“Symbolic violence consists then properly speaking in the production of a double imaginary of fulfilment, which makes the humble joys to which the dominated are assigned appear sufficient, and the imaginary of powerlessness, which convinces them to renounce any greater ones to which they might aspire.”
“When you give a needy person something, smile at him and be aware that it is you who are indebted to him, for he accepts a little from you for which you receive a reward worth more than the whole world.”
Imam Abdallah Ibn Alawi Al-Haddad
The Book of Assistance
“The progressive historical role of capitalism may be summed up in two brief propositions: increase in the productive forces of social labour, and the socialisation of that labour. But both these facts manifest themselves in extremely diverse processes in different branches of the national economy.”
I am always struck by the fact that asymmetry in results, in effort even, creates such antagonism in so many people. Leopold Lambert, who writes the excellent architecture blog The Funambulist, did a short post on Frederic Lordon’s ideas and he raised this question of equality and division.
“There is no real redistribution of the roles depending on the desire and inspiration of each person involved in the enterprise.”
The contemporary world is mediated completetly by wage relations. Everything is colored by class dynamics, and perhaps paradoxically (perhaps not) I feel the dynamics and tensions of class growing more acute. If Lordon is partly asking the question of how people became so complicit in their own oppression, it is important to note that there are indeed a huge many people who are quite aware of this phenomenon of (per Lambert) the working class integrating itself into an ideology of self accomplishment. In a sense, but only in a sense, this is the same argument that is made about the marketing of the idea of ‘individualism’.The paradox of individualism is that it is not uniform. There are qualities of individualism. This is the result of a being born into a class society, firstly, and secondly it is the particular nature of the ruling elite to preserve certain qualities of desire for themselves. This is elite desire is presented as an aspect of Nature. This two million dollar yacht needs a certain skill to operate and a refinement of taste to not just appreciate, but to not destroy. The operation of this yacht is, in fact, handled by hired sailors, but that hiring requires access to such expertise, but also, a Natural wisdom of the leader. Running across elite desire is the opposing trope of *destruction* — the lower classes’ brutality and lack (a basic quality of lack affects the poor) are promoted in images equating the underclass with neanderthals and gorillas, with a certain savagery. The poor are like Lenny in Of Mice and Men. The idea of objects of desire reserved for the ruling class is promoted in advertising of course, and it becomes a very specialized arena of taste. Meaning that, for example, certain luxury items are marketed for the rich, because they can afford them, but are desired by rich and poor alike. There remains though, a certain province of luxury item whose semiotics reads ‘this is an item of desire for the rich, and my elite taste knows this, and my ownership of this is evidence of my singular special taste because the lower classes would never desire it’. Pimps might wear Rolex Daytonas, but likely are not going to wear a A. Lang & Sohne Grand Complication. This might be laid off to pure price, but one could as easily substitute Breguet for the German complication. Or Ulysse Nardin, which is mostly less expensive than Rolex. But things get complicated, say, because a brand like IWC is the watch worn by the affluent nouveau riche who don’t want to be seen wearing Rolex. Soon wearing IWC is its own stigma. Patek Phillipe has such strong marketing that it is defeating it’s own sense of exclusiveness, while a Romain Jerome isn’t marketed at all, hence preserves its aura. One could as easily select luxury cars. Rolls Royce and Bentley are fine, as statements of desire, but only if you have a chauffeur. If not, you are David Beckham. A Pagani Zonda suggests rare knowledge,, but also the eliteness of utter impracticality. The point is, desire is mediated, in the end, for even the ruling class. A Rolex becomes the anti-object of desire and hence reclaims its stature of desireability. Pimps wearing Daytonas then becomes a sign of indifference (or coolness), and that is always an exclusive posture.
The political posture today of the affluent classes intersects with *individualism* in all its permutations. The loss of jobs has left a landscape of increasing desperation in the U.S., and one in which individual failure is primary narrative explanation or alibi. There has been a rending of the last rational vestiges of cause and effect. University degrees contain ever less rational use, but retain a semblance of symbolic value. But this semblance is imbued with various perceptive instabilities.
