Saturday, 27 November 2010

Heroes - and the aesthetics of militarized Britain

I happened to catch a glimpse of the recent X-factor contestants Heroes-group performance apparently in tribute of the UK Armed Forces – a performance now also available as a Christmas single which helps the charity of those injured in service for the country. While embedded in good intentions, it sent the shivers down my spine when I saw the performance, the aesthetics of glory in white meeting the troops in combat wear – and I am now talking about aesthetics in a similar manner as Benjamin and Kracauer when analyzing mass culture of their age. The grandiose, the over-the-top versioning of the slightly more alternative David Bowie song, now with family relations, brothers and sisters but perceived through the army colours and a primary social bond created by the military service turned in my eyes and ears into a quasi-fascist performance of celebration of blood and soil, of sacrifice, and a militarization of the public culture as well (a continuation of the town marches to remember those who did not return). As said, while embedded in good intentions it’s nature of spectacle works much beyond the particular function of supporting those wounded; it fits in perfectly with the wider militarization of the public sphere of the UK evidenced in the events of past weeks.

During the student resistance marches and demonstrations – public spectacles of a different sort – a range of incidents involving police violence from kettling techniques against school kids to use of violence and horses charged into crowds as well as earlier reports about the use of unmanned drones (similar as used in battlefields eg. in Afghanistan) demonstrate the inherent link neoliberal governmentality has with violence. As a regime, neoliberal use of power is very much linked to “soft power” which for example in the current atmosphere of cuts has been demonstrated by the conceptual power of suddenly turning arts, humanities and social sciences into private investments (through the withdrawal of all teaching grants to those subjects) instead of public goods grounding democracy, critical society and those values which on paper all parties are in support of. Yet, through the effective, violent and cruel policing techniques a very different kind of Britain is emerging – one of sci-fi dimensions where kids are according to reports now emerging being beaten and indeed governed through such dubious, torture-like methods like kettling (hours without food, in freezing cold, without toilet), surveilled by drones, and student protests is being tackled with measures usually reserved for, well, slightly more dangerous people. The affective reactions that the cuts are starting to raise are being managed with further affective measures – as so well described by Laurie Penny in her New Statesman report from the inside of the kettle of 24th November:

“This is the most important part of a kettle, when it's gone on for too long and you're cold and frightened and just want to go home. Trap people in the open with no water or toilets or space to sit down and it takes a shockingly short time to reduce ordinary kids to a state of primitive physical need. This is savage enough when it's done on a warm summer day to people who thought to bring blankets, food and first aid. It's unspeakably cruel when it's done on the coldest night of the year, in sub-zero temperatures, to minors, some of whom don't even have a jumper.”

In other reports, there are also questions raised about what triggered the use of kettling. Apparently the official line is that some people attacked a police van, whereas it seems that the van was already abandoned and potentially even not in use. (See this speculation as well.)

The aesthetics of sacrifice and military power intertwined into aesthetics of sacrifice and glorifying blood was a key part of the earlier political sphere of 20th century Europe. Now, with neoliberalism, we are seeing as scary patterns rise their head as well and an increasing number of good cultural theory is picking up on this link between war and aesthetics – again, aesthetics understood in the broad sense of creation of perceptions concerning social relations. The conceptual arsenal mobilized during the election effectively tried to capture –as neoliberalism has done – various “good” terms such as freedom, responsibility and, of course, Big Society, which now, as someone I believe on Twitter during the first demonstrations on 10th of November expressed it is turning against itself: this is what happens when the big society turn up at once (apologies for not being able to make a proper reference to whoever tweeted that phrase). Indeed, hopefully these events are able to spark something of a different kind of a perception of the possibility of social relations for students, school kids etc. And hopefully something less cheesy as the militarized X-Factor version.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Sociability, or sex, mental disorders and code

The basic teaching of The Social Network is, probably, more or less: people go to extensive measures in order to get sex. And The Social Network presents one of the most complex ways of achieving that (and if you think "sex" is here too blunt, just replace it with "achieving social recognition", "status", etc.): to write the most successful social media platforms till yet, and make it into a billion+ business.

More seriously, the key thing to understand about the film is that it is not about The Facebook website or the company, nor about the real people behind these networks which themselves have created a load of global internet life; not about mark zuckerbergs, sean parkers, eduardo saverins, or the usually the faceless/nameless (or first name basis only) coders and girls which seem to be essential to any successful internet company.

