The following first appeared as two separate posts on my libcom blog. Fragments also appeared on attemptatliving.
Society of Stimulation
In scanning through an article, “Spent? Capitalism’s growing problem with anxiety“, I am reminded of the reasons I became a psychiatric nurse (proletarianisation of the mentally ill; pathologisation of the proletariat) and of why I left London (living in a city of panic that was a bunker city was doing my own undiagnosed panic disorder no good). We are in the grips of a mutation in the attention economy and what Berardi calls the possibility of the psychobomb that explodes the biopsychosphere of subjectivation:
Do not forget that your brain functions in time, and needs time in order to give attention and understanding. But attention cannot be infinitely accelerated. Marx described a crisis of overproduction in industrial capitalism—when production surpasses demand, an excess workforce is fired, who in turn have less money to buy products, resulting in an overall effect of economic decline. In the sphere of semiocapital, however, overproduction is linked to the relation between the amount of semiotic goods being produced in relation to the amount of attentive time being disposed of. You can accelerate attention by taking amphetamines, for instance, or using other techniques or drugs that give you the possibility of being more attentive, more productive in the field of attention. But you know how it ends.[Franco “Bifo” Berardi.2011. Time, acceleration, and violence].
The psychobomb is an elaboration on Virilio’s thesis on three other explosions that began with conventional weapons before moving onto the nuclear explosion and culminating in an infobomb that would cascade across informatic digital technologies in order to produce an integral accident. This accident would be just like the car crash that was invented as a necessary possibility the moment the first automobile was produced, except that when networks integrated the hardware required for and generative of an ecology of information and information processors, an entire digital and material realm of bytes and bits as well as plastics and silicates, that car crash would happen simultaneously and instantaneously to that entire ecology. In Bifo’s image of the psychobomb there is thus both a recognition of the ecology of minds, for want of a better word, that Marxian language speaks of as the General Intellect, and its capacity to explode and collapse.
The infinite demands for the finite neurocognitive resource of attention- which is a form of bodily comportment to the world- provide a ceaseless stream of attentional-demand on brains that can’t meet it. Navigating the contemporary urban environment, and not necessarily even that of the megapolis, even sitting in a cafe, presents one with hundred of flashing signs, adverts, audio-transmissions, moving images, and so on and so on, a cacophony of signs and a chaos of noise, accelerating, multiplying, a plethora upon a plethora overlaid and overlapping that are superimposed on the physical environment with its own denizens such that the nervous system had evolved to cope with. The pathogenetic potential of this rests on these moving images, bodies and roaring sounds that activate our hominid survival networks, drawn as they are to sudden movement, to rushes of sound and in full autonomic efficiency our bodies- which are ourselves- carry out how many assessments of threat a day, a week, a month, a lifetime? And the genius of pharmaco-capitalist production is that it produces its own consumers through the techniques of marketing.
The rise of neuromarketing is the latest modality of this particular version of techne and mobilises other features of the medical technologies typically put to work for neurological and psychiatric conditions. The Pepsi Challenge has been undertaken with test participants undergoing fMRI scans. Before continuing, we should remember that there are a number of problems with the neuroimaging processes and the fact that they say nothing outside of the hermeneutics humans perform on them (cf. Richard Bental. 2011. Why psychiatric treatments fail; neuroskeptic). Nonetheless, they provide valuable data; the point is more to recall that the neuroimage is not a the revalation of truth, but is itself a tool in an ever expanding arsenal of neurotechniques. The findings reported in the journal Neuron showed that the semiological relationship to the brand was the main indicator of verbally expressed preference and that knowledge of which drink was being drunk by altered the state of the participants brains. In particular, there were changes to hippocampal regions associated with affectivity and memory. In this study it appears to be the semiological relation to brand that determines preference of drink and therefore the activation of certain consumer behaviours (ie: buying Coke instead of Pepsi) because their is a semio-affectivity that implies an emotional relationship with a set of affective signifiers and images surrounding “Coke”. The authors of the study state that
Coke and Pepsi are special in that, while they have similar chemical composition, people maintain strong behavioral preferences for one over the other.
A year ago, Levi Bryant attempted to construct a model of criticism called Borromean Critical Theory that corresponds roughly with psychiatric theory’s repeated calls for a biopsychosocial model of psychpathology & treatment. In this Borromean Critial Theory there are three implicated and interoperative layers of reality to be targeted for any problem, with each being according its own unique weighting and expression in a map of a given situation. These layers are the phenomenal, the material, and the semiotic. This tripartite can also be expressed in terms of the epistemic and the corporeal. What is important to note is that in this study we find all three levels in operation: the activation of the gustatory system by the introduction of the cola drink to the mouth (material) and the simultaneous sensory experience- the qualia- of taste (phenomenal), and the relationship to those particular cognitive schematic associations with the consumer brands “Coke” and “Pepsi”. Despite the near total chemical symmetry of the two drinks and the continuousness of all human gustatory systems with one another- although continuity does imply variation, so we must be careful- the overdetermining factor in the relationship to the drink, and therefore to the subjectivations responsible for producing the consumer subject, activating the repertoire of semio-sensorimotor comportment that organises consumer behaviour, and finally couples the consumer to the economy in this particular way, through this particular commodity mediation. To put this otherwise, here is a situation in which the material and phenomenological are trumped by the semiotic; the epistemic obliterates the corporeal. This is why Franco Berardi is able to call contemporary capitalism semiocapitalism. Critics of neuromarketing express concerns over the destruction of informed consent that the abandonment of rational content to advertising and a focus on stimulating affective brain states implies; yet this is already to miss the point that capital always functions on and through the recomposition and reinvestment of attention and desire. This again is summarised by Franco Berardi when he states that ‘the attention economy has become an important subject during the first years of the new century’ [Precarious Rhapsody, p.82]. This reference to an attention economy is at one and the same time a reference to the way that advertising has always attempted to marshal finite organic hominid attentional resources for economic purposes, and to the economy of that finite resource.
Indeed, marketing operates/operated on a model called AIDA: Attention, Interest, Desire, Action. This was supposed to explain the design for advertising, what it was supposed to target and activate, and in what order, in order to stimulate the consumer to buy this particular product rather than any competitor product. Commodification always begins with the commodification of the nervous system: harnessing the attention activation networks of perception that were evolved as coping mechanisms that aided survival in a threatening world. Without attention there can be no perception; without the pivot of the waist, the turn of the head, the fixing of the gaze there could never be that particular organism-environment coupling that produces the perceptual experience of a world. The marketing industry is thus not simply the manipulator of desires, the educator of how one ought to desire as a subject of capital, it is also itself a particular version of the coupling relation; it is a semiotic coupling with the body mediated through material media (the poster, the billboard, the TV screen, the high street, the shopping mall, the radio, the various internet enabled screens, the ambient advertising of professionals and even those others we find ourselves sharing a space with- through their conversation or the branding on their clothes, phones, whatever). The advertising industry is primarily involved in techno-physiological interventions .
