e-flux Conversations has been closed to new contributions and will remain online as an archive. Check out our new platform for short-form writing, e-flux Notes.

e-flux conversations

Paranoid Subjectivity and the Challenges of Cognitive Mapping – How is Capitalism to be Represented?

The most shocking thing about the Edward Snowden revelations is not so much their content as the fact that they have been met with little interest or surprise; not because people are unconcerned about the erosion of civil liberties, but because they thought that they knew all of this already. The internet now seems to produce a mode of hyper-connectivity, short-circuiting any separation between public and private. Along with the internationalisation of finance and other aspects of globalisation, this can make it feel as if everything has become completely interconnected, and there is nowhere left to hide from the encroachment of capital.

[Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) attempts to listen in on a private conversation in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974)]

We submit that this state of hyperconnectivity induces a kind of paranoid subjectivity. Marx showed that there is something inherent to capitalism which makes it very difficult to see past its surface effects to its essential structure. While this was already true in his time, today the vast scale of the networks governing contemporary existence makes this aspect of capitalist society a near-constant feature of everyday experience. As abstraction reaches into every crevice of our existence, art increasingly adopts a style that Emily Apter has called oneworldedness: “a delirious aesthetics of systematicity … held in place by the paranoid premise that ‘everything is connected’”. on Paranoia.pdf (912.0 KB)

‘Onewordledness’ is poignantly and hilariously expressed in Hito Steyerl’s video Liquidity Inc. (2014), which deliberately confuses various meanings of the word liquidity (physics, finance, climate, martial arts), showing intricate, but unfathomable links between seemingly unrelated spheres. Steyerl’s work is the latest in a long line of artistic and theoretical reflections on (and of) paranoid subjectivity since the 1960s. From the novels of Thomas Pynchon, paranoia movies such as The Conversation and the films of Adam Curtis, to the rise of systems theory, and notions of the ‘network’ (Luhman), much art and theory from the US and Europe in this period has reflected an increasing interest in modes of cognition either contend with or break down due to the increasing scale of social abstraction. The popular television show The Wire (2002-2008) is a key example, being centered on a dense web of connections which traverse the US city of Baltimore, uniting all of its diverse spheres into a violent and tragic situation that the character Omar simply calls ‘the game’.

In this conversation, the third and last in a series that we, David Hodge and Hamed Yousefi, are organizing for e-flux conversations, we would like to critically consider the political consequences of ‘oneworldedness’. Fredric Jameson once said that “Conspiracy […] is the poor person’s cognitive mapping in the postmodern age … the degraded figure of the total logic of late capital, a desperate attempt to represent the latter’s system”.JamesonF86a_CognitiveMapping.pdf (155.3 KB) But what if capital’s abstractions interpellate subjects who are unable to undertake a critical cognitive mapping? Can art help to induce new forms of subjectivity, which might be better equipped to trace the totality?

Yet again, we have another fantastic group of contributors, who will take it in turns to write a post every weekday:

Martin John Callanan ( http://greyisgood.eu) is an artist whose practice involves “researching the individual’s place within systems”. He lectures at Slade School of Fine Arts, UCL, London, and is the current holder of the triennial Philip Leverhulme Prize in Visual Art 2014-17.

Alberto Toscano is Reader in Critical Theory at the Department of Sociology, Goldsmiths, University of London. His most recent book is Cartographies of the Absolute (with Jeff Kinkle) – see: https://cartographiesoftheabsolute.wordpress.com.

Sarah Brouillette is Associate Professor of English Language and Literature at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. She is currently researching “a sort of cultural history of neoliberalism”, focusing on UNESCO as a core case study.

Tom Eyers is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, U.S.A. He is the author of three books including Speculative Formalism: Literature, Theory, and the Critical Present (Forthcoming, 2015).


Hello. I hope you are okay.

This discussion is close to ideas that I have been researching for a number of years. It is my intention, instead of one longer weekly post, to join in more frequently, with focus: in conversation, so hopefully we can go deeper into the ideas. As with previous conversations, anyone is welcome to join.

I would like to start with some thoughts about capitalism, “the capitalism of generalised, financialised, and globalised monopolies”.

As the young Marx wrote: ‘If money is the bond binding me to human life, binding society to me, binding me and nature and man, is not money the bond of all bonds? Can it not dissolve and bind all ties? Is it not, therefore, the universal agent of separation?’ Having money means more than being able to buy things: it means that the world need never affect you. [Paul Auster, The Invention of Solitude, location 777-779]

Everything is interconnected, via the world’s financial system.

The legal requirement for the board of directors of publicity listed companies is to maximise - not just increase - monetary returns for just one stakeholder, the shareholder. This makes it completely natural that capitalism expands with predatory practices in search for more and greater returns to eventually include every aspect of our world. Every element of Earth is assigned a value, every moment of an individual’s time is held accountable, and complex spreadsheets offset and carried forward calculated values for resources products, objects, people, time, emotions, wellbeing… accumulation by dispossession.

They must speculate on what is not or never will be there. Built on a fantasy that the debts on which it has constructed its wealth will one day be redeemed [Monbiot]: abstract capitalism.

The concentration of wealth, via globalised monopolies, leads to centralisation of capitalist control. “After all, the class nature of political power—democratic or not—means that the governing elite is at the service of capital.” [Samir Amin, The Implosion of Contemporary Capitalism, location 388-389]

It is nothing other than a new stage of imperialism. The predatory practices of imperialism, pillaging all the resources of the planet.

…and the state, powers “above the market.” In the “new capitalism,” this collusion, which was far weaker during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, now operates as forcefully as it did at the very beginnings of capitalism—when the republic of Venice was run as a joint-stock company owned by the richest merchants—or in the “Elizabethan” or “Colbertian” epochs of absolute monarchy. Which, by itself, bears witness that the system really has become obsolete, has entered its senility. [Samir Amin, The Implosion of Contemporary Capitalism, location 412-416]


The networks, by their inherent nature, determines the increase in globalisation. From the first telegrams used for stock trading, to algorithms trading over infinitesimal amounts at the speed of light. And a centralisation of political power.

“Call it freedom, it’s based on control. Everybody connected together, impossible anybody should get lost, ever again. [Thomas Pynchon, Bleeding Edge, location 6058-6059]

For the first time in history, we can see ourselves as a species.

Having long ago formed ideal conceptions of omnipotence and omniscience and embodied them in his gods, Freud tells us, man has now, via technology, become ‘almost a god himself’: eine Art Prosthesengott, ‘a kind of prosthetic god’ [Tom McCarthy, Transmission and the Individual Remix, location 165-167]

There is a larger systemic colonisation of individual experiences.

Over the last two decades, he believes, they have been responsible for a “mass synchronisation” of consciousness and memory. The standardisation of experience on such a large scale, he argues, entails a loss of subjective identity and singularity; it also leads to the disastrous disappearance of individual participation and creativity in the making of the symbols we all exchange and share. [Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, location 603-606]

The network mediates the state.

Consistent or predictable actions of large populations. It is attained not by the making of similar individuals, as theories of mass society used to assert, but through the reduction or elimination of differences, by narrowing the range of behaviours that can function effectively or successfully in most contemporary institutional contexts. [Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, location 665-667]

Which increase profit - maximise shareholder return - by reducing the costs of production and provision.


‘I’m so fed up with schizos, true or false, that I joyfully convert to paranoia. Vive la paranoia!’ (Gilles Deleuze, ‘Letter to Michel Cressole’, 1973)

Can capital as the pervasive absent cause of our wishes and miseries only be glimpsed in conspiratorial narratives? Is the very notion of capitalism, as actor-network theorists intimate, itself a paranoid construct, joining our inability to trace connections with our anxieties of powerlessness? One of the French (and Spanish) terms that in English translate as conspiracy is complot, whence the English word for both secret plan and narrative: plot. Evocatively, the French meant both ‘dense crowd’ and ‘secret project’. Fear of small numbers has always haunted the vocabularies of domination. The etymology of complot itself is unsurprisingly uncertain, convoluted, dragging in its train complex, complicitous, complicated but also comble and cumulus. A wild and covert bunch.

A few years ago Ricardo Piglia, the Argentinian writer and critic who penned one of the most harrowing accounts of a conspiracy against money, Plata Quemada (Burnt Money), proposed in his ‘Teoría del complot’ (2002, now Antología personal, Barcelona, Anagrama, 2015) that there is a profound affinity between the modernist vanguards, political and artistic, and conspiracy – though he doesn’t allude to it openly, and conspiracy has a different origin, in breathing with, con spirare, we could think of the long train of counter-conspiracies, from Babeuf’s Conspiracy of Equals to the wonderfully named Greek anarchist group Conspiracy of Cells of Fire.

