The Programmable Image of Capital: M-I-C-I′-M′ and the World Computer
The selfie and fractal celebrity have become the obverse of what Sylvia Federici calls the system of global apartheid. These results of a financialized attention economy index a shift in the character of both labor and the commodity form towards screen mediated code-work and networked valorization. We can thus rewrite the labor theory of value in relation to image and code, and hypostasize the totalitarian aspirations of capitalism in the notion of “the world computer.” While traditional ontologies are devoured by the new order of value production and extraction, remainders that may be resources for transformation, exit, and defense persist everywhere.
To be in the photographic universe means to experience, to know and to evaluate the world as a function of photographs.—Vilém Flusser
Pixel Programming and the Geopolitics of the Selfie
The megalomania, abjection, and fractal celebrity ascendant with digital platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, YouTube, and many others are practically familiar—we have felt the repercussions of their practice. The younger people are, the more immersed, the more affected they are: primarily but not exclusively in the Global North, students and non-students are driven to physical and psychic extremes to manage and perchance control the information throughput. Race, gender, body-image, clothing, homework and course selection, community, career, politics, futurological imaginaries, sexualities, and psychic worlds are renegotiated, networked as they are with fleshwounds, anorexia, washboard abdominals, Bentleys, $200K watches, brutal beatings, catastrophic accidents, two-headed animals and thigh-gaps.1 No one is left untouched. For the two billion-plus users of these platforms, new currencies have emerged— domain-specific forms of wealth, measured in “likes,” that not so surprisingly turn out to be convertible.2 As college students are hired for their “Friend” lists, and people trade Instagram micro-celebrity for versions of modeling careers, we recognize that the fractal logic of celebrity offers a payoff to successful pixel programmers up and down the food chain.
But as with classical factory work, dissymmetrical exchange still determines the payoffs offered to content providers by the big image-combines in return for their shareholders’ ownership of the background monetization of the photopolitical social metabolism. In the reigning future now current, everyone may be famous for fifteen minutes a day, but the billionaires, though few and far between, are billionaires practically forever.
Navigating a present in which, as Vilém Flusser presciently told us, all activities aspire to be photographed entails a radical reprogramming of not just subjectivity but also social relations, including forms of connectivity, community, and solidarity; the environment; and the linear time of what was known as history. The effects of the photograph run from the psychological to the anthropocenic, from Adorno’s quip that advertising is “psychoanalysis in reverse” (qtd. in Silverstone 132)3 to Sean Cubitt’s definition of mediation as “the primal connectivity between human and non-human worlds” (276). This terrain of the “technical image” is also that of attention economy and attention economies that would turn everyone else into a means for one’s own celebrity. Justin Bieber’s infamously insensitive remark upon his visit to the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam—“Truly inspiring to come here. Anne is a great girl. Hopefully she would have been a Belieber”—is an eloquent testimony to the one-dimensionality and historical disarticulation that oft times comes with fractal celebrity’s dissymmetrical, narcissistic, and megalomaniacal absorption of attention.4
Fortunately, from Tahrir to Madrid to Taksim to Ferguson to Palestine, we can observe other modes of pixel programming besides those composed in the key of fractal versions of charismatic fascism, and therefore, other ways of organizing the attentional product. Not the least of which in the US right now is Black Twitter. @Nettaaaaaaaa (Johnetta Elzie), @Tefpoe (War Machine III), @deray (Deray Mckesson), and many others are working to change the way the US understands racism and the everydayness of the legacies of slavery, focusing attention on the diurnal experiences of racism and police violence. On the academic front, intellectuals and activists make their marks and assemble the ranks, challenging settler colonialism, carceral society, police brutality, imperialist war, structural violence, homophobia, hetero-patriarchy, racial capitalism, and other ills even as they face threats, law suits, and institutional ostracism. Among the ways these challenges are offered is the demonstration that status quo violence is presupposed and perpetuated by the knowledge base and ways of knowing. The focus, solidarity, documentation, community building, pedagogy, outcry, and organizing of protest, new knowledge, and counter-affect made possible by numerous activists using social media broadly understood cannot be underestimated. Here, in the spirit of Negar Mottahedeh’s and Jodi Dean’s more affirmative take on selfie dialectics, we sense that the cybernetic outgrowth of social media is also an outgrowth of the commons, of something like what the early Marx might have called species-life and species consciousness—a welling up “from below” of liberatory aspirations, or, more dialectically perhaps, a repository of modes of struggle and a transmission of subaltern becoming.5 One can in fact participate in platforms like Instagram, Tumblr, YouTube, and others to create a sustaining environment for, for example, gender queer engagement becoming, anti-Zionist activism, #blacklivesmatter and much else. These are obviously scenes of cultural production with their own specific and often alternative relation to the logistics of attention economy. However, there is a war over the utility, meaning, potentials, and proprietary control of these technologies and performances (to say nothing of the conversion of all semiotic exchange into a medium of advertising or other types of value-extraction). My point is obvious, in a way: present media technologies of value-extraction/creation are also social, historical, and bio-synthetic outgrowths, which is to say, they are part of political economy and thus sites of struggle.
We must not forget, then, that alongside the new modes of fandom and personality/community generation, the planet, overlaid with social media that threatens to turn the socio-symbolic, the semiotic and the political into a subroutine of capital accumulation, is increasingly blighted by too many recent and ongoing apartheids, genocides, and holocausts. Of course I am thinking about Palestine, Darfur, Rwanda, Congo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Central America and Syria, the global situation of refugees, and also about the dispossessed population of what Mike Davis called, almost a decade ago, “the planet of slums” (a billion people living in slums, two billion people living on less than two dollars per day—most of them young). This form of radical dispossession—itself the dialectical antithesis of celebrity for the subject—is not an accident, and no amount of “liking” is going to fix it. Silvia Federici, in a significant revision of Davis’s notion of the planet of slums, has spoken of “the system of global apartheid” to describe this situation in which a dispossessed population equivalent to the population of planet Earth in 1929 stands as a new type of historical achievement (70). This pointed reformulation invoking “apartheid” underscores the econometrics, cartographics, mediations, and modes of racialization that actively and concertedly—systematically—constitute one third of the people on “our” planet as simultaneously a global underclass and a racial Other in relation to “the Free World.” For me, the system of global apartheid names a post-industrial, post-colonial, post-modern, “post-racial” form of dispossession in which all of these words following “post-” still function under forms of disavowal and erasure. In imagining an alternative future that can break with a ubiquitous new modality of classification and the new forms of racialization and racism that function through re-structured economies of dispossession and disappearance (evolving in direct relation to new economies of possession and appearance), we must do far better than (re-)assuring ourselves in our own fractal celebrity (if you have any) that, were things otherwise, the two billion or more dispossessed members of the media platform Earth, reduced in one and the same movement to media of signification for the meanings of others and to invisibility to the point of extinction, would also have been “Beliebers” in our best media-selves. The sad truth is that things are as they are in part because we have way too many beliebers—beliebers in the celebrity-form itself.6
… One could indeed wonder: Is “the selfie” the other side of global apartheid?
Computational Capital: The New Calculus
Towards the practical end of producing critique within the infrastructure of belief sustaining both Global North-style believers (I’m going to give Justin a break and use the “v” instead of the “b”) and global apartheid, I am interested in what I think of as the archive of the visible and the logistics of visualization. This will help us cast doubt on “the Good Americans,” “the Good Europeans,” and “the Good Cosmopolitans” in the same way that Nazism casts doubt on the good of “the Good Germans.” While the older modes of visualization persist (meaning the history of visuality as organized by print, painting, photography, cinema, mathematics, optics, the built environment and the commodity-form, as well as the not altogether separable vectors of race, gender, class, colonization, industrialization, and imperialism), it is necessary to consider the dual emergence of digital culture and the omnipresence of the screen/image itself. Despite suggestions regarding the decreasing importance of visuality in the face of computation, the omnipresence of the visual interface that is the screen/image as mis-en-scène for social becoming is at once incontrovertibly occasioned by the development of digital computers (along with their codes, and their structural and indeed infra-structural inequalities, about which more anon), and remains an indispensable feature of their command-control functionality.
