Friday, February 19, 2010
Lizabeth Cohen’s A Consumers’ Republic is a history of mass consumption in postwar American society. Consumerism is usually treated as the antithesis of politics, with individual purchasing supplanting the struggle for the common good. But Cohen shows how during an era of Fordist prosperity and Keynesian ideals, consumerism and citizenship were woven together in complex and contradictory ways. She argues, “Increasingly over this century, the economic behavior of consumption has become entwined with the rights and obligations of citizenship. More and more in the postwar era, Americans merged their aspirations for an adequate material provision and legitimate place in the polity.” Her books shows how the “citizen-consumer” changed form across the 20th century. During the Great Depression, two types of citizen-consumers appeared: “citizen consumers” and “purchaser consumers.” Citizen consumers acted politically to prod the “government to protect the rights, safety, and fair treatment of individual consumers in the private marketplace.” Citizen consumers were most evident in the efforts to make the various New Deal programs include a “permanent representation of the consumer point of view in government, most fully through the creation of a federal consumer agency to complement those already devoted to commerce, agriculture, and labor.” In contrast to citizen consumers, “purchaser consumers were viewed as contributing to the larger society more by exercising purchasing power than through asserting themselves politically.” For purchaser consumers, it “was the buying power of consumers in the aggregate, not the protection of individual consumers in the marketplace, that . . . would bring the United States out of depression and ensure its survival as a democratic nation.” The citizen consumer ideal appeared early in the New Deal, though its success was limited, whereas the purchaser consumer ideal gained strength as Keynesianism moved to the forefront of New Deal strategies. The recognition of consumers as an important group in American society was slow, largely because of the longstanding emphasis on producers. Although the New Deal is mostly remembered as focusing on organizing labor and getting people back to work, “Less often mentioned but equally noteworthy was a growing recognition by those in and out of government of the importance of considering the consumer interest in reconstructing a viable economy and polity. By the end of the depression decade, invoking ‘the consumer’ would become an acceptable way of promoting the public good.” As the New Deal was worked out, consumers began to be seen as an important “countervailing power” to the growing size of government, and attention to the desires of consumers was believed to be one way of keeping economic reforms true to the “basic tenets of capitalism.” Because many New Deal programs focused on white, male workers, “For social groups not otherwise well represented, in particular women and African Americans, identification as consumers offered a new opportunity to make claims on those wielding public and private power in American society.” Women dominated consumer activism in the 1930s, generating a broad grassroots movement and many new women-led organizations. “Although historians have paid more heed to the emergence of new male-dominated labor unions representing producers than to the rise of women’s organizations committed to improving the lives of consumers during the 1930s, the depression inspired tens of thousands of American women to join together not only to protect their families from a declining standard of living and other forms of exploitation in the marketplace, but also to safeguard society more broadly.” African Americans, who were hit especially hard by the depression and largely ignored in mainstream political circles, also organized around consumerism to demand fairer hiring practices at stores (through “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” boycotts) and to support black-owned businesses (the separate “black economy” created by segregation was turned into an ideal). By “mobilizing as consumers, African Americans participated in a broader political culture of dissent where ‘the consumer’ became viewed as a legitimate and effective agent of protest, particularly for women and blacks who were marginalized from the mainstream of politics and the labor movement.” Keynesianism took hold in the government around 1936-37, so the ideal of the purchaser consumer became more predominant at that time: “With the Keynesian revolution . . . consumers were becoming responsible for higher productivity and full employment, whereas a decade earlier that role had uncontestedly belonged to producers.” Keynesianism was also linked to American ideals of equality: “Within the United States . . . Keynesianism was thought to encourage greater economic egalitarianism because dynamic consumer demand depended on a wide distribution of purchasing power. Concentration of wealth in a few hands, in contrast, led to excessive saving and only minimal spending.” In order for the purchaser consumer ideal to save the economy, it needed to take a truly mass form. The outbreak of World War II exacerbated the tensions between the