Not getting the joke

I have been rereading Making Sense of Men’s Magazines co-authored by Peter Jackson, Nick Stevenson and Kate Brooks, and I am typing up some notes here. (Here is proper review of the book.) I have actually had the book since 2003, but at first glance and second thought it didn’t really seem that useful to me. However, I am now going to use it in my dissertation to construct my enabling ‘straw-person’ argument regarding what Jackson, et al. term “media sociology”.

The “men’s magazines” in question are so-called ‘lifestyle magazines’ such as FHM, Loaded, and Maxim. As the title of the book implies they carried out focus groups with everyday readers of the magazines to understand the ways they made ‘sense’ (or ‘meanings’) of the magazines. They also interviewed some of the editorial staff associated wiht the magazines and did ‘close readings’ of the magazine texts. There are a number of convergences with my project looking at the role of magazines in the cultural industry of contemporary modified-car culture in Australia. There are also a number of sharp divergences. The biggest single problem with the book is that they somehow believe by asking what ‘men’ think of the ‘men’s magazines’ that they are not being “morally judgemental”, which they believe is a good thing (11-12). To find out what is going on with your car, you go to a mechanic. To find out what is going on with the media, you go to a media researcher. The media researcher may look at the media machinic assemblage (market + media + externalities +…), just like the mechanic looks at the car, but the mechanic does not (normally) ask the car wghat is functioning and how it is functioning, because although the car may have a very nifty in-built computer that logs all errors and so on, that car has not done a trade in mechnics or spent years gaining experiecne to be able tofigure out how it functions itself!! Why do media researchers feel inclined to believe asking parts of the machine how the machine operates is going to have any other outcome?

All in all I find their work troubling. Here it is in point form:

1) They make a distinction between these ‘new’ so-called “general interest” men’s magazines and the “interest-based” magazines in the older or traditional men’s magazine market. They seemingly base this distinction on a single article from Campaign, 29 August 1986. [Not sure what Campaign is??? Anyone??] They write:

Little more than a decade ago it could be confidently asserted that ‘men don’t buy magazines’, apart from pornography or special interest magazines on sports, photography or motoring. (pg 2) 

I find this distinction problematic. Pornography is special interest(!) and ‘general interest’ is ‘general interest’ in name only, and the discursive construction of ‘general interest’ as some sort of universalising category applicable to ‘masculinity’ in general is very hard to accept. Why is the pursuit of a ‘new lad’ identity not considered a special interest like motor cars, sport, or fishing? There is something of a commercial and cultural industry coup in the transformation of the constitution of identity (‘life’) into an explicit and universalising consumerist project. Do all men buy so-called men’s magazines? No, they do not. The “men’s magazines” are part of an assemblage organised around the interests of the masculine consumer market within the cultural industries. This ‘masculine consumer assemblage’ is perhaps more explicit in its ‘special interest’, that is the ‘new man’ or ‘new lad’ (for the British) or ‘new bloke’ (for the Australians) than some of the other interest-based magazines. There is no way such magazines could ever be accused of trying to sell their magazines to anyone else besides their masculine consumer target market.

2) There is an affective dimension to the magazines that the researchers only half note. Here I am referring to the ‘joke’ of ironic boorish masculinity or, rather, the general ‘tone’ of the magazines. They write:

Through a close reading of a selection of stories in FHM, XL and Maxim, we suggest that the adoption of an ironic mode of cultural commentary serves to subvert political critique, with those who object to the predominant (sexually objectified) ways of representing women easily dismissed as missing the point, much as feminists have previously been described as ‘humousless’.
Throughout the book, in fact, we take a sceptical approach to the alleged irony of magazines such as Loaded, arguing that their tone of ‘knowing’ sexism may serve as a way of deflecting potential criticicsm. […] The tone of magazines such as Loaded can therefore be thought of more critically as a means of handling the contradictions of contemporary gender relatins where older-style patriachal relations are crumbling but where men may still strive to maintain conventional poer relations between the sexes. (pg 20)

I can not find my copy of Difference and Repititon (from the “Introduction”) at the moment and it is getting late, so I shall quote from here:

Deleuze calls irony “ascending towards the principles” of moral law, which means “challenging the law as secondary,” challenging its authenticity, protesting its illegitimacy and usurping of an “original power.” He contrasts this with humor, “descending towards the consequences,” where one “falsely submits” to the law, mocks it, and thereby is able to “taste pleasures it was supposed to forbid.”

