Notes on The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. The Fight for a Human Future at The New Frontier of Power (2019) Shoshana Zuboff

(first 253 pages)

It would be hard to disagree with the diagnosis that Shoshana Zuboff does in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. The Fight for a Human Future at The New Frontier of Power (2019) on the way the new technologies are extracting a “new surplus” from us. For Zuboff, what companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon, and to a larger extent, all companies who profit on the illegal use of data extracted without the consent of the users, are all part of what she calls “Surveillance Capitalism.” Early on in the book we are provided with a tentative definition for this “new” phenomenon. There are 8 entries in this definition. From being “a new economic order that claims human experience as free raw material for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction, and sales” (v), or a “parasitic economic logic,” or even “A movement that aims to impose a new collective order based on total certainty” (v), Surveillance Capitalism appears as the biggest threat to humanity. The book offers a history and analysis of this economic system. It also explains in detail how does most, if not all, of tech companies are currently making their profits.

The intentions of the book are, in a way, easy to understand. Something very odd is happening with the way we interact with our devices, and more importantly, something is happening to us as we are living in a fully integrated world to the “internet” (whatever vague idea one could have of this). Zuboff focuses on the way Surveillance Capitalism is extracting something from us, our experience, and then creating scenarios that manipulate us. It is that “search engines do not retain, but surveillance capitalism does” (15). These companies are using all that we feed them with. What happens then is that, since most of the things can be obtained remotely, online, Surveillance Capitalism is capturing “all aspects of human experience,” all online experiences “are claimed as raw-material supplies and targeted for rendering into behavioral data” (19). Eventually, this data is sold to third parties, and eventually this intervenes our experience, we are shaped based on what we have previously chosen or experienced, but this time Surveillance Capitalism has prefigured our choice. We are captured by their doing, as we think we are freeing ourselves by sailing in the web. 

With Surveillance Capitalism “Your body is reimagined as a behaving object to be tracked and calculated for indexing and search” (241). Truth, but also, why would this be so different from regular capitalism? In Zuboff’s account, what separates this “Third Modernity,” that of S.C, is that the second modernity, (Fordism and Postfordism), was good and bad, it created jobs and “progress,” whereas the Silicon Valley modernity is all wrong. From this perspective the whole argument of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism seems to be a reactionary take on the way the new bourgeoise is destroying what their predecessors “built.” What is concerning, then, is less the fact that we are being put into a voluntary servitude state, and more the fact that this state does not differentiate or discriminate: everyone is a voluntary serf these days. Zuboff’s argument, then, relies on the drama of being willing to suffer a pitiful existence, because Surveillance Capitalism controls “all our decisions.” As she puts it, in this parasitic capitalism companies the profit from our experience and data “they stress that customers can opt in to data sharing. On the other hand, customers who refuse to opt in face limited product functionality and data security. In these Requerimiento-style relationships, instead of the adelantados’ message, ‘Bend the knee or we destroy you,’ the message here is ‘Bend the knee or we degrade your purchase’” (235). Death is preferable, it seems, than a life where our purchases are degraded and yet we don’t choose death. 

Notes on Bullshit Jobs. A Theory (2018), David Graeber

When reading Bullshit Jobs. A Theory (2018), by David Graeber, one can but wonder if one has a bullshit job. One is constantly invited to question if our daily routine does not circle around a work whose main purpose is to demoralize us by imposing us endless tasks with unreasonable purposes. In fact, at least in my case, as I’m getting closer to finish a PhD program in Canada, the threat that my best, and more foreseeable, career choice will be to apply for a job that mixes managerialism and education is demoralizing. I hate managering, I love teaching. With this counter-position between love and hate one can understand what bullshit jobs are not. That is, a bullshit job is not a job you do even if you hate some parts of it because the main feature of the job you do actually like. A bullshit job is “one so completely pointless that even the person who has to perform it every day cannot convince himself there’s a good reason for him to be doing it” (2-3). These are tasks that require us to secretly be aware that the task we are performing is “simply a waste of time or resources or that even made the world worse” (xv). Jobs in academia, to conclude with my example, are not bullshit jobs, but they are, as Greaber argues, being bullshitized. 

The phenomenon of bullshit jobs is related to the way we are facing a radical change in economics and politics. The recognizable image we once had of capitalism is slowly fading away. Since a bullshit job is a complete waste of time, money, resources, and all labor (all of the precious things that capitalism highly values), then, the spread of bullshit jobs goes completely against the logic of capitalism. With several testimonies, statistics, historical analysis, and discussion of labor theory, Bullshit jobs, explains what the consequences of these jobs are, why these jobs are spreading so fast, and, in a more reserved, but realistic way, proposes solutions to tame this problem. 

Work is the master word of our times. With fair reason, worker movements pushed in the past reforms and approaches to understand it. However, as Graeber argues, what was never fully tackled is if all work was really necessary. That is, work came to be, at least for today’s dominant understanding, a useful activity, when “saying that something is ‘useful’ is just saying it’s effective as a way of getting something else” (197). Work, or labor, both are categories normally only understood as means of achieving something out of them. We suffer with work, from a Christian perspective, because we were expelled from Eden. Work is the punishment, but also the medicine to aid or malaise, after hard work we will achieve a reward. Graeber argues that work is not presupposed by this wrenching duality between punishment and medicine, but that actually work is presupposed by play, and other forms of action. From this perspective doing things for the sake of doing them, for the sake of seeing how they are affected by us is a happiness closer to play than to work. Bullshit jobs, then, deprive us from the pleasure of seeing our actions affecting the world. We cannot enjoy what we do because we do not see where the affect transferred to the work we put on doing things go. True, some jobs, as my example with academia, have some bullshit aspects, but in most of these jobs everyone can create some sort of fiction to comfort the hours of disappear, or to convince themselves that what they do has some “utility” or purpose. What is so wrong about bullshit jobs is that “you’re not even living your own lie” (74). While in academia, or in other fields, we create our own make-believes that supplement our oppression, in a bullshit job situation we would not be able to create our own lie, we would be living completely on the lie and fantasy of someone else’s. 

