Capitalism: The Age of Sad Passions?

Is the era where ‘power produces more than it represses’ the Age of Sad Passions?

And, in an era that ‘produces more than it represses,’ why haven’t the large decentralized networks that expand at an exponential rate forced older more centralized systems of power into exile?

A simple hypothesis might be that affect was never ‘double-sided’ in the way Spinoza characterized it. Books, birds, and the body have never interacted in truly reciprocal relation. A book might induce a reader to pass through a thousand intensive states (plateaus?) without the reader ever causing the book to undergo a single transformation. But it might be more helpful to imagine the Bergsonian side of things. Maybe affect gets crystallized in things in a way similar to how Marx argued human labor is crystallized in machines. If a gesture expresses affective force, as recorded on canvas by masterful painter, then a like gesture can be recorded in ink on the written page. Maybe the Spinozist model can be saved.

To make the question a bit more pointed: is capitalism a composition of joyous or sad passions?

Following the Marxist condensed definition – capitalism socializes production while privatizing profit – then capitalism seems to produce both joy and sadness. Capitalism contains a kernel of the Utopian Socialist dream in the socialization of production, though partially coerced, as is the coordination of increasingly complex chains of production.[1] But that production is not done for the benefit of those doing the production, but for the capitalist who owns the means of production and is therefore able to extort the fruits of the producer’s labor in return for a wage. This process is the basis of Marx’s definition of alienation – the systematic theft of the products of labor from those who produce it.

Is the alienation of affect so obvious, as to make any discussion on the topic stupid? Excitement, sorrow, anticipation, and heartbreak seem to be emotions that modern society tries to induce daily. Sometimes it’s extreme, like a soap operas that are predictable enough to affectively register as categorical affects and quickly fade; and sometimes it’s ‘more real’ like the ultra-gory Saw films or Reality TV. The ultimate example is still marketing. Even a cursory tracing of its trajectory is revealing: first marketing firms ‘gave the facts’, then they hired psychoanalysts to be told the key to the human unconscious, then they let the subject’s ‘speak for themselves’ in market groups, then viral marketing saturated affective space, and finally today we have neural-marketing that bypasses consciousness altogether by testing ads on the basis of autonomic response. This history reads like a condensed version of Foucault’s genealogy of power, ending with Deleuze’s societies of control.

What gives this formation power is transitivity.  Simply, transitivity is the cycling of bodies, a transition or passage.  Each transition generates a small surplus of composition. When these passages are connected and accumulated, a body of relationality as such emerges. Power is generated by setting the transition between states to a particular speed and rhythm.  It’s the circulation through different blocks of space-time rather residence within any particular one that makes this form of power massively potentializing. Power is no longer based on depth but is expressed as affective intensity.  Without index or representation but lived duration that involves the difference of two states. Change becomes infectious – for instance, the Dow’s ‘Flash Crash’ last May when a single small trade triggered a whole cascade of algorithms that only took minutes to unfold.  Or a post-signifying linguistics that spreads through insinuation rather than meaning.

We seem to be producing more affect than ever. But paradoxically, we seem to have less control over it, too. Just look at the huge list of credits after a blockbuster movie. Whole towns of people are put to work to create an affective environment so powerful it’s nearly impossible to recreate.

How are we to respond to the overwhelming power of the new affective landscape?

[1] Marx describes this in the Chapter 13 of Capital Volume 1, “Co-Operation.”

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