No Shared Identity?

Mark Fisher‘s recent piece on “Exiting the Vampire Castle” earned a response (“B-Grade Politics“) from Angela Mitropoulos.

EDIT 27/11/13: See comments below. I am accused of individualising critique on the grounds it is ‘personal’.

I’ve removed the section that placed Angela’s comments in the context of her other recent online postings where she is critical of what I guess you could call ‘Leninist-brocialism‘. I have expanded the below to clarify my point (considering two people with PhDs do not understand it). Now I have structured this post as 1. very simple rearticulation of the two pieces and 2. an expansion of my point.

Put very simply: Mark’s and Angela’s respective pieces approach the question of engaged political critique from different positions. From Mark’s perspective the point of engaged political activity is to overcome the individualising mechanisms of capitalism. From Angela’s perspective the point of engaged political activity is to extrapolate from the ways we are exploited at a personal level to find the broader political dimensions. So far, not insurmountable differences.

The differences become insurmountable at the next level: For Mark, what he calls identitarianism is a kind of white-anting within progressive political movements, exacerbated by the way we are encouraged to project a version of the self through social media. For Angela, any move to elide difference is to betray a commitment to anti-racism and/or anti-sexism and to base critical engagement on a political subject that according to this logic is defined as straight, white and male.

Rather than finding some way to overcome these differences, the final level turns them against each other: Mark draws on Nietzschean notions of bad conscience, describing those who subscribe to Angela’s position as the ‘moralising left’. Angela suggests that by ignoring race and sex, Mark is ignoring how capitalist exploitation is actually played out, and maybe ironically (but unlikely) Angela suggests Mark’s post was about his own enjoyment. For Angela, because Mark is relying on a notion of class, he is basically reinscribing the identity-based politics that he is allegedly critiquing.

Good? I hope that is an adequate summary and that I have represented the different positions fairly. I had assumed readers of my original post had read both Mark’s and Angela’s respective pieces, and had a relatively sophisticated understanding of these issues.

My interest in this the relation between experience, identity and what Spinoza calls a ‘common notion’. Do we have a ‘common notion’ of living in capitalism? I believe Mark was trying to address this.

Of course, my understanding of ‘common notion’ is via Deleuze.

[Spinoza] always defines a common notion like this: it’s the idea of something which is common to all bodies or to several bodies—at least two—and which is common to the whole and to the part. Therefore there surely are common notions which are common to all minds, but they’re common to all minds only to the extent that they are first the idea of something which is common to all bodies. Therefore these are not at all abstract notions. What is common to all bodies? For example, being in movement or at rest. Movement and rest will be objects of notions said to be common to all bodies. Therefore there are common notions which designate something common to all bodies. There are also common notions which designate something common to two bodies or to two souls, for example, someone I love. Once again the common notion is not abstract, it has nothing to do with species or genera, it’s actually the statement [ÈnoncÈ] of what is common to several bodies or to all bodies; or, since there’s no single body which is not itself made up of several, one can say that there are common things or common notions in each body.

I read this in a number of ways. Following Massumi’s notion of “becoming-together”. Following Guattari and Negri’s notion of “new alliances” (PDF). Massumi is useful because he frames this ‘political economy of belonging’ in terms of the experiences shared by those who ‘become-together’. Experience for Massumi may very well be subjectively felt, but it is not ‘subjective’; it is pre-personal and through which the individual is individuated. Guattari and Negri’s notion is useful because it posits a ‘common consciousness’ apprehended by a ‘revolutionary imagination’ that serves as the ‘basis of the constitution of a future movement’.

