@voyou Killmonger: Wakanda should use its power to liberate oppressed people around the world. T'Challa (nodding enthusia… https://twitter.com/i/web/status/1087780648637612032 22 Jan 19 Reply Retweet Favorite

Non-speaking beings

W. is impressed by my stammer.—‘You stammer and stutter’, says W., ‘and you swallow half your words. What’s wrong with you?’ Every time I see him, he says, it gets a little worse. The simplest words are beginning to defeat me, W. says. Maybe it’s mini-strokes, W. speculates. That would account for it.—‘You had one just there, didn’t you?’

Perhaps, W. muses, my stammering and stuttering is a sign of shame. W. says he never really thought I was capable of it, shame, but perhaps it’s there nonetheless.—‘Something inside you knows you talk rubbish’, he says. ‘Something knows the unending bilge that comes out of your mouth’. (Lars Iyer, Spurious)

Equality is a central term for Rancière, but it is quite a circumscribed equality, the equality specifically and only of speaking beings. Which immediately raises the question, what about non-speaking beings? Read more↴

No-one cares about property damage

Given the amount of time spent discussing the handful of bank windows smashed during Wednesday’s Oakland general strike, you might imagine that many people care about property damage; and yet, if you look for such people, who are they? Liberals complain about property damage during the various marches and actions, but they’re quick to add that it is not they themselves who are disturbed or offended; rather, they are concerned about the effect this property damage will have on others, particularly the cops who will react violently and the media who will focus on images of destruction to the exclusion of whatever else the demonstration achieved. The liberal’s position here is perverse in the Lacanian sense: it expresses itself not as an actual desire, but as a desire to be the instrument of the desire of some fantasized other. Part of what supports this disavowed desire is that the objection to property damage can present itself as neutral, even expert, strategic advice. It’s bad strategic advice, though, and I think in a revealing way. Read more↴

Robots in gendered capitalist relations

I think it’s pretty clear that the Transformers films are pathological, but it’s difficult to determine whether the pathology lies in society, the film industry, or in the individual psychology of Michael Bay. Maybe there’s plenty of blame to go round, we can blame the film industry for allowing a series of films to exist in which Micheal Bay’s creepy individual peccadilloes are magnified to such an extent they end up showing something more general about society. One of the more subtle pieces of creepiness in the first film is the way in which it suggests a world filled with a barely-hidden hostility. The film’s macguffin is a thing called “the cube,” which has the power to turn everyday objects into Transformers, but the robots which it creates are uniformly and absurdly aggressive:

I take it that Michael Bay has some kind of unconscious awareness of the intuition behind Evan Calder Williams’s Hostile Object Theory. Williams argues that objects under capitalism “are the material organisation of all the toil, struggle, and negative affect that went into them, that thwarted, pissed-off agency, a clenched fist that keeps pulling punches and punching clocks,” and they hate us because of it. The second Transformers film, Revenge of the Fallen really doubles down on the hostility of objects, but goes beyond Williams, primarily in terms of creepiness, but also theoretically, by sexualizing the hostility of objects.

A remarkable proportion of the runtime of Revenge of the Fallen is made up of this kind of body horror, showcasing Shia LaBeouf’s horror as feminized robots attempt to insert parts of their metallic anatomy into him. The robot as hostile object becomes, for Bay, a simultaneously horrifying and arousing object (and horrifying because it is arousing, and perhaps also vice versa).

There is, of course, another sexualized object in the Transformers films: Megan Fox. As LaBeouf puts it, “some people think [Michael Bay] is a very lascivious filmmaker, the way he films women,” although LaBeouf disagrees, saying that “the one thing Mike lacks is tact. There’s no time for  ‘I would like you to just arch your back 70 degrees'” (I guess specifying the precise angle at which you want an actor to arch her back doesn’t count as lascivious; to her credit, Fox responded by calling Bay “Hitler,” and getting herself fired). The films then provide an interesting mirror image: women sexualized by objectification, and objects sexualized by feminization. I think the hostility of objects is the truth underlying this mirror image. The way Bay objectifies women is, as LaBeouf’s attempted defense shows, about control, and underlying this desire for control is a fear of an assumed hostility about to break free of control. The hostile robots in Transformers, that is, are the return of the repressed of the portrayal of women in the films.

