NeMLA23: “An End to the Anthropocene”: Climate Change and Psychedelic Horror

If fungi seem to be everywhere right now, that’s not just a result of HBO’s adaptation of The Last of Us. Fungi and their psychedelic possibilities have been all over horror for ages. Contemporary writers like Jeff Vandermeer, M.R. Carey, Alicia Whitely, and Silvia Moreno-Garcia have used the third kingdom for allegorical ends, turning the hallucinatory and transpersonal potentialities of fungi into critiques of settler colonialism, imperialism, and misogyny. Today, I’m going to discuss two films that use fungi’s psychedelic possibilities to respond to the terrors of the Capitalocene, Gaia and In the Earth. Both released in 2021 by Neon, these two psychedelic horror films have strikingly similar narratives: an outsider encounters people living in the wilderness who worship a fungus as a sort of consciousness of the Earth fighting against the coming climate collapse.

Poster for Ben Wheatley's psychedelic horror film, In the Earth.
In the Earth (2021)
Poster for psychedelic horror film Gaia (2021)
Gaia (2021)

The use of fungi recalls what anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing says of mushrooms. Their “willingness to emerge in blasted landscapes,” Tsing explains, “allows us to explore the ruin that has become our collective home” (3). In these films, however, fungi aren’t important because they can survive neoliberal ruin but because they act as a counterpower to capitalism itself. Fungi’s terrors are inseparable from its powers of appropriation. These films explore the uncanniness of fungi’s different ways of eating: the saprotrophic, which decomposes what it consumes; the parasitic, which lives off its hosts; and the mycorrhizal, which creates networks in symbiosis with other plants to exchange nutrients and aid ecological communication. The fungi of Gaia and In the Earth do a bit of everything, allowing fungi’s multiform powers of appropriation to make it resonate with capitalism. What cinches the allegory is that fungi is a diffuse networked system of appropriation. With their masses of hyphae, fungi elude description as individual organisms. What we see are the fruiting bodies of larger, more diffuse networks hidden in the soil that not only seem to have their own form of consciousness, but that can bring humanity into that consciousness through psychedelic experience. Both films rely on this conceit and use elements of psychedelic filmmaking to emphasize the permeability of human and nonhuman consciousness. The result is a pair of films that try to convey the terrors of climate change from the Earth’s perspective.

For that reason, these films force us to confront ecofascism, what Janet Biehl and Peter Staudenmaier concisely defined as “[emphasizing] the supremacy of the ‘Earth’ over people; [evoking] ‘feelings’ and intuition at the expense of reason; and [upholding] a crude sociobiologistic and even Malthusian biologism” (11). The far-right has long had what Sam Moore and Alex Roberts call “an ambivalence toward capitalism” (11). This ambivalence allows far-right ecologism to decry neoliberalism and environmental destruction on the one hand, and to treat climate change’s catastrophic effects on the global south as “racialized ineptitude” (42) on the other. To escape the impasses of the Capitalocene, far-right ecological thought seeks its solutions in ideas of Earth supremacy and naturalized hierarchies based in racialization.

Gaia makes these stakes clear almost immediately. From South African filmmaker Jaco Bouwer, the film presents its fungus as part of a reimagining of James Lovelock and Lynn Margolis’s “Gaia hypothesis,” the idea that “life on Earth actively keeps the surface conditions always favorable for whatever is the contemporary ensemble of organisms” (Lovelock 254-55). Bouwer’s film asks what would happen if the Earth realized that the best way to do this was to eliminate humanity? This desire is shared by two back-to-the-land Afrikaaners, Barend and his son Stefan. Barend preaches a form of Earth-supremacy. The fungus will cleanse the world of humanity, he says, and “bring an end to the Anthropocene.” Barend’s eco-fascism seems implicitly allied to white supremacy, if only because he opposes the film’s two people of color, rangers sent to monitor the forest. One of them is quickly killed by the fungus, but the other, Gabi, seeks refuge in his cabin after one of his traps stabs her in the foot. Not only does Barend reject South African modernity, he also tries to hide his conversations from Gabi by speaking Afrikaans with his son. This doesn’t work, but the meaning is clear, and that’s before we see that his fungus worship has a lot to do with blood and soil. The fungus ties them to the Earth with its blood. When a fungus-headed creatures attacks, Gabi winds up coated in spore-tainted blood and the fungus begins to colonize her dreams and her arms. Barend and Stefan ward off this control by offering prayers and sacrifices to the fungus in return for mushrooms that cure them of this infection. Stefan steals one for Gabi, which clears her skin but not her mind, and Barend thus decides to initiate her into his cult with another of the fungus’s offerings, a psychedelic mushroom. Her trip begins pleasantly enough. She melts into and out of the earth and has a sexual encounter with Stefan before the vision turns dark. Barend fucks the earth and Stefan appears with an arrow through his head. Later, Barend tells her he’s had the same vision. The fungus wants him to sacrifice Stefan. More blood for the soil.

Gabi will thwart Stefan’s sacrifice by giving it Barend instead. The film briefly gestures toward a pluralist happy state of nature with Gabi and Stefan living together in the woods, but the fungus quickly brings this phase to an end. With Barend gone, they can’t ward off infection and Gabi is quickly overcome, her body consumed by the fungus. Stefan then leaves the forest and  falls back into his father’s apocalyptic project. In the film’s coda, he wanders through an unnamed city dressed like the Unabomber and leaving a trail of spores in his wake. The final image, a half-finished burger slowly enveloped by mold, suggests the Earth’s revenge to be inseparable from love.

Gaia wants us to see these ecofascist ideas critically, but its use of gender hierarchies undermines this critique. Early in the film, Barend insists that infection turns humans into the violent mushroom-headed creatures that roam the forest. However, the film’s two women escape this fate to become part of the landscape: Gabi quite literally becomes nature, absorbed into the forest floor. Stefan’s mother, long dead by the events of the film, has been similarly absorbed. As literary critics know, the alignment of the feminine and the land is a persistent trope of colonial and imperial literature. That’s because it runs through capitalism itself. As Claudia von Werlhof writes, in capitalism, women are “the only people on earth who always under all circumstances count as ‘nature’” (“On the Concept of Nature” 103). The film hammers the point home in its opening and closing sequences when the frame literally turns the world upside down. [SLIDE 5] A God’s-eye shot of the forest canopy captured from a great height reduces foliage to the texture of lichen before the camera slowly tips over, placing the lichen-forest canopy above and the blue sky below. This inverted image then dissolves into a drone shot inside the forest canopy as the camera glides over a riverbed, splitting into a distorted mirrored image above and a clear image below. When the drone approaches a canoe, we see Gabi, and the inversion ends as the camera passes overhead. [SLIDE 6] The film’s closing images reframe this inversion to suggest that what we’ve seen—Gabi’s story—is the real inversion. The conclusion returns us to what the film suggests is nature’s proper domination, absorbing Gabi into the landscape. As she expires, the camera returns to the God’s-eye shot, this time of her body completely colonized by fungi before dissolving to the opening God’s-eye view of the forest canopy.

Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth (2021) uses many of the same elements to surprisingly different ends. Dr. Wendel, a scientist studying the forest’s mycorrhizal network, has been lost in a UK forest, and Martin, a friend and colleague, heads into the woods to find her, guided by a ranger name Alma. One way to distinguish the two films is that Gaia exists in a world prior to COVID. The characters of In the Earth mask, test, and sterilize. When Martin approaches the ranger station at the beginning of the film, it isn’t clear where filming precautions end and fiction begins. Throughout, characters discuss the need to maintain a “sterile” environment. The people most fearful of contamination, though, aren’t Martin or Alma, both played by people of color, but the film’s deranged white researchers-cum-pagan-forest-worshippers. For Wendel and her ex-husband, Zach, fears of contamination camouflage their descent into madness.

Like Gaia, then, In the Earth is about ecofascism, here keyed to the rise of the far right in Britain. Wendel and Zach’s isolation in the woods has led them to become entranced by folklore about a forest necromancer, Parnag Fegg. Neither Alma nor Martin take the story seriously. Rangers have children draw Fegg before they go on hikes, Alma explains, so they’re too scared to wander off. Wendel, however, has come to believe Fegg is a personification of the forest’s mycorrhizal mat after she discovers its densest area lies under a Celtic standing stone. Her research hopes to discover how to communicate with the fungus, and she’s brought an array of light and sound equipment to do so. When her experiments fail, she turn to folk religion with Zach’s help. Together, they’ve decided the answer must be human sacrifice. And look, here come Martin and Alma. Taken as a whole, the racial division of the cast, the demands for sterility, and the turn to folk religion and human sacrifice suggest another ecofascist story, this one about an imagined return-to-origins and purity. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Dr Wendel conducts her research for “the Fashdale Institute.”