Every conspiracy (complot), Piglia suggests, is a potential fiction (plot). To grasp the ‘destructive logic of the social, the private subject must infer the existence of a conspiracy [complot]’. To counter this conspiracy, he may have to fashion his own. In Piglia (as in Jameson’s ruminations on the schizophrenic fragmentation of a postmodern pseudo-subject in need of cognitive mapping), it is isolation from political collectivity that, at one one level, explains the epistemology of conspiracy. The novel itself, its every plot a complot, signals the shift in the location of fatality away from tragedy – still tied to a divine order, however malevolent or inscrutable – to conspiracy, as the centring of the oracle gives way to a corrupting plethoric ecology of information. Mediated by Borges, Piglia nicely finds the taproot of the conspiratorial imaginary, where the world itself is equated to a complot, in Plato’s Republic. In Plato’s specifications for how the guardians could be pedagogically fooled about their own origins, Piglia sees a ‘total conspiratorial conception: the conspiracy (complot) is the social world itself. Through lotteries one will decide how sexual relations between subjects are established and inequality will be attributed to luck. But what is extraordinary is that Plato signals that the State will carry out the trick. First it decides how it would like these unequal relations to be and then it manipulates the rules so that all subjects attribute inequality to luck’.

One of the great ambiguities of the present is whether and how to attribute plotting to state or capital, or to myriad agencies pullulating in the intermundia between them. Jameson’s ‘Totality as Conspiracy’ was of course anything but a counsel to abandon the (in any case inevitable) activity of totalisation, but a manner of tracking how socio-economic compulsion was figured and displaced as para-political agency. Piglia explores a way to bring totality and conspiracy closer together, by considering Pierre Klossowski’s view of the economy as ‘an invisible and multiple manipulation that knots and rivets individuals, groups and ensembles to the movements of money’, amounting to a ‘practice of experimentation on subjects’. But the upshot of this conspiratorial imaginary is not paranoid passivity, it is a counter-conspiratorial activity, in which the artist conjures an opposition to the productivity of monetary conspiracies, another economy (here Piglia nicely brings in Bataille’s admiration for Keynes’s own ‘plot’ to counter, or perhaps save, capitalism: by burying money in coal mines). ‘The conspiracy (complot) tries to modify relations of force that are adverse to it and has the secret as its foundation and flight as its condition’. Such a movement from an epistemology of totality to a practice of conspiracy can also be traced from Debord’s Society of the Spectacle to the later Comments, which is prefaced by this statement: ‘As long as certain pages are interpolated here and there, the overall meaning may appear just as secret clauses have very often been added to whatever treaties may openly stipulate; just as some chemical agents only reveal their hidden properties when they are combined with others.’



In writing this first post I benefited from conversations with several people, especially Dan Hartley, Benjamin Noys, Sophie Mayer, Jasper Bernes, and Joshua Clover.

No blame to them though for the excessively broad and practical cast of what follows.

I’m actually going to raise some queries about the whole idea of cognitive mapping – as the intellectual, aesthetic, and/or theoretical task of constructing maps of capitalism – arising most famously in Fredric Jameson’s work, and recently revived by Alberto Toscano and Jeff Kinkle in Cartographies of the Absolute.

In this work, broadly speaking, cognitive maps appear as necessary and salutary, but also as always partial or partially failed. Failed because of the complexity, extent, and breadth of capital’s operations. Failed, as David and Hamed suggest in their introduction to this conversation, because capitalism’s abstractions interpellate subjects who are unable to properly map it. Failed because its contradictions structure our very psyches.

[In Melanie Gilligan’s Popular Unrest (2010), scientists conceive of a group of people as “a snapshot taken by the system, a frozen moment of exchange”]

But even despite these failures, the wager is that there is promise in the practice of attempting to arrive at a representation of the total system or even of some segment of it. Effective cognitive maps may “induce new forms of subjectivity,” David and Hamed suggest; or they will serve, as Toscano and Kinkle suggest (in what they admit is a “strong reading”), as “a precondition for identifying any ‘levers’, nerve-centres or weak links in the political anatomy of contemporary domination.”

If we grant that there are good reasons to do the work of figuring out how exactly capitalism works today, and decide (no small task) what would constitute a suitable map, and agree cognitive mapping is a process that produces necessary or unexpected insights, very practical questions still arise. We might render capital’s operations visible, but how do we then bring them to the right kind of light? How do we make our maps practically responsive and meaningful? I mean, I think maybe more needs to be done to specify the connection between the struggle to “imagine capitalism” and other kinds of struggle, less imagined, ongoing elsewhere. In other words, we might say more about how cognitive maps, which are no doubt occasioned and informed by a larger social antagonism, can be most attuned and accountable to it.

[Caroline Bergvall performing her poem, Drift]

Following Jasper Bernes’s recent emphasis on theory as something that “reflects, synthesizes and perhaps accelerates” forms of interlinked knowledge and struggle that already exist in the world, I think it might be useful to begin with the premise that cognitive mapping is a form of meaning making, universally practiced, often mundane but not for that reason devoid of realization and insight.

There is then to be considered an uneven development not of mapping capacities and proclivities per se, but of access to the means of inscribing one’s vision and having it reckoned with as important in any way. What sort of condition does one have to exist within in order to have her imaginings of capital seen, authorized, respected, circulated? I would want I guess to understand the usual forms of aesthetic, intellectual, and/or theoretical interest in cognitive mapping as themselves produced by and reproducing features of the material forces at issue, such as the division of labour and the uneven distribution of conditions of immiseration versus conditions conducive to the production of cultural texts like readable, socially forceful maps.

The risk is that we would conclude by simply mapping the mapmakers, showing where they themselves fit in the networks, fields, forces, institutions. Maps of the social, technical, communicative production and determination of maps, as it were. This would be the meta-map taking account of itself, to show its own determination by the tendencies of our intellectual moment – tendencies like the emphasis on capitalism’s mysteriousness and intractability, or our incapacity in the face of it, of our anxiety about our incapacity, and so forth.

[Stadia II, Julie Mehretu (2004): flags and logos, drama and spectacle, winners and losers]

A way to perhaps avoid this risk is by foregrounding the importance of a given map’s relationship to struggle, which means asking very basic questions of it. What sort of purpose can be found in a given map, beyond – if there is a beyond – revelation of the mapmaker’s superior knowledge and aesthetic or technical expertise? Which maps are comprehensive but directionless? Which most impressively assume and inquire further into the knowledge of capital that already exists in the world? Which maps can in turn inform effective praxis?

I hope to make these broad comments and surely old questions more particular – more based in study of particular cases of mapping – in my other posts. I look forward to this conversation ongoing.

Jack Spicer’s poem ‘A Poem for Dada Day at the Place, April 1, 1958’ begins as follows:

The bartender
Has eyes the color of ripe apricots
Easy to please as a cash register he
Enjoys art and good jokes.
Goes the painting
Goes the poem

(The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer, ed. Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian, Wesleyan University Press, 1998, 180)

It would be easy enough, although misleading, to read in these lines an unprepossessing cynicism as to the democratization of art. This latter is apparently figured here as the point at which art and literature become mere accompaniments to the bar stool or - rather more likely in our contemporary moment - the water cooler or gym juice-bar, infantile playthings that yield their pleasures with a banal palpability and without critical or psychic friction: squish, squirt. Spicer, it’s true, was a belated convert to high modernism, and various earlier sources of class and status anxiety from that now thoroughly alien cause suggest themselves as possible intertexts: Eliot’s cringing reversion to cockney banter, also located in a bar, in ‘The Wasteland’, Pound’s aristocratic dismissal of ‘womanly’ and ‘mawkish’ poetry that had lost its ‘virility’, and so on.

[A pensive Jack Spicer]

But the poem’s aim is less to celebrate or simply condemn the apparent elitism of interruptive or experimental artistic forms than it is to stage a dilemma or impasse, to raise the possibility that what may first appear as decisively critical or radical in one context (the Dadaist disrupting social normalcy) may appear the mere chic initiation ritual of an in-group in another. After seeming to indict Dadaism for its lack of concern for the everyman (‘Dada is not funny/It is a serious assault/On art/Because art/Can be enjoyed by the bartender’), Spicer writes:

The bartender is not the United States
Or the intellectual
Or the bartender
He is every bastard that does not cry
When he reads this poem.

(Collected Poems, 181)

At a first pass, this final stanza seems to further underwrite Spicer’s haughty dismissal of radical haughtiness; the Dadaist is able only to comprehend what the bartender is not, namely someone already reassuringly inducted into the club of those who ‘get it’, who see through the ephemera of the everyday to the glimmering possibility of aesthetic and/or political freedom beyond it. But these lines also independently raise questions of critical scale and of cultural belonging. To what extent is the artist, at the moment of her address, as much concerned to differentiate between those who are not to be her audience as much those who are, and at what point does this latter distinction cease to be decided politically, morphing instead into the very logics of exclusion that she would otherwise wish to contest? (excluding, that is, ’every bastard that does not cry/When he reads this poem.’) We’re led to an age-old, but unresolved question: might radical art’s very self-conscious radicality prevent it reaching the audience that would allow it a palpable impact on struggle? Anxiously repudiated identities, negated forms of belonging, defensive political gestures, all of these coalesce and overspill Spicer’s final lines, and we’re left surer as to what is not the case, what doesn’t work, than what is, and what does.

