Nihilist Pop Culture: Consumed by the Insignificant

What I am now going to relate is the history of the next two centuries. I shall describe what will happen, what must necessarily happen: the triumph of Nihilism. (Friedrich Nietzsche, Will to Power)

One of my goals for the course is to render students incapable of watching TV and film in the passive, mildly vegetative state to which they are accustomed. […] The inability of people to be affected by things like that, a general apathy with regard to things happening outside their immediate frame of reference, is terrifying. This class is about a society consumed by the insignificant. (Thomas Hibbs, Shows About Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture from ‘The Exorcist’ to ‘Seinfeld’.)

We need more nihilist popular culture

Writing in Havard’s undergraduate student newspaper about the film Se7en, David H. Goldbrenner, argues that nihilistic popular culture is damaging:

This is why nihilistic pop culture and art are so detrimental.  They help perpetuate the most damaging and destructive attitude that a free and democratic society can hold:  that life is not worth living and that all our efforts will eventually lead to pain and disappointment.  The most frustrating aspect of this is that often such thought is not expressed genuinely but rather because it will shock and entertain and earn a profit.

This is born of common (and often religious) interpretation of nihilism; that it is a state of social being without transcendental values; transcendental values include ‘objectivity’, ‘morality’ and various political manifestations. I suggest everyone reads Nietzsche’s Will to Power, in particular the first sections on nihilism, for two reasons. Firstly, for critics of nihilism, Nietzsche is clearly the primary enemy. Secondly, ‘nihilism’ is not some fantastical apprehension of existential meaninglessness; or it is, but this observation has become banal. We cannot escape from nihilism. Therefore, it is necessary to go to war or fall in love, at least in an existential sense.

To help contemporary audiences when reading Neitzsche, I suggest that you imagine you are reading a blog of someone who you suspect to be mildly insane.

For Nietzsche, as he writes in the preface, nihilism is a historical passage of development through which future societies shall necessarily pass. This is not like Marx’s historical determinism; Nietzsche is instead suggesting it shall be born of its own advent. That is, there shall be an intuitive or qualitative leap whereby the European Nihilist (aka Nietzsche) “has already outlived the Nihilism in his own soul — who has outgrown, overcome, and dismissed it.” Neitzsche’s Will to Power should therefore be read as a guide: How To Survive Nihilism.

The species of nihilism that Neitzsche wrote about in the late-nineteenth now has siblings. To think nihilism as an event (of society, of social relations, of the mind and in bodies) is to appreciate how it can be repeated in different ways. I want to explore the contemporary nihilism evident in popular culture and the culture of the popular. I want to think through both meanings of the phrase “society consumed by the insignificant”: a preoccupation with the trivial and the consumption of society itself.

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Utopia5

The Birth of Expectation

To appreciate the repetition of nihilism means to aske the question, from where does nihilism emerge? Before nihilism, there are only transcendental values. Transcendental values serve as an antidote against practical and theoretical nihilism. In Nietzsche’s era these were primarily Christian values of morality (WtP, pages 8-9). I don’t think this is the case anymore.

Now it is a more complex question, worthy of our developments in the sciences and arts, of predictive extrapolations from the present (algorithmic or otherwise)[1. Witness the 2012 US Presidential election and the battle of data-driven expectations between the two major parties. One was governed by providing the correct answers and the other by asking the correct answers. In both cases the future was furnished with a certain kind of expectation that governed the present.] and governed by expectation:

