Writing on Nationalisms

I am working on two papers that require a rigorous conceptualisation of the ‘nation’. One is hopefully going to be a group effort from some of my colleagues here and it is about an event space in Canberra. I am constructing a draft introduction so we are have a shared reference point. The other paper develops some of my PhD research and examines a particular episode in the history of Australian modified-car culture, the 1980s “V8’s ’til ’98” media-led consumer campaign. In both cases, a concept of the ‘national’ is required that is in some ways similar.

There are a number of ways to think about the ‘national’ as a concept that can be used in these contexts. Often the ‘national’ is described as a function of identity, both collective and individual. At moments of crisis, such as war or civil unrest, the national is articulated in such a way as to produce a cohesiveness. It normally draws on discourses of the ‘nation’ circulated as an economy of signs and symbols that most members of a nation would instantly recognise. Much attention has been paid to understanding the power relations involved in this process and how the ‘imagined community’ of the nation is produced.
The process of producing the national does not only occur at moments of crisis or in better times during rituals of celebration and purification (such as national days or remembrance days) that sanctify the national imaginary through particular signs and symbols. Often this happens by excluding other signs and symbols or ‘purifying’ the representative frame through which the elements that constitute the ‘national’ are valorised and the ‘imaginary’ sanctified.

The way the national is articulated as part of everyday life is not part of a crisis or celebration. Michael Billig’s (1995) concept of “banal nationalism” is useful for understanding how the ‘national’ is articulated through the practices of everyday life. Billig argues that along with the more spectacular expression of national identity at specific times and places, nationalism is reinforced through a multitude of small and subtle ways that are so commonplace to be otherwise unremarkable. When introducing the concept, Billig remarks that “banal nationalism is not a flag which is being consciously waved with fervent passion; it is the flag hanging unnoticed on the public building” (8). I am using Billig’s concept of ‘banal nationalism’ in two different ways in the two papers.

In the “V8’s ’til ’98” paper the historical example of the possible withdrawing of the automotive technology of the V8 engine from the consumer market produces an anxiety amongst automotive enthusiasts. A defence of the V8 is mobilised around broader anxieties relating to the globalisation of the Australian automotive industry. The ‘economic rationalisation’ of the Australian automotive industry was a policy goal of the Hawke Labor government and policies were introduced to increase the market fitness of the industry. It was known as the Button Plan after its chief architect John Button. ‘Economic rationalisation’ was the Australian version of a broader global process of neo-liberalisation in late capitalist societies.

The anxiety around the possible discontinuing of the V8 were expressed in the enthusiast media in terms of an influx of foreign-designed and foreign-manufactured automotive technologies. ‘Asian’ automotive technologies were explicitly identified as a threat and their introduction into the Australian market was discoursed as a conspiracy in some of the most flagrantly racist language I have come across in my archival research. At stake was not so much the technology in itself or the technology as a signifier of a particular identity, but the capacity of the technology to function as part of particular Australian socio-technical assemblage within the system of automobility. This socio-technical assemblage is of a particular automobilised subject of the masculine Australian driver combined with a particular automobile technology of a car powered by the ‘high-performance’ large capacity V8 engine that are used to perform upon (or, better, process) the particular space of the Australian road. The anxiety around the V8 was mobilised to defend the way automobilised Australian subjects could exist witin the dynamic system of flows and spaces of the Australian system of automobility. Other automotive technologies were dismissed in the enthusiast media on the grounds that they cannot ‘hack’ the ‘tough’ Australian conditions.

The experience of the system of automobility is part of everyday life. Members are subjectivised very early in their lives through governmental discourses that attempt to produce ‘safe’ road user subjects. For example, everyone within an automobilised society must learn how to cross the road. This is a particular competence that is designed to enable subjects to properly identify the dangers and associated risks of directly participating in the system of automobility. One consequence of this (that the road safety industry has never come to terms with) is that the space of the road is therefore potentialised in different ways depending on what Grossberg calls ‘mattering maps’ of the subjectivised individuals. The aim of governmental discourse is to produce anxiety that functions as self-surveillance for not only being aware of the dangers, but the primary risk of a subject developing a dangerously blasé attitude towards the risks. Different societies produce different systems of automobility. The cultural dimension of the system of automobility coupled with its banal everyday intimacy means that when a subject of one system of automobility is transported into another system of automobility he or she can experience the radical shock of an entirely different way of existing (within the system of automobility).