Unlike Gaia, In the Earth is more circumspect about what it means to communicate with the nonhuman. Here the psychedelic also offers the possibility of communication between humanity and nature, but the people most committed to it are deranged. [SLIDE 10] Zach relies on trippy images, patternmaking, and offerings. Wendel, who pretends for much of the film not to accept Zach’s paganism, tells Martin, “Zach is trying to make meaning where there isn’t any.” Wendel is pulling Martin’s leg here, but the film does undercuts Zach’s beliefs. Nothing in its psychedelia supports ecofascist appeals to feelings and intuitions about nature. Instead, we see Zach wander aimlessly through the forest, claiming to feel its presence, but never knowing what it’s saying. At one point, overcome by fungal spores, he wanders in a hallucinatory daze and asks, “What do you want? I’ll give you whatever you want. Just tell me.” The film suggests the question is meaningless or unknowable. Wendel approaches communication along more scientific lines, but she is equally deluded. She uses the vibrations of the trees to produce feedback loops and trigger flashing lights in her attempts to communicate. The results are the sort of hallucinatory effects typical of psychedelic film: strobing lights, tracers, and tricks of persistence of vision. Wendel’s reasoning for these displays is no different than Zach’s. The forest network “wants to talk,” she says. “Nature is one giant system… This is the way to communicate with it.” Both Wendel and Zach believe climate change is so pressing that the forest must want to talk with us, if only to protect itself.

What In the Earth suggests here is that a capitalism increasingly deranged by climate change will intensify its violent repressions along racialized lines and it’s going to follow the divisions of existing imperial power. As the film shows, people of color are the first to suffer. Zach systematically tortures Martin, at one point chopping off his toes with an axe. When Martin escapes to the supposed safety of Wendel’s camp, she repeats Zach’s torture, cauterizing Martin’s wound with a heated iron. Both justify what they do as expressions of care. There’s never enough time to get Martin to a hospital. This is the only way. That’s bullshit, of course. When Zach attacks Alma late in the film, she drives a tent spike into his eye. He futzes with it for a moment then demands she take him to hospital. She doesn’t, obviously, but the point here is that suffering is for other people, and the benefits of science and technology for white environmentalists.[i]

Wheatley’s film lets us see something about eco-fascism, capitalism, and climate change that Gaia doesn’t: capitalism won’t spin off into reckless incoherence as climate change continues. It will keep pushing forward in its drive to accumulate value, even if it finds fewer and fewer commodity frontiers to exploit. Wendel’s research is a case in point. She wants to learn how to communicate with the mycorrhizal network to increase crop yields. The idea shows us one path capitalism is likely to take as the collapse of the biosphere closes resource frontiers. When capitalism can no longer rob nature, it will try to reimagine it as a recalcitrant workforce. Wendel’s research is the first step in what capitalism hopes will be a mere labor dispute with the Earth. After all, labor discipline and scientific and technological innovations have reclaimed productivity before. Why not again? What In the Earth adroitly shows is that these negotiations won’t work. They will, however, encourage the far-right’s murderous back-to-the-land fantasies of a purified nature, and it is the horrors of a supercharged ecofascism that psychedelic horror suggests to be the real terror of the Capitalocene.

[i] This scene also seems a play on Matthew 7:3 “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”

Host (2020): Pandemic Horror and the Real Abstraction

I’m working on a new book about contemporary horror. To keep track of the films I’ve watched, I write up my notes and general reactions for later development. This post on Host is the first in the series. For posts on the theoretical basis of the project, see these posts on Jason E. Smith and Boltanski and Esquerre.

Host (2020) is a well-made little shocker from the first year of the pandemic. In 2020, meetings on Zoom were new enough that people were doing what we see the characters do in Host: actively choosing to get on Zoom to visit with friends. Zoom happy hours were a thing. It’s not drinking alone in your apartment if you’re talking to some friends on Zoom, or so the argument went. And this is what the seven friends in Host are doing: drinking on Zoom, comparing their “lockdown“ lives. The film was shot in the UK, so these characters were actually meant to be experiencing the government-mandated lockdown announced on 23 March 2020 and extended on 16 April 2020. (The film was released on 30 July 2020, before the second UK lockdown announced on 5 November.)
Shot using laptop cameras and Zoom (or edited to look like Zoom), Host is a high concept horror film: a found-footage horror film about a seance gone wrong using Zoom. That’s it. The only innovation, such as it is, is the use of Zoom. As a found-footage horror film, it follows the pattern set by The Blair Witch Project and followed by every found footage horror film since: the movie is over when the last person dies. No one gets out alive here either. It doesn’t matter whether they are being menaced individually or, as in the end, in a pair.
Perhaps that’s the formal trick of the film: to be in a frame is to be dead already, at least as a found footage horror film is concerned. Here we have characters in a pandemic, their faces in frames in Zoom, destroyed by a demon unwittingly unleashed by the one Chinese-British character (a plot point that shouldn’t be overlooked given the violence directed against Asian people in the West during the pandemic), and finally captured in the penultimate shot of the film in a triple framing: in the Zoom frame, in a photograph, in a doorway.
What, if anything, can we do with this film in a materialist vein?
Well, we could say the idea of the demon here is a kind of real abstraction. One of the friends, bored and waiting for something to happen, makes up a story to freak everyone out. The result, according to the medium, is that she has create a kind of empty mask that any entity can inhabit and use. The idea of the demonic coming forward doesn’t quite work, but of the mask that takes on its own dangerous power would.
On an affective level, the film is powerful, I think, because it captures something about experiencing life on Zoom. The images of the people on Zoom seem normal and everyday. They are present as you know them, in spaces that you recognize, mostly, and doing what you would expect them to be doing. Yet in the pandemic, these images are continually beset by the threat of disruption. Those could be minor disruptions—children, pets, deliveries, neighbors—or major. The image derealizes reality, you might say, following Debord. But this derealization is a violent dissociation of life and image. The loop of one woman brushing her teeth is a good example. This loop is her screensaver, we learn, and it comes on only after a glitch that shows the demon violently beating her to death. She is endlessly present and not present in this loop.
This, I think, is key to the film’s effects. One might think that this should be watched on a laptop, thus making the viewer part of this terrible Zoom call, an infection of the viewer perhaps best done by Ringu. That idea gets hinted at in the end as we watch some spiritual entity close out Zoom after everyone has died. But the viewing experience of this film will never be quite like that of Ringu. In Ringu, death comes from watching a video. Characters and viewers watch the video. The threat comes through the screen for characters and the implication is, for you as well. We all know you can now be part of a Zoom call without having your camera or mic on, those long video-like presentations that should have been an email, but that’s not the Zoom call of 2020, and it isn’t the Zoom call that Host gives viewers. No, what Host taps into is the fear that something might happen to the people on your call and you’ll be unable to help. That was always a possibility with video calls, but the pandemic brought this to the fore. You could see someone in their room just as you expect and then… you wouldn’t ever again.

On Jason E. Smith’s Smart Machines and Service Work

Jason E. Smith’s Smart Machines and Service Work argues that the rise of the service economy is the result of 1) the increasing productivity of manufacturing, and 2) the difficult, if not impossible, task of increasing productivity in services through automation.

These claims are, I think, correct, if also not earth-shattering. Of more interest in the specifics is Smith’s attempt to think through the relation of service work and the category of ”unproductive labor” from a Marxist perspective.  Smith rightly notes the incoherence of service as a category of economic analysis, yet retains it broadly by adumbrating  key categories of unproductive labor from Marx’s discussion in Capital volume three with all services. 

Part of the difficulty here is Smith’s reliance on definitions that Marx takes from Adam Smith, beginning with Smith’s definition of unproductive labor. For Jason E. Smith, the description of unproductive labor as labor that disappears in the moment of its production is not just what Smith means—and it is Smith’s idea—but also what Marx means. Yet at the same time, it is also fairly clear in Smart Machines that this definition cannot be what Marx means since Smith accepts the possibility that service work can be exploited. No surprise that Marx’s discussion of how teachers and other service workers can produce surplus value remains unquoted. 

And that shows, I think, my issue with the argument: its lack of engagement with value theory. Unproductive workers do not produce value for both Smith and Marx. The problem is that value doesn’t mean the same thing in either context. For Jason E. Smith, value seems easily quantified. It is increased labor productivity by sector. Rising productivity means an increase of value. 

