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Capital and Community: On Melanie Gilligan’s Trilogy

By Jasper Bernes, 23 June 2015

In his assessment of the latest film in Melanie Gilligan’s trilogy on crisis, capital and community Jasper Bernes emphasises the necessity and difficulty of distinguishing between the community of capital – its expansive entrainment of the senses – and the unrealised project of a resistant human community

 

For some commentators, present day capitalism offers a stark choice between a thoroughly capitalist ‘fantasy of individual singularity’, whose origin and destination lies in the market, and ‘a collective desire for collectivity’ that might form the basis for an overcoming of capitalism. Against the relentlessly personalising and individuating energies of late capitalism, the task for those who oppose it, we might be told, is to augment ‘the collective power of the people.’ii Without a doubt, the capitalism we live with today takes its direction from the molecularising energies of the 1960s, an era in which demands for autonomy, variety, free choice, and free desire were leveraged against the massified, one-dimensional societies of mid-century. And yet, the cunning of history seems to function, in part, through the misguided efforts of those who insist on fighting the last war; we shouldn’t lose sight of the long list of bad collectivisms nourished by anti-individualist discourse. As preceding generations knew all too well, the discourse of the people can be used for the most repugnant of populist, corporatist, fascist, or statist projects. In the face of a new capitalism happy to deploy ideas of ‘sharing’ and ‘friendship’, we would do well to sharpen our sense of the distinctions worth preserving. Perhaps the pertinent line of opposition does not run between individuality and collectivity but between different forms of community, forms which imply, as a matter of course, different definitions of the individual: on the one hand, what Jacques Camatte, following Marx, calls the ‘community of capital’, and on the other, ‘the human community.’iii

 

Toronto-born artist film-maker Melanie Gilligan’s new film, The Common Sense, helps bring these distinctions into focus, by examining the perils of the common and the collective as we encounter them today. The film revolves around the emergence of a new ‘patch’ technology allowing the direct transmission of affect from person to person. As with her preceding film, Popular Unrest, (2010), science-fiction allegory is here a tool to investigate the logical structure of capital, in terms borrowed from Marx and Marxism, as total system and automatic subject. Though Gilligan finds herself among a number of artists and film-makers producing trenchant investigations of the structure of contemporary capitalism – from Hito Steyerl to the late Allan Sekula – no one that I can think of has used Marxist categories in such an imaginative and analytically precise way, nor put them in the service of such a novel critique of emergent aspects of contemporary capitalism. Viewed as a trilogy, the three film series, which began with 2008’s Crisis in the Credit System and continued with Popular Unrest and The Common Sense, presents one of the most powerful reflections on our present age of crisis and revolt that I have encountered.

 

Her films are not only incisive but have been remarkably prescient as well. Crisis in the Credit System was commissioned at a time when few people had much sense of the severity of what was unfolding. Debuting on 1 October 2008, as stock markets plummeted and massive banking concerns declared bankruptcy, the role-playing games and imaginative speculations of the financial analysts it portrays must have squared off with the headlines in unsettling ways. Popular Unrest, for its part, provides an uncomfortable allegorical treatment of the social movements and forms of resistance that were beginning to appear in 2010, depicting groups of unemployed people mysteriously drawn together in derelict spaces of the city. The Common Sense, however, arrives at a moment when those resistant movements have been resoundingly defeated and, despite glimmerings here and there of new uprisings, capital has largely adjusted and reorganised itself around the new status quo and the new common sense. The film is science-fictional and future-looking, but at the same time partly retrospective with regard to its future world: half of its narrative unfolds in the future perfect tense through the device of a film-within-the-film that looks back to a prior moment of biotechnological transition the emergence of a bidirectional rather than unidirectional ‘patch’ linking mind to mind directly. A small lozenge that fits in the mouth, ‘the patch’ is a technology of empathic ‘entrainment’, allowing people to experience each other’s feelings directly. In the future world of the film’s beginning, the faces of students attending university periodically glaze over as they ‘log in’ internally to handle various tele-cognitive tasks. As with every technology in capitalism, entrainment is first and foremost a means of increasing the productivity of labour, a managerial technique allowing control of employees at an almost ontological level.