  1. Transcendental values bestow an intrinsic value upon the world, including the values of humans and anything else. Liberal humanism is a derivation of this.[2. It is what Helen Razer is writing against, in part, in her piece about feminism.] It means you only have to believe and not do any work in appreciating structures of valorisation that everday life enters into as a kind of ritualised gladitorial combat. Everyday our values slay the meaninglessness of its own battle first and then every other violence posed by the question.
  2. There is an unthinking simplicity to the perfection produced by transcendental values. The perfection here is of a particular order. It is not the perfection of neoplatonic forms.[3. For example, there is no such thing as ’roundness’ or a ‘curve’. A circle is a series of points equidistant from another point. There is no ‘circle’ to represent the perfection of ’roundness’.] The purest expression of this in the contemporary state of affairs is the utter stupidity of justification via expectation: “What else do you expect?” This is ironically lampooning of the use of ‘shock’ in journalistic headlines: “Politician in Lying Shock” or “Celebrity in Sex Scandal Shock”. None of these are actual shocks. I’d be shocked to find someone shocked by them. The superposition of expectation introduces the same teleological inevitability once granted solely to Good and Evil. Beyond the Expected and Unexpected!
  3. The persecution of reality by transcendental values approaches its apogee through knowledge that ‘everyone’ knows. Everyone does not know it, but ‘everyone’ does. Here, expectation of something expectedly shared annihilates difference; that is, the differentials of culture that actually produce meaning. Entire fields of knowledge are organised around bestowing an adequate perception of these most important things, whatever they are, to the everyday innovators of expectation (through Ideas Worth Spreading). Everyone has the ‘right’ to participate in the glorious pursuit over expectation, where we truly value your ‘voice’ because it ‘matters’.[4. An excellent test to carry out before you say or write anything is what difference is being made (if any) or what difference are you attempting to reproduce by governing the future.]
  4. Neitzsche argued that the transcendental values of Morality were a measure of self-preservation, to prevent ‘man’ from despising ‘himself’ as ‘man’. Knowledge, he argued, could drive a ‘man’ to despair. Indeed. After the death of God, what possible hope is there? Well, hope itself; hope in hope. Hope is the handmaiden of expectation. Hope bestows expectation with a robustness that only a nihilist would seek to liquidate. Hope prepares humanity to attend the future; both to be present and to worry over it. A future governed by expectation. If the transcendental values of Christian Morality confected the righteous in Nietzsche’s era, then it is now hope itself that fills ‘man’ up when self-awareness empties ‘him’. The awesome power of contemporary predictive algorithms to ‘recommend’ a given passage of action (this book/food/elected official is an appropriate choice) is built over the heads of ‘men’ as though they were the will of ‘himself’ and, at best, a hope of a world to come. Hence, the future itself has become the operative outside of expectation.[5. It is the future that serves as the ‘authority’ of expectation, to use Nietzsche’s terms, this authority “would know how to speak unconditionally, and could point to goals and missions” (WtP, pages 19-20). For Nietzsche these goals and missions are simulacrum populated by Christian Morality, I am suggesting the constellation of relations represented by ‘expectation’ is captured by the ‘point’ action itself.]

In the contemporary era, expectation is a mobile constellation of relations, unburdened by the tradition of tradition.[6. Except, of course, when tradition is inverted, like a demonic cruxifiction, to project a field of possible futures. Witness the way all people enduring a healthy sense of the ethical grind their teeth when having to live in countries with inhospitable policies of migration. The ‘nation’ is hoisted like wet laundry upon a clothes line in the backyard of banal expectations: not in my backyard. ‘My’ and ‘mine’ is an ‘adequate perception’ of ‘ours’ backformed from a possible future governed by the ‘nation’.] Like Nietzsche’s Christian Morality (WtP, page 9), this mobile constellation of relations are fuelled by the despair of ever freeing ourselves from them. Hence, we crawl out of the slums of our expectedly shared telos, grappling with the zombie bodies and minds of the otherwise disaffected who can’t go on, but nevertheless go on. This is the stage of the transvaluation of all values.

Neitzsche only had to contend with the differential repetition of one set of transcendental values, but now the constellation of relations between elements in the present, but also through relations to the past and future, that manifest this teleology of expectation broken from its traditional transcendental mooring; it has become Mad Max surveying the wasteland of tomorrow — an immanent mobile force forever pursuing the fuel that will propel it on, on, on. Hope. Are you a student of opportunity?

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Utopia3

Anchors of Affect

There is an aesthetics of nihilism. (Are you excited? What are you excited about? I am very excited… but I don’t know why.) The comically stupid interpretations of nihilistic culture appreciate a nihilistic aesthetic to be one of violence, sex, depravity and so on; essentially, anything resonant with a moral wasteland that expresses the loss of transcendental values (such as Christian Morality).

Nope.

An aesthetics of nihilism is one that appreciates the “long waste of strength, the pain of ‘futility’, uncertainty, the lack of opportunity to recover in some way, or to attain to a state of peace concerning anything — shame in one’s own presence, as if one had cheated oneself too long…” (WtP, page 12). The goal of all expectation is that something be attained: what is the return on investment? Are you excited? What are you excited about? The nihilistic appreciates that even with a return, nothing is attained. Pure waste, but of degrees.

