees a compelling interest in regulating the means of production and does not target the underlying content, they can — they can regulate a depiction, so long as it leaves alternative mechanisms for that expression in place.

This is a compelling case filled with complex questions of Freedom of Speech and the morality of policed value, in fact reading the oral arguments was intriguing (I was surprised how incogent many of the Justice questions seemed to be), but mostly I would like to focus on the original intent of the statute and not on the question merely if the statute is overbroad. As a few of the Justices wished to know from the Respondent Attorney Patricia Millett, would Congress even be able to write a constitutional statute limiting “crush videos” if they tailored their language more distinctly – which is to say, more abstractly, can or should the production and distribution of images or sounds be limitable under a logic of controlling markets of otherwise illegal activity?

Critical Animal was the one who brought to my attention this case: Moral schizophrenia and the power of affect in US v Stevens. I went back and read the oral arguments and a few summaries (the Slate article is absurdly written). And then I went back and read the majority decisions in the Ferber case, the Miller obscenity case, and a few others mentioned in the case. And it was Critical Animal who drew to my eye the question of “affect” control which seems to lie within the question of First Amendment restrictions. Ultimately, what people (and animals) feel is the paramount concern, even though pressures of the law are directed upon other structural aspects of behaviors: in this case upon markets and production. It is upon that I really would like to place my imaginary glass. 

What is a Simulated Message?

As mentioned, part of the reasoning behind allowing simulated material of a pornographic, and otherwise criminal nature is that supposedly it distinguishes that the government is not going after the “content” of a message, but rather in the case of child pornography and then again in “crush videos” after the very modes of production which is itself criminal. The crime is in the making, not the saying. This is essential to the Ferber decision which recognized that photography itself is abuse, and also claimed as important that the perpetuation of the shame of the child through distribution perpetuated this abuse. Each of these points don’t readily apply to the subject of “crush videos”. Rather the logic is much more simple. Animals have to be cruelly killed in order to produce these real images. And the thought is that if you simply faked the cruel killing, the message would be preserved without the criminal production. This move towards simulated allowance forms one subtle part of the logic of Ferber on which the Congressional statute was built. That is to say, even though in New York vs. Ferber non-obscene material was restricted, it was the very braiding of “content” and “production” as criminal which established the government’s right.

But the stronger strain of Ferber logic that is aimed at “crush videos” (and then eventually dog fighting videos) is the notion that if indeed the photographic (or auditory) reproduction of criminal activity serves to strengthen a “market” for such material, and thus the renewed criminal acts for the production of further commercial products, the advertisement and sale itself can be targeted with the aim of drying up the market itself. (In the case of Ferber it was the sale of images of a 15 year old boy masturbating that was seen as part of an entire child pornography network of crimes.) The 1982 Ferber logic of restraint against future criminal processes itself was checked in Ashcroft vs. Free Speech Coalition (2002) which decided that simulated digital images of child pornography could not be criminalized under the logic that they could be and had been used to seduce children into sexual behavior. This is to say that, if simulated images might be used instrumentally to forward the process of a crime, in the context of a “market” of child pornography, this “speech” cannot be Constitutionally constrained (Ashcroft), but if the sale of simulated non-obscene depictions operate as part of a market of criminal act depictions this “speech” can be Constitutionally restricted (Ferber, somewhat under the Brandenburg Test). The statute against “crush videos” negotiates these two aspects, allowing simulated images (despite that such images might foment a market), under the strong notion that the government is after an illegal mode of production. In a sense, the argument against simulated material/market connection is sacrificed to bolster the “mode of production” logic of the law.

