Signs and Machines
Capitalism and the Production of Subjectivity
Maurizio Lazzarato
Joshua David Jordan, Translator

I've been struggling with this son-of-a-bitch for a couple of months now. The message is great, but the medium is a little, shall we say, baggy. Or foggy. Boiled down greatly --- reduced to the absolute, it takes up but seven words: Machines own us, we don't own them.

You have doubts? Think for a moment about what happens when you're driving a car. You get in it, turn the key, start the engine, and take off. You then promptly become the machine. You may be behind the wheel, but your mind is miles --- possibly light-years --- away. Worrying about whether the dog is eating the furniture, whether your sweetie is off on a binge, whether you'll quit your job (it's about time).

What you don't notice is that you are turning here, braking there, overtaking a dozen cars on the freeway, speeding a little (check in the mirror for the Highway Patrol), pull the right turn signal, take Exit 51, drive a half-mile and on into the parking lot of Piggly-Wiggly, pull quickly into a parking spot ahead of that woman in the Lexus, roll up the windows, turn off the engine, don't forget the Froot-Loops for the kids --- I wish they had better eating habits.

Now. Who did the driving? You? Your subconscious? The car? God? Lazzarato says,

    We are guided by the car's machinic assemblage. Our actions and subjective components (memory, attention, perception, etc.) are "automatized," a part of the machinic, hydraulic, electronic, etc., apparatuses, constituting, like mechanical (non-human) components, parts of the assemblage . . . Often as we drive we enter "a state of wakeful dreaming," a "pseudo-sleep . . . which allows several systems of consciousness to function in parallel, some of which are like running lights, while others shift to the foreground."

§   §   §

This quote encapsulates the agony and the ecstasy of Signs and Machines. First, the message. Since our first days of driving a car, you and I have rarely focussed on what transpires as we are making our way down the highway. For those of us who have lived in the car culture for a long time, we operate on automatic. I think I'm running the machine called "car" or "Toyota" or "the machine," but it's really running me.

I commute five days of the week, and I do a lot of homework while I am making my commute. Plans for dinner, reviewing the state of my life, and, oy, the kids, my mother, the president! Driving? Nah. I'm listening to a great series of books being read to me. The moment I get out of the driveway, I punch on disk six of eight of The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma from Dreamscape Media (read by Edoardo Ballerin).

It's a very funny story about Julian McGann (or Jeffrey Oakes or Anton Prishibeyev), an irascible trickster-writer, a man who fulfills every cliché of the brilliant artist . . . in a very uncliché way.

I've been stuck on Julian and his anonymous side-kick at the Grand Canyon (with an elephant), or in New York City (with a 6'6" champion swimmer at the breakfast table), or in Luxembourg (with an old girlfriend who is now the queen). I'm so involved I often drive a few more times around the block so I can hear the rest of a chapter. This CD is such a kick that I don't remember 90% of my commute, won't unless there's some nightmare on the highway (blowout, wreck, run out of gas). Who's driving? Not me.

§   §   §

The author of Signs and Machines is on to something. I was involved in maneuvering a two-ton machine at sixty-five miles an hour --- and yet for all of an hour and a half I am enveloped by a terrific story about a tricky writer we'd love to know (after that, we'd probably love to kill), told by a narrator who tells us that all that he is telling us is a lie. He continues to change his facts to prove it. Facts in a novel. Nabokov proved that there are none.

I made it all that distance with my head tucked in the space of a transfixing piece of fiction without hurting anyone or backing into anybody or killing myself with my klunker of a driving machine.

Lazzarato is definitely on to something. But. But there's this . . . well . . . language barrier. Look at this paragraph smack dab in the middle of his discussion of film:

    The cinema is at once "fundamentally oneiric" and a "hypnotic monstrum." The "irrational" elements of the language of film, "barbarous, irregular, aggressive, visionary," cannot be eliminated; thus the difficulty in establishing an "institutional film language." Indeed, these features, which [Pier Paolo] Pasolini terms "irrational," make up the modalities of expression of affects, intensities, velocities, etc., whose functioning depends on a logic other than that of the individuated subject's rationality.

Mama mia. You're trying to read this and I'm trying to type it (it took me five minutes) and I am also trying to grok it.

