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Socialism and/or Barbarism
By Evan Calder Williams
Notes on a once & future nightmare. S a/o B 2008-2011
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the Empire chest-of-drawers silently protests


His Tobias Mindernickel, a waif-like figure of Dostoyevskyian inspiration, lives in terrible solitude on the top floor of a working-class house, in a wretched room with no adornment except for a chest-of-drawers, ‘a solid piece of Empire furniture with metal handles, an object of value and of beauty’. In the room there is also a sofa covered with a green material; Mann does not say whether this is Empire, but since it ‘smells of dust’ we imagine that it is. While taking note of the German writer’s concession that this chest-of-drawers has ‘value and beauty,’ I deplore the fact that he should have made it the witness of a sordid crime. For Tobias takes refuge from a world that makes fun of him, and from his own terrible solitude, in the company of a gun-dog, which he ill-treats and caresses by turns, until one day he vents upon it his sadistic obsession, like the protagonist of Poe’s The Black Cat, and, at a moment when the young dog is more lively than usual, stabs it; and so the dog dies. Tobias weeps, and the Empire chest-of-drawers silently protests.


[Mario Praz, On Neoclassicism]


Shard Cinema, 1

[previous material/"part 1" here]

pacific rim kaiju build6

beneath and above this cantus firmus there run disordered exuberances 

terminator collision render


- Ernst Bloch

What is the relation between a sabotaged PS4 that never finishes booting up and the foreclosure of sabotage in a film whose Blu-Ray might get played on it, if only it would start? One way into this was hinted at before: the representation of a world split between competing regimes, or at least appearances, of technology, between craft and sheen, or the obdurate and the flickering. Indeed, the opposition at work in Elysium’s grimy keyboards vs. transparent tablets or in Oblivion’s yuppie-driftwood vs. inhuman triangles is hardly limited to those films. In other recent releases, it adopts the shape of an even more hackneyed contest, digital vs. analog.


In Pacific Rim, for example, the nominal divide between giant lumbering mounds of alien flesh and giant lumbering mounds of robotic metal gets parsed out further, because one of the central plot points derives from the gap between two kinds of “Jaegers” (those behemoth vehicle mounds piloted from within by humans, because, apparently, the envisioned future has forgotten about that whole drone turn in military affairs). There are new-fangled digital pseudo-Transformer Jaegers (used by everyone but the Americans) and there are old (2017), analog (albeit nuclear), and already decommissioned (sent to “Oblivion Bay” in Oakland) Jaegers, like “Gipsy Danger,” the Jaeger aligned with the protagonists, that still run off more openly mechanical processes.

In total accord with a yuppie logic that must veil all its choices behind false cries of necessity, the yearning for the simpler times of analog mechanized death gets the narrative excuse it needs. An electro-magnetic pulse from one of the aforementioned fleshy threats (the Kaiju) puts the next-gen Jaegers out of commission, leaving just ol’ faithful Gipsy Danger to save the day.

battleship analog1 battleship analog2

Battleship, the other recent Transformers-with-more-water-droplets blockbuster, realigns that division into human-analog and alien-digital, complete with AC/DC bro jam accompaniment as weathered vets pulled out of retirement and hot young things alike rescue Earth from modular, hulkish, and bristling alien crafts with nothing but their standard-issue battleship and plentiful references to The Art of War.

battleship touch screen battleship touch screen alienAll species can agree on haptic, smearable things…

Sure, the human battleship is “modern,” as a shot of Rihanna rotating gun turrets by twisting her  fingers on what may as well be an iPad hint, a shot later echoed from the alien side as if to hint at common ground. But both that possible commonality of two battleships passing in the night and the prospect of successful algorithmic war are blown-away by the relentless insistence on human courage as the juncture of tough physical exertion with weighty, mechanical stuff. A representative sample: the sailors gruntingly lugging a 1,000 pound shell from one gun to another; the DIY-firing up of the battleship’s steam engine; a double-amputee vet beating the shit out of an armored alien through pure determination; and, of course…

battleship analog4 battleship analog3

outsmarting the invaders and their slick displays, targeting reticles, and tracking missiles/buzzsaws by literally turning the battle into a game of Battleship, as the sailors reveal that they “can track without radar” because they have mapped the entire theater of operation with that familiar grid from which the entire film is nominally derived. (i.e. “B-3…” “You sunk my cruiser!,” etc)  
None of this is especially unique, given that so much action cinema from the outset has turned on the idea of the out-gunned and out-manned beating foreign hordes by simpler means, elbow grease, and a generalized commitment to Freedom. What is different, though, is the stark opposition between this visual-narrative schema and the means by which it was produced: namely, through a massive exertion of the digital, with a heft of capital, time, and processing power that more than equals the towering fighters on display.