There are various measures of humour and irony within a given situation or happening. There isn’t much more I can say about that… however, quite simply, a joke may be used to differenciate a group so it maintains its consistency. A particular affective tone operates much the same way. The researchers didn’t get it, because they simply didn’t get it. Instead of looking to critique the deployment of alleged irony (their argument I somewhat agree with), look at what the tone of the magazines does within the assemblage. What does it do?

Paradoxically, like any joke, if you need to ask, then you have already missed it, the humor gets sucked out of the situation! It is the immediate surprise and laughter (supressed or otherwise), shame (for finding it funny, ‘for men who should know better’ (tagline for Loaded at one stage I believe)). It is in the affective dimension of the magazine that the ‘men’ who read it are enabled to become-together, that is, to paraphrase Massumi, the magazines are the transmission of the event and its consumption triggers a particular masculine consumer attunement. The ‘laughter’ of the masculine consumer is differentially repeated in various ways at various times in various places by various readers. Angela McRobbie actually made a very similar point on teenage girls/women and their magazine reading habits as noted by the current researchers: “McRobbie (1991) a negative view of the internal logic of the problem page (characterised by unsisterly individualism) with a more positive assessment of its external logic (how the magazines are read and giggled over collectively)” (ital. added, pg 7).

3) Instead of looking at how magazines fit into broader consumption habits and practices in this masculine consumer assemblage and the affective dimension (largely based on a reactionary ‘ironic’ masculinity) around which it is organised, the researchers bring out the old ‘media sociology’ text book and whack us over the head with some more media-hegemony theory work. Forget that stuff. Forget it!!! The readers are not ‘dupes’, they WANT TO READ THE MAGAZINES!! Why? Because they find them interesting.

If the magazines are part of the ‘media machinic assemblage’, then that means all the editors and especially the readers are also cogs in this machine. The editors or the editorial content does not have to (laughably) transmit ideology or the beliefs of the ruling classes through their work for the assemblage to function!!! They could be doing the exact opposite!!! It doesn’t matter. (Resistance is futile, or, at least, the Borg become assimilated into the Star Trek machinic assemblage.) All that matters is that the consistency of the assemblage is maintained, which therefore maintains the cultural economy which by and large constitute the ‘market‘ (from the cultural economy point of view) or the ‘scene‘ (for the individual participant’s point of view). ‘Market’ and ‘scene’ are two not exact opposites across the producer/circulater-consumer divide.

For example, readers only have to find the humour funny to feel like they belong to and are part of the assemblage, therefore editors need to write funny editorial content. This is terribly simplified and it actually has more to do with the distribution and contraction of differences across the intensive social field. Or, in other words, what the magazine says is important, the reader actually finds interesting. Or, the reader has some level (intensity) of interest and the magazine works towards that interest. It is a symbiotic machinic relation: important/interesting. (The flip side of this you find on various ‘political’ blogs who only blog about that which is ‘important’ in the hope that they will be ‘interesting’.)

4) To tie it back into the first point about special interests. What is the special interest of the masculine consumer? To belong to certain event spaces in certain ways, at work, home, school, sport field/stand, pub, and so on. The materiality of identity has a gatekeeper function. You look like you belong. Money is a good signifier of belonging anywhere. The magazines select (literally, through advertising and advertainment features) commodified signifers of certain event spaces, organise these selections in the pages of the magazine, territorialise these organisations with the potentialities (for belonging) of ‘new man’ or ‘new lad’ affectivities through the affective content of the magazines’ affective discourse (or tone), and then envelop these territories with an abstract machine of the universal category of ‘man’.

The questions I would ask are: Why does this particular media and assemblage emerge at this particular (con)juncture? What does it do? What else does it need to function with (or what are the other components and dimensions of the princplie assemblage of which it is part)? Why do ‘men’ need to believe/feel like they are ‘consuming-living’ a commodified lifestyle in such a way that enables them to belong with other (similarly consuming-living) ‘men’?


From Stivale’s notes on L’Abécédaire de Gilles Deleuze:

Again, like so many other activities, for five or ten minutes at most of inspiration, so much preparation is needed. Deleuze says he always liked doing that a lot, preparing a lot in order to reach these moments of inspiration, but the more he continued, the longer he had to prepare only to have his inspiration progressively reduced. 

