by McKenzie Wark
Rather than read books when they come out, I like to lay them down for a while. Sometimes their flavors get richer, just like wine – and sometimes they turn out to be vinegar. I set aside Matteo Pasquinelli’s book Animal Spirits: A Bestiary of the Commons (NAi, 2008) because I did not care for how he interpreted my own work. But now, four years later, I partly agree with him about that, and in any case the book turns out to be robust, complex and built to last. So here are some notes of engagement with it.
Pasquinelli’s work descends from the Franco-Italian or autonomist school of Marxism, which he brings into contact with the literary and digital avant-gardes and also with (mostly) Anglophone work on the critical theory of the city. These turn out to be fruitful encounters. However, I think it starts to push against certain limitations of the autonomist paradigm.
Put simply, the autonomist approach is a philosophical interpretation of Marx, drawn substantially from his Grundrisse, which privileges living labor as a kind of vitalist and productive agent. It shares with Bogdanov and proletkult a devotion to the labor point of view, but interpreted as labor against the totality, rather than as labor extending its organizational capacity toward the totality. And where Bogdanov makes labor’s relation to nature primary, for the autonomists it is all about capital as antagonist. Theirs is a Spinozist and Deleuzian universe, with only one agent – the vitalist energy of labor – on which capital is a reactive fetter.
The main virtue of the autonomist school is that it tried to forge new concepts to keep up with what became of labor’s struggles in the over-developed world in the late twentieth century and beyond. Hence they often talk of how the exploitation of labor in the factory gave way to the exploitation of the multitude within the social factory, where industrial capitalism gave way to cognitive capitalism, or semiocapitalism which exploits immaterial labor, giving rise to new social subjects, such as the cognitariat or immaterial worker, as expressions of the general intellect.
I have some problems with this language. It seems to depend on the somewhat limited example of Italy and France over the last forty years. In this it tends to be a bit provincial. I was never happy with this idea of the immaterial, which seems to me to reify a certain idea of what ‘materiality’ is, by simply doubling it with the non-concept of the ‘immaterial.’ What could ‘immaterial’ possibly mean? This always seemed to me to be a refusal to think the mutation in the very concept of materiality that occurs in the natural sciences and thence in applied science and engineering.
Information is not something ‘immaterial’; it is an aspect of materiality that begins to be industrially exploited as such only in the mid-twentieth century. Understanding this requires an extra-philosophical excursion into the labors of the applied sciences. Materialism can never be a philosophical category. Materialism as a concept can only ever translate into conceptual terms what advanced forms of labor, such as the sciences, have discovered and produced as the material in a given era. In this respect, the Bogdanovites are more consistent in thinking from the labor point of view than the autonomists, who smuggle old philosophical notions of a contemplative materialism back into their social theory.
In short: autonomist thought had the advantage over more dogmatic Marxisms in at least dealing with more contemporary situations, but it took local conditions for general ones, and its elaboration of classical concepts followed the temporary expedient of adding linguistic modifiers (im-material; cog rather than prol-etariat, and so on). These could only ever be place-holders for further work.
One useful way that Pasquinelli moves us on from the standard Italian thought is in introducing the question of energy back into the picture. But here I think the privileging of living labor in autonomist thought, often given a vitalist hue, holds him back a bit. When he speaks of energy he sometimes means energy production, but he often limits his analysis to social energy alone.
Following Paolo Virno, Pasquinelli sees this social energy as an ambiguous force. Here he usefully takes his distance from the rather more sunny faith in the people or in the multitude that one finds across a range of figures from Noam Chomsky to Hardt and Negri. As if when the day came when the fetters of capital and state are cast aside, all will be sunshine and unicorns.
Speaking of mythical beasts: Pasquinelli thinks the multitude as an ambivalent category, whose base urges and irrational obsessions are as much a part of today’s urban, networked production chains as labor and reason. He offers a bestiary for thinking the agency of these aspects of multitude, and zeroes-in on three topics where the animal spirits of contemporary commodity production can seen at work and play.