citizen consumer and purchaser consumer ideals. Although mass consumption was still held up as an economic necessity, it had to be subordinated to wartime restrictions and rationing. People across the nation learned during the war “that one of the chief ways to support the war on the home front was as responsible consumers. . . . Suddenly tasks that had been viewed as private and domestic were brought into the civic arena and granted new political importance.” Women, who had already gained political power as consumers during the Great Depression, gained even more political authority as they oversaw much of this domestic regulation of consumption. But “The survival of prosperity amid sacrifice more than anything else kept the purchaser consumer alternative alive. Even when observant of salvaging, rationing, and other market regulations, Americans managed to live better during the war than they had during the Great Depression.” Consumers were urged not so much to condemn consumption as to postpone it, to save and wait for the era of “postwar material prosperity.” At the war’s end, there was some support for the continuation of price controls, which in many ways protected the rights of consumers, but of course free market ideologies won out and the government gave its support to “a mass consumption-driven economy.” Cohen claims, “Out of the wartime conflict between citizen consumers, who reoriented their personal consumption to serve the general good, and purchaser consumers, who pursued private gain regardless of it, emerged a new postwar ideal of the purchaser as citizen who simultaneously fulfilled personal desire and civic obligation by consuming.” At the center of postwar mass consumption was the housing construction boom, which carried with it the demand for the goods needed to fill each house. As wartime savings were exhausted, “the explosion of consumer credit and borrowing kept the postwar mass consumption economy afloat.” Mass consumption was integrated into Cold War ideology as proof that American society was more equal and free than the Soviet’s. “Faith in a mass consumption postwar economy . . . stood for an elaborate, integrated ideal of economic abundance and democratic political freedom, both equitably distributed, that became almost a national civil religion from the late 1940s to the 1970s.” Cohen labels this postwar period the Consumers’ Republic. “The Consumers’ Republic had many appeals, not the least of which was the substantial prosperity it fostered, but perhaps most attractive was the way it promised the socially progressive end of economic equality without requiring politically progressive means of redistributing existing wealth.” As consumers became central to the economy, consumer activism became marginalized: “emphasis on the power of total consumer spending” left little room for concerns with specific consumer issues. “The increasing prosperity of the postwar era, moreover, made it hard for consumer organizers to transcend the mainstream discourse celebrating consumer purchasing power and to politicize consumers, who no longer felt as vulnerable as they once had to burdensome shortages, spiking prices, and inadequate product grading and labeling. Rather, larger economic concerns like inflation, consumer credit, and housing scarcity were the compelling issues of the day.” Much of the political power women had gained as consumer activists was lost during the period. Discriminatory aspects of the GI Bill and consumer credit further marginalized women from maintaining power as consumers, despite the control women generally held over daily domestic consumption. African Americans were also hurt by the way that the GI Bill and other government programs were operated through more local and private institutions that were widely discriminatory. But “the firm connection that the Consumers’ Republic established between citizenship and consumption presented African Americans with new opportunities for fighting the discrimination in public places that had so angered them during wartime.” Cohen even argues that many of the key conflicts of the Civil Rights movement involved gaining equal access to sites of consumption. “Not only was blacks’ politicization as consumers during wartime a critical prerequisite to their civil rights achievements soon thereafter, but the convergence of their ever louder protests with widely held expectations for the postwar Consumers’ Republic made progress in the realm of public accommodations more substantial than in other spheres of civil rights. While discrimination would continue to prevail in jobs, housing, schools, and political representation far into the postwar era, a far-reaching commitment to expanding the ranks of purchasers as citizens made the struggle for equal treatment in the realm of public accommodations more successful.” “By demanding the opening up of what was already expected to be a free and ‘mass’ consumption marketplace, as the Consumers’ Republic promised, black and white civil rights reformers achieved more than when they invoked blacks’ social entitlement to attend any school or live in any community, asserted their economic right to hold any job, or made a moral bid for entry into worlds clearly circumscribed as private.” Yet