In a general sense, the poem resonates because of its tone of awkward ironical doubt; its irresolution, caught somewhere between a smirk and an angry scowl, is, I would suggest, usefully prescient of current confusions around art and its social and political functions. Further, its interrogation of the desirability, or otherwise, of art becoming ‘everyday’, its demonstration that ‘relative autonomy’ may well have unintended and alienating effects, is closely linked to the question of art’s capacity to map capital’s totalities. These latter, of course, are as imbricated in everyday rhythms, in the cognitively accessible - in the barroom, so to speak - as they are simultaneously suspended beyond immediate, or even mediate, comprehensibility. In order that our artistic or critical mappings have any chance of success, then, we need not only to decide what to chart, on whose behalf, and with which materials - and Spicer’s poem has something to tell us about just how difficult such decisions are - but also to choose whether such maps are merely to record what already exists, or to productively disorient existing limits as a means of suggesting what may lie beyond them. If these latter alternatives seem deflatingly familiar from canonical Marxist debates around the relative advantages of realism and modernism, it may be that we’re still to find a way beyond such debates’ enduring terms. Viewed from 20 years hence, Jameson’s postmodernism seems less like a viable move beyond such perennial antinomies, and more like a wishful repression, one that had rather less shelf-life than even the novels of pastiche and kitsch that were some of its privileged exhibits.


[Gregory Crewdson, Untitled (Beckoning Bus Driver), 2001-2002.]

Needless to say, we’re always inscribed on existing maps at the moment at which decide to draw our own. Without a prior mapping of such maps, we may be doomed to reproduce a mere facsimile of received verities, to merely reconfirm a preselected audience and a vision of politics-as-taste. In this respect, I’m very much in agreement with Sarah Brouillette’s useful reference to the ‘uneven development’ of access to critical powers of inscription; such powers, I would further claim, are predicated on priorly existing maps of which we have an only limited knowledge. Those already existing maps are built around hidden coordinates – variously unconscious, value-laden, linked to the formal and critical prejudices of one’s chosen medium, to existing rubrics of what counts (institutionally, or extra-institutionally) as critical and non-critical, and so on. And these maps are less representational of external objects than they are quasi-transcendental charts of possibility and impossibility, of what is viewable and what remains hidden. In places, Lacan seems to suggest that paranoia may well be the subjective mode best suited to excavating such a priori conditions, although in others he warns that it may just be another self-confirming pose. How to imagine a salutary paranoia, a cartographic drive that includes in its representational efforts its own a priori investments and limitations?


Many thanks to all of our participants for their enlivening contributions to the discussion so far. We look forward to more this week.

In this post we would like to draw out and render explicit two basic issues that we think have been crucial in the conversation so far. One follows on from Sarah’s incisive comments regarding the relationship between cognitive mapping and struggle. The other relates to the link between paranoia and the problem of
(non-)collectivity, as already suggested by Alberto and Tom.

[Martha Rosler - Domination and the Everyday, 1975]

Both of these concerns are poignantly expressed in Martha Rosler’s 1975 video Domination and the Everyday. This work blends together several components: mass media imagery, a scrolling text with explicitly Marxist theoretical content, and an audio recording of a woman feeding her young son and readying him for bed, while a radio interview with an art dealer plays in the background. The video is highly fractured and therefore difficult to follow – in particular, the text varies in speed, highlighting the viewer’s ability (or inability) to follow the narrative and connect it with the imagery while sounds of domestic chores and child rearing play in the background, cutting through their thought processes. Rosler’s video is very plainly about the difficulties of cognitive mapping, but not in relation to the vastness of high capitalism or the intangibility of its abstractions. Its most obvious concern is rather more prosaic – that the labour conditions experienced by the oppressed (in this case the undervalued, often unacknowledged domestic toil that is (still) mostly undertaken by women) can often erect barriers against critical thought. Rosler’s brilliantly delivered point about the fragmentation of time and attention that accompanies such work is today more pressing than ever given the conditions of precarious labour and 24/7 capitalism (as discussed by Jonathan Crary). Remembering Sarah’s point about the relationship between critical thought and struggle, then, we would like to stress the social and material (hence also classed and gendered) barriers to cognitive mapping as well as more ‘metaphysical’ ones.

[Martha Rosler, still from Domination and the Everyday, 1975]

At the same time, however, Rosler’s video is also about social atomisation. The brief statement accompanying the work on her website argues that it reflects upon “the privatized existence of a woman and child, and the role of media information in daily life” - in other words, it probes into the question of how separated, atomised people relate to ‘the social’. Last week Alberto made the fascinating suggestion that “it is isolation from political collectivity that, at one level, explains the epistemology of conspiracy.” One way to understand this is to say that, since the sociality of capitalism is produced through the abstraction of labour and exchange across a dispersed marketplace, rather than ‘immediate’ social relationships (even if those relations may be oppressive, as in the bond between lords and serfs), ‘the social’ turns from a clearly bounded order to a “corrupting plethoric ecology of information” (as Alberto pithily puts it). Again, we would link this back to the organisation of contemporary labour. In the present age of precarious work, short-term contracts, and the marketised individual as a “walking C.V.” (Nina Power), does capitalism still produce its own grave-diggers? If Marx and Engels saw the political potential of the ineteenth-century proletariat in the sociality of factory labour (although, of course, this already excluded the domestic workers who Rosler highlighted), might the apparent issue of cognitive mapping today actually be symptomatic of the loss of collectivity? What does this then mean in strategic terms – should we be tracing atomisation or constructing the common?


Hamed and David have asked I mention a few of my artworks.

For 15 years I have been photographing the ground in places important to society. The archive now contains over 2000 locations, which are being added online. This work started as I wanted to visit places like government buildings, headquarters of international banks and companies, OPEC and embassies. You need a legitimate reason to visit and cannot walk straight in. I was wrong in thinking photography was a valid reason alone, and was easily defined on security. Often requests were rejected because things such as people, views from windows, computers, doors, security measures, signs, artworks, could not be included in photographs. Outright requesting to photograph the ground negates the things which cannot be photographed and becomes a legitimate reason to visit a building.

Sonification of You
A custom computer program running with various antennas and receivers passively monitor all data traffic in an immediate area. Data such as phone calls, SMS, wifi, 3G. Such signals are encrypted and cannot be read, but we could determine the unique devices communicating and the type and volume of data been shifted around, sent and received. The data was translated into live audio using musical instruments. The audio sounds like ambient music. The music is a specific response to the data being sent at that moment. Pianos relate to a different type of data than bells for example, and the position on the musical scale relates to which individual device is communicating.

Letters 2004-2006
Collected in this book are a selection of responses to a series of letters mailed between 2004-06, ranging from the bemused response of the Secretary to the Archbishop of Canterbury to the question “When will it end?” to appreciative letters from the offices of President Mubarak of Egypt in response to the declaration “I respect your authority”. Each letter poses a deceptively simple question or even inane rhetorical statement and the collected responses.

I’m happy to answer questions.

As the whole problem of cognitive mapping (or rather, its export from the domain of urbanism) emerged as a way of registering within the aesthetic an impasse of political organising (note, for instance, Jameson’s mention in the original essay of Finally Got the News and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, or his avowal elsewhere that the term is in the final analysis but a stand-in for class consciousness), it’s more than appropriate to raise the question of how the representability of capital is bound up with shifting forms of labour, and in what way the ‘social and material barriers’ to cognitive mapping might inflect its viability in contexts of struggle.

We should recognise here how much of the debate is haunted by the many historical efforts to make the compulsions and causalities that determine individual and group existence ‘visible’ and modifiable – from the innumerable experiments in proletarian (self-)education that shadowed the vicissitudes of the workers’ movement to the efforts to render socialist labour visible to itself, which served as the utopian horizon for everything from Vertov’s kino-eye to Cybersyn project under Allende’s Unidad Popular. From the everyday to the revolutionary, the reformist to the utopian, these depended on a bedrock of representability that had to do with the identity of a productive worker and system (or at the limit with the representation of the expulsion from employment). As Rosler’s work memorably anatomises – and as we see brilliantly explored in the recent exhibition organised by Jorge Ribalta reinvention of partisan in the 70s and 80s, Not Yet, which follows upon an earlier exploration of the workers’ photography movement, and takes Rosler and Allan Sekula as its sources – bringing in the whole domain of social reproduction (the classed, raced and gendered domains of housing, education and health,) changes the stakes of a problem which can no longer be easily posed as that of the collective worker finding its place and thus its levers for action in the totality of capital. (The problem of cognitive mapping is in this sense also haunted by that of the party, understood as collective intellect and pedagogue, and it is its massive absence that makes for one of the vast differences between the realism and modernism debates of the 30s and the stationary state of the postmodern condition.)

