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Posts Tagged ‘abstraction of capital’

“As it happens, tech – or surveillance capitalism – has disrupted the private investigation business as much as it’s ripped through journalism, the taxi business, war making, and so many other private and public parts of our world. And it’s not only celebrities and presidential candidates whose privacy hackers have burned through. Israeli spyware can steal the contacts off your phone just as LinkedIn did to market itself to your friends. Google, the Associated Press reported recently, archives your location even when you’ve turned off your phone. Huge online database brokers like Tracers, TLO, and IRBsearch that law enforcement and private eyes like me use can trace your address, phone numbers, email addresses, social media accounts, family members, neighbors, credit reports, the property you own, foreclosures or bankruptcies you’ve experienced, court judgments or liens against you, and criminal records you may have rolled up over the years.

Ten years ago, to subscribe to one of these databases, I had to show proof that I was indeed a licensed investigator and pass an on-site investigation to ensure that any data I downloaded would be protected. I was required to have a surveillance camera and burglar alarm on the building where my office was located, as well as a dead bolt on my office door, a locked filing cabinet, and double passwords to get into my computer. Now, most database brokers just require a PI or attorney license and you can sign right up online. Government records – federal and state, civil and criminal – are also increasingly online for anyone to access.

The authoritarian snoops of the last century would have drooled over the surveillance uses of the smartphones that most of us now carry. Smartphones have, in fact, become one of the primo law enforcement tools other than the Internet. “Find my iPhone” can even find a dead body – if, that is, the victim left her iPhone on while being murdered. And don’t get me started on the proliferation of surveillance cameras in our world.

Take me. I had a classic case that shows just how traceable we all now are. There was a dead body, a possible murder victim, but no direct evidence: no witnesses, no DNA, no fingerprints, and no murder weapon found. In San Francisco’s East Bay, however, as in most big American cities, there are so many surveillance cameras mounted on mom-and-pop stores, people’s houses, bars, cafes, hospitals, toll bridges, tunnels, even in parks, that the police can collect enough video, block by block, to effectively map a suspect driving around Oakland for hours before hitting the freeway and heading out to dump a body, just as the defendant in my case did.

Once upon a time, cops and dirty private eyes would have had to attach trackers to the undercarriages of cars to follow them electronically. No longer. The particular suspect I have in mind drove his victim’s car across a bridge, where cameras videotaped the license plate but couldn’t see inside the car; nor, he must have assumed, could anyone record him on the deserted road he finally reached where he was undoubtedly confident that he was safe. What he didn’t notice was the CALFIRE video camera placed on that very road to monitor for brush fires. It caught a car’s headlights matching his on its way to the site he had chosen to dump the body. There was no direct evidence of the murder he had committed, just circumstantial, tech-based evidence. A jury, however, convicted him in just a few hours.”

– Judith Coburn, “A Private Investigator on Living in a Surveillance Culture: Can we be forgotten anymore?Common Dreams. August 27, 2018.

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“the big growth industry right now is totalitarianism.

that’s not some intense rhetorical statement or political slogan, it’s a fact by the definition of the word.

the rise of ‘smart’ technology–cities that monitor the motions of their citizens, cars that report to insurance companies what you’re talking about, thermometers that keep an eye on where people are in the house and run that through a third-party database, and most of all google (alphabet now actually, google is just a subsidiary) which is contending for the richest company in the world–are based off expanding a practice of total universal data control and “realtime behavior modification”–usually through negative incentivization: if you talk about driving dangerously, your car tells the insurance company who increases your rates. this is the purpose behind ‘gamifying’ structures as well, to build a video-game-like reward/punishment system into capitalism where one’s behavior is constantly supported or opposed. functionally, tech bros are imposing a bad videogame morality system onto real life. or, not “are imposing” so much as “have imposed”, given how such a thing already defines how we interact with each other online. it is formalized, incentivized totalitarianism, to a degree that the totalitarian governments of the past couldn’t imagine (this totalitarianism is decentralized, abstracted to trends and aesthetics and the logic of capital).

they are trying to push total complacency as we move into the era of climate collapse. and it’s happening so fast, so efficiently, and so differently than people expected, no one knows how to respond.”