Although digital-visual technologies continue to structure visualization along psychoanalytic, fetishistic, classist, racist, sexist, and nationalist spectacular lines, no analysis of this increasingly complex relation between image and code—one that has encroached, fatally perhaps, on self and world—could even approach completeness without an understanding of digital culture as itself an extension of the logic of financialization. This new computational matrix I call (somewhat unimaginatively) Digital Culture 2.0, since the first globally aspiring digital culture—and this is an argument—was that of capitalism itself. An historical schema then: in the span from capital to finance capital we move from Digital Culture 1.0 to Digital Culture 2.0. One result among many in this long history of economic and computational convergence is that financialization has given us the pathway called the selfie—a specific mode of commodity calculus amidst a new calculus of commodities.
Today the bios is confronted by the programmable image—the selfie is but one example, albeit one that puts the face back in the interface. The long twentieth century has been characterized by the penetration of the life-world by images, restructured linguistic function, the machinic ramification of the psyche, and the re-ordination of fundamental vectors of social participation and power. The visual turn meant that images and then computers became the dominant mnemotechnical devices, overcoming language-based archives and what Kittler called precisely “the bottleneck of the signifier” (Kittler 4). But it has been a mistake to imagine (if anyone has) that all the agency of social transformation resides in the development of media technics. Photography, cinema, and computation were themselves developments of capital, and this in a dialectical way. To invoke dialectics here means that visual and computational culture developed in a context of social struggle (sociality) over the means (and meanings) of production, caught between what might be hypostasized as opposing vectors of expropriation, domination, and control on the one hand and pursuits of pleasure, community, welfare, justice, liberation, and plenitude on the other. Today’s instrumentalization of the subject-function (as consumer, gamer, drone pilot, debtor, citizen, alien, etc., ad infinitum), along with the pulverization of psychic life that results from multiple fragmentary, fractal instantiations of “subjective” agency induced and required by broad-spectrum networks, is both symptom and result of a Digital Culture 2.0 in which images have become, in addition to a kind of anti-linguistic vernacular, also archive, calculus, worksite, and code. (Post-)Modern consciousnesses, such that they are, bear the signature features of these technical transformations that are themselves part of a history of struggle for liberation and autonomy while also being part of the apparatus that secures domination, precarity, and radical unfreedom. Consciousness itself, integrated in myriad ways with the fixed capital of digital media, is at once entrepreneur, worksite, toxic externality, and resource. Thus, in the context of this special issue of PMC, resource aesthetics from the perspective of this article would indicate the aesthetic (and kinesthetic) dimensions and practices, broadly conceived, that now accompanies some moment of nearly every transaction with the environment–an externality, that as Cubitt teaches us, was centuries (of colonialism) in the making.
The general form of the new calculus is as follows: the accelerated mathematics of capital that have long been generating real abstractions (the basic money-form but also more advanced forms of money) out of the materiality of living formations (forms of life) today number-crunch not only behind and beyond but also in and through the screen-image. The screen-image has become the paradigmatic means by which capital bio-processes its programs, although the corporate-sponsored state with its law, police, military, borders, walls, and banks clearly continues to have a part to play as medium and screen infrastructure. The commodity form and capitalist production have evolved in terms of complexity, but as we shall see, the intervals between the discrete moments of production still require “human” input, or what was once paradigmatically thought of as labor.
“The image of capital” is not a single image—neither Marilyn Monroe, the American Flag, a Jackson Pollack, Apple Pie, nor a UNICEF poster child. If capital had its way, “the image of capital” would be all of them. Capital would position labor power within the enclosure that is the generalized encroachment of capitalized images on all aspects and moments of life, within the general movement of social relations towards the image—that is, within a formation already immanent in Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle (1967): “All that was once directly lived has become mere representation” (12). It would place us within, in short, the becoming imaginary of the world (the bottomless overlays of imaginaries) and the virtualization of reality that seems to forever place the Real in quotation marks. It is in and from such a condition, one that Vilém Flusser would call “magical,” that we wage our struggles. Therefore it is within the emergent totality that Flusser calls “the universe of technical images,” now being taken to another level by ubiquitous computing and the rise of what I call the world computer, that we receive our programming and wager our counter-programs.7 These wagers, the struggles with capitalist informatics, are everywhere, but the results are nonetheless desperate, mournful, bloody, or material for all that.
Famously Marx discerned what was effectively the calculus of the commodity form when he showed that the commodity was the summation of the value of labor-time and raw materials. This allowed him to demonstrate precisely that profit came from the expropriation of labor-time through its unequal exchange for the wage. While circulation meant the exchange of value equivalents, production was the dissymmetrical exchange between labor and capital, where capital extracted surplus value. Marx made the distinction between C-M-C (commodity-money-commodity) and M-C-M (money-commodity-money)—that is, the distinction between the exchange of equivalents in simple circulation (C-M-C) and the movement of capital accumulation—where the latter formula, which was really M-C-M′ (M′>M), contained within it profit: the dirty secret of the dissymmetrical exchange between capital and labor that extracted surplus value through wage-labor during commodity production. Within the relation known as wage-labor, workers brought their commodity (labor power) to market and received less value from capital than they produced for capital. The workers’ unpaid labor time (surplus labor) became the capitalists’ profits, generating M′ from the original M when the commodity produced by wage-labor was sold on the open market. The worker went home with subsistence wages; the capitalist went home rich.
This relation of alienation, along with the commodity form itself, was, in retrospect, already a mode of digitization, the translation of qualities into quantities, of subjective, sensual labor and use values into exchange values, of subjective time and objective qualities into numbers. Under this process of viral digitization, the countryside was emptied as the urban proletariat grew; cities expanded along with factories and tenements as vast fortunes were created; traditional societies were liquidated; colonial states erected; spices, gold, and slaves shipped; armies conscripted; people slaughtered. To coin a phrase: “all that was solid melted into air, everything that was sacred was profaned.” Much ink has been spilled over the consequences of emergent capital’s evolutionary if not revolutionary transformation of the human species during the five hundred years leading up to the twentieth century. Colonization, Industrialization, Imperialism, Modernity, World Wars, the great metropoles…while profits and corpses mounted, material life was besieged by its inexorable conversion into the numerical denomination known as price. In brief, this is the history of the first great phase of quantification: Digital Culture 1.0, with humanity consequently positioned as standing reserve.
With post-Fordism, virtuosity, attention economy, cognitive capitalism, semio-capitalism, and the like, it would seem that another evolutionary (if, again, not revolutionary) moment is well underway. In writing about these changes in the bio-mechanical interface with capital (the movement from factory to screen), first in terms of the cinematic mode of production and more recently as “Digital Culture 2.0,” I have contested the ruling idea that simply because commodification no longer exclusively incarnates itself in industrial objects, value has become “immeasurable.” I have suggested rather a distributed, screen-based, cybernetic interface with fixed capital—it being understood today that the logistics of value extraction are increasingly ambient, informatic, and, in a certain sense with respect to the harvesting of metadata, metabolic.