His three topics are ‘free culture, the ‘creative city’ and the confluence of porn and war imagery on the internet. These topics each have their own presiding monster or conceptual beast: the corporate parasite that lives off free culture, the hydra that feeds on the gentrification of the creative cities, and the two-headed eagle of power and desire that lives in the more troubling image-world of the ‘net'. Perhaps it is time to have done with the figure of Man, the ‘political animal’, and think instead of other political animals, of a more monstrous and inhuman kind. It is a way of proceeding behind the back, as it were, of what Giorgio Agamben calls the anthropological machine, and its relentless chopping of the human off from the animal.
Pasquinelli: “The concept of animal spirits supplies the missing ground of the three idle loops of theory, art and activism.” (27) His ambition is to tap the “zeitgeist of the biosphere” (15), where questions of energy and climate are slowly consuming the hopes and dreams of a kind of weightless, bodiless digital gnosis in which we might all hope to become angels in a network of pure data. Conceptually, he achieves this with an important and seemingly obvious idea that is often completely overlooked: the proposition that what defines a system is the external access to energy that makes it run.
Here he sets himself against both the euphoric newspeak of the digital, but also against the language fetishism that lingered on in the theory world, from Baudrillard to Zizek. After Althusser declared the superstructures relatively autonomous, Marxist and post-Marxist theory settled down to thinking language as the only ‘material’ out of which the superstructures are made, and set about a critique of representation. In Baudrillard, this terminated in a critique of representation itself; in Zizek, it ended up in an all-enclosing critical three-step via which the symbolic order works to produce the split subject over and over as the same. “The over-arching suspicion is that Lacan and Zizek make the disease worse, trapping frustration in an even more oppressive matrix.” (22)
Pasquinelli follows rather that line of thought that co-joins Guattari and the Italian autonomists in thinking language as a means of production rather than of representation. From Virno in particular he acquires a sense of its ambivalence. Unlike Habermas, for whom language grounds the possibility of the unforced-force of reason, or Bogdanov for whom it could be the metaphoric engine of cooperative labor, for Virno and Pasquinelli, language is not an alternative to competition and antagonism but its very means.
Hence the starting point is the animal body of our species-being, with its drives and aggressions, but also its productive energy. This is quite the opposite of a certain concept of biopower, which tends to adopt the point of view not of labor but of power itself, and to insist that it is this external power that is productive. As Michel De Certeau pointed out long ago, this is always the problem with Foucault: his is always the point of view of power. That his work became a sort of doxa in the humanities is a phenomenon worthy of much more critical scrutiny.
Pasquinelli thinks he is starting somewhere other than from Haraway’s famous cyborg, but this is not actually the case. Her figure was always one of both labor and language, technics and flesh. Hers is a version of the labor point of view in which what Marx called living and dead labor are fused in an artificial ecology of production and reproduction. The cyborg is a concept that rather troubles the fetish of living labor in autonomist thought, which rarely attends to how much of our vitalist selves are actually machine made these days. Here Preciado’s work is a useful corrective, in that it brings Haraway to bear on the limits on such weightless concepts as ‘immaterial labor’ and the ‘general intellect.’
The human is an animal open to the world, and culture is an expression rather than limit to its conflictive nature. Pasquinelli offers a sinister version of the dialectic of enlightenment. The culture industry is not a regression but an extension of our animal spirits. The challenge is to turn the drives into antidotes to themselves.
No radicalism is possible based on a fictitious goodness or neutrality of human nature. The enlightenment, it turns out, only amplifies aggression. Destructive drives have to be managed by the multitude itself. In a way this could be seen as descending, as does the work of Laruelle, from the heretical materialism of the gnostics, but without the promise of redemption in a higher heaven of the old gnostic heresies.
Pasquinelli is rightly suspicious of the fantasy of the digital realm as some kind of redemption from our filthy animal selves. In his view, the so-called knowledge economy, or the information economy – call it what you like – is rather a parasite on the material economy. His focus is on the unequal exchange of energy, via which one strata of the socius extracts more from the layer ‘below’ it than it give back.
