[iDC] Periodizing cinematic production

Jonathan Beller jbeller at pratt.edu
Sun Sep 13 16:00:03 UTC 2009

Hi John,

Thanks for your comments and challenges. Some of what you object to is  
answered in the CMP so I hope you will forgive me for not taking up  
each of your points individually. However, I will say that nothing I  
have written calls into question the co-evolution of literacy,  
printing, and industrialization, or, for that matter the emergence of  
privacy, interiority, and the modern subject (of exchange) -- each of  
which is part and parcel of that constellation of elements we identify  
as the industrial revolution. Indeed, that configuration is the  
starting point of my work, and precisely the reason why I see the  
industrialization of the visual world as the water-shed for a new mode  
of production.

It is, in short, the overcoming of what Kittler almost poetically  
calls "the bottleneck of the signifier," that creates the crisis for  
language, representation, the modern subject, and, I would want to  
add, a new set of crises for political-economy. The industrialization  
of the visual brings with it a radical marginalization of language  
function's purchase on the world, all of which is itself part of a  
complex picture that must factor in both the falling rate of profit  
and the legitimation of imperialist wars by purportedly liberal- 
democratic societies. Following Orwell (as well as Horkheimer, Adorno,  
Debord), I have come to think that a short-circuiting of the lived  
experience that was (enlightenment) logic is a pre-requisite for  
sustaining the contradictions of the modern-capitalist superstate. In  
other words, the elaboration of visuality was a socio-economic  
necessity, whose earliest signs were to be found in the pyro-technics  
(and psycho-logistics) of commodity-fetishism.

I would go a little further here and suggest that the rise of  
visuality is indeed the condition of possibility for the arguments you  
make below. The entire discipline of linguistics (like its big-brother  
psychoanalysis) does not really get off the ground until the age of  
cinema. One could argue about this (drawing perhaps on the  
philological tradition), but I would say that it is only with  
Saussure, and the formalization of the split between signifier and  
signified, that one gets linguistics proper. This formalization  
depends upon two things -- first the conscious recognition that  
language functions like an image (the signifier is an image of the  
signified, and indeed this relation is itself graphically figured),  
and second, the unconscious recognition that language is one medium  
among many. In short, linguistics marks the denaturing of language,  
its fall from its status as an ontological formation. All of this, as  
well as the development of theories of literacy and the retrospective  
considerations of the huge historical and sociological consequences of  
the printing press, follows from this moment of disenchantment -- a  
moment brought about by the scrambling of language function by the  
transmission of meaning at the speed of light. As I argue in the book,  
ditto for psychoanalysis. We can thank cinema for what we have learned  
to say about the socio-historical role of language and literacy.

There's more, of course, but I have to run now.

Thanks again for the chance to dialogue.

All best,

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

On Sep 12, 2009, at 5:24 PM, john sobol wrote:

> 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  
> this.
> 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
> www.johnsobol.com
> _______________________________________________
> iDC -- mailing list of the Institute for Distributed Creativity  
> (distributedcreativity.org)
> iDC at mailman.thing.net
> https://mailman.thing.net/mailman/listinfo/idc
> List Archive:
> http://mailman.thing.net/pipermail/idc/
> iDC Photo Stream:
> http://www.flickr.com/photos/tags/idcnetwork/
> RSS feed:
> http://rss.gmane.org/gmane.culture.media.idc
> iDC Chat on Facebook:
> http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=2457237647
> Share relevant URLs on Del.icio.us by adding the tag iDCref

-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: http://mailman.thing.net/pipermail/idc/attachments/20090913/75eb7481/attachment-0001.htm 

More information about the iDC mailing list