pacific rim kaiju build5 pacific rim kaiju build2Render stills from ILM

While Pacific Rim integrated certain “practical effects,” such as the construction of miniatures for destruction and the filming of actual smoke, particles, and water, Gipsy Danger, that triumph of the analog itself, was “built” digitally by Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), as were the others Jaegers and Kaiju. Skin, lighting, and damage effects are wrapped like infraslim panels over a gridded form, which then are tossed into and through similar objects (Kaiju, buildings) consisting of further panes, frames, and quantified volumes.

pacific rim kaiju build3Gipsy Danger slams a Kaiju into a building. Render still.

The resulting splinter and splatter move in accordance with calculations that crunch the interaction of phantom weight and velocity and attempt to randomize, within a restricted range, particle effects and debris so as to produce the appearance of the unpredictable contingencies of real matter on matter action.

battleship CGI rendering battleship CGI rendering2Battleship render stills

The same goes for Battleship, whose visual effects were also helmed by ILM and its various “partnerships” with VFX teams and render labs far afield, including in Singapore. Digitally modeled water, ship, sky, and the explosive force of fired shells alike are set within a digital “aquarium” to calculate how they interact and slosh. Like the Jaegers, they are never filmed from any angle: they are set in constructed space and recorded from a chosen perspective after their movements have already been modeled, when they are merged with other elements shot or animated.

And so, even as a green-screened Charlie Hunnam swaggers toward his nuts-and-bolts counterpart and as echoes of old Ford “Built Tough” commercials flicker in my mental overlay, the actual methods of these images’ construction guts any validity of that nostalgia. It demonstrates the alleged split to be itself just one more camoufleur’s cladding applied after the fact to a mode wholly alien to available structures of looking and thinking. In trying to make sense of it all, we end only with a headache, the “suppressed, dull rage capable of being distracted”, and the drifting data of a 3-D storm into which thousands of hours have been sunk, and not like battleships whatsoever.

Contrary to an old-fashioned ontological realist and sometimes fist-pounding emphasis on cinema showing the “real world,” my suspicions about this operation have nothing to do its supposed falsity or the idea that Del Toro somehow “betrayed” the nobility of men in rubber suits smacking each other around in front of a wind machine. My interest lies instead in the basic structure onto which that aesthetic preference for the hand-hewn, heftable, or photographed – rather than processed, calculated, and animated – has been applied. To think about the relation of such images to sabotage requires thinking first about the relation between those images and the process of their making. Because in this visual system, that process becomes pressingly apparent, even as the materials involved remain invisible, obscure, and beyond the grasp of those – myself included – who watch them. We know that the Jaeger is spun from the combination of a processor and a giant sum of labored hours just as much as we know that the particular techniques, decisions, patches, and tweaks are beyond our reach. We just know that it costs.

iron man 3 holograph autopsyTony Stark putters around amongst holographic corpses

The connection – and distance – from sabotage becomes clearer when we track back from an animated leviathan fight to the machines that play that fight for us, because there too, the real links between how the device was made, how it operates, what it is supposed to do for us, and what it actually does are deeply obscured. To be sure, they are hidden in the way that any commodity, especially a mass-produced one, covers the explicit tracks of its path from rare earth to Foxconn to living room, but these images veil those passages even further. Consider the reigning object used to mark “advanced,” and potentially evil, technology in these films: the touchscreen, be it in Oblivion’s table-length tablets or Battleship’s tablets or the ubiquitous screens – be it in Elysium or Robot and Frank – of translucent glass in which information can appear and vanish without a trace or the furthest extension of barely-thereness, the holographic OS of Iron Man 3 that lets Tony Stark play goateed Sherlock in a neon charnal field.


ipadair2 98e5283a642c460faca445381d347eae-98e5283a642c460faca445381d347eae-0Dicks.

