4. Photography, Computation, Radical Finance?
Published: 03.07.2017
in the series The Programmable Image
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So what can we do? Let’s leave the wearisome if still at times illuminating path of critique and take this blog in an unexpected direction. Simply stated, the visual has been a pathway of financialization, racialization and gender formation – and these vectors are inseparable in as much as they are always immanent in any mediation dependent upon contemporary technical infrastructure. Communication technologies have become forms of fixed capital that serve as deterritorialized factories that put people to work, each according to their ability, each according to their need, but this time with abilities and needs ordained by Capital. Flusser understood an important aspect of this relation of production when he said the photographer feeds the channels that feed them. So also with the spectator, the googler, the facebooker and the blogger. Our cognitive and perceptual faculties – even our metabolism – have been put to work. Our pursuit of liberation, our gaming of the system and hedging of risk become the source of systemic profits for the plutocrats who control (or at least own) the means of communication. These means of communication are, in fact, the means of production. Very bleak.

If the means of communication are the means of production, we are also saying that the hard distinction between these two ideas is no longer tenable. All stuff communicates, objects signify, all that is solid melts into semiotics, and that pertains, even if the role of some things in signification is precisely to disappear. Disappearance, for example, is the role often assigned to migrants, and the innumerable bearers of the numerous burdens of colonial histories. The marked body is marked for disappearance, or for the disappearance of the history of violence that is encapsulated by the mark of what is sometimes called social difference.

Today something more is at work within representation. It inheres in representation but also exceeds it: our cultural forms, our words and images, are financial media. The encoding of objects as representation is inseparable from financialization. The resultant semiosis is the energy of production. Not just the machines, but their contents, serve as factory floor. The machines and their contents form a unity for fixed capital. We understand that as analytics, “the photographic universe,” “the universe of the technical image,” “the cinematic mode of production” offer many insights which clearly indicate that our media have been financial media. With a notion that finance and computation are co-emergent and indistinguishable in the last instance (see The Message is Murder; forthcoming), we may approach the deeper meaning of what is really meant today when speaking of computational media as convergence culture.

We have covered this argument. What more is there to say? Many things, of course, but here perhaps this: If photography, cinema, television, social media have all been means of financialization, and if a large part of this process was taken either as the work of nature, culture or modernity, then the financial dimension has been predominantly unconscious. The financial tools, the controls, have been elsewhere. But they have not been absent.

As discussed in earlier posts, the unconscious operations of images do not mean that these operations are not rigorous and affecting in multiple ways. The social programming they accomplish at once organizes society and renders much of that organization unintelligible – particularly to analytics that presume that the world is comprised of subjective agents doing their thing. I have called this underlying logic The Computational Unconscious.

My point in rehearsing this argument is that as difficult as it may be to track the socio-political relations churning in media culture, it is perhaps even more difficult to track the financial relations, let alone control them. That is because most of us do not know how to think in a truly sophisticated way about finance (there are systemic reasons for this), nor do we have the imaginative capability to visualize and demand different financial controls – controls that currently belong to states, banks and corporations. But what if it were possible to develop a new set of financial controls and to democratize them? What if it were possible to harness the financial operations within the image and make them non-exploitative – meaning to say not value-extractive but rather value-generative for all parties involved? What, in short, if it were possible to control the terms of valuation?

This is not mere moralizing, it is, rather an intimation of a new type of political and technical program. One that could track productive contributions to economy not with the wage but with equity. Such a program would be one in which ordinary people keep more of the value they produce and do so both in common and on their own terms. On the one hand this retaining of one’s value seems like an obvious proposition: end exploitation by not allowing for value transfer up the value chain to proprietors, that is, to capitalists. That’s what revolutionary communism intended with respect to workers. People would build for themselves, not for third party accumulators whose interests were diametrically opposed to theirs. But past communist states have for the most part only been reskinnings of the deep codebase of a capitalist operating system.

On the other hand, what we are asking is less obvious: how can one transform the entire photographic-computational media infrastructure into a non-extractive formation, into a commonly held resource or means of production? This question leads to the obvious but seemingly impossible answer: the abolition of private property. However, even in deference to Marx’s acerbic quip in The Communist Manifesto that for most people private property has been abolished already, if one sees that property ownership is really a form of a contract providing rights to the results of human productive practices, then there does seem to be room to modify the social contract that is dominated by exploitative property relations and their attendant logistics of race, nation, gender, ability, etc. Property is, in short, a relation of governance, and when approached in this way, a shifting of structures of governance suddenly becomes imaginable, particularly if, as I have been attempting to demonstrate throughout, governance has become photographic/computational. Benjamin Bratton’s phrase “platform sovereignty” sums up this notion of governance moving into the computational infrastructure very nicely.

Within the post-fordist media factories, like the factories before them (and still simultaneous to them), we give ourselves over to our dominators in piece-meal fashion, joule by joule. This relationship of distributed social creation is in fact a relation of shared sociality (“the communism of capital,” as Paolo Virno says) – under the current operating system the rules of distribution are profoundly unequal. What if it were possible to keep our productivity (the results of our work and our metabolic processes including our radiation of metadata) for ourselves? And what would this mean in the context of screen culture and computational capitalism?

The short answer is that all the operations going on at the interface with fixed capital, what is aesthetic, affective, cognitive, haptic, neurological or otherwise embodied might be redistributed. Under everyday circumstances it is the wage that abstracts labor via extraction (subjective time for money, qualities for quantities), and under post-fordist conditions it is the ambient digital interface that abstracts affective capacity. What would value abstraction without value extraction feel like? What if all you gave over to images, thoughts and feeling served the groups and communities you cared for? What if it were possible to take distributed creation to another level by changing the distribution pattern and avoiding third-party extractors? In brief, the answer would be a demand not for basic income but for basic equity – a digital tracking system that secured equity in exchange for contribution.

Those who have been carefully following this argument may perhaps anticipate where I am headed. Distributed computing, blockchain ledgers and “trustless” because cryptographically secure exchange suddenly offers a new way to imagine the organization of productive relationships. Thus far the results have been anti-state but not anti-capitalist – libertarian in many respects though not exclusively. An important lesson here however is that participants in the vitality of the various cryptocurrencies become stakeholders in the very technologies they use to organize themselves. Rather than renting the general intellect from private providers as people do now do with Google, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter and the like (which are engines of extraction), the intellectual ferment around crypto is encoded in their blockchains and sedimented as a minimal but incorruptible record of the vitality of each currency. In this we find a model for a far reaching, world-historical transformation. The re-engineering of money through radical finance and the political claiming of finance as a left-radical domain of intervention. More to come.

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