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). 

Why write?

Grappling with the purpose of writing anything right now.

I got into cultural criticism because I wanted tools to demystify culture. You have to understand, the first part of my adult life was controlled by culture—not just the consumption of culture, but the production of culture. With Headboard, I spent an enormous amount of time trying to figure out what other people wanted and how I could keep these others satisfied while also satisfying my own aesthetic interests. Those others included band leaders, audiences, and record labels. It was a complex mix of people and involved a lot of market analysis: what’s popular now, what does it sound like, what can we use, what should we avoid for its particular significations, and so on. I wouldn’t have put it in those terms, but that was what I was doing. When I went back to college and read Adorno, I was shocked to recognize his description of that work. People had thought about this problem! So even when I went back to playing in a band, I carried critical theory with me: Adorno, Gramsci, Jameson, and so on.

The problem is that demystification only gets you so far. It helped me exorcise some demons, especially once I had to give up music and focus on grad school. But it can only get you so far in analysis. The result can historicize and criticize a particular work or a drift of work. That’s effectively what the first book was. But it doesn’t tell us much about what those works do or how those works are made other than as part of a process of hegemony. So there’s a dead-end here. We can critique and show the limits, but we can’t build a positive project. Or I can’t, anyway.

Okay, so what could I do instead?

Well, a lot of people went in for surface reading, affect, and post-critique because then they could write about what a piece of culture does. That seemed important for conjuncture reasons: institutions post-2008 saw declining humanities enrollments and the center of hegemony in 21C culture decidedly left cultural production. We have intense direct oppression of the working class and very little in terms of culture attempting to explain or mitigate that in a way which has any effect. As a discipline, English had (and has) a very real need to defend the study of aesthetic objects as a unique form of knowledge production as defined by the 21C university, whether we agree that English does produce this knowledge.

Some people read this project of institutional defense as an attack on critique. It is and it isn’t. From a conjunctural perspective, it would be a sensible defense if it had focused on a different audience. Post-critique evangelizes other scholars in English, as though we would be institutionally safe if we all chose the same object and method of inquiry. This is why, I think, post-critique can offer useful insights and still cause such a ruckus. It makes my back go up at times, especially since the drift of the argument can often seem to be that acceding to the desires of the master will solve our problems. I’ve read enough psychoanalysis not to fall for that one.

Yet I think affect is useful in terms of directing us to what cultural objects can do. That’s why I used it for my second book, but always focused on its situatedness. Affect and conjunctural analysis should work hand-in-hand, a position that we can find in disparate thinkers from Stuart Hall to Felix Guattari. Or what used to be called cultural studies. Somehow, that’s fallen off the radar as the critique/post-critique divide hardens.

The reason why cultural studies has dwindled as a recognizable position in lit studies, at least as far as I can tell, is that culture is no longer the central site for the construction of hegemony. Economic forces are MUCH stronger operators of hegemony now than culture was thirty years ago. Part of this is the collapse of mass media, which means we have fewer mass cultural texts attempting to mediate the contradictions of capital across many audiences. The atomization of the audience means that one can play to audience desires in particular ways. What would we call this? Consumer hegemony, probably. It’s not that I don’t think culture doesn’t have hegemonic effects. It just isn’t where the action is anymore. Close reading particular cultural texts doesn’t make much sense when they have so little effect. It has a real “missing the forest for the trees” vibe.

All of which is to say, I’m at a point where I want to step back for a moment and ask why doing critical work is worthwhile in the first place. Why do critical work at all?

We could use a pedagogical frame, e.g., what is it that students need or wish they had which we can give them? Why: because it will help students.

We could use a disciplinary frame, e.g., what is missing in the discipline? Why: because it will help others in the discipline understand something.

We could use an institutional frame, e.g., what is missing in our field that the institution needs? Why: because the field will help the institution achieve something.

We could use a political frame, e.g., what values or issues would we wish to examine in order to change that issue in the world? Why: because we wish to change something in the world.

So far, so obvious.

There must be more, but I got stuck thinking about this one:

We could use an aesthetic frame, e.g., what should we understand better about how a cultural text is made? Why: because it will help audience and producers understand their productions more fully.

That one stands out to me because it’s an approach we don’t take, or which some people in post-critique approach peripherally. One could imagine working back from a theory of attachment to a cultural text. It also inflects genre theory and work on film genre, though again as a mostly peripheral concern.

Is this a better reason for the work? Not necessarily. Yet it interests me, even if it is one so readily given to political and economic cooptation that it is hard to follow. To do it properly, it would have to be couched in critique. And it also confronts a likely resistance for the simple reason that I would approach this from the perspective of a critic and a reader rather than a producer. Genre studies gets around this problem by foregrounding reading as prior to producing, but it is the kind of objection one can readily hear from OUTSIDE the discipline and that’s worth thinking about.

But again this takes us back to the problem of culture’s dwindling role in the production of hegemony. If culture is not the key site of hegemony, then we have to navigate the middle ground between critique and positive production. What can be made or should be made? What is worth doing or saving or achieving, if anything can be achieved? Perhaps this suggests a path for a positive project alongside a conjunctural critique. Perhaps not.

