Sunday, 30 November 2008

Notes on the Image

These are notes for my role as respondent at Goldsmiths on Tuesday, and will also be forming the basis of for a plenary on experimental film studies I'm giving in Bradford next year.

In 1838 or 1839 Louis Daguerre took this ten minute exposure of the Boulevard du Temple, although the street was busy the lengthy exposure time meant only one person was recorded - the man having his shoes shined in the bottom left of the image. This is the first known photograph of a human being.

Giorgio Agamben takes this image as the moment of the Last Judgement, in which we are revealed in our most minor, everyday gesture (gestus), which "is now charged with the weight of an entire life" ("Judgement Day" 24). In Revelation we are judged by the book: "And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works." (20: 12) Our last judgement today will be made by the image. The opportunism of the photograph allows it to capture the momentary gesture, to fix us in that gesture that "collects and condenses in itself the meaning of an entire existence." ("Judgement Day" 24) In the Islamic tradition if a deed is denied on the Day of Judgement then the body part that committed it will testify against them. The photograph could be understood as the testifying of the gesture, which we must yield to.

The photograph yields the image of desire, and the messiah comes for our desires: "With fulfilled desires, he constructs hell; with unfulfillable images, limbo. And with imagined desire, with the pure word, the beatitude of paradise." ("Desiring" 54)

And yet, the photographer must not only grasp the eschatological but also the historical index of the event. What the photographer achieves is the crossing of the specificity of the historical index with the power of the gesture; in Benjaminian terms the fracturing of "empty, homogeneous time" by messianic "now-time".

For Agamben this photograph of the nouveau roman authors outside the office of Editions de Minuit in 1959 by Dondero captures precisely this intersection of history and gesture. Contrary to the usual understanding of photography as deadening the subject such images present not an absolute commodification or reification, but the (paradoxical) release of the gesture through its absolute fixing. Here the casualness, the very everydayness of the gestures - a slouch, a puff of cigarette smoke - is what makes the image open for redemption.

The image also makes a demand on us, an exigency: the demand the person not be forgotten. As Agamben reports this image by David Octavius Hill of a fishwife demands that we have the name of this woman who was once alive. This is not an aesthetic demand but "a demand for redemption" ("Judgement Day" 26).

"The photograph is always more than an image: it is the site of a gap, a sublime breach between the sensible and the intelligible, between copy and reality, between a memory and a hope." ("Judgement Day" 26)

We could only say that Agamben would reject the digital image if it were somehow able to close or deny this gap, which is to be doubted. While the digital image may be subject to more radical manipulations than the analogue image, although this would itself require demonstration, while it may trouble or erase the distinction between original and copy, can it completely deny the index of redemption? The angel of photography could also be a digital angel, as the digital too is subject to the apocalypse.

It is also film, particularly silent film, which is the site of for reclaiming gesture and registering its loss. In film the image is broken to release its gesturality, disrupting the "mythical rigidity" of the image ("Notes" 50).

What emerges is the "antinomic polarity" of the image:

1. Image as the reification and obliteration of a gesture (imago as death mask or symbol)
2. Image as the preservation of dynamis intact

In this second form of the image it refers beyond itself, remaining as "fragments of a gesture or as stills of a lost film wherein only they would regain their true meaning." ("Notes" 55-6) This threatens the litigatio, the paralyzing power of the image, via the "liberation of the image into gesture" ("Notes" 56). At the same time the gestural "image" is the space of ethics and politics, the space of pure means, of the proper sphere of the generic human as a being-in-a-medium.

This polarity means that the image is therefore never pure commodity, the absolute "thing", or completely simulacral. We have to distinguish between the commodification of the spectacle - reification - and the image as a "kind of thing" (specie di cosa) ("Special Being" 56). While there is an etymological link between species and commodities, and money, we must not collapse the "kind of thing" into the thing. What we have to resist is that "transformation of the species into a principle of identity and classification [that] is the original sin of our culture, its most implacable apparatus [dispositivo]." ("Special Being" 59) What is denied by this transformation of species into identity is the possibility of common use - that moment when a particular singular gesture, without resembling any other gesture, resembles all others. ("Special Being" 59) The gesture does not single us out as a particular singular identity, but only singles out generic being for redemption. The spectacle is separation of this generic being, the jealous appropriation of the gesture to identity and classification.