The ‘preparation’ here is of Deleuze’s courses. I think everyone has some sense of what inspiration, in terms of having experienced it, especially the people I know who always seem to be inspired about something or an other (maybe it is just the blog format?), but what the hell is inspiration?

I am thinking about inspiration because I feeling less than inspired about something I need to write for tomorrow. I have the information in front of me on the computer regarding what I need to write about but it is so not inspiring. (Is this what it means to have a normal job? To force one’s self to act out as if one was inspired about something? To capture inspiration, to produce a political economy of inspiration, is this a version of Weber’s charismatic governance?)

What is interesting about Deleuze’s comment is that he frames inspiration as being the result of preparation. It bucks the whimsical pop culture notion of being struck by inspiration as if it were lightning. In some ways it is similar to his call for ‘sober experimention’.

The use of the term ‘moment’ by Stivale I think probably means that Deleuze used a term to denote a certain temporality to inspiration. Is it something like the affect of excitement, but of the future, the to-come, thus affect mingled with anticipation, a superposition? An affective superposition of a future yet-to-come that heralds this becomnig-future. So is it something like a socio-temporal lubricant!! But inspiration couldn’t only be about excitement. We get that from the spectacle…

From Hacker Manifesto to Islamic Cartoons

Returning to McKenzie Wark’s Hacker Manifesto.

For my purposes, his book gets much more interesting in the middle “Information,” “Nature,” and “Production” sections and I think that it is in these sections that it is made apparent the use of class as an organising concept needs to be addressed.

Every hacker is at one and the same time producer and product of the hack, and emerges as a singularity that is the memory of the hack as process. (par. 158)

Later on, in the context of the logic of Wark’s argument, he hits the nail on the head in the section titled “Production”:

[T]he endless anxiety of the vectoral class: that the very virtuality they depend on, that uncanny capacity of the hacker class to mint new properties for commodification, threatens to hack into existence new forms of production beyond commodification, beyond class rule. (par. 163) 

A few points need to made here. Firstly, I think Wark is imagining a scenario in which a given market is full of hackers, something like an artist commune, but more inner-city sophisticated tech-bohemia. I think it is useful to retain the producer-consumer divide, particularly in their relation to given commodities and practices of production/consumption. That is, and first of all, there is a qualitative difference between the knowledge a producer has of a commodity and the knowledge a consumer has. I am not being ironic in my use of ‘knowledge’ here as I want to insinuate that it is mildly ‘biblical’, if you get my drift… The spectacle of the commodity is pure communication for the consumer (to use Wark’s terminology), but the producer still retains an excess of productive potential through an excess of information not yet commodified into communication (the spectacle).

This is the excess that produces anxiety in the vectoral class. Yet, what is important about the cultural economy that manifests around a given set of differences distributed through the commodification of information into communication is the relation — which Wark maintains is a class relation, but I am not sure ‘class’ is the best way to talk about it — that is external to its terms. What is essential to those who want to extract a surplus value from the exploitation of human’s natural territory and then second nature and then third nature (‘intellectual property’) all the way to nth nature is that these given permutations of territory are organised around a consistency. Indeed, as Wark writes:

What calls for explanation are the means by which successive ruling classes capture the surplus and turn it away from free production, and toward the reproduction and repetition of class rule. (par. 165) 

To begin thinking about problems around this explanation demands that one let go of concepts such as domination, ruling classes and so on. The rulers are as much enslaved by the machinic assemblage as the so-called slaves. The point is that people will their own enslavement. I have raised the problem here briefly in terms of self interest. One way to frame it would be to talk about the passage from affective interest to ideological mattering, that is, how do those who maintain some control over the collective assemblage of enunciation (for our purposes, the media) condense interest in a difference into an ideology that matters?

The primary pay off of machinic enslavement is security, or, at the very minimum, for those without security, is the possibility of freedom from (in)secure machinic enslavement. The security here is not just socio-economic, but ontological. The possibility of freedom is expressed in the lottery and urban myths of ‘making it’. On one hand is a kamikaze capitalism (ie at the very minimum, “at least my death will be meaningful”) and on the other is a casino capitalism (ie it is possible, it might happen).

