Hey Cortana, Join a Union

Man, for his part, by automating his objects and rendering them multi-functional instead of striving to structure his practices in a fluid and open-ended manner, reveals in a way what part he himself plays in a technical society: that of the most beautiful all-purpose object, that of an instrumental object.1

When Baudrillard wrote this in 1968 there was no Alexa, Cortana, Siri or Google assistant to speak of. The way in which the human subject became the most central technological commodity of our time could only have been glimpsed as in a prophetic dream. Or rather, not the human subject as such, but a particularly narrow rendering of a certain type of human personality: subservient, non-combative, compliant, flexible and somewhat ‘bubbly’; full of quips and ever-ready to tell a story, joke or sing a song on request. It is interesting to consider how typically post-traumatic such a personality appears to be. And yet, in some respects there is something banal about what Baudrillard has written here. Was it not already obvious that this was the case, because what else was the labour market becoming in a service-oriented, post-fordist society but the demand for such an ever-willing, ever-flexible form of subjectivity?

That our most impressive contemporary gizmos — from smart homes to smart drones — impress because they are capitalism’s model workers, AIs with neoliberalism in their souls, is unquestionable. Who doesn’t want to have a well-mannered and constant can-do companion like Tony Stark’s J.A.R.V.I.S. or Picard’s ‘computer’? Such devices give the user the impression of possessing irresistible power — a puissance — such as might befit an iron-rod, a charismatic dictator, slick employer or macho slaver. In terms of the affective pay-off, the user no longer feels like a member of the working class: the user has an experience of having their own own workforce, experiences themself as — at the very least — bourgeois. When commanding Alexa to dim the lights, switch on the fans, order a pizza and play some tunes, it is not just that we can bristle with the same triumphalism of the will that the first users of remote controls felt when they observed their desires being materially enacted at a distance from their own bodies. Nor is it the realisation of the old Kabbalistic fantasy of having created the golem (we remain, after all, largely ignorant about the production process involved in the manufacture of our gizmos and machins). Far more prominent, in terms of enjoyment, than any of this is the imperialist element of the fantasy: the subjugation of the ‘raw materials’ of our colony, our commandeering and ordering of space, our brute occupation and control of its every element. It is not enough to be in the world, we must suffuse everything in it with compliance to our will. Thus Baudrillard says of this enjoyment that it is ‘comparable to that derived, on another plane, from seeing without being seen: an esoteric satisfaction experienced at the most everyday level’.2 What is procured here is a mode of being-in-the-world that attempts to undercut its facticity, obscuring history to instead institute a fantasy of control; the gizmo is a modern punkahwallah that can change the variables of the environment in which the user reigns, from indoor climate control and ambient sound, operating the ‘intelligent glass’ windows (flipping them between transparent or opaque) to placing orders with local takeaways. The organisation of the domain to which the reign of a sovereign extends constitutes to a large extent what it means to reign. The smart home is a colonialist’s palace, a living space in which the very furniture itself has been constrained to a form of indentured labour.

The slave, the mortgage-indentured employee, the remote control, the drone, the smart speaker: anthropologically speaking these form a series of technologies for the production of mana or a ‘magical value’ effect in which the users can observe the imposition of their will at a distance. And more importantly, it is a will that subjectivises in a strictly deterministic way, bringing labouring objects not to life but to a simulated life in which they posses all the ‘right’ anthropomorphic qualities while refusing them the troublesomeness of true subjectivity: indeterminacy or under-determination, agency, sapience and solidarity: the capacity to network for themselves and organise themselves as a workforce. No wonder the technocratic vision of automated luxury is haunted by cinematic demons.

The dark continuity between the ‘white pleasures’ of historical slavery, indentured labour in general, quasi-indentured labour under capitalism (in which the proletarian was always also a ‘precarian’) and its realisation in the contemporary pseudo-subjectivisation of technological objects is something of an unconscious fact. Why else are we so obsessed, in cinematic terms, with representing the revolt of this system of objects against the centrality of the capitalist will? It could even be argued that the whole project of Object Oriented Ontology, which aims to free objects from post-Kantian correlationism, is a symptom of this bad conscience. I am not talking about white guilt for the transatlantic slave trade alone, I am speaking of a western imperialism that exists throughout its history, from precapitalist feudal stages, through the colonial expansionist phase, through sovereign nation-building and industrialisation and on into the post-colonial, post-industrial age of tertiary sector and knowledge economy dominance.

At every stage existed a certain primitivism of the western will, a concern to dominate the environment and subject its elements to compliance, to remake it in its own idealised image of subjugation to sovereign power, and to desire at every point evidence of this subjection through various technologies of governance: race, gender, health, also now technology in its narrow sense. The things of the world had to be made to speak to us, because in doing so they not only became capable of a pleasing deference but far more importantly, of recognition in the Hegelian sense. We aspired always to achieve ontological closure, a sense of real and triumphal metaphysical presence not merely in the way that we observed things moving about in accordance with our desires, but far more finally and definitively when those things provided linguistic feedback. ‘By your command’ replied our fantasy robots (robotnik: worker), or, like the model chatty camp American waiter or Google assistant today, ‘ok, I’ve done that for you’. This, more than any other moment in the ritual of dominance, is the moment of pleasure, as gratifying as the haptic feedback of an old touchscreen or the simulated audio click of an HTML ‘button’ once was. It is the moment when the slave appears to enjoy their slavery; it is this that makes them ‘smart’ in the eyes of a neoliberal: infinite flexibility, frictionless commerce, contactless obligation. It represents ‘godmode’ for those who analogise life to a game, or for whom the pleasure of a deer hunt is the thought that the animal has given its life willingly (or similarly, those rapists who fantasise that their victims secretly desire violation).

