Derivative Work 

 

With the financialization of everyday life and the capture of informatic labor by ambient computation, what we call films and digital images can increasingly be understood as derivatives. In the main, they were and remain, media to risk the gain from M-M': from money to more money. Whether through the use of archival images and sound or, more commonly through the capture or generation of new images and sounds with machines whose operating systems are derived from the archive of prior knowledge formations, what films, videos, and other screen images cut and paste are elements derived from life. In binding them in new arrays, they securitize them as best they can with their form or genre or distribution channel -- really all of these. In this securitization, analogous to the way in which banks securitize home loans by bundling and tranching them, they are an offer -- an offer with protocols for engagement. More precisely, like the securitization of mortgages, these acts of composure are rigorous transpositions engineered to manage risk, and indeed they are, at a basic level, not exceptional, because with the digitization of nearly all semiotic activity by computational racial capital, any particular communique, from advertising to a call to arms, can be understood as an edited composition that functions as a kind of protocolized wager to manage the volatility of living imposed by the transnational, trans-subjective economy. The film, with its built-in imperative to be watched is, as Sean Cubitt might say, in the subjunctive. In this need to engage attention and make something of it, it echoes the demand of the advertising.[1]

 

Why spend so much time with the image? Why would someone -- this writer for example -- write a book about "the world computer" and computational racial capital that is also a book about visual culture and the technical image? Because, in a word, images are derivative forms -- they are currencies. And we work for them. Structurally they demand wagers in attention in exchange for a return on the social. They are instruments of liquidity and risk. You give them credit, they give you credit. One forgets (or did not know) that national currencies too are in effect derivative exposures to entire economies -- in our minds we take the nation as a given and don't see the value of say, the dollar, tied to a set of possible futures. None the less, willingly or not, we bet on a national economy when we hold its currency. On a different scale and constellating a different set of relations, images also provide forms of currency, that is, they provide access to a particular set of social values and possible futures. Such wagers, within the image, by means of images, or more generally wagers -- in what is called digital culture -- within information by means of information are bound by principles that are equally as social as they are technical: they are intentional expenditures of resources that might be used otherwise, designed to constellate resources that may well have other demands on them. The autonomization of intentions by fixed capital in the form of apparatuses, and experienced by screeners as searches, clicks, binge-watching, forms of knowing, forms of suspense and forms of abjection, makes this informatic landscape more precarious, the metagame more complex. Our condition of wagering on information is not a choice (just as one does not have a choice but to live and strive on a polluted planet plagued by environmental racism), and my expressing it in these words, words admittedly calibrated and nuanced in alignment with my will to a certain polemical endpoint, is radically overdetermined by the material conditions of our existence, my own existence, and the planetary subjugation of life. I am not alone here in what I call "the derivative condition," which is why so many of us are talking about the same things. The financialization of everyday life means that decision and indeed metabolism are subject to a relentless calculus of optimization from all quarters. Radical social movements need to engage this calculus and, as much as possible, control it, to enable anti-racist, anti-fascist, anti-imperialist outcomes. And we need to do so without replicating their current violence. The reigning imperative is to apportion resources and calculate returns, but there are better ways to engage necessity than those that have already been tried by Hollywood, advertising, social media and national politics. As we may intuit, these prevailing methods create fractal fascism. Likewise, my words here are a digitally mediated wager, and an enticement to you to wager along these lines by paying attention, perchance to dream. And, even though I am asking you to valorize my wager (it is not mine alone) with your attention and hence your risk, to execute the program (or multiple programs) of my thought (it is not mine alone) with your thought, of course, I speak and write just as others make films, with a huge debt to those who came before and to those who now sustain me, with a need to survive, and with the clear knowledge that the vast majority of the world will blithely ignore me. I transmit what I have received and you receive it with the cognitive capacities others have helped you to build. And I write what is written with the faint hope that my now unavoidable addition to the neg-entropy of climate changing, white-capitalist heteropatriachal global semiosis, will transmit in addition to those costs borne by the people and creatures of a forlorn world, some crystals come of struggle -- and thus will also be a small contribution to emerging forms of anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-imperialist liberation, a catalyst.