The case for the immeasurability of value has not been so much argued as assumed. Here is Antonio Negri’s early and highly influential formulation: “My first thesis, a deconstructive and historical thesis, is that measuring labor, and thus ordering it and leading it back to a theory of value, is impossible when, as today, labor-power is no longer either outside or inside capitalist command (and its capacity to structure command)” (80). Negri continues,
We have thus far posed a number of affirmations: (1) that the measure of labor-value, grounded on the independence of use-value, has now become ineffectual; (2) that the rule of capitalist command that is imposed on the horizon of globalization negates every possibility of measure, even monetary measure; and (3) that the value of labor-power is today posed in a non-place and that this non-place is s-misurato (immeasurable and immense)—by which we mean that it is outside of measure but at the same time beyond measure.(83)8
Digital metrics had not evolved to their current levels of granularity when Negri wrote this article in 1999. Indeed his own analysis unconsciously forecasts the emergence of a new metrics of subjectification:
The latent recognition that political economy gives to the fact that value is now an investment of desire constitutes a real and proper conceptual revolution…. [T]his revolution in political economy is revealing in that it involves dominating the context of the affects that establish productive reality as the superstructure of social reproduction and as the articulation of the circulation of the signs of communication. Even if the measurement of this new productive reality is impossible, because affect is not measurable, nonetheless in this very productive context, so rich in productive subjectivity, affect must be controlled. Political economy has become a deontological science. In other words, the project of the political economy of conventions and communication is the control of an immeasurable productive reality.(87)
However, while this view of the immeasurability of productivity became the accepted one in post-Marxist and autonomist circles (and an unnecessary detour in what appeared obvious to rampant internet boosterism), some of us always saw measure in monetization itself and, as I show in this essay, so did Marx. As we shall see, the positing of a field of valuation with pricing already posits and over time effects the emergence of metrics both of measure and of extraction, importantly for us, in the form of “likes,” financial derivatives, and metadata.
Part of this confusion arising from the intensification of the role of affect and linguistic command in postmodern capitalism stems from a category mistake regarding the nature of the commodity. It was a mistake to imagine that because the industrial object was comprehended as a commodity, the commodity-form is properly (necessarily) an object—and that the value of anything that is not strictly speaking an object (or can be objectified in the form of an object) is immeasurable. The object, as it turns out, was a moment in the historical development of the commodity-form. The corollary confusion accompanying the movement from the commodity object to the dispersed, disbursed, distributed commodity regards the movement from factory production in the case of the former “objectivity” of the commodity, to distributed production in the social factory in the case of the latter. Industrial production created commodified objects in the factory to be sold at markets, while distributed (digital) production creates derivative “objects” in the social factory—that are also commodities—to be sold on attention markets. They are also produced via attention in distributed fashion, meaning to say distributed production in a society that has literally become a factory of the imaginary. The new, distributed image-objects are mediated and indeed inseparable from franchises, platforms, brands, and other modes of associative transmission.
As financial markets have long presumed through options, commodities can be constituted through derivative forms (in all senses of that word) of enterprise and still be treated as the commodity-form by capital. What is effectively being priced is a social relation, one summed up in the idea of risk. Indeed it is arguable that the derivative was always implicit in the commodified object—from the moment that its dual identity of use value and exchange value was posited by capital. The history of the logistics of the commodity-form is one first of composition and then of decomposition, one of integration and then of derivation. We are most familiar with the integration of labor in the production process (the summation over time of the labor-time in an object), since the commodified object, as site of proprietary intelligibility, sale, and therefore of valorization of capital’s profit in money, naturalized the derivative component in the form of the object itself in the moment of price. However, following the moment of the commodity’s composition (as object), the value (quantity of abstract universal labor-time) as price in money of a particular commodity was indeed derived from the integral that was the summation of values contained in that commodity. If the cost of a production run of commodified objects was the summation of the cost of labor-time (the integral of cost of work over time times time) plus the total cost of raw materials and fixed-capital (machine) amortization, then the object’s price was the derivative price of the value of the total amount of labor-time inherent at the moment of (which is to say “in”) a particular object over the total number of objects produced plus that of the appropriate fraction of raw materials and machine amortization utilized per object. In the same sense that in basic Newtonian mechanics an object’s displacement is a derivative of its velocity, the price of the commodity as object was itself a derivative of the general movement of capitalized object production at a particular point (an evaluation of a particular moment of value in the fluid movement of values in general), and only in this way was it possible for the market to compute the relative price of an object in relation to the general equivalent. These mathematics were practiced before they became conscious and it was the great contribution of Marx—one on par with those of Newton and Leibnitz—to derive some of the rules by which a calculus of value could be configured. Later the volatility of price was formalized (and itself priced) by options traders.
The rise of modern financial derivatives and the metrics of attention represent the developing conceptualization and cognition of relations that were already practical and practiced. Just as the Romans didn’t need Newton to have an adequate sense of how long it took to get a chariot from point A to point B, buyers of Model Ts did not need derivatives to pay for their cars. Henry Ford’s statement “You can have any color you want so long as it’s black” was an acknowledgement of the possibility of options and the necessity of limiting options for the purposes of market heuristics. Options in consumption practice and hence options allowing for risk management with respect to sales (on the consumer side, commonly called preferences) were in this case effectively reduced to near zero for consumers (or more precisely approximately two—buy it or don’t). From this perspective of the purposeful delimitation of options in a world in which options were becoming immanent, marginal utility theory, which proposed that a particular commodity would be worth slightly more to one buyer than to another, was already a theory of derivatives that acknowledged a secondary market of risk management in the domain of social difference (aesthetics, taste, and the semiotics thereof, along with other aspects of “utility”). The development of options (both in commodity fashion and finance) allows for purchasers to make a bet on the currency of their own read of market value. This includes a calculus of their particular needs amidst the play of values and implies a pursuit of tailor-made contracts. The metrics follow these wagers, but the calculus is not free—it requires work and demands a program. The structural and historical point here is that the development of the calculus of commodification, which has moved away from factory and object as paradigm to that of the deterritorialized social factory and distributed consumption, dialectically transformed the possibilities of both spatial and economic movements beyond the option-less Model T. From the space-time of the Model T and the industrial factory has emerged the space-time of spacecraft and the virtuosity of the social factory: Google, nanotechnologies, satellites, drones, fiber-optics, ambient computing, algo-trading and the like run the myriad options so that the products of the social factory can be efficiently consumed to produce … capital.
Financial derivatives and digital media platforms—monetized on bank and shareholder speculation facilitated by attention metrics—are among the new calculi of value. They are not as different from the speculative leap into buying early commodity-forms as we may imagine. These digital metrics, media of risk management that are also modes of extending the logistics of quantification and valuation, emerge directly from and in turn facilitate new distributed forms of commodity production in the social factory. The new metrics adequate to distributed processes of production and value accumulation (from Apple’s global commodity chains to Mechanical Turk’s cellularized labor, Walmart’s product tracking, Facebook’s social interface, and Ethereum’s crypto-currency) are far more complex than, say, the assembly-line output counts on the factory floor, and more complex again than the consumption of labor-power objectified in what appeared as a clear-cut “object” (purchased with money received in exchange for what appeared as a clear-cut “wage,” but that bit on the wage is another paper); they require the movement of the exponentially more complex pathways and calculations of capital into the (nano-)second by (nano-)second operations of discrete state machines, that is, digital computers—as well as the new modes of sociality that post-Fordist theory has been at pains to describe. This convergence of the calculus of value production with new modes of sensual interface and with the provision of sensuous labor—and thus with production itself—that is made possible by computation marks the rise of a new phase of the capitalist mode of production, one that we might denominate as the computational mode of production. The computational mode of production describes the dynamic function of a regime of valuation that I have come to understand as Computational Capital. This shift in the mode of production takes us beyond the bourgeois era—and indeed beyond the cinematic one as well—towards a convergence of the computations of capital with the operations of the universal Turing machine.
Elsewhere I have endeavored to show that computational capitalism finds its lineage directly in racial capitalism. As a few of my examples above about the negotiation of social difference as an informatic enterprise would imply, this relation to racialization and social difference is not ancillary but central.9 Here however, if one wanted to come up with an answer finally to those who claim that in post-Fordism value has become immeasurable, one need go no further than Marx’s discussion of “the price-form” in Chapter Three of Capital, “The Circulation of Commodities,” to understand how to proceed.
