[iDC] Periodizing cinematic production

john sobol john at johnsobol.com
Sat Sep 12 21:24:08 UTC 2009

This has been - as usual here on iDC - a highly stimulating  
discussion. I hope my contribution contributes to its quality, though  
it does come at this question from quite a different perspective.

I wish to return us to the outset of this thread, wherein Brian  
quoted Jonathan thusly:

"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."

I will begin by saying that I do not believe that this historical  
trajectory gets to the heart of the matter. Valuable as it is in  
certain respects in shedding light on our evolving world, I  
nonetheless believe that it is a heuristic model that seems to fit  
the facts, yet elides them. I will do my best to explain why I think  

I have not read your book, Jonathan, so if I am way off the mark in  
my interpretation of your words than that will be my fault. But it  
sounds to me like a causal relationship is being established in the  
above analysis, between cinema's evolution as a global cultural force  
and the parallel advance of certain socially prescriptive aspects of  
modern and post-modern industrial capitalism. The cybernetic loop you  
describe suggests that cinema and capitalism are engaged in a form of  
dance, impelled, once begun, by the alarmingly potent logic of  
"assembly-line capitalism", that incriminates cinema as both agent  
and victim. Certainly cinema, (and cineastes) in your analysis appear  
as not just one of these two things, but as both.

With regard to the question of causality, I am unconvinced that  
cinema's economic or epistemological architectures – as opposed to  
its narrative themes or stylistic vagaries – played such a  
fundamental causal role in the unfolding of the social dynamics of  
"assembly-line capitalism". The reason I think this is that I also  
reject, at a more basic level, the argument that 'industrialism  
enters the visual via cinema' at all. In fact I think this  
articulation entirely misses the essential relationship between  
industrialism and the visual.

The key to this relationship is the understanding that industrialism  
is the more-or-less direct result of increased literacy. It is of the  
eye, and it largely replaced the experiential techne of the ear that  
preceded it, just as literate capitalism replaced the economies of  
the ear that preceded it). As simplistic as this sounds, it is, in my  
opinion, accurate and fundamental. It is no accident that Scotland in  
the 18th century had the world's highest literacy rate and was also  
the world's industrial incubator. It is no accident that the  
popularization of literacy in Britain coincided with its imperial  
rise. Nor is it an accident that the peak in world literacy today  
coincides with the death of most of the world's oral languages. The  
industrial age is a visual age. It is the triumphant age of text, in  
which reading and writing come to rule the world through their  
manifold representations in maps, constitutions, lawbooks, forms,  
contracts, ledgers, deeds - and, of course - blueprints, patents,  
technical specifications, reports, schemata, manuals and the myriad  
textual tools that enabled industrialization (i.e. the raster grid  
that Sean rightly indicates is so historically definitive), as well  
as their resulting man-made mechanical universe. And here I seem to  
hear the familiar "pshaw, this is determinist claptrap" (though not  
perhaps from your lips, reader), to which I reply: just take writing  
out of the equation and see what degree of industrialism you are left  
with. Try it and see. There is nothing left. Without the widespread  
dissemination of literacy, industrialism crumbles utterly.

Cinema, seen in this light, is a mere actor in the larger drama that  
is literate culture's struggle to achieve global hegemony, and is not  
the primary cause of anything, except perhaps an infinity of shared  
dreams (no small thing, I admit). It is just one of many monological  
industrial media shaped by the technical and psychic architectures of  
print. Just as television would become as well. Neither is anything  
but a talking book from my perspective. And so to answer Goux's  
question: you get capitalism into the psyche via the printing press,  
you get it via the rigid, powerful, monological imperatives of print.  
As with industrialism, extract print from the evolution of capitalism  
and nothing at all remains, not even a trace. I don't even talk about  
capitalism myself, only of literate capitalism, for capitalism is  
epistemologically indistinguishable from literacy. (Though strangely,  
so in many respects is Soviet socialism).

The second part of your paragraph, Jonathan, is important too.

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."

As I have mentioned, I do not think that cinema and television are  
more than accidental precursors to computing, email and the World  
Wide Web. (Kind of the way Gil Scott-Heron seems to be the godfather  
of rap, whereas his work is not directly related at all, only  
indirectly.) And as I see it there are two cybernetic complexes in  
effect here anyway; one hegemonic, one emergent; one literate and one  
digital. Each of these two looped universes is indigenously highly  
distinct from the other, yet bright minds with vast resources are  
desperately trying to colonize the emergent one on behalf of the  
ruling one, with some success. And of course defending the fort – and  
actively taking the battle to these hungry entrepreneurs – are  
revolutionaries of all shapes and sizes, your friends and mine,  
seeking to counteract this unfeeling assault with art, autonomy,  
activism and more. Much more.

However, what matters is not necessarily how successful we and our  
idealistic friends turn out to be. What seems to matter most is the  
march of time, and technology. When Negativland pioneered its remix  
work it caused outrage and conflict. With the passage of time,  
however, the mashup has become a staple of everyday life. Not because  
Negativland (or John Oswald or Bryan Gysin for that matter) 'won' but  
rather because they turned out to be doing stuff ahead of the curve.  
It was not a case of the good guys winning due to hard work, the  
righteousness of their  message and the political maturation of 'the  
people'. It just turned out that when the tools advanced enough to  
make it easy and fun for kids to do, kids did it. And that's  
basically all that revolution took to succeed. And soon the kids will  
grow up. Lots already have.

In this sense I am an unrepentant technological determinist. Not that  
I think, for example, that the transition to post-literate capitalism  
is a given. On the contrary, I expect things to get more and more  
dangerous and bloody and I am not happy about that at all, as the  
evolutionary conflict between the efficient and the hyperefficient  
gains demographic momentum. So there is in fact an urgent need for  
leadership, and by this I mean intercultural leadership that  
constructively bridges the emergent and hegemonic cybernetic loops   
in the pursuit of sustainable and judicious compromises (to say  
nothing of also reaching out and inviting into the dialogue the  
colonized oral peoples of the world who have a crucial role to play  
here, particularly in helping to stave off literate capitalism's  
imminent ecocide.) Antagonizing the corporate world for the sake of  
personal catharsis is fun and all, and I have done it plenty in my  
art, aimed at 'bad guys' who couldn't have cared less, but more  
useful I now believe is an engagement that respects and enlightens,  
rather than unmasking villainous archetypes in (our) everyday life.  
There just too many of us. :)

Literacy too has certainly functioned "as a technology for the  
capture and redirection of global labor's revolutionary social agency  
and potentiality." Except when it wasn't. Except when it was  
something else. For it has also made possible wondrous and wonderful  
achievements (for some – the many and/or the few). Drawing hard and  
fast boundaries between this or that idea, this or that system, this  
or that morality, is a favourite literate game. But I think it has  
served its purpose. Let's mix things up a little more, focusing on  
what we have in common rather than where we differ; trying to find a  
way forward that balances the benefits that each cybernetic vortex  
can offer while also seeking to offset its ill effects. And then look  
to the kids to make it happen.

That sounds to me like a truly revolutionary program.

(All of the above offered with the utmost respect for the pleasure  
and privilege of this conversation and hopefully not sounding as  
bitchy as I sometimes feel...)

Thanks for listening,
John Sobol

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