By Josephine Berry Slater, 25 August 2009

In this issue of Mute there is a generalised refusal to have our selves, in the widest sense of the word, put to work. As we start to see the real repercussions of the financial crisis bite, the Bretton Woods ideological state apparatus is looking rather threadbare. The strategy to placate social desires through cheap credit, property acquisition and the decoration of domestic surfaces continues against a muted backdrop of factory occupations, boss-nappings, foreclosures, and the dregs of what looks to be Big Brother’s last season. It is tempting to imagine that the mass tutelage in narcissism which has helped pacify the social body for so long might collapse under the weight of its own vacuity and unsustainable cruelty. Commodities glitter less convincingly behind the perma-Sale signage, fashion has eaten itself, holidays in the sun are unaffordable and poisoned by the guilt of climate disaster, housing is scarce, and sex is the official discourse of capitalism (with even ageing technocrats like Sarkozy and Berlusconi chasing its popularity effect via super-model wives, prostitutes, jogging and hair dye). So, as capitalism falters in its corralling of desires, writers in this issue think about how such energies might escape from their official channels.

Marcel Stoetzler discusses how sexuality and sensuality have historically been arrested and diverted into the creation of stable and productive relations by bourgeois society. He outlines the political stakes of freeing sexual energies and erogenous pleasure from their genitalised and identitarian strait-jackets – and reminds us that no such liberation could happen without a simultaneous liberation from the over-arching obligation to produce for capital. Angela Mitropoulos and Melinda Cooper are likewise concerned with the relationship between economics and the production of ‘heteronormative’ nuclear households – but here they place the focus on how post-Fordist households, whose survival depends on (subprime) credit, are thrown into crisis along with the national economies they once underpinned. Mitropoulos and Cooper propose that, far from debt forcing family members into more inescapable bonds of dependency and obligation, it may be leading to experiments in domestic living that challenge hetero-normative production.

But whatever the ‘truth’ of the post-subprime family may be, it seems urgent for the left to engage in this sort of analysis of domestic/libidinal ‘restructuring’ as much as the capital and labour-market restructuring it generally favours. As Michael Seidman has argued regarding the strikes of May ’68, ‘banal’ issues like the need to service debts on a new array of consumer goods (TVs, fridges, cars, holidays), prolonged closure of schools which placed huge childcare obligations on mothers, and women’s desire to go on holiday(!), contributed significantly to waning militancy and the return to work. It remains to be seen whether the rising price of imported goods, the contraction of credit and general inability to get on the property ladder will, conversely, release desires in new directions, or further target-lock them on nuclear consumption.

From the feminist film of Catholic Italy to the New Wave cinema of Tito’s Yugoslavia, subversive directors have often focused on the politics of ‘everyday life’ to upset dominant capitalist, sexist, or socialist forms of subjectivation. It seems that the smallest details of intimacy, sexuality and domesticity can be potent weapons against the cohering power of the spectacle. Howard Slater, in his consideration of Yugoslavian film-maker Dušan Makavejev, connects his interest in everyday sensuality to his refusal of the ‘prosthesis of desire’ – the means by which the audience’s desires are connected to those of the film’s protagonists, creating ‘surrogate desires’. For Slater, Makaveyev’s films create compound and contradictory subjects, partly through the use of documentary and other alien footage which adulterate and complicate the directorial ‘message’ of the film. Alina Marazzi’s film We Want Roses Too, discussed here by Agnese Trocchi, also appropriates a multitude of amateur and commercial sources to create a diaristic account of the sexual revolution in Italy during the ’60s and ’70s by a multiple subject. But in Italy today, writes Trocchi, women take their rights for granted and are deeply invested in defensive, individualistic identities.

Anja Kirschner and David Panos’ film The Last Days of Jack Sheppard – examined here in depth by Benedict Seymour – travels back to the origins of capitalism’s disciplining of proletarian desires. Jack Sheppard, a legendary thief and jail-breaker, ends up dangling in the ‘Sheriff ’s picture frame’, having sold his life story in exchange for (mediated) self-representation. Seymour connects the fluidity of representation – the ceaseless chain of derivations from a rapidly receding original – to the behaviour of finance capital which piles paper claims on the slimmest basis of (rapidly diminishing) value production. In both cases, representation can be linked to exploitation; as tragically demonstrated by the public hangings at Tyburn, spectacle disciplines as much as it entertains. Systems of representation are, of course, also systems of power.

By dis-embedding it from its habitual frame, David Osbaldeston’s art projectOut of Time exposes photojournalism’s ability to naturalise and sensationalise everyday exploitation. Turning iconic media images into material objects within alien systems of representation, Osbaldeston refuses their power to define reality, opening the door to alternative definitions. As insinuated in his cover caption, however, broadcasters’ power to define consensus reality has been partially redistributed among net-based ‘free media’ producers. These days the task is to resist the hegemonic takeover of everyday life itself and its minor, intimate representations – the so-called user-generated content that has become Media Inc.’s lifeblood. The question is whether they still have the same ability to undermine a spectacle which is itself a parasitic compound?