The kind of physiological intervention that is carried out through the activation of attention primarily involves the production of a heightened physiological state; a state of arousal. The eye, the reptilian brain, the autonomic nervous system and the endocrine response produce all those bodily experiences we are all familiar with: the increased heart-rate, blood pressure, light headedness, and a general increase in sensory responsiveness to any and all stimuli- especially motion- and a readiness for action. Arousal of this kind of obviously important for a full range of creaturely behaviours such as seeking food, hunting for that food, and the obvious sense of “arousal” as sexual arousal. Arousal is the condition of metabolic self-differing, the movement of the organism from one state to another state. There is the experience of the rushing of the blood, the emptiness of the visceral, the aggressivity that doesn’t know if it is rage or lust, destructive or erotic. Of course there is also the matter of memory (and I’m sure Steigler will writes about this); that which presents itself to me as particularly emotionally salient will be remembered while that which is not emotionally salient to me will not be so keenly recalled, if it is recalled at all; we all remember having our heart broken, but who remembers what they had for breakfast today 10 years ago? This phenomena is known as selective attention and involves a selectivity of neural encoding that impacts on long-term memory retention. It is why Coca Cola adverts appeal to a sense of family, to a warm feeling, to a feeling of safety, or to a sense that it is youthful, vibrant, culturally hip and so on; in short, it is why neuroadvertising works so well. It is why semiocapitalist consumers don’t have to be convinced of the virtues of consumption but will happily consume the consumption of others in TV shows like Cribs, and it is why the English riots of 2011 had as a component the revenge of the desire of the excluded consumer (cf. Baumann’s analysis of the situation).
What I have described above is called the flight-or-fight response. It is the priming of the body for escape and/or violence and it is what has managed to life just that little step ahead death, at the level of the species and at the level of each organism. The idea that it is perfectly adaptive (even if adaptionism didn’t have its own problems) is misleading because it is also a generic mediation system for a number of psychopathologies; the bodily system of safety is also a bodily system of distress. When we talk about a constant state of physiological arousal the pathologies that immediately spring to mind are the anxiety disorders, especially generalised anxiety disorder. GAD is characterised by a low but persistent state of anxiety, while panic disorder is characterised by extreme, repetitive, transient states of anxiety. These two disorders are common among the psychiatric population, especially those treated in the community who never actually see a psychiatric worker but are prescribed betablockers,benzodiazapines, or so-called “selective” serotonin reuptake inhibitors or breathing exercises by GPs or family doctors. Although we typically think of it as a condition suffered by soldier or rape survivors, post-traumatic stress disorder is an anxiety disorder that is mediated by a traumatic event. I don’t wish to go into the complex debates around what constitutes “trauma” and what constitutes an “event” but for now I want to focus on the empirical record. This record shows that children who undergo bullying or women who live through consistent levels of domestic abuse can develop PTSD. This is important here because I think that it reveals to us that the post-traumatic is less a psychiatric or psychological condition than it is the name for a certain stabilisation of violent and violently pathogenic processes of subjectivation. In this sense we can have a tense agreement with Zizek when he states that there exists
a totally “mediatized” subject, fully immersed into virtual reality: while he “spontaneously” thinks that he is in direct contact with reality, his relation to reality is sustained by a complex digital machinery. Recall Neo,the hero of The Matrix, who all of a sudden discovers that what he perceives as everyday reality is constructed and manipulated by a mega-computer – is his position not precisely that of the victim of the Cartesian malin génie?
and completely disagree with him that this mediatised subject is in any sense separable from the
post-traumatic subject – a “living proof” that subject cannot be identified (does not fully overlap) with “stories it is telling itself about itself,” with the narrative symbolic texture of its life…
It is not so much that the mediatised subject’s relation to reality is sustained by digital machinery- as if it wasn’t already relating to reality in relating to itself, but this isn’t the place for a critique of Zizek’s Cartesian exceptionalism (which is beyond me anyway)- it is that this digital machinery, along with the other technologies and techiques that seeks a direct affectation and activation of the organic economy of attention, exceeds what the brain is capable of. This is not the post-traumatism that Zizek and others, such as the neurophilosopher Catherine Malabou, consider in the figure of the Alzheimer’s patient and the person with autism. I can’t help wondering if either of these people have ever actually encountered people with either condition. This is a post-traumatism that is born precisely out of the material-phenomenal demand that one be plugged-in to the Matrix at all times and in all places. The problem with the film The Matrix, that Zizek thinks illustrates our relation to the Cartesian cogito so well, is that it is based on a fundamental misreading of Baudrillard’s theory of simulation that treats it as if it were still of the order of a mere simulacrum. In a properly Baudrillardian world it would be impossible to disconnect from the Matrix. Luckily for us, we do not live in the world that Baudrillard’s theory-fictions describe but that such worlds are imaginable speaks of our proximity to them; whatever shows up as fictionally possible within a given epistemic order must be considered as part of our semiological horizon. If this talk of post-traumatism feels like an abuse in this context, consider two recent reports on the problem of a massively unrecognised PTSD problem among civilians or listen the author talking this crisis.
Alzheimer’s does display the confabulations that rest beneath our stories about ourselves perfectly and it also shows that trauma can be considered a slow and agonisingly patient exposure to the pathogenic violence. To go beyond Malabou, who seems to contain the trauma of Alzheimer’s to the brain and thereby reveals an utter ignorance of the work of Tom Kitwood and others, the trauma of Alzheimer’s only makes sense when we consider it as a traumatised enaction of an increasingly cognitively (and later, sensorimotor) impoverished world. If the mediatised subject is like the PTSD child or abused woman, if it is like the Alzheimer’s patient then this is because it is subjected to pathogenic processes of subjectivation that operate epistemically and materially.
This post-traumatism can also result in “desubjectification”, a term that refers to the deprivation of interiority experienced as the emptying of value from one’s existence. This is also the condition that Kristeva refers to as an amputated subjectivity, and that manifests itself so frequently in depression. One shouldn’t understand “desubjectication” as the undoing of subjectivation but the production of impotent subjects that don’t experience themselves as such. It is what motivates Jodi Dean to ask the question
How is it that the subject remains reduced to the individual, as if there were an individual who is subjected rather than a collective, exercising the power of its own self-determination, that becomes fragmented and desubjectified, pacified as it is divided up into ever smaller portions?
Depression and anxiety often go together; there is a wealth of psych-disciplines literature that even suggest that prising them apart is a misrepresentation of reality and it is certainly the case that this is a very recent segmentation, one that is intimately connected to the production of synthetic molecular pharmaco-technologies that pharmaceutical companies have since become rich from. Until fairly recently depression and anxiety were collapsed together as either neurosis or nerves but these terms, well understood by most of us, were rejected as insufficiently scientific. In a world where the psychobomb is primed to go off Berardi has suggested that today the word “alienation” is defunct, that instead we should consider the term “psychopathology”.
In 1983 Gray proposed a neurobehavioural account of chronic anxiety. In his research chronic anxiety was linked to the overactivation of septohippocampal and Pepez circuits. Gray called this behavioural inhibition system (BIS). BIS interrupts ongoing behaviour to redirect attention to potential threats that show up in the sensorium. At the cognitive level the current sensory input (the landscape of threat) is compared against future predictions based on that stimuli. Where a mismatch occurs the BIS is activated. In the mismatch criteria is assumed to be too low and therefore constant mismatches are generated resulting in chronic BIS activity. This BIS is mediated by norepinephrine and serotonin and is coupled to sympathetic nervous system via the amygdale and hippothalamus. Thus, high levels of arousal are maintained outwith the suffers ability to easily consciously ameliorate them. While this doesn’t explain panic symptoms or post-traumatic disorder as such, it does provide a general way to think about the problem of the economy of attention. (Cf: review of literature connecting BIS to anxiety).
