I have a passing acquaintance with the work of Felix Guattari, but the person who perhaps knows his work best is Maurizio Lazzarato. His recently translated book Signs and Machines: Capitalism and the Production of Subjectivity (Semiotext(e), 2014) shows the ongoing usefulness of the “anti-sociology” (120) that Guattari elaborated, both alone and in his collaborations with Gilles Deleuze.
The starting point for Lazzarato is what he takes to be a contemporary crisis of subjectivity. Capitalism launches new subjectivities like new model iPhones, only these days the subjectivities are all basically just bloatware versions of the same model – just like the iPhones.
We are all supposed to be entrepreneurs of the self, an impossible task, leading to depression – as Franco Berardi might concur. This version of capitalism – if that is still what it is – no longer promises to be the ‘knowledge society.’ All it offers is just debt servitude and lottery tickets. Contrary to the slogans repeated over and over, there’s not much ‘innovative’ or ‘creative’ about it.
Lazzarato dismisses those critical theories that deal only with the relation of language to subjectivity while ignoring what he calls “machinic enslavement.” On his shit-list are such names as Jacques Rancière, Alain Badiou, Slavoj Zizek, Paolo Virno and Judith Butler. They are all still too caught up in the linguistic. They treat language, subjectivity and politics as if they all happened in a sphere described by Althusser as ‘relatively autonomous’ from production itself. Their stances seem ‘political’ but are more strictly idealist. A contemporary critical theory needs rather to investigate – and intervene – in both the domains of social subjection and also machinic enslavement. Machines have invaded everyday life. There is no autonomous sphere of language, subjectivity and politics.
Capitalist cynicism insists we be individual subjects when actually we’re dehumanized nodes in indifferent meshes of humans and nonhumans. We are all inside what Lewis Mumford called the megamachine. What this demands is not counter-hegemonic ideologies but means of producing a new kind of mesh of both machines and subjects.
It’s a matter then of keeping two things together: the formation of subjects, mostly but not only in language; and the machines that produce trans-individual effects. Subjectivation is always mixed, and, includes more than language. Real ‘innovation’ requires more than language games. The dominant signification has to be suspended for anything new to appear at all.
Creating genuine novelty means starting from both social subjection and machine enslavement, and making a break from both, whether in the fields of politics, art or even science. Once upon a time the party and the union were examples of innovations that resulted from such a break, but they have become integrated into capitalism and no longer function as they once did.
Interestingly, the making of subjects is not something that happens in the superstructure. Lazzarato: “Guattari and Deleuze bring to fulfillment the discoveries of Marx…: the production of wealth depends on abstract, unqualified, subjective activity irreducible to the domain of either political or linguistic representation.” (23) It is a move from political economy to subjective economy. Marx dealt mostly with the production of commodities, and dealt with the production of workers only as an effect of the production of commodities. Guattari and Lazzarato want to extend that analysis, ‘sideways’, as it were, to a parallel set of production process that make not objects (commodities) but subjects (consumers).
Social subjection provides roles: you are a man, you are a woman, you are a boss, you are a worker, and so on. It produces individual subjects with identities – and ID cards. But this is only part of the picture. The other aspect is machinic enslavement, which does the opposite. It makes de-subjectivized flows and fragments. It turns those subjects into component parts of machines (slave units in the cybernetic sense).
Social subjection makes subjects; machinic enslavement makes dividuals, It divides the self up and attaches bits of it here and there to machinic processes as less-than-human agents. These machinic assemblages – rather like Harawayesque cyborgs – are hybrids of human and machine, but where the human parts are indeed parts rather than subjects, and to the extent that some sort of semiotic code organizes it, this takes the form of what Guattari called an asignifying semiotics. It isn’t organized by language that means anything or is meant to be interpreted.
Machinic enslavement works on pre-personal, pre-cognitive and pre-verbal affects, as well a supra-personal ones. One could think here about how Big Data deals on the one side with fragmented flows of data and on the other with huge aggregates, which only secondarily identifies the subject on which to pin a hope (that they might be a consumer) or a fear (that they might be a terrorist).