Now, there’s a problem here in terms of Marxist theory: value is not the same thing as wealth. It is entirely possible in capitalist to have a situation in which more material wealth is produced but less value. This is a question of value composition, and it’s not dealt with at all by Smith. Falling capital investments and labor productivity rates give us unmediated access to value production. How? I don’t know. But it also explains Smith’s decision to treat all value production as a result of the interaction between capital and labor. Value composition is left out of the equation entirely. Now, why would that matter? Because labor isn’t the only source of value in Marx’s work. There’s also natural resources. There’s no sense in this discussion that the shift toward services occurs in the late Capitalocene, a period of intensified resource extraction and destructive climate change. 

You could argue that’s beyond the scope of this small book. Okay. Let’s look more closely at the categories of unproductive labor from Marx which matter most to Smith’s argument, the labor of supervision and labor of circulation. Both are unproductive, Smith argues, because they do not add value. Value is only created in production. The labor of supervision, which Marx explicitly compares to slave-driving (509), is correctly described as the labor of sweating workers for increased labor productivity. This is the labor of capitalists, to a degree, but it can be delegated in large firms to become wage labor. Marx also makes this point, but his reason for introducing this distinction is the opposite of Smith’s. For Marx, the separation of the labor of supervision from the capitalist means that the capitalist can be removed from the production process. The goal is to consider how one might separate capitalist control from its innovations in production (511). Organizing the labor process is a necessary aspect of production. Does that mean it produces value? It would seem possible, though Marx hates the idea because the only person who made it during his time was Nassau Senior, who reads less like a political economist than an apologist for capitalism. But Marx does treat this as labor that does not add value in production because it is outside the direct production process—and we will need to think about what that means in terms of the commodity fetish in just a moment.

The other labor in question is the labor of circulation. Here too the labor does not add value in the production process. It simply gets commodities from point A to point B. For Marx, it is of most importance for its ability to speed or slow the turnover of capital. Capital cannot be turned over into new investments without realizing its products as money. Or rather, it can, but this depends upon finance and debt strategies which will collapse if products are not sold. For Smith, circulation labor is just about getting commodities from point A to point B. It’s not just that they don’t add value but that they seem actively parasitic. 

And that’s what raises my ire in the book. The framing treats services, broadly construed, as parasitic on manufacturing productivity. This is a defeatist approach. The point, I suppose, is to show that service work’s lower productivity is part of a contradiction inherent to this formation of capitalism. At a certain point of labor productivity in manufacturing, poorly paid “low skill” service work begins to absorb some of the labor dumped from manufacturing, where the majority of value is produced. There are problems with this argument, though. In Smith’s telling, services are the last stop before a worker joins the reserve army of the unemployed. This may be true, but there is still a lot of other ”unskilled“ work in the first world in terms of agriculture, construction, meat packing, landscaping, and so on. Services continue to expand in the US, for instance, but much of that is going to health care. Other economic forces are driving that expansion. 

More than that, though, Smith’s claim that all non-commodity producing labor is parasitic on manufacturing productivity downplays that, for Marx at least, services can and are exploited by employers. If you hire a cleaning service, the cleaners are paid by the company to provide you, the client, a service. The company extracts value from their employees, meaning they produce value. Now, Smith would say, that’s true, but it can’t be intensified through technology. It can be sweated by managers with threats and so on, but it has an upper limit that can’t be increased. Fair enough. Smith’s concern, I suppose, is for capitalist accumulation. That’s stagnating. One might think this could be a possible locus for worker organizing and power. But for Smith is far more dour about this because of the dispersed nature of services, the lack of effect strikes in services have on society as a whole, and the difficulty of organizing across sectors. 

The problem, I think, all comes back to value. Smith insists value is created in production, not realized in exchange. With that perspective, the argument falls back on an old industrialist workerism: This leads to a variety of misapprehensions about the logical organization of capitalism. 

One of the worst, I think, is the blank reproduction of a claim from volume one of Capital that “labor-power in Marx’s formulation refers to the cost of the goods and services necessary to reproduce a given capacity to labor, day-in and day-out and over the course of generations” (123). At first glance, this seems fine and good. But it’s not so simple. First of all, this claim does appear in Marx but Marx has taken it, again, from Adam Smith. His use of it in Capital 1 appears early on during his discussion and thus operates at an extremely high level of abstraction. This is what we would think, in the abstract, that labor power is. But it is not, in practice, how capital functions. 

Smith’s book reflects one of the oddities of Marxism: a general sense that capitalism always works, even or especially when it doesn’t work for workers. There’s a sense that everything has been accounted for. Marx isn’t guilty of this but his use of means of subsistence to calculate surplus value can take him dangerously close, and for Smith, it will. Smith insists that the costs of reproducing “skilled” (aka highly educated or credentialed) laborers is the reason for differences in wages and salaries in different sectors. More on that in a moment. 

Marx here is working from Adam Smith’s claim that “a man must always live by his work, and his wages must at least be sufficient to maintain him” (book 1, chapter 8). For Smith, this sense of subsistence is bound up with a different mode of production—recall, Smith is writing not in the midst of developed capitalism but offering a dream of its possibility—and seems a version of “natural price” theory, which he uses elsewhere too (and in ways Marx will critique in subsequent volumes, if I recall correctly). We know that commodities don’t have natural prices. We also know, through historical work, that commodities in the eighteenth century didn’t have natural prices so much as moral prices, prices which were set by feudal traditions and enforced by social action, as EP Thompson explains in his essay on the moral economy. Labor, to the extent it has a price during Smith’s time, would have a moral price and be buoyed by other forms of production for its physical subsistence. Using it to analyze an economy premised on commodity exchange poses substantial difficulties.

Let’s bracket this historical problem, though, and approach the means of subsistence as Marx does, as a concept that enters into the production of value. As a concept, means of subsistence  binds the worker as a locus of physical and natural force to a larger natural metabolic process. In that sense, accounting for means of subsistence is necessary to imagine any economic organization.

The gist of Marx’s argument about means of subsistence, however, is that surplus value is value produced above value equal to the market costs of a worker’s socially determined means of subsistence. Marx’s presentation focuses on daily wages because employers purchase a day of labor-abstract power from workers and extract as much concrete labor—use-value producing labor—out of them in that period of time. What Marx wants to show is that surplus is not created through circulation, e.g., unequal exchanges between two merchants. If everyone buys low and sells high, no surpluses of production are possible. This is why Marx insists throughout the first part of Capital that a day of labor-power exchanges for its full value in terms of market costs for means of subsistence. He’s trying to track the source of surplus. Means of subsistence allow us to track what capitalism allocates for labor-power in production and how it can produce surplus value.

This is sometimes treated as a question of concrete labor time, as though people work for seven hours to reproduce their wages and then work another hour for their employers for free (another claim from Senior!). Marx’s account of the working day shows how intensely capitalists will try to extract more labor, either by extending the working day (though this is limited by the hours in a day and the worker’s ability to recuperate), or by intensifying work through co-operation and technological innovation. The problem is that capitalists can’t calculate value because they can’t be sure that their commodities will sell. They might approximate it by calculating their rates of profit, but even here capitalists anticipatewhat they may earn if their commodities sell. Now, they certainly try to extract as much work as they can from their workers. Of that, there is no doubt. But not in a way that they can track in terms of concrete labor time. They purchase a day of abstract labor-power and pay its market costs in means of reproduction. From the perspective of capital, this is a serious of commodity exchanges. 

All of which is to say, the purchase of labor-power and its payment in market costs of means of subsistence have nothing to do with the actual reproduction of labor. 

Why does this matter? We have to understand that, fundamentally, capitalism doesn’t care about labor’s reproduction. There is no rational process of labor reproduction. It is always strange to find claims about market rationality for labor reproduction built into the analysis of capitalism. Its defining feature, its production of commodities for exchange to accumulate value, is indifferent to workers’ needs. That’s an effect of commodity production, most especially the decentralization of market exchange that makes people into labor-power to be purchased. What capitalists purchase as a day or an hour or a piece is all that matters. That’s where ideas about “means of subsistence” actually matter. Marx’s two categories of capital account for all of this in the simple calculation of surplus value as the value produced in excess of the values consumed by production in terms of constant capital (e.g., means of production, raw materials, and so on) and variable capital (i.e., labor). 

Why does this matter? 

