Digitality, the Highest Stage of Capitalism

Posted by Jonathan Beller

This is part of an ongoing conversation on the IDC (Institute for Distributed Creativity) discussion list that currently informs the upcoming conference at Eugene Lang College entitled “The Internet as Playground and Factory.” I pick it up in the middle with one of my recent posts but interested readers can access the full discussion here.

…want to express my enthusiasm about this post (Mark Andrejevic’s, below) and throw in my own 20 cents worth (adjusted for inflation). Mark’s approach, culminating with the citation of Clough addresses precisely the problem of strict adherence to the dialectical categories instantiated by Marx. I am thinking here of the astute analysis by Christian Fuch’s of that weird farm game, in which he suggests that if one buys the game then what is done is not productive labor because it does not produce surplus value, but if one plays it on a multi-user platform such as facebook (whose value is directly tied to various methods of statistical compilation for the accounting of user attention) than it would be. While it is clarifying to see Marxian categories so neatly and deftly applied, it also reveals something about the obsolescence of the categories (at least as they appear in Marx), precisely because it would seem that it is in the gray areas and the informal sectors that we can track the far reaching changes that are upon us. We should recall here that while Marx is the master theorist of the medium of money, he was never able to solve the problem of the medium of the road (Was building the road productive or unproductive labor, was it the work of valets or of the proletariat?). In my own view, what is revealed by this distinction between productive and non-productive labor generated by the rigorous application of the categories to gaming in the manner in which Marx might have done it in 1860’s is not the correctness of the distinction but the need for updating the form of the categories. Ditto for the humans and animals discussion with Margaret Morse in which a hard line was drawn by Christian between those two categories — categories which after all evolved in the dialectical development of each set’s purported members and which therefore each mutually presuppose one another, are inseparable, and contain the one within the other. Recognizing that (the deconstructability of the binary), the question becomes what is at stake (historically and politically speaking) in maintaining the distinction. One could ask the same thing about productive and non-productive labor.

For Christian, it seems to me, the stake in the latter categories, is nothing less than Marxism, and for this investment in the struggle for the identification of exploitation I am full of respect and solidarity. As I have intimated in other posts on this list-serve, this question about the new and hidden forms of productivity is one of the most important questions of our era. And it would seem that unless you could say what was productive and unproductive labor you could not properly say what was capitalist exploitation. And if you cannot identify exploitation, then you cannot localize it nor can you effectively challenge it. For what it’s worth, I actually agree with much of this line of thinking: if there is no more exploitation than there is no more Marxism.

It is here, on the question of expropriation, that I think that Mark’s post is particularly illuminating, as well as Clough’s suppositions about a “a probablisitc, statistical background which provides an infra-empirical or infra-temporal sociality, the subject of which is, I want to propose, the population, technologically or methodologically open to the modulation of its affective capacities.” (I think Morse’s consideration of erotics may also be very significant here, but I would have to know more than I do about what she has in mind.) What is implied by these approaches is the far -reaching break up of the units of account: the subject of exchange, the object as commodity, the spatio-temporal framework (chronotope) of the exchange with capital. This breakup of the very entities coalesced in and as the categories of a prior century’s political economy was already implicit in the idea of the deterritorialized factory and the attention theory of value that I used to describe the deep political economy of cinema and television, as well as in the Italian’s version of the social factory, their development of Marx’s idea of social cooperation, and the current work on the general intellect and cognitive capitalism. It seems to me that the digital explosion (really not possible in its current form without the NASDAQing of silicon valley) has been a long-term effort to harness these emergent energies that are simultaneosly revolutionizing the productive forces and transforming the form of value — dominant digitality is sturctured by an effort to create the algorithms that would formalize (and thus monetize) all of the energies being expended in informal economies (cinephilia,  fandom, gender performativity, fetishism, etc., in short, affect). Retrospectively we can see that celebrities and charismatic dictators were programs, software running on the social machinery, created by the labor of human attention as the concrete expression of individual and mass desire. Like the roads before them, these social forms were products –pathways — necessary for the preservation and intensification of corporate profiteering. Same for the pyrotechnics of commodities — Baudrillard’s category of candy fascism to describe the allure of the omnipresent commodity is pertinent here. What you have today is engines of expropriation functioning through formerly informal channels of value -extraction (community, cooperation, tradition, etc). These engines of expropriation and the media which are their conditions of possibility give rise to the attention theory of value, as well as the creation of new categories or moments for the general form of social wealth (money) in the form of know how, cool, pleasure, etc. The massive capital investment in digital culture is an effort to formalize and thus monetize these social engines of creation that extract attention and pay, dis-symmetrically, in social currencies that emerged along with the masses during the long twentieth century. Thus the platform is an algorithm of capture.

If one adhered to the old categories, or more precisely the old forms of the distinction between productive and non-productive labor, one could be tricked into thinking here that on the one hand we have labor (workers going to factory, prosumers going to facebook) and on the other hand we have psychology/erotics/play (our desires for Hitlers, our admiration of Bill Gateses, our adventures in gameboys and books), but this would be a mistake. Real subsumption means that all (most) of the extra-economic categories now fall within political economy. Therefore whether I work for facebook (as a “user) or simply valorize a culture in which facebook is a viable platform by playing the kind of game that others play there, I am a producer of facebook. I valorize the media-environment. This claim is not really different from saying that whether you voted for Bush or simply lived in the US while he was a president (or for that matter if you still live in the US now) you were a beneficiary of neo-imperialist wars and you abetted the US ethno-nationalist white suprematist patriarchal project. I’m not saying that if these conditions apply to “you,”  you chose to do this, or that you are the (full) subject of this choice, but I am saying that part of what you normally think of as you contributed to it. Your very metabolism participated in murder. How to account for that?

