[iDC] Periodizing cinematic production

Brian Holmes brian.holmes at aliceadsl.fr
Wed Sep 2 00:12:13 UTC 2009

[In my previous post, in reply to Arnim Medosch, I developed some 
ideas about the historical interpretation of media forms, 
particularly in their aspect as commodities. Here I am hoping to 
launch a new discussion along somewhat similar lines, beginning 
this time from the aspect of production in the industrial 
economies. Hope there is some interest! - BH]

"How do you get capitalism into the psyche, and how do you get 
the psyche into capital?" asks the philosopher Jean-Joseph Goux. 
Drawing on key insights from Gramsci, Simmel and Benjamin -- and 
radicalizing the work of film critic Christian Metz in the 
process -- Jonathan Beller gives this quite astonishing reply:

"Materially speaking, industrialization enters the visual as 
follows: Early cinematic montage extended the logic of the 
assembly line (the sequencing of discreet, programmatic 
machine-orchestrated human operations) to the sensorium and 
brought the industrial revolution to the eye.... It is only by 
tracing the trajectory of the capitalized image and the 
introjection of its logic into the sensorium that we may observe 
the full consequences of the dominant mode of production 
(assembly-line capitalism) becoming 'the dominant mode of 
representation' (cinema). Cinema implies the tendency toward the 
automation of the subject by the laws of exchange.... Understood 
as a precursor to television, computing, email, and the World 
Wide Web, cinema can be seen as part of an emerging cybernetic 
complex, which, from the standpoint of an emergent global labor 
force, functions as a technology for the capture and redirection 
of global labor's revolutionary social agency and potentiality."

Beller's book, The Cinematic Mode of Production: Attention 
Economy and the Society of the Spectacle, develops the thesis 
that filmic montage was instrumental in reshaping the 
"psycho-social nexus" of entire populations, in order to meet the 
needs of Fordist manufacturing in the early twentieth century. 
This thesis is principally developed in a chapter on, of all 
things, Eisenstein's film The Strike, which he sees less as an 
exploration of workers' autonomy than as an exercise in "the 
organization of the masses through organized material" and "the 
development of the eye as a pathway for the regulation of the 
body." To convince the reader of cinema's disciplinary function 
-- crucial to economic development in the industrially backward 
Soviet Union of the mid-1920s -- he quotes Eisenstein's brutally 
explicit declaration: "Reforging someone else's psyche is no less 
difficult and considerable a task than forging iron." It is in 
this instrumental and frankly manipulative sense that cinema is 
"a technology of affect." Thus it is Eisenstein himself who can 
restate Beller's thesis with the utmost precision:

"An attraction is in our understanding any demonstrable fact (an 
action, an object, a phenomenon, a conscious combination and so 
on) that is known and proven to exercise a definite effect on the 
attention and emotions of the audience and that combined with 
others possesses the characteristics of concentrating the 
audience's emotions in any direction dictated by the production's 
purpose.... The method of agitation through spectacle consists in 
the creation of a new chain of conditioned reflexes by 
associating selected phenomena with the unconditioned reflexes 
they produce."

Following Eisenstein, Beller relates the techniques of early 
cinematic montage to the behavioral psychology of Pavlov, with 
his theory of conditioned reflexes, and also to the management 
science of Taylor, who analyzed actual labor practices in view of 
isolating the most efficient gestures and then imposing them on 
workers both by disciplinary training and by the very 
configuration and cadences of the machines which they were 
henceforth to serve. Filmic editing was the representational and 
affective analogue of this Pavlovian and Taylorist reconditioning 
of human labor: and even more, it was the essential aesthetic 
mediator of the physiological learning process whereby, as 
Gramsci wrote, "the memory of the trade, reduced to simple 
gestures repeated at an intense rhythm, 'nestles' in the muscular 
and nervous centers." By carefully weaving this web of 
connections between Pavlovian psychology, Taylorist management 
science and filmic aesthetics, Beller comes closer than anyone 
else I have ever read to justifying Benjamin's insight into the 
historical role of cinema in the early twentieth century, stated 
in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction":

"Film serves to train human beings in the practice of those 
apperceptions and reactions required by the frequentation of an 
apparatus whose role in their daily life ever inceases. To make 
this whole enormous technological apparatus of our time into the 
object of human interiorization and appropriation [Innervation] 
-- that is the historic task in whose service film has its true 

It is, however, precisely at the point where Jonathan has 
succeded in fully developing Benjamin's brilliant insight that I 
feel the need for a number of historical remarks, touching on the 
issues of periodization, crisis and societal change. The problem 
as I see it is not a nit-picking academic one, adding footnotes 
and detail to a basic concept that remains unaltered; nor even 
less is it a matter of debunking an otherwise excellent argument 
by pointing out occasional anachronisms in the use of words like 
"cybernetics." What's at stake is the reconstruction of an 
unfinished dialectical history of the development of 
communicational commodities in their relation to the 
transformations of both productive machinery and management 
science - shifts occasioned, each time, by major crises of 
capitalism, involving social conflicts in which workers' autonomy 
cannot simply be discounted. The passage around which it seems 
like we could have a real dialogue comes around the first third 
of the chapter on Eisenstein and production. It reads like this:

"In cinema lies a key to the structure and relations, the physics 
and the metaphysics, the subjectivity and objectivity, in short 
the underlying logic of post-industrial society. The organization 
of consciousness is coextensive with the organization of 
postindustrial society, and the media are the belts that forge 
these underlying connections. Cinema inaugurates a shift in the 
economics of social production, and if it can be shown that such 
a shift achieves critical mass in cinema and in its legacies of 
television, computer, internet, then it can be argued that cinema 
is not merely a specific phenomenon in which the sensorium 
becomes subject (subjugated) to a code existing beyond itself and 
indeed beyond 'natural language,' but the general case -- the 
culmination and the paradigm of a historical epoch that 
supersedes the bourgeois mode of production by introjecting 
capitalized industrial process directly into the mindscape." 
(Beller, p. 106)

Yes and no! While I deeply appreciate the relations you draw 
between filmic montage and assembly-line manufacturing, my big 
question is: How do we jump so fast to post-industrial society?

I'd agree with you, Jon, that the early development of cinema 
fits perfectly into the transition from nineteenth-century 
liberal capitalism, with its multiplicity of freely competing 
bourgeois capitals, to the incipient monopoly capitalism of the 
century's end, marked in the US by vertically integrated 
corporations like Standard Oil or Carneige Steel (or by 
"concerns" like Krupp in Germany). I'd date the crisis of liberal 
capitalism from the Long Depression of 1873-79, and I'd 
understand the consolidation of the leading nation-states around 
that time (US civil war, German and Italian unification, Meiji 
restoration) as a prerequisite for industrial expansion and the 
emergence of assembly-line production. The kind of industrial 
regimentation that Gramsci talks about in Americanism and 
Fordism, and that is such a central concern for you, is uniquely 
characteristic of this era; and you're definitely right to 
associate it with Taylor's scientific management and the 
reflex-arc psychology of Pavlov, Watson and Skinner. From this 
perspective cinema appears as a stimulant to production, a 
psychic shock unleashing biological energy.

What's missing from all this is a treatment of cinema consumption 
and its role in the broader expansion of mass-consumer markets in 
the years from its invention until the 1930s -- and yet the whole 
originality of your book is to insist, against the grain, on the 
links between cinema and productive discipline, so that the 
absence of any real treatment of consumption here could be taken 
as the polemical thrust of your work. What I think is crucial, 
however, is that capitalism changed definitively in the wake of 
the crisis of '29 and the Great Depression, and the functions of 
the mass media changed along with it. The state ceased to be 
merely a kind of ad-hoc executive committee of the bourgeoisie in 
its struggle to exploit the working class, as Marx had conceived 
it (and as far too many Marxists still conceive it). Instead, the 
crisis tendencies of capitalist and inter-imperialist competition 
forced the complete integration of capital and the state in the 
centralized industrial planning of WWII; and at the same time, in 
response to the political threat represented by the Soviet 
revolution and the proletarian movements that sprung up in its 
wake throughout the West, the new Keynesian conception of the 
workers as the source of effective demand brought them entirely 
within the state capitalist construction. With the Keynesian 
logic and the emergence of the welfare state against a backdrop 
of economic crisis, a fundamental political conflict changed the 
course of both economic and media history. When theorists say 
there is no longer any "outside"  to capitalism, they are really 
referring to this integrative phase that runs, in the US, from 
Roosevelt's New Deal to Johnson's Great Society. And this 
integrative era, marking the pinnacle of the industrial 
economies, is the age of cybernetics: the closed-loop, total 
planning system. It is at this point, I think, that you can 
really speak of the "automation of the subject by the laws of 

The disciplines of psychology and management science changed 
entirely during the war. Cyberneticists explicitly saw the 
behaviorists as their enemies and soon made them obsolete. 
Instead of reducing men and women to mechanisms functioning on 
cause-effect principles, they wanted to compose larger, 
self-equilibrating systems out of human beings and machines, 
where the crucial input was not energy (that was now easily 
available) but instead, information serving to correct any 
imbalance in the productive process. Constructing a system that 
would correct itself in response to the right information, and 
only the right information, was now the task of both industrial 
and social design. The management of labor within the plant now 
consisted in making the wage the only relevant information for 
the worker: conflicts over wages were legitimate, because they 
could always lead to the extraction of higher productivity, and 
never to workers' autonomy or self-management, much less free 
time away from the machines. Yet the other crucial variable of 
capitalist development remained consumer demand, which had failed 
so dangerously in the 1930s; and here, the crucial media 
invention was television, which emerged on the broad consumer 
market in the 1950s.

The key thing is to see that television was managed 
cybernetically: the Neilsen rating system, first applied to radio 
from 1942 onward, was immediately extended to television in order 
to close the informational loop between the production and 
consumption of mass-consumption goods. Now the industrialists 
could be sure what people were watching, and how their desires 
were being shaped by entertainment and advertising. Rather than 
flooding the market anarchically and instinctively, without any 
certainty of finding a buyer, they could scientifically manage 
consumer desire, even while the state was managing the 
availability of disposable income for consumption. That's a 
fundamental change, and it's really striking how little attention 
is paid to the feedback loops of television in the American-style 
development of the planned economy. We should speak of 
"Neilsenism" for this epoch, the way Gramsci spoke of Fordism in 
the earlier period. And, I think, we should clearly distinguish 
between the social function of television in the postwar period, 
and cinema in the previous one.

