Jonathan Beller is one of the world’s most challenging theoreticians of film and new digitalized media productions at the present moment. His astute analyses are important as they show that new film/digital imageries are deeply reconfigured by the financialization processes of global capitalism. Financialization is not just the flip side (“the error”) of global capitalism, it is the mode of capitalization functioning through the whole of contemporary society from economics to aesthetics; it also encroaches on the means by which theory is conceived and reproduced. Reproduction of global capitalism has at its core the form of financialization of global capitalism that is the new condition of its im/possibility. Jonathan Beller’s cinematic mode of production presents the way in which financial capitalism reproduces itself within and through the digital/film industry by showing that the logic of exploitation and expropriation by capital today in arts and culture is not limited only to the realms of art and culture. What this means, and how the cinematic mode of production is to be understood, is not something obvious. On the contrary. Its operations (voraciously predatory) in the contemporary Hollywood film industry and elsewhere are to be presented clearly, otherwise the processes of financialization, which are the keys to the new orders of exploitation in the digital era, as well as to the maintenance of traditional forms of violence and expropriation inherited from prior eras, will remain masterly hidden. The discussion between us is just the beginning of a dialogue on this topic that will evolve in the future.
Marina Gržinić: In your writing, in order to develop another way of understanding cinema, you coined “the cinematic mode of production.” In what does it consist? What is its connection with the capitalist mode of production? In which way do these two modes work hand in hand with each other? On what points do they differ?
The formulation “the cinematic mode of production” (CMP) is meant to indicate the positing of the visual and sensual realms as production sites for capital. In saying that “cinema brings the industrial revolution to the eye,” I meant that with the origin of cinema, assembly-line strategies for the production of commodities were directed at the eye for the production of images. With Taylorism (a technique of labor discipline and workplace organization based upon supposedly scientific studies of human efficiency and incentive systems, begun around 1911), the cinema becomes an explicit tool for reorganizing prior production practices. It is possible to say that the (factory) chain montage becomes film montage – and then this montage is imposed upon the workplace. Taylor filmed multiple workers doing the same job at different times and in different locations, broke the job down into component parts and edited their movements together to assemble from all the variations “the one best way” to do a job. That “one best way” was then imposed upon workers by a managerial class that seized control of the shop floor. However, the organization of labor by cinematic processes goes much deeper than and far beyond simply affecting what we do at what used to be called work; indeed, it transforms perceptual experiences and processes into work. The cinema becomes a tool for the reorganization of the worker at every level of his or her experience and simultaneously converts this process of reorganization into an engine of value production. As I say in the CMP, in contemporary capitalism we must constantly retool ourselves, at the same time as we valorize (in the economic sense) media pathways. This retooling first posits and then presupposes a transformation in the form of value whilst simultaneously laying the groundwork for what the Italian theoreticians call “real subsumption,” the capture by capitalist production of formerly semi-autonomous processes that previously were formally outside of capitalist production. This capture extends beyond the work place into psycho-social life to the point where we confront the expropriation of what Virno calls the cognitive-linguistic capacities of humankind. In an Orwellian turn that I tried to articulate in my own work and continue to find persuasive, current thinking has it that our very utterances are merely the subroutines of capital scored by the general intellect that is at once the means and the material of our subjectification.
This colonization of the visual (and now the sensual) by capital, also to be thought in terms of the rise of visuality, is in my view one of the paradigmatic achievements of the long 20th century. Just as commodities transform our sensual experience (Marx says in the 1844 manuscripts that the forming of the five senses is a labor of the history of the world down to the present, and also that industry is the open book of human psychology), so too with images. Simmel showed how the organization of the modern metropolis affected consciousness, as well as how mass-produced objects changed the character of one’s perception and sensibilities. Andre Bazin (What is Cinema?
(vol. 1), ed. and trans., Hugh Gray, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1971), wrote that “production by automatic means has radically affected our psychology… (p. 13),” and noted that for the surrealists, “every image is to be seen as an object and every object as an image (pp. 15–16).” So we have a convergence of object-function and image-function already implicit in commodity production, but it is the cinema, precisely as a culmination of the development of industrial technologies, that explicitly utilizes the visual pathway to re-organize sensory input for both state and market purposes. In the nominally anti-capitalist Soviet Union, Vertov spoke of “the communist decoding of the visible world” and “the encoding of the visible world,” while Eisenstein told us that a film was “a tractor plowing over the audience’s psyche,” and that the director’s job was “the organization of the audience with organized materials.” Stalin famously remarked that the filmmaker was an engineer of the soul. The interplay between images and objects, the role of both the built environment and visual technologies on the organization of the sensorium was explicitly recognized and deployed as a medium for the transformation of the state. The medium of this medium, as it were, was cinema. The story of Hollywood moguls, the studio system, the rise of advertising in the West, and the tremendous role of visual culture in the development of current market forces is a better known (if not well understood) story in the Euro-American (and now global) context.
