Hearing the “Languages of Infrastructures”: Capitalism as Public Address


What does capital sound like? Do we hear it in the grinding gears of industry? The rustling papers of bureaucracy? The idle chatter of company spokesmen? The business maxims of a boss?

Though deceptively simple, the question is not an innocent one. How people listen for capitalism has major implications for public address, rhetorical theory, and Deleuze studies. As far as scholars of public address still rely on Aristotle’s two-fold definition of humans (“man is the only animal to possess language,” and “man is a political animal”), politics is central to the field. The rapport between capitalism and orality is far less certain. This ambiguity raises an important theoretical question: is rhetoric even important for the study of capitalism? And if rhetorical theory does have a role in critiquing capital, what is role of Marxist linguistics?

Today, I explore French Marxists Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s suggestion that capitalism speaks in a voice even more nefarious than the ideological speech of politicians. According to them, capitalism acts through the inhuman code of asignifying semiotics.

I set the context through the global financial crisis of 2007-2008. I show how capitalism operates through “semiotic operators,” such as “stock market indices, currency, mathematical equations, diagrams, computer languages, national and corporate accounting” (Lazzarato, Signs and Machines, 39). I draw two implications from this finding: first, that there is a regime of signs distinct to capital, and second, that they draw on categories of rhetoric beyond those established in rhetorical theory.

PART I: Context

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 was a major global event. The effects of the crisis were significant: foreclosures spread globally, major financial institutions collapsed, governments bailed out major industries, and Europe was thrown into a sovereign debt crisis. As a result, there was significant ideological disillusionment with neo-Classical economics. Former-Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank Alan Greenspan noted in Congressional testimony that it put economists “in a state of shocked disbelief” (“Financial Crisis,” elec). And against his signature coyness, Greenspan plainly admitted that he was “very distressed by the fact” that the crisis exposed a major flaw in his free-market ideology (ibid).

The change in the winds of fortune caused a renewed interest in Marxism. Yet the financial crisis did not follow from the classical Marxist maxim that “every crisis is a crisis of overproduction.” There were certainly effects for commodity producers, such as the American auto industry, but the causes did not emerge from department 1 of production or department 2 of consumption. Marxists were wholly unprepared to address finance, as the only relevant parts of Marx’s three volumes of capital is a brief description of “fictitious capital” in Chapter 29 of Volume III.

There are already some significant accounts of the crisis from authors broadly inspired by the works of Deleuze and Guattari. Many come from the autonomist Marxist tradition. While often convincing, these thinkers treat economics as capital’s idealization of politics, and thus have a very narrow account of rhetoric (Cleaver, Holloway). The autonomists usually draw on the linguistic turn to describe the colonization of symbolic action by capitalist management (Marazzi). Such formulations prevent most autonomists from taking on board Deleuze and Guattari’s linguistics, which breaks from Aristotle. In contrast, Maurizio Lazzarato engages the autonomist tradition while maintaining a strictly Deleuzian metaphysics. The bulk of Lazzarato’s last five years of scholarship has dissected the new subject of debt that is central to neoliberal financialization. But it is Lazarato’s recently translated Signs and Machines that stands to make his most substantial contribution to rhetorical theory. It is there that I find the key to rhetorically critiquing financial capitalism: a comprehensive theory of asignifying semiotics.

PART 2: Asignifying Semiotics

Maurizio Lazzarato distinguishes between signifying semiotics and asignifying semiotics. Signifying semiotics establishes meaning “aimed at consciousness and mobilizes representations with a view to constituting an individual subject” (39). Asignifying semiotics, in contrast, “does not involve consciousness and representations and does not have the subject as referent” (39). The social implications for distinguishing between these two semiologies are at the crux of Lazzarato’s argument. He connects each two the two forms of subjectivity established by Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus: social subjection and machinic enslavement (456-459). Social subjection utilizes signification to establish transcendent models to which subjectivities conform – “the entrepreneur” – whereas machinic enslavement relies on asignifying signs that act directly on material flows – money and finance (Signs and Machines, 31; 40). The power of capital is the union of subjection and enslavement (31). While cultural Marxists have thoroughly addressed the social instruments of capitalism, Lazzarato claims that they do not account for subjections intersection with its technical instruments. Asignifying semiotics is not unique to capitalism, as it is how conceptual art, computer code, and scientific diagrams operate. Yet the global power of capitalism raises the stakes for theorizing semiotics that extend beyond narrative, language, and discourse.