Lazarrato mentions all too briefly the role that property rights plays in tying the desubjectivized world of machines to the subject producing world of discourse. “By ensuring that creation and production are uniquely the feats of ‘man’, it uses the ‘world’, emptied of all ‘soul’ as its own ‘object’, as the instrument of its activities, as the means to its ends.” (35) The property form makes the individualized subject the author and hence owner of something that is really much more likely the product of a machinic assemblage of different bits of various people’s subjectivity, various machines, assorted technical resources. Hence we end up with the myth that Steve Jobs created the iPhone – and reaped most of the rewards from it.
From Guattari, Lazzarato takes the idea of seeking strategies that deal with both subjection and enslavement, which are also in Deleuzo-Guattarian parlance the molar and the molecular. One can use the machinic, molecular perspective to critique the molar dualisms, but then also take enslavement as opening to produce something other than paranoid consumerism as a corresponding and compensating mode of subjectivity. (A recent, rather wonderful example of which might be the xenofeminist manifesto).
Sure, capital has its linguistic dimension, but it may not be as important as flows of labor, money and signs as a system of production. Dividuals are governed statistically, not as something that operates through ideology or repression. They are strung together via asignifying semiotics that act on things to produce sense without meaning. “What matters to capitalism is controlling the asignifying semiotic apparatuses (economic, scientific, technical stock-market, etc) through which it aims to depoliticize power relations.” (41)
There might still be ideologies, in a sense, but these are second-order effects. “The signifying semiotics of the media, politicians, and experts are mobilized in order to legitimate, support, and justify in the eyes of individual subjects, their consciousness and representations, the fact that ‘there is no alternative.’” (41) They are not primary. Capitalism isn’t really about individuals or language.
It isn’t really about people at all. Here Marx was still too anthropocentric, in thinking that surplus value is tied to human agency. Guattari had the nerve to propose that there is such a thing as machinic surplus value, too. Capital exploits not workers but machinic assemblages, and is indifferent to their relative organic or metallic composition. All labor is cyborg labor. Productivity depends more on the enslavement of dividual parts than to the formation of proper individual subjects.
Capital exploits the difference between subjection and enslavement. It is machines that do the real work, while value remains partitioned between workers who get mere wages, and bosses who get the rest. Here Lazzarato does share a point with Yann Moulier Boutang and the theory of cognitive capitalism: that value is no longer really assignable to particular subjects as its ‘author’, whether in a labor theory of value, or the equivalent bourgeois ideology, in which genius entrepreneurial ‘leaders’ are the sole agents of wealth creation.
Lazzarato: “it is never an individual who thinks.” (44) And it is never a corporation that produces. The corporation appropriates the unassigned values of a machinic ‘commons’, as it were, “free of charge,” and captures it in the form of profit or rent. Just as in Burkett, where capital appropriates the natural commons, here it appropriates a social commons, or rather a social-machinic one. Meanwhile, the dividual agents have to be patched back together as more-or-less whole subjects meant to think of themselves existentially as free agents who are both investors and debtors, trading in the self as currency in a market for souls.
Like the social-factory theories of Italian workerist and autonomist theory, Lazzarato works with an expanded view of workplace. The production of subjectivity is not superstructural. Marx followed classical political economy in taking the subjective essence of production to be labor. Lazzarato wants a broader concept of that which produces and is produced as – human. Capitalism is not just rational calculation, but also the production of desiring-machines that are actually not entirely Calvinist rational-choice actors. As any viewer of the Mad Men tv show can see for themselves, capital integrates desire into its own functioning.
It is in the highlighting of this theme of the functionality of desire that Lazzarato breaks with Yann Moulier Boutang and the theory that this is cognitive capitalism. That approach reduces the wider subjective economy to a narrower idea of a knowledge economy. It concedes too much to economics, where knowledge is now supposed to be the endogenous growth factor. But knowledge is less basic to capital than desire. Capitalism doesn’t actually need that much knowledge to function. Indeed recent attacks on schools and universities seem to indicate that it wants to function with much less.