“Every horror necessarily becomes, in the enlightened world, a horrific fairy tale. For the untruth of truth has a core which finds an avid response in the unconscious. It is not only that the unconscious wishes horror to come about; Fascism is itself less ‘ideological’, in so far as it openly proclaims the principle of domination that is elsewhere concealed. Whatever humane values the democracies can oppose it with, it can effortlessly refute by pointing out that they represent not the whole of humanity but a mere illusory image that Fascism has had the courage to discard.”
So, this asymmetry in all social dynamics, a natural enough reality, is processed through the lens of class and capitalist hierarchies. There is a constant interior narrative of calculation going on. The backdrop to which is an idea of ‘deserving’, and of determining what is earned. I remember the first time that I heard the phrase, in reference to some plot point, that the emotions *were earned*. I thought this was so profoundly antithetical to, firstly, what narrative and art are doing, but secondly, that the implication was that somewhere there sat a cosmic accountant who was keeping a tally.
This phrase has become one of the standard bromides tossed around in a lot of various writing classes and workshops. The idea being a character has to earn this or that effect. It’s nonsense, and not even coherent, really, but it points out the sense of being an artistic employee. Contemporary work life, in general, but especially in offices, has a sense of sado masochism implanted in the lower rungs of the wage ladder. The endless unpaid hours of labor, the pressure to produce, the competitivness, and all the while a sense that the worker has to, in order to survive, come to internalize this abuse as part of their development. Boot camp mentality. But also a mentality (one preached by management) of jungle survival, in which only the best and toughest succeed and advance. And then in turn do the same to those under them.
Lordon makes a point that I think is correct when he says that management (the master desire, or the wielders of master-desire) appropriates labor’s creative efforts. This dispossession is not only monetary, but it is symbolic in the sense of absorbing authorship — the worker in white collar firms is anonymous. Part of the internalization process is to see onself as an extension of the company (using the pronoun *we*) and shaping their own desire to fit their anonymity. The idea of bosses is pure Capitalism. I remember the first job I had at age 15. I was working at an appliance store boxing and sweeping and what not. I wore a white uniform. It was my first experience of the idea of a *boss*. I lasted one day. Anyway, the boss is, in white collar firms, one of many bosses. And this authority structure serves as caretaker to the absorbing of creative labor. Of any labor, really, but in areas where creativity is required, the forces imposing anonymity is most acute. Lordon makes the point that collective authorship is often then assigned to one figure; a scientist deemed the discoverer of this or that, ignoring the endless research assistants who helped him or her, the film director certainly, and even University heads who sign their name to various publications as if they play any real part in the production of the material within. The point here, though, is sometimes an assitant does very little. Another might do a great deal. Its all absorbed into this vast cauldron of material. Everyone’s work is effaced (per Lordon).
Within this, though, is today a curious exaggerated sense of not just acceptance, but pleasure. The desire in many FOR effacement. And much of this is purely conscious on the part of the corporation or business. The selling of the idea (in other terms and words) of being effaced. This desire for deserved merit is eclipsed by a sense of deserts that rests on being subjugated. The desire for the lash. This is the masochism of Capital, on one level, blended in with individual histories, but it is also the idea of self accomplishment equaling company success. A desire for being a willing soldier in the army of Capital. One might note, as a side bar, how popular that trope of *being a good soldier* has become in Hollywood film and TV. It is one of the sub texts of American Sniper, in fact. Ordinary heroism in the service of anonymity. That star without a name on the CIA death wall. Etc etc. These narratives are trotted out repeatedly. Mad Men even serves as a kind of origin myth in that sense. The traumas of the birth of anonymous effaced creative labor.
Another quick digression, that Don Draper’s name is Matt Weiner’s homage of sorts to Dorothy Draper the creator of Hollywood Regency design, or essentially the pre camp camp, American baroque. I remember the large floral chintz, and bright colors and sort of oversized light fixtures and zig zag black and white tiles. And, the famed Don Loper “Martinique Banana” wallpaper (used first at the Beverly Hills Hotel I believe). It is an indelible sense memory of my childhood. Anyway, that was Hollywood Regency. And that slightly schizoid exhuberance was both the dark side of the mirror to buttoned down corporate conformity, as well as an expression of the lurking hysteria of post war American optimism. Mid century design in its entirety, if one wanted to push it, was expressing that same dynamic. For if we are speaking of the U.S., then that is the often neglected aspect. The Puritan psyche. The deeply engrained stain of Puritan/Quaker fear of the sensual.