Cohen notes that this struggle severely limited the Civil Rights movement, foreclosing more radical approaches and reinforcing the capitalist status quo. These limits became especially apparent with the “white flight” to the suburbs, where consumer choice became the grounds for new forms of racial segregation. As suburbia developed, it quickly lent itself to class differentiation as new neighborhoods were designed and marketed to different groups. Suburban developers and communities used zoning restrictions (such as restrictions on the minimum size of lots and houses ) and a number of other quasi-legal tools to enforce racial segregation. Mass consumption of suburban housing eventually transformed into self-interested localism. “Suburbs designed to deliver the promises of the Consumers’ Republic to a wide range of postwar Americans ended up creating many local republics varying in socioeconomic makeup and in the privileges they bestowed upon their citizens.” As whites fled the cities with their money, mortgage lenders redlined urban black neighborhoods, financially condemning them to decay. These black neighborhood were also devastated by the rise of the suburban shopping center, which supplanted the city center as the site of consumption for most suburban consumers. As is well known, shopping centers replaced the urban center’s public space with privatized space that could be used to exclude non-consumer activities and undesirable individuals (i.e., the poor and racial minorities). But Cohen shows there were struggles over the shopping center as a “community” center, and, at least on local levels, First Amendment rights have been successfully used at times to affirm the right to free speech and to political activism in the mall. At the start of the Consumers’ Republic, consumption was conceived of as “mass consumption.” Although manufacturers sometimes made distinctions between different “price classes” of consumers, more often one product was though to be fit for all. But by the end of the first decade of the postwar era, the idea of “market segmentation” began to be popularized. The explosion of market research on the psychology of consumers helped dismantle “the fiction of a unified mass market.” “Ironically, despite concern among cultural critics of the fifties that the standardization inherent in mass consumption was breeding social conformity and homogeneity, the Madison Avenue that they reviled was moving by the end of the decade in the opposite direction: toward acknowledgement, even reifying, social differences through an embrace of market segmentation.” Cohen does not portray market segmentation as a top-down form of manipulation, and she notes how the emergence of identity politics contributed to demands on the consumer side for more market differentiation. Ethnic groups, youth, and even children soon became the target of specific marketing, and even the elderly became active in demanding attention as consumers when a group called the “Gray Panthers” (yes, that is a reference to the Black Panthers) started praising the purchasing power of senior citizens. Reinforcing the effects of suburbanization, market segmentation further fragmented American society and pushed consumer citizens away from any concern with the public good. During the 1960s and 1970s, a third-wave of consumerism arrived through the passing of numerous “federal laws and regulations to protect consumers.” Market segmentation may have added to the consumer dissatisfaction behind these laws. When products were aimed at the masses, some lack of fit was to be expected. But when products were oriented to specific market niches, consumers had higher expectations and therefore more potential for discontent. The consumer movement of the 1960s and 1970s differed from older ones because there had been a shift “from a notion of a common consumer interest to multiple consumer interests.” Such fragmentation of the social was not especially problematic as long as the economy was strong, but the lack of a common interest became evident when the economic crisis of the 1970s hit. Cohen argues that the economic crisis demolished “the underpinnings of the Consumers’ Republic.” Mass consumption no longer seemed a viable route to “economic and social incorporation.” Neoliberal deregulation eliminated most of the achievements and protections of the consumer movement, and it did so often by claiming that such deregulation served consumer interests. Privatization of government functions was also framed as making them more responsive to consumer demands. “When, after decades of postwar prosperity, economic crisis hit in the 1970s, the inequalities that had lurked barely beneath the surface rose as a specter to haunt the rest of the century. Letting private markets reign, without adequate attention to questions of income or resource distribution or without sufficient monitoring of how well the nation’s avowed values were being fulfilled, diminished the Consumers’ Republic’s otherwise substantial achievements.” Cohen concludes by arguing that “it is unrealistic to assume we can reverse a century-long trend of entwined citizenship and consumership,” and she suggests that we encourage the “revival” of the better parts of our citizen-consumer “legacy.”