Things which in and for themselves are not commodities, things such as conscience, honour, etc. can be offered for sale by their holders, and thus acquire the form of commodities through their price. Hence a thing can, formally speaking, have a price without having a value. The expression of price is in this case imaginary, like certain quantities in mathematics. On the other hand, the imaginary price-form may also conceal a real value-relation or one derived from it.(197)
Marx’s comparison of the relation of price to value with both real and imaginary numbers tells us that, as in mathematics, whether a value is “real” or “imaginary” (-i), it can be treated according to mathematical rules; that is, it is subject to mathematical operations that yield practical results. It is worth recalling that, utilizing imaginary numbers, made acceptable by Leonhard Euler in the 18th century and developed by Carl Friedrich Gauss in the 19th, mathematics predicted the existence of the Higgs boson and, lo and behold, equipment designed by the same mathematics found it. Whether the Higgs boson is real or not is somehow beside the point, since mathematics mediated by technics and “nature” produces mathematical effects that are internally consistent— verifiable in their own terms (and then photographed, of course). Here we say that the derivation of value in finance is both an instrument of measure and a means of production; mathematicians use imaginary numbers to produce real (or is it virtual?) solutions. Put more simply, we might say that, in the context of capital circulation, the price-form posits the commodity form. The price-form allows the mathematics of the commodity-form to operate even in the absence of classical rational(ized) production. When, for example, capital buys off someone’s conscience, it does so for a reason—that too is a cost of production. Today perhaps the same could be said about a situation when capital buys off someone’s consciousness wholesale—or that of an entire society.10 These are costs of production and have a systemic rationale. In the mesh, such rationales may restructure the ontology of that which is rationalized.
When Marx wrote Capital, conscience and consciousness were not the obvious market products of what today have come to be known as disciplinary societies, control societies, or mediological ones—despite the fact that Marx lucidly grasped German idealism’s notion of consciousness as at once precisely the product of alienated labor and the disavowal of the material basis of socio-economic organization of material practice as the social basis of bourgeois idealism. In The German Ideology, Marx writes, “The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas … and hence the ideas of their dominance” (67). Today, however, there can be no doubt that those once presumably divine, biological, organic, psychological or quintessentially human properties composing the general intellect are inexorably bound up in the material exigencies of regimes of production—indeed, as we are at pains to demonstrate, the financialization that is digital culture presupposes the productive capacities of cognitive, neurological, and/or attentional practices.11 Given this massive shift towards the computational ramification of the general intellect, it seems imperative to derive the “real value relation” priced by the market of diverse modes of attention gathering, social media practice, linguistic practice, and other human activities that fall outside of traditionally recognized forms of wage-labor but that are required for social production and reproduction. The (re-)organization of the productive powers of the general intellect requires the integrated organization of many moving parts: matter, consciousness, computation, and, as you will have already guessed, the programmable screen/image.12
In recognition of the paradigm shift in the character of both labor (towards attention and neuronal process) and the commodity form (towards integrated distribution based upon a rentier model of the general intellect), which is another way of invoking the shifting character (sublation) of subject and object in post-Fordism, I’d like to take this opportunity to introduce a slight modification into the general formula for capital: M-C-M′. As noted, the value that will generate this second, greater quantity of money is classically acquired in the production process, that is, in capital’s dissymmetrical exchange with labor through the medium of the wage. As we have seen, it is the worker’s unpaid labor that provides surplus value to capital and thereby creates the increase from M-M′ during the cycle of commodity production culminating in market valorization.
Let’s now rewrite the general formula for capital as M-I-C-I′-M′—where M is still money, but I is Image and C is Code. C here, as Code, is to be understood not as a stable entity but as a discreet moment in the movements of the discreet state of a computer—we could say, of all networked computers, and, with a nervous nod towards what may be the emergent integration of the totality of computation, perhaps of “The Computer.” By replacing commodity “C” with IC-I′ (which reduces to commodity “C” at Fordist speeds in which an object is simply the material manifestation of the information laboriously imposed upon the materials that was required to make it), we register the sublation of the commodity form as object by the matrix of information. I-C-I′ indexes the movement between appearance, praxis, and digital-informatic substrate, as when, for example, one uploads an image on Flickr, tweets, makes a purchase on Amazon.com, trades a stock, “likes” the red Ferrari. In reality, I-C-I’ might represent many iterations of I-C’-I’’-C’’’-I’’’’-C’’’’’-I’’’’’’… etc. Holding those types of units fixed for a moment, it now appears that value production may take place anywhere in the circuit or more often network that mediates between M and M′—the interval formerly indicated by the commodity “C”. That is, at any moment along the circuit from monetized capital investment to monetized profit, a value-productive transaction is possible—each movement or modification generates new data. Automated “labor,” that is, work done by computational machinery alone, is not labor but machine amortization. Labor, and more to the point surplus labor, formerly understood to be extracted solely as surplus value in the waged production of commodities (that is, the portion of unpaid factory labor, objectified in the commodified product that provided profit when sold), now appears to have multiple forms and insertion points: there are today many more ways not to pay for labor. The labor of production is, in short, distributed across multiple sites: e.g., hundreds of thousands of software writers, tens of millions of historically devalued (mostly female, mostly Asian) hands, billions of screens attended to by billions of operator-functionaries such as ourselves, and finally the whole media-ecology and economy of images and information broken down into ever smaller granular units that structure perception, proprioception, and the very conditions of planetary survival and widespread premature death. Commodities, now fully algorithmic in that they seamlessly integrate use values and exchange values and script the realization of use values as means for the production of further exchange values, are constructed through the juridical and practical organization of proprietary pathways through the vast database of the world computer (the sum total of all code and the infrastructure that runs it).
The emergence of the world computer, which in my own view is already “super-intelligent” and effectively “self-aware” (even if difficult to recognize as conscious by one of its “conscious organs”), is the key to the absorption of distributed life activity by the calculus of capital (see Bostrum). At every (infinitesimally small) moment, the Universal Turing Machine that contains—not simply in theory, but indeed as is posited both in theory and by capital to contain—all actually existing discreet state machines is in a discreet state. The modification of each state is the direct or indirect result of social process. The technical elaboration of the logistics of informatics in the medium once known as life is the necessary other side of capital’s absorptive accumulation of life-activity as value.
In the movement from the factory to the social factory, commodities no longer have to be materialized as goods in object form (although they still can be, but even these goods are also combinatories of brands, images, franchises, and other financialized informatic-semiotic vectors); they exist and are produced as integrated value-formations. Some of what is bought (by us) with our screen-labor is the use of the platform itself, but as we saw with the branded self and fractal celebrity, the utility and the logic exceed the domain of any particular platform and compose a cultural logic—The Cultural Logic of Computation, as David Golumbia eloquently puts it, part of the control exercised by Digitality as Cultural Logic,” as Sebastian Franklin gleans it. The rest of the labor, also sedimented as data but not returned to us either as utility or proprietary stake, is absorbed, gathered, scraped, accumulated, captured—in short stolen through the meta-data equivalent of primitive accumulation—and then bundled and sold to angel investors, shareholders, or advertisers, or seized by governments, police and secret police forces, etc. Our modification of the discreet state of the global computer—remunerated at work, unremunerated as dispersed life activity (but actually remunerated at a discount in social currency, viability, know-how, stupefaction, connections, etc.)—generates modifications of what I am calling the code through our use, indeed through our inhabitation, of networked media machines. Since this enclosure by new-media capital posits and extracts forms of labor that are also now explicitly forms of communication, the expropriation of labor is also an expropriation of communication and hence an expropriation of individual consciousness, semiotic capacity, and democracy. From the days of Prudhoun’s “property is theft” to industrialized wage-labor and then to the computerized expropriation of the cognitive-linguistic, the institutionalized theft of the creative product of individuals has always been anti-democratic. Given the present context where everyone is enjoined to participate and add their voice, perhaps capital, as the antithesis of democracy, has never functioned more contradictorily than it does today. Consciousness is theft. There may be democracy, but not for us, or so says capital’s current foreclosure of (and on) History and the historical imagination.