The “V8’s ’til ’98” media-led consumer campaign functioned as a moral panic about whether or not automobilised Australian subjects would be able to perform a particular Australian (and masculine) form of processual production of and engagement with automobilised time-space. A properly processual conception of the subject is essential for appreciating the capacities for action afforded by linkages with socio-technical assemblages. I am attempting to isolate the subjective dimension of part of a process of what Whitehead calls ‘appetition’. It is a way of avoiding definitions of the ‘subject’ derived from structuralist concerns with identity. Brian Massumi’s work is similarly concerned with the processual dimension of experience. His description of ‘anticipation’ captures some sense of this subjective dimension of appetition:

Orders of substitution and superposition are orders of thought defined as the reality of an excess over the actual. This is clearest in the case of anticipation, which in a real and palpable way extends the actual moment beyond itself, superposing one moment upon the next, in a way that is not just thought but also bodily felt as a yearning, tending, or tropism. […] But the definition also applies to substitution […]. Substitutions are cases in a combinatoric (a system of “either-ors” sometimes conjoined as an “and”). Not all possible actions are present as perception to the same degree. All of the permutations composing the combinatoric are not actionably present to the same degree in every perception. (original italics, 2002: 91)

Massumi is describing the relation between possible actions and the future as expressed within perception. The ‘possible’ is produced through perception as a dynamic infrastructure for immanent future action. The banal nationalism experienced on the road as part of the system of automobility is not only produced through explicit signifiers of nationhood (in Australia, this is exemplified by the Southern Cross stickers on the rear window of vehicles), but in the way the experience itself is produced as a processual relation by the socio-technical assemblage of (nominally) car, driver and road.

To invert the focus of Meaghan Morris’s analysis of the automobilised drama of Mad Max (in her “White Panic” essay, which used to be at the Sense of Cinema site, but is no longer there?), the event produced is not of the masculine violence of the car crash as a metonymic event of colonisation and the ‘white panic’ of occupying ‘the road’ as an existential horizon of national purification, rather the event produced is of a kind of mastery of ‘the road’ through the magnification of power afforded by the V8 engine. This event still demands a masculine violence, but of domination and competition articulated through a mastery of the flows of time and space within the system of automobility. The event of the crash is an exception within the differential repetition of this other far more common and banal event, which is the event of ‘traffic’. The panic around the possible withdrawal of the V8 from the Australian automotive market is a panic born of the consequential disenfranchising of Australian automotive subjects from being able to experience the processual dimension the Australian system of automobility.

Adorno as a critical theorist of temporality

Any critique of Adorno’s concept of the culture industry or mass culture that begins by introducing the notion of identity and the relation between identity and any segment of culture focuses on what is essentially the weakest, if not inconsequential, part of Adorno’s critique. The ‘identity’ critique is based on an overvaluation of the importance of variation (aesthetic or otherwise) in a cultural commodity or a range of cultural commodities. For example, the distinction made by Bernard Gedron between a cultural text and a functional artefact in his critique of Adorno’s critique of popular music relies on the kind of ‘information’ that Adorno argued was required for patrons of mass culture to be able to identify the objects of their ‘curiosity’. Gedron argues that unlike a particular part of a particular model of a mass produced automobile that can be swapped out for another part, a cultural text does not have this parts interchangeability. A more sophisticated version of this critique in the latter part of Gedron’s article is to suggest that the apparent changes within a given market of popular culture is clearly evident of Adorno’s inability to sufficiently account for variability of identity. A focus on cultural commodities at the expense of other aspects of Adorno’s critique signals an utter misapprehension of Adorno’s critique. More broadly, as noted by Max Pensky, there is a normative mode of engagement with Adorno’s writings that is little more than a “ritualistic gesture, reiterating the familiar charges of elitism, pessimism, and high-modernist myopia.” Pensky continues to say that the “trouble is that such accounts effectively preclude critical engagement with the body of thought in question.”