Capitalism needs desiring subjects. But there’s a crisis of desire. All it has to go on at the moment is the despotic super-ego – ‘be your own boss! – which in Franco Berardi’s terms keeps collapsing into depression, or worse. Subjectivity is a key commodity that now has to be produced. The preliminary question might then be: how to construct a theory of subjectivity itself. Lazarrato wants to move beyond structuralist, phenomenological and psychoanalytic theories, which tend to privilege the inter-subjective and leave out the machinic. Interestingly, he also brackets-off base and superstructure theories, which make a prior (molar) cut between what is material and what is ideological, or what is instinctual and what is subjective, or what is a deep structure and what is a particular linguistic sign.
The subject is no mere effect of language, even if language is thought, after Butler, as performative. Capital is now machine-centric not logocentric. The act of enunciation, where a partition between an enunciator and the enunciation appears, may no longer be unique to humans. “Subjectivity, creation, and enunciation are the results of an assemblage of human, infra-human, and extra-human factors in which signifying, cognitive semiotics constitutes but one of the constituent parts.” (63)
In a move parallel to Berardi’s rethinking of alienation, Lazzarato writes: “That objects might start ‘speaking’, start ‘expressing themselves’ (or start dancing, as they do in the celebrated passage from the first book of Capital), is not capitalist fetishism, the proof of man’s alienation, but rather marks a new regime of expression which requires a new semiotics.” (64) Things really do speak in this world of neo-capitalism, or whatever it is. It is not just the alienation of the worker from her product that one has to look at, but the insistence with which the things she made talk back to her and demand to be not only bought but loved.
One of the knottiest parts of Deleuze and Guattari’s joint work was their disquisition on the linguistics of Louis Hjelmslev, and the categories of expression and content, which in some ways rework the classic categories of signifier and signified. They refused to make a hierarchy between them. Expression does not depend on content (as some Marxists hold) or content on expression (contra certain structuralists). Rather the idea is to grasp the content-expression binary by the middle, which is enunciation. It is the act of enunciation which produces the relation between expression and content, or between object and subject. The ground of enunciation, however is not itself discursive.
This opens the door to a general semiotics that extends way beyond language and the language-like. It includes natural asemiotic codings, such as crystals and dna – central to the work of such scientist-marxist-theorists as Bernal and Needham. It includes human languages too, of course, but where thinking starts from the ground of enunciation. For example, in the political and military forces that shape a ‘national’ language. (One might connect this up with Friedrich Kittler’s famous work on the quite literal apparatus of the mother tongue and the ‘machinic’ supports for it in things like textbooks for mothers with diagrams of how the infant should make various sounds of the national language).
Lazarrato calls language a general equivalent. Lazzarato: “… the semiotics of significant functions both as a general equivalent of expression and a vector of subjectivation centered on the individual.” (68) . (Actually I would call it a general non-equivalent. I don’t think it works the way money – Marx’s general equivalent – works). But focus on language tends to leave out the transindividual experiences that in neo-capitalism are only given their due as symptoms of madness, infancy or art. But for Guattari and Lazzarato, those are not keys to a surrealist world of infinite possibility, but rather one with its own asignifying semiotics.
Deleuze and Guattari had a sometimes alarming tendency to generalize from anthropological literature, and Lazzarato picks up on certain distinctions between pre-capitalist and capitalist social-machinic systems. Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, in his marvelous Cannibal Metaphysics (Univocal, 2014) lends some ethnographic dignity to such more speculative accounts of the non-modern subjective machine. In Lazzarato it takes the form of a rather more abrupt juxtaposition. But perhaps it is better to risk saying something too reductive about other cultures, other natures – than to play safe by saying nothing at all.
For Lazzarato, in the pre-capitalist world, social forms precluded the formation of one homogenous signifying strata. It is only in the modern world that there is a homogenizing of the human, at least within the bounds of the nation, via the imposition of a national language. Such language is the means via which all semiotics appears to become compatible with capital. Lazzarato thinks this means a reduction of polyvalence. Actually I think this is not so. It is rather the reduction of the significance of aberrant meanings. The witch trials and inquisitions recede.