There are many types of bullshit jobs, perhaps some escape the typology that Graeber crafts. Nonetheless the typology is important. From the “flunkies,” whose jobs consists of “to make someone else look or feel important” (28); the “goons,” that help increasing the putative domination that the employer portrays towards the world and its subordinates, via threats or violence of all kind (36); the “duck-tapers” that tirelessly solve problems that to begin with should not be problems and duck-tape everything as a palliative solution; the “boxticketers,” jobs “that allow an organization to be able to claim it is doing something that, in fact, it is not doing” (45)”; and to the taskmasters, that could be either unnecessary superiors or superiors who do harm by creating “entirely new bullshit jobs” (51), a bullshit job is there to satisfy the need of a company to increase a form of putative “values.” That is, today’s current mode of exploitation and domination mixes archaic ways of configuring power with traditional capitalist means of domination. Today’s mode of domination “in many ways, it resembles classic medieval feudalism, displaying the same tendency to create endless hierarchies of lords, vassals, and retainers. In other ways—notably in its managerialist ethos—it is profoundly different” (191). We are in a managerial-capitalist mode of domination, and bullshit jobs are here to remind us that “values,” what presupposes any form of “value,” cannot be measured, nor produced, but only reproduced. The spread of bullshit jobs is the territorialization of reproductive and care labor. 

What a bullshit job does is decrease the connection between the way we do things for the sake of doing them, but also this type of jobs guarantees the reproduction of putative “values” for the employers. Being a “goon” is not only a job that forces the employee to become “the bad guy,” it is also a job that transform the image of the employer. From a boss it turns to a “feudal lord,” an authority difficult to reach, close to the almighty. By the fact that today’s world is full of reminiscences to the Middle Ages, or its shift towards modernity (there are “narco-lords,” “gated communities” like feuds; social media as a theatre of cruelty; and jobs that create endless bureaucracies, and so on and so forth) it becomes clearer that the way we have understood work, from its transition of serfhood and slavery, have been all wrong. What we got all wrong is the fact that work is considered to be only a way of production, when in fact it is primarily a way of reproduction. That is, that reproduction presupposes production. In fact, “most working-class labor, whether carried out by men or women, actually more resembles what we are archetypically think of as women’s work, looking after people, seeing to their wants and needs” (235). Production, then, is a patriarchal and misogynist way of understanding the “result” of work because, at least for some, it reminds of the Christian god creating the world as he pronounced the right words. He created the world, and then rested, he went away: as a “macho” would do.  Work is actually related to “other people, and it always involves a certain labor of interpretation, empathy, and understanding” (236). Work is caring. Or better, a work that can guarantee no spiritual violence, no dispossession of the way we affect the world, and actual “impact” for us and the rest, is a work that cares. To care is to realize that things require “long term” projections (239), means of preserving them, and that they cannot be based on the instant, and yet care is a work of successive instants. What makes care possible is its forgetfulness about the future in the present while making the future present in every action. Precisely, having a bullshit job is the cancellation of care, we no longer forget about the future in the present, because we make someone else’s fantasy (not even their future) in our own present. 

While the landscape portrayed by Graeber is worrying, there is no pessimism in Bullshit jobs. In fact, if things have arrived to be the way they are now, there is a chance they can be otherwise. This is too what a traditional labor theory would say about work (238). Our challenge is that “we have invented a bizarre sadomasochistic dialectic whereby we feel that pain in the workplace is the only possible justification for our furtive consumer pleasures, and, at the same time, the fact that our jobs thus come to eat up more and more of our waking existence means that we do not have the luxury of—as Kathi Weeks has so concisely put it—“a life,” and that, in turn, means that furtive consumer pleasures are the only ones we have time to afford” (246). We not only have bullshit jobs, but we have furtive consumer pleasures, almost bullshit pleasures (if that could be possible), since we enjoy so that we can suffer more. A way out of this, Graeber points out, lies in the possibility of establishing basic income and a “safe word” to stop our sadomasochistic relationship with work, as in real sadomasochistic relationships happens. These solutions are realistic, but perhaps, as Bullshit Jobs itself suggests when discussing science fiction and the failure of traditional labor theory, one needs more imagination. This is the open invitation of Bullshit Jobs. A Theory, an offering to rethink redo work. 

Notas sobre Capitalismo gore (2010) de Sayak Valencia

Capitalismo gore (2010) de Sayak Valencia presenta, quizá, una de las versiones más llamativas para leer el capitalismo contemporáneo. Recuperando una vasta serie de conceptos y propuestas teóricas de América Latina y otras latitudes, el libro propone “el término capitalismo gore, para hacer referencia a la reinterpretación dada a la economía hegemónica y global en los espacios (geográficamente fronterizos)” (15). Esto quiere decir, que las propuestas teóricas del “capitalismo gore” surgen a partir de un conocimiento situacional, pero no excluyente: las consecuencias y argumentos se piensan desde Tijuana, México, pero esto no quita que se puedan tender puentes con otras situaciones o lugares. Sujeto endriago, necroempoderamiento, capitalismo snuff, subjetividades queer, necromercado y varios conceptos más son presentados en el libro como herramientas para entender eso que Valencia llama capitalismo gore. 