I have been reading D&G’s Kafka recently and it has given me new ways to think about the machinic assemblage of enunciation. I think the best way to think about this is as a legislation or jurisprudence machine. Abstract machines, produced by the cultural industry and the media, are installed across a given field of intensities, such as that which constitutes an ‘underground’ subcultural practice. Difference itself is distributed across this field, condensing intensities together. Until the final act is a repetition of the condensations of difference to produce the differences that matter. By ‘matter’ I mean there is an affective bond between human participants in the assemblage and the symbolic-ideological meanings (which straddle difference) that circulate across the condensed intensive field.

Sometimes the acts of condensation are a result of necessity and sometimes it is to cultivate a given affective bond for the purposes of producing a sustainable market (or sustainable political bloc). The classic example in my research on contemporary modified-car culture in Australia is the Holden (GM) versus Ford rivalry. There is no ‘real’ difference between them, yet, for some, it is a difference that matters. This difference did not spring from every ewnthusiast’s head fully formed and ready for circulation in circuits meaning. The rivalry was produced through the exclusion of other brands of car (eg Chrysler, and then ‘import’ European and Asian manufacturers) in the cultural industries. The chief example of which in cultures of automobility is actually found in motorsport.

Anyway, sometimes this process of condensation is quite violent. Hence the recent furore over the cartoons depicting certain religious figures in certain ways. An abstract machine was erected over a given field of intensities by the cultural industries. Differences were produced through the condensation of intensities until what was left are the (explosive) differences that matter. Clearly, the intensive field here is not determined only by Islam or by the ‘West’ alone, but actually combines the two as being organised and distributed by these singular differences that matter. The differences matter in different ways in each ‘camp’ but it is the difference in itself around which the two camps are organised. The affective bond between the two camps is therefore being equally tended and cultivated by the fuckwit extremes on both sides (and they are total fuckwits). So that the cartoons do not produce the furore as much as the furore sustains the mattering maps in both camps and the consistency of the religous-political assemblages which govern them. However, unlike cultures of enthusiasm, where joy springs from interest, what we have is a singular interest from which manifests cultures of rage. Yep, kamikaze capitalism… I hope it means something to someone, because to me it hardly matters.

Machinic Media, Representation

I had a weird moment today when someone said to me, “Remember that the magazines have only representations of enthusiasm.”

It was a throwaway line, but I am working extremely hard to escape from the text-based sign-signifier symbolic-ideology sender-message-receiver version of media. I felt ill. My thesis felt like it was being dismissed.

Media texts are indeed ‘texts’ with all these possible dimensions to them — signs, symbols and messages — and such texts are certainly ideological. However, to remain at this level is to fetishise the text and abstract it from the practical and material contexts in which it is consumed. Yes, consuming texts takes learning, practice, time. The practical dimension, that is, the specific circumstances in which a text is consumed, is important, but extremely difficult to research unless you observe someone or a group intimately or you ask a cleverly constructed bunch of questions of someone who is switched on enough to be able to answer them or you carry out a research program mixture of the two in the form of diaries and so on.

The material dimension is less tricky, especially for heavily commodified texts such as magazines. Magazines are one form of maintaining the consistency of niche markets in mass culture. Magazines are a market-based machine. They actually do someting in the world rather than merely represent it. That is, magazines do not only represent the practices and events of an enthusiasm, they are part of the enthusiasm.

Enthusiasm here is meant as an ‘affective complex’ — primarily interest-excitement, but other affects as well, joy, sadness, etc. The work of the magazine machines is to select, organize and territorialize certain words, phrases and terms and take these bits of language to their absolute limit, so the language becomes something else. It becomes a technical language and it becomes an ideological language, sure, but technology and ideology in themselves do not make people interested. Ideological belief has to be individuated and become as such. By definition it is interest that accelerates in the body as excitement, something that cannot be sustained, but can be readily triggered. What does the triggering? Territorialising affective material signs. The language has to become affective, or rather the affects of language and the interest need to be combined in certain ways. Common words become argot and technical words become emotive. Deleuze and Guattari call it a ‘minor language’. It is this transformation that produces the magazine as machine and inserts and connects enthusiast magazines in the collective assemblage of enunciation of an enthusiast culture.

It is an ongoing experimentation, they never get it entirely right. Interest, like any affect, is a fickle thing, it cannot be controlled or programed. They can only every now and then hope to capture one’s interest.