Though we should be wary of flattening the debate on mapping as totalisation and representability onto one about cartography sensu stricto (which Jameson himself recognised as a potentially very misleading code), following on Sarah’s entreaty to inventory the place of maps in determinate struggles, I can’t think of a more impressive instance than the work of William Bunge and the Detroit Geographical Expedition and Institute to map the lived geography of racial capitalism in the wake of the 1967 insurrection. Bunge’s book Fitzgerald: Geography of a Revolution, which takes as its subject and object of inquiry a square mile of a mainly black neighbourhood buffeted by ‘urban renewal’, dispossession and counter-insurgency allows us to measure the gap between an aesthetic fetish for the totality of capital (which often glories thoughtlessly in its inhumanity) and a politically partisan activity of totalisation. It might also be worth reflecting here on the manner in which different traditions of thought and practice have postulated an epistemic privilege not just to the exploited, but to the dispossessed, the subaltern, the excluded. There are a lot of presuppositions, too many I’d say, in the nostalgic idea that the Fordist mass worker, imagined as the apotheosis of the process where capital organised its own terminators, somehow had a capacity to grasp the system, via his place on the assembly line, which his precarious descendants now lack. Against this economistic or sociologistic idea we need to attend to the way in which the links between labour, totalisation and aesthetic practices were the object of political experimentation and invention all the way down the line. It is in this sense that I would hazard that the desire for cognitive mapping is in the end more tied up with the waning and necessity of political organisation, and the very possibility of collective cultural production, than with the capacity for individual artworks to allow us to ‘see it whole’.

1 Like

Alberto argues in his most recent post that, perhaps, “the desire for cognitive mapping is in the end more tied up with the waning and necessity of political organisation, and the very possibility of collective cultural production, than with the capacity for individual artworks to allow us to ‘see it whole’.” This strikes me as very true. The fact that conceiving of collective cultural production is so challenging is itself a sign and a form of combined material and conceptual privations – of immiseration, atomization, isolation, separation from collectivity. Cognitive mapping can be conceived as a reaction against these privations.

Expanding on this, I want to say something about Tom McCarthy’s recent remarks in the Guardian about the literary writer’s contemporary fate now that corporations are ostensibly the premier agents engaged in “seeing it whole.” In McCarthy’s vision we see how, in fact, paranoia about what Jason Read calls capitalism’s “spontaneous anthropology” can justify an abandonment of any attempt at the materialist cognitive mapping Alberto’s work illuminates.

[Bureau D’Etudes, Governing By Networks. Marina Vishmidt writes that in the Bureau’s work “power is the code that cannot be represented … Its architecture is so convoluted that the map comes to represent nothing but the inscription of its own ornate paranoia.”]

McCarthy begins by confessing to a fascination with the writer in the “stripped down” image of the ethnographer (Bronisław Malinowski, not Zora Neale Hurston): “You look at the world and you report on it. That’s it.” This model of the writer-ethnographer affirms that the evidence of one’s eyes is enough. Whatever there is to observe – the tribe’s “secret name” – will emerge if one pays sufficient attention to surface features. In fact bringing any sort of interpretive frame to bear on the material would threaten the “purity” that the anthropologist craves, as “the mystery that drew [him] towards his subject evaporates.”

What McCarthy laments then, however, is that the people equipped for this sort of observation don’t become writers any more. Instead, the brightest graduates from anthropology and literature programs work for corporations. The anthropologists are “deploying ethnographic knowledge to help companies achieve deeper penetration of their markets, to advise cities how to brand and rebrand themselves, and governments how better to narrate their policy agendas.” The literature people are helping to make the company “the arena in which narratives and fictions, metaphors and metonymies and symbol networks at their most dynamic and incisive are being generated.” The cultural avant garde is now the media company or the brand consultancy. Google owns what genius exists in the world, and observant intellectuals and artists are reincarnated as software programs collecting our data, “omnipresent and insistence … installed at every stratum of existence.”

Having begun by imagining that writers ideally document behaviours that have a self-evident meaning, he concludes that when every moment of our lives is documented for us already the writer’s role is thoroughly redundant. Is it software that now “maps our tribe’s kinship structures, our systems of exchange, the webs of value and belief that bind us all together,” he writes. All the time everywhere “the all-containing Great Report is being written … not by an anthronovelist but by a neutral and indifferent binary system whose sole aim is to perpetuate itself.”

The writer is thereby written out of the system. When he writes now he is a zombie involved in his own “non-life-restoring resurrection.” His are “melancholy-joyful explorations” of his irrelevance to the scriptural system of control that quantifies and dominates our lives. Capital is mapping itself, in effect. No reason to help it out.

[Chad McCail, Robots run zombies for wealthy parasites]

McCarthy’s vision is deeply symptomatic, much though he presents it as a vanguard approach. It’s an image of the writer as a purportedly neutral documentarian whose only struggle is to avoid the imposition of a frame (as though one could), an image that necessarily occludes its own constitutive biases. It is moreover a common story of decline, in which the high point of modernist technique (Joyce and Mallarmé) is now lamentably beyond reach, because the urge to see all is manifest in corporate software that masters all its surveillance. He privileges the writer’s self-conception and technique over any larger social antagonism, and counsels resignation – “melancholy-joyful” – because everything that needs to be known is already known by our corporate overlords, and all we can do is navigate the map made for us out of our own data.

One would think from McCarthy’s vision of “the death of writing” that there is nothing missing from contemporary capitalism’s self-conception, no notable unevenness defining our material existences in the world, and no problem really at all except for the lack of proper concepts and terms for conceiving the role of the writer today – a role, if we believe him, of muted humility and zombie-like persistence well after writing’s social relevance is dead. The need for a countering emphasis on material scarcity – a need that Nina Power has recently emphasized – is here quite palpable, and material and conceptual scarcity are again interlinked. The data maps that McCarthy thinks sunder the writer from his purpose reflect and enforce deprivations that are not among his surface concerns, but they structure his yielding vision just the same.

In this second contribution, I delve a little deeper into the question of totality and of totalization. In particular, I want to consider the popularity of ‘world literature’ as an academic, global-institutional and journalistic category that represents a significant contemporary claim to totality, one that perhaps leaves out as much as it includes. I’m in agreement with Alberto and Sarah that the problem of cognitive mapping, of ‘making it whole’ is, in large measure, a sublimation at the level of the aesthetic of the political production of scarcity, and of the relative absence of collective politics. But I’m sure they would agree that, despite this, the aesthetic is by no means uncomplicatedly subordinated to the political. Further, real abstraction in its various guises guarantees the emergence of concrete effects from domains – and the ‘aesthetic’ is surely not quite the right term – that might otherwise be considered non-material, sociologically impenetrable, resistantly interior. What are the inadequacies, I will ask, of one of the most reified of the frameworks by which we think totality today, at the level of disciplines and institutions imbricated in the world market. I’ll also briefly assay a model of globality that may, if we’re lucky, offer more critical purchase. But just as the ‘aesthetic’ is by no means a world unto itself, so I will need to associatively trace in passing the ways in which ‘totality’ gives out promiscuously onto notions of totalization, of form, and of formalization. The broader hope is that, instead of announcing a mere retreat from politics, a renewed attention to totality and totalization, to form and formalization, across art, literature, politics and philosophy, may be just one way in which critical theory becomes critical again.

‘World Literature’, then, has become something of a rallying cry in the literary and critical humanities. While the move to broaden the geographical scope of literary and cultural study has been fulsomely welcomed in some quarters, others have questioned the haste with which scholars have been enjoined to engage literatures written in languages they do not master, and ensconced within cultures of which they know little. Emily Apter has been one of the more visible critics. For her, the category of world literature tends toward “reflexive endorsement of cultural equivalence and substitutability, or toward the celebration of nationally and ethnically branded ‘differences”. (‘Against World Literature’, Verso 2013, 2). Such criticism rests on an allied and more explicitly political fear that the call for ever-more inclusion is, in fact, the mere extension of a commodifying and neutralizing drive of a part with the stultifying omnipresence of the world market. Such literatures as may now be admitted to the canon (or canons) begin to resemble, according to such a critique, tastefully exotic baubles to be collected by scholars, the better to embellish their claims to cosmopolitanism.