What Williams’s Hostile Object Theory emphasizes is how the hostility of objects results from the place of the commodity in capitalism; applying this to the particularly gendered objects in Transformers reminds us of the way in which the commodity is gendered. Dumb but treacherous, commodities have something in common with misogynist depictions of women reaching back to Rousseau’s Sophie (we can also see the feminization of the commodity in the connection that is often made between femininity and consumerism, so ably criticized by Ellen Willis back in 1969). This should, I think, encourage us to be careful about construing our opposition to capitalism in terms of a proletariat which is defined by its subjectivity. My worry is that, as the category of subjectivity has a long association with masculinity, emphasizing the subjectivity of the proletariat risks repeating a pattern of gendered subject/object hostility.

“I like to think (right now, please!)”

Adam Curtis’s All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace (part 1, part 2, part 3) is pretty excellent. It puts forward an ambitious and interesting thesis, which I think deserves more engagement from the anti-authoritarian left than this rather defensive response at New Left Project. To try and compress Curtis’s already over compressed argument into one thesis, he identifies the idea of a self-regulating homeostasis as a widely accepted common sense of our times, and one which makes it difficult for us to think about changing the world, either about what such a change would mean or what the role of power would be in accomplishing such a change. That New Left Project response is right to point out other traditions which influence the anti-authoritarian left and have more to say about power and radical change, but this doesn’t negate what I think Curtis is trying to do. The ideological assemblage he puts together has a certain coherence, but I don’t think it’s supposed to be exhaustive, I don’t think he’s denying that there are other elements which could be assembled in other ways.

This does, though, raise a problem with the documentary, and indeed with Curtis’s work more generally. Read more↴

Defending the right to mediocrity

As many of the people involved in the inspiring protests in Wisconsin are teachers, and as teachers’ unions are the right-wing’s favorite target for union-bashing, the protests have inevitably brought attention to the increasingly toxic American discussion of education. A number of protesters and spokespeople have made arguments rooted in praise of teachers, focusing on their hard work and dedication to students. While this looks like an argument that would have popular appeal, I think  in the long term this kind of argument has had perverse and damaging effects. The more that teachers defend their profession with descriptions of noble self-sacrifice, the more people seem to believe that teachers’ self-sacrifice is a necessary condition of quality of children’s education; and then, of course, the way to improve education is to increase the suffering of teachers. This is, I think, part of the explanation of why, whenever politicians praise teachers, what they are actually saying is “let’s fire all the teachers and pay them less.”

On a slightly more general level, the moral defense of teachers is appealing because it fits with the model of education as salvation which is so popular in America (and increasingly so in the UK). This also probably means that it ends up reinforcing this model, which is unfortunate, because the model is damagingly individualist, in two ways. Read more↴

The pathos of commodities

I think Lenin underestimates the genuine pathos of the Toy Story films in his review, which reinforces (and is reinforced by) his pedagogical theory of ideology, which tends to emphasize the power of cultural products to impart ideology, thereby underemphasizing why audiences accept and inhabit this ideology. To describe the emotional charge of the films as merely manipulative misses the way in which they allegorize quite real aspects of contemporary life in ways which are both insightful and genuinely affecting (which doesn’t mean they aren’t ideological). Lenin damns the films for “reminding you that your alienated, commodified relationships are perfectly normal, human, desirable and moreover actually protected as human rights in the advanced capitalist states,” but under capitalism human beings really are commodities, and to explore the emotional terrain of that condition is not mystificatory or necessarily reactionary. Read more↴