One can recall a time around the dot-com crash of 2000 when a number of books dealing with the topic of the attention economy appeared in bookstores. Economists suddenly became aware of the simple fact that in a semiocapitalist world, the main commodity becomes attention. The 1990s saw an era of increasing productivity, increasing enthusiasm for production, increasing happiness of intellectual workers, who became entrepreneurs and so forth in the dot-com mania. But the 1990s was also the Prozac decade. You cannot explain what Alan Greenspan called the “irrational exuberance” in the markets without recalling the simple fact that millions of cognitive workers were consuming tons of cocaine, amphetamines, and Prozac throughout the 1990s. Greenspan was not speaking of the economy, but the cocaine effect in the brains of millions of cognitive workers all over the world. And the dot-com crash was the sudden disappearance of this amphetamine from the brains of those workers.[Franco “Bifo” Berardi.2011. Time, acceleration, and violence].
Whether or not this is quote provides a true story it does provide an approach to thinking the attention economy that highlights the corporeal aspect of capitalism in a time when the epistemic semio-aspect seeks to assert hegemony. Resistance to capitalism has to begin from bodies and their passions. Politics politics is not exclusively about contested meanings, and processes of subjectivation that occur in the epistemic sphere alone, resistance is not a discursive enterprise alone. I even have some misgivings about the verbal being raised above all other forms of expression (Habermas vs. Ranciere- there is agreement at least on speech, on the speaking subject). Politics is also, surely, about the arrangement of bodies in space, about what bodies can appear where and when, under or against whose watch and guard, in what combinations; there is a sense in which politics is thus about the question of the relation, about forming or deforming them, and why organisation is so central, so crucial to its operation. Part of this question of organisation is also the organisation of the materiality of the affectivity of bodies in their capacity to be affected. A simple withdrawal from the world of hyperstimulation or the advocacy of a “revolutionary public health” campaign to “consciousness raise” out of the depths of depression through pharmacology or mindfulness techniques alone can’t be all that we advocate- that would make us identical to the existing psychiatric system that is enmeshed in neoliberal governmentality and capital markets. To be even more cutting, it would be to identify with the problem itself.
This problem isn’t limited to the attention economy either. There are numerous modes and means of inciting bodies to attention and to action that aren’t strictly about this neutral attentiveness. As Beatriz Preciado forcefully reminds us, sex is also a way of inciting bodies. There is no doubt that sex is all about us in the urban environment in adverts and in shop windows and this is obviously not a situation for an anarchist to decry, as if the deregulation of sex were some terrible blow to public morality and private sexual practices. Instead the link to sex leads us to a consideration of pornography and the pornification of everyday life, but again in a way that doesn’t just cry that pornography is eternally and essentially evil. More simply, I’m drawing attention to the way that sex is used to draw attention to commodities and how it is deployed in consumer relationships (think about how a certain kind of bar specifies a certain kind of attractiveness, a certain kind of dress), and also to the way that, via the miniaturisation of screen technologies and wifi networks, pornography is now available everywhere. Like pharmaceuticals, pornography is big business, among the most profit making industries in the world, and just like pharmaceuticals it is in the business of the production of bodily excitation. Whereas Ritalin (essentially amphetamine) is a molecular technology used in the production and regulation of the attentional capacity itself, increasingly for use in the university for academic production, pornography is a stereoscopic digital-corporeal technology for the incitement of sexual arousal. More simply, the representation of the fucking bodies on the screen stimulates hard cocks and wet cunts in such a way that while the pornography is what is being consumed it is the sexually excited state that is the real commodity. Again, it is the nervous system that is commodified, regulated. But rather than being about the production of docile bodies these technologies aim at the production of arousal. For Precaido itthis connection amounts to the formulation of a new kind of biocapitalist regime that s/he dubs ‘pharmacoporngraphic’. As s/he puts it
Pharmacopornographic biocapitalism does not produce things. It produces ideas, living organs, symbols, desires, chemical reactions, and affects [Testo Junkie 2013, p.54]
while earlier in the book, during a critique of the immaterial labour theorists, s/he blisteringly puts forward a rematerialisation of those ideas in a paragraph that could serve as the definition of any purported society of stimualtion:
Let us dare, then, to make the following hypothesis: the raw materials of today’s production process are excitation, erection, ejaculation, and pleasure and feelings of self-satisfaction, omnipotent control, and total destruction. The real stake of capitalism today is the pharmacopornographic control of subjectivity, whose products are serotonin, techno-blood and blood products, techno-sperm, antibiotics, estradiol, antacids, techno-milk, cortisone, alcohol and tobacco, morphine, insulin, cocaine, living human eggs, citrate of sildenafil (Viagra), and the entire material and virtual complex participating in the production of mental and psychosomatic states of excitation, relaxation and discharge, as well as those of omnipotence and total control.
There is thus this point of contact between the attention economy, pharmaco-capital, biotechnocapital, and the virtual economies of the algorithmic finance market and the listless deluge of the internet. Added to all the other stresses, demands, exhaustions of life under late capitalism and we have a social field that is flooded with cortisol and adrenalin. We are less in the field of Baudrillard’s theory of simulation as we are in the midst of a society of stimulation.
We live in a ‘dark age of appetites‘ and passions. This “dark age of appetites” is a fantastic way of talking about the contemporary scene. Whenever we do politics we need to do so tactically, provisionally and entirely from within a perspective that recognises this dark age; an age in which democracy and the passions can’t communicate except in the sense of the distribution of bodies in (il)legitmate times and spaces. The passions can be made to speak: the pathologised ways of being are often seen in those signs and symptoms that are themselves characterised by the sign-use (ie: alogia; pressured speech; disorganised speech of all varities- word-salad, loose associations and non-sense). What is interesting about the democracy of someone like Jacques Ranciere is its lack of form and its explosive core of refusal- the identification of a wrong, the contesting of meanings and of material-aesthetic partitions. Of course the riot of 2011 that haunt me- “us”?- were evidence and enaction of the “dark age of passions”…this is a much better formulation than the “sad passions”… yet the problem of Ranciere is his verbosity, his over appreciation- in line with much of the continental tradition, and indeed of the profession of philosophy itself, carried out as it is by paid and sometimes tenured wordsmiths. I am more interested in the demands that bodies in space can make prior to the political demands that they might formulate. In this respect the dark age of passions is an age of inarticulate demands, demands at the level of the body and therefore they are visceral demands, a visceral politics that refuses the level of representation and constitution. If this is the anarchic moment that must be celebrated, an immanent anarchism that can’t be done away with or forgotten, the question nonetheless remains that of organisation. Even dark passions must be organised, must be cultivated like programmable matter.
Whatever else politics is doing, today it must also seek to defend not just those gains made by the working class that are now under threat from socioeconomic austerity, but is must also defend bodies and their affectivity from its hyperstimulated overactivation and/or nervous exhausted collapse that capitalism generates by bombarding the mediatised subject and demanding the double-bind “Pay attention! Don’t burn out!” Political organisation must not just be the organisation of principles, of activists, of demand, but also of the affects; it must be the organisation of rage.