This distinction between content and production is a philosophically interesting one, for it presupposes that there is a distinct content of these crush videos (and then dog fight videos) that is left protected by the Constitution. You can go ahead and “say” whatever a crush video says, as long as you don’t commit a crime in making it. And what is the “message” that is protected under such a distinction? Or oral arguments it is summarized by Justice Alito, repeating the reasoning of Justice Scalia:

JUSTICE ALITO: What about crush videos, which apparently were the focus of Congress’s attention when it drafted these? Now, I suppose by an analogy to what Justice Scalia just said about the message of dog fighting videos, the people who produce crush videos think they have a message, and the message is that this is — this is sexually exciting or it’s exciting in some way to see a woman in high heeled shoes crushing a little animal to death.

We are given to think that this message is stateable in a great number of ways. The high heeled woman could step on a stuffed kitten, or the camera could cut away at the right moment, or the event could be drawn  or animated, or, conceivably it could be stated just as Justice Alito has stated it. But really, is this the “speech” (what I would like to think of as the “expression”) of a crush video? It seems like an odd thing to say. Indeed as the idea that a painting could be criminalized and replaced by with a word expression of its depicted without loss of its message would tell you, something is missing.

Justice Breyer actually puts his finger right on it, there is a sense that crush videos actually communicate “nothing” which is to say, they gravitate towards a pole which lacks distinct verbal (one wants to say “rational”) content. He places this idea under the question of whether there is any possible construction by which Congress could restrict the speech of crush videos (aside from the statute under review). As Beyer sees it, there might be a class of things which devoid of content rather appeal to “instincts”:

…JUSTICE BREYER: But the point — the point I guess is when you say yes to this, what you are thinking is that, just as real obscenity when depicted does nothing communicative but rather appeals to the instinct of lust, so Congress could find a category of things that do not communicate, but appeal to the instinct of sadism; and that is true when other creatures are killed for the pleasure of the people who want to see them killed. Now, that’s what you are saying. Now – and I think maybe that’s true (32)

And Beyer continues the line of thinking, rebutting the argument offered by the Respondent (and by the earlier Scalia/Alito description) that crush videos possess content:

JUSTICE BREYER: I think what — I think what’s going on is — is not — your conflating two things. One is you are trying to produce education about something that has no communicative value. In so far as you are trying to make an argument or educate, of course, it is protected, but the government, here, is saying I think the statute is intended to forbid a different thing entirely, and it’s hard to draw a line.

Maybe it’s impossible; but promoting a thing which communicates nothing, but appeals to people’s worst instinct, that is not to advocate it or not to advocate it.

It is to try to make money out of it, and that’s what they think, I believe, the statute is aimed at (49)

Aside from the value judgment offered as to which instincts are the worse ones, or even if one can make a contentless appeal to an instinct of some kind, Justice Breyer it seems has really touched on something. There is the sense that at bottom, content appeals operate in context to contentless appeals to instinctual aspects of human beings, and people make money out of this through markets. Could it be that Breyer exposes the nerve pulse of Capitalism itself: to production and exchange of goods through markets given to contentless appeals? Critical Animal, as I mentioned above, supplies the right word, “affects”. Breyer opens up the question whether the Constitution protects affects at all, that is, our capacity to feel and even to organized our feelings (or have them organized for us). Perhaps this will become more clear in the next section.

What Good is the Non-Simulated Depiction?

Here I invoke a critique I made of some thoughts forwarded by Latour and a co-author on the nature of Copies and their Original: The Copiousness of Copies. Some of the ideas forwarded there should put into bolder relief some of what is truly at stake in the arguments about speech and content in the Congressional (likely overbroad) statute against crush videos. There I argue that what distinguishes a “good copy” from a “bad copy”, each made from an “original” are three factors that are weighed against each other:

  1. The copy’s loyalty to germane causes – this means that when we appreciate an original as the source of a great many copies, this is done in the context of the preservation of traces of causes we read as germane to the importance of the original in the first place, and good copies preserve these traces. A photocopied dollar bill has effaced important traces of the causes that produced the original. Yet Warhol’s soup cans preserve important causes that produced the depicted soup can.
  2. Richness of causes to be discovered – here, a good copy is one which maintains a deep record of possibly discovered causes that produced the original, traces which may lead to causes of the original later to be found germane. A detailed digital photograph of a painting may preserve brushstroke pattern thought unimportant, later to be a valued.
  3. Fecundity of interrelations which promote its own replication – these are unto the very nature of the copy itself, and speak of the capacity of that copy to find itself replicatable, producing other copies of itself. In this sense a photograph of a painting is a good copy if it leads to further photographic duplications (put into artbooks, on post cards).