Tuesday, February 9, 2010
“Consciousness accumulates. It begins to reflect upon itself. . . . There’s almost some law of mathematics or physics that we haven’t quite hit upon, where the mind transcends all direction inward. The omega point. . . . Whatever the intended meaning of this term, if it has a meaning, if it’s not a case of language that’s struggling toward some idea outside our experience. . . . Paroxysm. Either a sublime transformation of mind and soul or some worldly convulsion. We want it to happen.” Delillo’s new novella centers on Richard Elster, a 73-year old “defense intellectual” who helped plan the Iraq War. Elster is holed up in an isolated house in the California desert near the border, not so much in exile as in a “spiritual retreat.” He spends his time sitting in the sun and silence and reading the poetry of Zukofsky, Pound, and Rilke. “This was desert, out beyond cities and scattered towns. He was here to eat, sleep and sweat, here to do nothing, sit and think. There was the house and then nothing but distances, not vistas or sweeping sightlines but only distances.” Visiting Elster for longer than expected is Jim Finley, a film director whose only completed work is a montage of clips from Jerry Lewis films and telethons. Finley is interested in doing a film on Elster, what he conceives of as a Sokurov-ish single take of Elster describing his time working with military strategists. Complicating the intense encounter of these two men is Elster’s twenty something daughter, Jessie, whom Finley closely observes. Most of the novel consists of scenes of Elster and Finley conversing and descriptions of the barren and mystical nature of the surrounding desert. Because of an elusive paper he wrote on “Renditions,” Elster was invited into the world of the military. “He was the outsider, a scholar with an approval rating but no experience in government. He sat at a table in a secure conference room with the strategic planners and military analysts. He was there to conceptualize, his word, in quotes, to apply overarching ideas and principles to such matters as troop deployment and counterinsurgency. He was cleared to read classified cables and restricted transcripts . . . and he listened to the chatter of the resident experts, the metaphysicians in the intelligence agencies, the fantasists of the Pentagon.” In this setting, Elster was not laughed at when he admitted that he “wanted a haiku war. . . . a war in three lines. This was not a matter of force levels or logistics. What I wanted was a set of ideas linked to transient things.” Reflecting from his desert home, Elster offers a more serious criticism of the systems ideology of the military and American culture, a theme that runs throughout almost all of Delillo’s novels. He argues, “War creates a closed world and not only for those in combat but for the plotters, the strategists. . . . They become paralyzed by the systems at their disposal. Their war is abstract. They think they’re sending an army into a place on a map.” Elster’s own intellectual delusions begin to crumble when his daughter suddenly disappears from his home, and Finley finds himself gently guarding over a man whose ethics are reprehensible. Early in the novel, Finley learns that Elster has come to the desert to “feel the body itself, reclaim the body from what he called the nausea of News and Traffic.” Delillo’s novel, too, seeks to avoid the speed of modernity, but the book’s near-stillness and absence of plot perhaps too closely mirror the emptiness of the desert that envelops his characters. The effect is surely intentional, though not necessarily rewarding. The novel is bookended by sections in which an unnamed man visits Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho installation at the MOMA. In these sections, Delillo indulges in some phenomenological art criticism disguised as narrative. The museum visitor has visited the installation every day and wishes it was possible to watch all 24 hours uninterrupted (well, except for the entrance of woman). He reflects, “The nature of the film permitted total concentration and also depended on it. . . . The less there was to see, the harder he looked, the more he saw. This was the point. To see what’s here, finally to look and to know you’re looking, to feel time passing, to be alive to what is happening in the smallest registers of motion.”
