Lecture Notes: Lazzarato, and tying up some loose ends

Everybody is so freaked out on the blogs! I told you we’d all feel bad about student loans. But of course you are—Lazzarato describes how we’re all fucked. We’ll get to resistance next week (in miliatary parlance, let’s figure out how to get unfucked). But really, I want to start preparing a cadence for the end of the semester. Hence: lecture notes.

Here’s the big context: One of the main ambiguities of the class, of course, is the term network itself; for the last couple of weeks, we’ve been talking about various kinds of financial networks, and our ways of being in it (debtors all of us). This is not to say that this isn’t also a computational network; it’s just not only computational.

Tying up some loose ends:
• Financialization. This is a general term for the making-tradeable of just about anything at all (turning things into financial “instruments”): the securitization of mortgages into mortgage-backed securities; turning cheese I haven’t made yet into a tradable futures contract; taking out a bet about any old thing happening in the world (that’s a swap—insurance on property you don’t own is also called a bet).

Speculation. One word we haven’t yet used, but is important here is speculation, which is the technical term for the process of extracting value from the future. Risk management (e.g. the Black-Scholes algorithm, but not only that) is important because it allows the calculation, quantification, management, and mitigation of the risk speculation creates.

Betting, gambling, and the really awful stuff. Some of this really is just betting: if you find a number that changes over time—of any kind whatsoever—you can find somebody betting on it. The difference between like actual gambling-betting and betting in financial markets is that there are, somewhere buried under many layers of financialization, actual real people and things that matter. Which somehow actually makes it worse. (Futures have a really important function in the lives of farmers; swaps matter to people or firms who are exposed to indirect risk; the financiers have no interest in anything other than the movements of various numbers, and the underlying assets matter only to the extent that they can help you figure out which way the numbers move.)

Capital is inhuman. Financial capital gets you coming and going: for folks like you and me, we hope the prices always go up, and in a reasonably steady rate. But the smart investment banks made money during the crisis in 2008—mostly, they make money not on rising prices, but on volatility.

On affect and capitalism. Let me try to make a point concretely that I tried to make a few classes back: to the extent that financial capital extracts value from the future, it also extracts value from our own individual futures. If you have a debt to pay back, you behave differently. So let’s say you’re super interested in some kind of artistic practice—but you can’t go make art because of student loans. So you take your finely-honed creativity, ditch the “purposelessness” of the aesthetic (à la Kant), and decide you’re going to start being a graphic designer. You’ve now redirected your creativity—your affective labor—away from art and towards making capitalism run more smoothly for other people, because you had to make money to pay back loans. Which is to say, to the extent that (à la Massumi) affect (in the weird, impersonal sense in which it is not feeling or emotion) is a name for creativity and futurity—indetermination, which is also to say, the possibility of novelty—financialization and indebtedness function as machines for redirecting novelty away from art (or anything else that isn’t subject to capitalistic value-extraction, say revolutionary politics or caring work) and towards the production of the novelty capitalism demands.

On Lazzarato
• And that, of course, is Lazzarato’s point: “The power of debt is described as if it were exercised neither through repression nor through ideology. The debtor is ‘free,’ but his actions, his behavior, are confined to the limits defined by the debt he has entered into. The same is true as much for the individual as for a population or social group. You are free insofar as you assume the way of life (consumption, work, public spending, taxes, etc.) compatible with reimbursement.” Or, I should say, paying rent. (Thanks to Emily, I can now point out that interest is really rent payed on money: you pay rent on what you borrow, and have to keep paying rent on it as long as you have it borrowed.)

• He continues (next sentence): “The techniques used to condition individuals to live with debt begin very early on, even before entry into the job market” (31). What are these techniques? (Anxiety! Fear! “Reasonability.” And so on: this is not ideology, nor repression.)

• “Viewing debt as the archetype of social relations means two things. On the one hand, it means conceiving economy and society on the basis of an asymmetry of power and not on that of a commercial exchange that implies and presupposes equality. … On the other hand, from this perspective debt means immediately making the economy subjective, since debt is an economic relation which, in order to exist, implies the molding and control of subjectivity [read: affect] such that ‘labor’ becomes indistinguishable from the ‘work on the self’ ” (33).

• Which is to say, the work of the book is an investigation into “how the debt economy forms subjectivity” (95).

