An interview with Jonathan Beller regarding the evolution of the Attention Economy, the role of Cinema as a critical site and catalyst for aspects of Computation, and the possible emergence of a ‘Cryptocommons’.
Jonathan Beller is one of the foremost theorists of the visual turn and the attention economy; works on the history of cinema and the way in which the screen-image has altered all aspects of social life; books and edited volumes include The Cinematic Mode of Production: Attention Economy and the Society of the Spectacle, Acquiring Eyes: Philippine Visuality, Nationalist Struggle and the World-Media System, and Feminist Media Theory (a special issue of The Scholar and Feminist Online); serves on the Editorial Collective of the internationally recognized journal Social Text.
Dustin Breitling: Can you reflect on any formative or watershed moments that were integral in shaping your intellectual trajectory? Principally, can you talk about your earlier years where your work ranges from engagements with Marxism, Cinema of the Oppressed or an analysis of post-colonial narratives of Philippines, Guy Debord, Jean Baudrillard, especially in early works such as The Cinematic Mode of Production, Acquiring Eyes.
Thinking about this question, I remember that probably for twenty years straight I taught George Orwell’s 1984. First, as a young high school teacher in the Bronx after graduation from college, and then in most of my classes when I then taught as a graduate student, and afterwards as a faculty member. In retrospect, I realize that it was really an important part of my thinking about what I would derive as an attention economy, analyze as media interfaced with capital, and consider in light of possible sites of possible resistance. The thing about 1984 that always struck me was the short-circuiting of language and the incapacitation of thought to be able to actually situate a subject or a people in relationship to hegemony. This dislocation and hobbling of thought was not a tangential process with respect to what else I understood about hegemony and mediation. Stupidity (what Debord would call “somnambulance”) was actually fundamental to the maintenance of hegemony and oppression—the foreclosure of the ability to delineate and describe not only oppression itself but, even more, the forces of oppression, their logistics, and how they operated. This form of stunting the mind is what I experienced quite profoundly growing up in Texas. As a young person, what struck me again was the stultification of the type of life I was living: my stupidity and incapacity were not an accident, it were actually fundamental to the organization of society. Thus, my exploration of aesthetics, literature, cinema, media, and computation came out of an effort to recognize semiotic engagement as a critical endeavor. There were a lot of thinkers who helped me along the way, Guy Debord and Jean Baudrillard for sure, both of whom were very much about the elimination of thought in relation to the Real that one can access, depriving us of a weapon against the shibboleths and simulations of everyday “truth.” Therefore, seeing that hegemony pervades instrumentally, at one point as ideology, at another as spectacle, at another as simulation, and ultimately as a panoply of strategies to foreclose alternative knowledge and relation, I realized it also had a deeper technicity to it. My work has been about that technicity: the technical embedded in the political-economic, the hegemonic, and the bio-sphere.
I think for me a lot of it stands up, even though the idea of “the attention economy” has become obvious and even trivial in some respects. Today, everyone understands what Google or Facebook’s business model is about; there is an awareness that the platforms engage in a form of attention scraping. Attention is subjected to “background monetization,” and is ultimately wrapped up in shareholder value. The social, political, historical, and ecological consequences of that basic form have, however, not been fully drawn even today. The CMP was a dissertation in 1994, conceived in 1991, and inspired by the work of Soviet cinema and Third Cinema. Semiotics analysis (Pasolini) and apparatus theory (Baudry, Commoli, Heath, Metz, de Lauretis) were kind of fundamental in my encounter with cinematic technologies and visuality, and they foregrounded the productive dimensions of cinema and visuality. What started off as early thinking about the role of consciousness and language in literature (Bakhtin) expanded into the space of the visual. Revolutionary films were supposed to be analytic and catalytic. They were designed to constitute a new social, a new sensibility.
They were ‘machined designed’ to produce the revolution through their own processes of creation and value creation, and these values were to have a different form than the value-form (exchange-value) of capital. Fundamentally at play in this new media form called cinema, was a fundamental mutation in the dialectical, in the technical, interface of the machine, the body, and perception, a mutation in what it means to make and use material objects, which with cinema reveal themselves as fundamental to control techniques of space, time, meaning, and the imagination.
On the one hand, techniques of control in revolutionary cinema were divergent from the dominant protocols imposed by the production and reproduction of the value form of capital. They were at least intimating a different order—an openness—mediated by new forms of cinema. On the other hand, these very innovations, which, as I have said, were a fundamental mutation in the dialectical ordination of the technical, the body, perception, comportment, personage, etc., reveal themselves as being fundamental to the techniques of control that were then developed by capital itself. It is this double-edge of technical innovation, coming from below as revolutionary aspiration and strategy, and then coming from above, from the ruling classes, banks, returns on capital, that had in mind the capture and mobilization of value, actually values. To make the revolution or intensify capitalist exploitation? The pathway was not necessarily clear to everyone. The productive role of attention was as yet undefined, and the promises of these visual technologies, for self and social knowledge, as described by Walter Benjamin, and as shown in the work of Dziga Vertov, were open for invention and up for grabs.