Este concepto propone, entonces, leer el capitalismo como una serie de procesos con mutaciones. Por ejemplo, decir que conforme pasa el tiempo el capitalismo cambia y requiere ser reinterpretado y entendido para comprender precisamente los mecanismos de dominación y explotación mediante los cuales somete a las diferentes multitudes que fluyen en la historia. Si bien, salvo en notas al pie y unas secciones del libro, no se enfatiza en qué medida los grandes cambios de finales de siglo XX e inicios del XXI son también una regresión a las peores y más cruentas formas de acumulación capitalista tal como sucedió en los años del inicio de la modernidad (finales del siglo XIV). Es decir, Valencia, parece, propone que el capitalismo gore es una categoría novísima, nunca vista. El término se define como una exageración, por éste se entiende el “derramamiento de sangre explícito e injustificado (como precio a pagar por el tercer mundo que se aferra a seguir las lógicas del capitalismo cada vez más exigentes) … todo como herramienta de necroempoderamiento” (15). Capitalismo gore, entonces, es una suerte de alargada teoría de la dependencia. En otras palabras, si hay “un precio” que los países tercermundistas se aferran en pagar, entonces, hay una dependencia tal cual esto se entendía en los setenta y ochenta en Latinoamérica, así como en otras partes. El libro, igualmente, toca tangencialmente las razones por las cuales los países tercermundistas se aferran a ese excesivo pago. Sin embargo, nunca se formula el problema preciso que pudiera articular esa necesidad de aferrarse al pago capitalista. 

El binomio entre regresión y novedad, que se ilustran de forma muy adecuada entre el término que motiva el libro, capitalismo gore, y el de uno de los principales conceptos propuestos, sujeto endriago, proponen una manera interesante de leer el desastre causado por el narcotráfico, la violencia extrema y los malos gobiernos en México. Así, entre lo gore, (un término tomado del cine que designa un género en el que la violencia es regocijante y, sobre todo, se explicita excesivamente el derramamiento de sangre), y lo endriago (un monstruo, según la obra, original del Amadís de Gaula, en el que se mezcla la forma humana con la de diversas fieras) se describe un capitalismo hiperviolento, exagerado, arcaico y a la vez novedoso. El asunto es que esta forma de describir el capitalismo no es, en cierta medida, novedosa. Ya sea porque el modo de producción y acumulación capitalista siempre evoca previos modos de dominación y explotación a la vez ofrece nuevos, Capitalismo gore sugeriría que la fase más reciente del capitalismo no es sino un retruécano de sí mismo, “otra vez vivimos en un mundo de bandidos y piratas” (20), menciona el libro. Por otra parte, es bastante sugerente el uso que la palabra “gore” y “endriago” juegan en el libro. Si bien, estos dos sintagmas evocan el inacabable retruécano del capitalismo, también, como advierte Valencia, lo gore vuelve comodificable y espectacular la forma de acumulación y producción capitalista (16). Lo endriago, por su parte, conforma una subjetividad que “sigue a pie de juntillas los dictados más radicales del mercado” (80). Entre un espectáculo de afectos ambivalentes (gore), que, como en el cine está hecho para ser un mero entretenimiento que va de la repulsión a la risa (muchas películas del género gore son también consideradas parodias), y lo endriago, una monstruo cuya única función radica en probar la valía de un “héroe” (el estado), la forma de dominación capitalista que Valencia sugiere busca la anestesia al mismo tiempo que la reactivación explosiva de la violencia. Es decir, capitalismo gore sería una forma de producción que extrae valor y domina a partir de la rápida transformación de lo anestesiado (gore) en violentamente activo (endriago).

Para dejar atrás esto, Valencia propone una solución. Casi reelaborando la disputa entre multitud e imperio, elaborada por Michael Hardt y Toni Negri en Imperio, Valencia propone que para pensar algo que contrarreste lo gore y a los sujetos endriagos se debe pensar “una disidencia efectiva y no distópica y ésta debe estar emparentada con las cuestiones de desobediencias de género y con el transfeminismo; debe crear también alternativas comunes en las cuales pueda participar activamente la sociedad civil” (193). Esta solución es un “plano orientativo” (1994), que no busca ser prescriptivo, sino abierto. Si bien, no se explica a detalle cómo este remedio para contrarrestar los males del capitalismo gore deja de ser parte de las mismas opciones que el sistema da, es decir, que la diferencia entre endriago (como quimera) e identidades desobedientes emparentadas al transfeminismo no es clara. Más aún, si el capitalismo gore tiene un precio que se debe pagar para poder formar parte del modo de producción, ¿qué precio se deberá pagar para pensar esas disidencias que se sugieren al final de Capitalismo gore? ¿No será que se debería de pensar a contrapelo de una de las conclusiones y provocaciones más sugerentes del libro? Al finalizar el texto, a manera de testimonio y reflexión teórica, Valencia describe el momento en que un cadáver cayó frente a sus ojos mientras conducía por Tijuana. La terrible impresión se anuncia como lo peor del capitalismo gore, pues ésta no conmueve la sensibilidad de nadie, salvo la de la narradora. Hay que hacer algo al respecto de ese cadáver, dice Valencia. Y no es para menos, la desempeorada y anestesiada reacción de su acompañante es triste, grave y común. Todos nos hemos acostumbrado al espectáculo gore, descrito por Valencia. Sin embargo, mientras Capitalismo gore concluye que hay que hacer algo con esos muertos “porque si no eso hará algo [contigo]” (203), como si el cadáver se cobrara una revancha con los vivos, quizá habría que dejar hacer al cadáver y completamente dejarle que nos intervenga, que de nuevo nos afecte por sí, pues el cadáver no deja de ser cuerpo. 