Notes on Boltanski and Esquerre’s Enrichment

Boltanski and Esquerre’s Enrichment is the first book that adequately describes the specific economic shifts I lived through in Northern California in the late 20C. It goes further than marking the rise of services as such, and that’s what interests me.

It’s easier to see this in their case study of the enrichment economy than in their categories: declining agricultural revenues, rise in tourism, heritage creation, high end gastronomy, new narratives about the past, and the creation of ancestral/local manufacturing.

All of these can be seen in different forms in Sonoma and Napa counties: agricultural production declines through 1970s, shifting toward wine in the 1980s and accelerating in the 1990s alongside the development of wine tourism and high-end restaurants (e.g., the French Laundry).

All of this gets ported through new narratives of the past. These are distinct from those in France but no less false in terms of their history. Sonoma remade itself as wine country by playing up its minor history as a wine producer and intensifying production in the present. The introduction of the language of terroir and of biodynamic techniques play into this ancient past/future narrative. Even the renovation of the built environment to elide any design elements of the recent past for those of an older history and a contemporary present nicely captures what happened to Sonoma during the 1990s.

The area also sees a strange explosion of high/low commodification of the region. On the one hand, it gets attached to commodified food. “Sonoma” and “Napa” appear on a variety of commercially available foodstuffs, usually marketed as slightly more expensive, kinda-sorta-gourmet. It is used to sell kitsch housewares and so on. On the other hand, it becomes a byword marking a more expensive tourist experience, one that runs the gamut from bus trips and wine trains to high end hotels and private wine tastings.

I have a harder time connecting the area to what B&E describe as new traditions of regional production. People don’t go to Sonoma to buy knives. But the creation of regional food cultures is without a doubt part of this movement. Even the Healdsburg Guitar Festival could be folded into this kind of development.

Does this capture everything happening economically in the north bay? No. But it does describe a concerted shift in economic development in certain regions which coincides with the so-called neoliberal era.

What’s interesting is the focus that B&E place on patrimony’s role in this turn to enrichment. This builds from Piketty’s work and Boltanski’s earlier focus on the role managerial cadres as a new waged bourgeoisie. What’s unique in the enrichment turn is the relaunching of objects accrued over time as new commodities. The valorization of the past through material objects can only be accomplished by those who have had the means to accrue those past objects. Importantly, not just any objects can work in these forms of valorization. They must be objects that properly signify past-ness, which are capable of being valorized as heritage/traditional production.

People with access to these objects are not just the wealthy. The shift here that is of great importance is the rise of an upper middle-class of patrimonial capital. Managerial wages and wealth passes across generations and allows the accumulation of the right kind of objects for enrichment valorization.

Some might see this as the increased economic power of the PMC. That’s not entirely wrong, as the people that Ehrenreich wrote about as the PMC all those years ago would be the right generation of managerial workers who could accrue wages and turn them to this use. However, it would be worthless to attach the PMC to the enrichment economy as such because it does not adequately describe managerial class formation. (I think it might serve as a useful historically located term for a particular generational cohort of workers in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but that’s a hunch, not a certainty.)

A better analysis would connect this to Erik Olin Wright’s analysis of class formation and organizational assets. Those workers with a high command of organizational assets receive the highest wages and are most likely to turn those wages into patrimonial capital.

What might that tell us about labor practices and enrichment economies? It suggests that we’re going to see the pervasive effect of particular managerial ideologies about work, labor, and self-realization. That we’re going to see an aversion to unionization and collective efforts. That we’re going to see an increased emphasis on project-based work. That all of this will be linked to our supposed care for 1) our work, 2) ourselves, 3) our community, and 4) our history.

It also tells us a great deal about how enrichment economies treat people who B&E describe as “losers” and “servants,” that is, people without access to valorizable objects or communities and narratives that are open to the kinds of valorization that enrichment economies privilege. It is a service economy that wishes to evacuate itself of self-knowledge. The work of service is of no interest to an enrichment economy because valorization focuses on secondary objects. Labor does not add value, or so it seems. B&E describe labor as preserving value, either by preserving the object or allowing its continued circulation.

I think their discussion vastly underplays the role of labor. If the value of an object cannot be realized without labor, then labor is intrinsic to its valorization. Their offhand suggestion that valorization is disproportionate to the amount of labor is also unpersuasive because it directly translates surplus value into profit. That’s not how it works in Marx. Profit is the irrational social division of surplus value by capitalists, not a direct correlation with the production of surplus value in the production process. My sense is that the enrichment economy allows capital to divide the social surplus in ways necessitated by the massive accumulation of capital and the continued fall in the rate of profit for standard commodities.

Nonetheless, what B&E describe is a recognizable part of the twenty-first century economy, and one that is vastly more complex in its effects and operation than I’ve found in other analyses of neoliberalism or late capitalism or whatever we are in now. They would say this is still capitalism, but it is clearly a capitalism undergoing significant changes. Bringing this analysis into contact with Wark’s discussion of the vectorialist class would suggest we’re seeing the emergence of a number of distinct modes of valorization and accumulation. Whatever we call it, we can be sure it isn’t nineteenth-century capitalism anymore.