The uprising of subaltern consciousness and desires —people wanted to know themselves better and expresses themselves more lucidly—emerged as cinema, and became a space of negotiation, of futurity, organizing their fantasy, attention, imagination, and the like. In its mainstream (racial capitalist) version, the capturing of attention, libido, harnessing a worldview, the coding of bodies, and the potentiating of values in accord with the hegemonic concerns of capital, and thus, we might also say of whiteness and masculinity. Since you have asked me to reflect on this past work, I could say that where I have evolved as a thinker (and as a being) is that I have learned a lot since then about the analysis of race, gender, colonialism, and imperialism from writers and theorists who are responsive to what I now understand as, along with capitalism, computation, and ecology, among the key issues of our time and the sine qua non of critical theory.
DB: How has your work progressed and fundamentally synergized into the realm of focusing on the nature of “Computational Capital” what did you see as the intersection between it and Cinema?
JB: There are a couple of strands there, I can’t quite remember the exact timeline. I was reading Flusser quite seriously, when he started making an impression in the US context, thinking a lot about the camera as a computer, as well as how the digital camera enabled the informatic digitization of optical inputs. About that time, while directing the graduate program in media studies at Pratt Institute, I was able to lure Matteo Pasquinelli over for a year to teach, and we co-taught a course, where we discussed some of the generalizations of computational capital (we had slightly different terms for it, I can’t quite remember his preferred formulation just now.) We had a really great semester talking to each other, and some of the ideas for The World Computer and for Message were developed during that time as well. For me, the key moment was the Flusserian insight that the camera served as a form of computation, with the pixel assigning a scalar number to every point in the visual field. Flusser saw the camera as thinking extended into matter that produced information from the world via a program that allowed for a selection from a menu of discrete states (fstops, focal lengths, ASAs, etc.) Once you see that cameras and computing are crucially identified —the overdetermination of the visual field and the subsumption of the representational process with the convergence and analogue media and computation—all this programming enters into the composition of consciousness via the other and indeed all sensory inputs. With the convergence of visual field and computational process in the videographic and screen-based visualization, to say nothing of the universality of word-processing and the digitization and algorithmification of language, it is not too much of a stretch to recognize that we were and are in computation, computation happens to us all the time, it is ambient, and it is our mise-en-scene.
Computing the whole determination of the visual as numbers by programs was a representational process even though it was a computational process (and, as we will see, a financial process). In short, everything was like photography or cinema, a development of these, as all media enter into computation and computation enters all other possible sensory inputs. With the convergence of the visual-perceptible field and the computational process, to imagine that we were in computation, was to realize that something was happening to us every day, all the time. That these ubiquitous processes were financialized meant that a masculinist imaginary, the various cultural forms associated with racism, sexism, imperialism, and all the rest, were sedimented into computation and had become inherent in the ways in which information functionalizes the social. Therefore, it started to seem necessary to develop a theory in which the informatic and lived corporeality were in some kind of relationship that, while being “productive,” simultaneously was also a facade of ostensible neutrality (“indifference”) that brutally enforced class structure, racialization, global suffering, and imperialism. These domains of social difference, increasingly integrated and enmeshed in the visual and the cultural, were not the result of a natural condition. Historically, industrialization, racial capitalism, the ongoing role of imperialism, the design and development of computation all had common ancestors and, for capital accumulation, common interests. These interests were and remain inherent in how information structures the social. Its “content indifference” is indeed its politics.
DB: Your recent turn towards untangling the nature of derivatives has increasingly played a salient role in your work. You have written that “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. images also provide forms of currency, that is, they provide access to a particular set of social values and possible futures.” Could you elaborate on how you regard the nature of media itself as a vehicle for derivatives?