• Let’s draw some connections:

—Accelerando tracks a fantasy about the transformations—economic, affective, biological and technological that life must undergo to become fully compatible with the kind of debt economy we currently have.

Blackhat shows how “action” is always misplaced, always somewhere else. Even when we get to see the inside of computers, visualizing a technical operation that is beyond our powers of perception (and resembling a car chase—thanks, Noah)—the real story is always somewhere else, and can’t be spectacularized either by film or by news media. The big, spectacular nuclear meltdown was just a red-herring distracting test-run for the real dastardly plan, raising the price of tin production in Malaysia by sabotaging dams. There aren’t even people who will get hurt! In this, Blackhat is similar to another quasirealist genre action movie, Quantum of Solace, where the villain is a faceless organization of capitalists who engineer a military coup, have the new el presidente sign over rights to a huge tract of land where they’ve secretly been stashing water, and then force the new president to buy the water at extortionate prices. Which is to say, they’re just run of the mill capitalists masquerading under a nonsensical name, “Quantum.” This is less about digital technology than it is about the operation of capital, but anxieties about the future tend to be displaced onto new technologies. Where Blackhat fails is precisely in its failure to spectacularize its events: or rather, it turns out the solution is just a white guy killing a bunch of people (thanks, Sara).

—A question not for discussion, really, but for further pondering (I don’t know the answer): does digital computation really change the operation of capital qualitatively? (As Ed points out, and Dan contemplates, and as I know Theo believes, it may just be the same old story, just faster.)

•Back to Lazzarato: “Even though neoliberalism equally involves the economy and subjectivity, ‘work’ and ‘work on the self,’ it reduces the latter to an injunction to become one’s own boss [cf. Foucault’s panopticism, where one becomes one’s own jailer], in the sense of ‘taking upon oneself’ the costs and risks that business and the State externalize onto society. The promise of what ‘work on the self’ was supposed to bring to ‘labor’ in terms of emancipation (pleasure, self-fulfillment, recognition, experimentation with different forms of life, mobility, etc.) has been rendered void, transformed into the imperative to take on the risks and costs that neither business nor the State are willing to undertake” (93).

• This is perhaps the most important passage of the book: neoliberalism is, among other things, characterized by a massive shift of risk away from its socialized forms (pensions, unemployment insurance, free or cheap higher education, socialized health care [like we ever had that here!]) and onto the individual. The neoliberalized individual is now responsible for saving for retirement (and so now the investment banks make money managing private money, and also gamble with those deposits), paying for their lives during times of unemployment (not least wise, running up credit card debt) paying for higher education (in the form of loans, on which the individual must pay rent in the form of interest, and which cannot be discharged in bankruptcy), and so on. Being a freelancer is great! Except the risk is nearly unmanageable for actually living individuals who don’t already have capital. This massive transfer of risk is perhaps the technique of neoliberal governmentality. If once the individual’s risk was once mitigated by aggregation at a population level (e.g., in the form of pension funds), now the population is a population of individual risk-bearers whose subjectivity is formed by that risk in the form of indebtedness. Meanwhile, the population can be subjected to more ruthlessly efficient forms of value-extraction: there isn’t interest on tax-funded state appropriations for higher ed, but there sure is interest on the student loans that have replaced it.

I think I’d better stop there (since this is already probably too much material to get through in class today). And then next week, we’ll start talking about the political forms of interruption. If the system is overwhelmingly massive, integrated, there’s no outside imaginable (in Mark Fisher’s words, it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism), then we don’t have strategy, we only have tactics. Hence our study of tactical media next week.

Journey playthrough video

Beloved students,

If you cannot make it to games lab to play Journey tomorrow or Tuesday, please watch part or all of the playthrough video. It would be preferable indeed to actually play the game with your peers. I also suggest not watching the video until playing the game, if you are planning on doing that.


Please also stay tuned: we may have a venue change, since apparently we have our game time scheduled (ironically) in the same time and place as the Video Games Scholarly Interest Group. Whoops! (If it is not in SH 326, it will most likely be in the English Department, in room 10302.)

For background, especially if you are not playing, you may also want to check out the wikipedia article about it. Or, perhaps, you might read the (very New Yorker-ish) New Yorker story on it.