Friday, February 5, 2010
Marazzi opens Capital and Language with the question of the “transition from post-Fordism to the New Economy.” The New Economy, which began in the last half of the 1980s and exploded with the dot.com boom of the 1990s, might best be considered a specific period within the era of post-Fordism. Whereas post-Fordism has typically been understood as the transformation of the nature of work (downsizing, flexibility, precariousness, etc.), the New Economy has been marked by the importance of finance, in particular speculation on the stock market. Marazzi links these two thematics - work and finance - through language, arguing, “in the New Economy language and communication are structurally and contemporaneously present throughout both the sphere of the production and distribution of goods and services and the sphere of finance, and that it is for this very reason that changes in the world of work and modifications in the financial markets must be seen as two sides of the same coin.” Marazzi first takes up finance, analyzing the origins and consequences of the financialization of the economy. He shows that contemporary financial crises differ from past ones because labor is now directly invested in the performance of capital. Whereas in the past labor was affected by economic crises through the loss of jobs and the cutback of public spending, today labor has huge investments in the stock market through pension or mutual funds and therefore directly loses money when the market declines. Deregulation since the 1970s has given more and more individuals access to speculation on the stock market, leading to “the massification of stock market investment, what we might call the ‘socialization of finance.’” In the early 1980s, the first 401(k) plans appeared, which made “pension fund benefits dependent on returns from the securities in which the funds are invested.” The pension funds contributed to the explosion of investment during the 1980s and 1990s in mutual funds, which were also “part of 401(k) plans.” People gained exposure to speculating on the stock market through pension funds and soon were “investing even their nonretirement savings in mutual funds.” Marrazzi summarizes these changes: “The onset of pension funds and mutual funds began the draining of collective savings, first in America and then around the world, and their increasing investment in securities. What we call financialization is the diversion of savings from household economies to stocks and securities.” Marazzi then turns to analyzing the behavior of the stock market under these new conditions. He concludes that “financialization depends on mimetic rationality, a kind of herd behavior based on the information deficit of individual investors.” The modern stock market is nothing like the neoclassical model in which share prices reflect the "real" performance of companies and therefore can be rationally evaluated. The stock market is actually “self-referential. Prices are the expression of the action of collective opinion, the individual investor does not react to information but to what he believes will be the reaction of the other investors in the face of the information. It follows that the values of securities listed on the stock exchange make reference to themselves and not to their underlying economic value.” In order to understand how this self-referential value is constructed and maintained, how financial conventions are established, Marazzi draws on John Austin’s theory of performativity. Performative statements usually need to be supported by “the power and the legal status of the speaker” (for example, not just anyone can pronounce two people married). But crises have shown that not even the chairman of the Federal Reserve has this authority and performative power. This is because “the performativeness of the convention derives its legitimacy from its being relatively external/autonomous with respect to the multiplicity of individual beliefs.” Just as “the election of a sovereign transforms the multitude into a people,” the selection of a convention transforms the multitude into a community. But at times of crisis, there is “the explosion of the body of the multitude, of the plurality of the individual differences which, one again must face the, if you will, historical task of producing/electing a new convention.” Marazzi argues that the financialization of the economy produces a transformation of the relationship between capital and labor. He writes, “The diversion of savings to securities markets, initiated by the ‘silent revolution’ in pension funds, has just this objective to eliminate the separation between capital and labor implicit in the Fordist salary relationship by strictly tying workers’ savings to processes of capitalist transformation/restructuring. . . . with their savings invested in securities, workers are no longer separate from capital, as they are, by virtue of its legal definition, in the salary relationship. As shareholders they are tied to the ups and downs of the markets and so they are co-interested in the ‘good operation’ of capital in general.” One effect of this structural change is the transformation of “salaries into an adjustment variable of the financial market.” Facing pressures from the mimetic rationality of the “mass” of investors, firms attack salaries as one way of increasing their returns. Ironically, “worker-investors” in rich countries, indifferent to the “content” of investments and “the fact that the decision to invest or disinvest [has] direct effects on the bodies of local populations,” might increase the misery of workers in poor countries. Having established the centrality of