Deleuze’s reading of Spinoza’s ‘common notion’ is framed in terms of sadness and joy. Sad affects are when bodies are acted upon in conditions that ‘do not agree’ with it, and ‘nothing in sadness can induce you to form a common notion’. On the other hand, joy is the condition of a ‘common notion’ (from Deleuze’s lecture):

One never makes progress on a homogeneous line, something here makes us make progress down there, as if a small joy here had released a trigger. Anew, the necessity of a map: what happened there that unblocked this here? A small joy precipitates us into a world of concrete ideas which sweeps out the sad affects or which is in the process of struggling, all of this makes up part of the continuous variation. But at the same time, this joy propels us somehow beyond the continuous variation, it makes us acquire at least the potentiality of a common notion.

I’ve written a great deal about how affective-complexes involving ‘joy’ and their relation to localised fields of knowledge are played out as ‘enthusiasm’ in working class subcultures.

Returning to the distinction between Mark’s and Angela’s respective pieces, I read both as suggesting that there cannot be a ‘common notion’, but for different reasons. Angela is arguing that racialised and sexed bodies are exploited more than straight, white and male bodies in the current composition of capitalist relations, and that there cannot be a ‘common notion’ across these differences if difference is elided; she writes:

That is, unless ‘success’ has been practically and more or less consciously defined as the recruitment of people who do not want to talk critically about race or gender politics, will not overly criticise those (white men) who present themselves as their ‘leaders,’ and who will actively curtail any committment to anti-racism or anti-sexism in the name of a ‘class unity’ magically redefined as essentially white and male.

Mark, on the other hand, is advocating what is common:

A left that does not have class at its core can only be a liberal pressure group. Class consciousness is always double: it involves a simultaneous knowledge of the way in which class frames and shapes all experience, and a knowledge of the particular position that we occupy in the class structure. It must be remembered that the aim of our struggle is not recognition by the bourgeoisie, nor even the destruction of the bourgeoisie itself. It is the class structure – a structure that wounds everyone, even those who materially profit from it – that must be destroyed.

Mark is using the word ‘class’ here in a specific way; class is necessarily based on the shared experience of living in a capitalist composition of social relations (“frames and shapes all experience”). This is an experience of exploitation in different ways depending on one’s particular position we occupy in the class structure. Already his piece is at odds with an approach which seeks to reduce individuals to their individualising identity. An appeal to a shared experience is problematic for those who believe that they do not share any experience. Class consciousness is a knowledge of this experience and a knowledge of our relational positioning in this shared experience. (At a very simplistic level: most of the commentary about Mark’s piece I have encountered online and offline begins by identifying and agreeing with his experience of ‘snarky social media’ .) Does a ‘brosocialist’ have anything in common with those who identify as queer and/or coloured? Is there a ‘common notion’?

Mark, secondly, is suggesting that the current compositions of capitalist relations encourage the circulation of sad affects and the erasure of what is common; enter his notion of the ‘Vampires’ Castle’:

the Vampires’ Castle seeks to corral people back into identi-camps, where they are forever defined in the terms set by dominant power, crippled by self-consciousness and isolated by a logic of solipsism which insists that we cannot understand one another unless we belong to the same identity group.

The ‘Vampires’ Castle’ is both structure and ephemera; it is an ‘assemblage’ in Deleuze and Guattari’s sense.  The ephemeral character of structure is really very difficult to even describe, let alone talk about. Deleuze discussed it in “What is structuralism?” and instead turned to the terminology of the ‘machinic’, etc.

My overall point, can we have positive identities or a positive sense of identity that is shared? Yes, of course. Mark is describing a situation where we are encouraged to misrecognise this shared dimension. Importantly, to return to Angela’s second point above, she pours scorn on ‘recruitment’. Clearly, she frames her identity in terms of the capacity to talk critically about race or gender politics. It would be interesting to know if Angela thinks she shares any dimension of experience at all and, if so, how does she police the boundaries of how this shared dimension is defined.

As a final additional point, it is amusing that Deleuze frames the development of adequate ideas (adequate ideas are when you appreciate the relations of causality in the balance between positive and negative affects) from common notions in terms of ageing:

Knowing how to age is arriving at the moment when the common notions must make you comprehend in what way things and other bodies disagree with your own.

