Artistic autonomy and subsumption

Eugenia Loli, Manufactured Paradise

I’m participating in a seminar at the ACLA conference in New York this weekend, called “Culture and Real Subsumption.” Here are some hastily typed thoughts inspired thus far by it. I am always hazy on what constitutes real subsumption as opposed to formal subsumption (I tried to wrangle with it a little bit here; the terms stem from Marx’s “Results of the Immediate Production Process”); as I understand it, formal subsumption is when pre- or noncapitalist production processes are modified to accommodate the divide between capital and labor, whereas real subsumption is when the production process depends on capital from the get-go and is inconceivable without it, without its scale, its sort of factory organization and division of labor and staging of expropriated cooperation between workers and so on.

I’ve been interested in this terminology as a way to talk about “the real subsumption of subjectivity” as Jason Read puts it — what I take as a kind of consciousness imposed by capitalism that subjects have difficulty thinking outside of. The production of this subjectivity by the individual, subsumed as it is by capitalism, naturally is a profit center for capitalists who manage in various ways to own the means of this production. (Usually I’m thinking of these capitalists as being media companies or social-media platforms.) Identity production is subsumed in that we can’t contrive ways of doing it convincingly for ourselves without it also being a form of exploitable labor for someone else, or in the best-case scenario, for ourselves as a mechanism of accumulating “human capital.” We make our identity with an intrinsic entrepreneurial awareness of the sorts of social relations we are articulating and the sorts of status games we are playing and valorizing. Any self-knowledge outside of that matrix seems not to count, not to be our “real” validated self, or conversely, our real self remains precisely what we can’t articulate, because once we articulate it, even to ourselves, it becomes semiotic capital of one form or another. So “identity” is either a personal brand or something uselessly ineffable.

This pertains to the discussions in the seminar, which have circled around the idea of artistic autonomy. In what sense, if any, can artists or artworks be autonomous. Or what structures the experience of art such that making it gives one a feeling of autonomy? What does it even matter if an artwork is autonomous? Doesn’t that just mean that the culture has succeeded in depoliticizing it? Is autonomy a form of resistance? A form of exodus? A mode of “cruel optimism”? Isn’t the experience of autonomy itself subsumed under capital? The assumption of risk that makes autonomy register — the feeling that what one is doing is not predetermined, its outcome is not preordained, it is a matter of free choice — depends currently on the neoliberal organization of society. It thrusts risk at us and invites us to self-manage, to develop and pursue our own projects (provided the profits they generate accrue to capital).

Generally, the artist’s autonomy is in relation to the market: they are “free” to act as they please if they are working without commercial constraints. But of course, that freedom usually is contingent on economic independence that must be conferred on the artist through some means. (Or maybe artistic autonomy strictly consists of being able to tolerate hunger.)  It may be more that the market structures the possibility of autonomy as a relative freedom from its determinations (not an absolute transcendence of it, and of the need to “earn a living” via a labor market). Artistic autonomy, it seems to me, is a consolation prize for a certain kind of risk-heavy labor that artists and other “creative free agent” types take on — this is something Boltanski and Chiapello’s New Spirit of Capitalism touches on, I think. The “artistic critique” of capitalism, that it leads to drudgery, is resolved by making workers enjoy more creativity within their work, which tends to be a matter of obliterating the work/leisure divide. If you can no longer identify an autonomous sphere of leisure for yourself, you may as well assume that it’s because working itself has become so much “fun.” Social media implement that blurring of work and leisure extremely well, as I argue in this paper.

Under neoliberalism, the ability to enjoy or make art can seem like a consolation prize for entrepreneurial subjectivity, the best modality of that sort of subjectivity rather than a respite from it. Enjoying and making art, in some ways, become more and more the same experience of curation in internet-based art — the value of an individual work becomes hard to differentiate from the value of being able to circulate it meaningfully and make its value augment itself through greater exposure. The “prosumer” mentality comes to govern aesthetics and autonomy, as autonomy is experienced in ersatz freedom to consume what you want and well, and to make what you want of yourself through those appropriative gestures. (Appropriative art being a kind of production that is necessarily marked by tasteful and clever consumption.)