Means of subsistence suggests that capitalism cares about the ability of workers to reproduce their labor, that they must pay enough for workers to live. When one makes this central to the production of surplus value, it seems that capitalism understands what is in its interest or that it shares interests with workers. It doesn’t. 

What the reproduction of labor should direct us toward is the idea of appropriation. This is a concept utterly alien to Jason E. Smith, though central to work on social reproduction and care. Capitalism doesn’t simply exploit labor in exchange for wages. It also takes labor without paying for it. It’s not simply that women’s social reproduction work doesn’t cost capitalists much, so it’s easy to exploit and ignore (Smith 125). It’s that capitalism has been built on the backs of women’s reproductive labor and refused to pay for it. It’s that nature provides resources for production that also produce value for capitalism and that capitalism does not pay for those resources. And that’s why Smith’s lack of attention to the work of materialist feminists, social reproduction theorists, and to the environment matters. These are linked concerns, as Jason W. Moore’s theory of appropriation shows. For Moore, appropriation is as much a part of capitalist production as exploitation. The appropriation of cheap food, energy, labor, and raw materials is what drives capitalist accumulation. The means of subsistence problem is solved once we understand that capitalism relies on the appropriation of cheap food to lower its labor costs. When it can’t appropriate cheap food, it appropriates cheap labor through enslavement and unpaid social reproduction work. 

Now, this idea is fully present in Marx, not just in his discussion of original accumulation. It is  clearest in his discussion of workers and West Indian slavery in Capital 1. Capitalist production will use up its workers entirely, Marx tells us, as long as they have a continued steam of replacements for those killed in production. And Marx writes elsewhere, “Capital therefore takes no account of the health and the length of life of the worker, unless society forces it do so” (Capital 1, 381). 

Reading Capital (somewhere outside the General Law of Accumulation)

What should one do with a reading of Marx now? It seems the last fifty years have been a long detour through psychoanalytic, structuralist, and deconstructive readings. Blame Althusser. He took up Jacques Lacan’s insistence that one should return to the foundational texts of a discourse, Freud for Lacan, Marx for Althusser. Many people have thought or been told Read Marx during these decades, perhaps even by people who never read Marx themselves, an encouragement that Mike Davis recounts recently: Read Marx! Okay. How?
That question—how?—has given rise to a small but persistent industry of guides to Marx, some academic, some popular. In academia, the answer to how? was answered by post-structuralist urges themselves often informed by Lacanian ideas, beginning with Althusser himself. Readings of Marx are always re-readings, of course, and re-readings are always interpretations and redefinitions. Read Marx! But, you know, read him using someone else to make sense of it.

That’s not entirely fair, but it’s also not entirely wrong. Attempts to send readers back to the language of Marx’s texts, for instance, need other theoretical supports, whether analyzing his rhetorical devices, his metaphors, his literary references. These are helpful turns but they open up fundamental questions about hermeneutic method: how do we interpret a text? What are the processes and theoretical supports for our so-called “close reading”? This is all the more pressing when it isn’t clear that a critic means to offer a psychoanalytic reading of Marx, or a deconstructive reading, or a Spinozist reading…

To answer the how, I think we have to answer another question, one which is more important but often seems to go unasked: Why? I mean, I started a band after I bought The Velvet Underground and Nico. Capital has the same effect on people, but that doesn’t justify another reading (or writing of a reading). So why do it?
In all fairness, most of the reasons why come down to a question of the writer’s now and Marx’s then. How can I make Marx’s ideas applicable to my world? Such an approach is effectively what Marxism means. Yet that approach founders, I think, on something we can see when we read Capital, volume one carefully. Marx’s only completed volume does not mean to describe capitalism in order to demystify its workings. No. That would make it a piece of political economy, not a critique of political economy. What is it, then?

It extracts categories from capitalism necessary to imagine its overcoming.
The categories that Marx devises in Capital—surplus-value, constant and variable capital, means of production and labor-power—are not useful for capitalists, and capitalists who know Marx’s terms and analysis of their interaction are unlikely to be any better at the work of managing their production than those who haven’t.

The divergence between Marx’s notion of surplus-value and the capitalist idea of profit offers a useful example of the problem posed by his terminology. Marx sometimes treats surplus-value and profit as the same, sometimes as different. The rate of surplus-value would seem to indicate the profit rate, yet it does not, and Marx is never terribly concerned about the divergence between the two categories, even in the notes collected in volume three. Yet Marx’s famous ”falling rate of profit“ is for all intents and purposes the falling rate of surplus-value: the continual accumulation of capital in means of production leads to the devaluation of living labor. The result is that labor-power is worth less and less, a vertiginous devaluation as capitalism presses itself to produce more in order to accumulate more and thus, perversely, devaluing labor-power as a result of its persistent drive to accumulate. Marx clearly sees the two terms as distinct, yet this intermittent use of them as interchangeable means that Marxist economists spent an inordinate amount of time trying to account for profit rates. And that’s before we introduce Pierro Sraffa into the mix.
Marx is unconcerned about this terminological distinction because the rate of profit is beside the point. His categories and analysis are not meant to fine-tune capitalist economies but to give workers the tools to take those economies apart.

The fundamental categorical division for this work is between use-value and exchange-value. It’s no surprise that the nineteenth century’s other famous socialist, William Morris, grasped the importance of this distinction in Marx more than any other. It’s the one that matters. Capitalism produces use-values almost incidentally—it needs use-values to be part of its commodities, but it is not concerned with use-values as such. What capitalism wants is exchange-value, pure value, money for money’s sake. It will consume labor-power and means of production without concern for what is enough because exchange-value lacks the very concept of enough. This is why Marx begins Capital with exchange and the system of signification which structures capitalism. Exchange in capitalism is essentially a linguistic system, one which seems to be capable of producing new values endlessly by exchanging equivalents within a closed system. Exchange-value is endlessly generative, like language.

But if exchange in capitalism is like a language, it is one that will talk us all to death.
It is this indifference to material wealth that Marx wants us to understand about capitalism. This, more than anything else, even surplus-labor or the falling rate of profit, explains why capitalism once produces more material wealth than prior modes of production and terrifying immiseration. Marx uncovers the operations of this pair, which is to some degree unconscious on the part of capitalists. What matters isn’t their lack of consciousness, though. It is our understanding that we can divorce material wealth from exchange-value. We can organize production for use rather than exchange. We can determine how much surplus-value, if any, is necessary to extract in production for a society to reproduce itself. We can control the anarchy of production for the benefit of humanity and the earth.

And Marx is insistent throughout capital that these are the two agents who we should care about. Human labor and the natural world are two of the three productive forces which capitalist production uses to expand its powers. Capital offers a set of categories and analysis which allow us to imagine social, political, and economic forms of life which would place care for humanity and the earth at their core. This would alter the third productive force which Marx highlights as yoked to capitalism, scientific and technical knowledge, by allowing it to develop in the service of care for the human and natural world. In all, then, use-value, along with the other central concepts and analyses of Capital, lay the ground work for a new ecological social world, one which values the well-being of life and its needs rather than the extraction of an inhuman value for indeterminate ends. That is the point of Capital and of reading it as well.

One can see this best in Marx’s persistent focus on metabolism. The idea would initially seem to come from the Physiocrats, the first economists to theorize the connections between different forms of production and consumption. Throughout his work, Marx exhibits a surprising (for him) amount of respect for the Physiocrats, especially Quesnay, and Marx’s analysis of social circulation in volume two of Capital recalls Quesnay’s table of circulation and his account of a national economy as a physical body with the flow of goods, services, and finances as its blood flow (Quesnay was trained as a physician). Yet Marx’s notion of metabolism is not limited to the human economy like Quesnay’s. Quesnay does make agricultural production the source of all value, which connects his circulation to the natural world. Marx’s metabolism, however, begins with the interchange between these productive forces (forces that are use-values and create more use-values) in order to show us how production organized by exchange will inevitably deplete these productive forces. This is the point of the analysis.