Here too I think he quite misunderstands the role of the mathematical theory of information, which has nothing to do with meaning at all, only with information as statistical probability and the problems of its transmission. Claude Shannon’s work is actually at the extreme end of polyvalence, in that meaning is not relevant at all. Here I think Tiziana Terranova better understands the significance of this for the formation of the machinic.
One can agree with Lazzarato that “There is no language in itself.” (76) What mid-century information theory did is call statistical operations on asignifying flows into being via an apparatus where transmission would be relatively (but not absolutely) seamless and where polyvalence could occur in an extreme form – where interpretation no longer matters at all. Except of course for certain patterns of association and usage that will be flagged as potentially ‘terrorist’ in this here surveillance state.
The concept of an asignifying semiotics really is intriguing. For Lazzarato it includes computer languages, corporate accounting, but also music, art. For him these are all semiotic flows that don’t depend on interpreting subjects, and where the human can be just a component part. For Guattari, unlike Heidegger, the machine does not turn away from being but produces it. The machine runs on kinds of power-sign that do not represent but anticipate and shape the world. They are like diagrams that can accelerate, slow or direct deterritorialized flows of labor, matter, energy, or even desire. They are artificial routes to action on the world.
These asignifying semiotic flows mobilize non-reflective subjective fragments, or modular subjective components. They now grid the whole world. Lazzarato: “In Marx’s time, there was only the inside of the factory (with a concentration and intensity incomparably lower to that of today’s corporations) and the outside, the latter among a handful of apparatuses such as railroads. Today, they are everywhere except in critical theory. They are everywhere and especially in our daily lives.” (91) There is a broad challenge here, then to think way beyond the limits of the cognitive contribution to labor or the distribution of the sensible as founding an autonomous political realm.
Guattari was interested in machines that could take us towards new kinds of subjectivation, even if, in his as in Lazzarato’s work, ‘machine’ usually ends up being much too metaphoric a term. We never quite get to any detailed understanding of actual machines. For example, Lazzarato gestures towards the mixed semiotics of the trading room floor, but we lack the more specific attention to such a world as occurs for example in the work of Donald MacKenzie. Also, there might be more mileage in the tripartite scheme of Henri Lebfebve – signal, sign and symbol – than in the dual one Lazzarato extracts from Guattari. (Even if both are rather simplifying Charles Sanders Pierce).
Still, it’s a compelling conceptual gambit. Mere signifying semiotics has the function of containing deterritorialized and desubjectivized flows that results from asignifying diagrams and symbols and the assemblages of dividuals and machines they organize. The latter idea contains a measure of Spinoza on the transitive nature of affect as a pre-personal category, but not necessarily as a good that one can bank on. The asignifying works via contagion rather than cognition – (as it does in Terranova as well.)
Part of Lazzarato and Guattari’s thinking on pre-individual subjectivity comes from Daniel Stern’s work on early childhood. Humans’ early experience is trans-subjective, and evolves not in stages not a la Freud but is thought a series of levels. Actually there are hints of a base-superstructure model here, except in Guattari that is generally a reversible relationship. Pre-individual subjectivity might start out as a base but except for artists and the insane, but then an individuated one is acquired, at first as a superstructure, but which then becomes the infrastructural layer. The trouble is that this tends to foreclose any genuine learning or creation, which is always destabilizing of constituted subjectivity. Here Guattari and Lazzarato also come close to Gilbert Simondon and Bernard Stiegler on the process of individuation and its failures.
In Guattari in particular there is an insistence on forms and consistencies of this pre-individual and asignifying ground. It is not a raw world of drives, instinct, animality and spontaneity against which language has to bring the law, structure a lack and make prohibitions. Lazzarato insists that what psychoanalysis presents as a necessary order imposed on raw id is actually a political model. This is where his way of thinking forks from so much of contemporary thinking, including: Butler and the necessity of castration; Stiegler and symbolic sublimation; Virno, where speech replaces drive, and Badiou, where spontaneity yields to organization. For Guattari nonverbal semiotics are already organized. Just differently organized.