JB: I endeavor to explain this difficult but central issue in a couple of books, The Message is Murder: Substrates of Computational Capital, and The World Computer: Derivative Conditions of Racial Capitalism. I am happy to try to summarize the key aspects of those books, but the details matter a lot, so any summary will be provisional and incomplete. The thesis about computational racial capital posits that there is a virtual machine that I call “the world computer” running our financial system and calculations, that endeavors to organize the social all the way down. If we conceptualize, what we might confirm by observation or experience, namely the financialization of daily life (Randy Martin), then we also recognize that life, made precarious in specific ways by the history of racial capitalism, is shot through with risk, and that people stand to lose or gain based on the outcome of that risk, I call that situation, in which the vast majority of bets on sustainability become bets on the return on investments in determinations of the value-form, “the derivative condition.” The reason I think about that is that information and the penetration of the life-world by computation opens up any and nearly all spaces of the social for wagers, for bets that are contingent claims on their underliers. For sale are options on the various outcomes of the social, while the platforms that offer optional expressions are market makers. Is it worth the investment of your attention and reputation to post on Instagram? Will you get enough of a return to get you through to the next day so that you can get a job and buy a sandwich or otherwise grow your social capital? What side of the trade do you want to take? Which bandwagons do you want to join? In one way or another, all simple gestures of naming, positioning oneself in a discourse, and making an image —processes that take place on Twitter, national news, and a thousand other platforms—are iterated as parts of these digital imaginaries that separately and together constitute risk profiles. Businesses, and just all of us who survive, depend on reading the various profiles that we have exposure to, in order to respond for positive outcomes for ourselves. This vision of ever-present volatility and risk penetrates into the imaginary to make everything into a risk-reward situation. Computation or what we understand by ‘information’ is the key ingredient, rendering all choices substitutable. The world computer is thus not simply a natural form, it is actually a state change in the socio-historical; ushered in by a new apparatus and a new imaginary, one that comes to occupy the various and widely distributed social forms, making them financializable. The other key aspect of the world computer and its relentless global computation is that it exacerbates forms of social difference. Social differences and their rigorous implementation can make outcomes more predictable, they can be capitalized, things like racial difference, religious difference, gender, differences in citizenship, differences in rights, and the difference in assets, all of these things become vectors for wagering risk management, for “decision making under conditions of uncertainty.” You have the entire social domain becoming increasingly absorbed for optimization by for-profit computation. What I think this means is that social specificity is transduced into quantifiable forms of capital, and qualitative expressions and relationships in the social material are converted into quantities that are converted into capital. Thus, quantities of information and thus of the value-form of racial capital can be extracted from expressivity, from sociality. Such extraction depletes the qualities of everyone’s life. When values are converted into value, they come to mean only value (as art on the art market means prices and returns on investment). Social values, which is to say meanings, relations, and much more, become informatic, become commodified, and are converted into gameable numbers that reorganizes them accordingly.
DB: There is an application called New New incentivizing users to buy shares out of personal people’s lives, you have the capacity and capability to control what they do, in order for them to receive some type of payment. It is interesting to see how this perverse logic will go and the more the social fabric is become absorbed where everything becomes convertible to risk, do you see any possibilities to transform conceptions of risk, or to twist the logic against risk-structures?
JB: The whole computational-racial paradigm requires a new vocabulary: “the derivative condition” is an important aspect for analysis, as are forms of “economic media.” Money, like monetary values, has minimal forms of expressivity, but as I have tried to explain in my recent work, what money and monetary-value communicates is not only scalar quantities. If you hold USD, you have a stake in US national power, you are, willingly or not, staking the value of your currency on the market value of USD and thus also, the power of the United States of America. You are supporting it in the US. This question of vocabulary is there to insist upon the need for new concepts, concepts that, going back to the questions posed by Orwell in his analysis of the impossibilization of critique, might resolve what is currently part of the social unconscious, the unthought and indeed the unthinkable.
There is a granular revolution dedicated to further exploiting and short-circuiting understanding. Ambient computation and what I call “economic media” are trying to impose and make actionable contracts on our expressive and semiotic capacities, putting all of us into the role of gameable outcome generators for corporate and state bet making. As volatile actants whose expressivity has been enclosed by the wagers of deeply rooted networks of fixed capital such as media platforms, banks, and even states, we, who are unable to free ourselves from games orchestrated by others, and, in the last instance, by capital, are forced into our own risk management so that we must actively and everyday ward off precarity, precisely by participating in the racial capitalist gamespace and generating profit for someone else. Economic media, the semiotic-financial substrates through which we communicate and act, are already writing derivative contracts on our futures, and their actions are more granular and more deeply imbricated in the imaginary than ever before.