(To be frank, I find the question of whether video games can be art to be completely stupid. What does an answer to that do but tell you whether or not you’re allowed to take them seriously? Or whether you’re allowed to not feel bad about playing (or “playing”) them? Or, conversely, that you can continue to ignore them as being irrelevant or condemn them as dreck? Following on my minor conniption at the end of last class, I will say that I think the category of art and its definitions and inclusions and exclusions almost always ends up distracting from the real questions. [For more on this, refer to the opening moves of my “Vulgar Boredom essay.] But it is nevertheless how people talk about games. And so.)

Considering courses next semester

Registration next semester is fast upon us, and the Associate Chair of the department, Lisa Maruca, has asked me to recommend to you ENG5830: Introduction to Technical and Professional Communication, which is part of our technical communication curriculum. In fact, I do encourage all English majors in literary and media studies to take at least one of these courses, as a way of working on (or at least beginning the thought of) skills transfer between the namby-pamby world of humanistic thinking (about feelings, no less!), and writing in a professional world. I don’t know what Jared has in store next semester (although he’s great!), but I do know that when Donnie Sackay teaches the course, one of the assignments involves writing instructions on how to tie a bow tie. Which is both awesome, really difficult, and an amazing exercise in honing the clarity and precision of your prose.

I also encourage students to consider taking Chera Kee’s ENG5070: Asian Cinema course. And those of you fascinated by affect, I don’t know what he’s planning as a subtopic, but Jonathan Flatley is teaching under the ENG5450: Modern American Literature number; affect theorist he sometimes is, his class will likely resonate with what we have been studying this semester.

Finally, I will be teaching a graduate-level course under ENG7006: Media Theory, titled Media Theory/Media Practice. If any of you think you might want continue working with me, while getting a solid foundation in media theory while learning the basics of computer programming in a humanistic setting, talk to me about it. I’m happy to entertain the idea of waiving you into the course. The description is here.

Because the answer is always *more reading*…

If you’re looking for some clarification on the Berlant piece we read for last time, here’s a piece by the rather more accessible Rebecca Solnit that reprises many of the themes Berlant writes about in “Starved.”

Solnit: “Society’s recipes for fulfillment cause a great deal of unhappiness, both in those who are stigmatized for being unable or unwilling to carry them out and in those who obey but don’t find happiness. Of course there are people with very standard-issue lives who are very happy. I know some of them, just as I know very happy childless and celibate monks, priests, and abbesses, gay divorcees, and everything in between.”

Affect Theory Lecture Notes

These are, more or less, the notes from which I lectured yesterday. They may not be hugely helpful if you weren’t there, perhaps, since we talked about some things that aren’t indicated here. But they might give some structure and insight into the affect theory swamp we’re wading through. I’ve tried to indicate where what actually happened in the classroom diverges from what I’ve put here.

—Flatley: Nobody agrees on these things; we just know we want to talk about feelings. Affective Mapping, p. 12: “Where emotion suggests something that happens inside and tends toward outward expression, affect indicates something relational and transformative.” (Also, you asked if I might provide a PDF of the glossary from Affective Mapping. The internet has one here. This includes both the brief introduction and the glossary treating affect, emotion, mood, and structure of feeling. You may or may not wish to skip the intro.)

—Weak theory v. strong theory: Sedwick on “strong theory” from “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading,” pp. 133–26. (Esp. weak theory must be effective to remain weak; strong theory can take over the world by being ineffective.)

—Sedgwick herself is a champion of weak theory. I describe Massumi as a strong theorist. Both are dissatisfied with structural accounts.

—This dissatisfaction with structure is an animating, perhaps the animating, concern of “affect theory.” I offered a long excursus on [post]structuralism that I had not quite planned. In a nutshell, and from this perspective, structuralism and poststructuralism name the posture and conviction that an analysis of x (whatever x may be) will eventually get you to the real story, whether this be Marxism’s class antagonism or psychoanalysis’s Oedipus complex. Structuralism is the conviction that everything is determined by the operation of a structure which is hidden from ordinary, phenomenal perception.

—Affect theory notices that the actual texture of life must be abstracted away to arrive at an account which discovers structure at work everywhere. Affect is, at an abstract level, simply that which cannot be accounted for by structure, what must be discarded on the way to a structural account. It is the feeling of living, the texture of the ordinary.

—For Massumi, “the stakes are the new”: if everything that mattered arose as the operation of structure, nothing new would ever happen. Thus, affect is where the new arises. This is politically important for Massumi because otherwise, there’s no resource of novelty available to challenge the operation of structure. Affect is potential, potential to become otherwise—at both an individual and collective level.

