Friday, December 15, 2023

A Thousand Plateaus, Chapter 8



Summary of Chapter 8: 1874: Three Novellas, or “What Happened?”

In this brief chapter, D&G use their idiosyncratic definition of “novella” to explore the concept of lines of rigid segmentation, supple segmentarity, and (in particular) lines of flight. The image at the beginning is from a Buster Brown cartoon, the complete version of which is here. I haven’t found any explanation of the date, “1874.”

They begin with their apparently quite original temporal distinction between novella, tale, and novel. Novellas look back over the past and ask, “What happened?” Tales are progressive, beginning at the beginning and proceeding forward, keeping readers wondering, “What is going to happen?” The novel, for its part, “integrates elements of the novella and the tale into the variation of its perpetual living present (duration)” (192). [Necessarily a reference to the Bergsonian concept.] Characters in the novella enact postures which are like folds, but the tale plays out attitudes or positions that are unfoldings. “The links of the novella are: What happened? (the modality or expression), Secrecy (the form), Body Posture (the content)” (194).

They discuss three novellas, by Henry James, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Pierrette Fleutiaux. In each case these involve relations between 1) a molar, macropolitical “rigid line of segmentarity” (195), 2) a micropolitical “line of molecular or supple segmentation, the segments are which are like quanta of deterritorialization” (196); and 3) lines of flight. These correspond to territorialization/stratification, relative deterritorialization, and absolute deterritorialization; rigid segmentation invokes relations between units of a Couple, while supple segmentation those between Doubles. Most of the discussion of the novellas illustrates how these three kinds of lines interact and are not to be judged too simply; the first kind are not dead, but involve life just as much as the others; the line of flight does not necessarily lead to escape but could “bounce off the wall” and lead to a black hole.

In short, there is a line of flight, which is already complex because it has singularities, and there [is] a customary or molar line with segments; and between the two (?), there is a molecular line with quanta that cause it to tip to one side or the other. (203)

They discuss the work on lines of Fernand Deligny (a sometime colleague of Guattari) in relation to schizoanalysis, then delineate four “problems” which arise regarding the three types of lines. First, the particular character of each line (which is not to be taken too simplistically, nor is the clear distinction between each to be assumed to be necessarily clear); second, the respective importance of the lines: rigid segmentation is not necessarily first, nor is the line of flight necessarily last, nor first; though the supple segmentarity does exist between the two, flipping to one side or the other. Third, there is a mutual immanence of the three kinds of lines, and fourth, there are dangers specific to each line, including the line of flight (as mentioned above).

Part of the main point is that we (both as individuals and as groups) are traversed and composed of lines (202), which means much more than written lines, but all kinds of lines. They end with a discussion of written or spoken lines (drawn out of Fitzgerald’s autobiographical Crack-up) that links to the related theme of [articulation]:

When one person says to another, love the taste of whiskey on my lips like I love the gleam of madness in your eyes, what lines are they in the process of composing, or, on the contrary, making incompossable? (206)



 

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Profane Illumination, Chapter 3

 



Summary of Chapter 3: “Qui suis-je?” Nadja’s Haunting Subject

In this chapter, Cohen traces Andre Breton’s relation to Freudianism through his novel Nadja. Breton saw connections between Freudianism and Marxism:

he pursues not only how the Marxist and Freudian forces of deter­mination in the last instance are susceptible to apprehension by each other’s methodologies but also the possibility that they communicate closely (thus the notion of communicating vessels) and may in fact ultimately be indistinguishable. (60)

She traces in particular the concept of the “haunting” self in Nadja.

Breton posits this identity as a sequence of temporally differentiated moments. The I becomes a series of ghosts of its contiguous experience rather than a centered self. (64)

Breton references Rousseau, and C contrasts his writing with Rousseau’s project of portraying himself “as the portrait of an already formed, extratextual subject” in his confessions:

Breton's subjectivity is not any­where fully present but rather must be constructed through narrative; his textual act of representation resembles the process of self-construc­tion characteristic of the Freudian talking cure. (66)

Like an analysand’s discourse, Breton’s narration acquires significance not from the accuracy of any event represented but rather “dans son ensemble,” from the relation among the memories narrated, as the narration be­comes itself the event that generates meaning....

Breton’s text lacks a metalanguage that will comment with authority on the events he recounts. Asserting that his self is constituted by a series of haunting I’s, he refuses to grant to any one I a privileged status as the real Breton.

Breton suggests the subject as the ghost of some sort of unconscious realm, simultaneously implying that this unconscious is individual and that it is related to objective factors. Breton emphasizes the objective character of this realm increasingly as his reflections on its content proceed.