At base, these concerns pertain to the model of totality and totalization that world literature as a new disciplinary and institutional configuration would seem to reproduce. It is not, that is, the desire to approach the limits of what is knowable in literature, art or politics that is to be rejected; it is certainly not, even more, the desire in and of itself to totalize that is at issue. Rather, it is the particular vision of totality employed that raises crucial questions. The following from David Damrosch is exemplary:

“A central argument of this book will be that, properly understood, world literature is not at all fated to disintegrate into the conflicting multiplicity of separate national traditions; nor, on the other hand, need it be swallowed up in the white noise that Janet Abu-Lughod has called “global babble.” My claim is that world literature is not an infinite, ungraspable canon of works but rather a mode of circulation and of reading, a mode that is as applicable to individual works as to bodies of material, available for reading established classics and new discoveries alike.” (‘What is World Literature?’, Princeton University Press 2003, 5).

The idea of ‘circulation’ is used here to offset any impression that world literature may only be capable of an extreme cultural particularism on the one hand, or a bland homogenization on the other, the latter dichotomy a more general version of that between rigidly national literatures at one end of the spectrum, the dissolving of the national into the worldly on the other. Indeed, the trope of circulation, displaced here from its more usual habitat in Marxist criticism, is now an identifying motif for the field of world literature per se; Franco Moretti is surely the pioneer here. To induce a sense of circulation is to suggest the puncturing of any airless totality, any static vision of a world whose boundaries would be easily and unproblematically delineable. The opposite of this airless totality would be the single, particular text, imagined as an interiority containing multitudes, this latter dichotomy (text/world) at least partially metonymic of the world/nation dyad already mentioned. As Moretti has it, using Wallerstein’s world-systems theory as a model, world literature proper would reject both sides of this self-confirming duo: “The text which is strictly Wallerstein’s…occupies one third of a page…the rest are quotations…Now, if we take this model seriously, the study of world literature will somehow have to reproduce this ‘page’…literary history will quickly become very different what it is now: it will become ‘second hand’: a patchwork of other people’s research, without a single direct textual reading”. (‘Conjectures on World Literature’, New Left Review 1, 2000, 57).

The ‘other people’s research’ in question would be the spatially and temporally broad range content analysis enabled by computation, by the now much-vaunted ‘digital humanities’. Cultural objects, on such a vision, could be seen to circulate, to intermingle, to distance themselves, thus to never settle into anything approaching a rigid ‘world’, just as much as their particular content – the self-enclosed modulations of the individual book or sentence – would fade from relevance. Two totalities are rejected here, or so it seems: the world as a finally delimitable totality, and the individual text as lure to the rabbit holes of close reading. But just as important to detect in such a rejection is the exclusion of the nation/world antinomy itself, Moretti wishing to avoid the mere obverse of what have, in disciplinary terms, been parceled out as so many nationally specific literatures and languages.

Damrosch’s and Moretti’s visions are not entirely equivalent, of course; Damrosch, for instance, seems much more at ease with the full semantic weight of the term ‘world’, its indication of a provisional planetary fixity, where Moretti would rather wish to perpetually reset such a putative boundary according to the particular digital-historical analysis in question. Moretti, characteristically, would place his bets on the glittering promises of ever-new methodologies as a means of upsetting theoretical rigidity. But both Moretti and Damrosch rely upon the trope of circulation, as already mentioned, and we can surely only come to understand such a notion, such a suspiciously graceful ballet of perpetual literary movement, according to an implied border or limit as its necessary other, a limit within which, even against which, such entangled movements become visible. To foreground circulation per se is to risk positing movement as its own justification, against any more critical questioning of the arena within which such movements are tacitly assumed to take place, or the model of totality that this valorization of motion otherwise presupposes. Refocusing our attention onto the arena itself, or the implied totality inherent in the worlding of the ‘world’, to abuse Heidegger, may then lead us to propose alternative models of totality or totalization, models attentive to the uneven conditions of belonging, exclusion, visibility and hiddenness that are the material and abstract conditions of modern cultural production and reception.

Where to go from here? In his suggestive essay ‘How Do We Recognize Strong Critique?’ , the philosopher Paul Livingston rehearses various ways of thinking formal wholes and their limits. He does so in order to re-dynamize our understanding of form and formalism; he is especially attentive to the ways in which these have operated hitherto in the domains of formal logic and mathematical theory. The latter have, for Livingston, promising things to say to spheres of action and critique otherwise apparently severed from them, most notably radical political theory. I will be unable to do full justice to his philosophical originality in this concluding reflection; instead, I will reappropriate and reconfigure just a few of the conceptual resources he offers as a means of thinking anew the potential of totality as both figure and imperative.

What does Livingston mean by ‘strong critique’? “To indicate”, Livingston writes, “the formal structure of strong critique”, “it suffices…to discern the fundamental orientations of thought which unfold the formal ideas of completeness, consistency and reflexivity as they structure the configurations in which the real of being gives itself to thought”. (‘How Do We Recognize Strong Critique?’, Crisis and Critique 3, 2014, available online: http://materializmidialektik.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/liv.pdf).

‘The real of being’: there’s no shortage of ambition here, Livingston intending to signal how a focus on different kinds of formal limitation – in our terms, those instances when the process of worldly totalization meets a limit that, when viewed from a certain angle, is appreciable as its constitutive ground – may give us access even to a kind of ontological truth.

But leaving aside Livingston’s ontological ambitions – I am less convinced that ontology may be so decisively rid of its distracting metaphysical baggage - how might his models benefit a critical approach to the problem of world as totality? For Livingston, any assessment of a totalizing model must attend to its ideas of ‘completeness, consistency and reflexivity’. In other words, models of totality may be more or less committed to a sense of completeness or closure, may be more or less convinced as to their lack of fissures, and may be more or less willing to admit their own partiality, mutability – the reflexive and changeable conditions under which they emerged. Measured up to these standards, the ‘world’ in ‘world literature’ is, I think, too often assumed to be more or less even, more or less complete; is too frequently assumed to be legible at each of its levels, and thus without symptomatic blindspots or zones of inconsistency or problematic limits; is too infrequently reflexive about the scholarly, institutional and theoretical conditions that make it such an attractive rubric in the first place.

How to model the world critically? Livingston insists that any critical map of totality must insist on ‘the inherence of contradiction’. This is not simply to acknowledge the existence of aspects of the totality that don’t really fit, that aren’t productively ‘read’ by data mining or positivist social science; rather, it is to argue that such aspects are, very often, the very hidden condition of possibility for the apparent durability of the totality per se. When translated into broadly Marxist terms, such constitutive round pegs in square holes would include those populations excluded from the middle-class measures of taste that produce a notion of literature that may then be productively ‘globalized’. They would surely involve the sources of the vast amounts of cultural capital appropriated and resold from areas of the world with uneven access to networks of prestige. And they would involve the particular subjective uses that are made of literary meaning, so often in contradiction with the generalizing rubrics with which literary artifacts are circulated and objectively ‘appreciated’. (This is to say that Moretti’s rejection of ‘close reading’ is hasty indeed).

The reader will surely be able to think of many more. The point is to appreciate the strict necessity of such included-exceptions to the survival of the totality in question. A skeptic would surely respond: ‘but there are numerous scholarly volumes that uncover cultural zones otherwise hidden to the world market’. This is no doubt true, but there is a difference between a methodological commitment to ‘recovering’ underread or hidden texts, and a theoretical acknowledgement of the paradoxes of our various totalities insofar as they may require the analytical forgetting of such sources. By foregrounding such conditions, one is not beholden to abandon the concept of totality, but is rather enjoined to think it through to its constitutive limits.

1 Like

Firstly, we would like to say how excited we are about the way this conversation has unfolded so far. It is going in a very interesting and productive direction - many thanks to our contributors for generously sharing their fascinating ideas. Things are flowing well already, so we don’t want to stop people from responding to existing issues or continuing ongoing trains of thought. The following is simply intended as a provocation in case our participants would like something further to respond to.

Last week Alberto argued that “the desire for cognitive mapping is in the end more tied up with the waning and necessity of political organisation, and the very possibility of collective cultural production, than with the capacity for individual artworks to allow us to ‘see it whole’.” He also noted Fredric Jameson’s acknowledgment that “the term [cognitive mapping] is in the final analysis but a stand-in for class consciousness”. This inevitably leads to the question of how a renewed class consciousness might be constructed. One route towards that was offered by Tom, who probed the concept of ‘world literature’ and insisted that it cannot be separated from the ongoing fact of uneven development. The point, Tom wrote, “is not simply to acknowledge the existence of aspects of the totality that don’t really fit” (e.g. unequal distributions of wealth, power, etc.), but “to argue that such aspects are, very often, the very hidden condition of possibility for the apparent durability of the totality per se.” Here we would venture that Tom gets right to the heart of what it means to foster class consciousness, which always acts as a double movement. As well as insisting that ongoing inequalities are not simply accidental, but rather the major product of capitalism, his text also helps the pressing need for revolutionary action to reveal itself within the experience of everyday injustices.