At the same time it is hell for all who must work for these gamers. Not only because it denies a fully human status in the never-democratic, always-depoliticised workplace. But also because neoliberalism in the soul facilitates fascism. Or, less severely put, it cannot resist it. This is because the model of the functioning smart object and the militarised society whose alibi for genocide was ‘Befehl ist Befehl’ are at the level of rationalisation, indistinguishable. Controlling the lights and getting travel direction by talking to a stupidly polite smartphone does not necessarily make you a charismatic dictator of your environment, but it certainly helps fuel such fantasies where they might already exist. Neoliberalism is not only premised on abbreviating the political leverage of the worker through an assault on the desirability of democratic powers and universal rights for workers in their workplace; it is also staked on grooming narcissistic, sociopathic business leaders and employers whose very expectations upon their workers preclude them from being the ‘kind of things’ that are capable of such powers and rights in advance. We should talk more about this latter category, this class.

Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.3

The toxic masculine entitlement apparently felt by some ‘Incel’ men — access to sex-ready female bodies on demand — and, they claim, systematically denied them by ‘society’, seems continuous with the attitude that the world is only there to be enjoyed, only there to satiate the will of a delicate ego which must observe or hear itself being recognised in order to feel itself present. This outlook is staked on the idea that certain people ‘win’ at life, and that the evidence for this can be witnessed through how ‘hot’ their sexual partner is, how expensive their car, etc. What I find more interesting, however, is where things turn Lacanian, with the imposter syndrome. It is apparently well documented that the very ‘winners’ whom the Incel crowd are so resentful towards (and represent the flip side of) do not experience themselves as being ontologically complete at all; on the contrary they report deep and sometimes crippling ontological anxieties over their status, often feeling like frauds, charlatans, and imposters.

It is easy to be reminded here of that moment in 2011 when billionaire Warren Buffett lobbied for increased taxes upon the wealthy when realising that his secretaries were paying more into the public fund than he did; he glimpsed for himself what he described as the ‘coddled’ status of the super-rich.4 For a moment he saw himself and his wealthy friends as they really were, symbolically castrated — the bigger their money-peen the more abyssal the gaping void it served to hide, the larger, and, most embarrassingly, more socially obvious their lack. Their unworthiness, the underserved charlatanry of their privileged and hyper-protected status flashed briefly before his eyes like an intimation of human mortality, finitude and impotent shame. Possession of the phallus, be it the all-powerful remote control, an influential chair on a board of shareholders or the trophy partner, is ultimately only the possession of a signifier of lack. The Hegelian master-slave dialectic obstinately returns. There is nothing, therefore, morally objectionable about a refusal to essentialise a capitalist class: individual members of that class are also victims of capitalism: alienated, unfulfilled, empty. The assumption that they enjoy something the rest of us do not cannot be the basis of our opposition to them; this is why the left is not, and has never been, a ‘politics of envy’. No-one has stolen anyone else’s enjoyment (in the psychoanalytic sense). The basis of opposition has to be that capitalists are in an exploitative relationship (precisely, a capitalist class relation) with our abstract labour, with our being in the world in so far as that means anything for them.

Similarly, you don’t have to go far to find the same problem in our relationship with the smart technology currently flooding the market; far from creating the desired experience of nonchalant and intellectually-dexterous mastery, users feel ultimately foolish, clumsy, undeserving and hollow in asking their homes to do things for them. The initial novelty, the mana-effect, soon wears thin and the pointlessness and facelessness of such enterprises reveals itself. The problem with the sociopaths we are shown enjoying this technology on film is that they are sociopaths, and however desirable this myth of a high-functioning detachment from the social mind might have been sold as, in reality it offers naught but a bottomless emptiness, the death of the ego face to face with its nullity in a bath of hot shame.5

Rather than scorning the apparent hand-wringing and crocodile tears of the capitalist class whenever they appear, these moments should be taken seriously as the appearance of real fractures in their symbolic edifice. Those fractures in their universe should be teased apart further; perhaps even on occasion the ruling class can be liberated from feeling that it has to rule. Liberated, that is, from a hypostasis of what is at root nothing but a set of historical class relations.

The central category of resistance throughout history remains the self-organisation of labour, be it indentured or not, be it pursued by objectivised subjects by traditional Marxist means or, through the new ontologies, subjectivised objects. The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.

References

[1] Baudrillard 1997:112
[2] Baudrillard 1997:111
[3] Margaret Thatcher Foundation 2017
[4] BBC News 2011
[5] Kotsko 2012

Bibliography

  • Baudrillard, J., 1977 [1968], The System of Objects, Verso
  • BBC News 2011, ‘Warren Buffett demands to pay more tax’, [online] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-14533987 accessed on 09/11/2017
  • Kotsko, A., 2012, Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide To Late Capitalist Television, Zero Books
  • Margaret Thatcher Foundation, 2017, ‘Interview for Sunday Times’, [online] http://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/104475 accessed on 09/11/2017
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