By “objective character,” she means the I as an object:

Alienating the I as the objective myself and then dissociating this objectified self from himself, turning it to “he who from farthest away comes to meet me,” Breton raises the uncer­tainty of his being able to reconstitute such alien material as a unified self at all. With the introduction of an objective dimension into the sub­ject, the possibility exists that the boundary between subject and object will crumble in the direction of contingency rather than recuperation, and this problem echoes in the final question, “Is it myself [moi­-meme]?” (67)

She discusses Sartre’s attack on Surrealist views of the subject, for instance his criticism of automatic writing (which Breton championed) as a sort of eating away at, or erosion of, the subject:

Au­tomatic writing is above all else the destruction of subjectivity. When we attempt it, spasmodic clots rip through us, their origin unknown to us; we are not conscious of them until they have taken their place in the world of objects and we have to look on them with the eyes of a stranger. (Sartre, quoted on p. 68)

Sartre is thus alarmed at the alterity or uncanniness of the self to its self, which the surrealists celebrate. It is interesting to consider why this alarms Sartre (speaking here for the viewpoint of existentialism, and to a degree for traditional Marxism) so much, given that in the traditional Hegelian dialectic, the individual consciousness must in fact go through this phase of becoming an object to itself, in order to become a full “self-consciousness.” The issue, I think, is that the dissolution of subject into object celebrated by the Surrealists such as Breton goes too far, and is not recuperable into the unified and rational self which traditional Marxism desires. Whereas in Marx the worker, for example, sees themself through their product, their own agency mixed with the world, in the case of automatic writing, it is the opposite, some other force intrudes and supplants or replaces our own agency, so our own creations are mysterious and alien to us. [On “action without agency,” see below.]

Sartre reacts with venom to the surrealist representation of the sub­ject because such a subject is ill-suited to carry out the praxis an existen­tialist protocol of engagement demands. (68)

Cohen makes much of Breton’s juxtaposition of a photo of himself with the subtitle referring to his envy for “any man who has the time to prepare something like a book”:

While in a standard documentary photo Breton’s portrait would illustrate the sentence to which it is juxtaposed, Breton constructs this sentence in such a way that he problematizes establishing a one-to-one correspondence between photograph and the textual passage whose ex­traliterary existence it documents. There are, after all, two parts of the sentence to which the photograph could refer. The subject of the photo­graph could be identical with the subject of the sentence, “I.” It could also, however, refer to the object of the sentence from which Breton’s subject here differentiates himself, “every man who has the time to prepare something like a book.” (69)

The photo of himself appears in a sense to refer to some other guy who can more confidently write and finish a book. B had presaged this with an earlier reference to a character from

a film I saw in the neighborhood, in which a Chinese who had found some way to multiply himself invaded New York [actually San Francisco] by means of several million self-reproductions. He entered President Wilson’s office followed by himself, and by himself, and by himself, and by himself; the President removed his pince-nez. (Breton 1960, 34-7)

Breton states that this film “has affected me far more than any other.” Howard translates the French title L'Étreinte de la Pieuvre as The Grip of the Octopus, but the original English title is in fact The Trail of the Octopus (though how often does an octopus leave a trail?). The self-duplication cited by Breton is achieved through a cinematic trick, which Cohen explores through a quote from Barthes on photography, but is interestingly far from the only example of self-duplication in that rambling, semi-coherent, massively trashy and entertaining silent film serial (the plot makes as much sense as automatic writing). First off, the number of villains (various stock ethnic stereotypes, for the most part) in the film start to multiply, ally, bicker, and fight amongst themselves; there is a Monsieur X (evil French guy) who obscures his face with a mask, but soon there are at least three characters wearing the same mask, posing as Monsieur X. Towards the end Wang Foo (the evil Chinese guy, who can multiply himself) rips the mask off the true Monsieur X, only to find he is one of his own (Wang Foo’s) copies!

The full potential of this serial’s accidental surrealism has yet to be taken up by scholars, though some exceptions are Mayer 2017 and Ungureanu 2020. Apropos of Breton’s agenda in Nadja, Mayer uses The Trail of the Octopus to demonstrate that “the detective serial maps a world of action without agency,” observing that “nobody is in control any longer, the police, the detective, the villains and the victims each pursuing their own, often discordant, agendas.” The movie also happens to feature disembodied eyes, such as appear several times in the images accompanying Nadja, and Monsieur X’s mask is similar to that which appears in one of “Nadja’s” (Leona Delacourt’s) artworks.

To return to Cohen’s argument:

This mention of how cinematic reduplication captures a differentiated subject points to a more general similarity between Breton’s ghostly definition of subjective manifesta­tion and what numerous theoreticians of photography have charac­terized as the ghostly nature of the photographic sign. (70)

She gives a quote from Barthes, which she suggests is influenced by a close reading of Nadja:

In the realm of the imaginary, the Photograph . . . represents this very subtle moment where, to tell the truth, I am neither a subject nor object, but rather a subject who feels itself become object: I then live a micro-experience of death (of parenthesis): I become truly a ghost. (71)

Rosalind Krauss had discussed surrealism and photography as index; Cohen notes this but decides to use the related but more Freudian term, trace.

We might term the ghostly mode of presence that Breton’s haunting subject shares with the photographic image trace-like, borrowing from Nadja’s own description of how she will haunt Breton.