Like a future threat governing the present through technics and an apparatus of ‘risk’ [7. See Brian Massumi’s Future Birth of the Affective Fact], the relations of the present to the future pass through various systems of expectation. The future is anchored in the present through affect. How we feel about the future. ‘Hype’ does not simply bestow meaning upon some expected innovation, but on the innovators of expectations, and an entire apparatus of valorisation (‘optics’, targeting entire populations targeting ‘achievements’; now crowdsourced ‘likes’) through the felt-tendency expectedly shared through expectation with others. Are you excited? What are you excited about? You are already targeting the present under remote control from the future: celebrate the autoaffection of drones!

Measuring the “worth of the world according to categories that can only be applied to a purely fictitious world” (WtP, 15) produces an inevitable revulsion. Life itself is vulgarised (WtP, page 23). Coke does not sell us a drink, but a world within which the drink exists. [8. See Maurizio Lazzarato’s Struggle, Event, Media: The corporation does not generate the object (the commodity), but rather the world in which the object exists. Nor does it generate the subject (worker and consumer), but rather the world in which the subject exists.] We consume entire worlds. Quench your thirst and your appetite heralds entire worlds. You command this power to connect with entire systems of existential midwifery. Are you excited? What are you excited about? Was Nietzsche wrong to suggest that nihilism is premised on recognising there is no truth? Satisfaction terminates in the purpose of your appetite; this is the belief and truth of expectation.

Appetite here is of the body, but it is animated with the banal majesty of the future-present of meeting expectations. “Does what it says on the box.” “As advertised.” The consumer is entirely disenfranchised of dignity when following this trivial proscriptions. Hence, the manifest disgust when you begin wallowing in the consumption of this world projected by the futurity of “desiderata” (WtP, page 17). Alone with your excitement and the promise of world to come. I am very excited …but I don’t know why. “Give me a target!” demands the drone of futurity.

Is your excitement active or passive? Or, to ask this question another way, did you inherit your excitement? What were the conditions by which this excitement circulated? What are the vectors of its propagation? If you didn’t inherit this excitement, then how was it manifest? Is it part of a burning fury? Did your excitement bubble up through you? Nietzsche proposes two kinds of nihilism (WtP, page 21):

1. Nihilism as a sign of enhanced spiritual strength: active nihilism.

2. Nihilism as a sign of the collapse and decline of siritual strength: passive nihilism.

The nihilist’s capacity to act is increased (what Nietzsche calls “spiritual vigour”) when the goals or missions that once directed you are no longer suitable; the nihilist begins as an existential exploration: discover your own challenges. If you go on even when you cannot go on and subsume you own challenges according to the proscriptions of expectation, then your randomised playlist soundtrack will always and forever play cynicism. This is a passive nihilism, and the cynic’s capacity to act is diminished, like a fast food patron holding up the drive-thru line paralysed by indecision when choosing from the menu. Exhaustion should be welcomed as the inability to possibilise a future and transient zero-degree of nihilism.

If there is no truth, then first there cannot be appetite. The nihilist does not believe his or her own appetite[9. This is what Nietzsche calls the philosophical nihilist, one who “supposes theat the sight of such a desolate, useless Being is unsatisfying (…) and fills ‘him’ with desolation and despair” (WtP, page 30).]; hence, truth as the satisfaction in the termination of appetite fails to manifest. You feel it in your body; you reject entire worlds. Rather than grappling with the existential dimension of the abject, this is the abject on an existential level.

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Utopia4

Cultures of Nihilism

There are varieties of self-stupefaction manifest as attempts to escape nihilism. I think this is where most critics of nihilist popular culture fall short. They think they are critiquing nihilism, when they are actually critiquing the attempts to escape nihilism (not unlike the scene from Jurassic Park where the intrepid humans wonder at the grace of the stampeding herd and, just before they are almost wiped-out by the excited herd mentality, enters a species of monstrous hunter: ‘Nihilism’). Nietzsche isolates a few examples of such stupefaction:

  1. Rising above the malaise through emotional intoxification: this includes popular culture (‘music’), in scandal (‘cruelty of tragic joy of ruin of the noblest’), in blind enthusiasms (‘hatreds’).
  2. Escape by falling into an oppressive regime of documenting small joys. This includes attempts “to work blindly, like a scientific instrument” (WtP, page 24) or, as I suggest, a drone.
  3. Another form of stupefaction has developed in the ‘so-called’ networked society (the use of ‘so-called’ should signal that I am using a derivative of an ‘expectation’ that governs a certain discourse; the sheer fact that every who reads this knows to that which I am referring is proof). This is the stupefaction of belonging.