It also explains why Marx recurs to discussions of metabolic arguments when it is not in any way necessary for his argument. This is most apparent in his discussion of the value of labor-power. Marx recurs to labor-power’s value as the cost of its means of subsistence:

The value of labour-power, i.e., the labour-time requisite to produce labour-power, determines the labour-time necessary for the reproduction of that value. If one working-hour be embodied in sixpence, and the value of a day’s labour-power be five shillings, the labourer must work 10 hours a day, in order to replace the value paid by capital for his labour-power, or to produce an equivalent for the value of his daily necessary means of subsistence. Given the value of these means of subsistence, the value of his labour-power is given;1 and given the value of his labour-power, the duration of his necessary labour-time is given. The duration of the surplus labour, however, is arrived at, by subtracting the necessary labour-time from the total working day. Ten hours subtracted from twelve, leave two, and it is not easy to see, how, under the given conditions, the surplus labour can possibly be prolonged beyond two hours. (430 in penguin; 318 in MECW)

His reference there is is to a stack of political economy texts: Petty, Turgot, and Malthus. Considering his account of Malthus later on, the choices here are curious. I do not believe Marx wants us to understand that the cost of means of subsistence determine the value of labor-power for capitalists. He himself states this later on. Capitalists begin with an amount of capital, divide it into constant and variable capital, and invest it with an set of rate of profit in mind. This rate of profit drives their labor practices and extraction of surplus value. Marx doesn’t need the cost of means of subsistence to describe this process at all. His discussion sometimes has the curious suggestion that capitalists factor workers’ cost of living into their production decisions, which is obviously untrue.

The discussion of surplus-value is so abstract because Marx wants to make a point that would be much harder to make with a more accurate and complicated analysis of market economies: there is a distinction between necessary and surplus labor. The presentation indicates that workers are somehow able to produce enough value to pay their wages in one part of the day and surplus in another. This is nonsensical by Marx’s own analysis. The problem with capitalism, Marx rightly insists, is that production is directed toward exchange, not use. And in capitalism, Marx says, use only takes place after exchange. This is the realization of capital. One cannot, then, produce means of subsistence or the value equivalent of means of subsistence within production under capitalism. It’s not possible! What workers producer are commodities which have yet to be sold—that is, realized—and which may become at any moment unexchangeable—that is, unrealizable. The problem of capitalism is that it has delinked production from use by inserting an irrational, impersonal, and anarchic process of exchange. Workers produce the EXPECTED EQUIVALENT OF THEIR WAGES, or rather the equivalent of the capitalist’s variable capital.

But that’s not Marx’s point or his interest. What he wants us to see is, again, simple: workers need means of subsistence, and any ethical ecological system of production would have to account for means of subsistence (not as bare subsistence but as the means of living). Capitalism makes this a game of equivalents and their reproduction, of signs swapping with one another. If we want another world, we have to get past that.

Dickensian affects and the realist novel

When you start to write a book, you know what’s happening in your field at that moment. What’s strange, then, is to see the book enter the world alongside others and to think about how or why they came into existence at this shared historical moment. As soon as the book was finished, I started to see a slew of new books focused on the realist novel. What’s the relation of Dickensian Affects to this interest in the realist novel?

At first, my sense was… not much? After all, realism and genre theory have never much interested me. Intertexts, architexts, cycles–those make sense to me. Aristotlean genre theory–that is, discussions about categories distinct from history–have always struck me as a bit silly. My interest, and the point of departure for the project, is creative production as at once embedded in and disembedded from its social, economic, and historical situation. Creative acts take place in and against their situations. So my disposition as a scholar isn’t to approach something like realism in this way. That’s also, I suppose, a result of a kind of Barthesian hangover. Realism has often served in narrative theory as a drive to limit the drift of signification and intertextuality, to embed while limiting the possibility of disembeddedness.

I’m certain, though, there’s work to be done on nineteenth-century realism as a kind of international literary cycle, one in which authors positioned their works against one set of texts and literary procedures while insisting on the importance and necessity of other texts and procedures. Lauren Goodlad’s internationalization of British realism as part of a larger Victorian geopolitical aesthetic offers one point of entry for that analysis, particularly her discussion of George Eliot’s work. From that perspective, realism becomes important as a set of tropes, plots, and procedures that provide a cognitive mapping of nineteenth-century liberalism.

And here’s where I can see the connection of my work to this renewed attention to realism. Dickensian Affects doesn’t take up this particular framework of Marxist cultural theory–or rather, it writes back to and in response to it. (At one point, I was calling the framework “an anarcho-communist literary theory” but that seemed too grandiose.) The book tries to think through a form of criticism that can step back from what I see as a particularly problematic aspect of social analysis that informs Marxist literary theory, the tendency to treat the social totality in capitalism not as a complex set of relationships a la Althusser but more or less as a drive toward abstraction, a confluence of the abstraction of the commodity form and of subjectivity under capitalism that runs through western Marxism beginning from Lukács. There’s a repetitiveness to this kind of social analysis, a persistent return to abstraction that elides social, material, and historical complexity. Fredric Jameson’s notion of the cognitive map is a particularly good example of this problem for social analysis–though I don’t take it up in the book (see instead my piece on early 21st century films on war and terrorism)–because it persistently offers the same vision of capitalism in literary and visual texts, regardless of the situation of any individual text. The social totality–what we read literary texts in and against–then threatens to lose its complexity and so too will the literary works we examine, replaced by a general analysis in which the tendencies of capitalism stand in for the complications that follow the particular enacting of these tendencies in real situations.

This is why I spend a fair amount of time writing about situations rather than maps and of tonalities and rhythms rather than spaces. I’m using affect theory to attempt a kind of analysis similar to cognitive mapping, but that treats the creation not as a spatialized map but as an unfolding of thinking-feeling events, events of movements and moments. Which, I think, is a better sense of what a “cognitive map” is in practice. Recall that Jameson lifted the concept from an account of how we navigate the spaces of our every day lives. The maps we make of those spaces are events of thinking-feeling-moving, and much as they mark out particular grooves of t-f-m, they are also open and alterable, revised on the fly in a constant process. “Map” suggests a reified symbolic representation rather than embedded and evolving series of thinking-feeling events. Our analyses focus on the synchronic to overcome the difficulty of the series, but it must keep this openness in focus so that we retain the possibilities of difference in repetition.

That’s why it’s a book about affect and form. Dickensian Affects explores how Dickens creates forms that signal particular kinds of affective situations, ones that are at once historically embedded and oddly mobile. Are these situations realist or realistic? Well, I take Dickens as an author more interested in what Sally Ledger calls  “a realism of affect, rather than representational realism” (12). In other words, I don’t view Dickens as a realist author in our generally understanding of the term and he’s interesting to me because he isn’t.

That leads to one of the central claims of the book, one that came in the final stages of its composition and with which I am still grappling. The notion that Dickens is an affective realist means that he presents us with situations that denude subjects of coherence but nonetheless articulate them to a social, economic, and historical situation. Following work in anthropology and affect theory, I describe this as a focus on the dividual:

Dickens’s novels offer something more real than realism. Where George Eliot or George Gissing present us with a realism in which characters aspire to coherent subjectivity, Dickens offers a realism of the dividual, one in which characters are social functions and feelings impersonal and always potentially different. The feeling of life’s precarity in Victorian Britain in Dickens includes an insistence that no matter how one may feel, one might soon feel otherwise. It is this precarity of feeling—most obvious but by no means limited to his quick turns from laughter to tears—that affects most in Dickens’s novels even as their plots and tropes suggest other forms of precarity, from the physical, economic, and political, to the gendered, sexual, and racial.

Dickensian Affects, 14-15

It’s not that the dividual isn’t real but that we don’t experience or represent dividualism in the way that literary realism does. I build on that claim, arguing that

Dickens’s affective realism may have had intentional goals as social reform but his texts and their forms exceed these goals. In their exploration of precarity, they do not so much teach individual readers how or what to feel as produce new dividuals. His forms thus provide fictive events of affective encounter that exceed the staging of visual scenes with existing subjects and subject positions, unitary moral codes, or even the rhythmic alternation of scenes of laughter and tears. They unfold instead as events to be traversed by singularities and to produce readers, characters, and narratives.

Dickensian Affects, 15

This isn’t to say that Dickens’s novels aspire to literary bodies-without-organs. Rather, his affective realism suggests a space of potentiation, possibility, virtuality, what-have-you, that that realism–at least in the Barthesian sense–would like to limit in the name of subjectivity or causality.

The Terrible, Clever Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2

I’ve been prepping a course on horror films over the summer. While reading through materials on The Blair Witch Project, I decided it was time to rewatch Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. I saw this film in an actual theater in the year 2000 and could only recall 1) that it was terrible, and 2) it had aerial footage of the forest floor at the beginning and end of the film. That’s it.

Why? Because Joe Berlinger directed it. I had no idea who he was in 2000, but I now know him as the talented documentarian responsible for films like Crude, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, and the three Paradise Lost films about the West Memphis Three. What in the world, I wondered, led Berlinger to direct this terrible film.