Nadja in fact describes herself as a “trace,” in one of her cryptic statements to Breton. C links this to uses of the term “trace” in Freud:

For Freud the term designates a sign that represents the subjective activ­ity that produced it in distorted rather than mimetic fashion. (72)

[We can see how “distorted rather than mimetic” will link back to the previous chapter’s discussion of Benjamin and superstructure.] For Freud, the trace in the dream is altered through displacements to avoid censorship by the conscious ego or whatever.

Extending the term from dream to waking experience, Breton uses trace to designate the indexical fashion in which the ghostly subject haunts the tracks of his own experience.

The subject of Nadja is “the obscure realm of which the subject is a ghostly manifestation.” C notes Freud’s theory of the uncanny, according to which this is all the return of the repressed.

She comes now to a very interesting quote in which Breton distinguishes his own method in the novel from that of psychoanalysis. In Cohen’s version:

I would like finally . . . if I say, for example, that in Paris the statue of Etienne Dolet, place Maubert, has always simultaneously attracted me and caused me unbearable discomfort, that it will not immediately be deduced that I am merely ready for psychoanalysis, a method I respect and which I consider to aim for nothing less than the expulsion of man from himself, and from which I expect other exploits than those of a bailiff. (Breton, quoted in Cohen, p. 73)

Her reading here actually caught me by surprise, as being the opposite of what I had thought on reading the novel; I had interpreted Breton as criticizing psychoanalysis by saying that it “expels a man from himself,” but according to Cohen, he is in fact saying that it should do this but does not, instead locking him in like a bailiff. The issue here is that Cohen has departed from Howard’s translation, something she usually indicates but here does not. Here is Howard’s translation of this passage:

… it will not immediately be supposed that I am merely ready for psychoanalysis, a method I respect and whose present aims I consider nothing less than the expulsion of man from himself, and of which I expect other exploits than those of a bouncer. (Breton, 1960, 24)

The actual word in French is huisser, which can have either meaning, but from the French original we can see that Cohen’s interpretation is correct:

… on n'en déduisît pas immédiatement que je suis, en tout et pour tout, justiciable de la psychanalyse, méthode que j'estime et dont je pense qu'elle ne vise à rien moins qu'à expulser l'homme de lui-même, et dont j'attends d'autres exploits que des exploits d'huissier. (Breton, 1998, 24)

A pun is being made on the word “exploit;” “exploit d’huisser” means a kind of writ which is served by a bailiff or process server. So the “bailiff”/psychoanalyst is neither confining nor expelling the subject, but serving them a writ to appear in court, which could be understood as another metaphor like Althusser’s “interpellation.” [After all, psychoanalysts are priests, as D&G would say.] A vignette of Breton and Freud’s mutually dissatisfactory encounters at the beginning of the chapter had illustrated Breton’s impatience at Freud’s deeply bourgeois agenda; in contrast

Instead of using psychoanalysis in the service of the ruling bourgeois order, Breton is interested in pressing it into the service of revolution, although the distance between his conception of this notion and the event as under­stood by orthodox Marxism remains to be defined. (73)

[Breton has reasonably good leftist cred, but this did make me laugh, remembering a passage in which the narrator/Breton, who repeatedly insists in the novel that he is “not a public person” and wants to disappear, etc., looks at the people of Paris around him, shaking hands and talking on the morning sidewalk, and observes morosely, “No, it was not yet these who would be ready to create the Revolution.” (Breton 1960, 64). Alas! If only it was circa 1991 and I was young, black-clad, and smoking arirangs because they’re too cool for anyone, I could see myself shouldering through a crowd, muttering, “Allons, ce n’étaient pas encore ceux-là qu’on trouverait prêts à faire la Révolution...”]

The novel Nadja is full of contradictions, as numerous scholars have noted and made hay of. To begin with, it is named after the female lead character, but the male narrator begins it by asking, “Who am I?” and this is indeed the primary theme of the book. Breton announces at the beginning his inspiration by Huysmans’ plotless stories, and the novel shares certain features with automatic writing. Much of it revolves around serendipity and coincidence, and the characters wander the streets of Paris in a way that at once evokes the dérives of the Situationalists several decades later, and yet is distinct in that while the Situationalists felt they were exposing and challenging the workings of capitalism and the Spectacle, for their Surrealist forebears it appears to be more about exposing the truly haunting and ephemeral character of the self, or the unconcious. In the light of (for instance) D&G’s discussion of interpellation, Breton’s exploration of the ephemerality of the self, refusing to return it to a unity, and his exposure of its changing nature in relation to Nadja [who serves as his “point of subjectification” in D&G’s terms], seems less like a challenge to subjectification than a cogent understanding, and illustration, of how it works.

I’ll throw in my favorite quote from the book for no special reason; a great summation of life and love in the [second world]:

How does it happen that thrown together, once and for all, so far from the earth, in those brief intervals which our marvelous stupor grants us, we have been able to exchange a few incredibly concordant views above the smoking debris of old ideas and sempiternal life? (Breton 1960, 111)


Breton, Andre (1960) Nadja. Translated by Richard Howard. Grove Press, New York.

Breton, Andre (1998) Nadja. Editions Gallimard, Paris.