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“I want to explore here the way in which his work articulates images of logistics and the logistics of images in terms of their specific effacements and distortions of the laboring body, and their iteration of the division between intellectual and manual labor. This involves an indispensable detour through the critique of abstraction, in the conviction that unless we attend to the way in which our artistic and visual practices are responsive to and embedded in capital’s real abstractions (Toscano, 2008), their constructions of really-abstract spaces, together with bodily and social dispositions, we may be lured into the repetition or reproduction of the very mechanisms we are seeking to depict or dismantle. A rapid glance over the now extensive archive of art about that most compellingly banal of object and devices, the container, suggests that the qualities of isomorphy, modularity, abstraction, indifference (or anaesthesia), standardization, mathematical or scalar sublimity that attach to logistical complexes fascinate the artistic gaze, drawing into a risky mimesis or replication of the very design and function of the abstract spaces of logistics. In his article ‘The Instrumental Image’ (Sekula, 1975), Sekula had shown how the relationship between, on the one hand, Edward Steichen’s instrumental images—aerial reconnaissance photographs which themselves speak volumes about logistics originally military meaning—and, on the other, the spiritualization of the instrumental under the sign of modernism and its abstractions, found their intimate bond in what we could call a mimesis of abstraction. A world rendered ‘concretely abstract’ by the geographic and temporal imperatives of capitalist accumulation seems to ‘reflect back’ onto the artistic gaze that very drive to spiritualized abstraction (itself grounded on the separation of intellectual and manual labor) which had been the political-economic content of its aesthetic forms. In contemporary visual practice, especially photographic and cinematic work oriented toward logistical complexes, the mimetic lure of real abstraction has several modalities, among which is the figure of logistics as a depopulated landscape of megastructures.

As Fredric Jameson observes in Representing Capital:

[T]he dead labor embodied in machinery suddenly swells to inhuman proportions (and is properly compared to a monster or a Cyclopean machine). It is as though the reservoir, or as Heidegger would call it, the “standing reserve” (Gestell), of past or dead labor was immensely increased and offered ever huger storage facilities for these quantities of dead hours, which the merely life-sized human machine-minder is nonetheless to bring back to life, on the pattern of the older production. The quantities of the past have been rendered invisible by the production process outlined above, and yet they now surround the worker in a proportion hitherto unthinkable. (Jameson, 2011: 102)

This annihilation of time by space, of the visibility of labor-time by the amplification of the physical infrastructures of dead labor, poses the problem of cognitive mapping in far more theoretically determinate matter than the mere problem of not being able to represent the vastness and complexity of a capitalist world-system, which shears perception away from production. Here, I want to complement this critical focus on the nexus of logistics, scale, and fixed capital, with an investigation into the relation between abstraction, circulation, labor, and visual representation, turning to Sekula to think the question of logistics as one of the forms taken by circulation, and the need to defetishize these forms while recognizing their efficacy. By thematizing abstraction, I also want to begin to think how logistics might be framed not only through its material apparatuses but also through its legal, operational, managerial and commodity forms.

We can draw from Sekula’s work a sustained and systematic critique of how capitalist abstraction—in its monetary, aesthetic, and scientific dimensions—permeates the relationship between photography and labor, repeating in a sui generis manner the subjection of work under capital. This critique of abstraction, which already transpires from Sekula’s earliest statements on the history of photography, is intimately linked, I want to suggest, to the question of logistics—an object of dogged and nuanced inquiry in Sekula’s maritime works. What follows is but a sketch, in view of a more patient, and systematic reconstruction. 

Sekula’s critical project in his historical essays is to provide “conceptual tools for unified understanding of the social workings of photography in an industrial environment” (Sekula, 1983: 202) and to struggle against the disappearance of labor in the photographically-mediated fetishism of the spaces of capital. It is this same drive that leads him from the deeps of the mines to the forgotten spaces of the sea. As he reflected: “The maritime world was interesting to me because it’s a world of gargantuan automation but also of persistent work, of isolated, anonymous, hidden work, of great loneliness, displacement and separation from the domestic sphere” (2002b: 582). In a world where “the cargo container has become the very emblem of capitalist disavowal,” labor is no longer accessible except through “some great imaginative geographical leap” (Sekula, 1999: 148). And that disavowal—which prolongs negations that shadow the entire history of labor’s representation and misrepresentation—is not countered but intensified by photography’s condition, itself based on a practice of abstraction, of “imaginary temporal and geographical mobility” (Sekula, 1983: 199)—which may be contrasted with the real mobility, animated by solidarity, that Sekula himself practised, and which is most evident in the political travelogue and video-work, Lottery of the Sea (2006). Such an endeavor is founded on the understanding that class conflict is a conflict of representations, and that an image critique of the rule of abstraction requires a partisan position: “[t]he archive has to be read from below, from a position of solidarity with those displaced, deformed, silenced, or made invisible by the machineries of profit and progress” (1983: 202). Such partisanship is resolutely incompatible with contemplation, be it of beauty or sublimity: “[t]he category of the awed spectator does not apply to those who live with the violence of machines and recalcitrant matter” (252).