The continual question of the negative passions. The undeniable potency of them, the undeniable force that erupts with anger and rage. I don’t question their value from a Neitzschean perspective but from an ancient one, from the perspective of Seneca. The oft remarked story of Plato who froze in his place for hours after raising his hand to strike a slave: “I am punishing an angry man”, he is said to have remarked to a passing student or friend (did Plato have friends? can a man with such a thought as his be so vulnerable as to be exposed in the production of a friendship?) Seneca says that anger does not attempt to influence the mind, as all the other passions do, but that it seeks to DESTROY it. Maybe such a destruction of the everyday consciousness- full as it is of its own impotence, its own solipisistic perspectival imprisonment (how we yearn to see through the eyes of the other), its own heavy sadnesses- is a goal worth attaining. But then what? Seneca reminds us that an enraged soldier can’t fight to win but only to inflict harm, he flails instead of striking at the weak spots, and he doesn’t notice when he is injured, outmanned, and about to be crushed. The same question returns to me again and again, and I still don’t really know what it means: how do we organise rage? This seems imperative. Crucial If the negative passions are a weapon then how do we use them collectively and with skill and precision? Is there a way that we can claim the attention economy for ourselves? Such would be to produce a political therapeutics that would not be reducible to mere therapy. This therapeutics would itself be part of a politics, part of our communist praxis, but it would not follow Franco Berardi’s own notion that we relax, slow down, get senile. In the society of stimulation the question is not whether we want to speed up or go slower, but where, when, and by whom we want to stimulate and be stimulated.
Speed and politics: amphetamine economies
To determine what amount of what drugs- MDMA, LSD, any benzodiazapines, amphetamine, opiate- he should ingest, on what days, to minimize anxiety and boredom for himself and others, he’d edited the seven-page itinerary from his publisher to fit on one page and, in an idle process he’d enjoyed, the past few weeks, studied each event in context, writing notes on the paper.
-Tao Lin, Taipei, kindle location 1272.
Today’s users take their amphetamines and pharmaceutical amphatamine derivatives in order to lose weight, cheer up, work harder, think faster, or just for fun…others take SSRI antidepressants to cheer up, work harder, and lose even more weight.
– nicolas Rasmussen, On speed: the many lives of amphetamine. p.251.
Is it exploitative to talk about the dead? I hope not. If I talk about her, it is, I hope, out of a kind of respect, out of remembering her, the truths of her: this article is maybe a kind of eulogy then, a work of mourning that can’t be finished, a making mourning into a critical act.
This isn’t about saying that drugs or drug-users are bad, far from it. In a society of stimulation, synthetic chemicals are only one mode of technobiological physiological intervention that accelerates bodies, producing an electrical circuit composed of the nervous systems of hyperaroused bodies. Drugs aren’t bad, and they aren’t limited to chemical compounds either.
Amphetamine is a drug I have a strange relationship with, at once a drug I have been intimate with but only at a distance, mediated by the bodies of others, a specific other, an other through whom I came to know the sexual and physiological effects of base only as that body on which, but never within which, amphetaminergic affects played themselves out. Its a drug that brought me close to a woman that I was once intensely involved with, and which, about a year or so after we had broken up, pushed the distance between our once familiar skins as far as it could go. There was no official statement on the cause of death but I suspect that this drug, in combination with an unstable eating disorder, had put such a strain on her heart that it simply stopped beating one night, while she slept in her flat on her own, waiting for her fiancée to come home from work. I never asked her why she was taking speed every morning because her body being her being, being her embodied being, it had nothing to do with me. The distinction between psyche and somatic is, from a the most basic of materialisms, an ultimately fraudulent dichotomy- “I” am not my body, “I” am my body in some primal way, even if I am not reducible only to my biophysical corporeal structure. My suspicion, to add another to the former, to add more layers of distance between me and this woman I once knew who is now dead, who exists for me only as a neurological imprint, a memory ghost that exists precariously in the circuitry of tissue that is degrading with each passing day, was that she took it precisely to cheer up, to lose weight, to work harder, and to think faster.
She sometimes called herself a functional addict and at other times denied the addict identity; occasionally, usually when we were taking some substance or other together, in that kind of virtual presence of a binge where you feel not-quite-there but nonetheless also feel absolutely tethered to the situation and to the agitation of the high-body, she would say that drugs weren’t a problem for her at all. In a sense she was right. Whatever else was going on, the subjectivity I knew her as, that body with those gestures, that way of speaking, those habits, that inflection in her voice, that way of walking, of catching sight of herself in shop windows and that obsessive making sure, that way of moving and of staying still… this singular subjectivity… she was indistinguishable from the drugs. This is one of the cruel ironies of substance misuse, that the drug isn’t some prosthetic that supplements the embodied subjectivity that was already there, as if you could subtract all the various substances, in the full sense, that the body interacts with, is traversed by, is enmeshed and interwoven with, you could arrive at some essential core.
Amphetamine is a central nervous system stimulant that provides a “sense of well being”, in the words of its creator on the occasion of its first use. To begin with, with illicit amphetamines, with speed and/or base, you get a sensation going through you, a sort of electrical tickle, a kind of auto-affective tingling, piloerection coming through (the skin all goose-flesh, alerted to itself), the biotechnological body electric is receptive to the sensible field around it- some people talk about a heightened sensitivity to air, to water and so on-, and soon this feeling amps up, the charge is set, the fuse blows, and their is this explosion of energy. A chemico-libidinous explosion of energy that suppresses the appetite, blunts social anxieties and awkwardness, produces an intense desire for social interaction, for talking and talking and talking. In the psychiatric language: euphoria.
What better drug if you are subjugated by an excessive embodiment coupled with the semiotic worlds populated by images of female beauty, the perfect sexual body, the racialised, pornographic image of what a woman should look like? What better drug if this anorexia comes packaged with a depression, as eating disorders always do, in which “affective dysregulation“- one of the new scientific sounding codewords for hysteria- is focussed onto that body, intensifying and localising the affective dimension so that it becomes almost entirely inseparable from the ideal-body and the body-ideal? Imagine going places where food functions as a conduit and ritual for social participation and being crippled by anxiety, by terror, as soon as the party foods come out, or the conversation turns to the latest diet fad, the latest new restaurant, whatever? A drug that manages to purge anxiety but without merely obliterating all feeling and all desire: a pill that modifies desire so that it is no longer so corporeal, becomes primarily verbal, primarily attached to the abstract word of speech. But amphetamine’s appetite suppressant capacity, the ability to obliterate the most basic of survival instincts, also accelerates nutritional depletion whilst increasing cardiac demand, pushing up blood pressure and pulse. Even in the absence of an eating disorder, potassium levels can be lowered in those sections of the population that don’t have particularly good diets. Add in amphetamine and/or other stimulants, with their capacity to lower potassium and calcium absorption while putting extra strain on the heart, and you have a potentially dangerous mix. The heart is a muscle that operates via electrical action-potentials that produce the excitation-contraction of muscular pumping. This process requires potassium ions and any deficiency in these metabolic entities can cause arrhythmias and, in extreme cases, death.