To me, and what I tried to see the film as, it is about how to think the mental ecology of informational and networked "social" capitalism of 21st century. What it succeeds in showing is how messy the supposedly immaterial, and logical-driven mathematical society, i.e. society of code/software, is, and how affective labour and social relations are not only the object of those internet business models, but also its driving force. Now that sounds quite anthropocentric, I admit, but actually I want to point out to the messy ontologies in which the supposedly nice and "we-all-agree-its-good-for-us" sociability is about.

After broadcast media as the driving force of 20th century media landscapes, and the at least partial message of the media system of, well, broadcasting and catering for as many eyeballs as possible (both in the advertising logic but also public broadcasting version of this logic), The Social Network seems to imply that a driving force of this system is a feeling of exclusiveness; embedded in a system of closed institutions, invitations, rank, privilege, The Social Network shows the cruelty and dark sides in celebrated utopias of open internet and celebrated social ties. Cultivating on the idea of "clubs" into a software platform and a form of high tech neotribalism suggests not only the affective logic that might be driving the addiction economy of such social media but also the exclusiveness in terms of code which suggests that there are the creative whiz-kids (elite, billionaire, white), and the end-users (hot girls with no name, or a first name, who are the psychotic end-users, but also end-products of this affective economy). Naturally such a division is far from truth, as the relations demanded by social networks aim to blur the boundaries of producers and consumers, which works towards even a more affective entanglement. Recently Jodi Dean has made interesting points about this entanglement in her Blog Theory, but earlier already Tiziana Terranova as well.

What The Social Network is consistently about is the mental ecology of sociability - and especially sociability in the age of technological networks. Code is being born of labour and money - of some people getting paid, and some not; of some people getting laid, and some not; and some people at the high end of the power law curve, some not. That is why the descriptions of affective states, and even more so the various mental disorders at the core of this film are such a clue of thinking it in terms of impersonal affects -- the affective landscape of capitalism not reducible to representational figures: paranoia, compulsion, psychosis, depression. "Social pathologies are first of all a communicational disorder", writes Franco "Bifo" Berardi in The Soul at Work, and understanding the compulsion of communication as a state where again affect and business models conflate is a key way to understand contemporary infoscapes. Look at the disorders of minds and tech, of social relations and software to understand fundamental elements of how internet and high-tech cultures in general work, and this is where the fundamental impersonality in terms of Zuckerberg-the-film-character might just become a crucial symbol of current social media capitalism in a similar manner as Daniel Plainview in There Will be Blood (2007) is emblematic of capitalism through an understanding of its zombie-like, soulless man as the "vessel of Capital" of the industrial age, to borrow Steven Shaviro's words and insightful analysis.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Who broke the first window, David?

I am also despising and condemning these vandals, indeed intent on violence and destruction. Breaking glasses and windows, raising a riot, causing criminal damage and public unrest. And then they destroyed what was remaining of the university system, as well as the welfare system.

I was referring to the Bullingdon Club boys actually --- not the couple of hundred students of pretty much the same age as those ones attending evenings of the Bullingdon Club, an exclusive invitation only dining and drinking club at Oxford University, in the 1980s incidentally including figures such as David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson. Part of the rituals of the club was to hire a venue, get sloshed and thrash the place. Sounds familiar?

The same people were first to condemn the events in London on the Demo 2010-day, strategically (and with the help of most mainstream media) maneuvering the attention from the 50,000+ demonstrators against this cynical, in itself violent attack against the universities, students and the welfare benefits to the minority who in anger and frustration stormed the Millbank Tory HQ.

"Look, people who assault police officers or who smash windows or who break property they are breaking the law and, yes, those people I hope that they will be prosecuted. They should be.", were the words of Cameron himself on the next day commenting on such thrashings.

Yet, this smashing of windows or breaking things did not start yesterday; it started some decades ago in Bullingdon Club, and continued with the trashing of education, expectations of future for those who cannot pay the bill as conveniently as some can after breaking a couple of glasses, and those who are continuously being bullied by the such elites, that conveniently transfer that privilege from the old system of class based bullingdons to a neoliberal system of 21st century elitism. These boys are trying to live up to the Big Mother figure of Thatcher perhaps, but as K-Punk notes in his blog post on the parallels between 1980s and contemporary Tory-Lib Dem coalition , it's not that easy -- and won't happen if we can do anything about it.