Imagine there is a global media culture. There isn’t a global media culture.

There is a global logistical network for the distribution of a limited number of cultural products that audiences imagine belong to a ‘global culture’. There is no outside point of reference for these audiences to gauge whether the cultural products are global or merely appear as global. This is not unlike the way a larger neighbour will dominate the everyday media culture of its smaller neighbour, but this presence is not reciprocated (US to Australia, Australia to New Zealand, and so on). The presumption of participatory relevance is premised on the material conditions for the distribution of culture and the speed with which audiences access these cultural products (such as a mass-synchronised ‘opening’ or ‘release’ that seduce audiences into believing they share the text, which they do not; they simply belong without possibly knowing what it is they belong to).

Of course, irrelevant participation does not preclude localised audience-based interpretations that produce the meaning of the cultural products — that is, the ‘text’ of the cultural product — that blossoms into a deep existential meaning for the audience. It is just such deep existential meaning is utterly irrelevant beyond a limited cloister of like-minded aficionados. The feeling of belonging to a mass cultural event, such as a mass-synchronised ‘opening’, is more of an expression of global culture than any normatively-considered, audience-produced meaning of the ‘text’. [10. There is a paradox here of rendering the audience irrelevant just as media companies mistakenly attempt to resuscitate their businesses by focusing on the audience; not unlike a lifeguard rescuing a drowning victim, while they are actually still drowning on barely remembered past success milked as they fellate their own decaying corporate bodies.]

Besides shared irrelevance, all that is left is a shared disdain. To produce belonging therefore requires a constant involution of immanent modes of belonging.  Shared disdain is another modality of the pessimism that heralds nihilism. Nihilism as the autoaffection of pessimism.

 

Working paper seminar series

Below is the title and abstract of a paper I shall be presenting this Friday as part of our working papers seminar series. It is based on about the first third/half of a paper I am trying to finish about the garage-assemblage. Actual paper does not really engage with Summernats.

Title: “Show us your tits”: Summernats, Gender and Simondon’s Techno-Aesthetics

Abstract: A genealogy of the Summernats street machining festival must include the mid-1980s historical turning point of where it shifts from the Street Machine Nationals run “By street machiners for street machiners” to the 1987 spectacular Summernats event. The Street Machine Nationals was organised around the display and appreciation of the street machine projects understood as the outcome of the creative labour of enthusiasts. The Summernats event shifted the composition of relations where the elite street machines (still appreciated as above) were used to individuate a much larger market of the interested public. This spectacular mode of car enthusiast festival was pitched as a “party”. A constant critique of this party-like event is its explicit masculine character best captured by the misogynist demand: “Show us your tits”. “Show us your tits” is a demand for visibility and invitation for females to ‘belong’ to the hyper-masculine experience of the event.

In a 1982 letter to Jacques Derrida, philosopher of technology Gilbert Simondon outlines what he describes as “techno-aesthetics” and explores technology and the technical from the point of view of aesthetics. Early in his letter Simondon includes a comment from the architect Eupaulinos (in Paul Valéry’s version of Socrates’ dialogue with Phaedrus): “Whereas passersby merely see an elegant chapel, I see the exact proportions of a girl from Corinth whom I happily loved.”

The seemingly incongruous relation between Simondon’s techno-aesthetics and the misogynist cultural practices of Summernats I shall stake out in this paper involves thinking about the way men heteronormatively aestheticise technology through gendered anthropomorphisation. I shall argue that the libidinal-affective intensities of the female form are mapped onto the non-human intensities of (pre-digital) technology. Later gendered relations to technology map the intensities of war to the non-human intensities of computers, particularly in gaming cultures. I shall read Simondon’s theory of the individuation of environment-subjects in terms of Felix Guattari’s theories of the multi-dimensional subject. The pre-individual field of the subject co-individuated with technology at an intensive level (such as found in the homosocial spaces of enthusiast car culture) transversally connects different experiences from any given subject’s development (‘individuation’). The point I shall make is that in the case of Summernats, the misogynist domination of women is a consequence of the reproduction of heteronormative and intimate relations with technology (and other men) that ward off the anxiety of wayward libidinal-affective desire.