Virilio and Vision of the Self-Projectile

[This is an extract from a lecture on “Pics or it didn’t happen”.]

For Virilio dromoscopy is the art of the dashboard, which “displays inanimate objects as if they were animated by a violent movement” (105) and becomes “in some ways a video game of speed” (111). (Here is a translation of one of Virilio’s ‘dromoscopy’ essays. That essay is similar, but different to the text I am referencing below which is the dromoscopy chapter of Virilio’s translated book Negative Horizons.)

Virilio uses the literal and metaphorical concept of a dashboard to think about how 20th century technologies of movement have changed relations of visibility. Central to this is the emergence of a privileged actor — the voyeur-voyager. The voyeur-voyager ceases to be transported or the subject of displacement and instead becomes the locus of arrival. The pure projection of the voyeur-voyager inverts the passivity of the cinematic apparatus to become the pure immobilization of ‘polar inertia’. Virilio writes:

“In the speed of the movement the voyeur-voyager finds himself in a situation that is contrary to the of the film viewer in the cinema, it is he who is projected, playing the role of both actor and spectator of the drama of the projection in the moment of the trajectory, his own end” (106).

The voyeur-voyager is enabled by the technology of the dashboard; the dashboard both frames the screen and provides an immediate array of informational content. What is the sensory and semantic information allowed through the constraint of the screen (passenger window)? It is a “stage [scéne] where the signs of the places travelled through move past in the mise en scene of changes in the scenery from the change in the rate of speed” (107). Speed and its maintenance throttles the arrival of sign-places upon the screen. The speed of the voyeur-voyager dissolves the distance to the horizon or destination (108-109, 111) and modifies the regulation of appearances (114-117). Virilio discusses both of these in a negative sense; the relations of perception to the outside are diminished by speed. What matter or is counted are the opportunities for insertion — the ‘entranceways’:

“With the excess of speed, vision [la vue] becomes progressively the way [la voie], the entranceways [la voie d’acces], to the point that daily life seems to have become an ‘optical watch’ where vision [la vue] replaces life [la vie], as if, in waiting in front of the audiovisual device, hoping that the dromovisual device will attain in its turn the instantaneity of ubiquity…” (116)

I want to push this fertile concept of the voyeur-voyager in a slightly different direction, one that retains Virilio’s preoccupation with violence and thinking about the self-directed voyeur-voyager but in the context of the project of the self in a networked context. We use multiple dashboards not only to track what is happening in the world through various feeds, but we also use them so as to mount a campaign of the self. Following Virilio’s logic, this project of the self becomes a self-projectile. There are at least two consequences of this.

The first consequence of this is that the play of appearance and disappearance is premised on the speed of insertion in the complex media ecologies of multiple dashboard-enabled perception-feeds. The art of the dashboard shifts from making inanimate objects appear as if they are animated by a violent movement to an example of what Virilio calls chronologistics. Chronologistics is the orchestrated logistical effort of producing and participating in a “montage of dromoscopic sequences” (119, 118). The presentation of the online self is a logistical art of not only display, but also timing. For those who have worked as social media communicators where you post and participate in a corporate or institutional ‘voice’ (posting for a brand or service, for example), you will know the art of tracking engagement and posting at various times during the day to maximise engagement.

The second consequence of the project of the self thought as self-projectile is that for the voyeur-voyagers there is no singular destination as such, but multiple loci of activity. Virilio prefigures this in what he calls the accident of dromoscopy: the “catastrophe of collision [telescopage] arises from the fact that the arrival seems to counter more and more frequently the departure” (114). Or put another way “the departure for the meeting has come to an end, it is replaced by the arrival of images on the screen” (115). The passive relation to this is the “wait for the coming of what abides: the trees file past on the screen of the windshield, the images that rise up on the television” (115). But there is an active relation, one that Virilio does not discuss; playing the role of actor and spectator, but instead of the the end (or telos) is replaced by the target (or skopos). To follow Virilio’s preoccupation with military metaphors, the dashboard becomes a targeting apparatus of the scope.