The story of my friend, similar to other stories no doubt, and the combination of terrains is essential to what is at stake in the society of stimulation. It isn’t just nervous systems, muscle tissue and molecular entities that are involved in the cartography of amphetamines; a whole distribution of the sensible. There is the entire gamut of materio-discursive regimes of law, pharmacology, psychopharmacology, the material practices and consequences of policing, of medicine, of nursing, of the addiction services, and again the cognitive models that these depend on (12 step-programmes; SMART Recovery; Motivational Interviewing; the Transtheoretical Cycle), and the effects that the illegality of these drugs has on the production of crime, and therefore on the industries of security and securitisation. Entire worlds- or umwelts- are produced wherein drug-using bodies populate specific spaces, learn specific knowledges, put into motion specific assemblages, share an accelerated temporality, and, as the persistent fascination with some phantasy of the drug-user as exotic other is always quick to put forward, the production of subcultures. These worlds, these umwelts, aren’t separable or rigid. The amphetamine user, as much as the heroin injector, might be a student or a mother or a GP or an office worker or any number of these things. The drug-using umwelt can, however, become one in which a social and subjective deprivation takes place, a narrowing down of place, times, positions that the drug-seeking/using body can occupy. While never becoming finally rigid, like bone, there is nonetheless a “cartilaginous” ridgification in process that Deleuze and Guattari (2004, p.314) summarise quite nicely when they write
The causal line, or the line of flight, of drugs is constantly being segmentarized under the most rigid of forms, that of dependency, the hit and the dose, the dealer.
The point I’m making is that within the society of stimulation we have to follow Deleuze and Guattari’s idea that, instead of being caught within the linguistic idealism of psychoanalysis, we should be conducting pharmacoanalyses. It isn’t the case that drugs aren’t coded as good/bad, safe/dangerous, moral/immoral, medical/criminal, licit/illicit but that these codifications don’t exist in isolation from the broader social ecology of the co-production and co-distribution of drugs, bodies, subjectivations, power and value. According to D&G (2004, p.313) pharmacoanalysis claims that
drugs can be understood only at the level where desire directly invests perception, and perception becomes molecular at the same time as the imperceptible is perceived. Drugs then appear as the agent of this becoming.
Although D&G define a drug in a very open manner, they nonetheless retain their own, admittedly brief and founding, sketch of pharmacoanalysis to the level of the corporeal body. While they do discuss the body without organs and its relation to immanence, they manage to maintain a strange distance from the semiological components of drugs and the social capillaries and channels they flow through. In Peta Malins essay on Deleuze and drugs we come across an objection raised by Klein that Deleuze and Guattari don’t notice how this is a specific kind of undermining of the full potency of drugs as biotechnological forms of agency where s/he states that
one ought to resist the sort of intolerance that reduces these substances to their active chemical ingredients …cigarettes in particular cannot be judged solely on the basis of the effects of nicotine and tar
Of course there are those who attempt to do just that. Smokers are undergoing a strange biopolitical operation whereby they are being made to take a share in the shame that has previously been reserved for “drug addicts”. Consider the material mechanisms of this shame for a minute. I work with people who use heroin and who almost all are prescribed methadone in an avowed attempt to “substitute” for that heroin use (we could go into a separate article all together on this claim). Put yourself for a minute in the position of a methadone user in “the community”- the name for that space in which the clinic and the asylum have now diffused that we used to call “the social”- who has to attend a chemists. First, you have to get there early, earlier than all the nice respectable people, presumably because you’ll frighten away good consumers. Then, you have to stand outside, queuing one at a time, only one methadone user allowed in the chemist at a time, because, well shit, what happens if you get a bunch of you scumbags together at the same time? Finally, you’ll have to do this every day until you can prove to be trusted or are on such a high dose that it can be guaranteed you’ll come to avoid a withdrawals. As one of the people I work with told me, “it makes you feel like shit…like a second class citizen, like you’re not even a person”. What part of this experience is determined by the chemical composition of methadone or heroin? Is there something special about the phenothiazine core of opioids that determines methadone using-bodies as shameful? It isn’t the molecular compound itself that causes all this but the socio-semiotic codes that structure its place within a given system of social perception.
Returning for a second to smoking, what we see there is a very obvious historical trajectory from the prescription of tobacco as a something healthy that everyone should enjoy to one where the smoking-body is disgusting, shameful, which can’t be allowed to populate the same space as non-smokers, and which, fundamentally, is responsible for its own stupid inability to quit a habit it knows will end in death. Hence we see calls for smokers to pay for their own treatment because its their own fault: again, the logic of responsibilisation entails an individuation of a social problematic, it’s privatisation onto a self that is supposed to be the manager of its own resources of will-power, self-esteem and motivation. What this kind of narrative forgets is that smoking, like heroin addiction, largely affects the working class due, in part, to historical conditions whereby the attachment of the working class body to becoming a smoking-body, or a drug-using body, was encouraged. With smoking this kind of problematic remains an open secret, one we can actually observe and which is all the more insidious for its specific targeting of specific body-groups as a selected target market. A 2003 study from the United States found that tobacco companies had continued to target the working class, especially young working class women:
The two largest cigarette manufacturers in the USA consider “working class” young adults to be a critical market segment to promote growth of key brands. Through their own market research, these companies discovered that socially disadvantaged young women do not necessarily desire a “feminine” cigarette brand.
So the psychoactivity of drugs is too limited a way of speaking. We’ve already sketched part of the elements in a cartography of substance use, including feminism and women’s bodies, pharamcology and pharmaceuticals, and here we have an explicit link to class, sex, and the production of economic value. Rather than psychoactive, maybe it would be better to speak of drugs, whatever we are talking about as a drug at the time, as pharmacopolitically-active: as machines capable of making or breaking connections and compositional arrangements in such a manner that isn’t reducible to the biophysical even if that is its site of catalysis. In the language of my own work, we are talking about drugs as operating across the biopsychosocial nexus.
Getting back to amphetamine, it is important to note that it has other name than just speed, base and, for any readers in the US, crystal meth (and here, we see a connection to the culture industry and the televisual unconscious via Breaking Bad): We could just as well include more legitimate, licit names like Adderall or Ritalin. These drugs are prescribed for ADHD- the disorder of hyperstimulation- and other attention or behavioural disturbances. Prescribed amphetamines have what is known as a “paradoxical effect” insofar as, rather than generating a hyperaroused state, they tend to produce a body that is slower, more sedate but not sedated, and which is capable of sustained attention-demanding activities, concentrating on cognitive or manual tasks. As stimulants, they do this by producing an increase in the molecular production of the neurotransmitter dopamine, a discovery that led to the first formulation of the dopamine hypothesis of schizophrenia, when it was also noticed that amphetamines can cause transient psychoses, a totally mythical theory that still operates today in the popular consciousness as “schizophrenia is caused by a brain chemical imbalance”. Amphetamine works on the central nervous system by stimulating the release of the endogenous compounds norepinephrine and/or dopamine, neurotransmitters involved in emotion, movement and cognitive functioning and are also involved in regulating the heart beat, blood pressure, gastric motility and the secretion of hormones, via the peripheral sympathetic nervous system. The market for speed is thus a market for the production of material affects on the nervous system.
This machinic labour of neurocommodity production can thus either result in the hyperaroused body of the “addict” or the hypoaroused body of the ADHD kid taking prescribed medication. As the psychopharmacologist and critic of biological psychiatry David Healy, puts it:
If this seems to push the argument too far, consider that we regard prescribed amphetamines as safe enough to give to children, even toddlers, while the authorities jail others for possession of street amphetamines on the basis of the risks they pose. The same is true for prescribed as opposed to proscribed opiates, and other drugs.