Repetition as Machinic Appetition

Matteo Pasquinelli has posted a draft article titled Machinic Capitalism and Network Surplus Value: Towards a Political Economy of the Turing Machine. It is well worth a read and raises some very interesting points regarding the production of surplus value in the contemporary socio-technological juncture. Drawing on the work of Alquati, one of Pasquinelli’s more elegant points is thus:

Valorising information is then what enters the cybernetic machine and it is transformed into a sort of machinic knowledge. Specifically it is the numerical dimension of cybernetics that is able to encode workers’ knowledge into bits and consequently transform bits into numbers for economic planning. In other words, cybernetic code transforms information into value. […]
At the beginning of the industrial age capitalism was exploiting human bodies for their mechanical energy, but soon it was realised that the series of creative acts, measurements and decisions that workers constantly have to take is the most important value they produce. Alquati defines as information precisely all the innovative micro-decisions, which workers have to take along the production process, that give form to the product but also to the machinic apparatus.

I’ve also been interested in the question of value and the machinic for a while; admittedly, however, my clumsy forays are not as sophisticated as Pasquinelli’s work, which is genuinely very exciting. He invited feedback to his draft and I hope to offer some here in whatever meagre way I can contribute. I want to offer an alternative reading of the ‘assemblage’ from A Thousand Plateaus to that of the Delanda-esque inspired reading that Pasquinelli’s emphasises in his paper. Pasquinelli rightly indicates that the machinic as ‘productive’ as been reduced or even ‘neutralised’ of this dimension through the ‘relational paradigm’ of assemblage theory as forwarded by Manuel Delanda’s work (10). Without discounting Pasquinelli’s reading of Delanda’s somewhat de-weaponised version of the assemblage, I want to emphasise Guattari’s post-Lacanian reading of Deleuze’s work in Guattari’s essay Machine and Structure as indicating an alternative reading of the ‘assemblage’ that is at least congruent with Pasquinelli’s thesis.

I am working from the version of Guattari’s 1969 essay published in English in 1984 as a rough synthesis of Guattari’s works titled Molecular Revolution. In the second footnote of the early English translation of the essay Guattari draws on Deleuze’s work (below) and in the body copy notes that “in reality, a machine is inseparable from its structural articulations and, conversely, that each contingent structure is dominated (and this is what I want to demonstrate) by a system of machines, or at the very least by one logic machine” (111):

To adopt the categories suggested by Gilles Deleuze, structure, in the sense in which I am using it here, would relate to the generality characterised by a position of exchange or substitution of particularities, whereas the machine would relate to the order of repetition ‘as behaviour and viewpoint relative to a singularity that cannot be changed or replaced’ (D&R [Fr], 7). [In the 1994 Patton translation of the section I think is being quoted here — no other passage in the Patton translation comes close to capturing the meaning of Guattari’s point — it is translated thus: “[Repetition] is by nature transgression or exception, always revealing a singularity opposed to the particulars subsumed under laws, a universal opposed to the generalities which give rise to laws” (5).] Of Deleuze’s three minimum conditions determining structure in general, I shall retain only the first two:
1) There must be at least two heterogeneous series, one of which is defined as the signifier and the other as the signified.
2) Each of these series is made up of trms that exist only through their relationship with one another.
His third condition, ‘two heterogenous series converging upon a paradoxical element that acts so as to differentiate them’, relates, on the contrary, exclusively to the order of the machine (LoS [Fr], 63).

Guattari is clearer (or at least the translation is clearer) in the recent English translation and publication of The Machinic Unconscious, probably in part because he no longer had to participate in system of enunciation or ‘territory’ of structuralism and instead is operating within a properly Guattarian assemblage, where he writes:

The difference between Thom’s logoi and abstract machines, such as I conceive them, stems from the fact that the former are simply carrying abstraction, whereas the latter in addition convey singularity points [sic] “extracted” from the cosmos and history. Rather than abstract machines, perhaps it is preferably to speak of “machinic extracts” or deterritorialized and deterritorializing machines. […]
I will start with the idea that assemblages of flows and codes are first compared in relation to differentiations of form and structure, object and subject, and that the phenomena of formal interaction consitute only a particular case, that of a borderline case, within the machinic processes that work upon the assemblages before the substance-form coupling. (14, 15)

I want to suggest that the machinic, in as much as it is productive, is the concept that Deleuze and Guattari use to describe the milieu of repetition, in the specific singular or forceful mode of ‘repetition’ that, for example, makes and unmakes the relations of substitution of particularities and generalities contracted as habit or projected as the ‘social’ or as the conjunctive and disjunctive syntheses as described in Anti-Oedipus are the gathering and breakage of flows as ‘repetition’ moves across them.