Their real world correlates are hard to miss: tablets and phones in the baleful arms race to be ever thinner, ever lighter, and all approaching a fantasy point of zero where one will hold what weighs nothing and has no depth yet can still be touched, swept, and pinched. A screen untethered from both mass and history of manufacture, a window that does not even need glass to frame and show.

ht_budweiser_led_dm_130429_wblogBudweiser’s “Buddy Cup,” which adds drinkers who chin-chin as friends on Facebook

 The underpinning logic of the absent tablet is itself just one facet of a historical dynamic felt daily, with a mixture of anticipation and creeping dread, by those who live in situations and zones of the globe where the need for touchable screens of various sizes might be felt, whether or not one has the cash to do anything about it. That dynamic is the increasing blur between things that can gather data and/or process it to be presented as information and things that cannot, that are “dark” to the world around them, even as they remain consumable, usable, or destroyable. In other words, one faces the increasing prospect of all elements of the built world becoming gatherers, processors, or transmitters, especially in ways that are not immediately visible to those around them.

SMART-ARROW“Smart Arrow”

For instance, if an arrow “communicates” with a wall by hitting it, that interaction and aftermath can be easily seen, heard, and felt. When an IDF “Smart Arrow” – I wish I was joking – is fired at a wall, those filmed cannot immediately detect that it is beaming back to their enemies a stream of images for up to seven hours.

That prospect that any and all things in our surroundings might be POVs, rather than elements of a space to be seen from our own, is thick in the air these days. All the world’s a spy movie when bugs do not need to be planted because they are come pre-built into the terrain, and when secret agents are just malware and remote-start tea kettles. It is for this reason that sabotage – the act of accessing the latent contradictions and potentials of apparatuses to be used as means against their designed ends – has become an even more crucial form of analysis and subversion than it long has been. From its inception, sabotage involves a deep connection with the machines, commodities, concepts, and spaces that curse us, a collusion with enemy materials against their social forms.  It involves tuning ourselves to their histories and intricacies, and above all, to the gaps between how they appear to us as finished, functional commodities and how they work and can be made to stop working, especially by those responsible for making and reproducing them in the first place.

In short, sabotage is the name for the very prospect denied by Elysium and its fetish of objects that can be made and used yet not understood or altered, be seen as miraculous but not as secular. So to answer the question: the relation between such cinema and sabotage is a negative one. This cinema is the image of the historical negation of sabotage, or any thick knowledge of circulation’s routes and detours, during a long moment where it shows itself increasingly to be a necessary optic onto a world.

That negative image, the portrait of sabotage thwarted and foreclosed, is nothing so immediate as the image of a touchscreen-piloted drone with no discernible nuts and bolts to slacken, no exhaust port to piss in. It is de facto a more complicated capture, both a suspicion about the thickening world’s capacity to display and communicate information and the evacuation of the prospect of doing anything about it other than gawk. Still, it can be glimpsed in the form of one visual situation, repeated again and again in the large-scale cinema of the past decade to the point of becoming its authorless signature. It can be seen here, in Constantine (2005, dir. Francis Lawrence), when The Devil comes to Earth and decides to make a splashy entrance, so to speak.

 constantine shard hang constantine shard hang2 constantine shard hang3constantine shard hang4 blur

Constantine, or the Devil walks through frozen time

 Or this, from the forest escape scene in Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows, where the advance of time jerks back and forth from CSI-renactment creep of particles across empty space to Jude Law’s herky-jerky sprint:

sherlock holmes game of shadows forest shard1Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows

Or this:

Rescue_of_Morpheus_Lobby_ChargeThe Matrix, CGI-less

Or perhaps its most “advanced” recent display, in the third Transformers (Dark of the Moon), when a robot worm-python burrows through and then strangles a highly reflective skyscraper, cyberpunk’s mirror shades made architecture:

transformers 3 mirror stage2

the smooth outside of which various characters slide before adding to the debris by following the film’s basic injunction – “Shoot the glass!” – to reenter the building.

transformers 3 window jump4 transformers 3 window jump transformers 3 window jump2 transformers 3 window jump3

In these and the plentiful other instances familiar to anyone who has seen a capital-intensive action flick in the last decade and a half, the recurrent obsession is to show the after-effect of one or more shattered surfaces, always in slow motion and often decelerated to the point of near arrest, as the manifold shards of whatever busted or falling material fill, hang, and splay in the air, clattering against each other and other elements of the scene joined together as animation. In short, it is the application of bullet time to all that exists.