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.

Notes on re-reading Capital: On means of subsistence (after chapter thirteen)

One of the oddities of Marxism is 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 quite guilty of this but his use of means of subsistence to calculate surplus value comes close.

The gist of Marx’s argument, rhetorically, is that surplus value is value produced above value equal to a worker’s means of subsistence. The presentation focuses on daily wages to emphasize that employers purchase a day of labor from workers and try to get as much labor out of workers in that period of time. What Marx wants to show is that surplus cannot be created through circulation. Hence the worker’s day of labor exchanges for its full value—its means of subsistence as historically determined—and capital tries to get more out of that the worker’s day through the extension of the day, which is limited by the hours in a day and the worker’s ability to recuperate, or through the intensification of work via co-operation and technological innovation.

Marx here seems to be working from a concept in Adam Smith: “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 both 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 sort of 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.

Can we bracket this historical problem, though, and imagine means of subsistence as a concept that enters into the production of value? Perhaps. As a concept in Marx, it seems to bind the worker as a locus of physical and natural force to the larger natural metabolic process of life’s reproduction. In that sense, accounting for means of subsistence is necessary to imagine an economic organization that differs from capitalism because it distinguishes what is necessary from what is surplus. (This isn’t post-capitalism because it is still production for exchange, but that’s another problem.)

Capitalism as such doesn’t need the category of means of subsistence or care about it as a reality. This is why it is strange to see it built into the analysis of commodity production. Capitalism’s defining feature, its production of commodities for exchange to accumulate value, is indifferent to workers’ needs. What has been purchased as a day or an hour or a piece is all that matters. Hence Marx’s two categories of commodities in production already account for surplus value as simply 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, then it seems that capitalism understands what is in its interest or its shared interests with workers. It doesn’t. Marx understands that, too. For the moment, I can only explain the retention of Smith’s concept of the means of subsistence something meant to look forward to an economy yet to come, an economy in which the despotism of production has shifted from individual capitalists and the impersonal market to planned political control.

More thoughts on emotional labor and capitalism

I’m reading Jaffe’s book Work Won’t Love You Back and re-reading volume one of Capital simultaneously (kinda) and just finished chapter ten in Marx. Marx insists that capital is indifferent to labor’s reproduction there, arguing that capital extends the working day to the furthest extent possible. This is a result of impersonal market forces as much as personal greed–in fact, more so, since Marx views this as the part of capital’s impersonal social domination. The argument there is predicated on a view of human life and human labor as a limited capacity; at one point, he discusses how a blacksmith has a limited number of physical movements within him which would get him to the age of fifty, but capital insists he work at such a pace that he dies at age thirty-seven.

One might view Hochschild’s discussion of emotional labor as one that examines capital’s steady draining of caring capacity. One begins in fusion and slowly moves toward “going robot.” Except that’s not what we see happening. When fusion fails, this certainly happens, and impersonal social domination makes this failure happen more often than not. Yet I think we miss something important if we treat the capacity to care as part of this energetics/hydrological metaphor. Work drains energy, true, and energy is necessary to care. That remains true. But one does not use up one’s emotional capacities in activity. They could be traumatized enough to not work, dulled through repetition, but it seems a mistake to imagine this can be “used up” like life force.

This suggests two things, one about Marx and the other about emotional labor. First, the idea in Marx of life force being consumed by capital is too linked to the understanding of capital as an ecological metabolism. That’s not because it’s NOT a metabolism, but because it uses the metabolic to analyze all relations. Everything is a result of metabolic rifts. Capital’s capture of labor, for instance, is compared to the greedy farmer’s soil depletion. When it comes to labor, we are always dealing with abstract labor time, a perspective that leads him to analyze all labor in capitalism as approximating West Indian slavery.

Again, West Indian slavery is his specific choice of comparison for the British labor market. West Indian slave markets and British labor markets are drawn into a direct equivalence: “For slave-trade read labour-market, for Kentucky and Virginia, Ireland and the agricultural districts of England, Scotland, and Wales, for Africa, Germany” (ch. 10). Marx understands slavery as an institution in the West Indies, correctly, as focused on the destruction of enslaved labor in production.

The argument is that capital will extend the working day to extract as much labor from a worker as possible, pushing the worker past the limit of physical endurance in order to extract as much surplus value as possible. We can narrate West Indian slavery using Marx’s distinction between living labor as variable capital and dead labor as constant capital. In effect, it was a system, and capital as such is a system, which treats the enslaved as almost-dead labor. Hence Marx’s continued evocation of vampires and werewolves. Its treatment of the enslaved put them on par with constant capital: they were investments meant to be destroyed in the production process, their cost amortized over an understood period of time. Yet they must also retain their ability to create more value by adding labor-power to raw materials–that is, their status as living labor/variable capital. Without that, there is no surplus-value. Workers are caught in this gap between between labor-power which is sold as a commodity and labor-power as it is lived and exploited in production. Capital lives by exploiting this gap, extracting greater lived time from its workers than the commodity bargain claimed to value.