Mayer, Ruth (2017) “In the Nick of Time? Detective Film Serials, Temporality, and Contingency Management, 1919-1926" The Velvet Light Trap 79:21-35.

Ungureanu, Delia, (2020) “What Dreams May Come: Marguerite Yourcenar, Van Gogh, Akira Kurosawa.” Renyxa 10:227-44.




Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Labor and Monopoly Capital, Chapter 13



Summary of Chapter 13: The Universal Market

This chapter is a succinct, eloquent, and quite accessible iteration of the classic leftist critique of [formal subsumption]. B points out the rapid growth of market relations, percolating into all aspects of social life and reproduction, largely replacing older forms of organization, in particular the family and community. This is the “universal market,” in which everything is for sale.

It is only in its era of monopoly that the capitalist mode of production takes over the totality of individual, family, and social needs and, in subordinating them to the market, also reshapes them to serve the needs of capital. (188)

All of society transformed into a “gigantic marketplace.” This is contrasted with the more limited range of goods which had been available in early industrial capitalism, many of which were raw materials to be made use of by household, farm, etc. labor (e.g., flour instead of bread). The role of the family remained essential before 1810. Family farms produced own food, clothing, construction work, etc.; even many urban families had some livestock or gardens to supplement income. Most of this work was done by women.

But during the last hundred years industrial capital has thrust itself between farm and household, and appropriated all the processing functions of both, thus extending the commodity form to food in its semi-prepared or even fully prepared forms. (190)

This conquest of the labor processes formerly carried on by farm families, or in homes of every variety, naturally gave fresh energy to capital by increasing the scope of its operations and the size of the “labor force” subjected to its exploitation.

Women were transformed from housewives into workers, and many of the new, particularly poorly paid jobs, end up done by woman, doing the same work they had done before, but now being profited off of.

B ties this to the separation of town and country:

the tighter packing of urbanization destroys the conditions under which it is possible to carry on the old life. The urban rings close around the worker, and around the farmer driven from the land, and confine them within circumstances that preclude the former self-provisioning practices of the home. (191)

The availability of cash makes it easy to buy instead of make, and the cheapening of manufactured goods renders home production uneconomic. This is compounded by social pressure, style, fashion, marketing, educational [propaganda/indoctrination], and the loss of the skills which had been passed down through previous generations. The market becomes a source of individualization/atomization, bringing about

the powerful urge in each family member toward an independent income, which is one of the strongest feelings instilled by the transformation of society into a giant market for labor and goods, since the source of status is no longer the ability to make many things but simply the ability to purchase them.

But the industrialization of food and other elementary home provisions is only the first step in a process which eventually leads to the dependence of all social life, and indeed of all the interrelatedness of humankind, upon the marketplace.

Thus the population no longer relies upon social organization in the form of family, friends, neighbors, community, elders, children, but with few exceptions must go to market and only to market, not only for food, clothing, and shelter, but also for recreation, amusement, security, for the care of the young, the old, the sick, the handi­capped. In time not only the material and service needs but even the emotional patterns of life are channeled through the market.

It thereby comes to pass that while population is packed ever more closely together in the urban environment, the atomization of social life proceeds apace. (192)

Acc B, this “often noticed phenomenon can be explained only by the development of market relations as the substitute for individual and community relations.”

The social structure, built upon the market, is such that relations between individuals and social groups do not take place directly, as cooperative human encounters, but through the market as relations of purchase and sale.

Apart from its biological functions, the family has served as a key institution of social life, production, and consumption. Of these three, capitalism leaves only the last, and that in attenuated form, since even as a consuming unit the family tends to break up into component parts that carry on consumption separately.

...like machinery in the factory, the machinery of society becomes a pillory instead of a convenience, and a substitute for, instead of an aid to, competence. (192-3)

Work ceases to be a natural function and becomes an extorted activity, and the antagonism to it expresses itself in a drive for the shortening of hours on the one side, and the popularity of labor-saving devices for the home, which the market hastens to supply, on the other.

Corporations come to dominate entertainment and “free” time consumption:

By their very profusion, they cannot help but tend to a standard of mediocrity and vulgarity which debases popular taste, a result which is further guaranteed by the fact that the mass market has a powerful lowest-common-denominator effect because of the search for maximum profit.

The stress and alienation of this system create a “human detritus”:

Whole new strata of the helpless and dependent are created, or familiar old ones enlarged enormously: the proportion of “mentally ill” or “deficient,” the “criminals,” the pauperized layers at the bottom of society, all representing varieties of crumbling under the pressures of capitalist urbanism and the conditions of capitalist employment or unemployment. (194)

Thus understood, the massive growth of institutions stretching all the way from schools and hospitals on the one side to prisons and madhouses on the other represents not just the progress of medicine, education, or crime prevention, but the clearing of the marketplace of all but the “economically active” and “functioning” members of society, generally at public expense and at a handsome profit to the manufacturing and service corporations who sometimes own and invari­ably supply these institutions.