samuraiSucker Punch

To call these “surfaces,” though, is not to limit this signature image to moments where something as obviously shard-prone as a glass door is exploded into a perennially blue-lit ice storm by Lucifer. The situation is the same in the kind of particle effects/atomistic puke that a film like Sucker Punch loves, where ash, snow, fire, glass, wood, dirt, sequins, and spent shells jostle for space with unrepentant Orientalism and women themselves so buffed with filters as to become one more composite texture available for shattering. And so too with the destruction of things we might not think of first and foremost as surfaces: the entirety of central London, for instance, which is devastated in GI Joe Retaliation by means of a tungsten-filled platinum rod dropped from an orbiting satellite. (“None of the fallout; all of the fun.”)

gi joe retaliation london destroy4 gi joe retaliation london destroy3 gi joe retaliation london destroy2 gi joe retaliation london destroy1

The prior entry in the series (G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra) had its own bravura feat of urbicide, letting “nanomites”   loose in Paris. There, the city is surface in the guise of substance, as any and all durable materials – cars, bodies, the Eiffel Tower – are suddenly dissolved as if they had been thin veils of matter from the start, eaten away into green mist of chaff that dissolves on the wind. (Nanomites evidently do not shit.) In Retaliation, the opposite is the case: actual substance, heft, and unevenness is rendered a breakable surface prior to the destruction and the metropolis is ruined as just such a cracky, shuddering surface. As if London had been erected directly on a mosaic of pieces, plates that, when put under pressure, break on the dotted lines of separation already present before the space rod makes contact. As if because that’s precisely how this depicted London was built. As Bill George of ILM, VFX Supervisor for the project explains:

When the filmmakers turned over the shots to us they explained that they didn’t want to see the typical “nuclear blast” type shots. They wanted to surface of the earth to “shatter”. We explored the idea of treating the ground plane as a thick “shell” that would break like glass when the impact happens.

The effect is achieved, no doubt. However, the way this “shell” breaks is in accord with the breaks already there, because the construction of this destructable London involved a montage of “plates.” Having been provided with “helicopter footage over London to use as plates,” these modular slabs dictated both images of London: as unruined (the assemblage of various angles and excess footage into a manageable pattern of surfaces that would maintain their “properties,” both the houses on them and the relevant textures, in accordance with a hierarchy of “foreground and background assets with the foreground models being more finely detailed and the many background ones being more procedural”) and as midway through ruination (“This animation of the plates drove ALL the destruction and simulations that would follow”).
shard london opening night laser show 3

In this regard, it is fitting that The Shard tower – yes, the one that looks like a villain in one of these films, the one designed to be “a shard of glass through the heart of historic London” (in the words of its architect Renzo Piano), they one they inaugurated by cladding in Technicolor red light so it could be that heart’s dagger, the one where, in a moment of such non-simultaneity as to make Blochians weep with joy, a fox was found living in the unfinished hull, 72 stories above the street – was built in these years of this shard cinema and is nowhere to be found in this scene.

The reason is simple enough: The Shard opened to the public in February 2013 while Retaliation – slated to come out in June 2012, pushed back just to amp up promotion and convert to 3-D building wasn’t finished until February of 2013 – had its principal photography start in fall 2011. But by that fall, The Shard was already a good 801 feet high, missing only its last fifth of steel spire there to snag the tallest building in the EU prize. Yet in Retaliation, no Shard in sight, except in its absence, insofar as the first shot of London just prior to impact is from on high, angling northwest past the London Eye ferris wheel to the other side of the Thames: from, that is, a position that may as well be from the top of The Shard.

This is a POV onto the breaking of London into the plates of surface it was already constructed to be, from the top of a building that makes this very principle into architecture. Just a splinter bundled taut in surface, a glass scarf raised to heights achievable solely by gargantuan feats of capital, a thing nobody wanted from the start and resisting full occupancy because it was always the heart-staking that mattered anyway, a building already adequate to the unmaking it calls out for, joining the chorus of requests made to foxes or any other illegal thing.