From this perspective, capitalism can be understood as purposefully destructive or simply indifferent to labor and the environment. It certainly destroys its raw materials in production to create new values and lives by extracting labor. It will take as much as it can get and then more. But while we can point to its most aggressive proponents of destruction, it is perhaps better to understand them as extracting a surplus-code of sadism from the indifferent destruction of capitalism’s impersonal structure.

What’s the point of all this rambling, though? What does it have to do with emotional labor? The problem is whether there is anything in the production process, in terms of emotional labor, which addresses that labor’s reproduction. Marx’s analysis suggests that the production process is essentially indifferent to labor’s reproduction. The reasoning here again mirrors the British labor market with West Indian slavery: capitalism can push past the limits of what labor can do, physiologically, because it can replenish its workforce without difficulty. This is not the surplus army of the unemployed, not yet. This is not a question of wages. It is simply that workers can be easily replaced. Labor here is understood as without qualities rather than unskilled. Any laborer whatsoever can replace any other. Constant inflows of labor (or raw materials) are what makes capital so rapacious and destructive. It cares only for the production of exchange-values, and will enfold whatever is available to it as part of the production process.

Is emotional labor so easily replaced, so lacking in qualities?

Paolo Virno has approached this idea through the general intellect, arguing that general human qualities have become key instruments in the production process. Does that make it easily replaced through constant inflows?

Perhaps in some forms, e.g., retail, food service, some elder care, but not in others, especially those regulated, e.g., nursing, teaching, and child care. In unregulated areas, where labor is readily replaced, emotional labor seems to be exploited to the limit as Marx would imagine. In regulated areas, however, labor inflows are limited. Nurses, teachers, and child care workers, for instance, need training and credentials now. They cannot be easily replaced by capital through new inflows (without waivers to the credentials, of course, which is one way that capital deals with this).

The question is whether the production process shifts in some way to address reproduction when it comes to emotional labor? Marx really doesn’t have any interest in the management of reproduction. That’s ideological window-dressing to the destructiveness of capital. If we put this alongside the changes in managerial thinking during the 1980s and 1990s mapped by Boltanski and Chiapello, we would expect to see some shift in ideas about work which would gesture toward changes or ideas that workers wanted. Freedom and creativity, for instance, were the pieces most discussed by Boltanski and Chiapello, but the overarching sense was that one could use or free up one’s capacities to do something important, valuable, or meaningful. (A bad gloss, I’m sure, but it’s one I’ll use for now.)

Labor that produces emotions is one that will, invariably, experience emotions in return. Such emotions will not necessarily by specifically prescribed emotions by the workplace so much as affective experience. What matters is that the experience is regulated in the production process by the workplace through explicit codes or implicit norms, what Hochschild calls feeling rules. A set of feeling rules could make the production process of emotional labor, itself potentially traumatizing, more or less so. The regulation of feeling for worker and client operates simultaneously and is a necessary part of production, even if it means simply “keeping emotions in check” through the process.

An insistence that a kind of emotional labor bears its own compensation–through the feelings it creates in the worker–is not just ideological, I don’t think. It seems an extension of managerial ideology and of feeling rules. To love one’s work becomes part of a set of feeling rules, a form of emotional regulation demanded by the work. It also serves a useful disciplinary function by creating a position of imagined fusion between self and work which the worker must project in the doing of that work.

None of this means that loving one’s work isn’t real. Fusion is real. And here’s where it gets even harder to discuss. It may not even be bad, necessarily, as long as fusion is fusion between a process that aims toward, in Marx’s words, use-values. What am I producing that does not tend toward exchange but toward use, in other words? This is often how workers experience this labor, as the evocation of emotion in a person for their use. The problem, as Hochschild shows in The Managed Heart, is when this work speeds up or is put into a position when it cannot be done well. Fusion fails and the use or care which the worker really does create cannot be created by the worker for the client or the worker as such.

Notes on literature and emotional labor

What is the nature of the demand to love literature as part of the profession?

Let’s take it as a form of emotional labor first.

Here’s the basics of Arlie Hochschild’s discussion in Managed Heart: the emotional laborer must evoke a set of feelings—typically temporally bound with the presence of a customer—which serves the needs of a company/institution. Emotional labor is managed. Workers regulate their feelings using a set of feeling rules. Management operates through these feeling rules and through direct intervention when feeling rules are not being followed.

Self-management may be possible but is not central to Hochschild’s discussion here. That’s because the separation of interests becomes clearer the further one moves down the hierarchy. Upper management is here more directly aligned with the desire to evoke particular feelings in customers than workers, even if upper management is not engaged in the evocation of those feelings.

At first glance, then, the performance of emotional labor seems fully alienated. Yet the worker is not simply alienated in the production process. We see something distinct.

The central portion of Hochschild’s discussion focuses on the problem that emotional laborers confront in terms of their lived authenticity. Emotional laborers often begin from a place of fusion, in which their sense of self, emotional life, and work life, and neatly fused. This is something which production based on emotional labor encourages. Yet it is not easy to maintain and often fails. When it does, the worker confronts a question: Am I faking it all the time?