language to the functioning of finance, Marazzi shifts to the role of language in post-Fordist forms of work, which depend on “language, communicative-relational action.” Marazzi draws heavily on Boltanski & Chiapello’s description of post-Fordist labor conditions and Paolo Virno’s re-reading of Marx on the “general intellect.” Whereas Marx identified the general intellect as “the technical-scientific knowledge accumulated in machines, in fixed capital,” Virno claims that the general intellect in post-Fordism is fixed “in the bodies of workers.” Marazzi writes, “[Through] management techniques for the ‘transfer of autonomy’ and ‘personalization of work,’ the New Economy has given rise to reflective, cognitive, and communicative work, the living labor of the general intellect, centered on the linguistic cooperation of men and women, on the productive circulation of concepts and logical schema inseparable from the living interaction of people.” Financialization played a direct role in this transformation of work, since pressure from pension and mutual funds was a major factor in the decision of firms to restructure and downsize. Within the New Economy, high-tech stocks, such as those of the numerous Internet start-ups of the 1990s, held a particular attraction for investors. Silicon Valley work “culture,” a post-Fordist avant-garde with its decentralized organization of precarious work, gave a specific cultural determination and direction to the New Economy. Yet there are paradoxes to the New Economy’s selection of a “technological linguistic-communicative paradigm” as a convention. Marazzi borrows from the work of Franco Berardi, whose arguments about semiocapitalism are important for Marazzi’s ideas about the linguistic foundations of the economy. Berardi claims the excess of cyberspace (the expanding web of information available on the Internet) over cybertime (the limited human time available for attention) leads to information glut and panic. Marazzi understands the cause of this difference between cyberspace and cybertime less in technological terms than economic ones. He points out an irony, or contradiction, of the New Economy: Although high-tech companies require attention from consumers in order to be successful (think of the endless number of phone apps waiting for users), the precarization of work, which is central to such firms' methods of production, requires individuals to spend more and more time searching for work. Because of the demands placed on them as producers, individuals have less and less attention time to be consumers of such goods. “The crisis reveals the existence of a digital overproduction, an excess of innovations with respect to the market’s capacity to absorb them.” Marazzi argues that the nature of this “digital overproduction” is unique. In a rather dense chapter on surplus value, he identifies two historical solutions to the difficulty of realizing surplus value. The first, imperialism and colonialism, has involved “the search for external outlets from the capitalist circuit in order to realize surplus value not realizable internally.” The other solution has been the “welfare state, whose deficit spending has, so to speak, resolved inside the circuit what imperialism resolved outside the circuit.” Keynesian deficit spending creates new income that allows the realization of surplus value. Yet deficit spending reaches a limit when the economy approaches full employment and the growth rate of consumption slows down. Marazzi acknowledges that the financialized New Economy continues to rely on “the welfare state and the world economy as devices for the monetization of surplus value.” But the New Economy no longer has the same upper limit of full employment. The limit today is the “full employment of cognitive human resources. When the economy approaches the limit of the human capacity to absorb the supply of informational goods, financial overtrading, needed in the expansion phase to ensure the continuity of economic growth, ends up turning into a ‘preference for liquidity,’ hoarding on a worldwide scale, revealing a ‘digital cornucopia’ of informational surplus value no longer monetarily absorbable by current demand.” Marazzi writes, “In the new business cycle, investments in new technologies can grow beyond the threshold of full employment, both because the new technologies have decreasing costs and because the products of new technologies have increasing returns and cost margins equal to zero, and because the linguistic nature of the new technologies determines a potential market that is virtually infinite. . . . The threshold that marks the upper limit of the New Economy business cycle is no longer material consumption determined by the level of employment . . . but immaterial consumption, the amount of ‘time remaining’ in a society in which the largest portion of time is spent trying to achieve an income for material consumption. An economy in which informational goods are strategic needs attention time.” To be successful, “What the New Economy needs is antieconomic time.” Unable to overcome this contradiction, the New Economy entered into a crisis. But when the general intellect is located in the living body, not fixed capital, it can’t simply be scrapped along with the machines. “After the crisis, capital will again be forced to pursue the general intellect, its mobile body distributed throughout the entire planet. But in the meantime, in the time that remains before the capitalistic exit from the crisis, this multiple body has the chance to learn how to take care of itself, how to live well inside the temporal space that separates it from the euphoric irrationality of capital.”