To analyse this capture of the image by the spectacle, the splitting of the thing from the kind of thing, we must analyse profanation. Profanation refuses the separation of consecration by returning things to free use. The fundamental operation of religion is separation, and we might recall Vaneigem's remarks in The Revolution of Everyday Life (1967) on how the capitalist spectacle repeats the fundamental and "archaic" forms of power. Capitalism is itself a religion, as Benjamin presciently analysed. It is an entirely cultic religion, it is an endless process of separation, and it is continually guilt generating. What capitalism aims at is the creation of the unprofanable, that which cannot be returned to common use but only consumed.

This separation can be countered by profanation and play, in which "the powers [pontenze] of economics, law, and politics, deactivated in play, can become the gateways to a new happiness." ("In Praise" 76) This is "play" as detournement, which Agamben rather unwisely restricts to children and philosophers. Once again, we return to the thing as thing, as "pure means", but in this way as the means for a new use. As the "frozen" gesture indexes redemption in the photograph, so profanation "freezes" the "object" from its capitalist teleology. This action requires, I would argue, an effect of negation: "The creation of a new use is possible only by deactivating an old use, rendering it inoperative." ("In Praise" 86)

Agamben notes that this profanation it itself not a simple exit from one state to another, but a continuous operation itself:

The classless society is not a society that has abolished and lost all memory of class differences but a society that has learned to deactivate the apparatuses of those differences in order to make a new use possible, in order to transform them into pure means. ("In Praise" 87)

Of course this sphere of pure means is highly fragile, and in our society only appears as a temporary state, vulnerable to reversal into a deadly threat (as when the object as toy becomes menacing enemy).

"In its extreme phase, capitalism is nothing but a gigantic apparatus for capturing pure means, that is, profanatory behaviours." ("In Praise" 87)

It does so by capturing them as the spectacle, exhibiting pure means as Benjaminian "exhibition-value". The supreme instance of this unprofanable separation is, for Agamben, pornography. In pornography the originary intimacy of erotic photography has been nullified.

The casual intimacy of this image by Bruno Braquehais is exchanged for a brazen address, an exaggeration of exposure - shameless contact.

"In the very act of executing their most intimate caresses, porn stars now look resolutely into the camera, showing that they are more interested in the spectator than in their partners." ("In Praise" 89)

Agamben argues that he is not condemning pornography per se, but rather the neutralisation of the possibility of allowing erotic behaviours to idle, their profanation. What is reprehensible is to be captured by power, not the behaviour in the first place. This kind of idling can be found in the the indifferent gaze of Chloe des Lysses - a lack of complicity with the spectator, and a refusal of the brazen.

But this kind of profanation appears only temporarily, as the "solitary and desperate consumption of the pornographic image" (!) ("In Praise" 91) blocks this kind of possibility of profanation. The disgrace, according to Agamben, lies not in pornography itself, but in the apparatus of the fashion show or the pornographic shoot, that turns the sphere of pure means into a separated site of pure consumption.

"The unprofanable of pornography - everything that is unprofanable - is founded on the arrest and diversion of an authentically profanatory intention. For this reason, we must always wrest from the apparatuses - from all apparatuses - the possibility of use that they have captured. The profanation of the unprofanable is the political task of the coming generation." ("In Praise" 92)

Certainly we might agree with the necessity for profanation, and the resistance to separation. There are difficulties, however, not least Agamben's surreptitious recourse to the notion of capture and ontological resistance from Negrian Marxism, versus a more dialectical Debordian analysis. While the Negrian model gives us a neat opposition between original behaviours and their later capture it risks underestimating the penetration of capitalism, not least through the commodity-form. In the case of Agamben his remarkably erudite and sophisticated prose diverts us from a political ontology not far from sixties style invocations of the "machine" / the "total system" / or, even the "man", capturing our pristine ontological inventiveness. We are back with a dualism of opposition between "life" and "power" that, considering Agamben's work on bare life, seems naive. It also runs against his thinking of the image against the image, its dialectical (why not?) position as commodity, historical index, and index of redemption.