Able to be turned on, and that is it

[This is the start of two related projects, one on sabotage, one on what I'm talking about as "shard cinema." The essay below provides something like the branching point of origin for both: my lectures at the New School are following the sabotage path, the next writings here will track out the shard tributary into its post-Matrix heartland.]

elysium organic tissue

As those who saw it know, Neill Bloomkamp’s Elysium (2013) was a boring little film. Barring the bright morning star of Fast and Furious 6, Elysium is riddled with the same neurosis structuring most films of its ilk: it yearns to be exploitation cinema – and hail the Halo roots of its interchangeable predecessor (District 9) – but lacks the guts to admit it. Like a savvy navigator of those first-person shooter origins, it advances by taking cover, slipping amongst weighty issues (health care! citizenship! the Global South!) and ample veiling flicks of “The Gimp” to get to what it, and we, actually came to see: ecstatic haltings of narrative advance (explosions, things breaking, rich people with good legs, rich people cowering, Matt Damon playing poor and having petty revelations) and the frisson of generically loaded moments (be it the arch melodrama of Damon in Catholic guilt overdrive, like some rogue Neapolitan mother; a blown-off face worthy of the best splatterpunk;  one very Mad Max-ed out car; a cut-rate Robo Cop retrofitting; et cetera.)

elysium robots fight
Contrary to the expected froth of interpretation that tailed it like a Dark Knight hangover, the film is wholly uninteresting either “politically” or narratively, and especially where the two meet, in the junction point of its alleged allegories, because a) it is simply boring in that regard, extremely so, and b) it doesn’t tell us that isn’t already confirmed by the basic state of affairs in the world at large.


If anything, Elysium functions best as an accidental prequel to In Time [dir. Andrew Niccol, 2011]: where Elysium ends, with everyone being declared “legal” and hence able to access the magical healing beds, In Time begins some years later, after the ruling classes got their shit back together, answering the universal triumph over death with an equally universal mandatory death penalty that hides under the sign of fairly exchanged time-chits.)

That said, there is a minor aspect of the film’s depicted world of interest, insofar as it does bear on a condition that has been creeping its way into dominance: its treatment of technology.  Not the abundance of gee-whiz gadgetry, though. Rather, how a film that features hackers able to bring down class structure itself and bolt a robotic exoskeleton to the bones of a dying man nevertheless still establishes a tremendous, unbridgeable gulf between the production process of those machines and their near magical functions once built.

elysium factory floorelysium robots

The film goes to great lengths to point out how the advanced technology of this future is still built on Earth, by hand, and in factory. Cops may be expensive automated, irradiated, and Ferrari-red drones, but workers remain meatly human, poorly waged, highly replaceable, and still physically making it all. They weld, bolt, steer, and in the film’s hamfisted Blue Collar echo used to lay a Detroit fog over its favelas, get trapped in a toxic chamber with one of the commodities they have been laboring to build.

What the film never shows, however, is any sense that those same workers who assemble the drone cops or those “healing beds” have any knowledge whatsoever of how they function. How do we know this? Because they never sabotage them to turn the drones to their side, put the muzzle to their absent lips, or at least run with a limp. They never tune the healing beds to give the Elysians syphilis.

elysium healing bed
Above all, they never make their own.  Indeed, the film literalizes its absurd treatment of technology as pinnacle of inhuman mystique by showing “migrants” from earth, Toxic Avenger Lite protagonist included, try to make it through the defenses of Elysium (its space border wall), all in order to sprint over nice lawns, into a mansion, and onto one of the beds. Wouldn’t it be easier, it’s hard not to ask, to just make a version of them on earth? After all, the film implies, they are the ones who make these things. That’s the sole reason the Cosmic North keeps them around: to make the materials needed to keep them making and the Elysians pilates-toned and polyglot.  So wouldn’t the workers copy the design? Steal it from the factory, as the song goes, piece by piece? Or, at the least, hotwire it to blow in the faces of those who condemn them to live?

elysium drones cannot arrest
It would be easier, indeed,  and more compelling to boot, but we’re left instead with two options.

elysium cyborg mod

On one side, the nostalgia for a lost future: a clunkier, notably material version of mid-‘90s (and hence late) cyberpunk ethos, complete with tatted hackers. Yet for all its muttering about healthcare and hence attention to the fragile flesh, it is here so far from a Tetsuo Iron Man lineage – and the maggots swarming around its iron femur – that the very possibility of infection is absent, despite a whole lot of metal being drilled into one human body allegedly just days from death.

elysium hacker lab

On the other side, the film turns around an opposition that stages favela chic, grimy multi-ethnic club scenes (à la Matrix Reloaded), and clunky machines that still have actual keyboards against…

elysium defense lab touch screen elysium boss screen

all-white McMansions, well-tailored pantsuits, and sinisterly smooth tech in form of touch screens. The road to the continued hell of class society, the film suggests, is paved with polycarbonite, plus the envisioned drool of audiences who will overcome any moral handwringing to get their smears all over this world of windows, tables, and walls that can be both seen through and mucked around on.

