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Periodizing cinematic production

By Brian Holmes at the posted on [iDC] listserv.

"How do you get capitalism into the psyche, and how do you get
the psyche into capital?" asks the philosopher Jean-Joseph Goux.
Drawing on key insights from Gramsci, Simmel and Benjamin -- and
radicalizing the work of film critic Christian Metz in the
process -- Jonathan Beller gives this quite astonishing reply:

"Materially speaking, industrialization enters the visual as
follows: Early cinematic montage extended the logic of the
assembly line (the sequencing of discreet, programmatic
machine-orchestrated human operations) to the sensorium and
brought the industrial revolution to the eye.... It is only by
tracing the trajectory of the capitalized image and the
introjection of its logic into the sensorium that we may observe
the full consequences of the dominant mode of production
(assembly-line capitalism) becoming 'the dominant mode of
representation' (cinema). Cinema implies the tendency toward the
automation of the subject by the laws of exchange.... Understood
as a precursor to television, computing, email, and the World
Wide Web, cinema can be seen as part of an emerging cybernetic
complex, which, from the standpoint of an emergent global labor
force, functions as a technology for the capture and redirection
of global labor's revolutionary social agency and potentiality."

Beller's book, The Cinematic Mode of Production: Attention
Economy and the Society of the Spectacle, develops the thesis
that filmic montage was instrumental in reshaping the
"psycho-social nexus" of entire populations, in order to meet the
needs of Fordist manufacturing in the early twentieth century.
This thesis is principally developed in a chapter on, of all
things, Eisenstein's film The Strike, which he sees less as an
exploration of workers' autonomy than as an exercise in "the
organization of the masses through organized material" and "the
development of the eye as a pathway for the regulation of the
body." To convince the reader of cinema's disciplinary function
-- crucial to economic development in the industrially backward
Soviet Union of the mid-1920s -- he quotes Eisenstein's brutally
explicit declaration: "Reforging someone else's psyche is no less
difficult and considerable a task than forging iron." It is in
this instrumental and frankly manipulative sense that cinema is
"a technology of affect." Thus it is Eisenstein himself who can
restate Beller's thesis with the utmost precision:

"An attraction is in our understanding any demonstrable fact (an
action, an object, a phenomenon, a conscious combination and so
on) that is known and proven to exercise a definite effect on the
attention and emotions of the audience and that combined with
others possesses the characteristics of concentrating the
audience's emotions in any direction dictated by the production's
purpose.... The method of agitation through spectacle consists in
the creation of a new chain of conditioned reflexes by
associating selected phenomena with the unconditioned reflexes
they produce."

Following Eisenstein, Beller relates the techniques of early
cinematic montage to the behavioral psychology of Pavlov, with
his theory of conditioned reflexes, and also to the management
science of Taylor, who analyzed actual labor practices in view of
isolating the most efficient gestures and then imposing them on
workers both by disciplinary training and by the very
configuration and cadences of the machines which they were
henceforth to serve. Filmic editing was the representational and
affective analogue of this Pavlovian and Taylorist reconditioning
of human labor: and even more, it was the essential aesthetic
mediator of the physiological learning process whereby, as
Gramsci wrote, "the memory of the trade, reduced to simple
gestures repeated at an intense rhythm, 'nestles' in the muscular
and nervous centers." By carefully weaving this web of
connections between Pavlovian psychology, Taylorist management
science and filmic aesthetics, Beller comes closer than anyone
else I have ever read to justifying Benjamin's insight into the
historical role of cinema in the early twentieth century, stated
in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction":

"Film serves to train human beings in the practice of those
apperceptions and reactions required by the frequentation of an
apparatus whose role in their daily life ever inceases. To make
this whole enormous technological apparatus of our time into the
object of human interiorization and appropriation [Innervation]
-- that is the historic task in whose service film has its true

It is, however, precisely at the point where Jonathan has
succeded in fully developing Benjamin's brilliant insight that I
feel the need for a number of historical remarks, touching on the
issues of periodization, crisis and societal change. The problem
as I see it is not a nit-picking academic one, adding footnotes
and detail to a basic concept that remains unaltered; nor even
less is it a matter of debunking an otherwise excellent argument
by pointing out occasional anachronisms in the use of words like
"cybernetics." What's at stake is the reconstruction of an
unfinished dialectical history of the development of
communicational commodities in their relation to the
transformations of both productive machinery and management
science - shifts occasioned, each time, by major crises of
capitalism, involving social conflicts in which workers' autonomy
cannot simply be discounted. The passage around which it seems
like we could have a real dialogue comes around the first third
of the chapter on Eisenstein and production. It reads like this:

"In cinema lies a key to the structure and relations, the physics
and the metaphysics, the subjectivity and objectivity, in short
the underlying logic of post-industrial society. The organization
of consciousness is coextensive with the organization of
postindustrial society, and the media are the belts that forge
these underlying connections. Cinema inaugurates a shift in the
economics of social production, and if it can be shown that such
a shift achieves critical mass in cinema and in its legacies of
television, computer, internet, then it can be argued that cinema
is not merely a specific phenomenon in which the sensorium
becomes subject (subjugated) to a code existing beyond itself and
indeed beyond 'natural language,' but the general case -- the
culmination and the paradigm of a historical epoch that
supersedes the bourgeois mode of production by introjecting
capitalized industrial process directly into the mindscape."
(Beller, p. 106)

Yes and no! While I deeply appreciate the relations you draw
between filmic montage and assembly-line manufacturing, my big
question is: How do we jump so fast to post-industrial society?

I'd agree with you, Jon, that the early development of cinema
fits perfectly into the transition from nineteenth-century
liberal capitalism, with its multiplicity of freely competing
bourgeois capitals, to the incipient monopoly capitalism of the
century's end, marked in the US by vertically integrated
corporations like Standard Oil or Carneige Steel (or by
"concerns" like Krupp in Germany). I'd date the crisis of liberal
capitalism from the Long Depression of 1873-79, and I'd
understand the consolidation of the leading nation-states around
that time (US civil war, German and Italian unification, Meiji
restoration) as a prerequisite for industrial expansion and the
emergence of assembly-line production. The kind of industrial
regimentation that Gramsci talks about in Americanism and
Fordism, and that is such a central concern for you, is uniquely
characteristic of this era; and you're definitely right to
associate it with Taylor's scientific management and the
reflex-arc psychology of Pavlov, Watson and Skinner. From this
perspective cinema appears as a stimulant to production, a
psychic shock unleashing biological energy.

What's missing from all this is a treatment of cinema consumption
and its role in the broader expansion of mass-consumer markets in
the years from its invention until the 1930s -- and yet the whole
originality of your book is to insist, against the grain, on the
links between cinema and productive discipline, so that the
absence of any real treatment of consumption here could be taken
as the polemical thrust of your work. What I think is crucial,
however, is that capitalism changed definitively in the wake of
the crisis of '29 and the Great Depression, and the functions of
the mass media changed along with it. The state ceased to be
merely a kind of ad-hoc executive committee of the bourgeoisie in
its struggle to exploit the working class, as Marx had conceived
it (and as far too many Marxists still conceive it). Instead, the
crisis tendencies of capitalist and inter-imperialist competition
forced the complete integration of capital and the state in the
centralized industrial planning of WWII; and at the same time, in
response to the political threat represented by the Soviet
revolution and the proletarian movements that sprung up in its
wake throughout the West, the new Keynesian conception of the
workers as the source of effective demand brought them entirely
within the state capitalist construction. With the Keynesian
logic and the emergence of the welfare state against a backdrop
of economic crisis, a fundamental political conflict changed the
course of both economic and media history. When theorists say
there is no longer any "outside" to capitalism, they are really
referring to this integrative phase that runs, in the US, from
Roosevelt's New Deal to Johnson's Great Society. And this
integrative era, marking the pinnacle of the industrial
economies, is the age of cybernetics: the closed-loop, total
planning system. It is at this point, I think, that you can
really speak of the "automation of the subject by the laws of

The disciplines of psychology and management science changed
entirely during the war. Cyberneticists explicitly saw the
behaviorists as their enemies and soon made them obsolete.
Instead of reducing men and women to mechanisms functioning on
cause-effect principles, they wanted to compose larger,
self-equilibrating systems out of human beings and machines,
where the crucial input was not energy (that was now easily
available) but instead, information serving to correct any
imbalance in the productive process. Constructing a system that
would correct itself in response to the right information, and
only the right information, was now the task of both industrial
and social design. The management of labor within the plant now
consisted in making the wage the only relevant information for
the worker: conflicts over wages were legitimate, because they
could always lead to the extraction of higher productivity, and
never to workers' autonomy or self-management, much less free
time away from the machines. Yet the other crucial variable of
capitalist development remained consumer demand, which had failed
so dangerously in the 1930s; and here, the crucial media
invention was television, which emerged on the broad consumer
market in the 1950s.

The key thing is to see that television was managed
cybernetically: the Neilsen rating system, first applied to radio
from 1942 onward, was immediately extended to television in order
to close the informational loop between the production and
consumption of mass-consumption goods. Now the industrialists
could be sure what people were watching, and how their desires
were being shaped by entertainment and advertising. Rather than
flooding the market anarchically and instinctively, without any
certainty of finding a buyer, they could scientifically manage
consumer desire, even while the state was managing the
availability of disposable income for consumption. That's a
fundamental change, and it's really striking how little attention
is paid to the feedback loops of television in the American-style
development of the planned economy. We should speak of
"Neilsenism" for this epoch, the way Gramsci spoke of Fordism in
the earlier period. And, I think, we should clearly distinguish
between the social function of television in the postwar period,
and cinema in the previous one.