In this way a copy is good if it retains valued aspects of the original (which are themselves traces of causes), holds the capacity for the discovery of other yet to be valued aspects of the original, and itself due to its nature becomes the source for further copies. This stands in amendment of Latour’s idea that sheerly it is the copiousness of copies that establishes their good.

So where am I going on this? I want to explore the exact nature of the communication of the legislated against crush videos, just what it is that they are doing, how they are doing it, and how the notion of simulated replacement might not preserve the “speech” expression of their production.

Primary of difficulty is the Petitioner’s claim that a simiulated act in film, for instance, could retain the exact same message as a non-simulated act. The reason why this is of extreme difficulty – as I hoped to expose through my brief journey into a theory of the copy, is that one could never delimit exactly what causes are the germane ones to be captured by any one expression. This is to say, the point in watching a film of the “crush” variety is not simply to expose oneself to the “idea” of crushing, or even to the idea that such an act is good, exciting or preferred, but actually to submit oneself to the extreme details of such an act. And its given realness, the great variety of detail captured (whether it be a quality of smile of such a woman, the tempo of a hesitation, the color or grade of light on a surface, the pitch of an animal protest and the accorded response or lack thereof, all of these plastic effects), communicate themselves to the viewer with an aim to affective transformation, just as they do in a painting when compared to a prose summary. When one exposes oneself to the rich capture of the criminal act (it being criminal being secondary to it being real), provides a certain amplitude of a power of communication which defies any content definition. To say that one could simply “simulate” this process of communication by either changing the “content” of what is shown, or registers (media) is to simply lose track of what communication and ultimately expression is. The veridical nature of the expression is precisely that which contains the power of transformation that drives the expression in the first place. 

And while surely there exist simulations which could fool a prospective viewer into thinking that they are watching the Real, what drives the transaction is the actual promotion of a direct (or as near as direct) contact with a said person (the dominatrix of a kind), and that event. In the end “content” in terms of restateable “ideas” simply does not exist, any more than the notion that the content of the “Mona Lisa” is that “Women are inscrutable”. In fact the reason why we see the “original” that is hanging in the Louvre is so as to be transformed, at whatever level of awareness, by the hand that painted it, centuries ago.

This is not to say of course that crush videos should be legalized, or must be protected by the Constitution, but only that the particular argument by the government is highly flawed. More interesting perhaps is the other aspect of the Ferber decision that in fact inspired the case against Stevens, and in particular that uncovered by Justice Breyer: what the statute is aimed at is not “content” but at markets that trade on pure affects (leaving aside the notion that there is an appeal to an “instinct”  which is base or not). Indeed, this is right to the core of Capitalist endeavors, one might argue, the marketed trade of “experiences” which never can be reduced down to either a logic of “content” or “use value”. What is wrong with crush videos, at least in Justice Breyer’s view, is that they trade in just experiences meant to transform the viewer, and the problem the government faces is how to police these experiences (or that market), especially when their production involves criminal cruelty. There is a sense in which the consumer’s experiences, her or his affects, drive the market for produced experiences of another, criminal kind. The very circularity exposes perhaps the very affect-driven nature of markets themselves, all markets. In this case the affects of a cruelly killed small animal (and the imagined affects of a dominatrix) are transformed into a nexus for the affects of a perverse viewer.