Now, the Adorno quote above also intersects here; the sense of being a good soldier (accepting masochistically your own effacement as a worker and the dispossession of your creative labor) is the familier theme of Fascist propaganda. In one form or another the Fascist is always proclaiming their sober vision of the world. And this coincides with the liberal in the U.S. today, too. No nonsense, rational, reasonable, and clear eyed. They know the world is a horror show, but they are *practical*. (and ‘practical’ is a term you will hear a lot from Hillary Clinton supporters over the coming months). Yes, the world is full of brutal domination of others and of the exploitation of the weak and vulnerable, but there is nothing we can do about it. All one can do is to be *realistic* and not engage in mamby pamby dreams of a better life. This horror show, though, is today a film strip of a horror show. The unconscious is a film strip as well (Jonathan Beller on this topic is very good) and those who are being disciplined to love their mental and emotional captivity are experiencing it as a movie. It is both more and less real than daily life.
When Lordon writes of a ‘master desire’ he is borrowing from Spinoza (the title of his book is Willing Slaves of Capital; Spinoza & Marx on Desire). But this is very close, really, to what Horkheimer wrote about in Eclipse of Reason. The Spinozian notion of God, of a larger context that explains the contradictions of society and work, and the Horkheimer notion of the loss of objective reason — of being handed over to the most instrumental kind of thought. To the internalization of domination, by way of a domination or conquest of the Natural world. Control rather than critique; and within this loss of objective reason, this focus on means over ends, there is a slippery psychological adjustment going on between bosses and underlings. On both sides. That internalizing of domination, the domination over oneself, requires that desire be recalibrated. It is the functionalizing of desire; that our desires for just deserts, for our own calculus of desire, be seen as having practical purpose. This is the Calvinist/Lutheran/Protestant nose to the grindstone that disallows any frivolity. My ten dollar Casio tells time just as well as that Audimar Piguet. These multiple adjustments to desire are mostly unconscious, though not entirely, and they creep into the psyche of all classes.
The ruling class simply finds rationalizations for that Audimar Piguet, and this is the aesthetic realm, one that touches on semiotic displacements. The need for stability, the protective logic (paternalistic) of the ownership class, is predicated upon a certain vision of the underclass. The invention of *the destructive* human. Now, even if there is some inante trauma to existence, to the rivalries of maturation; this is exaggerated and attributed selectively and becomes the mental raw material that draws a schematic of Natural hierarchies. The colonizer had to see his own desire as more complex, superior and in-line with History, even as history was being erased. This is always the logic of invasion and occupation, the occupied are not ready to elevate their desire, to appreciate life in the way the invader does. Don’t give that expensive Montechristo cigar to that waiter, he won’t appreciate it.
“For Foucault, the 18th century is the time of all changes since all institutions (hospital, prison, government, education, etc.) start to base themselves on a mode of sovereignty no longer centered on the binary opposition of life and death, but, rather, on the management of life and its attributes. This new mode of sovereignty that is applied onto its subjects’ lives is what Foucault named “biopolitics.”