The growth of the service industry

brings into being a huge specialized personnel whose function is nothing but cleaning, again made up in good part of women who, in accord with the precepts of the division of labor, perform one of the functions they formerly exercised in the home, but now in the service of capital which profits from each day’s labor.

He discusses the product cycle, “which invents new products and services, some of which become indispensable as the conditions of modem life change to destroy alternatives.”

In this way the inhabitant of capitalist society is enmeshed in a web made up of commodity goods and commodity services from which there is little possibility of escape except through partial or total abstention from social life as it now exists.

Just as in the factory it is not the machines that are at fault but the conditions of the capitalist mode of production under which they are used, so here it is not the necessary provision of social services that is at fault, but the effects of an all-powerful marketplace which, governed by capital and its profitable investment, is both chaotic and profoundly hostile to all feelings of community. (195)

This is the paradox of expanded social services under the conditions brought about by the universal market:

As the advances of modern household and service industries lighten the family labor, they increase the futility of family life; as they remove the burdens of personal relations, they strip away its affections; as they create an intricate social life, they rob it of every vestige of community and leave in its place the cash nexus.

The condition of service sector labor is contrasted to the manufacturing sector:

It is characteristic of most of the jobs created in this “service sector” that, by the nature of the labor processes they incorporate, they are less susceptible to technological change than the processes of most goods-producing indus­tries. Thus while labor tends to stagnate or shrink in the manufacturing sector, it piles up in these services and meets a renewal of the traditional forms of pre-monopoly competition among the many firms that proliferate in fields with lower capital-entry requirements. Largely nonunion and drawing on the pool of pauperized labor at the bottom of the working-class population, these industries create new low-wage sectors of the working class, more intensely exploited and oppressed than those in the mechanized fields of production.

There is the irony that by mainstream economic accounting, this represents a massive growth in the economy, even though it is really just a shift in how and where work is done:

The goods and services produced by unpaid labor in the home are not reckoned at all, but when the same goods and services are produced by paid labor outside the home they are counted.

The work of the housewife, though it has the same material or service effect as that of the chambermaid, restaurant worker, cleaner, porter, or laundry worker, is outside the purview of capital; but when she takes one of these jobs outside the home she becomes a productive worker. Her labor now enriches capital and thus deserves a place in the national product. This is the logic of the universal market. (196)




 

Saturday, December 2, 2023

The Revolution of Everyday Life, Chapter 1




Summary of Chapter 1: The Insignificant Signified.

The title is a play on semiotic terminology. Vaneigem provides his own brief summary of each chapter, and here is this one's:

Because of its increasing triviality, daily life has gradually become our central preoccupation (1). No illusion, sacred or deconsecrated (2), collec­tive or individual, can hide the poverty of our daily actions any longer (3). The enrichment of life calls inexorably for the analysis of the new forms taken by poverty, and the perfection of the old weapons of refusal (4).

Similarly (not surprisingly) to the premise of the Society of the Spectacle, the opening falls into the Death-of-God, disenchantment-of-the-world tradition. V writes that we are like cartoon characters who have rushed off a cliff and have yet to notice. “Lucidity” is an awareness that the spectacle/etc. is not satisfying, that there is something wrong; that we are off the cliff and falling. [The potential felicitous connection with “lucid dreaming” does not appear to be invoked.] “Everyday life” appears as both an illusion and an unnoticed or underappreciated source of potential understanding or inspiration: “There are more truths in twenty-four hours of a man’s life than in all the philosophies” (21). Philosophers see everything upside down (a very Marxian reversal-style criticism, favored also by Debord).

The analyst tries to escape the gradual sclerosis of existence by reaching some essential profun­dity; and the more he alienates himself by expressing himself according to the dominant imagery of his time (the feudal image in which God, monarchy and the world are indivisibly united), the more his lucidity photographs the hidden face of life, the more it 'invents' the everyday. (22)

The Enlightenment accelerated the “descent towards the concrete.” [It would be great if this was a continuation of the falling metaphor; that does not seem to be the case.] Science exposes the fallacy of mysticism, pops its bubble:

I have little inclination to choose between the doubtful pleasure of being mystified and the tedium of contemplating a reality which does not concern me. A reality which I have no grasp of, isn't this the old lie reconditioned, the highest stage of mystification?

This is to be asked to choose between “the false reality of gods or ... the false reality of technocrats.” [i.e., the technocrats support their order by exposing the previous order of mysticism, but they simply ask us to have faith in a new order [which furthermore is beyond our senses, dependent on technology to grasp?]]

Docility is no longer ensured by means of priestly magic, it results from a mass of minor hypnoses: news, culture, city planning, advertising, mecha­nisms of conditioning and suggestion ready to serve any order, established or to come. (23)

There is a reference to the “living reality of non-adaptation to the world:” [with an almost hauntological language of a double or shadow?]:

Art, ethics, philosophy bear witness: under the crust of words and concepts, the living reality of non-adaptation to the world is always crouched ready to spring. Since neither gods nor words can manage to cover it up decently any longer, this commonplace creature roams naked in railway stations and vacant lots; it confronts you at each self-evasion, it grasps your shoulder, catches your eye, and the dialogue begins. Win or lose, it goes with you.

