Saturday, May 23, 2009

Marx's Sci-Fi



I'm going to see
Terminator Salvation tonight. With full knowledge the film will likely suck. But I share with many of my friends the hope—irrational, surely—that a film like this will succeed, that it will lay bare all of the operative contradictions of this last horrible decade. Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will. The first two Terminator films were formative, giving shape to a form of catastrophic thinking I'd already developed on my own. (I’m remembering now that I watched the first one on Laserdisc, in a motel in the tiny highway town of Chemult, Oregon. I must have been ten or eleven, and was visiting my mother and stepfather who lived in middle-of-nowhere woods in southeastern Oregon. My stepfather had built a house for them, a log cabin, essentially single-handedly, but they didn’t have hot water or electricity, and so we’d occasionally drive into town and rent a room—just for the day—to take showers and watch movies. Then we’d go and eat fried clams or roast beef au jus).

I’ve been thinking about the first two Terminator films, which I’m sure I misremember, and wondering, to the extent that they are symptomatic of the Bush and Reagan years, how much they were really concerned with technology, robots and artificial intelligence. Or perhaps it’s only that they were worried about these things in a different way than a film like
The Matrix. In T1 and T2, the imminent robot takeover seems a pretext for a Haraway-esque allegorical recoding of the culture wars of this period: unborn babies threatened by a technological future, single mothers, androgynous women, at-risk kids.

In short, what seems at stake in these films is biological reproduction, the family and gender, where technology (in the form of T1’s “bad” Terminator) threatens to wipe out biological reproduction, or erase the differences between men and women (buff Linda Hamilton in T2). But in T2 the masculinized mother is also super-mom, so maybe what we get is a sort auto-immunological masculinity, not designed to undo the differences the institutions of patriarchy but to preserve them in a new form.

The first two films, then, seem to wonder if bourgeois society still needs the bourgeoisie—its morality, its family structure, its bizarre rituals. The anti-bourgeois bourgeoisie is, of course, coded in the first film as a fascist (read: Austrian, accented) other. But the second film realizes that there can be no simple rejection of these emergent forms—only the good terminator can destroy the bad terminator, only a masculinized mother can preserve the institution of motherhood.

I don’t know what T3 is about. The internet? Yeah, sure, but the film also seems to take seriously the rhetoric of globalization and the end of history. The final scene—with its shot of the empty podium and the Seal of the Office of the President, its regression to an era (the 1960s) when US dominance was assured, wants to think the fact of waning US hegemony.

Not to disparage the themes above—which were relevant then and are still-relevant now—but my irrational hope for
Terminator Salvation is that it will take on the development of capitalist technology in a more direct way. In other words, now that we get to see armies of robots as opposed to one or two robots, I’d like to see a filmic translation of the part of Marx’s Grundrisse called the “Fragment on Machines” (Viking, 690-714). It's one of the most amazing pieces of critical theory ever written, and the points Marx makes there are enormously relevant to the current organization of society.

For Marx, as productive forces develop—as society becomes able to produce more and more stuff with less and less direct labor—large numbers of people become redundant. And yet capitalism has no way of distributing access to this wealth except through the measure of the wage and, implicitly, labor time. As his Hegelian grammar has it:

In machinery, objectified labour materially confronts living labour as a ruling power and as an active subsumption of the latter under itself, not only by appropriating it, but in the real production process itself; the relation of capital as value which appropriates value-creating activity is, in fixed capital existing as machinery, posited at the same time as the relation of the use value of capital to the use value of labour capacity; further, the value objectified in machinery appears as a presupposition against which the value-creating power of the individual labour capacity is an infinitesimal, vanishing magnitude. . .
Workers become “conscious linkages” within a larger automaton, “a mere living accessory of this machinery.” Such a situation effects a profound mystification, not only for perpetually mystified owners of capital, but for workers as well: “The accumulation of knowledge and of skill, of the general productive forces of the social brain, is thus absorbed into capital, as opposed to labour, and hence appears as an attribute of capital. . .”