The domination of one’s own feelings is percieved by the dominator as part of a civilizing of base emotions and desires. It is all part of a self improvement project, and it must be one whose pre-conditions to which only their own class has access. The pre conditions of birth, wealth, privilege. For growing up priviliged bestows virtues upon youth.Horkheimer said the authoritarian trend was to…“aim at mastering reality, not criticizing it.” The domination of one’s inner nature is not only, as is often suggested, for domination’s sake. It is a domination driven by the idea of deserving special rewards, because of an assumption, socially taught, that one belongs to a class of superior being. One of the by-products of Capitalism is the devaluing of Nature. Nature is generalized and conceptualized. One of the emancipatory roles for art is that of presenting reality different from the rationalized and generalized version employed to justify domination. It is interesting to note that Horkheimer of all the Frankfurt School thinkers was perhaps actually the most pessimistic. By the time of his late writings he came to feel the individual would benefit most in an isolation from the homogenizing forces of society under Capital. The entire question of equality is mystified. The mystification is a direct result of capitalism. For any concern with equality is, I don’t believe, innate. It is always a comparison with a model of learned inequality. One does not naturally feel slighted in recognition, because such recognition is mediated by reward, by deserts. Rewards are part of that interior tally sheet. The assymetry of ability and effort is not inherently pathological, it is a relation with self. One works hard, exerts effort, or one does not. The interior nature of effort, though, today is linked to competition and reward. And reward is linked now to desire; to an historically shaped desire that is always juxtaposed to resentment and failure. And failure to self loathing, and self loathing to masochism.
The danger in discussions like this is to forget the sheer brutal coercion that millions of people face daily. A coercion that shapes entire lives from birth to death. The incarceration numbers in the U.S. have almost become victim to a numbing familiarity. One has to step back and think about the staggering numbers of human beings kept in cages and then marvel at the naked amost deranged hypocricy of the ruling class and corporate media when they chide and criticize other countries for human rights violations. So, this sort of analysis must be placed within a frame that includes just how powerful is the systematic aggression of the U.S. state in relation to the poor. Immediate liberation does not and cannot remove the scars and open wounds of class hierarchies. Of the principle of power and privilege that is the province of a very few.
For the bourgeois worker, today, the psychological maiming is very deep, and it has begun to affect not just narratives and image, but the public spaces, and even the private spaces in which we live. The idea of desire and reward, of what one is deserving, is all intwined in narratives that are set against a backdrop of the imperturbability of class. The theme of the good soldier, of sacrifice, is almost always a bottom up proposition. The very rich and very important are not expected to sacrifice, for they occupy a sort of position of absolute plenitude. The ruling class is complete and sacrifice must be driven by lack, which is the position of the underclass. On the surface this is counter intuitive, but in fact it expresses quite logically the world view of Capital and class society. Desire for reward and recognition, for what one deserves, is only a component of those without. The desire of the ruling class is mediated by various (and always fluid) notions of Natural law. One might want power or influence, or simply a mansion on Lake Como, but those are style and aesthetic consideration. This is why the idea of *earned* merit is so pernicious. For the ruling class isn’t concerned with earning merit. Their merit is a given. They ARE merit. The worker must shape his or her desire to complement the master narrative for desire and for validation of the system. But not just the grand system or society, but for all the various rungs and registers of the system. The worker identifies with the company (well, is meant to identify with it) and modulate his or her desire to conform to the companies idea of success. The cause and effect is almost a secondary consideration I suspect. Cutting across the interior landscape of each class is today the marketing of style, of the *new*, and of innovation. The new is the ever changing variable for desire. But the sense of psychological *lack* is what generates the anxiety of the poor. This is of course also the rational fear of authority, of the powerful. For those who desire a place in the hierarchy, the acceptance and internalization of sacrifice is the first step to plugging into the system. The assymetry of reward, or put another way, the lack of coherent cause and effect in work and reward, is the irrational obstacle to a fantasy dream of plenititude. The dream of stasis, in a sense. This is a constant theme in Hollywood and network TV. The return of equilibrium. Such imagined states of stasis, an image of paralysis, is also one with contradictions impossible to overcome.
Lordon is right about this much; there is a need, for the worker, the one who desires some form of stability, to see institutions as ‘collective affective devices’. That employment not seem utterly irrational, identification with one’s job, however subordinate the position, must be embraced. But the repeated failures of institutions to provide reliable reward, of even the most mediated sort, results in a compulsive irrational need to *trust* the system. For the underclass, the reality is too acute, the absence of any credibility drives the very poor to the most sober understanding of the political landscape.