Similar remarks can be made about the advent of micromedia (tape
and video recorders, hand-held video cameras) and then
interactive networks, in the course of the thirty-year period
following the crisis of 1967-73. Of course this is the major
discussion in my own work, in texts like The Flexible
Personality, Future Map or Guattari's Schizoanalytic
Cartographies, so I won't go into too much detail. What's
important to stress, though, is that just as three-cornered wage
bargaining between labor, capital and the state tends to
disappear in this period, so do the closed-loop planning
processes of cybernetics. What emerges instead is the notion of
the innnovative individual, whose freely evolving behavior should
be mapped out and predicted by data-gathering and channeled by
urban and architectural design. Cybernetics is replaced by chaos
and complexity theories and management becomes a subtle exercise
in governmentality and "incentivization."

Of course, the new stress on the (pseudo-)autonomy of the
individual by motivated by the falling rate of profit in the
1970s, due in part to the emergence of new production centers
(Germany, Japan, then the Asian Tigers and China) and the
consequent saturation of consumer markets; so the innovative and
autonomous individual is, from the capitalist viewpoint, just a
necessary corollary to the new idea of small-batch, customized
goods and the inflation of purely semiotic products and
lifestyles which can almost immediately go obsolete, clearing the
way for further production and sales. Only a networked media
system could at once contribute to the hyper-individualization of
the consumer, and his or her continuous access to the market. But
I also think that the conflicts of late 60s and early 70s were
real, and that many features of the new production, consumption
and media system respond directly to the demands for autonomy
that were expressed at that time. The problem is the way those
demands were twisted into the new appetitive and predatory
behaviors of today's social game.

What emerges in the so-called "risk society" of neoliberalism is
really a meta-reflexive situation where everyone who is still
included in the system is highly aware of the arbitrary nature of
each new rule-set, and avidly looking to exploit all the changing
rules to their personal advantage; while at the same time, the
crisis-ridden system continually throws more people outside, it
excludes them. In this way, the outside of capitalism both
beckons and terrifies in the present period. The forms of the
networked technologies, their highly individualized functions,
their particular fetishistic attractiveness and the kinds of
productive stimulation they offer are all shaped by the very
unique characteristic of the current phase of our
political-economy. We are now all supposed to produce our own
little films, with the speculative hope that there may be a pot
of gold at the end of our personal, pixellated rainbows. Which is
a far different situation, I think, from that of a worker in a
Ford plant or a Soviet factory...


Well, this is a terribly long post and still a very sketchy one,
to the point where it probably appears somewhat delirious! The
reason why is that I am at once tremendously excited by the
breakthroughs of The Cinematic Mode of Production, and at the
same time, inspired and daunted by the challenges of using those
breakthroughs to construct a new kind of media theory, one that
responds to the dialectical transformations of our societies.
While writing this post today I have looked more than once at the
tableau of three major periods of capitalist development and
their corresponding crises, assembled by Alex Foti and published
here: I have
also thought a good deal about French regulation-school theory,
which Alex draws upon heavily and which tries to establish a
correlation between a regime of capitalist accumulation and a
mode of social regulation (or governance). Though they are not
much discussed by the theorists of the economy, cinema,
television and the networked communications devices all have a
role to play in both the regime of accumulation and the mode of
regulation. The difficulty for the cultural critic is how to
describe those different roles, as well as the overlaps,
prefigurations and continuities between them.

Probably I give the impression that I see each new form of
media-regulation superceding and replacing the others, but in
reality I think they layer onto each other, just as the most
archaic religions and rigid forms of authority continue to exist
in our time. While concentrating on the early twentieth century,
The Cinematic Mode of Production is full of insights into what I
might think of as the televisual and networked eras, precisely
because it very often deals with all three periods at once, using
the mobilizing paradigm of cinema to understand the additional
forms of complexity, integration, contradiction and
psychopathology that are continually piled up along with the
other ruins of the capitalist disaster. In particular, the
developments of this decade have made it clear that contemporary
control is in no way limited to the vagaries of
"governmentality." By dealing simultaneously with what I often
describe as three distinct periods, the book does a lot to show
how capitalism got into the psyche, and how the psyche got into
capitalism... What I'm curious about, Jon, is whether you would
see any value in the sequence of dialectical breaks that I use to
understand the evolution of both media and the political-economic
orders into which they are inserted; or whether you would insist
on the paradigmatic nature of cinematic montage, even for
postindustrial society.

Whatever the answer, the book's a great read!

best, Brian

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