[iDC] Periodizing cinematic production

Brian Holmes brian.holmes at aliceadsl.fr
Tue Sep 8 23:03:37 UTC 2009

Dear Jon, Davin, Keith, Michael, Jodi, Sean, everyone -

Thanx to all for the excellent discussions, I've been traveling but 
following them all with interest. I am now gonna respond primarily to 
Jon but maybe I can slip some other stuff in there too...

Jonathan Beller wrote:

"... the new perceptual pyrotechnics of the commodity, its ability 
(along with audio-recording) to overcome "the bottleneck of the 
signifier" (as Kittler brilliantlly puts it) by creating data streams on 
non-linguistic band-withs, radically transforms subjectivity, and with 
it all forms of knowledge that depended upon that subject-form. It is 
for this reason that we can trace postmodern constructions of intensity, 
affect, structure of feeling, etc. to this techno-material 
transformation. They are the result of the entry of what we have been 
calling technology into the very fabric of our being, such that we are 
indistinguishable from our machines. For me, it was the opening of the 
sensual pathways to vectors of industrial scale that made this 
transformation complete."

Jon, it seems to me that the above gets at the core of your book and 
points toward its fundamental contribution. One could quibble over the 
industrial circulation of photographic images in an age of the 
manufactured commodity preceding assembly-line production, or one could 
look closely at the many odd and curious devices of proto-cinema as 
Keith Sanborn suggested - but clearly the reason your work is so 
interesting is that you deal with this fully industrialized form of the 
visual commodity and reveal not only its power of fascination but also 
its mobilizing capacity in the context of production. Perhaps more 
urgently one could argue that the double power of 
fascination-mobilization embodied for a time in cinema goes on to take 
new forms over the course of twentieth-century history. As Sean has 
pointed out so incisively, the raster is a very different form than the 
projector, and I'd add that only the combination of raster-screen and 
networked computer could offer a visual technology for globally 
coordinated just-in-time production and its financialized management, 
i.e. the current economic system of flexible accumulation. Indeed, I'd 
argue that informatic modulation of the pixellated grid has helped give 
rise to an original form of subjectivity, what I call the flexible 
personality, which remains to be fully understood and contested and 
hopefully transformed.

I've already suggested that someone seeking to go beyond The Cinematic 
Mode of Production - that is, to subject it to a real Aufhebung - would 
have to insert both the technologies and the subjective transformations 
of cinema into a historical narrative that includes social conflict at 
its core. In the same way one would simultaneously have to examine the 
destinies of assembly-line production to see how they changed the 
worker, the state, the distribution system and the figures of 
user/consumer desire, until finally all these transformed the production 
system itself, precipitating a new "paradigm." Social movements, 
technical inventions, theoretical and artistic interventions, as well as 
responses to those by capital, the state and contesting forces would all 
have to be integrated to the story. To do this would be a tall order but 
on the other hand, it would be a hell of a complement to your book! It 
would give rise to a much deeper and more useful social history of 
communications, allowing one to evaluate the potentials and gains of 
dissenting appropriations of media without ever forgetting the systemic 
inertia of established powers. It could also deliver us from the kind of 
pure tableau of domination which too many American Marxists fall into, 
and which is one reason why we have such a hard time contributing to any 
overcoming of the present situation.

A way to start would be to take the perspective of one of the most 
prescient analysts of assembly-line production. I mean Gramsci in the 
famous passage from Americanism and Fordism where he looks at the 
subjective effects of Taylorization and speculates on their social 
consequences. This passage deserves to be quoted at length:

"Once the process of adaptation [to the assembly line] has been 
completed, what really happens is that the brain of the worker, far from 
being mummified, reaches a state of complete freedom. The only thing 
that is completely mechanised is the physical gesture; the memory of the 
trade, reduced to simple gestures repeated at an intense rhythm, 
'nestles' in the muscular and nervous centres and leaves the brain free 
and unencumbered for other occupations. One can walk without having to 
think about all the movements needed in order to move, in perfect 
synchronisation, all the parts of the body, in the specific way that is 
necessary for walking. The same thing happens and will go on happening 
in industry with the basic gestures of the trade. One walks 
automatically, and at the same time thinks about whatever one chooses. 
American industrialists have understood all too well this dialectic 
inherent in the new industrial methods. They have understood that 
'trained gorilla' is just a phrase, that 'unfortunately' the worker 
remains a man and even that during his work he thinks more, or at least 
has greater opportunities for thinking, once he has overcome the crisis 
of adaptation without being eliminated: and not only does the worker 
think, but the fact that he gets no immediate satisfaction from his work 
and realises that they are trying to reduce him to a trained gorilla, 
can lead him into a train of thought that is far from conformist. That 
the industrialists are concerned about such things is made clear from a 
whole series of cautionary measures and 'educative' initiatives which 
are well brought out in Ford's books."