The expanded notation “I-C-I′” represents the integrated productive activity formerly denominated by “C.” This description befits the shift from the paradigm of the factory to that of the screen-based social factory, and understands material objects pressed into the service of capital as themselves media. It recognizes that the very function of these mediations enacts the computational colonization of the subject, the human, and the bios. It also asserts, in an extension and Marxification of Flusser’s notion of the universe of technical images, that in Digital Culture 2.0, commodity production has now become paradigmatically a transaction in the movement from Money to Image/Code and back.13 This is not a linear process as with the assembly line, or even simply a global process as with the global commodity chain paradigmatically signified by Nike in the late ’80s and ’90s. It is a networked process of vectoral connections, presided over by what Ken Wark deftly calls “the vectoral class” (72).
One immediate consequence indicated by this formula is that the Image has become and remains a paradigmatic worksite of capitalism. Print, as Benjamin pointed out in the “Work of Art” essay, is here only a special case, though a particularly important one (your reading of this article, very likely on a screen, is a special case of image processing). Furthermore, taking Flusser’s surprising example, in Towards a Philosophy of Photography, of the shoe as a form of encoded information, we can see even more clearly that the social product itself, to say nothing of the commodity form, has, from our present perspective at least, always had both an image component and an informatic component—even if the senses had not yet undergone sufficient dialectical development to re-cognize negative entropy as such (that is, order itself as image and information), even if the senses had not yet become, as Marx might say, “theoreticians.”14 The commodity-object was a proto-image and proto-information. Whether it was some purportedly Platonic form of the shoe guiding the shoemaker to encode that information in the leather and then allowing that information to be recognized in the medieval shop and consumed until the medium gave out on the cobblestone street, or it is some ultra-provocative media-hyped aesthetico-ballistic property of a gender imaginary guiding an aspirant selfie-maker to wager yet another possibly sexy skin-shot for fractional-collective valorization, the relation between image and code/commodity is here operative. McLuhan might have said, the differences are a matter of media, and of the sense ratios: leather was tactile, facilitating walking and agrarian labor, while digital images are haptically virtual, facilitating corporeal organization by visuality, electrified consumption, and possibly in the case of our example, masochistic lust. Correct, but from the standpoint of political economy, also incomplete: the differences from informatic medieval shoe to informatic post-fordist booty are also a matter of an intensive programming of behavior in as much as the regime of images is part of the developmental program of capital expansion. This program works its way through the psyche and the built environment towards cybernetics and the bio-/necro-political in order to stave off the falling rate of profit and augment capital’s self-valorization—its autonomy and impunity. It is capital’s “answer” to revolutionary attempts to throw off its yoke. Here with new media we find the makings of a new order of imperialism—a kind of computational colonialism characterized by omniveillance, scripted behavior, and its own specific distributed practices and mentalities.
As it turns out, our efforts here to conceptualize the informatic absorption of social practice necessary to post-industrial capitalist expansion go back at least to the mid-twentieth century. I’ll give an historical example to concretize what I have said somewhat. In a brilliant essay entitled “Italian Operaismo and the Information Machine,” Matteo Pasquinelli rediscovers the work of Romano Alquati, “one of the first authors of Italian operaismo,” and finds “a conceptual bridge to connect Marx with cybernetics” (52) in Alquati’s 1963 text.15 In his argument regarding the rise of cybernetics and information, Pasquinelli convincingly shows that a passage of “Alquati could be understood avant la lettre as the very first postulate of cognitive capitalism that operaismo will start to develop only many decades later” (55). Building a powerful argument that the current conjuncture of capitalist informatics should be properly understood as a “society of meta-data” (64), Pasquinelli, with a Marxist theory of value firmly in mind, explains: “Alquati introduces the concept of valorizing information to describe the flow running upstream and feeding the cybernetic circuits of the whole factory. Such a valorizing information is continually produced by workers, absorbed by machinery, and eventually condensed into products” (54). His essay offers us a few tantalizing passages from Alquati’s text, including the means to understand Alquati’s term “valorizing information.” As Alquati’s essay is otherwise untranslated into English, I (somewhat shamelessly) reproduce Pasquinelli’s translation here:
Information is the essential to labour-force, it is what the worker—by the means of constant capital—transmits to the means of production on the basis of evaluations, measurements, elaborations in order to operate on the object of work all those modifications of its form that give it the requested use value.(Alquati 1963  qtd. in Pasquinelli 54)
The productive labour is defined by the quality of information elaborated and transmitted by the worker to the means of production via the mediation of constant capital, in a way that is tendentially indirect, but completely socialized.(Alquati 1963  qtd. in Pasquinelli 55)
Cybernetics recomposes globally and organically the functions of the general worker that are pulverized into individual microdecisions: the ‘bit’ links up the atomized worker to the figures of the Plan.(Alquati, 1963  qtd. in Pasquinelli 55)
As Pasquinelli summarizes,
In other words, operating as a numerical interface between the domain of labour and capital, cybernetics transforms information into surplus value…. Alquati’s important insight is a continuum merging management, bureaucracy, cybernetics, machinery and the division of labour: cybernetics unveils the machinic nature of bureaucracy and, conversely, the bureaucratic role of machines as they work as feedback apparatuses to control workers and capture their know-how. With Alquati we visit the belly of an abstract machine that is a concretion of capital no longer made of steel.(55, emphasis added)
What is left out of this astonishing account, and what is absent more generally from the writings of Italian Operaismo is the history of the industrialization of visuality as an equally significant—and in my view historically necessary—pathway for the direct cybernetic absorption of cognitive and affective activities by fixed capital. The cursory treatment of visuality by many of the theorists of cognitive capitalism is closely related to the mistaken notion of value’s immeasurability discussed earlier. As I argued in these digital pages in “Cinema, Capital of the Twentieth Century” (1994) and in a book, The Cinematic Mode of Production (2006), cinema brought the Industrial Revolution to the eye. Notions found in Christian Metz’s discussion of the three types of cinematic writers that together with the audience formed a feedback loop between the cinema and spectator’s metapsychology, or Jean Luis Commoli’s view that the queues around the block invented the cinema, offered early testimony to the cybernetic role of visual culture in the increasingly financialized integration of bodies and machines. The understanding that looking was posited as labor also meant the buildup of fixed capital from its harvest of new forms of attentional labor, and suggested that the history of visual technologies is an open archive capable of documenting the real subsumption of cognition, perception, and sociality by capital. Capital does not capture the cognitive-linguistic without industrializing vision. Thus, to redeploy Pasquinelli’s fine phrase in relation to visuality, screen images were for a long time “concretions of capital no longer made of steel.” The industrialization of visuality must be understood both to drive and to complement the industrialization of ratio-cognitive processes, from Babbage’s Analytic engine (contemporary with the birth of photography), to Norbert Weiner’s account of cybernetics as the machinification of low-level decision-making and “discrimination” (contemporary with the birth of television), through to Olivetti mainframes (precursors to the birth of the internet) and the now more obvious convergence of visual and discursive cognitive process today in social-media capitalism.