What remains to be thought is Justice Breyer’s important qualification that it is not just contentless affects that mark out this case (at least in terms of the crush videos the statue was written for, but perhaps also in terms of dog fighting). It is that these products appeal to what is worst in humans, an instinct of “lust” or “sadism”. To this Justice Scalia offers the suitable defense to Ms. Millett:

JUSTICE SCALIA: I would have thought that your response to Justice Breyer’s comment about catering to people’s worst instincts in the area of the First Amendment, at least, would have been that it’s not up to the government to decide what are people’s worst instincts.

If — if the First Amendment means anything, that’s what it means.

If this is so, indeed the government has no first amendment leverage upon which to stand against markets of affects in terms of a primary value of the “instinct” they appeal to.

It cannot be over looked that this social contest I believe really does touch on the very engine of Captialist relations, and the need social justice has for restraining the kinds of affects people can purchase in trade (both in the production of products – i.e. the restriction of child labor for instance, but not animal torture in meat industries – and in the enjoyment of products). I think part of this is due to the very way that we read and interpret the behaviors and lives of others. We do this primarily through affective imagination, and the threat that there may be markets that have established themselves under the trade of certain affects – and little is as entrenched as a thriving market will be – invades the very boundaries of our interpretive bodies. If we want to understand “those perverts” to some degree, insofar as we do think we understand them, if only to reject them, we must enter into the affective states that they pursue. It is for this reason that the logic of the Ferber case makes the most social sense, lacking though perhaps the necessary argumentative, constitutional anti-market logic to extend it far beyond the exceptional case of child pornography (as the “child” stands as one of the ground work anchors of American sensibilities).

The concept of “worst instinct” really is a proxy term for the very threat that such traded affects present to the logic of markets themselves. And as Justic Scalia points out the First Amendment is poised as a leverage point between that hidden threat of Capitalist relations (that non-communicative, traded affects will transform subjects), and the necessary freedoms of expression that mark out just what constitutes a freely expressing subject or citizen. I must be free to express myself, yet the market place of expressive affects (accelerated as it has been by media technologies) risks intensity points that may subvert the very order of markets in the first place. To this degree, really, the affects involved in product production often must be masked or ideologically recoded, as best as possible. Animals who suffer for the meat industry are hidden behind happier chicken labels, while videos that expose viewers to real animal cruelty invoke traction for government action against markets. What the US vs. Stevens statute tries to do is incise the very mode of production of a market, in the logic of a child pornography in which reproduction constitutes a crime in itself, and as such under a proviso of simulated content freedoms attempts to side step the problem of freedom of expression. As the rationality of simulated replacement breaks down the true aim of the law is exposed as directed towards the markets of affects themselves, which is perhaps where all true social friction resides: the transmission and capitalization of experience.

In a certain sense crush videos hyperstate the very conditions of production, the powers of transformation of living material via its affective capacity and its representation, in trade.

Related blog post and another, and another posting around the web

Silent Hill Nurses

The Body as Negotiation and Horror

Halloween is coming, and much looked forward to, time for a rumination on the mechanics of flesh (and horror), amid questions of salvation and social critique.

[click here to be able to view clip fullscreen]

What is it that is so engaging about this terrific horror scene? My suspicion is that it is the articulate collaspe the erotic into the horrific. These manikin’d figures perform a rhythmically spasmed ideal of the female body as autonomous machine, but one that is imagined to be inert until stimulated. They are faceless, breasted, high-heeled, and jerk with a movement somewhere between impulse and gearing. And it is their powderiness, moths that captivates us (like their day counterparts, don’t touch their wings). They have a dusted eternity about them, like statuettes put into a tomb, awaiting the next life for a king; the expression of desire that is not vital, not succulent, not verdant, but thin, spare, starved…like crysallis-paper. And their very stiffness expresses their phallic nomen, though they move like dancers, affected, against their anatomy, strung between a marionette wire and gravity, and tugged forward only by the light.