What I get out of it and the passages before and after make a great deal of sense when we translate it into a more civilized form. That is: a movie is a machine, in the same way that a computer or a car is a machine. With words, music, language, symbols, gestures, movements and duration, a film takes us far beyond ourselves, let's us participate in a form of "group psychoanalysis."

Using nonverbal tools like those out of primitive societies, cinema speaks to and through us and captures us. It uses images and symbols and time itself, and with these, it frees us from our logical world, turns us into "orphans" (which means it isolates us from "the social divisions of labor that assign us a role, a function, and a meaning").

A movie thus has the same effect on us as "drugs, dreams, passion, creation, or madness." We get lifted out of our usual world, losing our usual identity and our social function. We lose whatever chains came along with us into the theatre . . . and are thus freed to travel into another world.

There's a price for this escape. In this loose state, we can be fairly easily manipulated. By the mere experience of a movie we can get enveloped by a new politic or a new aesthetic. Using words, music, symbol, gesture, and duration, for example, Leni Riefenstahl's The Triumph of the Will was able to convert a political nightmare --- new German totalitarianism --- into an heroic struggle, filled with stoic bravery, ending in pure and noble glory, a personal and national victory.

This is just one of the messages in a book crammed with a melodramatic vocabulary that could either send you nuts . . . or, at best, to the dictionary. I spent a hell of a lot of time fretting over "semiotics," "referent," "polyvalence," "dissymmetric," "multi-referentiality," and, for some reason, "oneiric" --- which always got my fingers tangled together trying to untie the multi-referentiality of those polyvalent vowels and consonants. Why couldn't he or his heroic translator (how did Joshua David Jordan ever do it?) --- why didn't they merely write "dreams" or "dreaming?"

I often get impatient with what we used to call, before inflation, "fifty-dollar words," which is probably why I can't stand Shakespeare. Still, Lazzarato's message is something else again. I'm not using a computer to convey all this to you he says, and you're not using one to pick up on what I am laying down. The computer is, rather, using us as we go through this dance. We are the machine, and the machine is calling the shots.

Think of all the things we've have to learn to use Windows or an iMac or a cell-phone or the internet or Facebook or an iPot or iPod or iPat or whatever they're called. Twenty years ago, those designations didn't exist or were used of an entirely different context. Now they run us --- or at least many of us who aren't there. hidden, trembling in the closet.

I suspect that Lazzarato's vocabulary is part and parcel of what he wants to convey to us, or, better, how he is trying to tell it to us, what I am laboring to tell you.

The medium is throughly jumbled up with the message. You and I and about 99% of the world are now enslaved in this jumble (or jungle).

All while we thought we were being freed from housework or needlepoint or the humdrum life. we are being sabotaged by microforces outside of us that are so powerful that we don't even feel them, don't even see them, don't even imagine them . . .

§   §   §

I want to leave you with two things. One is embedded in Lazzarato's dazzling subchapter called "The Function of Subjection." I read it, and I think I don't exactly get it, but then, on second thought, I think I do, even if I don't: get it, that is. Get it?

I intuit that the message is not only extremely potent, but extremely important. The writer tells us that all of what's happening to us right now is the stuff of dreams. You wake up absolutely convinced that what occurred a few seconds ago was vitally important, back when your eyes were shut and you were in that other world called "dreaming." But now what you are left with are a few shards of clouds, bits and pieces of the ocean (or the sky), and a scintilla of moonscape.

This is how Lazzarato reports it:

    If one considers capitalism only from the point of view of "subjection" or the distribution of the sensible, one loses the specificity of the forms of machinic desubjectivation and their diagrammatic functioning. Without accounting for enslavements, one risks confusing, as Ranciè and Badiou do, Greek democracy with capitalism, the work of artisans and slaves with the machinic work of the "workers," Marx with Plato.

Get that? It's a matter of confusing Karl Marx with goddamn Plato. Then,

    Even Foucault's concept of governmentality can be improved and developed by combining social subjection and machinic enslavement. To the pastoral power exercised on individuals, one must add another, different type of power and control acting on "dividuals," exercised not by the State but by private enterprise. In reality, since the early twentieth century, governmentality has increasingly meant the "government of dividuals."

Got it! "Dividuals!"

For the last word on this, go to The Rise of the Dividual

--- L. W. Milam
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