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.

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Baudrillard in an age of Gammon

While far from being my favourite theorist, Baudrillard’s time may have come. While he was alive the popular uptake of his work lumped it in with the work of Derrida, Deleuze, Foucault and Lyotard — all misunderstood, all held up as examples of a bad philosophical object called ‘postmodernism’ which no-one in Britain save for a few literature and media students knew what to do with. It was French, talkative, current, but supposedly impenetrably gnomic, dense, full of obscure wordplay and oblique, cryptic references. Maybe it has taken twenty years to process what it was saying, or maybe it was just ahead of its time, but when today we have to grapple with political commentators speaking of ‘alternative facts’ and a ‘post-truth’ society, it is difficult not to imagine what Baudrillard would have made of this. Indeed, it is something of an irony that those today who seem best acclimatised to a ‘postmodernism gone mad’, while perhaps unconscious of the fact, and no doubt still occasionally using the term to disparage study of the humanities or history, and the left in general, are actually those on the far right. Perhaps there is nothing quite as simulative, as citational, as temporally off-kilter and irreal as the spectacle of white nationalists marching in 2018, the pseudo-ironic racist banter of the alt-right, the misogyny of gamergaters, or the endless youtube videos of a US president gesturally mocking disability and boasting of sexual assault. While postmodern architecture of recent decades ‘quoted’ and ‘pastiched’ elements of former styles in order to borrow and recode their aesthetic values for emerging international markets (being the origin of the term, and thus entirely implicating it in the crisis of financialised housing and all the economic problems of globalised real estate and property development), so today the behaviour — the so-called ‘neoreactionary backlash’, the acting-out — of the digitally native alt-right draws deep from a stock of primitivist, folkish, right-wing localisms and historical junctures in order to cite them in a wholly new context. However, the simulative phenomenon in architecture nonetheless established its own reality — its own ‘style’ as it were — by which those ‘eclectic’ and ‘citational’ built cultures of the 1990s can now be pointed to and seen as hopelessly dated. There is in this a significant analogy, by means of which I hope we can soon begin to point to the ‘neoreactionary backlash’ as something whose time has passed. The Trump blimp, organised to coincide with the US president’s visit to the UK (widely protested), as well as the currency of the term ‘gammon’, looks to me a favourable sign in this direction.

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