The premise that goes entirely missing is of any possible sabotage, a blindspot apparent not just by the missing act of putting milk fat and sheep shit in the exhaust system of servo-droids but also, more crucially, by the formal ordering of the film as a whole. That is a style and look adequate to a built world of mythical wholeness and neutrality, one that can be “rebooted” with different social content, never mind what they were designed for.  The basic nature of this worldview can be seen in a single image.

elysium magic sparkles of technology

It twinkles.  Advanced technology fucking twinkles, like gossamer, fantasia, or a sequined whatever, while removing late stage cancer from a heroic little girl with not an entrance wound in sight. A pure semblance of effect and counterfactual wishing buffed to a Schein. (Adorno is somewhere spitting in his own grave.)  It dissolves cancer, it heals broken bones, yet like the drone-cops, it is never seen as itself capable of breaking down or being encouraged to run riot against its own purpose. Destroyed, sure, defeated because of indefatiguable human spirit / weepy Damon, absolutely. But negated, made badly, ready to blow a fuse or the wall off a condo, never. No, these are integral objects built in accordance with a plan that even those who daily execute it are unable to grasp, stuck tilting instead at cosmic windmills or fleeing into the terrain of immaterial code.


That opposition – nostalgia for the hand-hewn vs. suspicion for the shiny, miraculous things from which you cannot tear your eyes – finds confirmation wherever “single origin” coffee is served, but it is taken to even more insupportable extremes in Oblivion, Joseph Kosinski’s recent Tom Cruise vehicle concerning a blighted earth (and the continued creepiness of a Cruise who seems to be aging in reverse). The plot is as irrelevant as that of Elyisum, because what matters is how its details morally confirm the ordering of its screen space into that same opposition.

oblivion evil high modernism oblivion touch screen

Giant, drool-worthy/drool-proof tablets/tables = evil and sterile, however tempting.

oblivion salvage hipster hell3 oblivion salvage hipster hell4

Brooklyn salvage cottage, complete with well-worn wood and – gasp! – actual books as last outpost on a blighted Earth = good, complete with impregnable French model.

No utopia in this zero sum game, though.The choice on offer is between

oblivion salvage hipster hell1 oblivion salvage hipster hell2

huffing the dried head sweat of Tom Cruise in the middle of an Anthropologie spread (and nearly coming while doing so) or

oblivion infinite tom cruises

facing at an infinite series of Tom Cruises (with equal measure Andrea Riseboroughs).

However, the simple collocation of alien hostility with cold spaces that lack twee bottles and driftwood is obvious enough. After all, it’s an autophagy of viewing, a needling suspicion of those smooth surfaces that are the ground of its and our vision, given that all surface textures are, for digital cinema, mere after-effects, just cladding wrapped over skeletal frames, providing the profoundly superficial its camouflage of depth.

So for all its fantasies of “rebooting” (a very hard nuclear reboot in Oblivion, a gentler one in Elysium’s vision of curing the Global South by changing their designation to “citizen” in a databank), this vision cannot help but confirm and deepen that split. It insists that no articulation is capable of finding a lived critique of capital within its own manifest contradictions, other than sheer suicidal exodus and Wall-E-primitivist flight back to the earth.

oblivion modern evil2 oblivion modern evil

Neither of those get their hands messy with the systems they dream of fleeing, leaving intact the magical vision of an integral and autonomous technology. The faceless figuration that Oblivion gives to it is a fitting one, hailing not just a sharp, levitating, and cyclopean thing difficult to anthropomorphize but also a cypher for the gap between the virtual and the actual, or, more simply, between the possible (and intended) function of a complex technical apparatus and its actual busted/non-functional/murderous state. After all, the echoes are thick. Not just Hal from 2001

itself hailed in the Sauron’s eye of the Motorola Droid phone


but also an apparatus that itself models, manipulates, and destroys such digital images:


the XBox 360 in its moments of failure, specifically the “red ring of death,” an endless half-sleep of being on and yet not functioning.