He draws the concept of the parasite from a largely forgotten work by Michel Serres, The Parasite, which I have to confess I have not read for twenty years. Pasquinelli makes it a very productive source for fresh thinking. The parsite takes energy and repays it in information. It is a figure of unequal exchange, I would say even of incommensurable exchange. Pasquinelli usefully interjects the categories of energy, surplus and unequal exchange into a discourse stuck on the ideas of code and flow.
It is a way out of making a fetish of code and assuming that whatever flows, flows eternally. Pasquinelli:“our tools have now begun to impose their own internal languages to describe themselves” (54) This is analogous to what I called gamespace in Gamer Theory, a kind of totalizing topology that understands the world as discrete, quantifiable values in global competition, unable to understand itself as a second-order system made possible by energy sources whose global effects are outside its parameters of detection.
As Pasquinelli puts it: “There is no Second Life, no autonomous cyberspace – all machines belong to the bios.” (56) There’s no gnostic haven of pure signs. Both biological and computer systems are energy systems. Pasquinelli sees the reduction of life to genetic code as of a piece with a kind of code fetishism – but here once again he misses a connection to a useful ally in Haraway, who made exactly this point in her Modest_Witness book, and who always had a deep connection to a more organicist biology, going back to Joseph Needham.
But no matter: even if he missed that connetion, Pasquinelli makes a brilliant other connection to Serres, and the asymmetry of energy exchange. Serres offers a far less jolly machine energetics than Deleuze and Guattari, which tended to see only endless flow, as if Bataille’s solar excess just went on happily forever when trapped in the greenhouse of the planet.
Serres offers the suggestive category of abuse value, as that which always precedes use value and is its condition of possibility. Exploitation begins with the extraction of energy, then, and the so-called information revolution is a parasite upon it. Or, perhaps it is a kind of theft of information. Pasquinelli: “What then happens to the notion of multitude, intended as a the self-organization of the general intellect into an antagonistic subject, when the parasite of intellectual labor enters the political arena?” (72) Well, to keep such questions open was exactly why I proposed three distinct kinds of productive class: farmer, worker, hacker. It may well be the case that each depends on its historical predecessor for a surplus on which to labor.
I find it helpful when Pasquinelli starts to move away from the old philosophical vitalism of the ‘multitude’ towards a more nuanced and organicist picture of what Haraway calls natureculture, which in its current state can be designated with Marx’s prophetic term metabolic rift. Pasquinelli: “Organicism does not mean a new vitalism, but an acknowledgement of the dystopian reality driven by unstable cycles of surplus, entropy and neg-entropy.” (63) This was Platonov’s intuition of the totality; this was Needham’s world.
I also find helpful the recoding of the beast of info-tech exploitation from vampire to parasite, for the latter is usually a symbiotic creature. It does not intend to kill the host that feeds it. It wants the host alive, and as such is a more sinister figure. Pasquinelli’s world is a series of parasites upon parasites, of energy extracted from the world, but suborned by one parasite after another – and in exchange for what? Pasquinelli: “the immaterial parasite is an assemblage of semiotic, technological and biological strata that extracts an energy surplus (in the form of labor as well as money or libidinal investments.)” (66)
It is a form of rent-extraction. Whether in the industries of media infrastructure, urban real-estate, intellectual property of finance, rent becomes the dominant form of surplus. I’m not sure if it is helpful to extend the category of rent beyond a more technical understanding. For Ricardo, rent was different from profit, in that rising prices could not lead to increased supply. There’s only so much land of a given quality or proximity. Increased demand leads to rents that just keep rising. Of course it is possible to think of other situations where monopolizing supply defeats the corrective mechanism of added supply from competitors. But at some point ‘rent’ starts to feel more like an analogy than a concept.