The strategy is to work not on the layer of language and the subject, but to start from the heterogeneous middle, from enunciation as what happens between the pre-individuated, object world and the subjective world where language rules. (Although it is unfortunate that Lazzarato’s polemics only address biases towards the subject. He has nothing to say on how the deep machinic level is organized. Friedrich Kittler, for example, is not addressed. Nor a more vulgar-Marxist approach that might take the molecular more literally).
The method does seem a bit stuck in the past to the extent that its operating example is still cinema. Here cinema appears as a form in which a signifying machine neutralizes, orders and naturalizes an asignifying semiotics. All the same, cinema can show a pre-signifying semiotics in a post-signifying world. Lazzarato’s example is Pier Paolo Pasolini, who perhaps shares with Guattari a kind of “fanatical Marxism” (79) Pasolini worked in Italy, a country to which national language came very late, and until the seventies many subaltern and regional people did not speak a recognizable version of the dominant Italian. Many ended up as speaking their ‘subaltern’ and ‘indigenous’ language even in the cities to which they migrated for work.
Cinema functions like group psychoanalysis, normalizing intensities, making a hierarchy between language and the rest. The effects of classic Hollywood are not ideological and don’t work primarily through language, even if it is a controlling level. Cinema is a mixed regime of signs, (which Alex Galloway – to give another alternative example – figures as Hermes, Iris and the Furies.) For Pasolini, cinema was also a mixed semiotics that starts with the image, with a kind of vision in which the machinic eye is embedded in objects.
Cinema using the diagram as the sciences or business do, to see, decide, choose, act. Hollywood-style cinema was important for what Pasolini called neo-capitalism, product of a second and final bourgeois revolution. If the first created the industrial worker, the second created the industrially produced subject to match. Neo-capitalism needed new kinds of flexible subject mobilized by a functional language devoid of meaning. It reversed the old semiotic hierarchies. Ideological superstructures (law, school, university) were no longer very important. Subjects were directly made by production and consumption systems.
Pasolini was loyal to the lumpen-proles who made themselves outside this emerging regime, excluded not just on linguistic but also existential grounds. They were to be remade as new-model Italians and consumers, territorialized on a far more restricted and hetero-normative model of the family. Neo-capitalism does not just require ideological submission but also directly manufactures the subjects it wants. It is a subjective economy, which draws on old familial forms of life and adds a new false tolerance – tolerant only of consumer choices. It destroys the old popular cultures and their sacred animist worlds. Pasolini’s literature and cinema tried to re-animate the old animist culture in a new machinic form, a “machinic animism.” (134)
Pasolini makes a strange bedfellow with materials drawn from Italian workerist and autonomist theory. Antonio Negri certainly never forgave him for siding with the (working class) cops against the (bourgeois) students in a famous provocation. But it has to be said, Pasolini had unique insight into the long arc of transformation in Italy. His provincial roots and his queerness gave him an existenia ground for perceiving and creating affective life that the theorists did not have.
I don’t know if we can still call this, after Pasolini, neo-capitalism given that it has been with us now for half a century, although in the larger scheme of things perhaps that is still rather new. For all their refusals of the language of base and superstructure, one way of reading Guattari and Lazzarato is as flattening the strata of natural-social organization, such that the top layers – the ideological – are omitted, but unfortunately so too are the deeper layers, the earthy substrata that was not foreign to Pasolini. One wishes sometimes for a more vulgar-Marxist note, or perhaps more of the Guattari of Three Ecologies.
Still, the neo-capitalism concept does touch on certain key features, to do with how subjectivity is machined rather than merely ‘hailed’ into existence via language. Lazzarato draws attention to the vacant language of org charts, graphs, budgets, charts – one might add Powerpoints. Hierarchy is really organized more through the asignifying aspects of such procedures. Or take the call center, where the latest systems do not even require that the worker actually speak. She or he can just click on pre-recorded phrases to step the caller through the sales-routine. The software of course includes rating, ranking, classifying and timing functions.