Signifying semiotics is addressed in fairly traditional studies of public address. Consider then-presidential candidate Barack Obama’s October 2008 speech “Economic Crisis and the Middle Class.” Throughout the speech, Obama lists a long series of economic policy measures he promises as relief to struggling Americans. Yet his consistent use of “you” and “our” denotes the speeches focus on identification. This dimension of the speech reaches a climax with his mashup of Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech and a reworked idea of the “American dream” that promises success through work as a promise to future generations. Obama ties his claims to the rhetoric of austerity by pledging a “new era of responsibility and accountability” that will reward financial prudence with entry into the middle class. In Obama’s continuing appeal to momentary dispossession, I am reminded of the apocryphal quip from John Steinbeck that, “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” This mode of analysis is familiar to those in public address, as it follows signifying semioitics “semiotic triangle” of reference, signification, representation.

Asignifying semiotics poses a greater challenge to rhetoric and public address. Obama punctuates his speech with economics. He begins with 401ks, and quickly launches into discussions about the implications of business loans on equipment purchasing, a long list of employment statistics, and monetary income changes – all within his opening remarks. Yet Obama is not employing asignifying semiotics, he is delivering a commentary on asignifying semiotics. He gives meaning to numbers, financial instruments, and economic indicators to distinguish himself from his political opponents, John McCain. Even more technical speeches, such as the public debate between the SEC and FTC chairmen on which agency regulates credit debt swaps, still do not directly intervene in economic flows. Rather, it is the “sign flows circulating from computer to computer” that makes up finance capitalism (96). Such a semiology has been expunged of anthropocentrism, as these signs “enable, solicit, prompt, encourage, or prohibit” “ontologically ambiguous entities” (30). This regime of signs is shared across science, economics, technology, and communication networks (31). My provocation is this: for public address to truly address capitalism, it must address asignifying semiotics, or what Pier Paolo Pasolini calls “the languages of infrastructures.”

PART 3: Rhetorical Theory

Previous public address scholarship has drawn on Deleuze and Guattari to address “constitutive rhetoric.” One example is John Michael Robert’s study of free speech struggles in London’s Hyde Park. Robert relies on D&G to establish how the state produces specific types of subjects. He identifies how the state regulation of decent/indecent speech through the 1872 Act creates consistent forms of expression. Another second example is Andrea Mubi Brighenti’s ethnographic analysis of graffiti writers in Northeast Italy. Brighenti draws on D&G to discuss the territorialization of the public. She argues that graffiti writing is an intersubjective interrogation of territory (“At the Wall,” 329). The constitution of “the people” and “territory” is at the crux of Deleuze and Guattari’s work. The utopian moment of their last collaboration, What is Philosophy?, ends in an appeal to “a new people and a new earth” yet to come (108). These important contributions are still limited to public address’s traditional focus on the “semiotic triangle” of reference, signification, and representation.

The novelty of Deleuze and Guattari’s asignifying semiotics for constitutive rhetoric is a new approach to subjectivity. Debates over economic determinism in materialist rhetoric have led to a number of unfortunate impasses (Cloud; Greene; Cloud, Macek, and Aune). D&G follow Étienne Balibar’s formulation that capitalism has two bases and no superstructure – an ideological mode of subjection and generalized economic mode of production (“Infinite Contradiction”). As such, constitutive rhetoric’s focus on ideological subjection leaves out the subjectivity produced by the technical instruments of capital. Charland’s canonical piece, for instance, uses the Althusserian mechanism of interpellation that draws on Lacanian signification, which depends on the transcendent ‘name of the father’ (Charland; Butler’s Althusser chapter in Psychic Life of Power). While transcendence works in signifying semiotics, the same is not the case for the machinic processes of economics, science, technology, and other systems. D&G thus address a neglected area of constitutive rhetoric.