While Healy is right that other drugs also circulate in both licit and illicit markets (SSRIs, beta-blockers, methadone, Gabapentin, Pregabalin and Quietiapine all seem popular where I work, as well as in society at large) these drugs aren’t just synthesised to manage the psychological toxicity of late capitalism. They are increasingly being exchanged and consumed on the basis of their purported effect as neuro-or-cognitive enhancers. The Centre for neuroscience and society at the University of Pennsylvania is one institution that has reported that student surveys show that more and more students, workers within a particular economy of the production of knowledge, are buying these legal amphetamines as study aids, promoting their ability to concentrate: paying attention becomes buying attention as human neurocognitive capacities themselves become commodities. This is less immaterial labour and immaterial production as neuroproduction: a form of molecular production that is carried out in the spatial regime that unites laboratories to brains via existing distribution chains that are augmented and extended by friends, dealers, and so on. Soon, the existing enhancers are suspected to be joined by memory-boosting drugs developed for dementia. The pharmaceutical industry is certainly healthy, projections for this year anticipate that the global pharmaceuticals market is worth US$300 billion a year, a figure expected to rise to US$400 billion within three years, and this new trend for cognitive enhancement is only going to help pharmaco-capital to expand further.
To clarify a moment, the problem here is not about any humanist or primitivist fear of the technological invasion of bodies (what Virilio calls “endocolonisation”), because I regard bodies as always already prosthetic, extended, augmented and so on. Likewise, I’m not concerned about this creating some level of unfairness or this being a cheap short-cut to greater intelligence. For a start, these drugs don’t actually enhance cognition by making you smarter, they just make you better able to concentrate, better able to work, to lose weight, to be happy in a world of suffering and destruction as amnesiac devices. If there is a problem with endocolonisation here it is with the fact of this being a capitalist endocolonial mission that miniaturises various forms of distraction, integrating coping mechanisms in our organisms that, in the long run, keep us subjugated to capital and blissfully, mindfully, accepting of the objective nihilism of an ecocidal age. This biotechnological colonialism is also obviously directed on working bodies, bodies that perform all sorts of labour.
In 2012 the Guardian published a story entitled “Speed and the city” that included the following:
This week the New York Times published an article about a Dr Michael Anderson, who prescribes Adderall to low-income schoolchildren struggling with their studies. Dr Anderson doesn’t even believe ADHD is a legitimate illness, but he does believe that taking Adderall can help disadvantaged children compete with their more privileged peers. “We’ve decided as a society that it’s too expensive to modify the kid’s environment,” he explains. “So we have to modify the kid.” (my emphasis)
While discussions of Adderall in the media focus overwhelmingly on its use in educational institutes, what you hear less about is the number of professionals who use it so they can put more hours in at the office. Indeed, demand for the magic pills is so rampant in New York that when the great Adderall drought of 2011struck the city it triggered a thoroughly Gotham-ic panic. Normally stoic New Yorkers wept at pharmacist counters and The New York Observer set up a special Adderall Wire to keep tabs on where readers should try scoring. The Observer, let me stress, is not a fringe publication.
Meanwhile, the Orwellian sounding “The Work Foundation” published an article in 2013 asking
should employers start to take more notice of smart drugs? Many are already very interested in the concept of ‘Flow’ – put forward by Harvard Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. This is akin to the ‘Zone’ which high-performance sportsmen and women attain when at their peak and refers to a state of heightened focus and immersion in activities such as art, play and work. Perhaps the next step will be to encourage the use of smart drugs in jobs where cognitive enhancement can demonstrably improve the productivity of knowledge workers.
If the immaterial labour theorists were interested in a General Intellect here we find ourselves enmeshed with the commodification of the nervous system and its material capacities, a particular production of productivity. If value is related to socially useful labour time, or the time of production, then its clear that these cognitive enhancers aim at the acceleration of the somatic temporalisation of bodies: in effect, you think faster, you do faster. Given the conditions within capitalism’s work society in which labour is forced to divest itself of labour power, in which you and I and everyone else is compelled to work in order to secure the basics of biophysical survival, never mind the luxury items and experiences that so many of us would also hope to see communised, it becomes a clear possibility workers will also be compelled to take these enhancers. Psychopharmacology wouldn’t no longer simply be a means of priviatising, exploiting and managing the wounded or abject subjectivities of late capitalism but it could become a vital mechanism of its expansion. After the spatial fix, go inside! The poster child for this movement might be the new piece of hardware that operates the technique known as transcranial magnetic stimulation, a direct electro-stimulatory device that works by via implanted electrodes that pass an electrical current through the brain. In essence, TMS is a portable dose of ECT carried around inside the skull; a cybernetic affective regulation apparatus.
I opened this rather long article with a quote from Tao Lin’s much applauded and much slated novel Taipei. I think Lin is an author exposing his readers to the affectless terrain of some forms of contemporary subjectivity. But I think he is also writing in a tradition. Like Ernest Hemminway (who he cites as an influence) he is a literary minimalist, and this is partly to do with his (I guess you could call it) abject subjectivism. I also find this interesting because he is writing in the age of eliminativism and the hegemonic dominance of a neuroreductionism: his characters don’t express their emotions as emotions but as behavioural/behaviourist and biochemical abberations that require correction. All of Lin’s novels feature excessive drug-use as self-medication, but it is probably nowhere more evident than in Taipei’s pages, wherein its almost possible to feel like Xanax and Ambien are characters in their own right.
In a way, I find that Lin’s work reads a lot like a nursing case study or initial assessment. This detachment is clinical but it has very subtle hints of intimacy, it expresses through repetition rather than through adverb and tone. In a sense then he doesn’t really belong to the lineage that would include Ernest Hemmingway and the k-mart realists I’ve seen him ascribed to, but rather to the kind of affectless world of Ballard and Ellis’s American Psycho. Where Lin differs from these is in having jettisoned the saving power (Ballard) or the psychotic banality (Ellis) of imagination. Lin’s characters aren’t strictly after the death of affect but are rather struggling to experience themselves. At the same time he is a writer producing narratives in an age of narrative saturation and of telepresence. His characters are instantaneous, without history, or without an intimate connection to their own histories… they’re characters aware of their position in a narrative they can t author, and that they can’t even locate themselves in. If I were to sum up Lin’s Taipei, I’d say its about the nonlocality of identity.
What is most interesting about Taipei is the way it serves as a literary imprinting of contemporary drug culture. With William Burroughs we were shown a world of heroin use and hallucination; with William Burroughs jnr. we were given stream of consciousness accounts of a life lived on speed; in the 1990s we saw the emergence of the Prozac novel; today we get Taipei, with its mixture ad hoc grabbing for any drug that can counter the dizzying pace and demand of an accelerative work society. There is no real drug of choice in the book, there is only the pharmacologically induced distance, insulation, deceleration, the attempt to dull the nervous system and thereby regulate stimulation. For the characters of Taipai, drugs are a coping mechanism.