Paying attention to unequal exchange, parasitism and even rent-extraction does however return a certain ‘materialist’ grounding to a kind of media discourse that has become weightless and virtual. Pasquinelli calls this ‘digitalism’, or the embrace of the “gnostic temptation of the sign.” (70) In its current incarnation, the info-tech parasite is no longer exclusively interested in trying to lock down information restrictive forms of intellectual property – although that is certainly still one of its strategies. Rather, the other aspect of its practice is to exploit the ‘commons’ of shared resources. As Paul Burkett shows, Marx thought capital depended on a ‘free gift’ from nature. Now capital’s latter-day avatars have found ways to corner the surplus from urban, aesthetic, social and even information ‘commons.’
Pasquinelli is rightly critical of ‘cyberspace’ discourses that suffer from the digitalism of trying to think the information economy divorced from more material ones. This kind of ‘cheap gnosis’ posits a purely specular relation between the world of signs and the world of energy. It looks only at information to information exchanges, and favors the model of the gift. It does not acknowledge the labor and energy that makes it possible, “yet it is estimated that an avatar on Second Life consumes more electricity than the average Brazillian.” (73)
Digitalism is an approach that pays attention to tech evolution but avoids any dimension of conflict from the picture. I should add here that in this it is not new, and is a mode of thought that goes back to Saint-Simon. The question of how Saint-Simon’s thought mutated over the years into today’s digitalism would certainly repay closer study.
Digitalism has tended to be obsessed with property rights but not questions of production. In Lawrence Lessig and Yochai Benckler, information appears as a non- rivalrous good, but friction with the material economy of labor, matter and energy hardly ever appears. Pasquinelli further adds that non-rivalrous information produces conflict rather than cooperation, but here I think he misses some of the subtlety of things like free software social organization, which is indeed about channeling the animal spirits of programmers towards common goals by appealing to their rivalry and desire for recognition. It is a very different structure of feeling to labor solidarity and equality, and not the least reason to think that the hacker class is a different beast to labor.
The critique of property relations in information actually had two sources. One was the programming world; the other was post-situationist avant-gardes. Pasquinelli builds on the critique of what one might call the Neoist avant-garde: Florian Cramer, Anna Nimus (actually a pseud for Dmytri Kleiner and Joanne Richardson), and Kleiner writing under his own name. These artist-writer-activists saw the limitations of things like the Creative Commons license, or free software’s idea of copyleft, in that its most common flavors gave the user consumer rights but not producer rights. They opened a discussion on the autonomous right to produce out of the ‘common’ stock. Kleiner even proposes a copyfarleft, which restricts rights of use for companies but opens them for worker’s cooperatives.
But as Pasquinelli rightly points out, the information commons ended up being captured by the commodity form. It might annoy Hollywood movie studios that their stuff is all online for free, but it is all going to support a whole raft of other industries, from the makers of routers and computers to even Google. And as Tiziana Terranova pointed out quite early on, the commons depends on a lot of free labor, or perhaps non-labor, work that takes time and energy but is not compensated at all and hence not even recognized as labor.
I think it is worth pointing out that there’s a bit of wisdom of hindsight going on about this now. Here are some dates for the founding of key institutions of the digital commons: Project Guttenberg (1971), Usenet (1980), Free Software Foundation (1985), Wikipedia (2001)and Creative Commons (2001). Here are dates for major companies that figured out how to exploit the information commons: Google IPO (2004), Facebook (2004). These are built on the ruins of earlier attempts that faded into oblivion: America Online (1991), Geocities (1994). It was not unreasonable, up until the early 2000s, to think free culture could win this one. In the end, we won the battle but lost the war. But it took them 30 years to beat us.
It would also be more consistent with autonomist Marxism itself to argue that it was the agency of the ‘multitude’ itself in finding ways to free information from the private property form that pushed the ruling class, firstly into a reactive posture of trying to shore up the old property regime, and then into the more effective remedy of finding ways to recapture those flows in new kinds of commodity relation. The people made history, but not in a format of our choosing.