Tuesday, February 2, 2010
“I climbed up to the only window in the bathroom and peered out. I saw a lone soldier far off in the distance. I saw the silhouette or the shadow of a tank, although on reflection I suspected that it might have been the shadow of a tree. . . . I saw the wind sweeping through the university as if to savor the last of the daylight. And I knew what I had to do. I knew. I knew that I had to resist. So I sat down on the tiles of the women’s bathroom and, before the last rays of sunlight faded, read three more of Pedro Garfias’s poems, then shut the book and shut my eyes and said: Auxilio Lacouture, citizen of Uruguay, Latin American, poet and traveler, resist.” Roberto Bolano’s Amulet is haunted by the violent repression of student and political movements in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s. The novel takes place in Mexico City and focuses on Auxilio Lacouture, “the mother of Mexican poetry,” who actually is from Uruguay and also appeared in Bolano’s The Savage Detectives. Auxilio spends most of her nights in the impoverished bohemia of Mexico City among the young poets, “whose sole possession was a utopia of words, and fairly miserable words at that.” In her spare time, she freely cleans the homes of the writers Pedro Garfias and Leo Felipe, willfully rejecting the strong evidence that “dust and literature have always gone together.” During the day, she hangs out at the Faculty of Philosophy and Literature at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, occasionally getting work from sympathetic secretaries and professors. Auxilo inadvertently becomes the only person to resist the police occupation and clearing of the autonomous university in September of 1968 when she gets caught up reading poetry in the bathroom. Auxilio claims, “thanks to the poems of Pedro Garfias and my inveterate habit of reading in the bathroom, I was the last to realize that the riot police were on campus and that the army had occupied the university.” She hides in the bathroom for nearly two weeks, reading and dreaming in order to “resist” (one might say to remain autonomous from) what is happening outside. Locked inside the bathroom, Auxilio slips free from linear time; the bathroom becomes “the timeship from which I can observe the entire life and times of Auxilio Lacouture, such as they are.” It is “as if I was thinking about my present, future, and past, all mixed together.” The body of the novel is therefore devoted to Auxilio’s stories about different parts of her life. Playing with time allows Bolano to loosely thread together a series of distinct tales into a novel, but it also makes possible a complex account of how political or historical sequences unfold, collapse, and perhaps reemerge in a new modality, location, and time. For example, while sleeping on the bathroom floor, Auxilio is aware that a few weeks later there will occur the massacre at Tlatelolco, where reportedly hundreds of protestors were murdered by the Mexican state. That traumatic event clearly overshadows the occupation of the university, though it remains always ahead or behind of Auxilio’s narration. The novel also links the events of 1968 to the 1973 military coup in Chile, where Bolano was born. Auxilio claims, “And the dream of September 1968 reappeared in that of September of 1973.” Bolano reportedly had Trotskyite affiliations during the 1970s and returned to Chile in 1973 as a spy to help overthrow Pinochet’s regime. He was caught but avoided severe punishment because an old classmate who was part of the new regime recognized him and arranged for him to be freed. As in The Savage Detectives, Bolano makes something of an appearance as the character Arturo Belano (in a strongly metafictional moment, when Auxilio meets Belano’s mother the latter looks at the former as if she “had just stepped out of her son’s notebooks.”). Like Bolano, Belano “decided to go back to his country and take part in the revolution.” When he returns in 1974 after being briefly imprisoned, he seems a different person. He gives up his older friends and starts to hang out with the youngest poets of Mexico. Again linking 1968 and 1973, Auxilio views these young poets “as if they weren’t creatures of flesh and blood but a generation sprung from the open wound of Tlatelolco, like ants or cicads or pus, although they couldn’t have been there or taken part in the demonstrations of ’68; these were kids who, in September ’68, when I was shut up in the bathroom, were still in junior high school.” Birthed from the traumas of history, these young poets speak a different language than the older poets: “No one could understand those voices, which were saying: We’re not from this part of Mexico City, we come from the subway, the underworld, the sewers.” But as the novel progresses, Auxilio’s visions of time become increasingly wild (at one point she seems to give birth to, or at least witnesses the birth of, History) and the meanings of the dates she mentions become opaque and inscrutable. In one clever chapter, she begins to “see what the future holds for the books of the twentieth century.” She lists the dates at which different authors, including Mayakovsky, Virginia Woolf, Ezra Pound, Pasolini, and Pizarnik, will be once again widely read or disappear into oblivion. But in this imaginary history of reading, History itself becomes illegible, a labyrinth of numbers. The novel concludes with Auxilio having a vision of a “legion of young people” singing and marching across a valley toward an abyss and their deaths. Auxilio is unable to do anything to prevent their destruction, but their song survives, in loving defiance of the loss of everything to dust.