Virtuality and “Remaindered Life”: The Labor of Watching, the Factory Code, Autonomization, and De-ontologization16
“The new industrial revolution which is taking place now consists primarily in replacing human judgment and discrimination at low levels by the discrimination of the machine,” writes Norbert Weiner, the father of cybernetics, at the twilight of the industrial era (New Media 71).17 He could just as well have been thinking (as Flusser did only a few decades hence) about the automation of certain aspects of thought and of perception in the visual domain by means of the quantum functions of the camera. Indeed it is not certain that the camera was not thinking Weiner. Paul Virilio has shown that exhibit A of cybernetics, Weiner’s anti-aircraft gun, a fusion between human operator and machinic weapon with pre-calculated trajectories enabling targeting was already a kind of camera. And we must admit that even the discursive “virtuosity” of the locuter, theorized by Paulo Virno as an extension of social cooperation scripted by capital, emerges in a media-ecology equally dependent upon the production and absorption of cognitive-affective processes prescribed by programmatic visualization and decision making. These machinic and linguistic reformations organized by visual protocols, mark the capture and displacement of human agency as well as a reorganization of the cultural terrain first sensed as a full-blown sea change in the notion of Postmodernism.
However, the reorganization of culture and ground by capital’s transformation of the senses has been a long time in the making. As early as the mid-nineteenth century, in “The Production of Relative Surplus Value” chapter of Volume I, Marx observed the emergence of new industrial jobs that remarkably consisted in watching the machinery.
In many manual implements the distinction between man as mere motive power and man as worker or operator properly so called is very striking indeed. For instance, the foot is merely the prime mover of the spinning-wheel, while the hand, working with the spindle, and drawing and twisting performs the real operation of spinning. It is the second part of the handicraftsman’s implement, in this case the spindle, which is first seized upon by the industrial revolution, leaving to the worker, in addition to his new labour of watching the machine with his eyes, and correcting its mistakes with his hands, the merely mechanical role of acting as the motive power.(495-6, emphasis added)
Notably, this emergence of visual labor in “the fragment on machines,” in which industrial manufacturing is conceived (borrowing from one Dr. Ure) as a “vast automaton” for which the workers become but its “conscious organs,” rests upon the discipline and regimentation imposed by the increasing automation of steam driven industrial capital. Again, this time in “Machinery and Large-Scale Industry,” Marx writes,
The technical subordination of the worker to the uniform motion of the instruments of labour, and the peculiar composition of the working group, consisting as it does of individuals of both sexes and all ages, gives rise to a barrack-like discipline which is elaborated into a complete system in the factory and brings the previously mentioned labor of superintendence to its fullest development…‘To devise and administer a successful code of factory discipline, suited to the necessities of factory diligence, was the Herculean enterprise, the noble achievement of Arkwright!’ (Ure, 15) … In the factory code the capitalist formulates his autocratic power over his workers like a private legislator and purely as an emanation of his own will, unaccompanied by the division of responsibility otherwise so approved by the bourgeoisie, or the still more approved representative system. The code is merely the capitalist caricature of the social regulation of the labor process and becomes necessary in co-operation on a large scale and the employment in common in instruments of labor.(549–50, emphasis added)18
The code is merely the capitalist caricature of the social regulation of the labor process. Software studies might pause here and take a deep breath. Since the mid-nineteenth century, the labor of watching, of making adjustments with one’s hands, and the emergence of what was already the recognizable outlines of executable code were, we could say, in the works. Already here we witness the labor of superintendence, the labor of cooperation organized by code. The requirements were there; it was a matter of formalizing the mechanism. In the 1844 manuscripts Marx said that “industry was the open book of human psychology,” is it any wonder that just over one hundred years later Turing suggested the likelihood that the laws of human behavior were governed by a rule-set?
From the standpoint of capital, the role and indeed the fate of the two formerly distinct tracks, the visual and the verbal, is combined, in the reprogramming of behavior by the labor process. Their integrated emergence as modes for the organization of value-productive activity is bound together just as their codification through juridical prescription, scientific inscription, and police execution is inseparable again from the histories of money, imperialism, labor, class, gender, sexuality, and racialization that consciously or not informed their organization and thus their encryptions, transmissions, and valuations. This history is one of a broad-spectrum colonization of media, one that makes clear that by the time the medium is the message, the message is capitalist exploitation.
For criticism, we note in passing, it is perhaps only vis-à-vis such a broad-band, interdisciplinary and indeed anti-disciplinary approach as sketched above that one might fully glimpse the modality of the network of encroachments of informatics, of code, of programmable images, on the life-world. To avoid platform fetishism (and to begin to decolonize media studies), it should become discursively impossible to separate the above terms fully and render any one of them autonomous. No race without class, no cinema without gender and imperialism, no computation without capital, no wealth without murder. Logically, it is thus also impossible to extract these “objects” of analysis from historical process or to separate any of these from violence: The violence of abstraction, of codification, is not merely metaphorical. An argument for the full autonomy of any of these discursive sedimentations amounts to a disavowal of the violent history of their formation as interoperable with one another, and hence amounts to an automated (and often automatic) reproduction of that violence. Media Studies bound to platform fetishism leads to a processing of data in the fascist sense, as do strictly disciplinary approaches more generally.
The cybernetics that are the very condition of digitality and computational capital place us not only in a post-Fordist but also a post-human moment. If biopolitics (necropolitics) and the technics thereof have become the measure of all things formerly social, then “Man” most certainly is not. Neither can “man,” nor “woman” as Donna Haraway clearly indicated in her 1985 “Cyborg Manifesto,” remain the gold standard of Marxism, Socialism, or Socialist Feminism. This demotion of “man,” “woman,” and “the human,” not necessarily a bad thing for all constituents, is significant not only as a symptom of a mammoth transformation of the mode of production and reproduction to computation in the cybernetic interpenetration of image, code and financialization, but also because “the human” (along with God, Gold, and Truth) no longer appears available to function as ground (see Haraway). During the twentieth century the dollar went off the gold standard, representation went off the reality standard, and capital went off the human standard—three outmoded interfaces that were at the same time metrics (methods of account) rendered clunky if not obsolete by informatics and digitization. Today, in a near total de-grounding of metaphysical assurances, standards are ones of protocol interoperability, and the old terms are reduced to forms of user-interface. Indeed, as Allen Feldman has brilliantly shown, metaphysics and operative, on demand restructuring of ontologies, is a medium of (permanent) war.
In the list of gold, reality, and human as standard, the last, it should also be admitted, seems irredeemable, given that “the human” is an idea built upon racial exclusion of colonized and enslaved peoples. Some might argue that the jury is still out, but racism, colonialism, apartheid, and genocide were part of the human operating system of Digital Culture 1.0, and as I’ve argued elsewhere, the enslaved and the colonized were the first content providers for capital’s platform known as “Humanism.” Nowadays with the continuation of these value-extractive programs by other means (though the old means certainly persist), the distributed, indeed trans-species, and in fact in the broadest sense the trans-media cybernesis that characterizes the computational mode of production blurs the neat distinctions between human and technology, between biology and semiology, between inside and outside—for better and for worse. As mentioned at the outset of this article, these mutations in the protocols of valuation are themselves the result of struggle just as the earlier essentialist algorithms (Human, God, Gold, Reality) were both forcibly imposed and forcefully resisted. Value does not become measureless, but the imposition of the value form breaks up the received ontologies of prior modes of life as it imposes and legitimates universal exploitation for the purpose of infinite accumulation. Given some clarity on the macrological character of the dialectic of capital accumulation and radical dispossession, it seems obvious, even trivial that the new computational metrics being put in place have a bearing on “representation” and “politics,” domains that are themselves no longer conceivable as autonomous to the degree that they are being subsumed by the operating system of computational capital.