One of the main purposes of the idea of the cinematic mode of production is to recognize this seizure of the visual by industrial, economic and political concerns, and to recognize that in the seizure of the visual, capital posits the visual (and now presupposes it) as a site for the production of value, and necessarily then, as a site of struggle. Revolutionary filmmakers went to the visual not because they were filmmakers, but because they were revolutionaries. It was in the visual that new battles were being fought. The choice of the visual was not simply because cinema was an ideologically influential medium, but rather, like the factory itself, the cinema was and remains a means of production.
So to sum up, the continuity of the CMP with the capitalist mode of production is to be grasped in the fact that the visual and visual technologies have become means for capitalist value production and the expropriation of labor. While there are various modes of capture and streams of value transfer (that go from the act of watching TV, to advertising, to legitimizing war), it is easy to see that the world that we live in today could not exist in its present form even for one day without the ubiquitous presence of the screen. All social activity is either directly organized by screens or indirectly impacted by them, from the clothes we wear to what we know how to say to what we put into our bodies. In other words, the horrors of capitalist society that include mass immiseration as the other side of massive capital accumulation, and colonialist and imperialist war, violent racialization, patriarchal domination and the organization of gulags and camps as the other side of liberal democracy, are still with us; but the means of production have shifted with growing problems of organization and management. Again to use Orwell’s formulation, we have had to develop the capacities of doublethink, required as we are in daily life both to know and not to know, to hold two contradictory ideas in our heads simultaneously while believing them both to be true. Visual culture, with its quickness and ability to short-circuit language function – and with it the figuration of contradiction as such by logic – has realized a fundamental requirement for totalitarian society expressed by Orwell when he writes: “stupidity was as necessary as intelligence and as difficult to attain.” Meanwhile, along with the liquidation of logic and the marginalization of linguistic traction on the movement of the real, the society of control has developed the capacity to regulate everything from thought to DNA, down to the atomic and even the quantum levels of matter. Thus the cinematic mode of production is to be understood as an intensification of the bourgeois form of the capitalist mode of production, a corkscrewing inwards and an extension outwards of the viral logic of the commodity form – that is, of dissymmetrical exchange to the point where it is necessary to speak not just of post-humanism, but of the post-human. That, of course, would entail thinking in a more detailed way about cinema and its intersection with other vectors including cybernetics, psychoanalysis, racism and imperialism, which makes it another conversation.
M. G.: In order to formulate the cinematic mode of production, you also presented the critique of Deleuze’s two major books on cinema,
The Movement-Image and
The Time-Image. Could you synthesize your critique of Deleuze and expose the major differences between your and his conceptualization of cinema?
I would say that my relation to Deleuze is incomplete – in other words, I do not feel that my own work either exhausts or even fully digests Deleuze’s work. For example, I do not have a “take” on every concept he produces in the cinema books. While such a method of entering the fabric of a work and using what one needs is not inconsistent with Deleuze’s own ethos, it remains inconsistent with the professional demands of scholarship. Be that as it may, my use of the cinema books, books that I consider to be among the most important written on the medium, was an effort to recast Deleuze’s approach to cinema and, to be frank, to subsume his efforts, in my own. In a way, I was epistemologically bound to do this because, in my own view, cinema was itself being subsumed by capital (or perhaps subsuming capital? – it is too early and too dangerous to say). While some of the earliest inroads into the visual by cinema were avowedly (if not practically) anti-capitalist (as with Vertov and, more to the point, Eisenstein, as mentioned above), the cinema as a whole had, by the time of Deleuze’s writing, been captured as a means of capitalist production. Furthermore, this shift from what we could abbreviate as the explicitly material world to visual and virtual worlds as production sites, seemed to impose the need for new paradigms for the understanding of political economy. Thus, the break between the movement-image and the time-image, which Deleuze says, following perhaps the Benjamin of “The Storyteller,” occurs after World War II and coincides with a decreasing narratabilty of experience, becomes in my own view, not (I should say not only) the result of artists or film “thinkers” searching for new forms that would be adequate to their time (to the new experiences and properties of time itself) – that is, of forms that the philosopher might then produce concepts for; rather, the new films are composed out of social relations that themselves re-negotiate the shifting relation between the socius and the psycho-linguistic abilities of the audience. For me, this shift was not primarily a sea change in consciousness that belonged to the domain of philosophy, but rather an event of great significance in the history of political economy and of social struggle. Thus, by removing the auteur from the cinema, (a functioning conceit that Deleuze embraces, but that I eschew in my chapter on his work), one takes a systems approach, and tracks shifts in the medium and in the social practices that pertain. The film-work then belongs to the collectivity rather than to the “thinkers,” as Deleuze calls his canonical filmmakers. As Comolli put it, one could say that it is the queues around the block that invent the cinema, and I was interested in what the people were making.