The answer, at least according to Berlinger’s director’s commentary, is that he imagined the studio would allow him to create “a taut psychological thriller” radically different from its predecessor. It seems obvious, though, that they hired Berlinger because he was a noted documentarian, and they imagined someone with his resume could quickly produce a film in time for a Halloween release. If it had Blair Witch in the title, then they figured it would make them some money. In essence, they wanted BWP to become something like Halloween, a monetizable franchise.

The demand for quick turnaround seems to be why they allowed Berlinger to make a film that essentially attacks the first film for the problems that it posed to documentary filmmaking. In his commentary, Berlinger struggles to be complimentary about BWP. Toward the end, he says that he thought selling the original film as a documentary was “not right,” and then describes the conflation of fact and fiction in its marketing as “evil.” That’s not what sequel directors usually say about the wildly successful film that’s the basis for their new film. But it is this problem of the indetermination of fact and fiction that Berlinger makes the thematic core of BoS, and in doing so, effectively monkeywrenches the BWP as monetizable property for Artisan.

Whether that was his intention or the outcome of the studio’s interventions in the film’s final cut is unclear. At the very least, the key conceit of Berlinger’s film would pose a significant problem for the franchise. After all, he wanted to begin BoS by discussing the success of BWP as an explicitly fictional film, and then to build a new film about the ways in which fictional representations affect the people who cannot distinguish them from reality. I’d guess the studio okayed his initial script for sheer expediency, fully intending to insist later–as they did–that he remove references to the first film being fictional.

On first viewing, the elimination of the fictionality of the BWP makes BoS incoherent. On reflection, though, the change also undermines the realist pretenses that the first film achieved through both plot and form—most especially, first person shaky cam—more than Berlinger’s initial idea. The plot in a nutshell: a BWP tour group blacks out in the woods and awakes to find themselves embroiled in either a supernatural plot or a murderous group hysteria. Berlinger uses 35mm film for character perspectives as they experience supernatural terrors, and ends the film with the surviving group members confronted by video footage that shows them committing the horrors they imagined had been perpetrated by a supernatural entity. “Someone got to the tapes!” one of the men shouts, and the film ends.

The conceit here is that, while characters in the film imagine that video can’t lie, savvy viewers know that it can. It’s no mistake that Berlinger mentions the OJ Simpson case in his commentary. This is a very ’90s documentary concern. That said, it seems unlikely that this move to create ambiguity for horror audiences would have worked for either the studio or for test audiences unless they either knew of or were Bill Nichols. Judging by the edits, it’s clear they didn’t and weren’t.

So it’s possible that the film made more sense when (or if) the film had a clearer division, narratively and formally, between fiction and fact. The final version, however, not only lacks a clear distinction between the two but has also worked overtime through its interpositions of gory cutaways and mental ward flashbacks to set up its characters as guilty and unreliable. Berlinger tells us that the studio demanded these cutaways—they wanted more gore and to heighten the villainy of one main character. (How badly did they want them? He tells us they were shot five weeks before the film’s international premiere on over 3,000 screens.) This alteration refracts fictionality across all levels of its plot and essentially monkeywrenched the BWP as a franchise.

Why? It is impossible for viewers to believe either version of the film’s events. When I left the theater in 2000, I didn’t ponder for one moment the question that Berlinger wanted me to ponder. I wasn’t wondering what had really happened to those characters. Of course, that question would have been in keeping with the first film. We don’t know what happened but we’re left to wonder. Berlinger’s plan for the sequel attempted to make audiences think about this problem from a more ethical position, one informed by his work as a documentarian.

But I didn’t think about that at all when I left the theater. What I thought was, “What a terrible film.” Where the first film threatened to break out of its narrative space, then, the sequel collapsed the myth entirely, in large part because the studio insisted that it include more gore and less uncertainty. The result is a bad fiction film.

But bad films don’t typically end franchises. That this one did—for sixteen years—is what makes it interesting.

Part of the trouble is that Berlinger seems to have wanted the film to be read in and against the grain of the documentary tradition. Fair enough. That’s what is interesting about the film, and it clearly mattered to him because of the problems to documentary ethics posed by the first film. But audiences came to this film as a horror movie. If he’d raised these concerns in an entertaining horror movie, there would be no problem. But this emphasis on documentary is what poses aesthetic and thematic problems in imagining subsequent films.

In terms of aesthetics, BoS shows that the camera eye of documentary is almost alien to horror. BWP overcame this because of its highly subjective shots. BoS avoided this approach because it seemed both a bad form of documentary aesethics and too readily parodied to Berlinger. But the horror films that he references as influences–The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby–port viewers into the hallucinations of its characters through tight focalization. The clean camera work in BoS is the hallmark of a well-shot documentary, but it is largely too detached from characters.

The best sequence in conveying a group experience is the 35mm campfire montage, which conveys a group feeling (i.e., getting wasted in the woods). The film struggles to manage this visually otherwise, in large part because it wants to give us a visualization of a group hallucination. This makes the construction of narrow focalization almost impossible. The whole film has to become a hallucination–or, what it seems at times, a parody of itself. Kubrick managed it in The Shining by making nearly every shot a creepy experience of ghostly visual floating, and Argento does it in Suspiria through similar killer camera mobility. BoS has no engagement with the camera as the perspective of a terrifying threat. It’s a medium, with all the fallibility of mediums. That empties the visual field of the fact/fiction question. It’s a question of how viewers relate to the medium.

It also matters that BoS was scripted and BWP was the result of long form improvisations carefully edited together. This conjunction of a scripted follow-up to BWP combined with the visually flatness of this fact/fiction problem make it difficult to see where one might push another film.

It also cuts at the heart of the first film. In BWP, video is medial mark of truth, and the “directors” largely abusive methods for coercing Method-style performances from their actors relied on their ability to improv. BoS unmasks that performance and the attempt to make video a medial guarantee of truth. The crucial video undermines its explanatory power: the video of their blood orgy in the woods includes footage of one of the women hiding under the rocks the video of her hiding the video under the rocks. I’d guess that Berlinger means to reference a recurrent truth problem for documentary, reenactment. (In fact, the title card tells audiences that the film is just such a reenactment.) If one wishes to believe the video, then one has to believe that she hid it twice, once for the camera, once for sure. This is Blair Witch Project as directed by Robert Flaherty. The conscious production of video in this context undermines its truth claims, and once video becomes the same space of lies and as film, the franchise is left in a truly difficult medial position. What kind of medium would be appropriate for a followup? What would carry the same claim to authenticity?

Hence a long pass of silence from the BWP franchise.

The success of the first film and the failure of the second also points to something I’d hadn’t pondered much. The wave of found footage films in horror seems not a result of BWP at all but rather of successful scripted found footage films (e.g., Cloverfield). The formula only takes off once its controllable.

On Cuarón’s Great Expectations


I applaud everyone who has forgotten Cuarón’s 1998 remake of Dickens’s Great Expectations. It’s an offensively bad adaptation of the book, but for whatever reason, I am increasingly convinced that there’s something to be said about cultural production in the twenty-first century and the way that the film adapts Dickens’s text.

The key, to me, is how the film adapts the character of Pip to a postmodern US setting. In the novel, Pip is essentially a character without a profession. His desire to rise in status means that he leaves his apprenticeship as a blacksmith to become a gentleman, but this new status comes without profession, and he does not seek one out. Instead, Pip lives off the wealth of his unknown benefactor, lost in fantasies and mired in debt. When his expectations disappear, his adopted blacksmith father pays off his debts and he takes on the most gentlemanly but least skilled work he can find, as a clerk under his friend Herbert. What’s important here is Pip’s incapacity. It is central to his character. (Indeed, that he simply enjoys his new wealth without reflecting on the future has led biographers to connect the story with Dickens dissatisfaction with his adult children.)

The film renames Pip as Finn, and gives him artistic pretensions. His sudden rise to fame is classed, but heavily mediated through art and the art world. Thus his class ascension includes a fancy NYC art show. The film smartly situates him as an outsider artist. Handled differently, this could use the art world to represent the much more diffuse and difficult to represent realities of class in the US. One can imagine the acceptance of Finn’s work by the art world—all of which is purchased by his criminal benefactor—as variant on the rigid yet permeable Victorian class system, willing to recognize a new member only insofar as that member accepts a particular set of values and holds a certain amount of wealth. That’s not the case in the film, though. The outsider artist story becomes a means of adapting Pip’s shame of Joe, so that he at once narrates Joe out of his outsider story and is then embarrassed by his gauche appearance at the gallery opening. The fault lies with the outsider artist, not with the broader social, political, and economic milieu.