The irony is that Agamben is usually mistaken for a revised Frankfurt school-style radical pessimist (and a reading of Homo Sacer wouldn't suggest that this isn't entirely off the mark). In fact, here he evinces a measure of optimism, and a suggestion of ontological primacy, that seems to be equally problematic. Between those two spaces lies the image, and a more complicated analysis of profanation - not least beyond its instantiation in mere individual gestures.


"Judgement Day", "Desiring", "Special Being", "In Praise of Profanation", in Giorgio Agamben, Profanations, trans. Jeff Fort (New York: Zone Books, 2007).

"Notes on Gesture" in Giorgio Agamben, Means Without End, trans. Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2000).

Monday, 24 November 2008

Edufactory and surplus value

'Are we bad for wanting to make a profit? ... Call it surplus if you're squeamish'

Saturday, 22 November 2008

The Metaphysics of Time

First, like everyone, I appreciated the effect of slight drunkeness; then very soon I grew to like what lies beyond violent drunkeness, when one has passed that stage: a magnificent and terrible peace, the true taste of the passage of time.
Debord, Panegyric

Facist Affirmationism

Thanks to the Institute

Monday, 17 November 2008

Capital and Agency (Encore)

One way to return to the question of capitalism and agency posed by the work of Deleuze and Guattari is via the work of Chris Arthur, Roberto Finelli, and Moishe Postone. Each argues that Marx analyses the operations of capitalism as instantiations of the Hegelian dialectic. This means that Capital is the (Hegelian) Subject. To summarise Chris Arthur's useful discussion:
1. capital subsumes singulars under the universal of value
2. capital is a self-valorising system of accumulation
3. capital is a concrete universality

Capital qua subject operates through form-determination: inscription of materiality in terms of the value form. Hence we have the operation of capitalism as that of real abstraction; as Finelli puts it Capital is 'spiritualistic' (in the sense of the Hegelian Geist). Finelli analyses this process as one in which capitalism is capable of positing its presuppositions, which is to say re-signifying and subsuming materiality, and especially labour, within itself as its condition. He goes on to argue that Arthur still relies on a 'logic of contradiction', which holds to a certain resistance to abstraction in an 'exterior' or 'anthropological' minimum (labour-power / species being, etc.). His own 'logic of subtraction' proposes that positing the presupposition goes all the way down. Hence his interest in the hollowing out of the concrete in postmodern society, a la Fredric Jameson's work on postmodernity and finance capital.

This has implications for agency: Chris Arthur argues that the proletariat is the 'counter-subject' emerging as capital's repressed other; Finelli argues for a new richness of difference developed through a new need for recognition (here the 'subject' seems to be something like a post-proletarian contestation); and Moishe Postone dismisses the proletariat as agency because it is bound to capitalism through its constitution via labour (I, like Chris Arthur and many others disagree with this contention).
Reading back to Deleuze and Guattari we could say they too accept Capital as subject, true as axiomatic rather than Hegelian, but the effect is largely similar. I would argue that then they turn between the logic of contradiction and the logic of abstraction, and so between different forms of agency. In the first they hold on to a logic of ontological excess, which while not humanist does also vector through the human. This is 'absolute deterritorialisation' as the 'outside' qua excess of forces - a Nieztscho-Bergson line of vitalist exteriority. Obviously this line is developed most tightly by Negri in terms of the excess of potenza / labour-power / constitutive power over potere / capitalist command / constituted power. Here agency is the rupturing outside, the marginal, and so on.

But at the same time they also operate with a logic of abstraction, or of absolute deterritorialisation as accelerationism. In this case, like Finelli, the absolute dominance of capital in its re- and de-signifying power eventually finds its own internal limit and explodes the horizon. This appears to be the anti-humanist 'line' articulated here, for example ("One more effort Deleuzo-Guattarians, to become anti-humanists"). This is, of course, the point of Lyotard's intervention, which is to shore-up this side of Deleuze and Guattari against any humanism of desire. We could say then that as Finelli is to Arthur, so Lyotard is to Deleuze and Guattari.