Phoniness would seem to be the price of all emotional labor, but it is one that appears when fusion fails, when the reproduction of emotions and self reveal themselves as separate for the worker. As Hochschild emphasizes, the discover of phoniness attacks the emotional laborer’s capacity for work. How? It affects a person’s self-esteem. This is a problem of emotional labor’s reproduction: an emotional laborer caught in this spiral will not be able to reproduce their capacity to labor. For this reason, emotional laborers work quite hard to figure out how to deal with this problem.

Hochschild offers us three ways workers typically deal with the split between real and fake emotion:

  1. Depersonalize the situation by dividing oneself between a true work self and a true personal self. In this instance, both are real but their separation allows the emotional laborer to navigate problems in production without it attacking self-esteem.
  2. Yet the work persona can come to seem less real than the private self. Treat the job as not serious. This causes a problem, though. If phoniness is the job, then self-esteem is attacked and anyone who allows this to become their lives will seem smaller to themselves.
  3. Resist all encouragement to act and “go robot.” In this situation, a laborer takes emotion and self out of the performance. All that is left is the act without feeling. It is unable to evoke the emotions required by the job.
    In essence, the good emotional laborer is skilled at separating public and private selves without losing sight of a certain truth within BOTH selves. The feelings they enact and evoke in work are real, but separate from their private selves.

How does one produce a true public self without making one’s private self vulnerable? Hochschild argues that emotional laborers use a similar set of techniques as found in Stanislavsky’s idea of deep acting. In deep acting, the emotional laborer draws on personal memories of feeling to act them out in a new context. The feeling is real, the context new. Hochschild contrasts deep acting with “surface acting,” which simply goes through the motions—a version of “going robot”

Is deep acting fake? No. Hochschild makes an important claim here: it is debilitating for emotional laborers to feel the constant difference between their internal feeling states and their external performances. Hochschild doesn’t see deep acting as bad or fake. It is necessary.

Deep acting shows us something important, I think, about emotional labor. The wage, in a classically Marxian sense, is not enough to reproduce it. One might equivocate and say that the emotional laborer slowly loses his or her capacity to labor emotionally and that this capacity must be reproduced outside the production process. They receive love and affection elsewhere and bring it to work. That is in part true. But there is a limit to this ability to import that capacity into the production process. The more that the work self seems fake to the worker, the harder the work becomes. Eventually, it becomes untenable. Positive emotions are needed within the production process to allow the work to continue.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying emotional labor is always happy and good and so on. It’s that intermittent positive emotional experiences are built into the production process as part of the laborer’s reproduction. Capital might hope to siphon an emotional laborer’s capacity for emotional labor drop by drop as though we are pieces of fixed capital, but this burns through emotional laborers quite quickly. The reproduction of the worker demands certain conditions within the production process, though they don’t always get it. A certain sense of fusion or positive deep acting not only allows this work to reproduce itself, it makes the production process possible. Without it, the whole system goes into crisis.

And that takes me to a later essay by Hochschild, “Can Emotional Labor Be Fun?” Hochschild asks the question because it should be clear to everyone that IT CAN BE. Of course. Much of this kind of work is work that people value and thus feel is important and rewarding—in other words, the stuff of fusion, as Hochschild puts it in Managed Heart. What throws people out of fusion and forces them to confront the alienation of their emotional work is when something goes wrong in the production process, here specifically low wages and low respect. For Hochschild, this appears when the care system itself has broken down in some way.

The result is a new set of problems for the emotional laborer. Hochschild writes, “When a care system breaks down one sign is that the three-way relationship between the manger, the emotional laborer, and the client becomes frayed. […] Either way, the broken system has prevented her from feeling proud of her work. It has forced her to manage her feelings about doing her job in a broken care system.” The focus of emotional labor becomes the management of the worker’s feelings toward the job itself.

So we have:

  1. Emotional laborer performing emotion using private experience in public on behalf of the company to affect a client in ways that are more or less authentically felt and hence reproducible for the laborer.
  2. Emotional laborer managing personal feelings toward the client within the production process (e.g., when client rejects labor and so on) through management’s set of feeling rules.
  3. Emotional laborer managing personal feelings toward the production process itself.

What does all this have to do with literature and love?

If we take the love of literature seriously as a demand, where would we find it? It would be within the production process. What is that? I suppose teaching. It would be the most obvious situation in which the construction of emotion to a particular end between two human beings would be possible. It would be the situation in which a teacher would draw on their emotional experience to enact in the classroom a performance of this love and to evoke it in the client(s).

Is this really a demand we confront on the institutional level? I mean… I don’t know about that. Other kinds of emotional labor, yes, but the love of literature…?

It may be at the level of the discipline, department, or program, I suppose. It would still place the demand within the production process but in a way that is so distinct from management/labor that it is hard to apply the ideas clearly.

I think what we see is more akin to Horkheimer and Adorno’s argument in the culture industry chapter of Dialectic of Enlightenment, the selection of people already attuned to a particular ideology. The work selects for people predisposed to a particular set of feelings and beliefs (or easily trained to hold them).

Loving literature and inculcating that love, then, isn’t a task with a particular monetary compensation. It is part of a performance to be understood as a member of a class with its own set of interests and ideas. Yet again, though, who makes this demand? Whose interests does it serve? When did it appear? Has the practice of this feeling changed over time?