 

Doctor Who is made for Children and Simpletons

“It’s Doctor Who day!” so proclaimed Hugo award-nominated Doctor Who writer Steven Moffat on Twitter last night. I had already watched the five-part “Pond Life” webisode series through the BBC’s Youtube channel, like many other Doctor Who fans, in preparation of the new series. In Australia we were able to watch the first episode of the new Doctor Who series as soon as we woke up this morning thanks to the ABC making it available on their “catch-up TV” service iView. This is exactly what I did, with a coffee in one hand and my iPad in the other. That it coincided with Father’s Day meant my Facebook and Twitter streams were full of Whovian joy crossed over with accounts of fathers watching the show with their children.

And yet there were also the haters. They were in the minority of course, but one comment struck me in particular; the poster said that Doctor Who “is made for children and simpletons”. Obvious troll is obvious, but, still, the elitist platitudes rubbed me up the wrong way… Doctor Who wears its infantile pretensions on its cross-platform global-brand sleeve. To say it is made for children (and, hyperbolically, for simpletons) is to state the obvious. Doctor Who captures a certain kind of stupid that I want to suggest is desperately needed. Hence, this is a defence of Doctor Who by way of a defence of stupidity.

We live in a world in which stupidities attempt to impinge on our mental and spiritual well-being at every turn. Indeed, I used to think of plenty of things were stupid (and still do to a certain extent): elite sport, organised religion, liberal democratic politics, pretty much everything that someone else is doing. A normative appreciation of stupidity, firstly, locates the stupid in someone else, and secondly, works to trace this stupid as the outcome of some kind of failure; a failure of thought, a failure of imagination, a failure of agency and so on.

The greatest stupid is produced by those who think they are a success. This is a kind of existential stupidity that provides security and purpose. Success as an Australian means policing borders. Success as a savvy businessperson means embodying the will of the market. Success as a moral subject means becoming an evangelist of law and order. Conservatism here is not a political category; the politics is just an expression of the ‘claptrap’ (political speech triggering audience clapping on demand) experienced as a collective pat on the back.

None of this is new. To realise this stupidity as an inescapable milieu is pretty much the only quality that is shared by all post-Boomer generations. Some resist through attempts at withdrawal, but this is insufficient. Like the coffee in a forgotten stove-top espresso machine, strategic apathy percolates into a ‘bitter’ generational cynicism. This ‘burnt’ cynic attempts to ward off being swept up in stupidities, but as a result produces their own. The cynicism of youth valorises the stupid of noseless faces.

The performative knowingness of the cynic is balanced with the performative naivety of the existentially enfranchised. This is more about the earnestness of those who transcend the collective stupidities of the individual and rather than choosing success, they choose the struggle. They are working to transcend the conditions of existence that forever turns inward back to the individualising ‘us’: the individual, the family, the nation. The stupid of the struggle is a failure to realise that resistance is futile; worse, it becomes a resource for the ‘winners’, like two cogs turning against each other.

Three forms of ideal stupidity; actual stupid is a combination of the three. If everything is stupid, how can anything or anyone escape or resist or succeed? Embrace your stupidities. In ancient Greece, Socrates called stupidity ‘ignorance’ and wisdom was the recognition of the way ignorance was an inherent character of humanity. Socrates did not live in our world, however. The possibility of ‘wisdom’ is to smuggle stupidity in through the backdoor under the aegis of philosophy. Although, Socrates was definitely on to something. Kant argued for a higher ‘pure’ rationality that transcends stupidity, but he did not recognise the conditions of rationality as being his own stupidity: the unthought of thought that haunts the modernist project. The stupid is the inescapable outside of thought that conditions the possibility of thought. Kant is the Batman of thought. “Why so serious?”