Moreover, I think there were at least two kinds of agency here. One was a kind of popular agency, a social movement in all but name, that thought of popular culture as our culture, the culture of the people, as the product of our unconscious drives and desire, and took it back. The other agency was more specialized, and composed of those whose effort was captured in the intellectual property form and rendered equivalent by the market, but where that effort was not quite ‘labor’. This I still call the hacker class. What Yann Moulier Boutang calls cognitive capitalism came to depend on the work-product of the hacker class to drive accumulation, and it evolved forms of workplace practice, modes of valuation, investment decision protocols and so forth to build an economy in which information was what controlled and arranged matter and energy by subordinating it to powerful tools of abstraction.
Pasquinelli is critical of my older analysis of this moment, and in some ways rightly so. He thinks I was “trapped in a form of digitalism.” (87) He reads the category of the hacker class as a “Californian translation” of what the autonomists called immaterial workers, the cognitariat, the multitude or the general intellect. But I think I had good reasons for rejecting this language. The ‘immaterial’ simply imposes a linguistic differential (material/immaterial) to cover the very thing that needs to be understood at the technical level.
There is no such thing as the immaterial. Rather, information science produced a mutation in how the material world can be understood and controlled. It really is just a matter of controlling matter at the level of electrons. From that came a half-century long build-out of an infrastructure made of both dead and living labor whereby this means of controlling matter became the means of imposing abstraction on the world at a hitherto impossible level of scale and speed.
The hacker class is the producer, not of concrete things, but of modes of abstraction. But Pasquinelli slightly misreads this. Viz: “Wark’s hacker class is, therefore, specifically defined by the power of abstraction (the ability to shape new ideas, or the creative act) rather than the living labor or cooperation between brains found in the Autonomist Marxism of Negri, Lazzarato or Virno.” (87) But an abstraction is not an idea. The autonomists keep slipping towards philosophical idealism, or the vitalism of fetishizing ‘living labor’, by not thinking through in a more vulgar fashion the mutations in the means of production over the last half century or so.
What is abstract is a material world in which both matter and energy are controlled by an infrastructure that subordinates them to information. It is an apparatus whose evolving properties stem from the efforts of the hacker class, whose contributions are registered and valued as intellectual property. But the hacker class does not end up owning and controlling the world it enables. It becomes the property of a ruling class, perhaps of a new kind.
As it says in the ‘Communist Manifesto’, the forces for social change are those who ask the ‘property question,’ for it is the property form that is the superstructural expression of infrastructural developments in the ownership and control of the forces of production. Hence I don’t think it is a matter of asking a production question instead of a property question, but rather asking the property question as a question about production, and specifically about how the forces of production change, and are captured by mutating forms of inequality and exploitation.
By not paying close enough attention to this, I think the autonomists ends up with concepts that – ironically enough – did only work at the level of a kind of linguistic or structural binary: material / immaterial; productive labor / general intellect; proletariat / cognitariat. The second term is constructed as the inverse of the first, like Levi-Strauss’ the raw / the cooked. This mythic and structural bifurcation was then too-hastily packed back into a Spinozist monism by insisting that it is all about the ‘multitude’, which then functions as a kind of empty sign and reconciles all differences. And while the autonomists were always good on the evolution of new kinds of labor, it always confronted an eternal ‘capital’ that remained rather unthought.
This was why I thought it worth paying attention to the changes in the property form, and the rise of a kind of corporation that no longer even owned the means of production, but rather owned the brands and patents, and the logistical means of control of the plant and equipment that constitute direct production. Pasquinelli is quite correct that I do not distinguish between material and immaterial property, simply because the latter term is meaningless. (The only immaterial would be God, who doesn’t exist.)
The question is rather to track how that distinctive kind of effort that is the hack became ever more contained in the private property form. The old forms of patent, copyright and trademark were vastly extended into new forms of enclosure. Owning these assets then became a substantial part of the value of major companies. As Moulier Boutang would have it, finance then emerges both as an expression of the same logistical vectors that control the rest of direct production, but also a way of both competing and collaborating on the process of assigning value to these new kinds of corporate ‘property.’