Some questions arise: With the real subsumption of humanity as a standard of value, how to confront the full autonomization of capitalist valuations? With the shattering of the sovereign subject in multi-tasked distributed production that deploys ontologies as algorithms (American, male, Chinese, female), we are forced to ask exactly who or what is exploited in the social factory? In whose name and on whose behalf are we making the revolution? Looking towards the horizon one must also ask: is there a Communist Computing?19 In my view, these are questions of poesis and programming. With these questions in mind, we may see that it is not value that has become immeasurable, as Negri thought, but rather that which Neferti Tadiar calls “remaindered life” (“Life-times” 796): the fragments and dimensions of persons and peoples, of experience and aspiration that literally fall out of an economy (and its representations and political programs) in which, over the past century, product, semiotic, measure and value are increasingly unified. Remaindered life is immeasurable and unaccounted for because the metrics themselves are instruments of capitalization through the financialization of the schema of information. This immeasurability, this being beyond number, is what Negri was probably reaching for (and what Tadiar is able to name) in his mistaken claim that value was immeasurable. With respect to what is immeasurable, the words that conclude Borges’s 1941 “The Garden of Forking Paths,” a story about encryption if there ever was one, seem prescient. Knowing that the newspapers will pick up the story, the spy Yu T’sun murders an Englishman, who could have taught him much about his own history, to send a message (the Englishman’s name is that of the town to be bombed) to German military intelligence. Bearing witness to the remnants of informatic war, and writing from his English prison cell, he melancholically reflects on his deeds, his losses, and his relation to his German commanding officer for whom he foreclosed his alternative paths in order to send a message—“He does not know (no one can know) my innumerable contrition and weariness” (29, emphasis added).
It is tempting to say that this remaindered life, already present in Borges and resultant from the logistics of communication in the context of world war, is a new antithesis that is and will be the resultant form of the synthesis of capital and labor in the network of M-I-C-I′-M′, which, with its colonization of the life-world, would put labor and capital in lock-step ordained by the value form itself and simultaneously externalize non-capitalist experience beyond the horizon of representation. We are being pushed towards a non-productive fugitivity and forms of endurance and survival.
The insistent call of a politics beyond politics (since “politics” is now a subroutine of financialized semiotics) results from the near total colonization and capture of sign systems by a formation of capital that is increasingly autonomous. On the autonomization of the value form, this from Capital:
In simple circulation, the value of commodities attained at the most a form independent of use values, i.e., the form of money. But now, in the circulation of M-C-M, value suddenly presents itself as a self-moving substance which passes through a process of its own, and for which commodities and money are both mere forms. But there is more to come: instead of simply representing the relations of commodities, it now enters into a private relationship with itself, as it were …. Value … now becomes value in process, money in process, and, as such, capital. It comes out of circulation, enters into it again, preserves and multiplies itself within circulation, emerging from it with an increased size, and starts the same cycle again and again. M-M, ‘money which begets money.’ Lastly, in the case of interest-bearing capital, the circulation M-C-M′ presents itself in abridged form, in its final result without any intermediate stage, in a concise style, so to speak, as M-M′, i.e., money which is worth more money, value which is greater than itself.
Two things to conclude here as a result of capital’s colonization of the life-world, which is to say, its artificial intelligence: first, money’s shimmering presence, its pyrotechnics, its metaphysical, psychotropic, cybernetic effects (which might be abstracted and understood as the financialized precondition for the identity of identity and non-identity) are the effects of its “concise style,” and a consequence of its role in structuring, which is to say programming, the metabolism of society—the latter word is Marx’s. Second, what has happened in the past long century, particularly with the visual turn, the capture of the cognitive linguistic and the consequent evisceration of classical metaphysics (an imposition of the same “concise style” that required the placing of “being” under erasure, and along with the rise of simulation and virtuality, required the evisceration of traditional metaphysical essentialisms by the screens of capital), is that, under the authority of the autonomization of the value form, the number and type of intervals from M-M′ have undergone an exponential expansion. The wholesale rewiring of space-time at all operative levels by the protocols of a unified operating system (the invisible hand) synonymous with and indeed authored by capital logic in deadly struggle with revolutionary innovation from below withers away old world metaphysics (as well as the old world itself), utilizing methods of ramification and incorporation through enumeration—the assignation of number to any quality whatever.
The computational mode of production has encroached upon the world. The general procedure was and is the recursive loop image-code-financialization, though at an earlier stage in capital development this was simply called commodification. This procedure, along with the ability to reverse engineer a desired effect back to a fragmentary process could be traced back to Gutenberg, and the scientific revolution, and industrialization–all of which, whatever else they were, pace McLuhan, were vehicles of capital expansion. The expansion and intensification of this procedure of image-code-financialization through a recursive feedback loop with the bios, its extrinsic and intrinsic development, strives to encompass both the macro and micro infinities of space-time. As we have seen, with computational capital’s exponential growth of the circuits from M-M′, through the organization of image and code and the development of these as worksites, the forms of the commodity and the forms of labor have been transformed, along with the very mode of the presencing (or non-presencing) of both the human and being.
Amidst all this semio-material re-ordination, two fundamental conditions remain as results of the autonomization of the value-form: designated hypostatically they are private property (the accumulation of capital) and violence (the accumulation of dispossession). As Marx wrote in Capital, “There is not one single atom of… value that does not owe its existence to unpaid labor” (728). Today we might understand that these “atoms” of value are life-quanta, stolen moments of life-time that result in the antithesis of democracy. We red-flag in passing the symptomatic rise of interminable war, massive environmental destruction, worldwide precarity and everyday fascism as inescapable aspects of capital’s broad-spectrum, increasingly fine-grained informatic praxis of command/control. And, with Tadiar, we gesture towards the remainder, that which falls away from the calculus of capital, as a direction of insurgent investigation.
Elsewhere I hope to reconsider the space of the interval from M-M′—along with the politics, such that they are, of the production of “interest,” a term that itself indicates a convergence in accord with the new calculi of value operative within the domain of images and codes.20 The interval from M-M′ is the interval of speculation, creativity, exploitation—and also and always of struggle. We do not yet know if that sovereign interval that has presided over so many nightmares can be meaningfully transcended or only momentarily suspended.
JONATHAN BELLER is Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at Pratt Institute. Books and edited volumes include The Cinematic Mode of Production: Attention Economy and the Society of the Spectacle; Acquiring Eyes: Philippine Visuality, Nationalist Struggle and the World-Media System; and Feminist Media Theory (a special issue of The Scholar and Feminist Online). Among his current book projects are The Programmable Image and The Message is Murder. Beller has been a fellow at the Barnard Center for Research on Women and Gender, serves on the editorial collective of Social Text, and is the director of The Graduate Program in Media Studies at Pratt.
1. A moment’s attention to the gendered logic of the hegemonic selfie is in order—nicely analyzed in Sarah Gram’s blogspot discussion of Tiqqun’s Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young Girl (2012) and the selfie. Quoting Tiqqun, Gram writes, “‘the young girl is the model citizen of contemporary society,’ an identity colonized by capital.” Gram suggests that the young girl is the hollowed-out commodity par excellence, imprisoned by its own self-production. Gram tracks the schizoid drives of obligation and shame in this commodity-self production mediated by the self-image, or the selfie, and writes, “We elevate the work women do on their bodies to the utmost importance, and then punish the outcome of that labour. That is how hegemony works.”
2. Riffing on Vilem Flusser’s Towards a Philosophy of Photography to title her project Towards a Philosophy of the Selfie, Columbia University student Maya Meredith, in a section entitled “I point and shoot, therefore I am,” micro-blogged a quotation from Virginia Heffernan’s Wired article on Instagram:
Now that superstylized images have become the answer to “How are you?” and “What are you doing?” we can avoid the ruts of linguistic expression in favor of a highly forgiving, playful, and compassionate style of looking. When we live only in language—in tweets and status updates, in zingers, analysis, and debate—we come to imagine the world to be much uglier than it is. But Instagram, if you use it right, will stealthily persuade you that other humans—and nature, and food, and three-dimensional objects more generally—are worth observing for the sheer joy of it.