In popular culture today, the ideas of sacrifice, exhibited in a film such as Billy Budd (based of course on the Melville novella) is non-existant. Symbolic sacrifice, the idea of institutions absolute inevitable corruption is rarely expressed. There are a host of narrative mechanisms that work to mystify the corruption and violence of class relations. Nostalgia is one of the most common, I think. Hence the enormous popularity of stuff like Game of Thrones. An imaginary world of feudal truths, of obedience and the rightness of servitude, is a perfect vehicle to help reinforce the mediated desire of the working class.
It is worth also noting Claire Denis’ wonderful re-think of Melville’s novella, Beau Travail (1999), for in a sense it is the perfect contemporary reading of the idea of sacrifice and desire. Much of the post Baudrillard discourse about communicative Capitalism, the fact remains that narrative intercedes in a way that is inescapable. The emptiness of most corporate media image and product is well documented, but I suspect it, finally, changes very little in how class dynamics are internalized.
Allow me another digression, although it’s certainly pertinent. Beau Travail is bookended by two such erotic and painfully beautiful sequences that these alone elevate the film into the status of masterpiece. In the local nightclub, at the opening, where the Legionaires go on their short furloughs, the film really starts with Euro pop and the face of young Djbouti woman. But it is THIS face, one of singular sensuality and softness. It is the face of a female deity lip synching to Tarkan Simarik’s Kiss Kiss. What makes Beau Travail so extraordinary is the sexuality, and the clarity of desire. It is in every face, and every young soldier’s body. The last scene, which may well be one of the two or three greatest last scenes in cinema history, music again underscores something unnatainable in all desire. Dancing, alone, ‘Galoup’ (the great Denis Lavant) is the lost Sufi master.
If I think of my favorite endings to film, A Prophet certainly comes to mind, the erotic, music (Mack the Knife covered by Jimmie Dale Gilmore) and the echo of Brechtian dreaming, The Passenger, with that beautiful long shot of the room, where the journalist is dying. Or The Searchers, when Wayne turns away from the world that he knows won’t have him, framed in the doorway. In each there is an element of the metaphysical that shatters the anticipation of closure. No redemption, no denial of redemption. Only something of the materiality of life, the contradiction. And of mortality. And there is a landscape of the absolute.
It reminds of me of Godard’s ideas on political films, and films made politically. The former are consonant with bourgeois ideology, because they depict a ‘real’, and the later are not depicting anything necessarily political, but are challenging the status quo, are interrogating the viewer, and are, hence, dialectical. There are countless interpretations of that often quoted remark of Godard, but the purposes of this posting, it raises many of the issues Adorno focused on in his late work.
“Not making political films, but making films politically consequently means, in Godard’s case, making the border visible that separates film and politics: film is not politics, even though politics may sometimes seem like a bad film. However, if one understands as the “political” the moment of openness and undecidability that occurs when structural principles of society are called into question, then “making films politically” would not be the repetition or distribution of political slogans, but rather creating such moments of openness and undecidability: moments that also question the structural principles of cinema and the filmer-filmed-viewer contract, thus operating in the terrain where film is directly political.”
Lordon mentions the Lip watch factory occupation by workers in 1973. About which Minister Valery d’Estaing said he feared such revolt ‘might spread like syphilis through society’. Such similes, Freud would be quick to point out, are no accident. So, such self management and worker owned industry is clearly possible, and narratives of adjustment can quickly be re-written. It is worth asking, though, why such resistance, among workers, seems so unlikely in the U.S. There was a time when resistance was huge in the U.S., but it was also viciously squashed, but that’s not unsual. I think the more significant issue is the the way the working class have increasingly been disciplined psychologically.
The question of what it means to symbolically cross over to the side of capital (per Lordon) when materially one does not belong to the side of capital, is a real question. The question though, again, as Lordon points out, is mystified somewhat by the fact that this crossing over takes place in gradients. Behind this question, though, lurks more psychoanalytic questions. I find many in the U.S. workforce who view themselves as quite happy. And I see most CEOs viewing themselves as quite happy. Contented, and desrious of maintaining the status quo. Firstly, class antagonisms have not gone away. They have intensified. But this intensification has taken place against a backdrop of narratives that consistently feature happiness and social hierarchy as the given. As capital increases its mistreatment of labor, it simultaneously doubles down on an intractable narrative that banishes images of class. The fragmentation of class narratives has caused additional anxiety for both the employee and employer. Worth noting that Lip watches produced under worker ownership fetch very high prices today.