The paradox of such a situation—the central contradiction of capitalism for Marx—is that poverty and abundance grow simultaneously. The more these productive forces develop the more workers are cast out of the production process. Further, because this development also means, as he demonstrates in his reworking of this argument in Capital Volume 3, a tendency for the profit rate to fall, there is less willingness to ameliorate this growing poverty and dispossession by a redistribution of profits through social entitlement programs. This is what we’ve seen over the last 30 years.
Real wealth manifests itself, rather—and large industry reveals this—in the monstrous disproportion between the labour time applied, and its product, as well as in the qualitative imbalance between labour, reduced to a pure abstraction, and the power of the production process it superintends. . .

On the one side, then, it (capital) calls to life all the powers of science and of nature, as of social combination and of social intercourse, in order to make the creation of wealth independent (relatively) of the labour time employed on it. On the other side, it wants to use labour time as the measuring rod for the giant social forces thereby created, and to confine them within the limits required to maintain the already created value. . .

The saving of labour time [is] equal to an increase of free time, i.e. time for the full development of the individual, which in turn reacts back upon the productive power of labour as itself the greatest productive power. From the standpoint of the direct production process it can be regarded as the production of fixed capital, this fixed capital being man himself. . .
The point here is that the accumulation of capital in the form of machinery is an alienated, objectified form of potential freedom—the full development of the individual—one that is constantly reconverted into alien form. There is some danger in the perspective that Marx lays out in this passage—we shouldn’t go too far in attributing to capital an automatic, self-organizing power. To the extent that the social brain of capital is Skynet, it is a robot horde that, in pushing both the class of capitalists and the working-class to the side, continually relies on them in order to stay in motion. There is no automatic subject without the people who serve and direct it, and such automatism takes place as the class struggle between the two classes trying to direct, control and appropriate the fruits of such a process. But neither class can really completely determine the automaton, as recent events confirm. At the same time, the automaton has no raison d’ĂȘtre except by way of people. If Skynet were to eliminate people it would have no reason to continue, would it? And anyway, the convenience of the time-travel plot device does away with this line of metaphysical speculation. There is no apocalypse. And history has not even begun.

This is a tall order for a film, and I realize I’m mostly using the Terminator series as an opportunity to geek out on Marx. But if Terminator Salvation doesn’t deliver, maybe we should make the action-movie version of the
Grundrisse ourselves?

6 comments:

Stan Apps said...

I liked that. Especially the part about "alienated, objectified form of potential freedom." And the whole drama of wanting to go to the movies and see one's own opinions. That would be nice. . .

Jasper Bernes said...

Thanks, Stan. I guess the post does make it sound as if I just want the movie to confirm my opinions--this is the danger for those of us who read cultural objects symptomatically, no? That we occasionally pull out of the hat the rabbit we've just placed in it, no?

But I think I want my opinions plus something else. There's much I don't understand about this stuff, so I'm assuming, were a movie to get at it all, I'd end up discovering new things. . .


J

Chris said...

"On the other side, it wants to use labour time as the measuring rod for the giant social forces thereby created, and to confine them within the limits required to maintain the already created value. . ."

There's a time lag here, no? The conflict's always funneled through the "idiom" of the obsolete weaponry of the present (and that nostalgia for the outworn older model in T2, "an opposition of mechanical man seeking human fluidity versus fluid man seeking fascist channeling"), which I suppose if we want to extend the reading, would be the vestigial "value form" itself.

I wanna see more desperate, ill-conceived acts of post-apocalyptic guerilla resistance from the back of weaponized pickups, circa 1984. Just goes to show you what happens when you buy Japanese.

Le jugement dernier: "The future is another country."

A third world country by the looks of it. Desert.

Chris

Nate said...

I've become kind of allergic to that chunk of the Grundrisse because I can't read it except through the reading Negri et al give it, which expresses a view I know no longer agree with. Anyhow, great post. If you've not read it you might be interested in this piece by George Caffentzis - www.midnightnotes.org/pdfnewenc6.pdf

take care,
Nate

Jasper Bernes said...

Yeah, it's a bit played out, that passage. . . Have you read Postone's Time, Labor and Social Domination? He's another person whose reading of Marx essentially devolves upon that chunk of the Marx, but his reading isn't as extreme as Negri--that is, he doesn't use that passage to posit the supercession of the value-form, although there is this weird argument about class. . .

archivist said...

http://www.postcapital.org/?tag=alexander-kluge