Meredith comments on this notably language-replacing visual platform:
But to me, this brave new world is troubling. Haven’t endemic racism, classism, homo- and transphobia, and sexism already revealed to us the problems with basing communication purely on visual cues? The world of social media photography, with its purely like-based system (no thumbs-downs here as on YouTube) seems to be the ultimate self-affirmer, but this universal positivity lulls us into a false sense of security. I don’t want to see the ability to decode eroded any further than it already has been.
Meredith’s project has inspired my own.
3. Adorno is alleged to be quoting Leo Lowenthal.
4. Had Anne Frank, who would have been eighty-seven this year (2016), not caught the last train to Auschwitz, she would have been a Belieber. Perhaps it’s easy to the point of being uncool to pick on Bieber’s low-hanging fruit, but we need to ask: is this particular cut ‘n’ mix fantasy of historical redemption symptomatic of a generalized narrowing of the range of empathy, of experience? Is a cyborg “sharing,” in which all one’s machine-mediated posting, friending, and liking serve to procure dopamine and extend one’s fan-base, to be the new infrastructure of solidarity?
5. For some excellent quick reads, see Rebecca L. Stein, Adi Kuntsman, and Negar Mottahedeh. See also Dean.
6. Like it or not, the reigning econo-metrics of the celebrity-self, fractally reproduced and scaled from Barack Obama and Miley Cyrus to the loneliest anorexic teen, are structural and financial. If, for example, one sees Obama, in his capacity as the president of Empire, as the expropriation of Black radical imagination rather than the expression of it, then the word “audacity” in his titular phrase “the audacity of hope” has a sinister irony to it—at least for those who suffer the collateral damage of drone strikes, US foreign policy, and financial practices, and the domestic policies of the security state that include racial profiling, the prison industrial complex, immigrant detention, and border “fences.” This critique would not be focused on Obama’s integrity but on the structural limits of celebrity-mediated politics. As a structural feature of finance capital, the celebrity/celebutant—itself the fractalization of the charismatic dictator and the Hollywood celeb—posits everyone else as expropriable sensual labor, a source of attention in a mode of self-branding that capitalizes on the hopes and aspirations of others. “Fandom as free labor,” as Abigail de Kosnik, calls it, is fundamental to the (“personal”) brand as financial vector. Knowing that this accumulation of alienated subjectivity powers the celebrity subject gives one pause regarding the actually existing mediations of “democracy.” In a post-civil rights, post-Ferguson, white-supremacist US presumably presided over by Obama, it suggests the limits of politics organized by celebrity capitalism and threatens to make audible the ironic (and structurally cynical?) declension of Obama’s widely admired title The Audacity of Hope (2006).
7. It is noteworthy that the world computer is a phrase that has emerged among crypto-currency programmers (Ethereum) during the course of the three years that it has taken to write this essay and bring it to pixilated press.
8. To Negri’s great credit and in a manner characteristic with the originality of his thought, the challenge to measurability of value comes “from below” as innovative affective powers that exceed the metrics of (and thus are devoid of recognition by) political economy. One unattributed example he gives (though Silvia Federici comes immediately to mind) is housework. The second is as follows:
This case deals no longer with the traditional paradigms of classical economics but with a really postmodern theme: the so-called economy of attention. By this term, one refers to the interest in assuming in the economic calculation the interactivity of the user of communication services. In this case, too, even in the clear effort to absorb the production of subjectivity, economics ignores the substance of the question. As it focuses attention on the calculation of ‘audience,’ it flattens, controls, and commands the production of subjectivity on a disembodied horizon. Labor (attention) is here subsumed, stripping it from value (of the subject), that is, from affect.(79)
One could wonder where he got that example—perhaps his sources come from below as well.
10. This latter can be sold individually or in lots, piecemeal or, on occasion, all at once. In reality, such purchases are contracts, contracts for products that require labor over time to produce.
11. For some of the details of the increasing resolution of these dynamics, see, for example, Nielsen and Pernice.
12. This shift in the mode of production also implies an ontological shift—a shift in the mode of being of things (and of the status of “the thing”). The being of the universe has a new character within the meta-universe (multi-verse) of commodified knowledge that renders it—it is arguable whether or not any knowing exists beyond such an epistemic horizon, at least for us. You will no doubt notice that we are thus rapt by an inversion in which the mode of knowing trumps the essence of any object: all being, from the subatomic to the cosmic, is enframed by commodification. The implication in short: existence is given up to us through the calculus of the commodity-form—the medium is, after all, the message. If we wanted to embrace fully the logical and perhaps practical collapse of all non-commodified worlds into fully commodified representation even at the level of style, we might be tempted with regard to the total colonization of subjectivity by computational capital to write that what’s true for the selfie is true for the otherie too. But let’s resist such dissonant totalitarian foreclosure.
13. Though I do not have time to develop this here, these are moments of material production riding on the back of use value. Use has not disappeared; it has, from the standpoint of capital, become merely theoretical. The particular use is a matter of indifference, for capital, and in fact lies beyond its episteme as a structural and practical necessity, but the positing of a ground, an ultimately determining instance, a limit and a threshold, is still functional.
A shoe and a piece of furniture are valuable because they are information-carriers, improbable forms made of leather or wood and metal. But information is impressed into these objects and cannot be detached from them. One can only wear out and consume this information. This is what “makes” such objects, as objects, valuable, i.e., “able” to be filled with value. In the case of the photograph on the other hand, the information sits loosely on the surface and can easily be conveyed to another surface. To this extent the photograph demonstrates the defeat of the material thing and of the concept of “ownership.”
While I disagree with Flusser regarding the defeat of ownership (indeed this entire essay is about its persistence), his insights into the post-industrial rise of informatics in the universe of the technical image are notably rich. Here we can see that the commodity is treated as image and information by virtue of its negative entropy (its improbability)—despite the historical fact that the senses had not yet developed sufficiently to produce the concept of information or make these imagistic aspects of negative entropy legible as such. Fredric Jameson’s now classic reading of the peasant shoes painted by Van Gogh would indicate, however, not only that as early as the end of the nineteenth century such a thing as shoes contained information, but also that that information was modified by use and could be rendered both visible and legible. (parenthetically cite page numbers?)
15. Pasquinelli refers to Alquati’s Composizione organica del capitale e forza-lavoro alla Olivetti, Part 1. Quaderni Rossi 2 (1962) and his Composizione organica del capitale e forza-lavoro alla Olivetti, Part 2. Quaderni Rossi 3 (1963).
16. I borrow the term “remaindered life” from Neferti Tadiar. See her “Decolonization, ‘Race’ and Remaindered Life Under Empire.”
17. Directly linking the history of computation and television to cybernetics, Weiner wrote “(a) the use of television had shown us a way to represent two or more dimensions on one device and (b) that the previous device which measured quantities should be replaced by a more precise sort of device that counted numbers” (New Media 67). Nam Jun Paik tells the history thus:
Newton’s physics is the mechanics of power and the unconciliatory two-party system, in which the strong win over the weak. But in the 1920’s a German genius put a third-party (grid) between these two mighty poles (cathode and anode) in a vacuum tube, thus enabling the weak to win over the strong for the first time in human history. It might be a Buddhistic “third way,” but anyway this German invention led to cybernetics, which came to the world in the last war to shoot down German planes from the English sky.
18. Marx cites Dr. Ure’s Philosophy of Manufactures (1835).
19. The interrogation of the seeming autonomy of the value-form arises from the perception of over-expropriation and the intimation of the possibility of constructing alternative constituencies. Los Indignados, Occupy, Podemos, Tsipras’s people-backed refusal of debts imposed by the Imperial EU are all examples of nascent uprising.
20. Jonathan Beller, “Informatic Labor in the Age of Computational Capital,” Lateral: Journal of the Cultural Studies Association 5.1 (Spring 2016).