The name is, of course, a reference to the blue screen of death (Windows), with futher riffs in the spinning beachball of death (Mac), the yellow light of death (PS3), and hot on the market…


the Blue Light/Pulse of Death (PS4),  a problem plaguing the recently released “next gen” system. Despite the Blue Light signifying a coma of processing, the pulse is rather soothing – at least to those removed from the apoplexy of owners of brand new useless slabs – with echoes of  Apple’s “Breathing Status LED Indicator,” introduced in 2002, that little LED that fades in and out in to the rhythm of adult resting breath, 12-20 breaths per minute. (Because they determined it to be “psychologically appealing,” and, I suspect, to naturalize the act of waking to find that you have been spooning an Air.) The Blue Pulse of Death shares the mood of that, a slow gliding cobalt, like sleep washing the toxic silt off memory, but unlike the Mac, it is not sleep. It is life itself in its dumbest form, merely existing, endlessly starting up and getting nowhere, not working, just sort of minimally functional.

As for why they are failing to do more than just be: standard failure rate perhaps, or perhaps “shipping errors” of the pre-holiday frenzy (as Sony started to claim).  Yet there is another explanation floating around the tubes. The PS4s are being made in China at – wait for it – a Foxconn plant.


The labor there involves not just the normal hell of Foxconn abuse but also the “intern labor” of thousands of students from Xi’an Technological University North Institute. They are there “voluntarily,” but like so many “volunteer” opportunities, it’s a choice at rifle’s end: if they refuse to participate, they lose six course credits, which means they cannot graduate. So into Foxconn they go, where they are paid an entry-level wage, work full time, and then were were forced to working overtime and overnight without extra pay. To be sure, one could imagine tech students gaining “valuable job experience” (Foxconn’s words) from a potentially technical task. Not in this case.  According to reports, a finance and accounting major was made to glue together PS4 parts.  Another student: peeling off the PS4’s protective plastic and putting stickers on it.  Another: putting cords in the box console’s box.


What is the connection with the Blue Pulse of Death? Recently, on an IGN thread for that university, someone claiming to be a student claimed that they had all, in fact, been sabotaging the PS4s. The title of their statement is: “Since Foxconn are not treating us well, we will not treat the PS4 console well. The PS4 console we assemble can be turned on at best.”

In the body of the statement, it reads:

“Foxconn doesn’t treat us as humans. So we don’t treat their products as high quality products. At best, the machine will turn on. Ha ha! The day the PS4 officially launches will be the day Sony and Foxconn go out of business.”

Here, in these years increasingly structured between the double dead end (the magically smooth and the preciously repurposed) visible in those same films destined to be watched on PS4s, sabotage of the form that emerged and was theorized in the late 19th and early 20th century shows itself wholly operable. However, not just because production is here attacked invisibly, a war on unfairly extracted time that makes temporal lag its weapon, inserting a gap between act and effect (the condition that has made sabotage always powerful and always interpreted as sneaky and devious). It also doubles back to what was called the “guerilla fighting” of rapid industrialization because it enacts a practice of refusal that does not take flight from the circuits of capital. Instead, it forms a deep bond with the failure, breakdown, frictions, and loopholes encoded in the very arrangement of those circuit’s. The hypothetically unskilled, called in on false pretenses to be worked beyond contract, show themselves able to learn quickly the minor deviations necessary to put out of commission a complex thing in such a way that they aren’t immediately noticed by bosses.

ps4-being-exploded-with-a-rifle-640x352(PS4 being shot with rifle by disappointed owner)

The affinity does not remain technical. It also becomes a blurry doubling of product and producer, to become as non-functional as the commodity and vice versa, a negative feedback loop of identity through non-collaboration with the intended flow of value extraction. Both the PS4 (technically on, with its blue pulse coma) and the interns (technically skilled, but there to just put things in boxes) are reduced to being technically alive but without properties. In other words, to becoming what is for capital the basic proletarian condition: technically able to labor, whether or not one turns out to be productive. (Much as capital’s gendering figures all women as technically mothers and housewives, whether or not one decides to be either.) The sabotage therefore consists in decoupling this capacity to work (i.e. labor-power) from being anything more than mere potential (in Spinoza’s terms, potentia rather than potestas), requiring a fix or supplement if it is to become actually generative rather than just there, lolling its blue flame back and forth over nothing.

If, in the long history of sabotage, the central slogan was “for bad wages, bad work,” the Foxconn action articulates a version all too fitting for the continually hemorrhaging bond between meat and time, bodies and capital:  “for a degree zero of work, a degree zero of life.  Able to be turned on and that’s it.”


Brief note:

Have been, and will continue to be, silent here of late due to the final weeks of finishing a dissertation project. I will return to the world of barbarian genres, the abstract hell of hotel lobbies, and angering that pluckiest of breeds – John Mayer fans – once this is done in a couple weeks.