Therefore, there is a problem when discussing the relation between the machinic and machines. Compare the above to the ‘actual’ machine that Guattari describes in Machine and Structure:

Initiation into a trade and becoming accepted as a skilled worker no longer takes place by way of institutions, or at least not those envisaged in such statements as ‘the skill has precedence over the machine’. With industrial capitalism, the spasmodic evolution of machinery keeps cutting across the existing hierarchy of skills.
[…]
As compared with the work done by machines, the work of human beings is nothing. This working at ‘nothing’, in the special sense in which people do it today, which tends more and more to be merely a response to a machine — pressing a red or black button to produce an effect programmed somewhere else — human work, in other words, is only the residue that has not yet been integrated into the work of the machine. (112, 113)

In other words, humans no longer repeat, even when their labour is repetitive; rather, repetition belongs to the machine as a milieu of the ‘machinic’. Both the worker and the machine belong to the machinic. The evolutionary character of the machine is machinic in the sense that ‘new’ evolutions assemble on yet another plane of consistency and produce new territories. These territories are sub-jacent to those that exist and have the effect of being inherently dissonant. The worker in the above is not a force of repetition. Guattari is restricting his analysis to the worker on the floor, and not the synthesised ‘workers’ of Pasquinelli that combines all non-machine human agents that are in some social relation to each other (in conflict or solidarity) as mediated by an actual machine. (So designers, engineers, technicians as well as the button pushers, etc.) In Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze and Guattari call this force of repetition — distributed across the knowledge worker as much as the labour worker and the machinic — the “surplus value of flux”.

Whitehead’s discussion of appetition provides a way to talk about both the tendential relations of futurity and the open, cutting edge of repetition as it is distributed across the machine and the worker (in Pasquellini’s broader sense). The appetiton of ‘repetition’ is immanent or self-posited (quasi-cause); or, following Derrida, it is ‘to-come’. It is only ‘discovered’ (or to use current parlance ‘innovated’) in retrospect, even if it is a retrospective projection of the imagined future into the present (i.e. ‘futurists’, ‘forward thinkers’, mythologised ‘Steve Jobs’, etc.). This is the work of capital: to extract the surplus value of the machinic from the force of repetition (in the specific sense of extraction of singularity, the con/disjunctive syntheses of flows and the redistribution of relations of particularity and generality through de/reterritorialization). Surplus value is extracted according to the “axiomatic of the world capitalist market,” following Deleuze and Guatari in Anti-Oedipus (233-235), that ever expands the immanent limits of capital itself.

The way I have interpreted Pasquellini’s essay — in the context of ‘surplus value of flux’ describing Deleuze and Guattari’s adaptation of something akin to ‘machinic repetition’ in the context of Anti-Oedipus — the appetition of the algorithmic machine is not this self-positing appetition of repetition and the milieu of the machinic. Rather, the algorithmic belongs to specific assemblages (or strata populated by apparatuses of capture, to use Deleuze and Guattari’s terminology) that have ‘captured’ the flux of repetition as surplus value (i.e. as ‘innovation’) and which (re)distributes the particular and the general in specific (‘actual’) ways. The appetition of the algorithmic machine is fundamentally inhuman while at the same time entirely the residue of human labour. What appetites does ‘Google’ have? What character of prehension belongs to an algorithm when it is ‘run’? I don’t know. Deleuze and Guattari developed the concept of the assemblage (machinic assemblages, but also the intertwined collective assemblages of enunciation) in A Thousand Plateaus as a way of grappling with the a-human territorializations immanent to machinic repetition: “In every respect, machinic assemblages effectuate the abstract machine insofar as it is developed on a plane of consistency or enveloped in a stratum (71). So I argue that accounting for the assemblages within which the surplus value of flux can be extracted through specific apparatuses of capture is essential, rather than being discounted. Pasquinelli already indicates the work of assemblages in his brief mentions of the socio-technological assemblages of Facebook, Google, etc. in his essay. The emphasis (and dismissal) of Delanda’s interpretation of the concept and development of ‘assemblage theory’ doesn’t necessarily foreclose, if repeated in different ways, productive use of the concept. If the algorithm could self-posit it’s appetites then it would belong to the “surplus value of flux” as a pure force of repetition and the properly ontological realm of the machinic, but otherwise, I want to suggest, it belongs to an assemblage.