Yet this reframing of the gentlemanly-as-artist is suggestive, and I guess that’s why Cuarón’s adaptation sticks in my craw. Rather than taking this suggestive new situation and using it to explore the key thematic issue of the novel—how understands one’s position in the broader social world—the film chooses instead to insist that Finn’s new position in the world is the right position for him. Why? Because is a talented artist. This change in characterization is the film’s critical mistake. If one follows the thematic logic of Dickens’s novel, Finn should either be a terrible artist or one who wastes his talent by refusing to put in the effort of honing his craft. Were Finn even a merely passable but unimpressive artist, this thematic logic would hold. What matters is that the character needs to be in a fragile enough position that the final revelation of his criminal benefactor precipitates an all-encompassing destruction of his tissue of fantasies. After all, Pip does not get to be a fashionable gentleman at the end of the novel. He manages to land a job as a clerk and then, in the novel’s epilogue, to become a partner in his firm. He has come down in the world and is content to be respectable. In Cuarón’s film, however, Finn does not come down. Instead, he achieves further artistic success after he discovers his benefactor. Crime launches his career without scruple, and the only expectation lost is his expectation of Estella.

These shifts raise a number of intriguing critical possibilities. Is this a commentary on cultural production? Is it meant to imply that cultural production now relies on unscrupulous funding to secure positions for the economically tenuous cultural producers? And vis-à-vis Estalla, one might argue that making Finn an artist is a way to explore Estella via cinema’s scopophilia, and thus make his expectations of Estella part of her objectification by the camera. The scenes of her being sketched nude certainly offers the possibility of such an idea.

The reason I hesitate to explore these possibilities is the film’s insistence that Finn is a talented artist. That is the basis of the narrative conclusion, not the criminality of cultural production or an exploration of Estella’s experiences or thought beyond such objectification. The renaming of Pip as Finn underlines this problem. What’s the difference between a pip and a fin? Pips come in groups and you spit them out after eating the fruit. One might become a seed, but maybe not. A fin, though? The answer is embedded in the film’s production design. By relocating the initial scenes to the Florida coast and making our convict pop out of the water at Finn, the film telegraphs its meaning. A fin is a sign above the waterline of something substantial below. Making Finn an artist is thus an indicator of something more substantial underneath the apparently inconsequential signifier. It is this that makes Cuarón’s artist Finn different from Dickens’s no-occupation Pip.

This change in characterization effectively guts the meaning of the novel’s title. Pip’s great expectations are class and sex based delusions that the revelation of his benefactor shatters. The only thing below the surface with Pip is the possibility of being a better human being than the class-focused horror show that he is for most of the novel. By contrast, Finn’s talents mean that he has great expectations in and of himself that no revelation can shatter. He has no better humanity to find, no revelation of connections with others, only a sense of his own specialness. In effect, the film endorses the very adolescent fantasies that the novel skewers.

It’s this fundamental selfishness that makes the film stick with me. This deformation of the novel’s thematics is consistent with the valorization of cultural production in the 1990s: Art becomes a form of work that can move Finn out of the working class in one of the many fantasies of the petit bourgeois in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. More than that, though, the film turns the great tale of adolescent selfishness and class priggishness into its artistic defense. I guess that’s why it still gets me angry.

Polanyi via Stiegler

I recently finished Stiegler’s For a New Critique of Political Economy, and was struckby his argument that the role of machinery in economic production, a la Simondon, means “it is possible for the individual of the technical system to proceed in a way that is contrary to the individuation of social systems and psychic apparatuses” (99). In essence, this means that the social world becomes a process focused on the production of technical individuals, and that this has nothing to do with human individuation but rather privileges economic production in and of itself.

As I pondered Stiegler’s idea, though, it seemed more and more familiar. Isn’t this argument, in its basic contours, similar to the double movement that Karl Polanyi describes in The Great Transformation? It’s certainly similar. Using anthropological research, Polanyi begins from the claim that “man’s economy, as a rule, is submerged in his social relationships” (46). Yet the rise of the idea of a self-regulating market effectively disembeds economic relationships from social relationships and raises the economic as an imagined fundamental nature that precedes and structures the social, rather than the far more longstanding human organization of economic production to meet the requirements of social relationships. How the economic was disembedded from the social, and the reactions of different social institutions to this disembedding, form the heart of Polanyi’s discussion. His focus on the Speenhamland system and the subsequent New Poor Laws means to highlight how poverty went from a problem embedded in a set of social relations (between landowners, the business class, and paupers) to a structural goad in which hunger forces people to work for wages.

To my mind, Polanyi’s argument offers tangible examples of what Stiegler calls—though clearly thinking of more recent events—“the subordination of the technical to the economic system” (102). The key here is how we understand this notion of a technical system. Stiegler explains it as “a dynamic system in which there takes place… a process of individuation” (99). In his commentary on Simondon, David Scott more helpfully explains it to be the system in which norms and values are produced. In effect, it is the realm of subjectivity and culture. He explains, “the subject belongs to the particular reality posing the problem; the technical object’s invention resolves the problem” (196). Hence the technical system should mediate the production of individuals and collectives, and when it becomes subordinate to the economic, the process of individuation becomes corrosive, dissociative, atomizing—what Stiegler calls “a principle of carelessness” (103). Moreover, as the process of individuation slips away from the social, if not the human entirely, it becomes bound to what Marx would recognize as capitalism’s production for production’s sake.

Polanyi makes a related point when he argues that “it was not the coming of the machine as such but the invention of elaborate and therefore specific machinery and plant which completely changed the relationship of the merchant to production” (74-5, emphasis added). One must be careful not to misread this passage as a claim of technological and/or structural determinism: Polanyi insists that the state produced the notion of a self-regulating market. Yet because his focus falls squarely on the creation of a “free” labor market, he does not return to this point. That leaves us hanging, at least in terms of this discussion. What are the norms and values that allow the creation of a very particular technical object, what Marx called constant capital and Polanyi here specifies as plant? The effects on labor through poor law reform offers one view of its effects on individuation, but the more pressing issue would seem to be the role of greed. Albert Hirschman’s work lays out this ideological shift as an agon between the passions, but that’s not quite to the point either. Why the shift to plant? Is it an extension of the disciplinary structure, a mirror to the problems of poor house organization? And what does it mean that, at least for revolutionaries like Marx, plant was also something to be valued? I’ve analyzed this as an attempt to escape the slave/animal/dehumanizing notion of labor elsewhere. But is this not also a question of character? In other words, rather than trace how a technological shift or environmental shift affected character—i.e., the way Foucault has typically been deployed in literary studies—examine how a particular notion of character (and the social world produced alongside it) allows the economic system to subsume the technical system.

My first book tried something along these lines by considering how novels embedded in the financial innovations of the Great Moderation pioneered discourses and practices that could make service workers more pliable and reliable workers. One of the key issues I had in making my argument was causation. What I wanted to get at was something like the process of dual or multi-causation in Simondon—individuals and social relations are produced simultaneously, and then subsequently modulate. This is why genealogy matters for Foucault, right? The disciplinary individual/society pair is both cause and effect. Foucault sets it out as the resolution of a problem that resides in the heart of a factory-based society, yet as a way of acting, organizing, and thinking, it is less the solution than what we might think of as a set of necessary predispositions that the appearance of technical plant crystallizes as its solution. Biopower, then, operates at yet another level of individuation (or perhaps we might think of individuation as multi-dimensional, with biopower operating on another axis from that of discipline), crystallizing those aspects that solve its problem while leaving operative those of discipline, and so on and so on until or unless these processes of individuation come into conflict or the milieus alter in a way that renders prior modes of individuation impossible.

Why does this matter? In terms of character, it raises the question: what was this for? What problem did it solve? How do components of those resolutions continue to operate, or operate over time? In particular, and for reasons that have to do with research I’m conducting now, what does it mean that notions of character become so closely bound to the rise of military volunteerism in the second half of the century? Polanyi argues that one should differentiate national and international finance during this period because national financial interests profited from war and instability while international financial interests (e.g., the Rothschilds) profited from peace. To the extent that international financial interests helped float national debt and shares of various infrastructure projects, those institutions needed stability. The panic of 1890, due largely to the heavy involvement of Barings in Argentina, supports such an argument. Yet its hardly credible to ignore the role of British military power at this moment to threaten countries that hinted at defaulting on their debts. And the Opium Wars were precisely about opening new markets…

I began trying to think through what character really means as a discourse—hence Mill—and for literature asking how it works, how one lives in it, feels it—and now it seems as though it may be part of the milieu necessary for the aggressive militarism of the second Empire.