Pasquinelli is correct in identifying the limits to how I thought of this in the early 2000s. “Wark believes that the vectoral class is still committed to a reactive concept of scarcity.” (88) Here he was right and I was wrong. The strength of his analysis is in addressing the way the commons did not actually need to be enclosed to be productive and profitable.
However, it is not quite the case that I make “no acknowledgement of the material parasite operating from outside the digital sphere directly on such a conflict.” (89) A Hacker Manifesto tells an historical parable about three successive modes of production. The first commodifed agriculture, the second commodifed manufacturing, the third commodifed information. Each depends on, and extracts, a surplus, from its predecessor. In that sense I’m not too far from his ‘parasite’ theory, only I did not have the wit to call it that.
But I still think it worth parsing out the different classes that confront each other in contemporary social formations, rather than reductively thinking everything is a confrontation of the multitude versus capital.
Here I think Marx’s political writings are a much better guide than either Grundrisse or Capital, which neglect the complexity of real social formations. Hence I tell an historical parable about six classes, from which one can then think about all sorts of alliances and conflicts, without collapsing everything into a binary. Quite a lot of features of the current political landscape seem to me explicable as intra-ruling class struggles, between what I call capitalist and vectoralist classes. The latter are trying to dominate the former through control of information, including its infrastructure.
In A Hacker Manifesto I was thinking with the physiocrats and Ricardo, not to mention Marx’s writings on ground rent, where agriculture was still visible as a fundamental layer of the social metabolism. What I missed was the even more important role of energy, as Altvater and others had already discovered. So in Gamer Theory I made some amends for that omission, ending as the book does with the externality of climate change to the gamespace of global commodification. But here I think the foregrounding of energy in Pasquinelli is a welcome reframing.
Also very welcome is the middle section of Animal Spirits, on gentrification and urban rent. Pasquinelli here combines autonomist thought with Anglophone urban Marxism that descends from Lefebvre to look at the contemporary western city, and pursuing a broader understanding of the category of the hydra of rent-seeking behavior.
Autonomist Marxism “has developed the theory of rent by upgrading Marx’s notion of the general intellect. If in Marx the general intellect was embodied in the fixed capital of machinery, today knowledge producing value is rooted in the distributed cooperation of brains.” (92) As I have written elsewhere, I think there’s some limits to taking Marx’s Grundrisse notes as too much of a sacred textual source. But for now let’s concentrate on what this line of though can do rather than what it can’t.
For Pasquinelli, rent is the other side of the commons, a multi-headed hydra that sucks value out of anything it can corner: “the central axis of valorization is the ‘expropriation of the commons though rent’ within cognitive capitalism.” (94) Rent comes in many forms, including real estate, intellectual property, even the rent extracted from attention. Drawing on the work of Enzo Rullani, rent becomes the dominant form of surplus-extraction. Pasquinelli: “Intellectual property (and so rent) is no longer based on space and objects, but on time and speed.” Rent can be extracted both from the multiplication of users or from monopoly over a secret.
The key to this dynamic theory of rent is three axes of value: its performance, the number of replications, and the speed of sharing. Or to translate this into the language I used in Gamer Theory, its about how to extract rents not just from topographic space, like a city, but also topological space, like an information infrastructure, where there is a flexible rather than a fixed distribution of points in space. “Value is a matter of good timing: not too early, not too late, at the proper rate of dissemination. Similar to fashion, rent is applied through a provisional hegemony along a temporal coordinate.” (98) That so many industries come to resemble fashion is an astute insight.
For Rullani, rent is now extracted dynamically along temporary micro-monopolies. Arguably, this is old-fashioned competitive advantage rather than rent. This would be to consider the other side of the problem: that in the move from topographic to topological space, in which many points are put in relation to each other via an infrastructure of the communication vector, it is just that much harder to secure monopolies of the old kind, and thus rent. Getting rent out of it might still depend on a kind of absolute ownership of non-replicable property, such as certain key patents.