The reason for rehearsing these valuable points again is that we believe a significant problem remains. Sarah’s last post criticized a recent article by Tom McCarthy, arguing that his text presents an image of the present in which “everything that needs to be known is already known by our corporate overlords”. Sarah was rightly critical of the way that McCarthy ignores the realities of material scarcity and deprivation, but even once that is acknowledged, there remains a danger that the image of capital as an all-encompassing, irresistible force may remain. In this regard, it is worth recalling a figure that we referenced in our first post - Omar from The Wire. In the court scene that we posted two weeks ago, Omar fully acknowledges the dialectical bind, which characterises high capitalism (“I got the shotgun, you got the briefcase”), but the payoff is nothing more than a fatalistic shrug (“it’s all in the game”). Our concern is that, while the lack of social organisation that Alberto discusses will probably only be solved through the development of class consciousness, the formation of class consciousness may equally be prohibited by the lack of social organisation, which blocks any political horizon that might bring the finitude of capital into relief. How might we negotiate this double bind?

Maha Maamoun, Night Visitor: The Night of Counting the Years, 2011. To watch the full video, click here:

Night Visitor: The Night of Counting the Years from Maha Maamoun on Vimeo.

The trouble with Omar is that his class consciousness is so deeply individualised – he is under no illusions about the situation, but his response is severed from any sense of collectivity that might make him more than just another competitor in ‘the game’. Another recent artwork that throws us right into the middle of a deeply individualised experience of politics is Maha Maamoun’s video Night Visitor: The Night of Counting the Years, made in Egypt a few months after the fall of Mubarak. This work is a series of sequences from online videos that were made by protesters who broke into State Security buildings in Cairo and Damanhur in 2011. Unlike the “dense crowd” (Alberto’s complot) of Tahrir Square, these videos capture first person experiences of lone individuals as they wander confusedly between the scattered objects and classified archives of Mubarak’s security apparatus. Here the shaky handheld footage that is so commonly used in Hollywood films to place us ‘in the moment’ has precisely the opposite effect, emphasising the fact that there is little or nothing to be seen. This work has come to feel especially bitter in the wake of the Egyptian counter-revolution and the broader fate of recent revolutionary movements in the Middle East. Away from the dense crowd, it seems that our experience fractures into disconnected fragments.


Let me begin by apologizing for the length of what follows. A wiser person would divide this into two contributions. Alas.

In his last post Tom discussed “world literature” as a category that makes a claim to totality, and argued that what appears to be absent from the “world” in “world literature” is actually constitutive of it. What I do here is use the occasion of his provocation to outline two key aspects of what I would take to be a sufficiently expansive map of the contemporary world literary. Hence how long this is!

Aspect 1

We know that since the 1970s capital has been recomposing labour at a lower standard of living, exacerbating structural asymmetries in the distribution of wealth and in access to opportunities to enter the workforce. In 1990 the Midnight Notes collective claimed that, like the first enclosures, which created a population of workers “free from any means of reproduction and thus compelled… to work for a wage,” dramatic “new enclosures” sought to end “communal control of the means of subsistence.” In these new enclosures the affluent North continues to benefit from and exploit the needs and instabilities of the global South, via IMF structural adjustments programs forcing states to seize land to pay debts, and the outsourcing of commodity production to sweatshops and of dangerous mineral extraction for consumer electronics to the most desperate workers. The 1980s and 90s were a time of chaotic “de-development,” George Caffentzis argues, as a new global division of labour, fostering and capitalizing on conflict and disarray, further secured cheap labour and land and mineral resources for Western and Chinese transnational corporations.

So there has been a reinforcement and exacerbation of the global division of labour that produces surplus, impoverished, and underemployed populations. This has long made access to the amenities crucial to the demographic profile of those with a literary sensibility – say, a relatively advanced education (exposing one to the idea of literature’s value, among other things), relative solitude and leisure, and good light and vision, among other things – all the more exclusive. The possibility of belonging to what Wendy Griswold calls the “reading class” has been diminished. Throughout most of literate history only a distinct social elite read for anything other than basic information. Now, too, the culture of literary reading is in decline, and the reading class is shrinking and closing ranks.

Aspect 2

The new enclosures are one means by which capital has attempted to secure profits. Flip the coin, and we see that the turn toward culture as a potentially endless “immaterial” resource is another.

Benjamin Brewer has recently argued that since the 1970s the global spread and expansion of manufacturing capacity and market competition have meant widespread market congestion and the rise of buyer-driven commodity chains. He charts how consumer cultural production, once a means of stabilizing an economy driven by multinational corporations, came to assume a central role in its own right. It is now the primary specialization of many firms seeking competitive advantage, leading to intensified pressures for uniqueness and distinction. Market measurement and assessment become crucial tools; and market making becomes a huge priority for firms that exist simply to drive the commodity chain.

Brewer mentions socio-cultural status as a generative engine for the creation of value through branding. Status depends on distinction – on the scarcity of a desirable attribute, or the threat of exclusion from a desirable realm. Today’s edginess becomes tomorrow’s same old thing, and new resonances and leitmotifs must be constantly associated with the distinguishing act of buying certain commodities.

For Brewer, consumer culture means the production and distribution of images and ideas designed to create, direct or expand the demand for particular goods and services, most often via advertising, marketing, branding, merchandising and retailing.

Yet his points can be expanded significantly to highlight the structural connections between commercial cultural production and cultural production more generally: an overlapping workforce, audience of potential consumers, and sensitivity to cultural codes and to the need to distinguish products from one another in a glutted marketplace. Also shared is a particular media infrastructure, since the expansion of commercial cultural work in branding and promotions means the creation of new media venues and formats for this work’s dissemination, and these need content both to fill the space between ads and to give people the fuller experience that has more appeal in some markets than a blunt sales pitch. So the extensive dissemination of the aesthetic sensibility, the self-conscious stylization of life, the glorification of endless newness that arises in a world of consumer culture, all assert their influence on commerce and on literary production alike.

Consider the branding function performed by the distribution of the artist’s prestige. The broader social field, the whole milieu made up of academics, journalists, bloggers, anthologists, marketers, and funding bodies produces the value that adheres to the writer’s brand. In turn, if it is the name of the artist and the value attached to the artist’s ostensibly original creativity that does so much of the work of distinguishing the literary work from other kinds of commodities, for that very reason the name functions in multiple arenas as a means of generating demand for products. The association between a particular writer’s branded name and the status of a given media outlet magnifies and ramifies throughout the field, in a frenzy of synergetic inter-promotion.

So when Ben Lerner reviewed the third volume of My Struggle, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s literary behemoth, his review served to promote Knausgaard’s work, and his own work, and to sell London Review of Books subscriptions. Those who shared the review via social media exhibited a particular international cultural sensibility and exposure. The social media outlets they used were happy to have the content to generate shares and likes and to fill in the space not already filled by ads, and they were happy as well to have the user data about the review’s posting as part of the stock of information they store knowing that it will one day be monetized. I will spare you more details. :blush: My point is just that it is characteristic of the contemporary media landscape that the divide between consumer cultural production and the literary sphere is hard to maintain, and the name of the writer as the source of the original creativity protected by copyright both asserts the commodity’s distinction from regular goods and helps to generate demand for further goods.

The End at Last!

So on one hand the protagonism of access, exposure, and affective relation to art has been expanded in unprecedented ways; on the other hand the actual ability to achieve such access, let alone success as a producer, has been diminished seriously. Thus when we approach the literary world as an element of a global totality we find not an even horizon of autonomous literary creation, nor a homogeneous “now” inhabited by aspiring writers who take the contemporary as their material. Integral to the whole rather is a constitutive unevenness of relations, produced by and enmeshed with histories of colonial occupation, and of subjugations via race, language, gender, and other forces. These variegate exposure to everything necessary to participate in the literary world and to benefit from whatever formal and conceptual insights literary works may allow. They also inform the whole way that literature as a system operates today, and that includes of course the nature of its formal articulation and “content.”