The Cinematic Mode of Production exposes very well the process whereby 
looking at flickering sequences of coordinated jump-cuts helps the 
intense rhythm of factory work to "nestle in the muscular and nervous 
centers." In fact, it quotes that little bit of Gramsci's text, in 
support of the larger and more complex idea that to look is to labor. 
The book does not have near enough to say, however, about the freedom of 
thinking that Gramsci describes, or about its prolongations in cinema 
itself. OK, CMP is a polemic, no problem, that's what I like about it. 
But anyone wishing to understand the revolutionary experience of factory 
work and the way it changed the communications media would surely have 
to add another angle of approach to the assembly line and to cinematic 
production. One could refer, for example, to a great text drawn directly 
from the Black American experience in industry, which is The American 
Revolution by James Boggs (published 1964), specifically the opening 
chapter on "The Rise and the Fall of the Union." For those who don't 
know it, the book is archived at an aptly named site, 
www.historyisaweapon.org. Check out this brief look back over the rise 
of factory workers' struggles:

"The CIO came in the 1930's. It came when the United States, which had 
fought in the war of 1917 and built up large-scale industry out of the 
technological advances of that war, was in a state of economic collapse, 
with over 12 million unemployed. The workers in the plant began to 
organize in the underground fashion which such a movement always takes 
before a great social reform - in the cellars, the bars, the garages 
[...] From 1935 to the entry of the United States into the war in 1941, 
we saw in this country the greatest period of industrial strife and 
workers' struggle for control of production that the United States has 
ever known. We saw more people than ever before become involved and 
interested in the labor movement as a social movement. Those who worked 
in the plants under a new Magna Carta of labor, the great Wagner Act, 
not only had a new outlook where their own lives were concerned. They 
also had the power to intimidate management, from the foremen up to the 
top echelons, forcing them to yield to workers' demands whenever 
production standards were in dispute. When management did not yield, the 
workers pulled the switches and shut down production until it did yield. 
So extensive was their control of production that they forced management 
to hire thousands and thousands of workers who would not otherwise have 
been hired. [...] In the flux of the Second World War, the workers 
created inside the plants a life and a form of sociability higher than 
has ever been achieved by man in industrial society. For one thing, the 
war meant the entry into the plants of women workers, Negro workers, 
Southern workers, and people from all strata, including professors, 
artists, and radicals who would never have entered the plant before, 
either because of their race, sex, social status, or radical background. 
With the war going on, you had a social melting pot in the plant, a 
sharing of different social, political, cultural, and regional 
experiences and backgrounds."

I suppose we all realize that this kind of organized yet heterogeneous 
resistance to the powers of both capital and the state was the only 
reason that Roosevelt was compelled to radicalize his initial program of 
reforms and to institute the National Labor Relations Act, or Wagner 
Act, as part of the Second New Deal - the kind of enabling legislation 
that Obama, who is deeply afraid of any social conflict, has not yet 
even considered. That much history is still remembered. But in order to 
regain the sense of history as a weapon we would need to understand the 
kinds of productive freedoms that Gramsci foresaw in gestation at the 
Ford plant, and that Boggs describes from his first-hand experience. One 
way to grasp what's still possible today - the Marxist or other 
alternative to the current round of expropriation and redoubling of 
control - is to read and also to *watch* the history of industrial 
resistance and the seizure of immediate power over one's own existence. 
I know I'm dreaming, but I'm dreaming of a history of cinema that would 
be written simultaneously as an analysis of the techniques of domination 
AND as a chapter in the history of workers' autonomy, running from 
Eisenstein's and Vertov's films through Chaplin's Modern Times, to 
Italian neo-realism and all the way to Marker's recently released 
Medvedkine Group films realized at a factory in Besancon in 1967-78, or 
for that matter, the film "Finally Got the News" recounting Black labor 
struggles in Detroit where Boggs himself worked. To recast cinema as 
entirely, inevitably, inextricably bound to capitalist control, no, that 
seems too much to me, humanity is just a little stronger, stranger and 
more refractory than that, more resistant in a word. And so is activist 
media in my opinion.

Another of the things that you could grasp through such a history is the 
way that capitalism reacted to the threat of workers' autonomy, 
reforming itself as I just said, creating the Welfare State, but only in 
order to contain the new-found agency of the popular classes. Gramsci 
saw that possibility of preemptive reform, when he spoke of the 
"cautionary measures and educative initiatives" that Ford was already 
developing in the 1920s. Ford understood that he would have to moralize 
the workers, to provide all sorts of subtle social presures and 
incentives in order to keep them under control. However, it was Walter 
Reuther, at the head of the AFL-CIO, who finally institutionalized the 
strict neutralization of workers' self-organization by reducing union 
action to wage bargaining divorced from any considerations of workers' 
control over the productie process. Two generations after Gramsci, Boggs 
describes the way that the union movement was definitively absorbed into 
the state. For him, there is no real union after 1947 (which, not 
coincidentally, is the year the Cold War began). And as I said in an 
earlier post, there is a powerful media aspect to this domestic 
containment strategy.