—For Sedgwick, the stakes are related, but for her the problem is also that you’ll miss the life you’re living, the ways people have of living through things, and you’ll also end up missing or foreclosing the actual ways people do live that’s in excess of structural determinations.

[Here, I ended up talking about our methods in the class, inspired by affect theory. But in the lecture, I planned this material for the end; I’ll leave it at the end here.]

—Some schematic notes about what affect means for Massumi:

• Affect is prepersonal.
• It does not belong to you.
• You cannot experience it.
• It circulates between and among bodies.
• Emotions are the “capture” of affect by the personal.
• Aesthetic texts, though, are (in Gilles Deleuze’s parlance) “blocs of affect,” which can then, stemming from an aesthetic encounter, circulate through the bodies with which it comes into contact. They are affects without persons.
• Networks act as intensifiers and circulators and amplifiers and modulators and controllers of affect.

—Example: p. 115 of Grusin’s “Affective Life of Media” on cellphones. I was going to talk about Grusin’s description of the cellphone conversation, but we ended up comparing Franzen’s terrible strong/paranoid account of cellphone use—there’s a single reason people are attached to phones, and that’s fear—to Tomkins’s amazing practices of description from “Shame in the Cybernetic Fold,” the block quotes on pp. 499–500.

—What does this mean for how we move forward, now that we’re turning away from the abstract theorizing that helps us orient our questions, and actually bringing our questions to some aesthetic texts? How are we to read a novel like Super Sad True Love Story?

—Effectively, affect theory of the weak kind that Sedgwick presents explains something in a way that is “little better than mere description”—but, nevertheless, a little better. It means sitting with the specificity and detail of something, how it feels, how it operates. In Sedgwick’s version, this is emphatically about our ordinary: the demand is to develop modes of attention and practices of thinking that work on our ordinary, which, in our work together here, means an ordinary that is saturated by, and attuned with, network technology and network form.

—One version of this a-little-better-than-description is actually the novelistic or memoiristic description of things—feelings, networks—that we find in our aesthetic texts.

—As  far as our networks + feelings agenda goes, here are some items that should orient your reading as we move into the novel-reading phase of the course:

• Attention to the details of the technology it imagines and figures.
• Attention to how affect circulates in the book: between whom? by what means? with what effects?
• Attention to what interferes with the transmission of affect across networks. When do things break? What breaks them? When does affect become intense?
• And, of course, we are always paying attention to form and its limits: What exceeds representation in the novels? How does the novel’s form deal with or respond to that limit of form? How are networks figured? How are feelings? How do they exceed our grasp?

Snowden on Extraterrestrials

Perhaps of interest (I had heard about this, but thanks to Ed for the signal boost—no pun intended): Snowden was recently on “Star Talk” with Niel Degrasse Tyson. The sensational bit that’s been echoing around the intertubes is that Snowden hypothesized that perhaps the reason we haven’t yet heard from aliens is that maybe all their communications are encrypted to such a degree that we can’t distinguish said communication from the noise of cosmic background radiation. To my knowledge, this is a novel solution to the Fermi paradox (NB: if you want to feel enjoyably paranoid, spend some time reading/thinking about the Fermi paradox, which is deeply unsettling). Apparently, however, Snowden isn’t right on the facts. But it’s definitely worth keeping this little nugget in mind as a cultural phenomenon when we read Accelerando later in the semester.

Eight Theses on Networks

These are the main organizing points for the lecture portion of Tuesday’s class:

  1. Networks have three basic facts: connectioncommunication, and compression. (To which we might add two more: content and control.) (McLuhan, Galloway, Sterne)
  2. There are many different types of networks. (Galloway, Sandvig)
  3. Most times we use the term “network,” we mean (or at least invoke) “the internet.” But the internet itself is a complex, layered assemblage of many different types of networks. (Mattern, Sandvig)
  4. Different kinds of networks demand different kinds of analysis. (Galloway, Jagoda)
  5. Control and organization are embodied in network form. (Galloway)
  6. Different things flow through networks in different ways: power, but also affect. Different network forms channel these differently. (Galloway, Jagoda)
  7. Network analysis demands an attention to things other than content. Our position here is one of network formalism.
  8. That said, nobody really knows what follows from these analyses, or what responses to take. (Galloway, Cohen, Jagoda)