The same kind of biopharmacopower is also operative in Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, a love story about a middle aged white American man who meets a young Korean American woman at a party, there approximation-of-a-romance failing to flourish across their äppärät, a kind of hyper-iphone, and in person. This tale of the inability to relate or communicate is touching but it is the background details that make the novel work. This pretence of love occurs in a new york that is dominated by retail and advertising (terms which also seem to operate in the novel’s world as caste-identifications), where “credit posts” tell you how much people who walk by them are worth and, if they’re undesirable immigrants, will issue declarations that they should “Go home” etc. It is a world where bodies are cyberpharmacologically tweeked into youthfulness, where the same äppärätwill rate and broadcast the rating of your “hotness” and “fuckability” to others. In this world, in which the US economy has crumbled and China seems to have bought most of the country, and where, crucially for understanding the society of stimulation, biophysical levels- hormones, cholesterol, neurotransmitters- are displayed in the workplace to determine if you are a good or bad employee. Here the protagonist, Lenny, is discussing how this process happens at his workplace:
With one of two exceptions, I haven’t made many work-time friends at Post-Human Services since I turned thirty. It’s not easy being friends with some twenty-two-year-old who cries over his fasting fasting blood-glucose levels or sends out a Global-Teens [e-mail provider] with his adrenal-stress index and a smiley face. When the graffito in the men’s bathroom reads “Lenny Abramov’s insulin-levels are whack”, there is a certain undeniable one-upmanship, which, in turn, raises the cortisol levels associated with stress and encourages cellular breakdown. (Kindle location 914).
At the same time, I heard the ticka-ticka-ticka of The Boards as Darryl’s mood indicator fell from “positive/playful/ready to contribute” to “annoying the heck of Joshie [their boss] all week”. His cortisol levels are a mess too. Just a little more stress on his part and I’ll get my desk back. (Kindle location 1243)
Beyond literature, we also find elements of this in recent films like Soderbergh’s disappointing Side-effects and, more obviously, in Limitless. In the first film we follow a psychiatrist caught up in a thriller who routinely gets friends to prescribe him anxiety medications to help him relax. This same character, Dr. Banks, also gives his wife beta-blockers to help soothe her and to make her appear more confident during a big job interview, reassuring her that ‘everyone does it’. The film goes on to become a taut thriller but it leaves aside its social critique in the second half to become something of a mess that plays on the idea that patients are “faking it”, especially in regards to the sexually appealing woman who gets classified as personality disordered for daring to make use of that sexuality to survive. In Limitless we’re dealing with an advertising man who becomes hooked on a super-cognitive enhancer, nzt . In this film these super-enhancers are quickly put to impossible use to make master, and make millions, from the stock market. Thus the nootropic drugs operate differently in these two films. In the literary examples the drugs are used as a kind of necessary survival tool; in Side-effects the drugs are used both as ways of coping-with work and gaining a competitive egde, while in Limitless we pretty much encounter a psychobiotechnological superhero who, despite all his massive gains, becomes dependent on the meds, as we see when his supply gets threatened. It is probably Limitless that gets closest to the vision of the worker in the info-economy that Franco Berardi privileges as the hegemonic subjectivation of semiocapitalism:
if you want to survive you have to be competitive and if you want to be competitive you must be connected, receive and process continuously an immense and growing mass of data. This provokes a constant attentive stress, a reduction of the time available for affectivity.(Berardi 2009, p.102)
While it seems like this is just another version of the immaterial labour thesis, it doesn’t have to be read that way. For Berardi we are all semioproducers who are in the business of fashioning semiotic entities such as meaning, subjectivity, and value, but increasingly we are also producers of data, meta-data and information in general. As a nurse, I’m clearly involved in the technical-affective labour of medication management, physical assessment, counselling, diet and hydration, but I am also producing information at any alarming rate. Facts, figures, medical records, needle exchange return rates and products supplied, nursing notes, care plans, reviews, referral, admission and discharges: both on paper and stored in the material processing chips, databases and the cloud storage of cyberspace, I am a producer of fragments of information. And insofar as all jobs require some form of paper or electronic recording we are all involved in this cybernetic economy; cybernetic because irreducible to either bodies or to digital incorporeality.
Similarly, anyone that works night shifts is also likely caught up in the kind of self-medicating biorecuperation that recharges and preserves labour power. When I work nights I drink a copious amount of coffee in order to stay awake and, recently, I’ve begun to drink a little alcohol when I get in because with my body running on the caffeine, cortisol and adrenalin I’m unable to sleep without some form of sedation. This kind of pattern amount to a microstimulatory regime in which my body must be accelerated by stimulants before being decelerated by sedatives. This microstimulatory regime is enacted in some form or another by almost all workers, but it becomes particularly acute in people who regularly work nights. A recent study conducted on rats reported that chronic sleep disturbance caused a neuronal insult of the scale that up to 25% of the neuronal tissue died. Given that there is some debate over the application of animal studies to the divergent cerebral tissue and embodied embeddedness of human brains (as well as the obvious ethico-political problems), the author of that study, according to The Independent, also stated that
previous research on humans has shown attention span and several other aspects of cognition do not return back to normal even with three days of recovery sleep, raising the possibility that permanent damage had been sustained.
It is ironic that in the society of stimulation the info-economy, and the economy in general, have become increasingly composed of attentional-economic features, is damaging precisely the neurocognitive capacity to attend. Another recent report, this time from the BBC, also sums up current findings by simply saying that ‘Doing the night shift throws the body “into chaos”‘- hardly surprising when we consider that our biorhythms are a form of refrain that orders our corporeal existence. Working nights has been linked to higher rates of cancer, heart attacks, and diabetes. One proposed mechanism for this is that working nights interrupts the circadian rhythms that help to time the diurnal-nocturnal activation/deactivation of specific genetic machines. The disruption of these ‘rhythmic genes’ leads to what Prof Derk-Jan Dijk has dubbed ‘chrono-chaos’. We always knew that it was wrong to work, but its becoming ever more apparent that working, when we can even get work, in late capitalism can in itself be carcinogenic. In the society of stimulation the chaotic patterns of excitation-relaxation become uncoupled from carnal and sensuous necessity and become a vehicle for extending the time of value production. This chronopolitical aspect of work reveal that work is damaging even at the cellular level. Is it any wonder that the Paris Commune demanded the end of night work?
Before I fall victim to any accelerationist critiques, these same biotechnological means of accelerating our biorhythmicities (the way our bodies produce the temporalities of our experience) could also have great emancipatory potential. These technologies, like antidepressants, neuroleptics and other pharmaceuticals, do have a profound ameliorative potency on suffering when they are used correctly. Just as a communist society wouldn’t throw away telecommunications, insulin or every and all industrial processes, so it wouldn’t throw away a technology that has the potential for helping to alleviate suffering. After all, what kind of idealism would propose that there would be no mental suffering under communism? The notion of neurophysiological production is also already to be found in Marx, in footnote 62 of Capital vol. 1, chapter 6, where Marx is discussing how attitudes towards night work ‘shows plainly how capitalist production acts on the brain-functions of capitalists and their retainers’. Panic and generalised anxiety, perhaps even some forms of mania, could be said in a Marxian turn of phrase to be symptoms of a neurocapitalist overproduction.