It is this idea of the reciprocity between film form and audience that licenses for my own work what is actually the most important move in relation to the Deleuzian approach to cinema. This involves, building on Metz, the recognition of the cinema as a social machine, a machine that is caught in a financial feedback loop with audiences. If this relationship, which passes through consciousness, the psyche, the economy and the image can, by its very functioning, produce new thoughts in the domain of philosophy, then quite clearly philosophy is no longer a privileged domain. It is a practice among others, one indicator of a dynamic that as a whole constitutes a larger cybernetic process.
It is here that I find Deleuze’s work limited and limiting. Not only because it confines itself to the analysis of the hundred or so geniuses of cinema, but because of its dual cathexis on films and on thought. My objection is not simply that this desire is aestheticizing or philosophically motivated, but rather that in order to construct itself thusly, it misses the historical role of cinema in its entirety. No fetishist can know the true nature of his or her object. In other words, Deleuze’s encounter confines itself to a rather narrow definition of cinema, in as much as it does not explore the global role of cinema as an emergent operating system for the coordination of the multiple variables of production. To do so, would of course historicize cinema in such a way that its formal innovations were linked primarily to social conditions, and this move would impinge upon the centrality of aesthetics and philosophy, casting them as subroutines in the operation of a larger system. It would also raise questions about the social and historical significance of the industrialization of the visual and require a dialectical mode of analysis. Deleuze gets around this immanent pressure – pressure that he perceives precisely by the stemming of his own thought in the face of the image – by muttering something to the effect of what he is doing in the cinema books is what philosophers do: produce concepts. But here, Marx’s challenge to the role of the philosopher sounds as fresh as ever, “Up to now, philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point, however, is to change it.”
Ultimately, this difference with Deleuze comes down to a difference regarding the explanatory power of the dialectic. The work of Deleuze, which has become exhibit for post-dialectical thinking, has also become a haven for white boys who need to have something to say in a profession whose bread and butter, paradoxically, is its anti-establishment aspirations. At the risk of being cynical, over harsh and dismissive (hey, didn’t Žižek teach us that the truth of psychoanalysis was to be found in its exaggerations), as long as you were de-territorializing something at a conference, then the work you were doing was assumed by some to be just as important and perhaps smarter than that of women of color, anti-imperialists, queers, anti-racists and post-colonials; in other words, in the professionalized utilization of Deleuze, “Consciousness could
flatter itself that it really was something other than consciousness of existing practice.” But the edgy discomfort that much Deleuzian criticism generated was often only with the terms of its elaboration, its own vocabulary, rather than with received notions of history, hegemonic sexuality, gender performativity, racial formation, etc. This is not to disparage Deleuze’s work, only, as Adorno might say, to defend him against his devotees. My own work on Deleuze – work that was as much an answer to Deleuzians as to Deleuze, was a response to this strategy to make the dialectic go away, to displace the narratives of the historical struggle against exploitation, as well as to efface the reality that in spite of the massively variegated architecture of desire and/or cultural formations, there was also the homogenizing function of the value-form that was increasingly able to posit all difference as exchange-value. Furthermore, I wanted analytical space to consider the aesthetic and cultural role of the increasing accumulation of capital, the historically unprecedented amount of sedimented dead labor that took its toll on the living. Finding new strategies of becoming by moving through difference, yes, ignoring the forces of practical abstraction and homogenization, no – especially when the present was haunted both by the victims of past history and also the unrepresented and perhaps unrepresentable contemporary victims of living history.