Notes on The Birth of Biopolitics. Lectures of the Collège de France 1978-79. Michel Foucault, trans. Graham Burchen

Michel Foucault’s seminar of 1978-1979 at The Collège de France explores what “biopolitics” could be. Biopolitics is what explains why governmentality and governance are frugal at the end of XX century. What is at the core of the frugality of governmentality is population, and to understand this Foucault proposes to reconstruct the praxis of the English liberals, the German ordoliberals, and the American Neo-liberals. It is, afterall, that the XVIII century, present in other works of Foucault, was when many of what he calls “transaction realities” were born. To that extent, biopolitics is, like madness, civil society, literature, sexuality, and other notions explored by Foucault elsewhere, contingent technology. Such technologies “have not always existed [and] are nonetheless real, are born precisely from the interplay of relations of power which constantly eludes them, at the interface, so to speak, of governors and governed” (297). The problem, however, is that at the end of the last lecture, Foucault does not conclude with the announcement of biopolitics, but of, simply, politics. 

The disparity between what the seminar wishes to address, and what was addressed perhaps is not a minor detail. That is, the difference between politics and biopolitics is blurry. The concluding lines of the last lecture asks and concludes, “what is politics in the end, if not both the interplay of these different arts of government with their different reference points and the debate to which the different arts of government give rise? It seems to me that it is here that politics is born” (313). Politics, or biopolitics, then, is born when there are several arts of government at game, where there are different reference points. For an interplay to be the way various things affect each other, then, biopolitics is the terrain of affects, of the possibilities of what happens when two bodies interact with each other. While Foucault focuses on the XVIII and XIX centuries, one wonders if what is said about the civil society, that foundation of governmentality and government, could also apply to all forms of social organization. If civil society serving as the medium of economic bond “brings individuals together through the spontaneous converge of interests, [while] it is also a principle of dissociation at the same time” (302), and by extension, individuals do not get together by economic interests only, nor because they are naturally inclined to be together, then, individuals get together by a “de facto bond which links different concrete individuals to each other” (304). Civil society, and by extension biopolitics, is a tool of and for domination. The radical question that Foucault invites us to ask is if it could be possible to rethink domination, or if domination should be considered as something to overcome of the field of social organization. 

While the lectures do not address the problem of cohesion or domination, it is clear that all the reflections on what the market, or the individuals do are part of the supplement of power, of domination. That is, power only exists precisely because it cannot do certain things: it cannot dominate the market and cannot dominate the individuals fully. It happens then, that the homo oeconomicus, for instance, “strips the sovereign of power inasmuch as he reveals an essential, fundamental, and major incapacity of the sovereign, that is to say, an inability to master the totality of the economic field” (292). Inability moves power. And things stay, somehow, as the quote Foucault mentions in the first lecture, “do not disturb what is at rest.” In the other hand, things have never been, it seems, at rest. If politics have always been biopolitics, then, biopolitics is born every time something moves the habitual arrangement of that which seems at rest.  

Notes on The Power at the End of the Economy (2015) Brian Massumi

Freedom of choice is not new for neoliberalism but, as Brian Massumi argues in The Power at the End of the Economy (2015), it is its main feature. It is its “magic touch guided by the principle of competition” (1). The idea of the Market, at least for modernity, is tied to the way freedom of choice has been developed as a mechanism connected to the way we rationalize our everyday lives. We choose our future, as much as we choose our present and past. What matters is that our decision stands as a solid bridge that brings together what we desire and what we want. The problem with all this, as Massumi argues, is that every rationalized decision is haunted by affect. The market, or markets, these days is (are) rational only in appearance. Today, markets “react more like mood rings than self-steering wheels, the affective factor becomes increasingly impossible to factor out” (2). This means that as late Michel Foucault argued the invisible hand of the market seems to be connecting the world in a “spontaneous synthesis,” therefore “the positive synthesis of market conditions occurs immanently to the economic field” (3). The end of the Economy, for Massumi, is when “what is most intensely individual is at the same time most wide-rangingly social” (4) and at the same time, when the invisible hand seems to be suffering from a “degenerative motor disease” (5). Power, at least in its state form, is less than a invisible hand these days, but also more than a phantasmatic prothesis. Power is working in the “infra-individual” and every infra-level of action strikes strongly at a macro level. 

The panorama that Massumi describes for power after the end of economy, that is, once there is not outside of capitalism, is closer to the way the weather behaves. The individual, then, as part of the landscape is like a mountain, or any other geographical accident that both increases or reduces the strength of the weather. The power of the individual, however, is not dictated by its rational ability of choosing, it is determined by its “nonconsciousness” since this “becomes the key economic actor” (17). From that we have not only a disempowered individual but a radical change in the individual. Autonomy stops being a feature of the individual and “what is now autonomous is its decision” (19). We like doing things that are done by something through and with us. The personal vanishes and we are in an infra-desert of experience. This brave new world focus on “self-interest” which consist in making and keeping tight a “strict equation between life satisfaction and rational calculus of choice” (23). By no means this should comfort us. Our current state is merely a state that persist in self-satisfaction or its extended deferral at all levels: pleasure, pain, gain, success, sadness, depression, death, rush and so on. We have, as neoliberalist homo oeconomicus “a system in which [we] owe the positive nature of [our] calculation precisely to what eludes [our] calculation” (36). We can calculate all that par excellence eludes calculus; we can measure all that is unmeasurable. And, of course, the problem is that these operations would never end well. 