1 Like

I. The laminating of cognitive mapping and class consciousness that David & Hamed would like us to ruminate further is crucial. And yet it is also something of a solution looking for a problem. After all, the aesthetic and political conundrum named by Jameson – and which for better and for worse continues to resonate with us – is not that of a class subject merely hampered by a dearth of economic astrolabes or sociological portolan charts. It’s the very existence of a collective subject, even as a horizon of experience, which is cast into doubt. At another level, and perhaps a more revealing one, there is a class subject of sorts inhabiting the problem of cognitive mapping. But it is not a proletarian subject.
Jameson himself avows as much in a strikingly reflexive passage from his much-debated essay on Third World literature, where class hierarchy is cross-cut by racial difference, colonial history and imperial geography: ‘The view from the top is epistemologically crippling, and reduces its subjects to the illusions of a host of fragmented subjectivities, to the poverty of individual experience of isolated monads, to dying individual bodies without collective pasts or futures bereft of any possibility of grasping the social totality’. As, Jeff & I tried to argue in Cartographies, the irony is that contrary to the claim that Jameson was demoting the narrative and cognitive capacities of the ‘peripheries’ he was instead, even romantically, favourably comparing them to the blindness at the centre.
In keeping with this, I think that, in light of the various discussions of unevenness and exclusion (from cognitive mapping, or the art world, or even books themselves) that have peppered this thread, we should be very wary of thinking that there is any epistemological privilege at the core and at the top, or even that anyone would benefit from being ‘included’ in the aesthetic, political and economic dispensation of the elites. Though we need not project some kind of militant immanence and insight to the subaltern (be it in ‘national allegory’ or other forms), it is plain enough that wealth, literacy, access, distinction, and so on, are often impediments to any not wholly mystified totalisation, and that the drudges, victims and exiles of capital often understand it far better (for various reasons: survival, the ‘culture of the oppressed’, organisation) than its captains.

II. There’s another way to link class, consciousness and cognitive mapping, one suggested to me by a (still unfinished) reading of Luc Boltanski’s book on the shared origins of social-scientific inquiry, the detective and spy novel genres, and the psychiatric invention of ‘paranoia’, Mysteries & Conspiracies (Énigmes et complots in French). For the inventor of paranoia, Emil Kraepelin, one of its foremost symptoms was ‘the extension of an inquiry beyond what was reasonable in the ordinary circumstances of life, as if the shape and tenor of reality always presented a problematic character in the patient’s eyes’. As Boltanski details, the nosological image of paranoia was one in which the paranoid was described as a protester suffering from a delirium of interpretation.
Psychiatry, like sociology, is interpellated both by the consolidation of the modern state and by the surfacing of its enemies (here Boltanski’s account intersects the genealogy of ‘fanaticism’, which I’ve dealt with elsewhere). For the psychiatrists Sérieux and Capgras, ‘all protesters are identical. Their psychosis is characterized by two constant signs: a prevailing idea, and intellectual exaltation’. The background of the invention of paranoia, and of the genres of the detective and spy novels that give it literary life, is, according to Boltanski, the state project of ‘eliminating the gap between lived reality and instituted reality, between subjectivities and the objective arrangements that served as their framework’.
The social sciences were themselves integral to this will to stabilise and regulate reality. As for detective and spy novels, ‘the observation that reality is escaping the state’s efforts to know it and stabilize it is what arouses the anxiety and excitement on which these genres feed’ – they harness and stage, without resolving, the anxieties and contradictions of the new monopolisation of reality by the state, in the face of the subversion of capital and its enemies, of the shearing pressures between the territorial logic of sovereignty and the capitalist logic of flows.
What is at stake then is a peculiar kind of class consciousness, that of a critical intellectual and potential agitator whose class position is slippery, unassignable, who is ‘described as semi-intellectual, supernumerary, disruptive, anomic, exempting himself from the division of social labour and remaining deliberately on the margins, a figure whose hate-filled drives and revolutionary tendencies constitute a danger to society’. These figures – like the proverbial declassé anarchist agitator, are incapable of occupying a social position in keeping with their origins. These are the objects of the reactionary psychologies of ressentiment, which flattens criticism onto the persistence of a kind of ‘slave morality’. The choice, articulated in liberal, conservative or reactionary vocabularies, is stark: Capitalism or Paranoia!
(Supplementing Boltanski with Franco Moretti’s essay, ‘Clues’, we can note how detective fiction ‘exists expressly to dispel the doubt that guilt might be impersonal, and therefore collective and social. … Money is always the motive of crime in detective fiction, yet the genre is wholly silent about production. … Like popular economics, detective fiction incites people to seek the secret of profit in the sphere of circulation’. A sin that, as Tom suggested, the debate on ‘world literature’ has itself committed.)
Is there a contradiction between the Marxian imperative of totalisation and the forensic inspiration that determined the late nineteenth-century cognitive transition traced by Boltanski, system and detail. Perhaps not, if we are to follow Ernst Bloch’s beguiling observation that Marx’s ‘amoral’ cartography of capital was a function of him approaching the form of value like a detective approaches his criminal, accepting the challenge of a certain identification. Or we could consider the embryo of a research programme in a rightly famous essay by Carlo Ginzburg: ‘But the same conjectural paradigm employed to develop ever more subtle and capillary forms of control can become a device to dissolve the ideological clouds which increasingly obscure such a complex social structure as fully developed capitalism. Though pretensions to systematic knowledge may appear more and more far-fetched, the idea of totality does not necessarily need to be abandoned. On the contrary, the existence of a deeply rooted relationship that explains superficial phenomena is confirmed the very moment it is stated that direct knowledge of such a connection is not possible. Though reality may seem to be opaque, there are privileged zones - signs, clues - which allow us to penetrate it’ (‘Clues: Roots of an Evidential Paradigm’).

III. This post has already overstayed its welcome, no doubt, but, lacking any better closing words of my own, I’d still like to quote two passages by the Italian communist critic Franco Fortini, whose translation and interpretation has been occupying me quite a bit as of late (see The Dogs of the Sinai and, hopefully sometime next year, also from Seagull, A Test of Powers: Essays 1948-1968; I have contributed a small section on Fortini, including a brief presentation, three poems and two short articles to the new project Salvage). Both the passages suggest a perspective that might allow us to transcend the at times rigid or repetitive ways in which the problems of totalisation, representation and political action are articulated today, in the very long wake of the Marxist debates that first crystallised in the interwar period:

‘The writer who I’m talking about, precisely because he knows what industry is, knows that speaking about it is like speaking of his deepest self, and that therefore only a long chain of metaphors can risk that discourse. I don’t think it is either necessary or useful to establish a direct relationship between the knowledge-for-action needed by any action that wishes to be revolutionary – and thus which wishes to be or claims to be scientific knowledge – and the particular consciousness (of the industrial world) that we can get from literature’ (‘Astuti come colombe’, in Verifica dei poteri).

‘Before us lies the road, immensely long but not eternal, of mutual political education, aimed at deciphering the links between phenomena and showing the falseness of the measuring instruments currently in use. Whoever seeks to possess the (mental and/or moral) method to understand how or why the latest book of poetry published in Milan, the rise in the price of petrol, the military expenditures of the Republic of South Africa and this present argument are linked, and by which passages and distribution centers they influence one another, will also have better knowledge (or will put himself in a position to know) of the hidden tunnels through which the various ages of men (the world of reality and that of desire) communicate, and how each of us is made up of the dead and the yet unborn, and thus traversed by a universal co-responsibility.’ (‘Di Tutti a Tutti’, in Ospite Ingrato Secondo)

1 Like

I shall describe a new artwork: I Cannot Not Communicate

Manifesting as a library of 100 books, the top 100 books Amazon has recommended to me be based on 15 years of purchases. Every book I have read, own and used in research, even if not purchased from Amazon, has been feed into their algorithm. This is now many thousands of books, of every kind and subject. The resulting books are as equally diverse, bizzarie, and strangely accurate in how interesting they are to me.

The artwork will be shown for the first time at Vitsoe, 33 Bond St, New York, NY 10012, from mid-May for two months. Visitors are welcome to read the books.

Sarah’s post this week demonstrates the virtues of a multifaceted, nuanced, capaciously curious and admirably concrete attention to cultural production at multiple levels of origination, distribution and consumption. Alberto, in turn, offers a rich reflection on the subtle links between cognitive mapping, forensics, paranoia and totalization. Their latest posts are constructive in the best sense, and so I must apologize for intervening on a negative, or at least critical, note.

Nonetheless, foremost in my mind in the last week has been just how rare the conversation between Sarah, Alberto, Martin and myself has been, rare in that we all, in our different ways, share a commitment to critique – however such a nebulous term may be defined. Enter an average seminar room or conference venue in the Humanities today, however, and such a commitment threatens to seem a rare thing indeed. In Continental philosophy – my day job – we have seen the resurgence of full-blooded metaphysics, with ‘speculative realism’, for all its heterogeneity, making much of its rejection of negativity and ideological analysis. In the literary humanities, history rules the roost, and it is, more often than not, a distinctly pre-critical historicism that colors many a dissertation proposal and many a prestigious publishing catalogue. (For a galvanizing call to arms on these issues as they pertain to Victorian literary studies, see the V21 Manifesto: http://v21collective.org/manifesto-of-the-v21-collective-ten-theses/). Where, in the heat of Marxist and deconstructive theory of the mid- to late- 20th Century, history was a theoretical question to be answered, too often now it is a methodology to be comfortably and uncritically assumed. Another anti-critical salvo is to be found in the call to ‘surface reading’ associated, in particular, with a special edition of Representations edited by Sharon Marcus and Stephen Best and published in 2009. This has proven a more or less explicitly anti-theoretical attempt to, in Marcus’ terms, center our attention on “what is evident, perceptible, apprehensible in texts…what insists at being looked at rather than what we must train ourselves to look through”. (‘Surface Reading: An Introduction’, 9). One should treat such calls with some charity, for it is no doubt true that, at least in certain variants of deconstructive and ‘symptomatic’ reading, too much attention had been paid to what cannot be said, as opposed to what can and what must.