Similar remarks can be made about the advent of micromedia (tape 
and video recorders, hand-held video cameras) and then 
interactive networks, in the course of the thirty-year period 
following the crisis of 1967-73. Of course this is the major 
discussion in my own work, in texts like The Flexible 
Personality, Future Map or Guattari's Schizoanalytic 
Cartographies, so I won't go into too much detail. What's 
important to stress, though, is that just as three-cornered wage 
bargaining between labor, capital and the state tends to 
disappear in this period, so do the closed-loop planning 
processes of cybernetics. What emerges instead is the notion of 
the innnovative individual, whose freely evolving behavior should 
be mapped out and predicted by data-gathering and channeled by 
urban and architectural design. Cybernetics is replaced by chaos 
and complexity theories and management becomes a subtle exercise 
in governmentality and "incentivization."

Of course, the new stress on the (pseudo-)autonomy of the 
individual by motivated by the falling rate of profit in the 
1970s, due in part to the emergence of new production centers 
(Germany, Japan, then the Asian Tigers and China) and the 
consequent saturation of consumer markets; so the innovative and 
autonomous individual is, from the capitalist viewpoint, just a 
necessary corollary to the new idea of small-batch, customized 
goods and the inflation of purely semiotic products and 
lifestyles which can almost immediately go obsolete, clearing the 
way for further production and sales. Only a networked media 
system could at once contribute to the hyper-individualization of 
the consumer, and his or her continuous access to the market. But 
I also think that the conflicts of late 60s and early 70s were 
real, and that many features of the new production, consumption 
and media system respond directly to the demands for autonomy 
that were expressed at that time. The problem is the way those 
demands were twisted into the new appetitive and predatory 
behaviors of today's social game.

What emerges in the so-called "risk society" of neoliberalism is 
really a meta-reflexive situation where everyone who is still 
included in the system is highly aware of the arbitrary nature of 
each new rule-set, and avidly looking to exploit all the changing 
rules to their personal advantage; while at the same time, the 
crisis-ridden system continually throws more people outside, it 
excludes them. In this way, the outside of capitalism both 
beckons and terrifies in the present period. The forms of the 
networked technologies, their highly individualized functions, 
their particular fetishistic attractiveness and the kinds of 
productive stimulation they offer are all shaped by the very 
unique characteristic of the current phase of our 
political-economy. We are now all supposed to produce our own 
little films, with the speculative hope that there may be a pot 
of gold at the end of our personal, pixellated rainbows. Which is 
a far different situation, I think, from that of a worker in a 
Ford plant or a Soviet factory...


Well, this is a terribly long post and still a very sketchy one, 
to the point where it probably appears somewhat delirious! The 
reason why is that I am at once tremendously excited by the 
breakthroughs of The Cinematic Mode of Production, and at the 
same time, inspired and daunted by the challenges of using those 
breakthroughs to construct a new kind of media theory, one that 
responds to the dialectical transformations of our societies. 
While writing this post today I have looked more than once at the 
tableau of three major periods of capitalist development and 
their corresponding crises, assembled by Alex Foti and published 
here: www.leftcurve.org/LC31WebPages/Grid&ForkTable.pdf. I have 
also thought a good deal about French regulation-school theory, 
which Alex draws upon heavily and which tries to establish a 
correlation between a regime of capitalist accumulation and a 
mode of social regulation (or governance). Though they are not 
much discussed by the theorists of the economy, cinema, 
television and the networked communications devices all have a 
role to play in both the regime of accumulation and the mode of 
regulation. The difficulty for the cultural critic is how to 
describe those different roles, as well as the overlaps, 
prefigurations and continuities between them.

Probably I give the impression that I see each new form of 
media-regulation superceding and replacing the others, but in 
reality I think they layer onto each other, just as the most 
archaic religions and rigid forms of authority continue to exist 
in our time. While concentrating on the early twentieth century, 
The Cinematic Mode of Production is full of insights into what I 
might think of as the televisual and networked eras, precisely 
because it very often deals with all three periods at once, using 
the mobilizing paradigm of cinema to understand the additional 
forms of complexity, integration, contradiction and 
psychopathology that are continually piled up along with the 
other ruins of the capitalist disaster. In particular, the 
developments of this decade have made it clear that contemporary 
control is in no way limited to the vagaries of 
"governmentality." By dealing simultaneously with what I often 
describe as three distinct periods, the book does a lot to show 
how capitalism got into the psyche, and how the psyche got into 
capitalism... What I'm curious about, Jon, is whether you would 
see any value in the sequence of dialectical breaks that I use to 
understand the evolution of both media and the political-economic 
orders into which they are inserted; or whether you would insist 
on the paradigmatic nature of cinematic montage, even for 
postindustrial society.

Whatever the answer, the book's a great read!

best, Brian

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