Rationality created its traps and captured affect. One is free to choose its deferral of death. While all of this seems extremely pessimistic, for Massumi, it also means that different ways of struggle are liberated. Perhaps, in a same formula as the one evoked by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in Empire (2000), The Power at the End of the Economy suggests that what is at stake is abandon decision and supplant its rational features by an affective sympathy. That is, before placing reason at the top of our priorities, affect should dismantle hierarchies and recreating old paradigms. If capitalism has persisted for so long it is, for Massumi, because it has focused, wrongly, the importance of things in their quantity and quantification and not in its qualities and its qualifications. Life always will create, via events, a surplus. “Capitalism is the process of converting qualitative surplus value of life into quantifiable surplus value” (77), what is at stake with this is that there must be a way to stop converting the surplus value of life, manifested in experience, into quantifiable things, into a calculus that blindly gives answers. While Massumi offers a possible solution in a tone closer to Empire (as mentioned before), it is not clear enough how affect, or ontopower, would simply infect all common heroes —the anonymous masses that for Massumi have all the potential and imagination to make a change in the world— it is for sure important keep in mind that there is a difference between the qualitative surplus value of life and the quantitative capitalist surplus value. The first one is always a remainder, an excess, an uncountable, the second one is merely a false calculation, a persuasive trap. At the same time, if there is no economy, once affect became immanent, how would we learn of to differentiate again between surplus values without choosing? 

Notes on Crack Capitalism (2010) by John Holloway

Crack Capitalism (2010), in a way, completes most of the reflections John Holloway started in Change the World Without Taking Power. While the first volume worries the most about the description of doing, a constituent force captured by labour that generates our common sense and our normal way of being into the world of capitalism. The second volume offers 32 thesis about the ways we, ourselves, build but also crack the system that oppresses us, how we are screaming and creating cracks in the system, how doing cannot be fully appropriate by labour. In another, perhaps, less obvios reading, the 32 thesis are, somehow, 32 steps into sobriety, into a life free of capitalism, but, would that addiction be easy to resolve?

As much as Crack Capitalism offers an inspiring and optimistic way of understanding doing, as something inherent to the way human beings do things for the sake of doing them, because we like doing things, perhaps today one should hesitate to accept Holloway’s optimism. The hesitation is understandable, as Holloway hesitates himself, about considering that with our cracks we are but realigning our struggle back to the terms that provoke the struggle in the first place. That is, Holloway asks, “how do we avoid our cracks becoming simply a means for resolving the tensions or contradictions of capitalism, just an element of crisis resolution for the system?” (53). Today we probably saw the worst of this predicament. We have seen how contemporary struggles, contemporary cracks, have been turned into solutions for capitalism’s crisis. We have witnessed a pretended liberation of “labour” through a massification of part-time online platform jobs (I.e. uber, ubereats, etc); a liberation of sexuality and imagination through streaming services that reterritorialize sexual and imaginary expression, among many. If a crack is “the perfectly ordinary creation of a space or moment in which we assert a different type of doing” (21), why is it that most of these different types of doing are still feeding and serving the tyrant, why is it that we are still weaving our self-oppression and self-destruction? Why is it, that perhaps, more than ever, we are unable to resolve Etienne de la Boétie’s riddle, why are we fighting for our oppression and voluntary servitude? This is the starting point for Holloway, and, to a certain extent, the place where his argument finishes too. Why is it that we are running in circles when trying to solve La Boétie’s riddle? 

There might be hesitation when reading Holloway, but for sure, even in the worst scenario, one should acknowledge that more than resolving things a crack is the proposition of question. A crack asks. To that extend, the territorialization and domination of spare time by social media, for example, is a two-edged sword, a delicate terrain where an always unprepared “wake up to other possibilities” (32) haunt the way doing is constantly fighting against the domination, the abstraction of labour. Wasn’t this what happened with Donald Trump and the tiktokers? But also, wasn’t this what gave the place for the affect of the masses that entered the US Capitol early this year? A crack is an ambivalent movement, a touch yet not a touch. From cracks we just know that they break a surface and that they desperately seek for the lines of other cracks. In that sense, while the right seeks to cover the rifts of the struggle of doing, the left should should find where one crack begins and where another ends, where the “lines of continuity that are often so submerged” (35) that are about to touch themselves, but they don’t. To understand the crack is to understand that certain struggles need only to keep pushing until their cracks touch other’s crack’s rifts. To explain how these lines work, how the rifts and cracks communicate, Holloway elaborates a strict distinction between labour and doing, alienated labour and conscious life-activity, and abstract time and concrete time of life. 