“Non-adaptation” seems to be used usually (e.g. by Leroi-Gourhan, Steven Jay Gould) as a synonym for cultural adaptation, or reliance on technology. V might mean that, or (more interestingly) he might mean a sense of discomfort, of inability to adapt or conform to the mediated world of the spectacle. [It is probably the former, given how often V will speak of "adaptation" throughout the rest of the text.]

Individualism and collectivism are “two apparently contrary rationalities" which "cloak an identical gangsterism, an identical oppression of the isolated man.” -Isms are falsehoods:

The three crushing defeats suffered by the Com­mune, the Spartakist movement and Kronstadt-the-Red showed once and for all what bloodbaths are the outcome of three ideologies of freedom: liberalism, socialism and Bolshevism. (24)

The great collective illusions, anaemic from shedding the blood of so many, have since given way to the thousands of pre-packed ideologies sold by consumer society like so many portable brain-scrambling machines. Will it need as much blood­shed to show that a hundred pinpricks kill as surely as a couple of blows with a club?

Modern consumerism is less bloody than the great ideologies of the past, but it is also weaker, less enthralling, more dependent on constant change and novelty, and this means its illusion grows threadbare:

... to consume without respite is to change illusions at an accelerating pace which gradually dissolves the spaces behind the waterfall of gadgets, family cars and paperback books.

... people are not really tired of comfort, culture and leisure, but of the use to which they are put, which is precisely what stops us enjoying them. (25)

The affluent society is a society of voyeurs.

[In his many references to the technologically-enabled illusions of modern consumerism, it is easy to find imagery applicable to smartphones, e.g.,:]

To each his own kaleidoscope: a tiny movement of the fingers and the picture changes.

But the kaleidoscope of consumerism is just a new kind of monotony:

The monotony of the ideological spectacle makes us aware of the passivity of life, of survival.

Class struggle grew as a response to this, a refusal; contra mainstream Marxism, V argues that not just workers should be considered as revolutionary, but also artists; he lists various romantic poets and asks, “wasn't this also poverty and its radical refusal?” it was a mistake for revolutionary Marxism to “turn its back on artists,” especially now:

What is certain is that it is sheer madness a century later, when the economy of consumption is absorbing the economy of production and the exploitation of labour power is submerged by the exploitation of everyday creativity. The same energy is torn from the worker in his hours of work and in his hours of leisure, and it drives the turbines of power which the custodians of the old theory lubricate sanctimoniously with their purely formal opposition. (26)

The importance of the revolutionary potential of art and poetry, etc., have to do with the importance of the everyday as a potential subversive realm:

People who talk about revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints – such people have a corpse in their mouth.





Friday, December 1, 2023

On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects, Chapter 1



Summary of Chapter One: Genesis of the technical object: the process of concretization


From previous experience with Simondon I expected him to be very dense and hard to follow, but at least in this chapter he was not. He comes straight at you with his precise and distinct terminology (“concretization,” “individualization,” etc.) but always provides definitions for his terms, often multiple times. Much of the chapter is taken up with detailed description of diodes, tetrodes, and so on, which the reader can either 1) follow, if they understand it, or 2) ahem, sort of glaze over it, and wait for him to get around to saying, “and the moral is...,” which he reliably does. The chapter is also handily divided into four sections, each of which makes its own basic argument.

I. – The abstract technical object and the concrete technical object. Concretization is the process of change from the abstract technical object to the concrete (or more concrete) one. Abstraction corresponds at the same time to the representation of an engine (for example) on a blackboard as it is explained to students (27), and to the “primitive” stage of technology in the system of artisanal production. Each of the elements of the engine, in the abstract stage, performs one particular function, and there is no cohesion as a whole:

In the old engine each element intervenes at a certain moment in the cycle, and then is expected no longer to act upon the other elements; the pieces of the engine are like people who work together, each in their own turn, but who do not know each other.

The abstract machine, with these separately acting parts, is inefficient in that certain possibilities are unexplored, and also because the different parts cause various kinds of interference, etc. so that they have to develop “defense structures” to protect their own zone against the action of the other parts. In contrast, the concrete machine is illustrated by cooling fins, which originally had performed the sole purpose of cooling, but have evolved to also add strength to the cylinder head, allowing for a lighter, thinner construction; “this unique structure is not a compromise, but a concomitance and a convergence” (28). The elements of the concrete machine thus play multiple functions as part of the same machine, interacting with other parts in unison or cooperation, instead of each playing their own separate functions.

In outlining the process of concretization, as machines become more concrete, S is opposing the idea of simply categorizing them according to species and genera, and also to taking some given object, frozen in time, as the form in itself.

The gasoline engine is not this or that engine given in time and space, but the fact that there is a succession, a continuity that runs through the first engines to those we currently know and which are still evolving. (26)

To understand machines, then, we need to understand them as moments of this process of concretization.