A far more useful way to read Adorno is as a critical theorist of temporality. By ‘temporality’ I do not mean a temporality in the Hegelian-Marxist sense of a dialectical movement that attempts to capture a teleological historical development from one historical mode to another. Bruno Latour’s argument that we have never been modern strongly suggests an alternative thesis to a developmental conception of history. For Latour, modernity is an event that is differentially repeated and (re)produces particular configurations of relations. This is a Foucauldian type of argument, where epistemic shifts are aggregated dispositifs that must continually (re)produce particular compositions of hierarchical power relations. Power does not come from above however, it runs through populations in the ways they reproduce the conditions of their own subjection.

The theory of temporality that I am extracting from Adorno’s writing has more in common with the later writings of Althusser than with a dialectical negative critique of historical development. A productive ‘philosophy of contingency’ dominates the later work of Althusser, and is very useful for understanding the properly immanent nature of contingency. The ‘encounter’ of an ‘aleatory materialism’ “becomes the basis of all reality”:

Whence the form of order and the form of beings whose birth is induced by this pile-up, determined as they are by the structure of the encounter; whence, once the encounter has been effected (but not before), the primacy of the structure over its elements; whence, finally, what one must call an affinity and a complementarity [completude] of the elements that come into play in the encounter, their `readiness to collide-interlock’ [accrochabilite], in order that this encounter `take hold’, that is to say, `take form’, at last give birth to Forms, and new Forms — just as water ‘takes hold’ when ice is there waiting for it, or milk does when it curdles, mayonnaise when it emulsifies. Hence the primacy of ‘nothing’ over all ‘form’, and of aleatory materialism over all formalism.

“The Schema of Mass Culture” presents an argument for how mass culture produces populations that are trained to process contingencies in ways that reproduce the culture. That is, the schema of mass culture is to modulate the capacity of populations to process a temporal order that belongs to an aleatory materialism. Adorno initially describes this modulation as ‘pre-digestion’: the “permanent self-reflection based upon the infantile compulsion towards the repetition of needs which it creates in the first place”. Difference as that which forces repetition is annihilated; instead there is a circularity that short-circuits self-reflection. This is the ‘totality’ of mass culture, a series of “pre-digested” tendential movements. The elements of this short-circuiting relation are practically irrelevant (which geek with which Apple product? Does it matter beyond an “infantile compulsion”?).

Consumers therefore find themselves in what Adorno calls an “abstract present”. Co-ordinates of recall beyond the short-circuit are extinguished, except in peculiar discursive moments where the past, as ‘nostalgia, is mobilised to valorise the appropriateness or not of the present. The reward for this erasure is that the “tension” of the consumer suspended by the short-circuit is guaranteed a ‘happy ending’ in the “ritual conclusion”. Adorno relates this ‘tension’ to the capacity to witness suffering, that is, negative affect. In its place is a passive affection of the ‘happy ending’. Negative affects are not necessarily passive, as Elspeth Probyn has noted in her work on ‘shame’. The experience of shame signals, in the first instance, that a subject is interested, thus sending the subject off on what Sylvan Tomkins called an ‘activation contour’ that develops in the body as the experience of shame. Perhaps the subject is spurred into action by this negative affect, and thus suffers from ‘active affections’ and the correlative increase in the capacity to act. The resolution of tension in the short-circuit of the ‘happy-ending’ is a depotentialisation of affect, so the short-circuit becomes a mechanism for the production of passive affections or what Weber called ‘charisma’.

What post-structuralist philosophers call a relation of futurity is therefore hobbled. This is not some kind of magical process however. There is a mechanics of the event structurated in perception through a suspended expectation. This is the happiest ending, as it were. An ending where this in fact no resolution, but the constant repetition of tension. Adorno likens this to the variety act, which for spectators is experienced as a kind of ‘waiting’; where the “waiting for the thing in question, which takes place as long as the juggler manages to keep the balls going, is precisely the thing itself”. Adorno describes this as a “suspension of living developmenet”, an apparatus of capture produced through the riveting experience of observing potential failure.