 

Image: The Common Sense

 

The students, we learn, are at the university only insofar as they continue to engage in daily ‘tuition repayment work’. In the class we encounter them in, they are shown a film, entitled The Common Sense, about the moment of transition some indeterminate number of years hence. Their professor tells them that people had high hopes for this new bidirectional patch technology, in language no doubt directed to the false techno-optimisms of the present: ‘A lot of people believed it could bring about a collective political movement.’ The students laugh, their own experience of dramatic irony reflecting ours. ‘Of course’, the professor continues, ‘it did make life more collective. Just not in the way they expected. The belief that being connected would mean that people would join together to fight for a better collective situation was false.’

 

As indicated above, all three entries in the trilogy concern themselves, in important ways, with the falseness of these sorts of hopes, with the bad collectivities of capitalism and the ways in which capital – allegorised in Popular Unrest as an all-computing digital ‘World Spirit’ – subsumes human intentions and desires, ‘entraining’ individuals to a community that is not an escape from egoistical calculation but rather its hypostasy. These films do a great service, in this regard, by lancing some of the naïve optimism that often attaches to these developments. Gilligan reminds us that capital is already its own common, its own common sense. In Crisis in the Credit System this community – the ‘communism of capital’ – is thought by way of the displacements and condensations of the banking system, a synecdoche for capital itself, described in the free-associations and extempore enactments of its traders as an automatic subject, as the self-consciousness of money in its quest to beget more money: ‘The market thinks a trillion thoughts, it sends trillions and trillions of thoughts around the world. It connects billions of lives.’ The traders, engaged in theatrical exercise as part of their job training, speculating about the probable course of the crisis, are these thoughts. Crucially, however, we are told ‘the system wants us to make mistakes […] mistakes generate new situations.’

 

If here, for ‘mistake’, we read crisis, then we see Gilligan is talking about the generative character of capitalist crisis, its power to force capitalists to innovate and undertake more intense exploitation in order to stay afloat. This is what the skits, enactments and free-form soliloquies of the traders’ exercises become, a way for capital – having taken the shape of human activity – to speculate its way into the generative parapraxis necessary for its endurance. Crisis in the Credit System figures capital as a system of constant figuration – that is, to say error – reinventing itself through prosopoetic, metonymic and metaphoric transformations. Capital’s creativity, however, requires the destruction of capital; innovative firms survive by beating out the losers and driving them to failure, and so it should come as no surprise that, after having spent the afternoon projecting various possible futures for capital, the traders are all fired.

 

Image: Popular Unrest

 

Popular Unrest, the character of this creative destruction is even more troubling. Employing elements from crime procedurals and other serial television, the first episode of Popular Unrest begins with two mysteries that the five episodes, each a 10-15 minute compression of a full half-hour or hour-long show, endeavour to solve. First, there are the serial murders undertaken by an impersonal and yet visceral force. A knife, described as the Sword of Damocles, hangs in the air above its victims and stabs them repeatedly: the invisible hand of the market as serial killer. Secondly, there are the ‘groupings’ that have begun to form, comprising jobless people from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds who ‘abandon their families’ and spend all their time together, in new relations premised upon the dissolving, disindividuating force of shared thought and feeling. The groupings respond to a general sense of isolation and an exhaustion with self-interested activity. As one character tells us, participation in the grouping made him feel ‘as though he was part of a body.’ Despite the uniquely personal tragedies that the individuals bring to the groupings – each one of them is marked, ominously, by some misfortune – ‘all that fades into the background now,’ as one character tells us, ‘to make room for this bigger, more important thing.’