The fourth response is to follow Socrates, but turn Kant into the Joker, and go ‘meta’ to recognise the limits of the other three kinds of stupidity. The antidote to aggrandised Socratic beard-stoking, while at the same time pursuing an unforgiving self-awareness, is through play. To play is to suspend seriousness in a way that is often utterly serious. Is it a surprise then, that practices of ‘meta’ in the form of play characterise much of the activity found on social networks? “Best cat video.” Or imagining politicians as anthropomorphised animals? This is stupid, without a doubt, but it is obviously so. Almost anything that exists in the online economy of memes is an exchange of stupid. This is an invitation to a playful stupidity that is utterly serious.

Hence, it is a mistake to imagine the audience for Doctor Who as children when it renders explicit its process of infantilising the audience. Using the tropes of popular family-oriented science fiction television, Doctor Who incorporates this outside of thought into an hour or so of accessible television. Doctor Who is a suspension of seriousness that is utterly serious; a playful ‘meta’ of serious television and culture more generally. It is an invitation to become aware of our own stupidities.

Post originally appeared at Limited News.

The Alien and Its Media

When I teach journalism students how to do SEO (and the tensions around it etc) I begin with Google’s Adwords Keywords tool so they get a sense of how the ‘Google algorithm’ indexes (‘experiences’/’perceives’?) the language we use in keyword searches. I want the students to understand that when a journalist uses SEO they are basically making allowances for how a machine will ‘read’ their text. Of course, the ‘reading habits’ of the Google algorithm are assembled from aggregated user data, etc. so ‘read’ is the wrong word here, but it is a necessary word to bridge different comprehensions of how human text is perceived. As a sidenote, much of the research in contemporary newsrooms has found that most practicing journalists experience this as an unwelcome intervention in their journalistic practice. Experiencing the intervention of ‘Google’ as ‘alien’ (or similar to what I believe you call the ‘strange stranger’). [A good example of this is the SEO friendly insistence on the removal of ‘stop words’, which can radically change the meaning of a title or headline.]

Tim Morton left a few clarifying comments to my post about Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology. Part of my response is above and it got me thinking about previous engagements between the ‘alien’ and media studies. It reminded me of the Autonomedia volume Media Archive and the short essay The Alien and Its Media by Adilkno. From Charlie Gere’s brief MetaMute review of Media Archive:

ADILKNO, an English rendering of the Dutch acronym BILWET, denotes the ‘Stichting ter Bevordering van de Illegale Wetenschap’, or ‘Foundation for the Advancement of Illegal Knowledge’, a group of ‘non-academic theorists’ who came together out of the Dutch squatter and autonomous movements of the early 1980s.


I have the print version of Media Archive and it is a fantastic collection of polemical essays. The Alien and Its Media is a very brief essay and I want to suggest that the ‘alien’ of Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology is very similar to (if not the same as) Adilkno’s ‘alien’ albeit with different nuances. Adilkno’s ‘alien’ is derived from McLuhan’s early work on the ‘extension’ of the human into media as an alienation of the human (see the relevant sections in this essay on The Dialectical Methods of Marshall McLuhan, Marxism, and Critical Theory). The ‘alien’ as it figures in The Alien and Its Media is a rearticulation of this processual relation of alienation, but where the ‘alien’ has its own agency.

Media as Hybrid of Alien and Human Being

The opening section of the essay characterises media as a “battle for significance” between and “unholy hybrid… sum” of “alien and human being”. The essay opens by identifying three strategies for the neutralisation of this battle, which I’ve summarised below with some quick examples:

1. Media is civilised. This is basically a kind of ‘(ex)communicative rationality’ response. It is a form of censorship whereby the alien is exiled, but returns with a catastrophic vengeance as a kind of Virilioian ‘integral accident’ (i.e. glitches, crashes), such as the fantastically imagined as the ‘millenium bug’. See Adilkno’s essay from Media Archive on Communication Catastrophe.