Expanding rhetorical theory to the “languages of infrastructures” provides new understanding to Deleuze and Guattari’s linguistics of the “order word.” Early in “Postulates of Linguistics,” Deleuze and Guattari claim that, “the elementary unit of language … is the order-word,” which “not to be believe but to be obeyed” (ATP, 76). Perhaps the starkest example is the judge’s sentence that condemns a criminal to death (80-81; 94). But the French for order-word, mot d’ordre, also refers to the political slogan, which is substantiated by Deleuze and Guattari’s reference to Lenin’s pamphlet “On Slogans” (83). Both of these examples indicate how closely their linguistics aligns with the rhetorical theory of symbolic action. Rhetoric is excellent at studying those acts that cause incorporeal transformations, which as changes in a state of affairs that do not directly alter its materiality (80-88). Deleuze and Guattari challenge us to identify dimensions of communication that intervene directly on materiality without first being mediated by the symbolic. In this sense, some language should not be interpreted but only followed. This is how Deleuze and Guattari take Hitler’s suicidal Telegram 71, in which he transforms orders that, “If the war is lost, may the nation parish!” (231). Other fields have developed methods for studying these dimensions of language. In literary criticism, Katherine Hayles has used to Deleuze to develop a theory of speech, writing, and code (My Mother Was a Computer). In the context of rhetoric, then, we must learn how to study order words: management commands, computer programming, and trade executions.


In summary, capitalism operates through a combination of signifying and asignifying semiotics. Public address has conventionally studies the first type, as demonstrated in my analysis of the rhetoric of Obama’s October 2008 speech on the middle class. This type of analysis identifies the “semiotic triangle” of reference, signification, and representation of language. Using this approach, I identify how Obama made campaign promises of rewards for Americans who work hard by advancing the rhetoric of austerity. My argument is that these speeches – as well as financial reports, labor statistics, corporate press conferences – are not the sound of capital itself. Rather, there is an asignifying semiotics of machinic processes that directly intervene in materiality. This semiotics has its own independent regime of signs though which operate the technical machines of capitalism. I find that constitutive rhetoric has ignored the subjectivity specific to this semiology, and would benefit from a renewed interest in Deleuze and Guattari’s linguistics of the order-word.

Only when we learn to listen to programming code, network signals, and all the other “languages of infrastructures” will we hear how trade executions inaudibly cut, maim, and kill.

Works Cited

Andrea Mubi Brighenti (2010) “At the Wall: Graffiti Writers, Urban Territoriality, and the Public Domain,” Space and Culture, 13: 315-332.

Étienne Balibar (1995) “The Infinite Contradiction,” trans. Jacques Lezra, Yale French Studies, 88.

Judith Butler (1997) The Psychic Life of Power, Stanford University Press.

Maurice Charland (1987) “Constitutive Rhetoric: The Case of the Peuple Québécois,” Quarterly Journal of Speech, (73)2: 133-150.

Harry Cleaver (1979) Reading Capital Politically, University of Texas Press.

Dana L. Cloud (2001) “The Affirmative Masquerade,” American Communication Journal, 4. http://ac-journal.org/journal/vol4/iss3/special/cloud.pdf

Dana L. Cloud, Steve Macek, and James Arnt Aune (2006) “’The Limbo of Ethical Simulacra’: A Reply to Ron Greene,” Philosophy and Rhetoric, (39)1: 72-84.

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (1987) A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi, University of Minnesota Press.

Ronald W. Greene (1998) “Another Materialism,” Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 15: 21-41.

Alan Greenspan (2008) “The Financial Crisis and the Role of Regulators,” Congressional Testimony, October 23, http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CHRG-110hhrg55764/html/CHRG-110hhrg55764.htm

N. Katherine Hayles (2005) My Mother Was A Computer, University of Chicago Press.

John Holloway (2002) Change the World Without Taking Power, Pluto Press.

Marizio Lazzarato (2014) Signs and Machines, trans. Joshua David Jordan, Semiotext(e).

Christian Marazzi (2008) Capital and Language, trans. Gregory Conti, Semiotext(e).

John Michael Roberts (2008) “Expressive Free Speech, the State and the Public Sphere: A Bakhtinian–Deleuzian Analysis of ‘Public Address’ at Hyde Park,” Social Movement Studies: Journal of Social, Cultural and Political Protest, 7(2): 101-119.


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