I think we would have to understand television - and the process of 
feedback control over consumers that I call "Neilsenism" - as the media 
equivalent of the entire range of Welfare State procedures that 
gradually reduced worker's autonomy, psychically molding the population 
to its double role as subjugated producer and debilitated consumer. 
Television is cinema's migration to a raster screen that is centrally 
controlled, whereby images are inscribed in carefully monitored feedback 
loops that close tightly around the subject's desire. No longer would 
"dreams rise in the darkness and catch fire from the mirage of moving 
light," as they did for the wretched proto-fascist portrayed by Celine 
in Journey to the End of the Night. The terrifying desires of fascism, 
but also the threatening utopia of communism, were tamed by television's 
predictable and serial flux, domesticated, fixed to the modest 
proportions of a tawdry little image that could entertain you like a 
family member in your living room, on the condition of giving up the 
wild city and its dangerous crowds. But even during the period of TV's 
ascendancy, I think you'd have to look at the French New Wave and all 
the wild films of the 60s - including Latin American and African 
examples - as a last cry of cinematic revolt, as an extraordinary 
flare-up of visual intelligence that breathed some fresh inspiration and 
mobility into dissenting politics on the street. Similarly, I think that 
artistic uses of the new portable videocams from the late 60s onward 
represent a key part of the struggle against televisually imposed norms 
of behavior.

I believe that you can write history as an activist, and I am curious 
about the way that the many other writers on the list feel about this 
possibility. Where the utopians and the opportunists see their 
profitable paradise in Web 2.0, and where the academic doomsayers see a 
technology of total administration and control, what I see is the 
opening of a fresh round of very sharp struggles over the latest 
developments of communications media. Walter Benjamin was clearly aware 
that in a dialectical apprehension of society, where contrasting forces 
appear as distinct aspects of a single historical process, what's needed 
to make a difference is always some kind of tiger's leap outside the 
closed circle of the present - whether it comes in a subtle, silent, 
gliding motion or maybe with a desperate roar. That's how an activist 
understands the appropriation of the media today: as a leap out of the 
contemporary laboring process with all its powers and constraints, as 
they cohere into a deeply predatory society where what we are constantly 
made to work on are the contents of each other's heads - and hearts, end 
eyes, and wallets, and sexuality and motivation and all the rest. Jon 
wrote in his last post that oppositional media is about "restructuring 
affect, creating community, generating movement by reprogramming at 
every level." I have tried to redefine tactical media activism along 
exactly those lines, in what many will no doubt consider an extreme form:


Anyone who knows the history of the Internet knows that when it emerged 
in a few universities in the course of the 70s and 80s it was wildly 
under-determined: abandoned by the military for more secure networks, it 
was an experimental congeries of odd and mismatched bits, open to 
unpredictable destinies. When the portable computer was connected to the 
raster screen and the network, a new mode of production began to emerge 
and a new set of routines began to nestle in the nervous system, shaping 
and molding individuals and groups but also allowing them to open up new 
spaces of resistance and freedom. TV may well be a "legacy technology" 
of cinema - its full-control mode - but the Internet marks a new 
paradigm, associated with just-in-time manufacturing, containerized 
transport, viral marketing, the entire toolkit of globalization. Today 
we see the net as an enormous and threatening control device at the 
center of the world system, yet still we feel it as a meshwork of 
possibilities, a dangerous gift, a poisonous remedy. Such is the deep 
ambiguity of contemporary communications media.

I know that a dialectical history of the networked media is possible, 
because I have helped write it over the last ten years, along with 
thousands of others. But what seems most interesting in this forum is 
the possibility to expand from present experience into much longer 
histories, in order to get some feel for the way that a crisis and a 
bifurcation of civilization unfolds. Because I don't see any way around 
it: the ambiguous condition of political expression on the net and the 
increasingly precarious condition of living labor in the globalized 
society of flexible accumulation are coming together in what promises to 
be a long series of crises, each deeper than the previous one, until 
some more tenable mode of regulation for the whole human and planetary 
ecology is found. Isn't the tension of the coming struggles what a fully 
dialectical history of the communications media would reveal? Could we 
not contribute to possible alternatives by recovering the stakes of 
previous passages, and showing the importance of what is actually 
happening right now and what will happen in the very near future?

best, Brian

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