In a useful insight, Lazzarato claims that what is managed now is not really labor so much as processes, of which labor is just a component. Management is not really about ‘human resources’, just resources for machinic enslavement, cordoned off in subroutines that are controlled and which have no reciprocal capacity to effect control. Lazzarato: “Sociology and industrial psychology seem to be incapable of grasping conceptually the qualitative leap that has occurred in the move from ‘work’ to ‘process’, from subjection to enslavement. Those high on the hierarchy no longer deal with work but with ‘process’ which integrates labor as ‘one’ of its parts.” (119) Against those version of Marxism that assign all value and creativity to living labor against dead labor, such as Hardt and Negri, Lazzarato sees only hybrids of dead and living labor.
The great deterritorializing molecular flood is money, the general equivalent, but it can’t function on its own. Its asignifying functions have to be infused with meaning from without by molar, interpretive interpellating functions. Sometimes this subjective production can be progressive. Signifying semiotics can produce things like the worker’s movement. The worker deterritorialized in production could be reterritorialized in different directions, either radical or reactionary.
But the party-and-union model of the labor movement, based on territorializing worker-subjectivity on the dignity of labor, may have run its course. New subjective modes might have to be created. Lazzarato spends some time on a strike by part-time culture workers, whose conditions of labor and life were being determined for them, without their input by researchers, experts, the media and political spheres. Their counter slogan: “we are the experts.”
The strike fits a general pattern of the delegation of knowledge and speech to experts and the exclusion of the governed. A contemporary American example here would be Black Lives Matter. A ‘problem’ is defined by others, not by the people affected. In order to exist politically one has to refuse the homogenous space of acceptable differences and force a cleavage which in turn allows a new kind of subjectivity to form.
Such a new kind of existential situation creates its own field of reference, and cuts through the insistence that there is no dispute, no racist violence, no class struggle and so on. It has to refuse the expert as mediator, translator for the media of what the policy parameters should be. Here Black Lives Matter’s refusal to be coopted by ‘leaders’ is salutary.
Being based on the French situation, Lazzarato spends quite a bit of energy on psychoanalysis as a kind of pastoral power which reconciles the subject with dominant modes of being a subject in a family. In the United States a mediatized version of the old religious pastoral care is probably more salient here. In either case: “There is nothing natural about the subject-function in communications and language. On the contrary, it must be constructed and imposed.” (162) And can be challenged.
The latter part of the book is a fairly sweeping critique of rival positions, although I doubt those critiqued would recognize themselves as presented here. Lazzarato refuses the language of performativity, which he finds at work in Viron, Butler and Marazzi, for whom language is still something of a transcendent and homogeneous plane. Deleuze and Guattari’s adventures in anthropology had already shown this linguistic plane is not a given but an historical and political construct.
Lazzarato thinks there is too much emphasis on the conventional function of language in reproducing social obligations. He focuses on the idea – borrowed from Austin – of the illocutory act which institutes an obligation. This line of thought tends to concentrate on formalized and institutional settings where the speech act does not really involve or commit the subject to the truth of the statement.
That would be a matter of parrhesia, or a rupture with dominant signification. Lazzarato draws on, and extends, Bakhtin’s pragmatics of the situation of speech. For Bakhtin, the dialogic is not reducible to language, which is supplementary to the situation. The performative is just one element of a heterogeneous situation. Enunciation is accomplished in a situation where the world can be a problem (Bakhtin) not just a convention (Austin).
Lazzarato wants to stress the micro-politics, or situation, of enunciation, as more than an inter-subjective relation between speakers. In Bakhtin the listener is not put in a subordinate position by the performativity of the speech act, but it is possible to go further and see enunciation not as performative at all, but as strategic. Enunciation contains pre-individual voices, gesture, expression. Hence revolt is firstly asignifying, invoking a new existential field of reference.