 

Though this film emerged in 2010, before the plaza occupations of 2011, it’s almost impossible not to recognise the homology between the groupings of Popular Unrest and those of Tahrir, Syntagma, and Zuccotti Park: collectivities formed by people ejected from the labour market, or otherwise disabled by a capitalism in crisis, who were forced as result to develop new modes of sharing and collective thought against a backdrop of anomie, isolation and atomisation. Many people, myself included, understood the energies behind the 2011 political sequence this way. In 2012, I wrote the following reflection on recent events:

 

One point that has not been made enough is that the camps respond to the evisceration of our cities, the enclosure, hyper-regulation and homogenization of the life of the street, which has left precious little public space where people can encounter each other which is not mediated by commodities and by money. American cities feature little free space, in the dual sense of the word, meaning both unregulated and without cost. If part of capitalism’s development is to ensure that it remains the only human community possible – to ensure, in other words, that all interactions between people are mediated by money and commodities, by the police and various state bureaucracies, or by technologies whose raison d’être lies in the market and the workplace – then part of the appeal of the camps is that they promise (and I think it is just a promise) a form of community that is not automatically produced by economic transactions and predefined social categories. I think we should pause for a second and consider how remarkable it is for a generation of young people whose social life has been so entirely captured by social media – by screens, in other words – to attempt to encounter each other face-to-face as they did, how remarkable it is that the first post-internet generation of young people should produce a politics that is all about dwelling together in common. Occupy focuses on the creation of community – or communities – because so many of the existing communities on which past political movements relied have been dissolved, broken-up and reconstructed by capitalism in its own image.iv

 

Popular Unrest shows this ‘promise’, cruelly, as part of a certain cunning of history. These groupings are not antithesis to the all-calculating and individuating World Spirit but rather a glitch produced by it, a mistake that turns out to be a necessary part of its evolution, in the same way that random mutation is a necessary part of the biological evolution of species. This is not so much a story about the counter-revolutionary recuperation of subversive, emancipatory energies as it is one where those energies are from the start already recuperated, already forecast and rendered adequate to the very social forces they imagine themselves opposing. The ‘glitch’ or purposive mistake of the World Spirit forces the human inhabitants to enact and embody what its calculations might have handled on a more abstract plane, to become the market. The groupings are, as we learn, simply a ‘frozen moment of exchange’; the variable constellations of individuals brought together by the individuations of the cash-nexus have here become immediate collectivity.

 

This portrayal of the abstract sublimations of the market as embodied activity is perhaps Gilligan’s most powerful achievement, and something she effects in various ways throughout the trilogy, usually by way of improvisatory, theatrical exercise. In a riveting moment in the third episode, when the grouping followed in the film has become the object of study of a set of researchers, all the members of the grouping stand in the same room miming different work-like activities (typing, shovelling, answering phones, cleaning windows) while a voice-over of the members speaking all at once intones a list of physical units: ‘per megabyte per tissue per cell per datainch per gigahertz.’ When spoken, these units are treated as denominators; subtitles on the screen, however, turn them into numerators denominated in monetary terms: dollars, pounds, euros and yen. The scene provides a profound and, I think, unparalleled filmic treatment of what Marx calls ‘abstract labour’, the reduction of private, disconnected concrete labours to an abstract, social measure through the mediation of money. And yet, what Gilligan gives us is a representation of abstract labour, or rather, a filmic representation of yet another representation (a laboratory model) of abstract labour. The film suggests, ominously, that the direct, embodied linkage of the grouping’s performers might eventually do away with the need for monetary mediations. The researchers see in this immediate sociality inklings of the World Spirit’s next historical and logical stage, and Gilligan seems to intimate a future for capitalism that is a future beyond capitalism sensu stricto, a class society where incarnate data allows the reproduction of a surplus-extracting society without recourse to money, price-signals or profits, where market and nervous system flow together.

 

This is a bleak reflection on the political forms of our time, and it’s not exactly clear what implications we should draw from Popular Unrest. Is all resistance futile, or worse, not even resistance but a preservative enactment of the system’s stability and endurance? What about the desire for collectivity of which the characters in the grouping speak? Is this entirely fallacious? Is there some way to transcend the opposition between a reified collectivity – plasticine minds and bodies made immediately adequate to the needs of a bad totality – and the tyrannical isolations of self-interested ego-atoms? One might be tempted to interpret Popular Unrest as a ruthlessly functionalist account of capital, not to mention a politically pessimistic one, a one-sided dialectic in which capital always gets what capital needs. Such a view is also implicit in the account of crisis given in Crisis in the Credit System, where breakdown is regenerative, a form of creative destruction, and part of capitalism’s overcoming of its own barriers.