I have theories about the emergence of this demand within the profession as something that occurs alongside the rise of theory. It’s the affective contrary of critique. I doubt anyone felt called to love literature until then.

Of course, this turn co-occurs with a number of other cultural events, including the expansion of emotional labor as a result of the post-industrial economic turn and the increased prominence of women in English departments, not to mention the coincidence of colleges focusing on student satisfaction as consumers.

This is a perfect storm for English as a discipline. The gendering of care and the expansion of emotional labor makes the love of literature a happy ideological fit for the times. It seems a counterpart to the feeling airlines wanted to encourage in Hochschild, the feeling of domesticity. Isn’t the love of literature also a cognate for the canon wars? The love of literature can suggest to people in a similar idea: make me feel at home in literature. What feeling could be more raced, classed, and gendered than that?

None of this is to suggest that it is impossible to love or value literature—however defined—on the personal level. But it is to see the idea of this demand as embedded in a particular moment in time for the profession and its ideological understanding of itself. We may use our emotional lives in teaching literature—I suspect we all do—but the nature of the feeling rules and emotional management operative in higher education is, I suspect, more complex and less interested in our encouragement of someone else’s love. Perhaps one might understand it as the performance of our interest or love to evoke a particular affective response in students. Perhaps. Even then, though, it seems that the feeling work here is different, less about a relation to an object than a particular set of affective relations within a classroom or an institution. And that seems a more complex problem which lacks the formal management systems we see in managed emotional labor.

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.

Joseph Conrad’s Hope in Lord Jim and Nostromo

To approach hope in Conrad is to understand why French philosopher Gabriel Marcel claims “the conditions that make it possible to hope are strictly the same as those that make it possible to despair” (qtd in Anderson). This is not to say that Conrad’s hope is Marcel’s. For Marcel, hope describes a particular experience of theological transcendence, one that reveals a world of mysteries that demand an exterior space of possibility, something that takes the place of our humdrum instrumentalized world in which everything is merely a problem to be solved and thus a source of existential despair. Conrad’s hope might be glimpsed here not in Marcel’s suggestion of Catholic certainty but in the structural argument that Marcel makes about hope: hope is an experience of multiplicity and potentiality. Subsequent theorists of hope, from Ernest Bloch to Ben Anderson, emphasize precisely this implicit plurality of conditions, a plurality that can be inflected as either hope or despair.As Terry Eagleton puts it, “Potentiality … lays down the material infrastructure of hope” (52). Hope is sometimes treated as an affect, but it is perhaps more proper to understand it as a being-towardthat may raise a variety of affects, whether excitement, expectation, dread, anger, and so on. In other words, hope is less an affect than a relation with potential-laden conditions.

We are closer, here, I think, to Conrad’s hope, but the word “relation” poses another problem. Relation does not mean disposition, something grounded in character. One of the problems that confronts any examination of hope is our readiness to collapse one’s relation to conditions with one’s general disposition toward the world. We might recognize this better, as Conrad did, in questions of character—though as we will see that has its own discourse as well. For now, I want to note that hope is not the equivalent of an optimistic character. In particular, Eagleton offers a useful distinction, one that separates his perspective from that of Marcel, between groundless optimism and a hope premised on reason. After all, if I ask, “Is there any hope?” it is because I need a reason to hope, however remote. By contrast, Marcel’s religion allows him to hope by focusing on reason beyond reason. In what follows, then, I take hope as a particular relation informed by reason about the potentiality of a situation, and that this potentiality includes hope’s contrary, despair. In essence, hope sifts its despair-laden conditions for another route, another possibility. The hope that one may find in Conrad’s work, then, does not operate in spite of his pessimism but as a result thereof. It is a persistent examination of the reasons within despair, and the possibilities therein. In what follows, I have chosen to focus my discussion around the uses of the word “hope” as such in Lord Jim and to connect its usage there to the later text Nostromo.

Hope pervades the first half of Lord Jim as a continually thwarted if not fundamentally misguided relation to possibility. This seems in part a result of the continued link Marlow draws between the words hopeand faith: Jim’s hopes for the future, the hope of the pilgrims, Jim’s desire to remake himself. These hopes express a faith in potential, and it is as faith that the narrative approaches the question of hope, underscoring in the process its emptiness. Marlow frames his hope that Jim’s actions could be understood as not merely dispelled but a desire for “a miracle” (37). He writes:

Perhaps, unconsciously, I hoped I would find that something, some profound and redeeming cause, some merciful explanation, some convincing shadow of an excuse. I see well enough now that I hoped for the impossible–for the laying of what is the most obstinate ghost of man’s creation, of the uneasy doubt uprising like a mist, secret and gnawing like a worm, and more chilling than the certitude of death–the doubt of the sovereign power enthroned in a fixed standard of conduct. It is the hardest thing to stumble against; it is the thing that breeds yelling panics and good little quiet villainies; it’s the true shadow of calamity. Did I believe in a miracle? and why did I desire it so ardently? Was it for my own sake that I wished to find some shadow of an excuse for that young fellow whom I had never seen before, but whose appearance alone added a touch of personal concern to the thoughts suggested by the knowledge of his weakness–made it a thing of mystery and terror–like a hint of a destructive fate ready for us all whose youth–in its day–had resembled his youth? I fear that such was the secret motive of my prying. I was, and no mistake, looking for a miracle. (LJ 5:37)