What precedes the subject is not so much language as speech genres, which are not a molar constraint but an assemblage of heterogeneous elements. In terms of genre, the performative are just the most stereotyped genres. Creation requires a discourse imbued with trust, a particular existential space out of which enunciation of a certain type can arise. The politics of the situation of enunciation is what determines whether it is standardized or open, not the performativity of the speaker. “Linguistics appears obsessed by the desire to reduce the indeterminacy, risk, and instability created by the event-capacity of enunciation to a fixed grammatical or syntactic structure, to norms of enunciation, to the invariants of the official language.” (197)
Guattari pushes past Bakhtin’s dialogic to include the extra-linguistic, which can’t be confined to the inter-subjective, nor is it reducible to an infrastructure. “The vectors of subjectivation… are not exclusively human…” (205) Thorough analysis requires semiotic logic plus the “ontological pragmatics” of the pre-subjective, machinic layer. (207) These two layers are different. “Discursive logic implies exchange, whereas in ontological pragmatics existence is not exchangeable… Ontological or existential pragmatics is processed, irreversible, singular, and event-gathering, whereas discursive logic is reversible, structural, ahistorical, and universal. The two logics are thus dis-symmetrical functions of subjectivity.” (207, 209)
Contra Althusser, Guattari and Lazzarato advocate an aesthetic paradigm. “The enunciation of the relation to the self and the existential territories that support them always depends on a détournement of narrative whole primary function is not to produce rational, cognitive, or scientific explanations, but to generate complex refrains (‘mythico-conceptual, phantasmatic, religious, novelistic’) which give consistency to the emergence of new existential territories.” (201) There is no science of history, but there might be an art. A art of the pragmatics of the relation between the discursive and existential, or the actual and the virtual, the possible and the real.
It would be a topical art, perhaps not unrelated to what Fredric Jameson called cognitive mapping. Or in this case perhaps it should be called affective mapping. A cartography not just of feelings but of their forces. Its aim, in our time, would be to start from neo-capitalism’s failure to produce subjects to match it products, inaugurating the long slide in soft fascism and depression, with all the “pathology of subjectivity,” its racism, misogyny and intolerance of disability. (217)
Neo-capitalism seems hell bent on a kind of anti-production that intentionally multiplies stupidity. “Only a rupture with the mode of subjectivation can secrete an existential crystallization productive of new references, and new self-positionings, which, in their turn, open the possibility for constructing new languages, new knowledges, new aesthetic practices, and new forms of life.” (223) It would be instructive to compare this, with its uncompromising modernism, not just with Pasolini but with, say, Raymond Williams, for whom the wellsprings of another life always ran deep rather than new.
The last section continues the polemics, upholding Foucault’s version of the Greek polis against Ranciere’s. Oddly enough, slavery and production disappear altogether in this part of the book, and we are stuck with that enduring myth of the intellectuals – ‘the political.’
Still, if one has to choose… “Whereas Ranciere plays with universals and discursive rationality… Foucault describes subjectivation as an imminent process of rupture and constitution of the subject.” (233) For Foucault, the failure of democracy leads to a crisis of parrhesia: on the one hand, philosophy, where truth-telling tries to exempt itself from the risks of politics, out of which comes Christianity. On the other, the cynics (an ancestor for what I call low theory), who want the other life to be this one. They criticize and scrutinize the institutions and ways of life of their peers through self-experimentation and self-examination and the experimentation and examination of others and the world.” (240)
There is certainly merit in the move towards understanding subjectivity as something produced by machinic operations rather than through a hailing, in language, via a superstructure. It is just a pity the actual machines do not become more concrete in Lazzarato. Some contact with the work of, say, Alexander Galloway or Wendy Chun might help here.
The focus on the enunciation in the middle has a lot to say about the subject, but much less so about the object, which remains much more vaguely characterized. The molecular turns out to be rather too metaphorical. The metabolic rift via which actual molecules, containing carbon, or nitrogen, or other global flows currently in states of rift – none of this ever appears.
Even on the side of the subject, there is not enough on the specific property forms and the kinds of subject they make – as for example class subjects of new regimes of ownership and non-ownership. We are stuck with a very static model of capital versus labor, where the modes of labor organization appear as outmoded, but the terms capital and labor themselves appear as ahistorical and eternal.
The emphasis on desire is a useful critique of the emphasis elsewhere on the cognitive and knowledge as drivers of this stage of commodification. But it is not an effective way of addressing the centrality of information, or the way particular historical arrangements of the machinic make information a control layer over both objects and subjects, and indeed as what produces them and assigns them their values and rewards.
In all these regards, Lazzarato has offered a vital and useful update on Guattari, showing his enduring value, but also his limitations.