All these dichotomies coincide in the understanding of the concrete doing as a “flow of life” (111). This flow is something that is always moving beyond and going through the rigid and oppressive shape of power, of labour. While capitalism wants labourers, “mutilated personification[s] of abstract labour” (122), the other world possible struggles for the dignity, the fragility and sacredness of everything that beats, of everything that lives. Doing, the flow of life, is the struggle of existence against its own conditions and possibilities of existence. That is, doing wants to desperately stop serving the tyrant, capitalism, without being able to completely abandon and refusing most of the tyrant’s structures, means, things. Doing is the praxis of knowing that we build our own tragedy, and our only way out is to “attack [and crack] time itself” (166). Only when time is broken, cracked, it will come to surface how the masks that capitalism via abstraction has given us, are but an empty container that oppresses the “shadowy figure (or figures) behind the character mask” (217). Once it all cracks there will not be, perhaps, distinctions, differences or the necessity to differentiate the multiplicity of ways of being that there is. Once it all cracks it will become obvious that radicalness starts by refusing, by a refusal of keep creating the weave that oppresses us and sustain us. Once it all cracks to what would we hang our anxiety to? How would we recover from that overdose of capitalism? 

Las cosas que revientan. Notas sobre La diáspora (1989/2018) de Horacio Castellanos Moya

De cierta manera, La diáspora (1989/2018), de Horacio Castellanos Moya, es una novela fragmentada, o mejor que elude cierta forma. Esto, tal vez, venga ya sugerido por la idea que “la diáspora” evoca. Con esto, claro, no sólo se evoca a los grupos desplazados y hechos emigrar a la fuerza, sino también a las esporas: cuerpos que eluden la forma que se dispersan para adquirir por sí mismos novedad y permanencia. La diáspora no es sólo, entonces, la fuga de los expulsados, sino también la línea de fuga de aquello que permanece informe. Las cuatro partes que forman la novela se centran en formas específicas de narrar y también en perspectivas diferentes sobre el conflicto armado en Centroamérica, en especial en El Salvador. En cierto sentido, las historias de Juan Carlos, Quique, los periodistas de la tercera parte y el Turco son todas narraciones que intentarían responder a la pregunta que le hace Rita en las oficinas de la ACNUR (la agencia de solidaridad internacional que gestiona la migración de refugiados políticos) a Juan Carlos: “¿Y por qué tronaste?” (28). Así, cada personaje tronó, como tronó la guerrilla en el Salvador, como tronaron las crisis económicas en los ochenta en todo el mundo. 

Después de tronar, reventar cada parte del relato es, así, una “novella”: textos que se preguntan ¿cómo es que las cosas llegaron a ser lo que son?, ¿cómo llegamos aquí? Para Juan Carlos, por ejemplo, luego de la muerte de los líderes del partido en el Salvador, “algo se había roto dentro de [él]. Ya no se trataba únicamente —como él sostendría más tarde— de que en el Partido se había generado una situación de desconfianza intolerable” (108). El hecho es que por más que cada parte de La diáspora ofrezca posibles respuestas para señalar qué sucede luego de que las cosas “truenan”, no hay una única narrativa para describir las líneas de fuga que sigue cada fragmento luego del “truene”. Para Juan Carlos la vida estaba por convertirse en la búsqueda de seguridad, “una manera de pasar vegetando” (36), una manera de diferir su muerte. Por su parte, para Quique luego de que reviente la guerrilla para él, todo lo que vendría después sería “un nuevo aprendizaje, de interiorizar las mañas de la ciudad” (81) y también del trabajo. Para los periodistas, el reventar de las cosas es la oportunidad de dar una nueva verdad y contar el “Crimen y suicidio en El Salvador. Intimidades de una pugna revolucionaria” (119) a cambio de fama. Finalmente, para el Turco, todo revienta, una vez más, luego de que en su trabajo ya no le fíen bebida. El Turco experimenta el terror de “las escalofriantes consecuencias de que los contadores se estén apoderando del mundo” (131). Precisamente, este terror de contar, en sus dos acepciones, es de lo que rehuiría La diáspora. En otras palabras, Castellanos Moya pone en juego la imposibilidad de poder contarlo todo.

A su vez, la novela también sugiere que las partes que la forman, excepto la de Quique, son una lucha contra o por la sobriedad. Juan Carlos, temeroso de perder su oportunidad de fugarse, rehúye las drogas y los excesos; los periodistas administran una sobriedad economizada, beben cuando están de vacaciones para no dejarse intoxicar por el clamor de las luchas que “reportan”; y el Turco bebe como desesperado, siempre aplazando las cuentas que se le puedan hacer, siempre aplazando la sobriedad. La sobriedad y la ebriedad van de la mano del cinismo. Es decir, el texto “dosifica” el cinismo que cada línea de segmentarización (las historias de Juan Carlos, los periodistas y la de Turco) puede soportar. Por otra parte, hay algo que persiste en la juventud, o en la militancia de Quique, o el hermano del Turco y el Bebo: algo se le escapa al cinismo. En estos personajes “parecía como si la crisis hubiera pasado a su lado, sin tocarlo[s], como algo que nada tenía que ver con [ellos]” (93). En Quique y el Bebo persiste un impulso de vida, o de existencia. O más bien, en ellos persiste tiempo amorfo, que no ha llegado aún. Ese tiempo, por supuesto, significa que también Quique y el Bebo reventarán, pero que eso no le tocará a la diáspora decirlo, ni saberlo, sino, tal vez, a la diáspora sólo le toque mantener la contrariedad de tener en mente que todo saldrá mal y aún así apostar por lo opuesto. 