In that regard I would opt for a rather more narrow understanding of the term rent. Pasquinelli: “All these forms of rent represent immaterial parasites. The parasite is immaterial since the rent is produced dynamically along the virtual extensions of space, time, communication, imagination and desire.” (100) I find the language of the parasite enabling here but I am a bit skeptical about this broader use of rent and the residual language of the immaterial.
Here I think there’s a project still to be undertaken to bring Franco-Italian autonomist Marxism more into conversation with Anglophone varieties. Both have tended to be a bit provincial, and the latter lost much sense of being a coherent body of work in the cold war. Missing in action are those like Joseph Needham and JD Bernal who thought about science and technology from the 30s onwards. Also missing are people like Mike Cooley, Hilary Wainwright and the leftist engineers whose finest hour was the alternative plan for Lucas Aerospace. Then there’s the more critical current around the journal Free Associations, which published Haraway’s Simians, Cyborgs and Women, which in turn owes more than a little to Needham and also connects to Marcuse’s influence in the United States. There are whole genealogies yet to be reconstructed.
Hence it is not entirely true what Pasquinellis says “It is no mystery that the Anglo-American context has nothing of the productivist and workerist approach of continental Marxism.” (108-109) But it is true that what looks most like it is lost and buried. Pasquinelli makes real progress in connecting the autonomists with Anglophone Marxist urbanists around their shared concept of the city as a social factory, which in both cases probably came from Henri Lefebvre. For Lefebvre, it is the city as a whole rather than just the factory that is the engine that produces value. Hence critical theory can ‘scale up’ from the factory to city as a conceptual unit. Both approaches together an then be deployed against the rhetoric of the ‘creative city’ and its role in gentrification.
David Harvey has already taken a step in this direction in thinking about how rent can be extracted not just from valuable land but from the cultural marks of distinction that can accrue to that land. This has become an ever more conscious strategy, via which artists create the value of a place by the work they do there and the lives they lead, lending a sort of ‘aura’ that can then be turned into rising rents. Here Lefebvre’s analysis of the urban revolution meets Adorno’s of the culture industry, and one might add Benjamin on aura. “The capital is spectacle to such a degree of accumulation that it becomes a skyline of cement.” (126) A skyline branded with the supposedly non-reproducible value of art and culture.
Pasquinelli draws from the pioneering work of the late Neil Smith and Sharon Zukin on the gentrification of New York. Zukin called it the artistic mode of production, a term later elaborated by Martha Rosler. This is the art world’s perverse alliance with the real estate industry. It is another kind of free labor, done to make a commons, that is later commodifed by other players. And now it is not just happening in New York. Pasquinelli mentions Berlin and Barcelona. Andrew Ross found a similar mechanism at work even in Phoenix, Arizona. It may, however, be more common in the over-developed world, and thus not typical of the megacities emerging elsewhere.
Pasquinelli shows how the city itself becomes both the social factory for the production of value and itself a more valuable commodity, product of both labor and non-labor in the metropolis. “The total value of a commodity is produced by the material labor plus the cognitive labor plus the symbolic value brought by the public.” (138) On the question of symbolic value, one could see a use here for a quite other Anglo-Marxist tradition, running from Raymond Williams to Stuart Hall, Ien Ang and Dick Hebdige, on symbolic value as the contested result of cultural and subcultural practices.
Here the ‘digitalism’ of much thought about the ‘new economy’ touches down in the zone where it clearly produces real effects, in the gentrification of the old cities of the over-developed world. On the one hand, creative and digital labor becomes more precarious, but on the other, the externalities of value that this labor produces is captured through rising rents. Here I agree completely with Pasquinelli that it is these material practices of value capture that need more analysis. “If contemporary Autonomist Marxism is to be criticized, it should be in terms of requiring an even deeper economic insight, a more rigorous analysis of the asymmetries of cognitive capitalism, a more grounded theory, not a more linguistic or mediatic one.” (149) Or as I put it elsewhere, and belatedly: four cheers for vulgar Marxism!