 

Image: Crisis in the Credit System

 

One way to understand The Common Sense is as an engagement with the problem of functionalism and an attempt to give a better account of the possibilities for resistance in the face of these new terrible collectivities. Instead of the one-sidedness of Popular Unrest, here we are confronted with various forms of opposition and doubling: first, the film-within-a-film structure and the doubling between the diegetic and extra-diegetic versions of The Common Sensesecond, a double narrative which, after an introductory sequence of episodes, splits into two separate storylines treating the same events from different standpoints. The first phase ends with the students in the frame narrative discovering that their two-way entrainment devices have failed. They moan in agony, as if in withdrawal from a powerfully addictive drug. Though the device failure is short-lived, it seems to produce powerful after effects. A protest movement forms, a movement characterised first and foremost by face-to-face interactions in the physical world rather than the internal intersubjectivity of the patch technology. In order to discover a non-alienated collectivity, the film suggestsptimism that often attaches to tm the immediate, internalised collectivity of the patch technology. The differences here are rendered rather starkly: on the one hand, the vibrant chatter of a political salon, where the students together consider their situation and speculate about possible courses of action; on the other hand, the glazed-over look in the eyes of the students as they log on to the patch to connect remotely with others, becoming radically disconnected from the physically proximate bodies of their neighbours. The Common Sense forces us to give up the facile opposition between bad individuality and good collectivity. The common is not necessarily the ground of our emancipation – it can function as enchainment, entrainment, as ideology become life itself. Or it might, perhaps, work otherwise, and this doubleness unfolds as the opposition between two versions of the film called The Common Sense, two different senses of what the common might mean, perhaps restoring the Camattean opposition between human community and the community of capital.

 

As we should expect, however, the terms are never stable; the true meaning of any development is always yet to come. The film treats two critical turning points within the development of the patch technology. The first occurs in the past of the film when the one-way patch becomes two-way, transforming from a tool of voyeurism, surrogacy and surveillance to a fully immersive reconstitution of human subjectivity. The second is imminent, and we learn that, in the film’s present, use of the patch has produced a biological transformation of humans, the emergence of a ‘new organ’ in the brain. The split between storylines in the time of the frame tale juxtaposes and links together in uncomfortable ways the activities of the politicised students and workers with those of a team of patch researchers trying to make sense of and exploit changes in subjectivity and neuroanatomy. One of these researchers is simultaneously involved in work with the protesters and a corporate lab. In the first storyline, she is seen trying to train young patch users, children, to interact with each other in altruistic, compassionate and sensitive ways. The protesters have decided, perhaps disastrously, that in order to change the world they must also change subjectivity, and therefore learn to use the patch in a different way, building the new world in the shell of the old. In the other storyline, the researcher announces that she has discovered the new brain organ mentioned above, one that promises a new biological era of collaboration, harmony and mutual recognition. At the same time, she begins working with another researcher who seems to have observed a strange form of ‘correlated data’, linking patch users. In a eureka moment she realises, after some reflection, that this correlated data is ‘money’, a ‘need or drive’ that links people at the same time as keeping them separate. Though viewers of Popular Unrest will have foreseen this outcome all along, the researcher nonetheless feels betrayed when she discovers that her collaborator’s interest in this correlated data had to do with its potential to make the patch into an ‘exchange instrument’, a kind of telepathic Bitcoin that could ‘cut out the middle man of money’ through a direct co-ordination of needs. The direct ‘entrainment’ of mind to mind in line with the imperatives of capital here shadows the entrainment of storylines, linking the experiments of the protesters to the R&D of technocapital.