There are therefore two ways that the short-circuits produced by the culture industry ‘end’ (or, better, cycle again for another ‘beginning’) and that is through the projection of a ‘happy ending’ as a resolution of tension to produce the subservience of passive affections or a manipulation of tension as a way to capture attention. What if one becomes aware of this short-circuit? What if it is simply refused? What is the secondary apparatus of capture produced by mass culture that ensures there is no escape?

The secondary apparatus of capture is located in the total commodification of ‘curiosity’ and its relation to what Adorno terms ‘information’. Like the surplus labour that is used to control workers, there is a “reserve army of outsiders” ready to participate. They are organised in relation not to the exchange value of their labour but in the production of visibilities of the latest novelty. Did you hear about…?!

The less the system tolerates anything new, the more those who have been forsaken must be acquainted with all the latest novelties if they are to continue living in society rather than feeling themselves excluded from it.

Mass culture becomes a sport, which is “not play but ritual in which the subjected celebrate their subjection”. There is a compulsive repetition to inflict upon oneself “the same injustice he has already endured at the violent hands of society”. Exemplar: Love it or leave it. Kiss the flag. Are you with us or against us. “The act of repetition schools obedience,” Adorno writes, and in doing so absorbs the radical potential of anxiety. Beyond participation, the spectator contains nothing of the potentially redeemable characteristics of sportsmen (“certain virtues like solidarity, readiness to help others or even enthusiasm which could prove valuable in critical political moments”). Mass culture only wants the “howling devotees of the stadium” as they replace spontaneity is a “crude contemplative curiosity”. There is another circuit here, both an extension and an intensification of the short-circuit of pre-digested interest. Instead of facing towards a circular ending planned into the commodity, the commodification of curiosity is a way of incorporating contingency and dissolving its radical potential.

Adorno describes information as the socialisation of curiosity; that is, information “refers constantly to what has been preformed, to what others already know”.
Information is a socialisation of curiosity in the sense that information as a mechanism of control “enforces solidarity with what has already be judged”. It is a deprivation of knowledge about the object of curiosity for the purposes of bestowing the curiosity with satisfaction. Is this not how the entirety of online ‘discussion’ functions? The distribution of knowledge as a diluted ‘information’ about whatever contingency in the world fires up our ‘curiosity’? Whoever cannot answer the challenge of providing curiosity with its palliative antidote of information, that is, of “effortlessly reproducing the formulas, conventions and judgements of mass culture as if they were his own, is threatened in his very existence, suspected of being an idiot or an intellectual”. This is played out in the production of “hieroglyphic meaning” as consumers cannot escape either short-circuit. They turned inward, that is, turn into the elements of the relation rather than the implication in the relation at all.

The more the film-goer, the hit song enthusiast, the reader of detective and magazine stories anticipates the outcome, the solution, the structure and so on, the more his attention is displaced towards the question of how the nugatory result is achieved, to the rebus-like details involved, and in this searching process of displacement the hieroglyphic meaning suddenly reveals itself. It articulates every phenomenon right down to the subtlest nuance according to a simplistic two-term logic of ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’, and by virtue of this reduction of everything alien and unintelligible it overtakes the consumers.

Hence, the tension is reproduced as a general anxiety of whether or not the subject of mass culture, the consumer, is sufficiently implicated in its workings: “Participation in mass culture itself stands under the sign of terror”. The micro-fascisms of everyday life betray an anxiety that is harboured “within the very medium of technological communication”. It is not that you are anxious about leaving your mobile phone at home, it is the anxiety produced when you do. What short-circuits have you accidently disconnected yourself from? How will you be an insufficient spectator of pre-digested curiosities? Under a hieroglyphic aegis, how will you be able to smuggle in the judgement of contingency with the satisfaction of knowing what comes next?