They are nurses, those uniformed, regulated images of maternal instinct, put into office. Condensations of nurture and erotic formulized power, here gone bad. Ever at their station, they are like tin soldiers to serve a moral war, atuned to battle. The growing political and economic freedoms of women in the world become anamorphically projected, down across these canal “types”, so as to create a kind of “astral body” for those concrete freedoms, one that can move through our imaginations, communally. (Some would say that this subverts, attempts to domesticate, enphantasize the real power, but that would be to lose the dimensionality of powers…minds act.)

And the protagonist of Silent Hill is a woman in a woman’s space. The lone substantive male figure is Triangle-head, the demon, who mutely can only disrobe or stab, or verminify with incredible violence. But this violence is lunar, it cycles through. His head is consubstantially strapped-on, castrated or chastity endowed. He already is a feminine expression. The Law, and the Father is locked outside. She, the mother who in the film is not a mother, or, only a mother-IN-law, must negotiate this bend of nurses, this last stage of female fantasy condensations. In fine mythic proportion, she has gone into the underworld with a lone tool, a magic lamp, a beam of consciousness. But natural laws do not function equally well down here. The light of the eyes certainly illumines, but it attracts (how many women have faced this, fundamentally). It shines and ensnares. Her spectral dopplegangers, the full-figure expressions of her imaginary transport become homocidally activated by her strong beam. They cluster and jerk, showing her their ways.

The stillness of their bodies, frozen in postures unreal for any human thing, it is their human form, their mockery and simultaneous paragonical perfection of female beauty that is so horrifying when they lurch into erotic-mechanical animation.  Response to their movement is to be petrified in horror, bearing still and breathless witness to their writhing bodies as they parade toward their desire – the light, you, the holder of the light.  And the light shuts off, and the bodies seize into stillness once more, shuttering in final violent spasms as they come to rest in even more contorted postures than before.  She is like them; in our nightmares we cling and long for the light to save us from our fear and we are petrified without it.  But she is more clever and her desire is stronger, for she can move without light, she can walk among and indeed walk like her fear.  It is in that darkness that they are pacified, without desire, and in this darkness the protagonist can move toward her desire, pulling and winding her  frame – blind like they are – through the maze of inanimate bodies. 

Paradoxically, she must shut off her magical implement, the darkness producer that it is. She must become one of them, a near-frozen articulation that can only feel, sense…proximately. She, a gear, must pass through those gears, without turning them. And their recursive ethic, their imbricated network, when she brushes too close, sets the whole desiring-machine into production. The slashes come in wide arcs, woman on woman. Model bodies mechanicize, and necks open up into mouths. The scalpel, the most discerning instrument, the sharpest refinement of perception, the critical tool, flies. But what is produced in this imaginary space is not death, it is a vortex-work of living, intense lines of red, until the “subjects” can huddle about the light again, like toddlers.

What is one to make of this gauntlet? A woman devoted to her duty as a mother (to an adopted child) must penetrate the fictive space of female power images, the automaton sources of gendered capacity. These images are not just projections of real relations, but are real relations in their own right, I suspect. That is why they terrify. Progress sometimes includes the faceless.

One might say that the mother here must negotiate the Field of Being, the historically determined imaginary manifestations of her real power, as real, and just do so as a Body. 


[The above is written with the help of my, of course, horrific wife]

The Habits we Keep


Philosopher/sociologist Pierre Bourdieu comes up with a non-mechanistic concept of determinism, closely related to the idea of conditioning, yet implying structures that can be analyzed in terms of history and its effects. He calls it the “habitus”, which is both a thing, but also a thing that acts, something akin to a process. The interesting aspect of this is the way that it employs conceptions of free will. What he argues is that we acquire knowledge in such a way that we weight early knowledge over later knowledge, and then act in such a way so as to maintain our exterior conditions that will preserve the relevance of that early knowledge. This structures both the very way well see the world, (giving us aspect blindness to things/information that might disturb our knowledge bases), and also the way that we materially act upon the world, (therefore the way that the world actually/objectively becomes). It is a large feed-back loop by which the world structures our habitus, our way of seeing, and the habitus works to structure the world. All the while we feel that we are freely choosing (within a delimited range of choices that is not experienced as delimited).