Nonetheless, in this post, I’d like to parse these calls for a new practice of reading in order to try and answer two related questions: first, what is the quality of the reading that results from these anti-critical methodologies and, second, how accurate is their characterization of prior theoretical practices? To be clear, my aim is not to nostalgically insist on the mere recovery of such earlier methodologies; rather, it is to trace in the ideological configurations that determine our post-critical moment what of criticism has been willfully misconstrued. While it is largely beyond the scope of this post, we must also ask why these characterizations are arising at this historical moment, and with what consequences. Needless to say, criticizing the critics of criticism (!) is not enough, and those of us who demur from these trends are responsible for creating new syntheses of formal, materialist, and historical methods that might avoid some of the limits identified in what follows.

How do Best and Marcus define ‘symptomatic reading’, those reading practices they wish to contest? When they acknowledge the source of the phrase ‘symptomatic reading’ in the work of Althusserian Marxists, they describe it as “assum[ing] that texts are shaped by questions they do not themselves pose and contain symptoms that help interpreters articulate those questions, which lie outside texts as their absent causes”. (5) To this, one may simply counterpose the conclusion of Pierre Macherey, Althusser’s most inventive reader and a thinker of great power in his own right who, to the present, has done the most to develop a sophisticated theory of symptomatic reading, one that takes care to elude the metaphors of depth and absence that Best and Marcus kick against: “It is indeed easy to find it [the text] deep, like an enigma or mask behind which lurks some haunting presence; this is but one more way of representing the text as a smooth and decorative surface”. (Pierre Macherey, A Theory of Literary Production, 98).

On the contrary, and with impeccable fidelity to Spinoza’s insistence that a cause only ever inheres in its effects, “this idea of a hidden truth or meaning remains unproductive and misleading: in the proposed exchange between depth and surface there is ultimately just an abstract inversion which disturbs the terms of the problem while leaving the problem unchanged”. (98). It is hard, then, to recognize the foe that Best and Marcus set out to oppose, as when they characterize symptomatic reading as taking “meaning to be hidden, repressed, deep, and in need of detection and disclosure by an interpreter”. (‘Surface Reading’, 1). As Macherey’s comments imply, symptomatic reading in its structural Marxist acceptation is anything but a depth hermeneutics. That post-Freudian psychoanalytic approaches are similarly cautious to avoid a metaphorics of depth – think only of Lacan’s fastidious disavowal of any idea of the unconscious as some kind of immeasurably deep cauldron of roiling fantasies – is equally elided by Best and Marcus, for whom psychoanalytic approaches are only the bearers of a now-untenable suspicious gaze.

Another recent example of an anti-critical practice of reading is to be found in Cannon Schmitt’s nonetheless illuminating analysis of Joseph Conrad, ‘Tidal Conrad (Literally)’. (C. Schmitt, ‘Tidal Conrad (Literally)’ in Victorian Studies 55.1, Autumn 2012, 7-29).
Concerning himself with a ‘literal’ reading of the nautical imagery that is distributed across much of Conrad’s prose, Schmitt laments a “critical tradition that, as if taking its cue from Marlow or his avatar Pepper, values the deep and the figurative over the shallow and the literal”. (9). Instead, Schmitt avers, one should take seriously the immediately perceptible and often technical references that a writer such as Conrad puts to use in lending his narrative color and detail. Schmitt does not, admittedly, wish to entirely leave suspicion behind; he concedes that “[t]he figurative, repressed, ideological resonances of texts should not be abandoned; rather, they would be understood as incomplete if not worked out in complex relation to the sheer facticity of fictional worlds”. (15).

By taking seriously the opening, say, of Heart of Darkness, where “The Nellie, a cruising yawl, swung to her anchor without a flutter of her sails”, one would need to establish what a ‘yawl’ literally is, what it tells us then about the nautical experience of dropping such a ship’s anchor, and only after that search among the depths of this imagery for its figurative consequences. Schmitt christens this process ‘denotative reading’, and thus confesses a faith in the ability to sharply distinguish denotation from connotation, literal meaning from metaphoric mystery. But take Schmitt’s analysis of the word ‘restraint’ in Conrad, one that forms “an insistent refrain in Heart of Darkness”. Schmitt quotes Conrad’s character Marlow reflecting on the puzzling failure of the cannibal crew of the steamer ship in the novella to kill and consume their masters: “Restraint! What possible restraint?..But there was the fact facing me – the fact dazzling, to be seen, like the foam on the depths of the sea, like a ripple on an unfathomable enigma”. (22-23). Briefly entertaining the notion that the depth imagery of the passage may make of Marlow a quintessential symptomatic reader, Schmitt concludes instead that such depths are unimportant “in relation to what is superficially evident, the “dazzling” “fact” of realized restraint”. Here, Schmitt appears to set up an equivalence between the kind of denotation he finds in the technical terms of seafaring – yawn, anchor and so forth – and an apparently symmetrical literal meaning to be deduced from the term ‘restraint’, one that may only then be supplemented by the term’s figural permutations.

‘Restraint’, however, is no technical term, insofar as it has no immediately localizable or fixable object; indeed, it is a term that tends to be explained only in terms of its synonyms – constraint, control, limits for one of its most obvious definitions, unemotional, detached, moderate for another. Even if ‘yawl’ and ‘anchor’ might seem to bear less of a polyphony, might it not be that the very use of such apparently ‘blank’ terms, terms close enough to jargon, may be intended as their own kind of allegorical realignment or displacement, such that it is in the very seeming lack of figurality apparent in such words that we find ourselves searching all the harder for an elusive figural depth? Schmitt may be half right then, but only in the sense that jargon alerts us to the fact that polyphony occurs precisely at the surfaces that may, at first blush, seem to tolerate only a denotative sobriety. Such a sobriety may alternatively be best understood in terms of the speculative productivity of the constraints of literary form itself, in the manner in which those multiple forms of limitation – forms of restraint, we may say, the best exemplar of which may well be poetic meter – open the door, even if only slightly, to refigurative consequences they may superficially seem only to contain.

Surface readers, and our sample here is inevitably small and restricted, can be said to retain the metaphorics of depth they (suspiciously) see everywhere in prior practices of reading. This much is obvious, of course: one cannot but evoke depths by speaking of surfaces. In their essay, Best and Marcus explore different valences of the surface, from surface as materiality – the materiality of the book and of book history, primarily – to the surface as ‘affective and ethical stance’. The latter would reject interpretation as an alibi for ignoring one’s own attachments to texts, such attachments sited in spaces – affective, erotic, corporeal – hidden from the imperious but artificial strictures of critical reason. But critical reading that has developed from structural Marxist sources, and one would need to include the most sophisticated of psychoanalytic criticisms too, has always been aware of the lures of these metaphors, of how they may smuggle essentially theological assumptions into otherwise critical projects. Freud himself saw this temptation in Jung’s theory of the archetypes; where Freud wished psychoanalysis to pay attention to the formal modulations of the unconscious rather than on its ‘hidden’ symbolic content, Jung inflated the latter into ahistorical archetypes that de-materialized and simplified the whirring surface textures of unconscious form. Reading Best and Marcus, one would have thought that Marxist, psychoanalytic or deconstructive strategies of reading were hegemonic in the academy. But this conversation has seemed so invigorating precisely because they are not; far from it. A sophisticated melding of the kind of large-scale critical Marxist topographies outlined by Sarah with a newly speculative but resolutely materialist attention to the formativeness of form may be one way of renewing the best of our critical pasts, without the convenience of caricature or nostalgia.

1 Like

Although it will remain live and open for comments, the time limit initially set for this conversation is now up. Thank you so much to all of our contributors on this thread, and also on the previous two that we chaired. I have certainly found it very stimulating and I hope that others have too. It would be great to hear if anybody else has any thoughts on the topic.

Before closing off, I briefly wanted to pick up on the new work that Martin mentioned in his last post - I Cannot Communicate. I was particularly interested in the resonance that this piece seems to have with the surrealist object. Andre Breton wrote of the surrealist object as something that we already fantasise about before it appears in the world, or at least that feels uncanny because it somehow corresponds with desires that are latent within us. This was a key idea in Breton’s Freudian Marxism, because he was interested in the interpenetrability of the real and the imaginary - the possibility that fantasy or desire can transform the world as a key political principle. In Martin’s new work, it seems as if we dream about something and then Amazon delivers it. This suggests a very different legacy for surrealism than what Breton imagined!