Overcoming the Failures of Political Enthusiasm

Although my focus is on the composition of power relations that constitute a given scene of enthusiasm and the ways amateur labour is commodified, the other bigger project that I hope to eventually turn to (after doing my existing project justice) is the question of contemporary political enthusiasm. Hopefully this will explain why I am seem to be fascinated by enthusiasm. One of my theses is that the emergence of enthusiasm within a citizenry of a given democratic nation state is framed by the mainstream media as an exception to its normative functioning. Enthusiastic uprisings are represented as exceptions. The problem is that the world faces problems on a scale that require the drive of enthusiasm. Working back from Ralph Emerson’s observation that “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm” is that for something ‘great’ to be achieved requires ‘enthusiasm’.

The operational character of enthusiasm has not changed much since the pre-Kantians discussed it as a synonym for ‘fanaticism’. Subjects of enthusiasm pursue a singular task at the exception of all others and, at the same time, enthusiasm is affectively contagious. The work of many thinkers over the course of the 18th and 19th Centuries was to use ‘enthusiasm’ as a negative example in the functioning of a rational citizenry and representive government. They were on the side of Enlightenment Rationality fighting the forces of Religious Mystification. Except for a few asides, it was not until Kant’s comments on the character of spectators supporting the French Revolution did ‘enthusiasm’ gain a positive political meaning. Kant argued that the general support of spectators for the revolution meant that they recognised the Idea of the Good in the revolution and therefore the collective valorisation by spectators of the revolution demonstrated that the revolution transcended practical judgement and was an example of good moral judgement.

The problem in the contemporary era is not judgement per se, but firstly the problem of collective mobilisation born of collective disenchantment (and therefore a lack of enthusiasm) for the mode governance of modern representative democracies. Public debates represented in the media thwart enthusiasm, or, to put it another way, enthusiasm is modulated and harnessed in hegemonic ways. Most citizens are encouraged to be enthusiastic about their own interests, which they are told are shared with many others, at the expense of larger social problems. In Australia this is best represented by the hegemonic relation between the conservative media and the conservative side of politics (that is currently dominant in both major parties). Columnists like The Australian’s Andrew Bolt present his readers’ own enthusiasms back at them as the fundamental truth of a given situation. Conservative politicians, such as Tony Abbott, militantly corral this enthusiasm, shaping it into a blunt weapon to attack the progressive elements of the nation.

The danger in this for conservative politicians is that they must continually ride the wave of enthusiasm and therefore can never properly formulate rational policies based beyond facile arguments about refugees. When a conservative government does try to introduce policy that can’t help but be understood as against their constituents’ own material interests (such as the Howard government’s Workchoices industrial relations policies), enthusiasm turns in a flash against them. The progressive elements of Australia’s representive democracy (as well as the progressive elements of other representative democracies) are curently experiencing a failure of enthusiasm. It doesn’t matter how ‘correct’ (scientific or otherwise) they are in their policies, without a collective enthusiasm behind them whatever project they hope to introduce or catalyse in the population shall fail.

Greater visibility has to be produced around the progressive enthusiasms already set to the tasks of producing a more equitable and sustainable world. Beyond the collective drive that it produces, the other political efficacy of enthusiasm is that it is contagious. Progressive political enthusiasm has to be represented in the media to effect any change.

On the Flip Side of Exposure

It is late when I am writing this, so hopefully I do not make too many gaffes. I may fix it up tomorrow.

Most professionals and amateurs working within the creative industries have recognised that there is a somewhat dubious payoff for keen amateurs and early career professionals for submitting free work that would otherwise demand payment and that is exposure. ‘It is a good way to gain exposure’ or ‘Make connections’ say many senior professionals to juniors and amateurs. What this produces is a hub-and-spoke type network arrangment where one senior professional gets to choose what work by certain juniors or amateurs gets further exposure and perhaps ultimately some kind of financial reward. The point of ‘making connections’ is that eventually you come to be seen as someone who is a hub and has the power to shine the quasi-transcendental beam of ‘exposure’ upon others.