2. Defect to the alien. This is the OOO/’new aesthetic’ response. It is a “demand on modern media to become appallingly strange”. Or, as Bogost puts it in th context of the ‘new aesthetic’, it needs to get ‘weirder’. This is a kind of celebratory mode of engagement. “The sublimation of evil into the sublime intends to confine the alien’s dangerous unpredictability to the aesthetic experience of the uncodable, to be consumed within an institutional framework.”

3. Symbiotic/parasitic banalization of the alien into everyday life. This is the everyperson’s ‘coping mechanism’ response; I suspect this is what Morton was working to disrupt with his Nonhuman Turn plenary performance/paper. What Adilkno’s calls the “alien high” (experiences of ‘speed’ or the ‘void’ produced at the level of the ‘machinic’) is “treated as a spiritual initiation”. Think about the first time someone showed you how torrents worked. I’d suggest that the character of the banalization is situated in a specific cultural context. There is a whole genre of person-out-of-time/space films that works to explore this problematic. For example, the Back to the Future series of films are based on the premise of the main characters negotiating between the constraints of competing banalities. On banality see Greg Seigworth’s excellent essay (written as a response to Meaghan Morris’s warning to cultural studies)

Media as ‘Alienation’

“The new media launched by the alien will absorb so much enthusiasm that the bizarre alienating effects of the previous media’s terminal phase are promptly forgotten.”

Adilkno develops a quasi-Marxist/McLuhanist engagement with media, which is entirely absent from Bogost’s book and therefore it would not be fair to compare the two. Closer to Adilkno’s discussion of alienation is the work of Beller. There are various combinations of relations that produce viewership for coordinating the labor of looking. Beller on alienation (bold added):

Though today it may appear that images are the cause of “man’s intellectual confusion,” the alienation of our senses; they are really its consequence. Such is the reason, for example, that Americans do not know or did not see or did not feel the deaths of all those Iraqis, do not dwell on the poverty and prostitution of Asia, do not rise up to help ameliorate the disease and famine imposed upon Africa, do not reckon the consequences of their intervention in Latin America. Images are the alienated, objectified sensuality of humanity becoming conscious for itself through the organization of consciousness and sense. They are an intensification of separation, capital’s consciousness, that is, human consciousness (accumulated subjective practices) that now belongs to capital. Because our senses don’t belong to us, images are not conscious for us. Or rather, they are conscious “for us” in another sense, that is, they are conscious in place of us. As the prosthetic consciousness of the world system, these new sites of sensuous production serve someone or something else. […]
Thus, cinema is an alienation effect, a result of the increasing quantity of historically sedimented labor creating a shift in the quality of capital itself. Mediations which formerly appeared as ontological (seeing, desiring) now appear as technological (viewing, producing).

The Adilkno essay argues that the hybrid character of media is elided for as long as the focus is on the “human factor”. Similar to OOOers, the point is that they are emphasising the ontological dimension of what Beller is calling the ‘technological’.

Media Genealogy

“Media genealogy is to be interpreted as the chronicle of the coming-out of the alien.”

The neo-McLuhanist approach of Adilkno is fully apparent in their account of the manifestation of the ‘alien’ as a historical signature of media development. Awareness by producers and users of the hybridity of media prompts the development of new media. Aliens “arrive everyday at the push of button” and they “steer humanity toward new media techniques”. The media archaeology movement has a very thorough appreciation of this manifestation of the alien-as-agency that subsumes and coordinates human sensory apparatus. Traces of the alien are found in nineteenth century literature as the experience of a foreign body within the body: the “poetic mechanism is a vehicle for ‘outside powers’.” The alien taps into the human subconscious in the form of images of the supernatural. At stake is the erasure of the distance between the image and the experience, or the experience of the ‘image’ itself. “The alien follows its own trajectory.” This account of media archaeology is preoccupied with the alienation of human experience that transforms media into a conduit of dissassociated ‘(im)personal’ charisma. Manifestation of celebrity worship is not the dialectical subsumption of desire into the ego via the image, but the condition of possibility for belonging itself.

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?