II. – Conditions of technical evolution. “Technical evolution” and concretization are about fulfilling potentials that are already existent in the technical object or technology; thus, “it is not the production-line that produces standardization, but rather the intrinsic standardization that allows for the production-line to exist” (29). There are two points being made here. First, S is distinguishing between “extrinsic” causes and internal causes, as factors shaping the evolution of objects; his point is that “internal necessity” is the more important. Secondly, he is arguing that concretization tends to reveal or approach the essence of the object, which is that underlying, “intrinsic standardization” which replaces the “made-to-measure” variation of the artisanal era. Hence, the development from artisanal production to industrial production is driven by concretization, and a better understanding of a more evolved and “coherent” technical object (or system of technical objects). He gives the example of a customized automobile; this will, in its essence, be the same as any other automobile as far as the important parts are concerned, all that will be different are unimportant, superficial aspects: “what can be made to measure are inessential aspects, because they are contingent” (30). Too much of this frivolity can even hurt the car and make it less functional: “The made-to-measure aspect is not only inessential, it goes against the essence of the technical being, it is like a dead weight being attached from the outside.” This again ties back to the contrast between extrinsic causes (adding dead weight) and intrinsic functioning (which which the development of the machine approaches its essence).

Not unlike Wiener, Simondon seems to view capitalism, not as a key factor in modern industrial production, but as a somewhat unfortunate delusion or add-on, which complicates things frivolously, interfering with the serious work of engineers and scientists. He contrasts “economic constraints” (extrinsic) and “technical requirements” (intrinsic) in the development of technology, and notes that “it is mostly within the domains where technical constraints prevail over economic constraints (aviation, military equipment), that become the most active sites for progress” (31). [Yet somehow the presence of war, and of the State as a funding agent (removing in wartime, as in the cold war development of the computer, etc. the issue of “economic constraints” so that “technical constraints” can be explored) is not itself to be considered as an “extrinsic” factor? What would Virilio interject here?] “Economic causes are not pure, they interfere with a diffuse network of motivations and preferences that attenuate or even reverse them (a taste for luxury, … taste for very apparent novelty, commercial propaganda)” to the extent that “the technical object is known through social myths or fads in public opinion.” This results in irrational (and non-concretizing) design decisions influenced by marketers and the need to always project an image of novelty. His example is the elimination of a hand-crank as a backup way to start a car; this elimination actually involves making the engine more complicated, and is thus an unnecessary complication, not an improvement; yet the lack of a crank is presented as new, and a “nuance of ridicule is thus projected onto other cars” which continue to have cranks. “The automobile, a technical object charged with psychic and social inferences, is not suitable for technical progress” (32); the auto becomes a kind of technological leech, borrowing developments from less fettered domains, instead of being the site of development itself.

S outlines his arguably [saltationist] view of technological evolution, wherein concretization is not a continuous process, but proceeds through “successive systems of coherence,” “due to the progressive perfection of details resulting from experience and use”:

the play of limits, whose overcoming constitutes progress, resides in the incompatabilities that arise from the progressive saturation of the system of sub-ensembles… (32, emphasis in original)

“Saturation” will be discussed later in the chapter, but it seems to basically mean the filling out of the potentials of the technical object. The primitive technical object is non-saturated, because its possible lines of development and improvement remain abstract, unfulfilled. Saturation is thus part of the process of concretization but not identical with it, as it also leads to “incompatibilities” within each “system of coherence,” which need to be resolved by evolution to a new stage.

It is important that these difficulties get resolved rather than merely avoided (33), the latter of which involves the insertion of new palliative elements in a misguided attempt, a reversal to abstract thinking. “Genuine progress” involves stabilizing functioning without adding new structures: “The adjunction of a supplementary structure only constitutes genuine progress for the technical object if this structure incorporates itself concretely into the totality [ensemble] of dynamical schemas of functioning” (35).

The term axiomatic is used: “the dynamic system closes in on itself just as an axiomatic saturates” (36). According to Barthélémy’s glossary, “In Simondon, this notion does not designate a formal system as in the case of logico-mathematical axiomatics, but simply a set of principles, or first propositions, that enable the linking of fundamental concepts” (Barthélémy, 2012: 208). The axiomatic thus relates to what will be called later the “essence” of the technical object, and its working-out through concretization. The distinction between abstract and concrete is revisited, with a clear articulation:

in the abstract technical object, [each structure] only fulfills one essential and positive function, integrated into the functioning of the ensemble; in the concrete technical object, all the functions fulfilled by the structure are positive, essential, and integrated into the functioning of the whole; the marginal consequences of the functioning, eliminated or attenuated in the abstract technical object by corrective measures, become stages or positive aspects in the concrete object... (39)

S turns to the subject of “universal scientific knowledge,” which appears to be the sum total of scientific understanding at a given point in history (?). “The difference between the technical object and the physico-chemical system studied as an object only resides within the imperfection of the sciences,” a presaging of a later point he will make at the end of the chapter, regarding mechanology as a science that studies technical objects, the way physics, etc., study natural objects. The imperfection of scientific knowledge is linked to the unfinalizability of the process of concretization: “the technical object is never fully known; for this reason it is never fully concrete;” basically, concretization does not come to a conclusion, it simply continues endlessly (“unless it happens through a rare chance occurrence”).