For me, the decisive character of cinema was not that it demanded refinements in philosophy’s categories, but rather that it was the watershed for a new regime in political economy. There is a way of recognizing that both physics and metaphysics underlie all of our utterances without coronating either the physicians or the metaphysicians. This is to say that my approach to cinema involved not only differences regarding the historical role of the visual; it was a political choice. Deleuze was right to recognize the centrality of cinema’s massive de-territorializations, that cinema presented a profound problem for thought – but he misses the significance of that de-territorialization on the value-form and on forms of sociality. In short, he represses the fact that the transformations he chronicles in the domain of philosophy properly belong to the domain of political economy, even though, at least in the case of the cinema books, it is cinema itself that puts him to work. As I think I wrote in “Capital/Cinema,” “If every relation weren’t potentially productive of value, how could there have been a Deleuze?”
M. G.: How much is your Cinematic Mode of Production based on new media technologies that were not present in the time of Deleuze’s writing of his two books? How much do new media technologies and digitalization frame your Cinematic Mode of Production and, within it, your conceptualization and understanding of time and space in cinema today?
The Cinematic Mode of Production
was conceived before many people outside of the Pentagon and a few computer geeks had heard of the Internet. The work on Vertov was begun in 1989–90 and on Eisenstein in 1991, when a few academics were beginning to use email. The intuitions about cinema as an intervention in value transfer came principally from what I felt radical and revolutionary cinema was trying to accomplish – something along the lines of the communist decoding of the visible world combined with the communist encoding of the visible world. Not that all my influences were communists – I learned a great deal from Hitchcock, Altman, Antonioni, Yvonne Rainer, Marlene Gorris, Warhol, Mike de Leon, and many others. However, Solanas and Getino’s “Toward a Third Cinema,” with its idea that cinema was to be a catalyst for thought, social change and the creation of what they called the New Man, along with Soviet cinema, Senegalese cinema, particularly of Sembène and Mambéty, Latin American cinema, particularly Patricio Guzmán, Philippine cinema, particularly Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal, along with French and Italian filmmakers like Pasolini, Godard and Pontecorvo, taught me to think about what was absent or elided in dominant cinema, and also that films wanted something from us. The first moment, I suppose, was a denaturing of the mediated world which I had become conscious of, and the second was my experience of my perceptive faculties being harnessed to new or incipient social formations. Whether by destroying conventional representational structures, reanimating past or marginal social forms, or inventing new modalities of expression for a contemporary that had no place in the global dominant, one could feel oneself being enlisted as part of a revolutionary program at affective, aesthetic, ideological, narrative and political levels. There was in so much of this work a palpable reorganization of desire, of space, time and the perception of reality. The films also were generative of modes of cognition that could then be utilized to analyze aspects of society that were in a literal sense beyond their frames but nonetheless were relevant to the form that the image took. In other words, as they carved out new spaces and representational practices, these films also inventoried visual and imaginative spaces and practices that had been simultaneously colonized by Hollywood and functionalized by markets. Pasolini, for example, in his Trilogy of Life
, animates the Decameron
, the Canterbury Tales
and the Arabian Nights
in a way that reveals not only their all too human content but also, through their ultra visceral presentation of the untoward and erotic dimensions of human life, how, by being turned into classics for bourgeois society, literary works had effectively been liquidated of their subversive contents, reified and, indeed, turned into the very opposite of literature. In a long view, the filmmakers I mention here and many others were engaged in a battle for the imaginary, which was to be won by either the symbolic of capital or of the revolution – or so it seemed at the time.
In my book on Philippine visuality, Acquiring Eyes
, I try to show how at a certain point in the modernization process, the visual was also a realm of freedom. In other words, that the visual was part of the commons, an outside of capitalist production that modern artists turned to when they were checkmated by capitalist (and, in the case of the Philippines, imperialist) strategies of control in the material and symbolic registers. Such an understanding of the visual as a space of resistance was important to establish because it suggests that it is resistance to the dominant material conditions and their enabling symbolic logics that opens the visual, and furthermore, that this outside, this realm of freedom is subsequently contested and colonized. This idea of modern visuality emerging out of struggle is consistent with the premise that it is not only the workers who build the world, but that it is workers who drive innovation. I bring this up in response to your question about the CMP and digital technologies, because as I revised that book after it sat re- and dejected in a drawer for many years, I had many occasions to reflect upon how it was cinema that opened up the spaces that new media, from television to video, to the computer, to the Internet, further developed and ramified. The strategies of value transfer at the interface between the body and the social machinery known as “the image” was being taken to another level of development in the digital modification of the utility of the screen. For me anyway, the Internet and the speculative Nasdaq explosion of the late 1990s was proof of both the attention given to the theory of value that I had derived from the cinema as well as confirmation of the centrality of the screen in the organization of emergent sociality.