Media Philosophy of Permanent Beta

I am preparing the first lectures for the two units I am teaching this semester. One is an introductory media studies unit and the other is an advanced online journalism unit. In both units I am grappling with the concept of ‘permanent beta’ for the first lectures. ‘Permanent beta’ is a phrase that I picked up somewhere, I am not sure where. Tim ‘Web 2.0’ O’Reilly discussed the concept of ‘perpetual beta’ to account for ways users were being reconfigured as co-developers. Others have picked this up and talked about ‘perpetual beta’ as a design approach for releasing unperfected products into the wild. Essentially this changes the process of satisficing (making sacrifices while satisfying basic design outcomes) to incorporate an expectation of users that while a product will not be ‘perfect’, it will be ‘useful’ and therefore can be ‘used’. There is a documentary called Life in Permanent Beta that brings together a discussion of technological developments and the question of whether technologies can serve as the locus for an ‘authentic’ life.

I am thinking about ‘permanent beta’ in slightly different way and it is essentially due to being in an educational context. I am using ‘permanent beta’ to describe a situation for preparing students for a future that is only partially defined. In the past, as is the case for most of what I have prepared in the syllabi in both units, students were taught so as to be literate in a given discipline and/or prepared for a certain workplace. ‘Permanent beta’ indicates a situation ‘to come’, one which never actually arrives, and yet affects the current situation. Why doesn’t it arrive? Because there is another situation on the horizon ‘to come’. A Derridean ‘permanent beta’. (On Derrida’s concept of the future, see this.)

For example, Jay Rosen has noted that journalism schools used to prepare students for a certain production culture (broadcast television, radio or print), where the ‘production cycle was god’. He implies that current journalism schools fail if they do not also prepare students for making news useful (and the weird ill-defined workplace of online journalism). I am taking this a step further and experimenting with helping students develop an entrepreneurial disposition to embrace opportunities that may or may not exist yet. (Some previous writing on what I mean by ‘opportunity’ here, but the everyday meaning of the word is suitable.)

Concrete example: We shouldn’t teach journalism students how to use a CMS, but how a CMS is used in different ways. They should be familiar with a range of content management systems and how these different systems afford different ways of representing and producing news, engaging with the audience and so on. Why? They will eventually use a CMS that hasn’t been invented yet, so they need to develop skills for developing best practice to incorporate the ‘new’. Or, better, they will assist the media enterprise where they work (or, better, own (or, even better, have created)) in creating a CMS that features the specific production and publishing affordances that enables them to make the news as useful as possible for the audience represented by the area of interest they are servicing.

Future utility informs current practice all the time in the media industry. Especially in negative ways where I am aware of publishers who have ‘opted up’ of updating sites because they are anxious about constant changes. Rather than developing a production cycle that can incorporate change and then developing a structured and measured approach to changing the production cycle to produce content in its most useful way, they have narrowed their markets (audience and advertisers) until the bare essentials are left, all in the name of retaining existing business models and all the while profit and audiences are rapidly diminishing.

For the media studies unit I am grappling with the question of media literacy. Part of this has been an update from what William Merrin has described as the shift from Media Studies 1.0 to Media Studies 2.0. In his journal article on the subject he describes a disjunction between the ‘world’ of the media studies academic and the ‘world’ of the current crop of students. I am half a generation younger than Merrin (at least, in relation to media engagement habits) so luckily most of what he describes as belonging to his students’ world belongs to mine. But this is not good enough for me. Updating media studies is one thing, and retaining elements of the past broadcast-based media studies disciplinary model is important, but media studies in the age of permanent beta means preparing students to be media literate not in the ‘world’ they already exist in, but for a ‘world’ to come.

It means a big shift has to occur so students can appreciate change as a necessary element of navigating the complex media ecologies of their worlds. My solution has to go with an ‘issues’ based unit design. This does not mean ‘issues’ in a normative political sense. For example, in the second lecture I discuss stupidity. Stupidity is a problem; not too many people want to be stupid. In different ways ‘the media’ has often been blamed for making audiences stupid. Why? How? From critiques of mass-culture to anxieties around social network over-exposure, the ‘idiot’ has been subject to constant critique. But surely some advertisers and media producers want consumers to be stupid, so as to not think too much about what they are about to purchase or watch? So who wants to make us stupid? I run through a history of anxieties around the media and whether it can produce stupidity or not, and if so in what ways. I identify my own stupidities.