Sekula’s credo is that:

in an age that denies the very existence of society, to insist on the scandal of the world’s increasingly grotesque ‘connectedness’, the hidden merciless grinding away beneath the slick superficial liquidity of markets, is akin to putting oneself in the position of the ocean swimmer, timing one’s strokes to the swell, turning one’s submerged ear with every breath to the deep rumble of stones rolling on the bottom far below. To insist on the social is simply to practice purposeful immersion (2002a: 7).

In Sekula’s essays and photoworks, I think we can discern two interlinked facets of the critique of abstraction, which have long and conflicting histories within Marxism: (1) a materialist and corporeal, as well as partisan, practice of photography, practicing ‘purposeful immersion’ into the social; (2) a ‘reduction’ of phenomena of artistic form to social form. One of the unique features of Sekula’s work is that he does both: unveiling the corporeal suffering and material inertness beneath the veneer of exchange, dragging form down into content, so to speak; but also moving from aesthetic form to social form…

But Sekula also undermines the bad, petty-bourgeois critique of abstraction, ever eager to pin its colors to the mast of some false immediacy. A case in point is Kurt Forster’s apologia for Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim: “[h]e does not think of the volumes of his buildings within the confines of abstract space (which is also the space of economics); rather he engages these volumes in intimate relationships with one another.” Sekula comments on this elaborate rhetoric of disavowal: “[t]he bad objects here are legion: abstraction, economics, and by implication, bureaucracy and modernism. The crypto-baroque promise of redemptive embodiment—‘corporeal qualities’ and ‘intimate relationships’—is not unlike that offered by the virtual world of the Internet” (Sekula, 2002a: 19-20).

In terms of the question of intellectual and manual labor, Forster’s paean is here a particularly egregious symptom, praising as it does the manner in which, in Gehry’s built structures, the “age-old distinction between the hands that design and the instruments that execute has been overcome” (20). Again, this disavows the reliance of this seemingly immaculate complex of finance-architectural design-computing-art with the activity of building and the entropy of materials, not to mention the social relations of the architectural site itself: the builders (from where?), the unions (are there any?), etc. In the end, Forster’s vision of the Bilbao Guggenheim as a monument to our productive capacities masks “a monument to the absolute hegemony of intellectual labor afforded by computer-based manufacturing” (20). 

The relentless critique of the supremacy of intellectual labor, and of how it is made possible by capitalism’s specific modes of abstraction is a leitmotiv in Sekula’s writing and practice. It is also an indispensable ingredient of his critical realism. What does realism mean if we sight it through the prism of universalized commodity exchange, of a society in which, as Marx wrote in the Grundrisse, individuals are ruled by abstractions? And how does photographic realism respond to the lived antinomies of bourgeois thought—of a humanist and individualist ideology of the subject of rights and equality in a world subsumed by the imperatives of capital accumulation? Sekula’s own formulation of these questions, voiced more than three decades ago in ‘The Traffic in Photographs (1981),’ still retains its urgency:

Perhaps the fundamental question to be asked is this: can traditional photographic representation, whether symbolist or realist in its dominant formal rhetoric, transcend the pervasive logic of the commodity form, the exchange abstraction that haunts the culture of capitalism? (1984: 80)

His own typology of realisms draws from the centrality of the exchange abstraction to capitalist culture. Sekula defines instrumental realism as “an ambitious attempt to link optical empiricism with abstract, statistical truth” (1984: 79; 1983: 201); this is the realism of the Gilbreths, and of all those practices that enlist photography in the scientific management of industrial labor, or in the attendant activity of identifying and policing those ‘dangerous individuals’ that either resist or are expelled from the labor market. The sentimental realism of the family photograph or the humanist portrait is instead conditioned by its repression of the prosaic violence of exchange, from which it abstracts in turn, idealistically. Bourgeois realism—present, exemplarily, in the portraiture of August Sander—is then caught in the antinomy between instrumental and sentimental, between knowing the world and feeling the world, as well as between scientific and political representation. As Sekula sums up this predicament: “One current defends science as the privileged representation of the real, as the ultimate source of social truth. The other current defends parliamentary politics as the representation of a pluralistic popular desire, as the ultimate source of social good” (1984: 87-88). Photography thus configured imagines itself as bridging the bourgeois diremption between art and science; it promotes the illusion of a humanized technology.”

– Alberto Toscano, “THE MIRROR OF CIRCULATION: ALLAN SEKULA AND THE LOGISTICAL IMAGE.Society + Space. July 30, 2018.

Photograph is

Allan Sekula, Panorama. Mid-Atlantic, November 1993, from Fish Story 1989–95. Christopher Grimes Gallery, Santa Monica

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