Now the attention economy is also, secondarily, an economy of public recognition. The ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ syndrome has intensified and also shifted its affects. The narcissistic aspect of contemporary society is fed non-stop by the image industry. Culture cuts across all of this. The subject desires the desire of others who behold him or her. The fall out from commodity obsession has seeped deeply into the contemporary consciousness. To the degree that even a new celebrity left is hawking it’s ideas by selling them, and marketing them. The kickstarter model. The goal is desire, the acclaim of public recognition.
“Those who enter the association desiring more intensely, who imagine better than others the profits of recognition of the collective work and want it more, those are the potential appropriators, the aspiring monopolisers of extrinsic joys.”
This is a cultural problem then, today. That matrix of desire, narcissism, and mystified servitude. The question of rivalry is very significant. For there is rivalry and there is rivalry. It is the interpretive process of asymmetry, then, that matters. It is the deeply entrenched notion of employment as constant that mediates the processing of rivalry. That there is some magical thing that one earns in addition to the actual expression — that one’s contributions be recognized is natural, but this contribution is obscured by the appropriation of ownership. All resentment is filtered through a lens of wage and ownership. Even intellectual property. The sharing principle seems to me to be embedded at a primordial level with all creativity. One creates with the intention of sharing. But as soon as money is requested, as soon as that becomes the marker for justice, there are going to be problems. I have never allowed advertising on this blog, and there have been many offers. Platforms of sharing are a very progressive impulse, but they don’t really solve the question of the psychic architecture of desire. There is no end to human violence I don’t think, but there is certainly a way to organize human relations that minimizes it.
Films such as Beau Travail are radical for several reasons; first is simply the poetics, the innate sensitivity to rythm and the placement of the camera. Secondly there is the Melville narrative, of which we could spend days discussing. But thirdly there is a quality of questioning the assumptions of social relations, of authority and resentment and sexuality. I have said before that all great art is in some way compassionate. The compassion, for that is what it is, of that coda sequence is unforgettable. The intelligence of the presentation of a failed tragic colonial project, the faces and the sadness of this tragedy are the level at which one mimetically engages this film. I believe that landscapes in which the horizon features prominently carry with them something liberating. Deserts and open seas remind us of something that the human searches for. The horizon always recedes, but that too is a reminder. That one cannot in one fail swoop arrive at perfect emancipation. For the human is born into a certain trauma and rivalry. But it is Capitalism that most intensifies the negative, the violence, the containment of discourse and which is always working toward its own self perpetuation. And that self perpetuation is served by insisting on the most violent aspects of human inequality.
The best art I believe is, in one sense anyway, always reproducing the effect of the horizon. It is the allure of frozen arctic landscapes, of empty deserts, of wide expansive seas. But work often includes the mark of the human, in all manner and permuatation. Certain paintings present the vast horizon up close; Rothko does that, and Newman, or Richard Serra’s iron walls and panals. And against this runs the affect of the uncanny. The Sylvain Couzinet-Jacques above is a haunting image (from the very excellent gallery La Galerie Particulière) and there is something uncanny and crypt like about it. I am very fond of the Amy Stein photo above, and it is hard to explain why. But the plastic unreal quality of the ordinary, of something incommensurable, I find disturbing and almost wonderous. Linnaeus Tripe’s 19th century photo of the temple in Dakkar is uncanny, too. There is the emotional linkage to the vast empty sea hidden in that building. I suspect ruins trigger something of a memory, a lost recognition of pre-Oedipal psychic formation, of loss and what cannot be retrieved.
Any activity that erodes the system of manipulation and alienation that is Capitalism, is good. The collective is the source of change, and of culture. Anything that inhibits the appropriation of life by the ruling elite is good. And one of the primary activities, it seems to me, is to challenge the narratives of capital and its insistence on human servitude.