 

Image: The Common Sense

 

One of the more savage ironies of the final turn of events in The Common Sense is that the ‘new organ’ – the evolutionary precipitate of entrainment technology – occurs in ‘patch rejection’ cases. How, then, can the patch be overcome if its rejection simply makes it an irremovable part of us? Are we left, again, with the functionalist interpretation of capitalism’s energies? Are the experiments of the protesters with new forms of intersubjectivity – patch-enabled or not – identical to the ‘correlated data’? Are human community and community of capital once again finally the same? Perhaps the answer to this question has less to do with the actual historical project of capital and more to do with our own epistemological ‘entrainment’ to its needs. Perhaps the film is less about the impossibility of our own escape from capitalism than it is about our difficulty visualising and projecting this escape in the present. Frederic Jameson remarks that all ‘utopias have something to do with failure’ and that, as a result, they ‘tell us more about our own limits and weaknesses than they do about perfect societies.’v The same holds true for aesthetic representations where these utopian impulses have soured on the vine, turning dystopian. The failure of the partisans of this future society to break out of it forces us to scrutinise more closely our own presuppositions. Failure, here, marks out the place where we must succeed. And since this is a film rather than a work of political theory, these failures are thought through not only in terms of political epistemology but also aesthetic representation. Early in the film, as the students discuss the first episode of The Common Sense, one of them remarks that its representational strategy, ‘using visual techniques to represent using the patch […] is completely wrong.’ She is referring not only to the film’s ingenious use of shots through partially-reflective glass surfaces, intended to represent the blurring of internal and external worlds, but also the opacity of the future as such. Opacity represents, in this regard, what our present standpoint within capitalism makes it impossible for us to see.

Image: The Common Sense, Installation view

 

As should already be clear, what remains most opaque for The Common Sense and its predecessors is a form of life where the antinomy between individual and collective life no longer holds. The film is remarkably perceptive in its investigation of the consequences of a situation where collective consciousness has emerged and yet, at the same time, people are still functionally individuated, and functionally forced to act as self-interested individuals with incompatible needs by their position in capitalism. In such a scenario, the film presents various unsatisfactory options: a paradoxical strengthening of self-interest in the face of the other’s reality, or alternately a yielding up of self-interest to the will of the other. The Common Sense portrays a number of ways that these intersubjective feedback loops might unfold. Most are what cyberneticians have described as ‘negative feedback’, feedback that is self-stabilising, a means of self-regulation and correction in the face of disorienting environmental changes. People are, in this regard, entrained to the needs of capitalism’s reproduction. But in a few moments we see another kind of ‘positive’, destabilising feedback. This is perhaps clearest in the storyline within the film version The Common Sense concerning the corporate manager who uses the patch as a means of communicating negative emotions to employees in order to increase their productivity. This manager has also paid a service worker to outfit her unborn baby with a patch so that she might tune into the calming, oceanic affects of the foetus. This mother, who happens to be one of the employees within the manager’s sphere of influence, has hacked her patch so that she, too, can feel what her baby feels, and although the baby should have been only equipped with a one-way patch, it is in fact outfitted with a two-way enabled patch, meaning that the circuit between manager, employee, and baby is complete. The negative emotions that the manager sends out return to her redoubled, amplified by each orbit through the circuit, ramping up until a single cry of pain convulses all the bodies within its path. This is a portrait of the entrainment technology as self-undermining, destabilising ‘positive feedback’, capable of leading to a moment of breakdown, because of rather than despite the self-interested activity of all the actors.

 

Image: The Common Sense

 