But as he astutely observes, there are some rather strange properties to this kind of hydra economy. It is not like energy or commodity accumulation, it that the value it condenses and can’t be un-produced so easily. Hence once a place, whether Facebook or Brooklyn, has value, it can be exploited for a long time. It is hard to imagine what sort of campaign of negative symbolic capital, or perhaps the metropolitan strike, could devalue it again.
The third and last animal spirit is the double-headed monster of reason and desire, where the underside to collaborative creation is the swampy tides of formless id that sticks to even its brightest creations. “The collective imaginary gathered in the internet underground more accurately resembles an extension of an animal body than a rational mind.” (158) Here Pasquinelli draws on Michael Taussig’s carnal approach to the imaginary, and also from J. G Ballard. The common stock in both cases is likely a certain strand of surrealism, one less interested in marvelous and ethereal spirits and more in weird and contorting bodies.
This is a way of resisting various formalisms that crept into theory in the late twentieth century. “In retrospect, it is increasingly apparent how the postmodern agenda and the church of simulacra functioned as an immunization strategy of an armchair intelligentsia against the monsters emerging from the collective id.”(159) A world that, say, Lauren Berlant has redirected us towards.
For Ballard, the unconscious exists in the outer, not the inner world. He anticipated the machinic unconscious of Félix Guattari, but in a more pessimistic mode. He mapped the latent destiny of Pax Americana via a psychopathology of everyday life, something that, incidentally, could be connected to another post-surrealist thinker – Henri Lefebvre’s work on the symbolic register.
Actually, I think Haraway’s cyborg is also more of a connection here than Pasquinelli wants to acknowledge. That figure was an ironic political myth, not unlike Ballard’s writing, and fully aware of its plug and play connections to both carnality and war. The cyborg was a brief surfacing of what Mario Perniola, after that other post-surrealist, Walter Benjamin, called the sex appeal of the inorganic. Strangely even Deleuze came close to this sensibility, in his writing on Francis Bacon’s portraits not of the face-spirit but of the head-meat.
Writing in 2008, Pasquinelli fully anticipates the era of the universal troll, of twitter hate-speech and #gamergate misogyny, where otherwise tame twenty-first century human animals fell like they can be let off their leashes, not quite grasping that exercising such ‘freedoms’ to describe their fantasies is exactly the thing that keeps them trapped within a perennial gamespace of competitive nastiness. It’s the sordid side of digitalism, with its “autistic desire for a parallel universe without conflict, friction and gravity.” And which increasingly bleeds into the other worlds on which it is a parasite in the first place.
In short, Pasquinelli usefully redirects critical media theory toward the deep levels of materiality and visceral inhabitations, with an uncompromising language meant to short-circuit any too optimistic a gnosis about transcending our baser selves up in the ‘cloud.’ The parasite is a particularly useful figure here, directing attention downwards to the energy sources of – call it what you like – semiocapitalism, cognitive capitalism, or the post-capitalist, vectoral order. The hydra, sucking value out of any pocket of territory, whether real estate or digital estate, directs our attention to the cities of the over-developed world as accumulators of rent, and perhaps of more than one kind. The two-headed monster reminds us of the folly of ever imagining that our bad, bad selves won’t follow us ‘up’, into the ‘cloud.’ Never was the ideology of transcendence more nakedly in the service of those who accumulate power in this world by claiming to control portals to a better one.
But what I think is best in Animal Spirits pushed against the limits of autonomist thought. Its fetish of living labor, its undifferentiated multitude, its residual philosophical vitalism are all dead skin that Pasquinelli could readily shed. At the same time, I think there are still things for Anglophone Marxisms to learn from the Franco-Italians. It really was and is the Marxisant complex most connected to contemporary social struggles and issues, if sometimes limited to a certain southern stretch of the old west. If anything needs a commons, with all the tensions of collaboration and competition that go with it, then it would be #Marx21c. Let’s drink a toast to that task with some nicely aged wine!
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