If hope is bound to reason, its deployment in Lord Jim maps something hazier, torn between reason and optimism. The hoped for miracle would dispel the mist that envelops and obscures what Marlow calls a “fixed standard of conduct.” It is here that hope’s centrality for the text comes into focus as a collapse of character-based disposition and a reasoned relation to a situation’s potentiality. What Marlow extolls as a standard of conduct is “that inborn power to look temptations straight in the face… a power of resistance” (32). Such a view is of a piece with Conrad’s insistences throughout his work that imperialism reveals fundamental dispositions held in check by European culture. His hope for Jim is one for a standard of conduct based in reason that could obviate this problem of disposition. What Jim threatens to reveal is that his standard is a mere accident of disposition.

The affective—or emotional relation?—here takes seriously what Fredric Jameson dismisses as a mere symbolic ruse, honor. Yet honor, as a word, misses the mark. It is a loss of hope, the revelation of a standard that is no standard. It is this that afflicts Captain Brierly. His final words to Marlow indicate that the degree to which dispositionis in tension with a reasoned hope, and direct us to another relation often mistaken for affect, trust. First and foremost, trust guarantees that the self one presents coincides with the kinds of actions one is likely to undertake. Yet trust is as much about the ability to act in the present moment as it is the predictability of future actions. In his analysis, Niklas Luhmann explains that trust matters precisely because it authorizes action in the present. For Brierly, what is so distressing about Jim’s betrayal is that it cuts at this possibility of present action:

We’ve got all kinds amongst us–some anointed scoundrels in the lot; but, hang it, we must preserve professional decency or we become no better than so many tinkers going about loose. We are trusted. Do you understand?–trusted! Frankly, I don’t care a snap for all the pilgrims that ever came out of Asia, but a decent man would not have behaved like this to a full cargo of old rags in bales. We aren’t an organised body of men, and the only thing that holds us together is just the name for that kind of decency. (LJ 49)

What we see here in Brierly’s concerns are that they are not so much about honor as the broader late Victorian discourse of character. As Stefan Collini shows, character served as the disciplinary code for a disorganized liberal imperialism—in short, as the code for the trustworthiness of imperial action. Imperial administrators’ need to take decisions when necessary led to a reliance on a particular understanding of good character. Such character regulates personal conduct through social pressure and intermittent checks on action—the certification that Jim needs to act as an officer marks him as part of this order that demands a series of initial checks but then releases him unchecked into the world. This may suggest Foucauldian discipline; however, as we see in Lord Jim, character operates through intermittent checks quite distinct from what one would find in a disciplinary structure. In effect, the sea of Lord Jim is one of the earliest forms of what Marc Augé terms a non-place, a space of passage in which identity is suspended and checked only sporadically. Indeed, Augé discusses the role of sea travel in the 19C when explicating the term. For subsequent theorists, the non-place helpfully tracks the displacement of disciplinary societies by societies of control, where the individual is replaced by the persistent subdivision of the person into the multiplicity of the dividiual. For late Victorians, character seems to have suggested the certainty of a disciplinary code. What Jim reveals, though, is that it is a more supple—and at this stage of technology, fallible—system of discontinuous checks. The guarantee of character, which unifies disposition via a specific relation to reality, only guarantees a fragment, a splinter that may not be recomposed as a whole.

In a fully developed control society, this fragmentation can become a source of profit and multiplied control through the proliferation of checks. This is not yet the case for the world of Lord Jim.Instead, trust and hope confront each other as antagonistic relations to temporality. Action in the present against a Benjaminian sifting of possibilities in the present—activity against a passive messianism. This conflict is not an abstract one. As Adam Seligman argues, trust is predicated on the rise of modernity and market society. It is a specific, historic relation. In this sense, the conflicting temporalities of hope and trust reveal an ambivalence in the text toward the imperial project, one situated in the subjective constitution of those who undertook it: a passive hope for the future that inhibits trust’s ability to act in the present. For Conrad, a positive imperial project is based in doing. In Heart of Darkness, Marlow describes the British territories marked in red on King Leopold’s map as “good to see at any time, because one knows that some real work is done in there” (32), and he emphasizes earlier that “what saves [the British imperial project] is efficiency” (21). An acceptable imperialism is a project of continual present-tense mediation, of doing to be done. Yet what Jim wishes to avoid more than anything is the reality of his present. Jim’s passive hopefulness threatens to reveal the trust of imperialism as mere disposition. His leap from the foundered boat is a leap over the present, an elision of trust’s temporal focus. Hence Marlow emphasizes that Jim

was not afraid of death perhaps, but I’ll tell you what, he was afraid of the emergency. His confounded imagination had evoked for him all the horrors of panic, the trampling rush, the pitiful screams, boats swamped–all the appalling incidents of a disaster at sea he had ever heard of. He might have been resigned to die but I suspect he wanted to die without added terrors, quietly, in a sort of peaceful trance. (63)

Jim’s hope and despair are bound to his projections of what may come, to potentiality as such, and not to what is. His redemptive second leap, then, is not so much an embrace of his existential condition as an insistent staying in the present that the text makes central to imperial trust.