My own 'position' (should it amount to such) is poised rather uncomfortably between these two. I'm inclined to accept Finelli's analysis and description of capital at the same time as wondering, like Chris Arthur, where this leaves the question of resistance and agency? Contra my earlier statement on Lyotard then, I can accept capitalism as the only Subject (that is Hegelian Subject as universal subsumption and enrichment of difference). The pending question is the re-conceptualisation of agency that would destroy this Subject, and I am inclined to the re-articulation of the 'differences' posited by capital but through the work of the negative the situs analysed as detournement (which I regard as a political and not an aesthetic strategy).

I certainly accept the exhilaration of accelerationist anti-humanism (cf. SBA) and the point made by Schoolboy Errors that it is preferable to the endless 'quasi-humanist' cultural Deleuze/Guattari (I happen to like the irony that my book will be coming out from the home of such studies - Edinburgh University Press - fly in the ointment again). What concerns me is that we are left not so much with anti-humanist 'agency', but no agency at all. The point of tension then appears to be a slide into a passivity of 'agency without agency'. The risk then is that this is all too congruent with 'invisible hand' / 'cunning of reason' arguments, that are the province of Hayek and Von Mises, et al.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Second Annual (Conference) Report

Back from HM and this is an admittedly fragmentary although lengthy report (which seems to model perfomatively the experience). The 'report' is partially fragmentary because of the success of the conference, which was so well attended that I couldn't physically get in to see certain sessions (as well as exhaustion).
The panel Workerism: A Generation After (Saturday 8 November) began with a paper by Massimiliano Tomba and Riccardo Bellofiore, which was originally the afterword to the new Italian edition of Steve Wright's essential Storming Heaven. The paper critically questioned the 'holy trinity' of operaismo: Panzieri, Tronti, and Negri. While recognising the power of workerism to articulate a non-objectivist Marxism, criticisms came of the tendency to a 'paradoxical Leninism' in the privileging of a particular sector of the working class (ie mass worker / social worker / multitude). Instead MT & RB insisted on the necessity of further inquiry into the labour-process as 'contested terrain' - particularly in understanding the 'refusal of work' as a means of denying the concrete conditions of labour and connecting with others struggles. So, as MT noted how the struggle of the workers at the petrochemical works of Porto Marghera in the 1970s for better conditions immediately entailed dealing with the wider 'externalities' of pollution, health care, and so on (and how it was regarded, at the time, by Negri as only expressing the 'right-wing' of workerism). MT & RB suggested a new articulation that re-attended to worker's inquiry, and which developed the capacities of workerism to offer 'ecological' analysis through the critique of constant capital - connecting such contemporary concerns back to the labour-process.
Steve Wright's Revolution from above? dealt with the 1970s writing of workerists on money. He noted how this implied attention to the capitalist power of command (rather than the usual emphasis on worker's self-creativity) and was germane to the current context of 'the mania of getting rich without the pains of producing' (Marx). The discussion ranged over work by Sergio Bologna, Christian Marazzi, and Lapo Berti, dealing with the 1970s fiscal crisis - 'One, Two, Many New Yorks' as I believe Marazzi commented on the fiscal counter-attack by capital.
Matteo Mandarini discussed Massimo Cacciari and Mario Tronti (pdf of a previous paper here) via their articulation of politics as an 'intervention that changes fate and bends it to one's will' (Cf. Machiavelli). He suggested a re-attention to the arguments for a political rationality autonomous from the struggle in the immediate proces of production; the problem that worker's struggles provide information conduits for capital - conduits that are being better used by capital than by the left; and that the weakening of struggle creates and information deficit for both capitalism and for workers. His closing point was then need to articulate politics with the information that struggles give. Again, which is a point Steve Wright has made, the call implied the need for the re-discovery of worker's inquiry (reference could, and perhaps should, have been made by panellists to these recent attempts - whether that reference be positive or negative is open of course).
On Sunday, the first session Marxism, Communism and Historical Time involved my own paper, which I won't narcissistically comment on but you can have if you email me. Andrew McGettigan gave an excellent paper on the relation of Benjamin to Bergson, arguing that in the capitalist imposition of an 'eternal present' any alternative conception of time could only appear metaphysical and speculative. He then correlated Bergon's model of the time-cone (from Matter and Memory) and Benjamin's jetzeit (now-time), as providing just such a model and articulation. Bergson's seemingly irreducibly metaphysical model finds itself re-inscribed as a model of the revolutionary re-actualisation of the past, in which the time-cone drives itself down through the field of the present (P in the above diagram).
Interestingly (to me), in relation to questions of subjectivation and anti-humanism raised around accelerationism, Benjamin's orientation to this ruptural 'telescoping of the past through the present' involved a 'masochistic' destruction of the existent (capitalist) subject. Debate and discussion turned on Marx's own thinking of temporality (of which more below), the question of subjectivation, and the necessity of destruction to mark Benjamin off from a 'Sebald' model of recovery. I was particularly interested in the Benjaminian project of winning the masses to Bergsonian metaphysics - good work if you could...
The panel From the Grundrisse to Capital had Massimiliano Tomba (MT) drawing out Marx's proposal of a new anthropological type in the Grundrisse - the 'social individual'. Linked to this was a pondering of time, articulated through a double schema that is at once evolutionary and invariant. Reading Notebook 5 (on Pre-capitalist forms) with Notebook 7 (the Fragment on Machines) together provides a dialectic of development - the birth of a new developmental model of time, coupled to the dissolution of capital. In Capital this is modified through a consideration of the specificity of the origin of capital and the necessity of primary accumulation, moving away from a universal model of time toward a more conjunctural analysis.