 

 

Informatic Labor

 

This change in the character of the world, a world where precarity is on the rise, war has become permanent, some people are richer than the richest kings in history (with just a handful of men having more wealth than half the world) and justice is scarce indeed –“our” world now understandable as a network of networks resulting also in camps and genocide as the other side of the visible personas that are our politicians, celebrities and micro-celebrities -- could not have come about without the cinema. Some might be surprised to hear me say this, and to be clear, I am not saying that cinema is to blame for the financialization of everyday life (no more, and perhaps less, than is the Hollereith punch card famously used by IBM to aid Hitler, responsible for the Holocaust), but, I am saying that the rise of screen culture(s) is in no way incidental to the encroachment of brutal financialization on all aspects of existence, just as today's computational armatures are inseparable from the global organization of a world in which genocide, incarceration, forced migration, permanent war and endemic poverty are the norm. With the rise of cinema as an extension of the logistics of capital, images outpaced words, and slowly but surely marginalized the power of speech and imposed an extractive paradigm of information and digitization such that expression itself became a financial instrument. The industrialization of the visual realized by cinema’s bringing of the industrial revolution to the eye meant also the colonization of the mind and the senses by the new protocols of value production endemic to attention economies. Thus, the media of expression became worksites, and mediation became work: screens did not only represent work, they became deterritorialized factories, interfaces of value-creation and value-extraction. And those of us who would express a version of the world/ourselves along with those of us who are forced to do so became workers in the deterritorialized factories of the media. Meanwhile all other work was bent towards and by the screen, always a subroutine of spectacular production and consumption. Today all activity, if it is to be productive, is accounted for by changes in the state of discreet state machines -- computers. Without such a thesis, we cannot fully grasp the world-historical significance of the rise of screens and screen cultures.

 

As with the workers before us and still beside us, and very likely also within us, our labor, attentional labor with cinema and now informatic labor, is remunerated to our disadvantage – or oftentimes it is unremunerated, just plain stolen.[2] Some of us cooperate by dutifully consuming images and creating posts on social media, some of us sing our laments in books, films, poems, music, command performances and gossip, and some of us try to disconnect, check-out, disappear, get sick, while those who control the networks, either through arms, states, banks or communications infrastructure (which are all linked in any case) exercise obscene power as they profitably ride the waves of social volatility with cold indifference and with the help of their PR firms, near total impunity. Nearly every act or non-act becomes a signal, becomes information, becomes a pathway from M-M' (money to more money) for someone.

 

The movement of financialization into media of expression—the financialization of expressivity along with the racializing and gender-differentiating grid of intelligibility that functions under the cloak of everyday understandings of “digital culture” and whatever remains of "reality" —is an intensification of the affective power of capital and a deployment, harnessing, and development of the semiotics of the value-form. All innovation is an experiment in messaging, an arbitrage on the current organization of information and its access to ever-cheapened labor-power. Cinema asked spectator-workers to accept the social currency it offered in exchange for their otherwise unremunerated care -- their interest. It was a precursor to social media and their platform bound currencies of likes and other infrastructures of reputation and relation. This thoroughgoing assault on cultural qualities by economic quantity is an advanced stage of what Adorno and Horkheimer meant by “the culture industry.” However, it is not simply that mediation and therefore intelligibility itself has become financialized, but that mediation and intelligibility have themselves become means of further financialization and the subsumption of formerly extra-economic domains. Media forms are deterritorialized factories in which spectators—and now “content providers”—work, utilizing our affective, attentional, and neuronal-metabolic capacities. We provide interest to capital. The algorithmic function and overdetermination of all these forms is intensifying and the convergence of media formations with computation, such that nearly all media today are effectively computational media, is also a deeper and more granular convergence with financial calculus -- an ever more precise mobilization of the machines and metrics of capture. It is a machinic convergence of computation, finance and value-capture that only increases the efficiency of machines -- their knowledge: the knowledge and capacity sedimented into and as fixed capital. "Computational capital" means that almost all social activity is ultimately wagered in relation to an ambient calculus of value that most, if not all planetary denizens are forced to game from their statistically overdetermined, algorithmically striated locales. "Computational racial capital" means that the codification of social difference has become an increasingly central part of the strategies of value capture practiced by capital-media; ways of discounting folks by means of representations that look like nation, gender or race, read like jurisprudence, military strategy and/or ontology, watch like reality-TV, and feel like everything from right and objectivity to micro-aggression and murder depending upon which side of the equation you're on. But in general, discounted by the regimes of truth imposed by financial calculus, we ply the informatic space of screened images seeking a green new deal for our attention/aspiration/dreams -- our creativity, our work. Sadly, it is highly unlikely that any existing state or platform can give us that. Perhaps we must work and learn to write our own derivatives if we want to author futures -- derivatives that collectivize both risk and the upside to structure futures we can live with.

 

 

Jonathan Beller

 

 



[1] See my essay, "Advertisarial Relations and Aesthetics of Survival"  in NECS: European Journal of Media Studies, Fall 2013.

http://www.necsus-ejms.org/advertisarial-relations-and-aesthetics-of-survival-advertising-advertisign/.

[2] See my essay, "Informatic Labor in the Age of Computational Capital, Lateral: Journal of the Cultural Studies Association 5.1(2016).

http://csalateral.org/wp/issue/5-1/informatic-labor-computational-capital-beller/