La adición, la serie y la suspensión de la acumulación. Notas sobre La cadena del desánimo (2013) de Pablo Karchadjian

El libro La cadena del desánimo (2013), de Pablo Karchadjian, invitaría a leerlo a la manera en que se leen los sueños. Esto es, como dice una nota que antecede la sección principal del libro, si “el contenido del sueño está armado de restos de la vida diurna y el sueño mismo podría ser un epifenómeno del trabajo nocturno del cerebro organizando lo vivido” (7), entonces las cerca de 150 páginas que uno lee de La cadena del desánimo no sólo serían recortes o restos agrupados de la lectura de Karchadjian entre el lunes 12 de marzo y el jueves 6 de diciembre de 2012 de las primeras páginas de los diaros La Nación, Clarín, Página/12 Perfil, ni tampoco un mero epifenómeno de lectura, sino que serían “el trabajo nocturno de la escritura organizando lo social”. No obstante, el libro sólo tiene un orden: el que se anuncia que sigue la lectura de Karchadjian, del 12 de marzo al 6 de diciembre de 2012. 

No se trata, entonces, de que para poder “comprender” La cadena del desánimo uno tenga que saber todo, de antemano, todo lo que sucedió entre los días que se recuperan en el libro. Ni tampoco se trata de que uno siga como sabueso las referencias que se mencionan en la nota ya mencionada. De hecho, Karchadjian lo deja claro, su libro, en contraste con los álgidos momentos del 2012 en Argentina (como en otras partes), “no está hecho para convencer a nadie de nada” (7). Un libro que hable de nada, casi el sueño de Flaubert. No obstante, se nos dice igual que tal vez el libro, de una u otra manera, “podría resultar útil” (7). No hay significados ocultos en el libro, todo ocurre luego de que un lector recolectara notas y simplemente las copiara en un orden “en general […] de recolección, y el nivel de composición es mínimo” (7). Todo se lee una vez más, pero también todo se lee fuera del tabloide, leemos ahora sabiendo que alguien dijo la cita escrita que otras manos leyeron y luego copiaron. 

Si en realidad no hay nada que leer o interpretar sobre los sueños, tampoco habría gastar mucho tiempo interpretando La cadena. Lo único, entonces, que habría que hacer es seguir la serie, el propio encadenamiento y los eslabones de cada parte de la prosa del libro. Sin embargo, de una u otra manera, cada recorte pareciera estar asociado con la propia razón de escritura que ordena el libro “‘Es un sistema caótico, pero no totalmente caótico’, dijo Celeste Saulo, Doctora en Ciencias de la Atmosfera e investigadora del Conicet” (24). El orden de esa escritura no es eso que diría que “ ‘Gran parte de nuestras conductas están conducidas por procesos cerebrales que operan por debajo de nuestra conciencia’ dijo Gemma Calvert, neurocientífica de la Universidad de Warwick” (76), sino que la escritura de La cadena del desánimo se escribe desde un lugar infra, pues escribir, antes que leer, es poner las cosas abajo (“to write down”), de la mano al papel, de los dedos al teclado; y en el papel, o en la pantalla, lo que mueve la conciencia no es sino unos dedos que teclean, unas manos que escriben: que lo infra son los afectos de los dedos, los hábitos de las manos. Lo que está en juego en el libro de Karchadjian es la sucesión, la serie, la cuenta (que no contabiliza) pero adiciona fragmentos que a veces suspenden una acumulación incesante de gestos que afirman que “ ‘Queríamos una prueba de amor, y no la hubo”, dijo un barrio nuevista de la primera hora” (153). Y es que del neoliberalismo, tema tocado muchas veces en el libro, no nos queda sino una acumulación desempoderada de las cosas, tal vez todo siempre fue así antes, pero si el gesto de amor precedía la acumulación, entonces las suspensiones en ésta son más latidos que paros. De esos latidos, lo que queda es su adición, su serie y su paso (tiempo), como de los signos y los trazos, de las palabras y de las cosas.

Notes about Accumulation(s) I

The following notes are merely a series of thoughts without any particular order but that later (hopefully) could be part of my dissertation project (a very [till today] basic and naive ideas about accumulation as a general movement of history and specially modernity)


Accumulation(s) I

In a way, our times could be described as a series of seriated and seriating accumulations. This, of course, not only testifies for capitalism’s endeavour but also for the way the climate catastrophe has heaped in the horizon of history as our further extinction. Yet, to accumulate does not necessarily means to horde valuable items neither to just let catastrophes pile in the horizon of the coming future. In fact, accumulations are closer to disorganized heaps, piles or bodies amassed (and therefore, somewhat to a weird idea of ecology, meaning that even the smallest tossed or dispensed body, would heap somewhere and eventually return to the place where it was thrown away). Etymologically (if this helps to clarify where I’m going), to accumulate is a verb whose first appearance was in the early XIV (1520) century and is composed by two particles, the preposition “ad” (to) and the substantive “cumulus” (a heap). Hence, in the early years of that period commonly called modernity, at the babbling of what centuries later would become a world ordered for capital through capitalism, a direction was forged, and bodies were constantly directed and redirected to it. 

The coincidence between the origins of the word accumulation and the early period (if not the dawn) of modernity signal that history, somehow, could be understood as a way of directing “cumulus” (heaps). It is not only after the works of Ricardo, Adam Smith and later Marx, that accumulation becomes a direction of wealth, for the first and second, and later, for the third, a production of that “ad” that directs the cumulus. When Marx famously described how the whole economic process worked, with the analysis of commodification, fetishization (another word —as accumulation— that was firstly coined in the context of slave trading in the XV-XVI century), capital circulation, value and surplus value, he still found necessary to unveil what started everything. For Marx, it is not that capital is merely understood as a machine, but as something that is triggered, something that needs to be started. Irremediably when understanding the process of accumulation(s) of capital, as Marx puts it, we “turn in a defective circle, out of which we only get by supposing an “original” [primitive]”, an “accumulation that is not the result of capitalistic mode of production, but its starting point”. That starting point, for Marx, “plays in Political Economy the same role that plays the “original sin in theology”. The result of this ironic comparison (and maybe not so ironic) is the famous formulation of the process of “so-called” primitive accumulation: that is the demystifying of an idyllic process of enrichment. From this perspective, the “so-called” primitive accumulation is the systematic repetition of violence, land dispossession, forced migration, law prosecution and bloody legislations necessary to produce an ambivalent subject that both surrenders to the “ad” of accumulation while also seeks for its “cumulation” in a line of flight: the vogelfrei. 