But the perspective that somehow people can be artists outside of capitalism, or prior to their experience of capitalism, is wrong. It’s not that artists are born artists, then capitalism corrupts them. It’s that capitalism sets up a situation where people with certain means can experience themselves as artists and try to move away from more determined-seeming modes of subejctivity within capitalism. The “artists” have the wherewithal and the habitus to try to distance themselves from wage drudgery and meaningless work and declare themselves autonomous — but within capitalism. It’s a measure of capitalism’s continued success and expansion that more and more people feel confident in describing themselves as creative, as artists. The neoliberalist turn hinges precisely on this, that more and more people can imagine themselves artists — in part because ordinary consumption has become a mode of personal expression, in part because capital has placed various forms of audience-building media at nearly every nonimpoverished individual’s disposal, in part because every scrap of one’s life gets turned to account as reputation, as human capital. We get an audience for our creative autonomy in action, a scenario which depends on (is subsumed by) the apparatus of communicative capitalism. If we are being “creative” without an audience, it no longer registers as an expression of autonomy; social media has crowded out the space in which an individual could be content to create without spectators. Now that is simply a failure of nerve, not independence — it’s too easy to circulate one’s gestures of creativity to rest easy in obscurity.

The paper I submitted for the seminar is a version of this post about machine gambling as an analogue for social media. Machine gambling is a visible manifestation of the real subsumption of autonomy — it’s the pathological management of risk and choice by gamblers, which generates a steady stream of profit for the machine owners. The machines are engineered to usher users into the “zone” — a flow state that feels like a fusion of thought and action, of pure autonomy. But in practice it is an instigated compulsion that plays on the brain’s reward system; it’s the very opposite of autonomy at the same time as the purest expression of it. Users become literally fused with the machine, inhabiting a machinic subjectivity, as programmable as a robot through the gaming machines’ sensory overloading and payout schedules.

So the “machine zone” is an expression of the real subsumption of autonomy, autonomy deliberately engineered as an addictive commercial product that turns consumers simultaneously into workers for capital. (Maybe the most chilling thing in Natasha Dow Schüll’s book about machine gambling is her description of “continuous gaming productivity,” the industry’s term for getting users to insert money into machines at a steady, predictable rate.) For users, this experience of autonomy may be “reparative” or restorative insofar as it relieves them of the burden and precarity of entrepreneurial subjectivity by overloading them with it. Machine gamblers indulges rational choice to the point where their subjectivity dissolves and they escape into automaticity. They become a “machine person” free of the neoliberal demands for managing risk and turning all behavior to account through a kind of perverse totalization of that demand within the gambling arena. The addict’s warped experience of autonomy is confirmed by the affective experience of the zone. Playing video poker is radical exodus from the neoliberal self.

Social media functions similarly, if not more deviously. It too invites entering a zone of mindless, machine-driven checking of social-media accounts, looking for their intermittent rewards (likes, comments, retweets, acknowledgments, etc.) It allows for an emptying of the self through sharing it — one can expel the contents of the self into the circulatory machinery of online social networks, where its fate becomes the network’s problem, not yours. But since social media also work as a site of explicit self-production as well as a covert means of self-abnegation, the alibi of  using social media to make human capital is more effective. It better disguises the compulsion as productive, efficient. It masks the experience of this as exploitive without being obviously irrational, as sitting at a poker machine for 40 consecutive hours may strike some people. Checking Twitter every 30 seconds somehow seems less irrational, within the bounds of normal behavior. All the while, the pseudo-autonomy of social media use is binding subjects to communicative capitalism’s pleasures and insecurities, rationalizing its demands for constant work without monetary compensation. Social media work as a mode of seeming self-exploitation in the name of personal expression.

The compulsion of using social media for relief from neoliberalism may feel like artistic autonomy, one’s discovery that by using Facebook, one is secretly a performance artist. But it remains also a neoliberalistic practice of microentrepreneurship. (It’s hard to see how art can be divorced from such entrepreneurship in one’s own reputation or reified creativity.)

Social media use is arguably a masochistic practice that dissolves the self while simultaneously building it out as data/capital for media companies and marketers. (I spell out the masochism part here.) This empties the self phenomenologically, leaving a blankness that engages with the various interfaces. But this process feeds data into the networks’ algorithms which can then restore the self to the social media user as a processed good — a substantiated identity that is objective,a reflection of achieved reputation, achieved human capital. Once again, this resolves some of the pressure of neoliberal subjectivity while sustaining it as an essential form. The self is reported back to us as a jackpot of algorithmically synthesized personal “truths” — and these payoffs keep us somewhat mindlessly engaged with social media. The urgency of self-production as capital switches into a consumer experience of the produced self passively as pleasurable product and then switches back again into insecure search for confirmation through the production of more data in the same form — more updates, more Tweets, etc. to produce the desired feedback of a constituted identity. I will post these notes, and sit back awaiting confirmation of my reality.