Right. So perhaps you can see that even though I am critical of  Christian Fuch’s particular deployment of the political economic categories in his post and in some of his other writings, I am also in full agreement when he says, “The law of value does not, as claimed by autonomous Marixsts, become unimportant today (Christian Fuchs, “A Contribution to the Critique of the Political Economy of Transnational Informational Capitalism,” RETHINKING MARXISM VOLUME 21 NUMBER 3 (JULY 2009)). The question is, what are the emergent categories, or, more exactly, the new mediations of the value form that continue to contribute to the massive accumulation of capital and dispossession of persons that is anything but discontinuous with prior eras of capitalist violation. If anything has changed it is that the law and value (the law of value?) has greater purchase on human creativity than ever before. I am not being glib here, it would be a grave mistake to assume that the law of value has been transcended or rendered defunct. Rather,  I am endeavoring to telegraph (not tweet) the hypothesis that the law of value has penetrated our corporeal practices and our cognitive-linguistic practices: a situation which at once renders them all suspect and also posits them as sites of struggle. To aid us in organizing this struggle we might channel Lenin and propose the following thesis:

Digitality, the highest stage of capitalism.

Jonathan Beller
Humanities and Media Studies
and Critical and Visual Studies
Pratt Institute
718-636-3573 fax

On Oct 13, 2009, at 5:28 AM, Mark Andrejevic wrote:

there are really some great conversations taking place on this list — I’m trying to keep up! But I also thought I’d add some follow-up thoughts tangentially related to the exploitation discussion. The familiar framing of submission to various forms of online monitoring in terms of the logic of exchange (we submit to the collection of information about ourselves in return for access to “free” goods and services) needs further interrogation: not just in terms of what information is collected vs. what information we consciously disclose about ourselves, and not just in terms of the economic and social relations that structure the “free” exchange, but also, perhaps, in terms of the split between the forms of gratification associated with online services and the data gathered about us. These might be seen, increasingly, as overlapping categories.

I’m thinking here of a constellations of developments associated with so-called sentiment analysis: the use of the internet as means not just for gathering information, but for measuring sentiment. For starters, we might include in this category Mark Zuckerberg’s conception of Facebook as a means of reconstituting the organization of information online in terms of a “social graph” — a means of organizing information and facilitating searches based not on, as Wired magazine puts it, “the cold mathematics” of a Google search, but on a more “personalized, humanized” algorithm that draws on our social networks to shape our searches and provide us with customized results. Alongside this individual use of the social graph is the goal of enlisting so-called sentiment analysis — an attempt to gauge sentiment by sorting through large-scale databses (what Pang and Lee have called “opinion mining”) — for marketing purposes. Companies like Jodange and Scout Labs (which I learned about through a NYTimes piece on sentiment analysis), promise a kind of gestalt reading of the data flow: a means of seeing the whole without necessarily having to read through all the discreet data, that is reminsicent of the new spate of attempts to privilege gut instinct, first impressions, body language, etc. (as outlined, for example in Gladwell’s Blink and represented in a spate of shows about adepts who are able to beat the machines — the cold mathematics of the algorithm — through their ability to read emotions and gauge impressions — Lie to Me, the Mentalist, etc.).

So Jodange, for example describes its goal as: the development of “business applications that drive tangible value by allowing knowledge workers to better understand who is influencing their customers, competitors and marketplace in an environment where information continues to originate from an exploding number of information sources” and Scout Labs promises to help clients track social media and “find signals in the noise to help your team build better products and stronger customer relationships.” The site includes the following (anonymous — maybe the web is speaking) testimonial: “Scout Labs provides an intuitive and elegant interface for managing a wealth of conversations across the web. It makes social media monitoring dead-simple.”

I’m not sure what this adds to the portrayal of interactive applications as (among other things) a means of gathering information about consumers — but I’m intrigued that the goal is not simply demographics, patterns of browsing or purchasing behavior, and not even the collection of data about indvidual preferences, but the goal of discerning in the data flow a dominant feeling tone coalescing around particular products, initiatives, people or campaigns. At work here is a kind of prosopopeia in the sense in which Zizek has been using it recently — the creation of some kind of aggregate non-subject whose sentiments can be read off the data.

It’s hard, when looking at these developments, not to be struck by Patricia Ticineto Clough’s observation that, “this is a dynamic background, a probablisitc, statistical background which provides an infra-empirical or infra-temporal sociality, the subject of which is, I want to propose, the population, technologically or methodologically open to the modulation of its affective capacities. Sociality as affective background displaces sociality grasped in terms off structure and individual; affective modulation and individuation displace subject formation and ideological interpellation as central to the relation of governance and economy” (from The New Empiricism: Affect and Sociological Method, European Journal of Social Theory 2009).

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~ by jonathanbeller on October 15, 2009.

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