In one episode, the teacher and researcher, still aligned with the protest movement and engaging in their experiments with young children, explain their goals to another character: ‘Well, to change the world you need to start with subjectivity.’ The character, Lucas, a materialist, retorts, ‘But conditions in the world shape subjectivity not the other way around.’ The teacher responds: ‘Yes, but who’s going to change the conditions, apart from people and their subjectivity.’ It’s a debate that many will find familiar, and one way to understand Gilligan’s film is as a polemic from Lucas’s position. Rather than a pessimistic dystopia about the impossibility of collective life, the film suggests that collectivities produced under capitalist conditions will remain monstrous travesties of the human community that only reify our subordination to the imperatives of surplus accumulation. Only in a society where people are no longer forced, functionally and practically, to compete with each other for survival can the opposition between social belonging and individual desire be resolved. In such a state of affairs, premised on free access to necessities and voluntary contributions of time and effort (‘from each according to ability, to each according to need’), collective belonging would no longer be a hypostatised law (‘World Spirit’) or regulative force laid atop self-interested egos, rather it would be the very ground of social activity, the baseline out of which innumerable forms of contingent individuation and intersubjective relation could take place. In such a state of affairs, described speculatively by Bernard Lyon as ‘the transformation of proletarians into immediately social individuals’ and Giorgio Agamben as ‘form of life’, what is common to all is not the possession of a common identity or trait, nor much less a de-differentiated group mind, but a many-sided potentiality that inheres in all beings based upon their free access to social wealth and social possibility.vi Though later generations of socialists and communists would develop an idea of communism as the subordination of individual will and desire to the collective good, superintended by party and state during a transitional period, such a view was in fact entirely foreign to the conception of communism we can glean from Marx’s rare discussion of these matters. Rather than the negation of individual potential and desire, communism was its realisation. As Marx and Engels write in the sections of The German Ideology that respond to the anticommunist egoism of Max Stirner,

 

within communist society, the only society in which the genuine and free development of individuals ceases to be a mere phrase, this development is determined precisely by the connection of individuals, a connection which consists partly in the economic prerequisites and partly in the necessary solidarity of the free development of all and, finally, in the universal character of the activity of individuals on the basis of existing productive force.vii

 

Melanie Gilligan’s trilogy provides an inverted image of this state of affairs, in which common identity transforms individuals into part-moments of an organic totality. She therefore contributes in important ways to the ‘self-clarification […] of the struggles and wishes of the age.’viii

 

Jasper Bernes is the author of two books of poetry, We Are Nothing and So Can You (2015) and Starsdown (2007). He is currently completing a book of literary history, The Work of Art in the Age of Deindustrialization, about the role poetry and art played in the postindustrial restructuring of labour. With Joshua Clover and Juliana Spahr, he edits Commune Editions

 

Info

http://www.crisisinthecreditsystem.org.uk/index.html

http://popularunrest.org/

http://thecommonsense.org/

 

Footnotes

 

i Jodi Dean, The Communist Horizon, : London: Verso Books, 2012, p.12, p.20.

ii Ibid., p.60.

iii Jacques Camatte, Capital and Community: The Results of the Immediate Process of Production and the Economic Work of Marx, trans. David Brown, London: Unpopular Books, 2006, pp.209-254, available http://www.marxists.org/archive/camatte/capcom/cam.... For Camatte, capitalism involves the progressive perfection of capital’s ‘real domination’, not just of the production process but of society as a whole. Once achieved, ‘capital […] constitutes itself as material community, presupposing all human manifestations’ (p.384). It becomes the organic unity of all social instances, ‘pump[ing] all the force and materiality out of men to the extent that it incarnates and anthropomorphoses itself’ (p.385). This state of affairs offers a description, in negative, of the ‘true Gemeinwesen’ or ‘human community’ that will come about through the determinate overcoming of the community of capital, in which human beings will ‘rediscover themselves, then, as Gemeinwesen and individualities, in their multiple activities, and [...] recognize themselves in the transparency of their relations, activities and products’ (p.254). These transparencies remain opaque for us, at present, inasmuch as capital, usurping for itself the powers of community has also usurped the power to represent it. Consequently, Camatte’s account of the difference the true and the false Gemeinwesen remains somewhat undertheorised.

ivJasper Bernes, ‘Square and Circle: The Logic of Occupy’, http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/square-and-circle-...

vi Giorgio Agamben, Means Without End: Notes on Politics, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000, pp.3-13; Bernard Lyon, ‘The Suspended Step of Communisation’, Sic, no. 1, November 2011, p.147.

vii Karl Marx, The German Ideology: Including Theses on Feuerbach and Introduction to The Critique of Political Economy, Prometheus Books, 1976, p.465.

viii Karl Marx, ‘Letters from the Franco-German Yearbook’, in Early Writings London: Penguin, 1992, p.209.