The proletarianization of our imagination, resulting from our enclosure in the game-space of computational racial capital, makes us capable of thinking only short-term. We are at the point where platforms and states harvest the life-activity of Earth’s denizens, our lifetime, and/or our metabolic time. This is the role of economic media as it already exists. We can imagine alternatives, but practically, it is difficult to avoid serving as fodder for various derivative contracts on which we don’t have stake, even though they are written on us. Rail against capitalism on the internet, generate attention, and make more money for the proprietors of the platform you added content to. The next level here is crypto-media, the next development in techno-media. If we are not very careful and very quick, Crypto-media will be the next level in the development of techno-media, and function to capitalize our affective powers as well as our financial aspirations and even our access to money itself, and organize it as if the media itself were an outgrowth of factory control for the deepening organization of social production. But this medium, like all media invented from print-capitalism forward, is a dialectical form, where we also have a revolutionary dimension. Photography, for example, becomes employed to construct counter-histories, anti-imperialism, and anti-patriarchal social forms, that give traction to people’s struggles. that kind of dialectical. With crypto media, economic media, rather than appearing as a purely technocratic exploit, could also be seen to emerge as driven subaltern consciousness, subaltern aspiration. There is a lot of dissatisfaction with globalization, and the financial systems, with the legacies of colonialism and slavery, and with class inequality. All of this dissatisfaction presses against the current forms of extraction, driving moments of innovation. Under capitalism, innovation drives down the value of the working day, making people produce more for less. Innovation doesn’t serve the very people who are driving it. Again, unless we are very careful, unless we recognize and act on the potentials inherent in the sea change in mediation, communication, and finance that is cryptocurrency, we will face an increasingly granular and totalizing framework of extraction. We must reconfigure and recast economic media so that we are not in a similar but more intense situation to what we are in with social media, where we are already producing more value and less return for ourselves, and fixed capital platforms capture the value of our mutual care and mutual aid for themselves.
DB: To further extend this question, I would like to hear about your involvement with the Economic Space Agency. Also, you have written a slew of articles that attempt to articulate the potentials wrapped up with the role of blockchain or, more importantly, the role of social expressivity. You have written about the necessity to democratize the authorship of derivatives. Could you elaborate on what you regard as the inherent possibilities tied up with the evolving possibility of ‘risking together’ or forms of ‘social derivatives’ that are spawning various organizational forms and redrawing different architectures of post-capital political-economic relations? What is your evaluation of other possibilities within the blockchain and cryptocurrency space?
JB: It is a really tough question. I think the space has become extremely crowded, but I also think that the financial aspect of it remains really important and significantly underthought from a radical point of view. We should ask ourselves, “Why is it that only the wealthy can write futures or write derivative contracts?” Only those enfranchised by the financial system, with its capacities for archives, legal action, and its barrage of coders, brokers, bankers, investors, and lawyers, can structure contingent claims as recognizable financial instruments. Regular people who might be able to send emails or post Instagram images, after having overcome some significant 20th-century barriers to publication still don’t have access to the financial powers of authorship and cannot write futures. If you look at it more closely, social derivatives and “risking together”, as Randy Martin says, these “social derivatives” are also futures, ways of structuring risk, in the space-time of economic precarity. Why does someone post on Instagram, why does someone post on Tiktok? In some ways, it is about creating community (and thus community values) around a qualitative form of expression. That is, it is a way of writing a future. You putting something out there as an offer for validation, that validation might have many meanings and potentials, but in its default forms, and within our identitarian society (identity as the proper(ty) form of subjectivity in racial capitalism), it serves principally to increase your social capital, while making money for shareholders. Thus, all that radical, alternative expressivity is extracted: you can say what you want you are making money for Zuckerberg; be revolutionary, you are making money for shareholders. There is another way to imagine the sharing out and expansion of values by not only rearranging the communications protocols, but the economic ones. Cinema failed, the internet failed. As powerful as these media are, they could not reorganize the economic protocols, restructure the way value is extracted, collapsed, and distributed. We must try to see clearly that it may be possible to abstract, distribute, and culture value(s) in radically different ways. It may be possible to keep more value communally for those who make it, and to realize the values that we desire through new capacities for self-organization. I think this is a very important distinction—there is a possibility to preserve qualities in value creation by experimenting with the denomination and not strip values down to the capitalist value-form of exchange-value. This means redesigning the computational and economic processes that bear and reconstitute the protocols of racial capitalism. If you are creating alternative values, organizing spaces of mutual care, then the revolutionary community’s vitality and aspiration must set the terms of valuation. Then you have qualitative values, qualified futures, and the possibility to wager on these in order to create a return in the terms embraced by a community.
It is and will remain an important political position to realize that financialization will not go away for some time. Thus, I think finance is like breathing: we can and must breathe the air, polluted and toxic as it might be, and analogously, we must also try to transform the organization and distribution of value creation just as we must create spaces to clean the air and take care of the ecological and social potentials still inherent in our history. These might in fact be the same thing. We may not yet see the end of finance, but we may be able to finance the end of capitalism and the end of ecocide.