To a degree, this alignment of hope with an idealism and temporality that undermines trust in the imperial project also marks Nostromo. Conrad’s account in his 1917 preface of the biographical model for Antonia certainly carries more than a whiff of the Intended’s idealism: “how we used to look up to that girl,” he writes, “…  as the standard-bearer of a faith to which we all were born but which she alone knew how to hold aloft with an unflinching hope!” (453). In the text proper, hope is a leitmotif for a more impersonal sense of the imperial social revolution led by the American mining interests in Sulaco. The San Tome mine enchants Charles Gould with a  “magic formula … [of] hope, vigour, and self-confidence, instead of weary indignation and despair” (6:48). Gould subsequently demands capital-first reform in Sulaco as the only possible “ray of hope” (7:68) because it brings “security” to an “oppressed people” (7:68), and the color of the mine, “green,” is called “the colour of hope, being also the colour of the mine” (8:79). Hope again seems a drive to passivity, and the text’s search for reasons to inform hope become increasingly strained. The Excellentisimo who is to defend the interests of the mine is “the hope of honest men”; and the people of Sulaco hide their fears of Sotillo’s army behind “imbecile hope.” Hope’s potential malevolence, however, most clearly appears with its association with Gould’s last load of silver: “the remnants of our hopes.” Nostromo says in the novel’s final pages that “there is something accursed in [this] wealth” (442), and this seems a fitting description for what is a material store of congealed labor, a hoard of potentiality in itself. Indeed, if one considers the silver as a surplus of potential, the suicidal turn of Martin Decoud, Nostromo’s accomplice in protecting this last remnant of hope, becomes a result of his altered relation to this potential. Indeed, the novel’s persistent narration of revolution in the pseudo-iterative, the narrative strategy of presenting the punctual as the habitual, similarly suggests a problem moving between temporal registers, as though the potentiality of hope and despair have infected the present.

For this reason, I want to close by raising two final models of hope. In his account of hope, Brian Massumi similarly emphasizes its engagement with potentiality. However, where most theorists describe hope as future-oriented, Massumi insists that it is best conceived as a relation to the present. A present-tense hope, he argues, is one bound up with the uncertainty and potentiality of a given situation. Hope is thus not a passive waiting for someone else’s intervention in the future but rather what Massumi calls “a margin of maneuverability” (2), a margin that is effectively our sense of freedom. This view of hope insists that one is not inscribed in a situation but rather embodied within that situation in such a way that its manifold potentials for connection are present and available. Hope is the insistence that the world, such as it is, is internally different from itself. It is this agential version of hope that Conrad approaches in Nostromo,a cross-pollination of the action-oriented trust of Lord Jim and its idealist hope, but one that increasingly becomes indifferent to its status as either hope or despair. With the ascendency of Gould and the mining interests, the conclusion of Nostromo seems to suggest hope for a particular form of seemingly beneficent liberal imperialism against Nostromo’s more hopeless and romantic imperial adventuring. This hopelessness extends lexically beyond Nostromo, the “hopeless slave of the San Tomé mine,” to include “the hopeless blackness of the clouds” above the island where he has secreted his treasure and his two competing love interests. The conclusion of the novel thus suggests a feminizing of hope, a framing of the congealed potentiality of wealth as a female fecundity that threats a masculine demand to act, whether Nostromo’s decisive military actions or Decoud’s decisive political intervention. It is this final gendered shift of hope that indicates the one model of hope that remains inaccessible to Conrad, a hope grounded in the past, one that Sara Ahmed argues is central to living a feminist life (see introduction and 46-47. This concluding gendered turn of hope thus suggests an implacable drift in the novel’s understanding of hope and despair toward a masculinized sense of potential’s sheer contingency, encapsulated by Nostromo’s accidental shooting by his aged friend. In this way, the hope of Nostromo suggests a particularly masculine subjective struggle to orient oneself in an imperial surfeit of possibility.


Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. Living a Feminist Life. Duke UP, 2017.

Anderson, Ben. “Becoming and Being Hopeful: Towards a Theory of Affect.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, vol. 24, 2006, pp. 733-752, DOI: 10.1068/d393t.

Augé, Marc. Non-places: An Introduction to Supermodernity. 2ndedition. London: Verso, 2008.

Collini, Stefan. Public Moralists. Oxford UP, 1991.

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Bedford/St Martins, 2010.

—. Lord Jim, edited by Jacques Berthoud.Oxford World’s Classics, 2002.

—. Nostromo. Penguin Classics, 2007.

Eagleton, Terry. Hope without Optimism. U of Virginia P, 2015.

Luhmann, Niklas. Trust and Power. Polity, 2017.

Marcel, Gabriel. The Gabriel Marcel Reader, edited by Brendan Sweetman. St. Augustine Press, 2011.

Massumi, Brian. The Politics of Affect. London: Polity, 2012.

Seligman, Adam B. The Problem of Trust. Princeton University Press, 1997.