The second paper, presented by Peter Thomas (co-written with Geert Reuten) traced a similar analysis through 'the law of the tendency of the fall of the rate of profit'. In the Grundrisse this takes an organicist / teleological form of diachronic exhaustion. In Marx's later notebooks, not entirely reflected by Engels editing for what we have in Capital volume 3, we have a model of time as a qualitative intensification of synchronic moments. This was the most resonant paper for me, connecting to our panel on time. Thomas argues that Marx slowly abandoned his 'breakdown theory':

"These contradictions [the highest development of productive power coinciding with a depreciation of capital], of course, lead to explosions, crises, in which momentary suspension of all labour and annihilation of a great part of the capital violently lead it back to the point where it is enabled [to go on] fully employing its productive powers without committing suicide. Yet, these regularly recurring catastrophes lead to their repetition on a higher scale, and finally to its violent overthrow." [Grundrisse Notebook 7)
Against this eschatological theory of an immanent self-destructive capital obeying a law, Marx moves to a more homeopathic model of crisis as cure - cyclical and restorative. In this case we can no longer rely on crisis but have to attend to how capital uses crisis to increase exploitation and to articulate a conscious political project to resist and destroy capital.

The final panel session I attended was The State in the Bolivarian Revolution: Marxist Analyses, where Don Kingsbury presented a sympathetic but critical analysis of the Bolivarian process. He made some common ground with George Ciccariello-Maher's analysis of dual-power, and argued that currently (pending the regional elections in November) the tension is between a reformist social-democratic Chavismo and a more radical series of base elements. He noted, anecdotally, that upper-class Venezuelan's tend to say that the standard of service has dropped since the 'revolution' (ha ha). Debate, led by Jeffrey Webber, turned on the lack of structural adjustments to wealth distribution and worker's control, as well as the national and international constraints on the process - primarily oil and financial capital. This was a fascinating debate on what we actually might mean when we say 'socialist revolution', including the part played by material and ideological changes.

(exercising pannage - for IT)

The final plenary I attended was Peter Linebaugh's Mrs. Gertrude Kugelman and the Five Gates of Marxism. This was a vatic performance, which as one conference-goer commented would not have been accepted if it had been given by a woman. Taking Marx's statement from the Manifesto that 'The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims' as a mantra Linebaugh ranged over reproduction - both intellectual, productive, and of children - law, primary accumulation, and the defence of the commons. The five gates, in case you should be wondering, are the 'empirical' chapters of Capital (10 on the working day; 14 on the division of labour and manufacture; 15 on machinery; and 25 on the composition of the working class), which Linebaugh insisted needed to be read and articulated with the theoretical chapters if we were not to fall into a fascination with the logic of capital at the expense of material struggle.