“An infinite series of bifurcations: this is how we can tell the story of our life, of our loves, but also the history of revolts, defeats and restorations of order. At any given moment different paths open up in front of us, and we are continually presented with the alternative of going here or going there. Then we decide, we cut out from a set of infinite possibilities and choose a single path. But do we really choose? Is it really a question of choice, when we go here rather than there? Is it really a choice when masses go to shopping centers, when revolutions are transformed into massacres, when nations enter into war? It is not we who decide but the concatenations: machines for the liberation of desires and mechanisms of control over the imaginary. The fundamental bifurcation is always this one: between machines for liberating desire and mechanisms of control over the imaginary.” I’m not sure of the reasons for the overlap, but Precarious Rhapsody covers almost exactly the same points as Berardi’s The Soul At Work (many passages, I believe, are copied word for word). The latter volume is more organized and less repetitive (plus, it has a nicer cover), and should be readers’ first source for Berardi’s uneven arguments about semiocapitalism and contemporary psychopathologies. I’ll ignore what Precarious Rhapsody repeats and focus on the points that struck me as more original. As he does in Ethereal Shadows, Berardi emphasizes the importance of new forms of media activism during the conflicts that occurred in Italy around 1977. During that period, Berardi participated in the production of the zine A/traverso, whose central concept was, “Collective happiness is subversion, subversion is collective happiness.” He argues that “Futurism and Dada” were “reference points” for the new movement, which wanted “to abolish the separation between art and daily life, or indeed to abolish art and daily life itself.” He claims, “If in the 1920s the avant-garde had been an elite phenomenon, by the 1970s it was becoming a mass experiment in creating a semiotic environment for life.” As was most clear with the Metropolitan Indians, irony was a key aesthetic strategy: “Irony meant the suspension of the semantic heaviness of the world. Suspension of the meaning that we give to gestures, to relationships, to the shape of the thing. We saw it as a suspension of the kingdom of necessity and were convinced that power has power as far as those who have no power take power seriously.” In retrospect, the conflict between the autonomous movements and the official communist parties had much to do with the increasing precarization of work. The parties of course were concerned only with the job security of the fully employed, and they ignored the unemployed and were largely indifferent to the precarious working conditions that were spreading among the youth. Berardi writes, “The movement refused the distinction of regular workers and the unemployed. ‘We all are precarious’ they shouted. Thirty years later we know how right they were.” As has become all too evident, precariousness is now “the general form of the labor relation in a productive, digitalized sphere, reticular and recombinative.” But Berardi warns against overemphasizing the uniqueness of the present. The Fordist period of job security was merely a brief historical exception to “the natural precariousness of labor relations in capitalism.” When speaking of contemporary precarious labor, we therefore need to be specific about the modality of its precariousness: “The new phenomenon is not the precarious character of the job market, but the technical and cultural conditions in which info-labor is made precarious. The technical conditions are those of digital recombination of info-work in networks. The cultural conditions are those of the education of the masses and the expectations of consumption inherited from late twentieth century society and continuously fed by the entire apparatus of marketing and media communication.” In later sections, Berardi again discusses how semiocapitalism generates psychopathological states such as depression and panic (despite the references to Guattari, I find this aesthetic-therapeutic framework quite off-putting). One of the primary causes of the pathologies of affect is the gap between cyberspace and what Berardi terms cybertime. Cyberspace is the potentially infinite flow of information on the expanding network of the Internet. “Cybertime is the organic, physical, finite capacity to elaborate information.” As computing technology advances, the capabilities of the organic body lag behind, Because of “this asymmetry between the format of emission (the techno-communicative system) and the format of reception (the social mind),” experience is impoverished. Lacking time for sensuality and sensibility, individuals increasingly rely on “automatic reactions . . . that don’t demand reflection or a conscious and emotional reaction. They are standard reactions, implicit in the preformatted chain of actions and reactions of the homogenized info-sphere.” Berardi argues that “capitalistic disciplining of corporeality” has also impacted human sensibility (what Berardi calls “the interhuman sensory film”). He makes a distinction between conjunction and connection. Conjunction operates through difference, whereas connection requires a functional standardization. “While conjunction is a becoming other, in connection every element remains distinct, even though functionally interactive.” Today, conjunction has been replaced by connection “as the paradigm of exchange between conscious organisms.” Driven by the “mediatization of relations,” connection generates a mostly pleasureless, functional interfacing of bodies. Emotions become increasingly distant from consciousness and there is a loss of the ability to feel empathy, both of which, Berardi argues, have had violent and pornographic consequences for society, and particularly for the “connective generation” that was born in the 1990s.