Thursday, September 09, 2010

Fast Capitalism, convenience etc.

I think a lot of technology gets pushed at us under the ideological aegis of convenience; we are supposed to adopt it because it will make our lives easier or make us more productive or efficient in our efforts to do things. But under capitalism, technology mainly serves to accelerate the circulation of commodities -- changing the nature of them so that they circulate faster, or changing the nature of consumers so that they can consume more quickly, or addressing the means of circulation and streamlining there. The faster the circulation cycle turns over, the faster capital valorizes itself, the more it can be leveraged to soak up living labor, subsume it. You know the drill.

This is why I usually protest when someone touts the convenience of this or that as though that indicates something beneficial. We're not talking about indoor plumbing anymore; these conveniences generally involve smoothing over our need to respect the desires of others and putting ourselves first -- the field of convenience has been shifted to communication and cooperation. Convenience is now always to be mistrusted; call it the fascination of what's difficult for the consumer capitalist/networked economy era. The network is always trying to subjectivize us in terms of flexibility and "convenience" and so forth; our duty is to make this process rise to the level of consciousness and attempt to resist becoming mere nodes. Otherwise we are merely strengthening capital's grip on our ability to make a livelihood for ourselves. Also, the subjectivity of the node is not particularly secure or satisfying, especially considering the legacy of individualism we have inherited, the ideal of creating our own unique vocabulary for self-construction, for meaning. Networks help dismantle that, but supply nothing solid in return like what individualism replaced when it upended traditional societies.

Speed prompts surrender -- to the allure of convenience, to the promises of the instant, to the alienation incipient in trying to pay more attention than we've got.

Anyway, that's some stage-setting for notes I took while reading this poorly titled but interesting article: "Speed: Through, Across, and In — The Landscapes of Capital," by Robert Goldman, Stephen Papson, and Noah Kersey. They parse the imagery of 1990s and early 2000s ads for megacorporations and banks and the like that seem to advertise capitalism itself to highlight the importance of speed to contemporary capitalist ideology. "The rule can be stated quite simply—there is a tendency toward the accelerated circulation of commodities in order to offset the tendency toward a declining rate of profit."

Capitalism, as they point out, has always relied on time units to define value, and Marx developed an analysis of exploitation that hinged on surplus labor time being cozened out of workers. The corollary of this is that, as the authors point out, "our 'common-sense' understanding of technologies of speed connote a future liberation from material scarcity. In contemporary society, where time itself has become perceived as a scarce resource, appeals to instantaneity and immediacy are seductive." I would add convenience to this, since it is generally understood as saving us time (by saving us the hassle of other people getting in our way, usually). Inevitably this leads to real-time being an ultimate value, an unquestioned ideal guaranteeing authentic presence and an illusory escape from being exploited through the workings of time. For this "powerful software" will always help us master up-to-the-minute details and keep us from being the market's suckers.

Along with this celebration of real-time comes the promise that all consumption can be instantaneous -- that time is not a necessary input to enjoyment (and if it is, the thing requiring our time is flawed, broken, moribund, useless, phony, unpleasurable, etc.) Yet the depiction of this in ads, in culture generally -- in ideology -- is that this instantaneousness doesn't make consumption frantic but peaceful. What is accelerated instead is work time -- into a pointless blur that zooms by so we can get back to consuming, where real pleasure lies.
Hence the curious propensity for so much slow motion in television ads that aim to signify the advantages of speed in our lives. Whereas economic time speeds up in these representations, turning laborers into a ghostly blur, consumers/citizens live at an almost pastoral pace in civil society.

The authors move on to consider what sorts of friction can inhibit the accelerated circulation of commodities, slowing the velocity of circulation that increases valorization and passes for increased productivity. I've been enamored lately of the idea that friction is necessary to sanity, to a public sphere, to a civil society -- so capitalism's idealizing the elimination of friction strikes me as especially sinister. The authors point out rightly that the need for speed leads to expanded surveillance:
Not only must the organizational apparatus run friction-free, it must also at any given moment have the appropriate personnel along the supply chain to locate the position of any object (or the data simulation of the object) as it moves through the process. UPS presents itself as self-contained system that will accelerate the flow of objects and data while simultaneously tracking every element. Scanning technology and tracking numbers function to position every object in the flow. Increasingly, this technology has been applied to human movement across borders, through airport terminals, across toll bridges (EZ Pass), at cash registers, etc. Ironically, the need for speed results in an expanded demand for panoptic control.
Speed of the sort celebrated by capitalist ideology is only possible within an environment of total administrative control, anticipating/creating desires before we can experience an instant of confusion -- desire replaced with perpetual distraction.

A gap opens between commodity, commerce time, and "organic time" -- the supposedly natural pace of life inherent to human beings, but probably a nostalgic fiction. Authors are right to suggest that it is mere wishful thinking to assume that humans are internally limited and will react to capitalist acceleration with a broad move to slow consumption. Though there are inklings of a slow movement, these are fringe practices, enticing in part because they stand out against mainstream culture as oppositional.

The fantasy of innate organic purity is related to another phony escape from capitalism, the idea that one can travel light and shed goods and escape the capitalist cycle of accumulating junk. This merely plays into the mandate for post-Fordist flexibility, which reflects the immaterial nature of exploited labor under the new regimes of capital.
Capital flows everywhere and this new highly mobile elite both aids it and travels as lightly as capital does. Our young entrepreneur travels light in many senses. First, his technology is light, a wearable computer with a wireless connection to both the Internet and global communication network
Hence the "digital nomads" are not anti-capitalist at all -- they are capitalist vanguardists. And their gadget technology to keep up with the speed on online culture makes them "cyborgs": "Being a cyborg is a response to acceleration." We are all cyborgs now.

Connectivity is a response to the erosion of connectedness from organic forms of life (if they exist).

On the rat race of consumption, once it becomes accepted as the route to self-satisfaction and is pushed toward instanteousness:
the satisfactions of such consumption are relatively short-lived, and even at that, incessant pursuit of immediate gratification may indeed contribute to a declining half-life of consumption-based gratifications. No single act of consumption is sufficient to achieve satisfaction; rather consumption must be engaged continuously. Here the immediacy of frenetic gratification forms the flip side of political-economic necessity -- for the economy to function efficiently there must be ever-expanding consumption.... And while excessive speed may strike some as rebellious, it also takes shape in the underbelly of conformist consumption. As repetitive as they are is, the lyrics speak to more than just the pleasure of speed; they also speak to hyperactive addiction.

Speed circulates the meanings detached from their context faster, commodifying them and wearing them out.
A frenetic competition has unfolded amongst the corporate advertising industry as they race to stylistically differentiate the value of one good (a commodity) over another. Advertising is an industry that tries to build values by rearranging "the meanings of things. By tearing "meanings" from their contexts and stitching them back together advertising seeks to establish commodity symbols. But the constant circulation of cultural references needed to serve these engines of profit also runs the risk of devolving into a stew of meaninglessness.
But the making of new meanings, or the reivestment of them, is a site of exploitation and profit -- we do the meaning-making work for free and then pay for the privilege of being associated with the symbols we have established.

Capital begins to make itself necessary as a means of establishing what is real, "authentic." It becomes the medium of the real as opposed to the fantasy, image, and illusion that sustain us in a mediated everyday life of consumption.

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