There could have been a nice little debate between Braverman and Simondon over the role of science in the development of technology: S states that concretization is a “narrowing of the interval that separates the sciences and technology” (40), with the primitive artisanal stage showing a wide gap, and the industrial stage a narrower one. “The construction of a determinate technical object can only become industrial when this object has become concrete,” linking back to the earlier argument that the production line is made possible by “intrinsic standardization,” not standardization by the production line.\

III. – The rhythm of technical progress; continuous and minor improvements; discontinuous and major improvements. The point of this section is to distinguish between major improvements, which “modify the distribution of functions, increasing the synergy of functioning in an essential way,” and minor improvements, which “without modifying this distribution, diminish the nocuous consequences of residual antagonisms” (42). The former constitute true progress towards concretization, but the latter “obstruct major improvements, because they mask the technical object’s true imperfections” with incomplete and temporary solutions which will need to be swept away for the next stage of coherence to be reached. “The path of minor improvements is one of detours” (43); they “hide behind a pile of complex palliatives” and “entertain a false consciousness of continuous progress” which is demanded by the “false novelty” of commerce and the market, not by the actual, discontinuous progress of actual concretization. The latter only occurs in “leaps,” in the form of “mutations.”

IV. – Absolute origin of the technical lineage. Simondon now raises the question as to whether an origin can be determined, as to when the progress of any technical object actually began. To be honest, I assumed the answer would be a resounding no, because of the antipathy of later scholars influenced by Simondon (viz., Deleuze and Guattari) to the idea of origins. However, Simondon is quite happy to talk about origins, and of essences to boot. So, the answer is yes, and he gives the example of the invention of the first diode as the “absolute beginning” that contained the technical essence of all the later inventions which would develop on, yet share the “technical essence” of, the diode (the technical essence of which is “assymetrical conductance” (45)). S reiterates a point he had made back at the beginning of the chapter, that it is not the context of use that determines the essence of the technical object, because often an object with a completely different history of development could be substituted, or an object can be adopted to a new use. Instead, it is the lineage of objects sharing this “pure schema of functioning” which form the technical object over time, as an object of mechanological study. The non-saturation of the initial invention gives it “fecundity,” meaning a large progeny or posterity of inventions that will proceed down the path of greater saturation. He defines technical essence:

A technical essence can be recognized by the fact that it remains stable across the evolving lineage, and not only stable, but also productive of structures and functions through internal development and progressive saturation ….” (46)

There is a lot of use of language I can’t help but think of as mystifying/fetishizing, after the manner of Marx’s wooden table that creates itself instead of being created by human labor: “the technical object alters and changes its structure,” it “evolves by generating a family.” He is of course trying to emphasize how this path of development is not due (or not due solely) to the chance whims or insights of human inventors and tinkerers (as could perhaps have been said for the artisanal era), but unfolds according to its own intrinsic causality, or essence. But when he calls this “natural technical evolution,” this sounds a lot like one of those schemes of cultural evolution which, though modeled on the status and model of the theory of evolution by natural selection, share one major difference from it, which is that the latter is completely non-teleological. For all Simondon’s numerous disagreements with Aristotle, it is interesting that he here seems to clearly adopt a concept like that of telos, to the extent that the technical object develops, in accordance with its intrinsic essence, from abstract to concrete, in much the same way as Aristotle’s acorn becomes an oak tree.

He concludes the chapter by showing how the previous discussion is meant to ground the proposed science of mechanology, and improve upon the insights of the cyberneticists. “Concretization gives the technical object an intermediate place between the natural object and the scientific representation,” (49), i.e., between the natural world and abstract knowledge. Natural objects have an inherent coherence; concretized technical objects also have a coherence, although this has been developed over time, yet this means the concretized technical object “comes closer to the mode of existence of natural objects” than does the primitive object or scientific abstraction. He tangents into an interesting discussion of artificiality, how, for example, a greenhouse plant that has been modified to produce flowers but no fruit counts as an artificial, not a natural object, in a path of development which is the opposite of that of concretization: “Artificialization is a process of abstraction within the artificial object.”

In any event, “By existing, [concretized technical objects] prove the viability and stability of a certain structure that has the same status as a natural structure,” because obviously made possible by natural laws, even if they had to be brought into existence through human invention instead of being found in nature (50). This is what makes them fitting objects of mechanology. However, it is important to understand that these technical objects are still distinct from natural objects, and particularly from living beings. This is the heart of his disagreement with Wiener and the cyberneticists, who reasoned by analogy from automata to posit that machines and living creatures are all simply types of self-regulating systems. (Simondon is also against this kind of reasoning by “external” analogy). Cybernetics is “partially inefficient as an inter-scientific study” due to its “initial postulate concerning the identity between living beings and self-regulating technical objects” (51). However, this is to confuse natural objects, which “are concrete to begin with,” with technical objects which only become so through the process of concretization, and the study of this process itself (rather than jumping to the end and treating them like natural objects) needs to be part of their study.