[iDC] Periodizing cinematic production

Jonathan Beller jbeller at pratt.edu
Wed Sep 2 15:13:26 UTC 2009

Thanks Brian, for that astonishing post: brilliant, provocative,  
erudite and above all, useful, for fleshing out what you call "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."  
Your call for precision and subtlety here with respect to discourse on  
mediation feels entirely appropriate and the periodizations that you  
suggest, if I understand them right, offer excellent points of rupture  
(and continuity) for us to think with.

So roughly, 19th c. liberal capitalism, the rise of the nation-state  
in its strong form along with assembly-line production, monopoly and  
inter-imperialist wars quickly requires Taylorization and behaviorism  
for the organization and management of what would otherwise be the  
increasing autonomy of workers. If I follow you correctly, it is  
precisely here that cinema has its world-historical role in as much as  
it is an industry for the reforging of the psyche, and the programming  
of perception and affect. There was a question here about the  
expansion of markets and the role of consumption. In the interwar  
period the psychological character of consumption and advertising is  
at once discovered and vertiginously developed, and as you point out,  
postwar paradigms shifted away from behaviorism (although frames of  
coca-cola logos cut into film narratives and erotic figures swiriling  
in scotch covered ice-cubes were still being developed) to cybernetics  
and what you beautifully label as Neilsenism. And as Neilsenism, with  
its feedback loops and its informational calculus, supercedes Fordism,  
Television supercedes cinema. I might want to mention Hitchcock here  
as a place holder, in as much as his work indexes the emergence of  
psychoanalysis as a kind of vernacular, and foregrounds new dynamics  
of the visual in the construction of gender and subjectivity. In  
another vein, which I will return to later, I would want to also  
consider the scientific development of the medium of torture,  
particularly the emergence of "no touch" torture as part of the  
overall mo of psy-war. Then there is the 30 year period following the  
crises from 1967-1973 characterized by the replacement of a cybernetic  
paradigm with chaos theory, complexity theory and governmentality, all  
of which are there to at once authorize and regulate the increasing  
"(psuedo)-autonomy", as you nicely put it, of the individual (here the  
paradigmatic media would be hand held tape and video recorders), and  
finally, we arrive in "risk society," which you again beautifully  
characterize as "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." Ken Wark has written on aspects of  
this in Gamer Theory as has Randy Martin in Empire of Indifference.  
Here the paradigmatic media would be, I suppose, the computer, the  
internet, and, now, clearly, the iphone).

This highly schematic rendition of your more nuanced account of  
paradigm shifts in social organization and the simultaneous  
transformations in "communicational commodities" strikes me as highly  
useful. In the CMP I also suggested that a similar kind of  
periodization could be undertaken by comparing the evolution of  
dominant media forms with the evoloution of money-forms, that is, of  
credit, where photography corresponds to the gold standard and the  
idea of a real referent, etc. all the way, i suppose to derivatives  
and what? Reality-TV (which, i insist, must always be written with a  

I have to confess that I am still undecided with respect to the  
ultimate explanatory power of cinema in relation to what I still think  
of as its legacy technologies -- tv, hand-helds, computing, internet,  
mobile phone. When I started the book, there was actually no internet  
and the first desk-tops had only been around for five years. Of course  
TV had been a fixture of childhood and my interest in cinema with its  
material celluloid substrate was a direct assault on the  
dematerialization-effect that TV programming seemed to have with its  
radical decontextualizations and its electronic signalization.

I have to go teach now but what I will do in my next post is to  
outline some of the cinematic transformations that characterized a  
shift in the organization of capitalist society in ways that still  
seem to be operative if not quite paradigmatic. Briefly these are  
1)the rise of visuality (the visual turn), 2)the transformation of  
Marxian sensual labor to a labor of the senses in what was effectively  
a deterritorialized factory, 3) a fundamental shift in the value form  
and therefore in the forms of production, value-extraction and  
remuneration, and 4)new forms of meaning, affect, intensity and  
interiority that are markedly distinct from those characteristic of  
the bourgeois subject -- who Marx taught us was the subject of  
exchange. Also, there is 5)the emergence of the unconscious and 6)the  
radical marginalization/subsumption of natural language by the  
logistics of production to contend with. For me, these are part of  
what the cinema is, cinema, which as I think I say in the book must be  
distinguished from the technical apparatus, or even from the set of  
social institutions that bear its name. These latter are reifications,  
technologies and social formations that interface political economy  
with corporeality and consciousness (as well as with race, gender,  
nation, proprioception) and that, in their objectification, congeal a  
set of dynamic social relations that have radically altered the both  
the significance and the character of "human being."

Thanks for such a great set of comments and provocations!

More soon,


Jonathan Beller
Humanities and Media Studies
and Critical and Visual Studies
Pratt Institute
jbeller at pratt.edu
718-636-3573 fax

On Sep 1, 2009, at 8:12 PM, Brian Holmes wrote:

> [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 meaning."
> 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  
> exchange."
> 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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