He reads this as a knowledge strategy, as we invest in what we have already invested in, and work to maintain the world that it too brings back the kinds of information that our invested knowledge is good at. Knowledge is both a strategy and a result.

Here is a lengthy quote of the material:

In reality, the dispositions durably inculcated by the possibilities and impossibilities, freedoms and necessities, opportunities and prohibitions inscribed in the objective conditions (which science apprehends through statistical regularities such as the probabilities objectively attached to a group or class) generate dispositions objectively compatible with these conditions and in a sense pre-adapted to their demands. The most improbable practices are therefore excluded, as unthinkable, by a kind of immediate submission to order that inclines agents to make a virtue of necessity, that is, to refuse what is anyway denied and to will the inevitable. The very conditions of production of the habitus, a virtue made of necessity, mean that the anticipations it generates tend to ignore the restriction to which the validity of calculation of probabilities is subordinated, namely that the experimental conditions should not be modified. Unlike scientific estimations, which are corrected after each experiment according to rigorous rules of calculation, the anticipations of the habitus, practical hypothesis based on past experience, give disproportionate weight to early experiences.

The habitus, a product of history, produces individual and collective practices more history in accordance with the schemes generated by history. It ensures the active presence of past experiences, which, deposited in each organism in the form of schemes of perception, thought and action, tend to guarantee the ‘correctness’ of practices and their constancy over time, more reliably than all formal rules and explicit norms. This system of dispositions, a present past that tends to perpetuate itself into the future by reactivation in similarly structure practices, an internal law through which the law of external necessities, irreducible to immediate constraints, is constantly exerted is the principle of continuity and regularity which objectivism sees in social practices without being able to account for it; and also of the regulated transformations that cannot be explained either by the extrinsic, instantaneous determinisms of mechanistic sociologism or by the purely internal but equally instantaneous determination of spontaneous subjectivism. As an acquired system of generative schemes, the habitus makes possible the free production of all the thoughts, perceptions and actions inherent in the particular conditions of its production and only those. Through the habitus, the structure of which it is the product governs practice, not along paths of mechanical determinism, but within the constraints and limits initially set on its inventions.

The habitus which, at every moment, structures new experiences in accordance with the structures produced by past experience, which are modified by the new experiences with the limits defined by their power of selection, brings about a unique integration, dominated by the earliest experiences, of the experiences statistically common to members of the same class. Early experiences have particular weight because the habitus tends to ensure its own constancy and its defense against change through the selection it makes within new information by rejecting information capable of calling into question its accumulated information, if exposed to it accidentally or by force, and especially, and especially by avoiding exposure to such information. One only has to think, for example, of homogamy, the paradigm of all the ‘choices’ through which the habitus tends to favour experiences likely to reinforce it (or the empirically confirmed fact that people tend to talk about politics with those who have the same opinions). And once again it is the most paradoxical property of the habitus, the unchosen principle of all ‘choices’, that yields the solution to the paradox of the information needed in order to avoid information. The schemes of perception and apperception of the habitus which are the basis of all the avoidance strategies are largely the product of a non-conscious, unwilled avoidance, whether it results automatically from the conditions of existence (for example, spatial segregation) or has been produced by strategic intention (such as the avoidance of ‘bad company’ or ‘unsuitable books’) originating from adults themselves formed in the same conditions.

–The Logic of Practice (54;61)

What is interesting about this take is that it accounts for both the subjective experience of freedom, but also the objective need to understand the structuring of that freedom. It employs the structural aspects of descriptive determinism which allows us to investigate the causes of our “insights”, as causes, yet it implicates us as the creators of that world, the world which creates us. It is really conditioning with a vengeance. A self-conditioning, through the conditioning of the world. The world tells us what we want to hear because we have worked to make it “say” those things, but it also makes us hear what we want to hear, by structuring our choices and perceptions.