There is a flip side to this logic of exposure. Jason Potts, Stuart Cunningham, John Hartley and Paul Ormerod co-authored a journal article published in 2008 on the concept of ‘social network markets’ as a general concept that should replace the ‘industrial’ era concept of the creative industries. Social network markets, as a concept, hasn’t really taken off, although I have not read everything in the field, so maybe it has.

They define the creative industries “in terms of the system of activities organized and coordinated about flows of value through the enterprise of novelty generation and consumption as a social process”.
Furthermore, the creative industries are “properly defined in terms of a class of economic choice theory in which the predominant fact is that, because of inherent novelty and uncertainty, decisions to both produce and consume are largely determined by the choice of others in a social network”. People choose to consume based on the choice of others. The weakest version of this was identified by Adorno who wrote (as I have recently noted) that in “Amercian conventional speech, having a good time means being present at the enjoyment of others, which in its turn has as its only content being present”.

They run through a series of descriptive postulates:

1) The set of agents and agencies in a market characterized by adoption of novel ideas within social networks for production and consumption
a) The CIs are not about the allocation of resources: they are about the creation of new resources. “The core business of the CIs is, after all, the representation and coordination of new ideas”, because “the origination, adoption and retention of novel ideas is the primary cause of economic growth and development”.
b) The CIs are not about mature technologies; they are about the evolution of new technologies. “In essence, design is the new engineering, but between physical and social technologies.”
c) The CIs are services; specifically, services to the growth of knowledge and economic evolution.

2) The creative industries are the set of economic activities that involve the creation and maintenance of social networks and the generation of value through production and consumption of network-valorized choices in these networks. “In turn, the new cultural industries, both historically and contextually conditional, are rightfully included as their production and consumption is heavily influenced by social networks for the simple reason that their value is uncertain.”

I think this work is fantastic and I am annoyed to have largely missed its development. What it certainly needs however is a bit of a Marxist and even a Foucaultian shunt.

If there is an upward pressure from these amateur and junior professional practioners regarding the production of new cultural commodities, then surely the hub-exposer senior professionals experiences this pressure as a threat to their position? No. Well, sometimes. What happens more often than not, the hub-exposer only selects ‘ideas’ that conform to the existing ‘correct ideas’, which may have originated from… the hub-exposer professional. This reproduces the heirachical distinction between hub and spoke, exposed/exposer and exposee. Hence, there are micro-power relations in effect visible in the discursive fabric of innovation (ie the ‘stuff’ creative industries/social network markets produce). This is the Foucaultian bit.

EDIT: There is something else going on here regarding the shaping of markets and the labour required to massage communicative action. Here is an example that just popped up in my Facebook stream today about Ferrari.

The Marxist shunt is a little bit more complex. It revolves around the recurring problem of ‘value’. Firstly, I don’t want to get into a stoush with quasi-classical economists about where value is located within a market or at what point is it realised. Having said that however, I argue that the creative industries turn enthusiasm into a resource. It is not ‘ideas’ that are a resource of value (just like it is not a commodity as the originator of value), but the labour required to produce them. Within the emergent social networks of the creative industries, the social network markets organise around enthusiasms. Crowd sourced valorisation is derived from a subjective appreciation of an impersonal and collective enthusiasm for various challenges that define a given cultural formation. For example, car enthusiasts are not into cars per se but the socio-technical challenges that the car represents. I have rendered this concept and process and explicit at the magazine publisher where I work when training new writers. They don’t write about the car as an object but the car as a project, the narrative of which is determined by the challenges faced by the enthusiast.

One last point. The authors write: “The standard (DCMS) definition of the CIs is based on an extension of the cultural industries, and so inherits a propensity to view CI policy in terms of market failure in the provision of public goods. […] The domain of policy is radically shifted from a top-down re-compensatory model to a bottom-up model of experimental facilitation and innovation.”

Indeed. What I find very exciting about all this research is that I very closely examined the last three decades of a single cultural industry and uncovered precisely this shift in the composition of the cultural formation itself and the function of the creative industries and role of government in them (ie. what Foucaultians call the dispositif or composition of power relations). I now have a very powerful way to frame my research.