If the process of “so-called” primitive accumulation is needed at every stage of capitalism, where would the “ad” this time be produced when there won’t be no earth to live? Would it be that at best the feverish science fiction fantasies finally have been conquered (as depicted in movies like Ad Astra [after all, another movie about the possibility of starting a new process of accumulation in space)? As much as these questions are necessary, perhaps it should also be thought the possibility of an accumulation without “ad”, or an accumulation without “ad” or “cumulus” but another form of piling. Even more, perhaps that’s the only cynical comfort we have, that of which today accumulation is collapsing, and we are just hoarding history, as new vogelfrei we are tied to our impossibility towards the future and yet with the possibility of take off in a line of flight.

Notes on Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991)

At the end of Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991) it is stated, as many times in the book, what a possible definition of postmodernism might be: “The postmodern may well in that sense be little more than a transitional period between two stages of capitalism, in which the earlier forms of the economic are in the process of being restructured on a global scale, including the older forms of labor and its traditional organizational institutions and concepts” (417). From this perspective, postmodernism is also a form of interregnum, since both share a level of uncertainty, at least when it comes to naming what or who is the new ruling name in town. In a way, Jameson’s book offers a continuation of what the Political Unconscious inaugurated, that is, a task of constantly historizing. Not surprisingly, this is precisely what Jameson states in the “Introduction”, since he writes thinking for an age that has forgotten how to think historically (ix). The task, then, for a postmodernism thinking is to realize how much of the past has persisted while at the same time acknowledging that commodity critique became another form of mere consumption. This means, of course, that the ultimate form of capitalism (Jameson’s post-industrial capitalism, aka, third stage of capitalism) is able to melt in the everything, that critique is just another object of consumption in a pure form, since “postmodernism is the consumption of sheer commodification as a process” (x). 

As much as the book seeks to theorize, or, at best, illustrate, what postmodernism might be, it also constantly returns to modernism. If postmodernism is supposed to be understood via historicity, there is no other way than learning the past of that form that could be anywhere. This means that since postmodernism is a “cultural dominant: a conception which allows for the presence and coexistence of a range of very different, yet subordinate features” (4), it hardly is foreseeable whilst also it is always present. Modernism, as an aesthetic form and content, might have challenged the ways and means of production, in the other hand, postmodernism emerges as a form of production that integrates into commodity production the aesthetic. It could be said then that postmodernism is (third stage) capitalism’s craving for the past, present and future, without clearly being able to produce its own historicity. 

Postmodern products (novels, films, buildings and so on) resist interpretation. For instance, about the postmodern novel, Jameson would say that it not only resists interpretation but that it “is organized systematically and formally to short-circuit an older type of social and historical interpretation which it perpetually holds on and withdraws” (23). Without, saying it, Jameson’s suggests that the postmodern is a discourse constantly hesitating, something that needs to cut with the old while sustaining it. Postmodern, in its own expression, has a level of undecidability —as much as Jameson refuses to use the deconstructive term (Cfr. Chp. 7). What is at stake when analyzing postmodern art, is not only its form but the way it also depicts the mode of production that produced it, namely a machine that is obsessed with the process of processes of reproduction. Art no longer holds together a monumental enterprise (if it ever did) but now it “reshuffles the fragments of preexistent texts […] in some new and heightened bricolage: metabooks which cannibalize other books, metatexts which collate hits of other texts” (96). Postmodernism ultimately is the addition of dispersed elements, a summatory of things that are distant in time and yet close to our senses. Living in postmodernism times is living distracted, eternally gone in-between the “wrapping shells” of non-centered spaces that demand our centrality and linearity as subjects of production-distribution-consumption. 

While it could be argued that Jameson too easily totalizes the production of culture in the late capitalism, it could also be said that this is not the project of postmodernism, or at least not the postmodernism that Jameson’s proposes. Jameson is aware that he must avoid auto-reification: “Permanent revolution in intellectual life and culture means both that impossibility and the necessity for a constant reinvention of precautions against what my tradition calls conceptual reification” (401). To this extend, thinking about postmodernism might, at best, open the possibility of reading literature (and history) as a series of movements and strategies. Thus, against reifying postmodernism, it should be thought beyond it. That is, if modernism was the movement and formation of monuments and its attractive force; postmodernism would come to be as an affective movement that brakes and disperses while sustaining what cuts. It might be said, then, that our current times (or even after the 60’s which are the times that Jameson analyzes the most), could be catalogued as a suspension and (another) regression (and return), from the brake of the postmodern and the fascination of the modern. We are not living the times of the “effacement of the traces of production” (314), as in postmodernism times we certainly did, but the times were scars are too visible, when what is effaced still accumulates, when non-subjects still matter and the global suspends the monad. And yet, the suspension (or stasis) of our times replicates more than nothing all that past that was supposed to be meted in the air, but somehow found us via partial summing ups.