Works Cited

Polanyi, Karl. The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. Boston: Beacon Press, 1944. 

Scott, David. Gilbert Simondon’s Psychic and Collective Individuation. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2014.

Stiegler, Bernard. For a Critique of Political Economy. Trans. Daniel Ross. Malden, MA: Polity, 2015.

Mill via Simondon

All paths in my theoretical research right now seem to lead back to Gilbert Simondon, who figures especially large in Massumi’s Ontopower and Stiegler’s For a New Critique of Political Economy.

 [I’ll note here that I have some reservations about Stiegler’s argument that Marx’s notion of proletarianization can be fully captured in what Stiegler calls “the grammatization of gesture” (39) and the subsequent externalization of memory in the technical object. It’s not that the idea isn’t sensible, but it is without a doubt a Simondonian reinterpretation of Marx rather than an exposition of it as such. Marx values the kind of machinic externalization that Stiegler highlights because the centralization of labor power in machines offers an opportunity for expropriation. In Theories of Surplus Value and the Grundrisse, when he discusses what we would understand to be proletarianization, Marx initially focuses on profit-taking and wage-relations before coming to the conclusion that machinic externalization matters most for these political reasons. The reason I emphasize this difference—and I discuss this in chapter one of my book—is that it elides issues of domination in capitalism, most especially their effects on the construction of gendered and racialized subjects. Much as I appreciate Stiegler’s discussion of grammatization and what he calls the technical individual—highlighting the individuation of technical objects and the elision of the humans from contemporary processes of individuation and collectivity—this aspect of his argument threatens to smooth over historical and theoretical problems that we need to think through in discussions of service economies.]

But what does Simondon have to do with Mill? I’m not sure I can answer that question fully yet, but it does seem to me that their theories of character and individuation bear interesting similarities. In part, this seems to be an effect, at least for Simondon, of Spinoza’s influence. I’ve read more about Spinoza than I like to think about, but this account of Spinoza from Pierre-François Moreau in David Scott’s book on Simondon was particularly striking after my reflections on character in Mill:

Moreau writes: “The feeling of finitude is the condition for the feeling of eternity and even, in a sense, it is the feeling of eternity.” Moreau believes that it is this same movement which in Spinoza permits the soul’s acceding to necessity while conscious that not everything is immediately necessary; as a result, it confronts its powerlessness, cultivating the aspiration for an escape from contingency. (81)

Simondon, Scott argues, discovers in the process of individuation the drive of necessity—something much like Spinoza’s conatus—as well as what he calls “the feeling that acknowledges the failure of individuation to ever complete itself, to be not yet completed in the collective” (81). This incompleteness is central to Simondon’s understanding of individuation, not as a lack but rather as an excess that allows new points of individuation to transpire. Rather than lack, individuation contains an incompatibility that opens not into a pre-existing collective but rather to the pre-individual. The results thus describe the constant process of individuation as the construction of individuals, subjects, and collectives from a field of the pre-individual.

On its face, this sounds very little like Mill. Certainly, Mill follows the hylomorphism that Simondon’s project attacks, and his imagined Ethology confronts without solution many of the problems of the constitution of individuals and societies that Simondon’s approach means to solve. Yet the feeling of incompleteness in Simondon suggests Mill’s feeling of moral freedom, the feeling that one is at once subject necessity and yet could do otherwise. The two notions are genetically different insofar as Simondon’s incompleteness means an embrace of difference and change as part of the individual, whereas Mill’s character is so determined by circumstances and habits that change is at best a distant and difficult possibility. And this is without attempting to account for the multiple levels of individuation and subjectivation in Simondon.

Yet I want to imagine Mill’s character, if only for a moment, in a different way, sans passive voice. What difference is there in saying character is formed by habits, rather than habits form character? Take habits as impersonal, character as a result of a cluster of habits, society as the habits of a cluster of characters. The contingencies that thwart Mill’s attempts to imagine a workable Ethology become a space of potentials…

Is it in Mill, if pushed hard enough, if turned in unexpected ways?

Mill’s feeling and determinism

Part two of a continuing series about Victorian character. First part here.

Last time, I tried to highlight what Mill calls “the feeling of moral freedom” (27) that informs his notion of a deterministic / ”necessitarian” logic of character as the possibility of self-improvement. Circumstances determine one’s various willed actions that, once congealed, become habits and the basis of one’s character, but Mill insists that a space of agency remains in order to allow individuals to alter their circumstances and thus their habits. Moral freedom is the feeling of this space, the ability to trouble one’s circumstances and habits, even if not an ability that one uses.

Mill needs character to be deterministic because he wishes to propose a new science, Ethology, “the science which corresponds to the act of education, in the widest sense of the term, including the formation of national or collective character as well as individual” (54). Mill wants Ethology to be a deductive science—in other words, to begin from general principles and thus to adduce facts—and sees this as approaching questions of psychology from a more speculative ground. It’s clear that Ethology would be a political science, allowing one to analyze the psychological, historical, and social context before offering prescriptions. Hence Mill’s consistent turn to “national character” (52), a turn of phrase that may call to mind Betteredge’s jokes about Franklin Blake’s many-sided character in The Moonstone. Mill admits the “high order of complexity” (50) such analysis would have to address, but rejects experimental science precisely because of the difficulty replicating such complexity. By contrast, the reductiveness of political economy—what he calls “the geometrical, or abstract method” (74)—he views as more effective in its ability to find functional prescriptions. However, he dislikes the Utilitarian position—essentially, a prescriptive reading of the final book of Smith’s Wealth of Nations­—that political rulers retain power by ensuring that their interests as rulers are “identical with that of the governed” (78). Instead, Mill writes:

I insist only on what is true of all rulers, viz., that the character and course of their actions is largely influenced (independently of personal calculation) by the habitual sentiments and feelings, the general modes of thinking and acting, which prevail throughout the community of which they are members, as well as the feelings, habits, and modes of thought which characterize the particular class in that community to which they themselves belong. (79)

The deductive principles that should be all controlling—identical selfish interests—are instead opened to variation through “habitual sentiments and feelings.” Mill’s argument is poised and ready for the arrival of Darwinian natural selection, and it’s easier to see how Huxley’s arguments might have their genesis in a shared worldview with this aspect of Mill. Self-interest may be the controlling characteristic of the individual, but feeling has shaped that interest in ways that political economy has failed to take into account. More than that, Mill goes as far as to argue that the “responsibility to the governed is the only means practically available to create a feeling of identity of interest… where that feeling does not sufficiently exist” (80). At first, I read this as a potential privileging of social feeling over political economy’s selfish interests. That’s a positive way to interpret this focus on feeling. Yet on further reflection it seems equally possible that Mill proposes something much more troubling here: feeling separates the political economic identities of interest to reveal the power of political sentiments as separable from economic determinations. There’s a certain realism to this analysis, but it also indicates a sense that rulers can—and likely should—focus their attention on this shared feeling rather than shared prosperity. When one considers that these ideas come from a man who had already been working for the East India Company for eleven years when the Logic was first published in 1844, it’s difficult not to see the attempts to reground political economy in a broader sense of shared feeling as bound up with the discursive mechanisms of colonial exploitation.

Increasingly, then, Mill uses feeling to create a kind of Althusserian relative autonomy within his imagined science of character-determinism. On the one hand, feeling ameliorates the individual’s experience of determinism as a kind of virtual agency, and authorizes the determinism that Mill needs to deduct individual actions from general principles as a consciousness of one’s (limited) freedom to alter one’s circumstances. On the other, feeling offers rulers a tool that allows them to maintain distinct interests and outcomes from those of their subjects. My kneejerk Marxist reaction is to call this manipulation through feeling, but that is likely too reductive. At another level, couldn’t one say that it is rather that feeling becomes the space of the political? Moreover, it is a politics deeply bound to a forward-projecting temporality, an affection of the present that means to alter the future. Collini describes the Victorian notion of character in one memorable phrase as “traveling… to unknown futures” (113), but, insofar as I can tell, he doesn’t focus on how this opening of temporality operates through feeling. It is that binding of sentimentality and temporality that, one might say, feels most Victorian.


Works cited

Collini, Stefan. Public Moralists: Political Thought and Intellectual Life in Britain 1850-1930. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.

Mill, John Stuart. The Logic of the Moral Sciences. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1988.