I have tried this once before, when teaching print journalism, and it failed miserably. I only focused on the negative side of this process. My failure began with observing that very few, if any, of the students in the lecture would get jobs as traditional journalists. I did not focus on, because I did not see how it was possible myself, how the students were going to be tasked wih the awesome opportunity and responsibility of rejuvenating journalism itself. Part of the reason for framing the journalism unit in particular like this (so students learn to appreciate media-based opportunity) is so students should feel empowered when they enter the job market. I did not want to hobble students with a burden of having a skill set that managers do not have, thus making the now-worker graduates forever be the little worker bee content producers. Or inherit a dystopic view of the industry in general. I want them to be able to see and harness opportunities when they emerge. This is a question of ethics. Yes, they will need to learn the ropes and pay their dues if they work in an established media enterprise. They should also feel empowered to pitch good ideas to management and help isolate and harness opportunities when they emerge for their own survival, if not for the survival of the media enterprise.

Event Mechanics of Opportunity

Everyone does not have access to the same opportunities due to circumstance or the inability to witness their own circumstance. An ‘opportunity‘ is a recomposition of processual relations. It is an event that releases new visibilities, new discourses (or different ways of participating in familiar discourses), new capacities for action and so on. There is a movement and reconfiguartion of subjectivity before and after that defines the scale of the opportunity-event. This is the positive way to view opportunities.

Massumi and others have examined this processual dimension in terms of relations of futurity. Massumi’s “Future Birth of the Affective Fact” sketches out the diagrammatic arrangement of one composition of relations of futurity. A chapter I recently wrote for a forthcoming book on Derrida’s Spectres of Marx engages with ‘loyalty’ within capitalism as another composition of relations of futurity.

Relations of futurity are composed all the time. An ‘expectation’ is a good example of the way relations of futurity become structurated; the disappointment of failing to ‘live up to expectation’ is evidence of an ‘opportunity failure’. The opportunity in these circumstances may have been produced for one person (say, a son or daughter) by others (parents). Parents are disappointed because the relations of futurity produced by them for their children are not actualised in the way they expected. The parents know the future in the sense they can draw on experience to produce their own expectations. If a child is talented and does not follow the relations of futurity produced by parents in a way that the parents expect, then according to the parents’ expectations, an opportunity is lost. Expectation here works to discipline relations of future; an expectation is a colonisation of futurity.

It makes sense then, even if it is mildly paternalistic, to work on creating relations of futurity for those without the ability to do so in such a way as the maximise the opportunity and to increase the distribution of opportunity. The problem is in the way the discourse of ‘opportunity’ has been appropriated by those who would dearly like to make a buck off one’s hard work. As I wrote in my original comments about this, the event of the ‘opportunity’ can be deployed and actively cultivated so as to control worker-populations:

Workers are meant to be on the look out for ‘opportunity’ in the workplace or work milieu (if freelancers). They are meant to capitalise on the opportunity and maximise the positive outcome of opportunity to further their respective careers. There is a continuum of opportunity that is differentiated by relations of futurity made possible by the character of contingency around which opportunity is organised.

1) If opportunity is presented by those in power to a worker, then the contingency is often disciplined in accordance with the outcomes of productivity demanded by the managers and the way surplus value is extracted from the worker’s labour.
2) If opportunity presents ‘itself’, then it is because the contingency of labour relations and relations between worker productivity and the market have not been actualised. A new relation to the market can be actualised.
3) If a worker creates ‘opportunity’, then it is because he or she critically appreciates the mechanics of labour relations and relations between worker productivity and the market in its virtuality, an example of the limited fourth-person singular; that is, the worker does not perceive the situation though the identity and horizon of experience of a ‘worker’ per se. The worker actively differentiates a new set of relations that can only be apprehended through action. (What Deleuzians call counter-actualisation.)

To enfranchise workers in the emergent entrepreneurial mode of the unfortunately called ‘creative capitalism’ means equipping them with the capacity to appreciate the dynamics of managerial techniques and apprehend new conditions between labour and the market through the praxis of their own labour. It is not a matter of grasping the relations between specific individuals or objects (big or little) but of appreciating how the relations between individuals are actualised and differentially repeated in experience.

The contingency at the heart of these relations of futurity are important because it means that relations to the future are ‘open’ (this was a major breakthrough in my PhD, it gave me a way to think beyond goal-based definitions of motivation, so failure does not quench motivation, because the contingency is properly appreciated). The existence of contingency means that expectations always relate to reality through assumptions.