M. G.: One of your most important points is that your cinematic mode of production leave behind the understanding of the esthetical as the sublime, presenting it, on the contrary, as the form of today’s most brutal exploitation. In what way does, the cinematic mode of production presents the connection of cinema, new media technology, the post-Fordist division of labor and global capitalism? What are the possible forms of resistance against such an entanglement between capitalistic exploitation and cinematic digitalization?
The idea that the sublime in capitalized representation is at once a cipher and an engine of exploitation is in some respects an extension of Frankfurt school era insights. Specifically, Benjamin’s insight that under fascism we experience our own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order, or, in a slightly different key, Adorno and Horkheimer’s acerbic quip from “The Culture Industry” essay, “‘Fun’ is a medicinal bath.” My understanding of the sublime is also connected to Benjamin’s idea of shock in “The Storyteller” essay. However, rather than the interruptions of the ordinary textures of experience and time that are associated with an earlier stage of capitalism that left aspects of traditional society intact, the eruption of the sublime as ego-shattering techno-shock, or, for that matter, of the beautiful as fascist-nationalism/masculinity/eroticism, are at present among the engines of creation – precisely, instruments for the remaking of spectators’ interiorities and perceptual machinery. To speak too briefly, Marinetti’s manifesto is now a commonplace, the beauty and sublimity of violence is both the aestheticization of politics and a set of tools for inuring us, the masses, to violence (against others and against ourselves) – it destroys solidarity. However, in a slightly different key from my prior writings, I might say that with the postmodern sublime, there may well be no “last instance,” when it comes to determining the politics of the moment of sublimity. On the one hand, with the sublime, there is annihilation and the de-constitution of the ego, on the other hand, there is becoming à la Deleuzian masochism – so on that first hand, you have a process that is ordained by capitalist society in the retrenchment of the human psyche reformed in very precise ways that can be functionalized by the ever intensifying new protocols of capitalist cooperation (and therefore coincides with the generalized brutality and murderous function of the world media-system), but on that other hand, the very same process of creative destruction may well be necessary for transvaluation, which could also mean communion, transformation and social change. As Jameson says about capitalism, we must understand it to be both the best and the worst thing that has ever happened to humanity. In this spirit (a dialectical one that insists upon contradiction and its historicity), I think there is more to learn from Benjamin’s attitude toward the cinema, which, for him, even as it worked to destroy cult values, also destroyed cultic categories precious to an earlier moment of bourgeois humanism, including authenticity, genius, creativity and personality. In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” essay, Benjamin allies the preservation of these values with fascism and says that their deployment leads to a processing of data in the fascist sense. One can still see this form of processing on the placards of most museum retrospectives. Benjamin also says that although cinema is capable of revolutionary critique, the then-current cinema (from Hollywood to Weimar) is pressed into the service of the production of ritual values (including the cult of personality) and only useful in as much as an understanding of its processes enables a critique of the social role of art. And we should not forget, that in Benjamin’s view, this critique amounts to the assemblage of an arsenal. In other words, in spite of the reactionary character of the cinema of his time, Benjamin did not underestimate its power to liquidate tradition – and since that tradition was in fact composed of the many traditions of hierarchical societies, that liquidation had a tremendous up side that had to be taken seriously by revolutionary critique. I would say that the same is true for our current moment – we are living through the liquidation of privacy – in which interiority is subject to the vertiginous movement of collective energies in the form of intensities as well as surveillance. While the dominant function of this liquidation is to preserve private property relations, it will necessarily have other effects, including the emergence of new forms of collectivity and collective relations currently being figured in a variety of ways, including peer 2 peer, the multitudes, the pre-individual, the commons, the swarm, etc. Thus, in some respects, we are between the archive and sublimity, all of the incredible human potentials, diversity and pathways that are being lost and may yet contain some saving power, and the visceral, polytechnic, cybernetic transformation of our very being. It may sound paradoxical, but seeing each as a sign of the other (the atavistic and the computational) may well offer us some guidance. The liquidation of privacy may also lead to the liquidation of private property. It is up to us to find out if and how.
Dr. Jonathan Beller, Professor in English and Humanities, Critical and Visual Studies, Pratt Institute, New York.