This neurocognitive overproduction also works via ‘the transmission of neurotic signs’ (Isin 2004) that more-or-less intentionally aim at mutating the social field into a new terrain of looming threat. There is always something on the horizon ready to attack, whether it is freak weather, a potential rapist, a criminal, a terrorist, the Russians and so on. This is a technique that I have elsewhere described as involving a skilled manipulation of our awareness of our biophysical weaknesses, our carnal vulnerability, ultimately our awareness of our own deaths (necropolitics) in order to produce in us a state of anxiety that sovereign agents- capital, the state, psychiatry- can then offer to soothe, to ameliorate. First produce the social as itself composed of threat, then show the masses you can keep them safe or, failing that, show them who is to blame, what threat to eliminate. I think that this, in part, explains the rise of fascism. The use of media forms in the manipulation of affect is crucial to this strategy, especially in the attempt to gather a mass audience by repetitions of images, sounds, film clips- the prime example, by now familiar to all, would be the images of Twin Towers collapsing. This end up in what Virilio (2005, p.54) calls a hyperterrorism wherein local attacks can have a global influence via an ‘audiovisual detonation’ that produces ‘an instant paralysis’. The overproduction of these neurotic signs isn’t simply a semiological production alone because we relate to these signs with our bodies, with our nervous systems.
These signs produce sensible affects. These signs interact with our physiology a neurology: they excite us. By this I mean that they can produce both processes of a neurotic or sexually charged hyperarousal, the two being not absolutely distinguishable from the perspective of the molecular physiological scale. Semioproduction results in these semiosomatic couplings that act as sign-amphetamines. We are made into sign-dependent stimuli-junkies with results that not even those who have incited them can expect; but you can bet that capitalism will be there to sell you something to help sleep at night. This hyperterrorism is what the philosopher Bernard Steigler refers to as a ‘hypersolicitation of attention’ ( ,94) that actually produces a profound inattentional of the critical faculties. The paralysis resulting from the excess of flows of information demand that the eye move to quickly, that the mind never settle on one subject, that, in fact, we constantly remain open to those flows as part of the global cybernetic distribution of information. There is never a freezing of these flows, never a solidification into static arrays that we could look over, or, if forms of solidification do still exist, as they surely do in print media and in the noncinematic visual arts, they exist as awash with those flows. There is a doubling, rather like that seen in augmented technology, that could be deployed in productive ways, but tends have the effect of only increasing our receptivity to information. Under the extended cognition thesis, the idea that we “offload” cognitive capacities into the environment- so that writing a note, “get milk”, becomes an offloaded form of memory- leaves us open to the capture of cognitive circuits by capital. The effect here, taken to its hyperbolic end-point, is the disappearance of criticality in the spontaneity of the information flow that outpaces the organic brain, increasing our reliance on cognitive offloading and producing a temporality in which their is no time to think. The only possible human capacity that can match the speed of information is the speed of affectivity, particularly of emotion. Without time to think this media-pharmacology effectively renders an electrical tele-lobotomy, a lobotomy-at-a-distance.
I stress that this argument is hyperbolic, dystopian even, in order to stress the need for a reappropriation of the means of the dissemination of information, to a re-capturing of media, the development of “post-media” strategies. It is already clear that there are many projects that are attempting to do just that, and that show that the death of critical thought isn’t quite as complete as Virilio et al. fear. The weakness of those positions always being their remove from a communist praxis and thus from the realisation that the tools for emancipation from the social forms of oppression lay within those very forms. These positions also forego any understanding of how bodies are themselves active components of subjectivation whose presence within the circuits of subjectivation can’t be reduced to a passivity such that older “sponge” models of media understood them. In the feedback circuits of media connectedness we are not simply nodal points through which information flows unhampered. Our bodies, and their histories of subjectivity up to that point, their kinesthetic potentials etc., all determine to some extent what information we recieve and what information we don’t. My phone can ring, but I can refuse to answer the call. This is a very small form of resistance but it is resistance nonetheless. Part of the problem is that this resistance shouldn’t be all we hope to be left with. Virilio also seems to think that speed, and the temporal dimension chronos, is something that we exist inside of, rather than something that bodies themselves generate from their molecular and kinesthetic motility. Because speed and time get desutured from bodies in this way, Virilio’s dystopian image also departs from the fact that temporality can only ever be spatio-temporality. He regularly states that time has trumped space, that chronopolitics has won out over geopolitics; but these claims can’t be taken seriously when we consider the state of the environment, the importance of fights over the right to the city and gentrification, and the fact that the production of greater speed has always been linked to the petro-state’s thirst for most geological of products.
If there is no fundamental ontological distinction between our bodies and the media they hook into then we don’t need to think in terms of passivity but of training, therapy, surgery. The point here would be less to accelerate and more to reconfigure. Where Freudo-Marxian radicals once spoke of libidinal economies, according to the semiotic energetics Marx and Freud inherited from physics, today we would do better to speak in terms of the political pharmacodynamics and political pharmacokinetics of capital. This is to say, we are required to re-materialise the concept of libido even as we also add the semioceuticals (which can include therapy) to the pharmacology that already exists. This would be make pharmacoanalysis into a variant of somato-politics, the politics of calories, of working bodies, cellular labour, hydration, endocrinological transmission, psycho-and-neurological technologies of self-governance. This kind of semiosomatic praxis is precisely the kind of work I engage in in its depoliticised form as a nurse; so, again, the problem is to politicise and to re-purpose, rather than necessarily one of accelerating.
We live in a time of ruin and decay. This is true of our subjective formations as much as it is of our infrastructural relations. We have to build from those ruins, assembling anything that we can find, whatever is at hand, turning it into a means of coping, of surviving, or, if possible, into a weapon. Within a society of stimulation, where amphetamines operate both materially as means of producing productive somatic subjectivations, workers of all kinds, and as a model of capitalism’s stimulatory circuitry itself, the question remains of whether or not these drugs, these biotechnological technologies, are open to communist weaponisation? The same must be true of neurology itself. Sometimes, in the rush to critique neurological reductionism it seems like the baby gets thrown out with the bath water. I hope that this post in some way demonstrates how neuroscience can be taken up and turned against capital. Capitalism increasingly seems to mean the irreversible scorching of the Earth, the body of the planet itself pushed beyond capacity by agricultural and industrial stimulants, but none of its technologies must be considered as inevitable monstrosities. We aren’t looking to destroy capitalism… it’s already a field of destruction.
The question, as ever, is the degree to which we are free to determine the conditions of the synthesis of these technologies, and the relations of their production, just as it must also recognise that anti-depressants and amphetamines operate as decelerative techniques that allow workers to recuperate their biophysical processes and thereby keep working. If we once sought to occupy Taylorist factories, today we might want to consider reaching out to those with the ability to occupy and operate the laboratories too. In an amphetamine economy, we have to be ready for the inevitable crash, and to resist the entropy of mourning; in a society of stimulation we are faced with the necessity of imagining what an emancipatory pharmacology might look like.
lots of good stuff here AJ, I think that big pharma is doing itself (so to speak) in with the usual market-drives to
hyper-profits, so we should do what we can in the meantime to give people low-tech alternatives so they can wean themselves off of overdoing, be it something(s) like meditation/body-work, collective living/working, etc.
I would be thrilled if we could start a kind of online “tool” library and lab/workshop (to share successful and failed experiments in varying environs/assemblages) here @ S_Z if that would appeal to you and michael (and of course anyone reading who would be willing to pitch in). What do you folks think?
I think it is a great idea Dirk. Gathering tools and examples of innovatove praxis is a huge part of the project in my view. What would it look like though.
PS- I will comment on Arran’s essay today. Great work here.
yeah not sure, in part should be in the flow of the blog and also a separate space at least until it gets running (if it gets) up to being its own thing entirely.
could be writing and videos and podcasts as suits the author(s) and the subject, sadly my computing skills are next to nil but shouldn’t be too hard to round up some coders.
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