More impressive in the prepared elements, the slightly revival-meeting style grated with your truly. This is a useful primer for his recent work, but in our dissident pocket the feeling seemed to be the law and constitutionalism weren't really going to cut it when it comes to 'what is to be done'.

What I missed: Ian Birchall insisting we must burn Debord, Kees van der Pijl - who seemed to be getting rated a lot, and too many papers by friends.

What I bought: Nomads, Empires, States; Negativity and Revolution; Fables of Aggression; and the usual couple of issue of HM.

Props to Alberto, IT (a trooper displaying communist discipline), Drew, Don, Gail, Alex, Dhruv, Alice, Rodrigo (thanks for the issue of Turbulence), Steve Wright (buy Storming Heaven), the guy who kindly mentioned more about Arrighi to me after my paper, and Nick (for tolerance and contribution to what seemed like a massive drinks bill at dinner).

ps It's really annoying constantly being asked to subscribe to HM; there is such a thing as overselling

Tuesday, 4 November 2008


Is Black and Red Dead?

September 7th and 8th, 2009
Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice
University of Nottingham

Crowned heads, wealth and privilege may well tremble should ever again the Black and Red unite!
(Otto Von Bismark, upon hearing of the split in the First International)

The anti-statist, libertarian currents within the labour movement have repeatedly emerged during periods of acute political and economic crisis, from the council communists to revolutionary anarchism. Is this one such historical juncture in which dynamic reconciliation is not only welcomed but vital? To rephrase the question, what can we learn from 150 years of anti-statist, anti-capitalist social movements, and how might this history inform the formulation of a new social and political current, consciously combining the insights of plural currents of anarchism and Marxism? The modern feminist, queer, ecological, anti-racist and postcolonial struggles have all been inspired by and developed out of critiques of the traditional parameters of the old debates, and many preceded them. Possible themes may include (but are not limited to):

• What is the political relevance of the ideological labels "anarchist" and "Marxist" in the contemporary geo-political climate?
• Has the sectarianism of the left contributed to this failure and can its present make-up contribute anything more to radical social transformation than navel gazing and ultimately political irrelevance?
• To what extent are these fault lines still constitutive of the political imagination?
• To what extent do capital and the state remain the key sites of struggle?
• Has the current market crisis provided an opportunity for a renewed and united left as a coherent alternative?
• What are the historical points of divergence and convergence between the two traditions?

We welcome papers that engage critically with both the anarchist and the Marxist traditions in a spirit of reconciliation. We welcome historical papers that deal with themes and concepts, movements or individuals. We also welcome theoretical papers with demonstrable historical or political importance. Our criteria for the acceptance of papers will be mutual respect, the usual critical scholarly standards and demonstrable engagement with both traditions of thought.

Please send 350 word abstracts, including full contact details, (no later than May 1, 2009) to:

Dr Alex Prichard (ESML, University of Bath):

For further details and conference updates please visit our website

Monday, 3 November 2008

Birthday negated

Thank you to all those who sent best wishes on my birthday yesterday. The virtual card above is kindly from IT - uncannily like my actual life. I can say we had a very nice Indian meal, the Gerhard Richter show was disappointing, and the evening viewing consisted of Iron Man / and Zizek: the movie - how postmodern. 'Normal' service may be resumed in a couple of weeks, but I can be seen at the following:

‘The Future Lasts a Long Time: longue durée Marxism’, ‘Many Marxisms’, Historical Materialism annual conference 2008, School of Oriental and African Studies, Central London (Sunday 9 November 2008).

Chair and discussant: Alberto Toscano
Benjamin Noys
The future lasts a long time: Longue durée Marxism
Andrew McGettigan
What is orientation in Marxist thinking? Communist practical reason and historical time

‘Outsourcing Authority: On Lars Von Treir’s The Boss of it All’, The Žižek Centre for Ideology Critique, Cardiff School of European Studies, Cardiff (18 November 2008). 5pm

Respondent to John Lechte’s ‘Agamben’s Politics of the Image’, Goldsmiths, the University of London (2 December 2008).