Sleepwalking Through the Ruins

Maurizio Lazzarato's latest book seeks to answer, “What is to be done?”

The Realist, the third novel of Hermann Broch's The Sleepwalkers trilogy (1932), takes place during the waning days of World War I. One chapter presents a scene involving several of the novel's principal characters, who, having met over dinner, engage after the meal in some metaphysical talk that grows increasing chaotic and fragmentary before ending in singing. August Esch, an anarchist bookkeeper turned newspaper editor, attempts to share with the others a sense of things that occasionally comes over him. "Sometimes it seems as if the world were only one huge dreadful machine that never stops," he tells them. Its various components, which include "the war and everything," obey "laws that we don't understand." Likewise, "every man is a machine," he says, available to scrutiny "only ... from outside." In the picture of the world Esch paints for his tablemates, it's gears rather than turtles all the way down.

Maurizio Lazzarato, a sociologist and theorist of "immaterial labor," might agree with August Esch that the world is a huge machine but that it need not be so dreadful. In his latest book Signs and Machines: Capitalism and the Production of Subjectivity (2014), he attempts a staggering feat of theoretical synthesis in service to the notion that, like the period covered in The Sleepwalkers, ours is a time of crisis in which one ethical system is vanishing and a new system must be coaxed into emerging to replace it.

Signs and Machines
Capitalism and the Production of Subjectivity
By Maurizio Lazzarato
Translated by Joshua David Jordan
MIT Press
280 pp
May 2014
To appreciate, or even to recognize, any possible emergent system, Lazzarato argues, it helps to understand the crisis brought on by the system poised to vanish. In our current crisis, that would be neoliberalism, the ideological contortions and consequences of which was the subject of his 2012 book The Making of Indebted Man. There Lazzarato describes how neoliberalism has recast labor as entrepreneurial venture, transforming workers from wage earners into debt-leveraged investors in the enterprise of themselves. "Now that the promises of wealth for all through hard work, credit, and finance have proved empty, the class struggle has turned to the protection of creditors and owners of 'securities,'" Lazzarato writes. The carrot of riches having withered and slipped its tether, there remains only the stick of debt. "The indebted man, at once responsible for his lot, must take on himself the economic, social, and political failures of the neoliberal power bloc," he continues, "exactly those failures externalized by the State and business onto society." Owning guaranteed assets means never having to say you're sorry.

If The Making of Indebted Man sought to answer the question, "What happened?" Signs and Machines seeks to answer, "What is to be done?"

Unlike The Making of Indebted Man, which a decent undergraduate background in philosophy and economics makes accessibleSigns and Machines demands that you have a theory graduate seminar or two under your belt. Lazzarato seems to believe a chorus of voices is needed to survey what could displace neoliberalism. In Signs and Machines, Félix Guattari looms large, as does Michel Foucault. Russian formalist literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, Alain Badiou, Jacques Rancière, and Judith Butler all figure prominently, serving mostly as foils, and Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, Louis Althusser, Michel de Certeau, Slavoj Žižek, and Paolo Virno also receive nods. As one would expect from a book so reliant on Guattari, the characteristic buzzwords are on full display, deployed for the most part unadorned by any definition. You'll therefore get the most from Signs and Machines if you have some idea of the concepts denoted by such terms as "assemblage," "schizoanalysis," "diagram," and "asignifying semiotics," all of which carry peculiar meaning in the deleuzoguattarian universe.

If you're at home in that universe,  you'll have little trouble negotiating the terrain of Signs and Machines, which begins in the deep canyon of subject formation and wends its way over the darkling plain of late-capitalist culture before arriving at the shore of emancipatory direct democracy. The journey includes two extended side trips, the first into an analysis of cinema, and the second into a consideration of a slur uttered by Nicolas Sarkozy during his 2005 bid for the French presidency. Readers bent on arriving at the upshot of Lazzarato's argument may wish to skip these sections, though these tangents do help anchor otherwise difficult conceptual relations in familiar contexts.

And the conceptual relations are indeed difficult. Part of this difficulty owes to their high degree of abstraction and subtlety, yet the greater part owes to the scope of Guattari's theory. "Capitalism is characterized by a dual regime of subjectivity," writes Lazzarato, following Guattari: "subjection — centered on the subjectivity of an individual subject — and enslavement, involving a multiplicity of human and nonhuman subjectivities and proto-subjectivities." Subjection "allows capitalism to establish molar hierarchies," he continues, "a first hierarchy between man (as a species) and nature and a second hierarchy within culture between man (gender, white, adult, etc.) and woman, child, and so on. These two hierarchies are the antecedents fundamental to the more specifically economic hierarchies." And enslavement, Lazzarato argues, "does not operate through repression or ideology" but instead "formats the basic functioning of perceptive, sensory, affective, cognitive, and linguistic behavior." Thanks to the combined influences of subjection and enslavement, individuals under capitalism hit the neoliberal market bundled with all the necessary software.

Subjection and enslavement are capitalism's Scylla and Charybdis, and they defy anyone to imagine a course that steers clear of both. Yet a mighty flex of imagination is exactly Lazzarato's prescription for navigating a way out of neoliberalism. "Revolutionary political action must ... position itself between the molecular and the molar," he writes, "although with a completely different end in view." Fittingly, this "different end," like capitalism's regime of subjectivity, is dual. On the one hand he argues that "the machinic dimension," in which forces constitutive of individual awareness, perception, and affect meet and enter into composition, must be converted to "forms of subjectivation that critique, reconfigure, and redistribute these molar dualisms and the roles and functions to which we are assigned within the division of labor." And on the other hand "enslavement's desubjectivation" must be regarded as "an opportunity for producing something other than paranoid, productivist, consumerist individualism." Borne aloft on imagined possibilities, we may soar toward the future free of capitalist realism's artificial horizon, which presents "the false choice between being condemned to function like one component part among others in the social machinery and being condemned to become an individual subject, human capital (worker, consumer, user, debtor), 'man.' "

You may think all that is easier said than done — and not even all that easily said. Yet the key to carrying it out lies precisely in the saying. Lazzarato posits a reliably consistent homology between language and the formation of subjectivities. Language, indifferent to any individual language user, leads a given utterance back not to any utterer but to the operations of language's fixed (lexical and grammatic) and variable (syntagmatic and paradigmatic) elements. "There is no subject," writes Lazzarato, "there are only collective assemblages of enunciation that produce utterances."

With "enunciation" Lazzarato has in mind something like J.L. Austin's speech act, which, in addition to communicating some meaning, creates or alters states of affairs. "To accomplish an enunciation," Lazzarato continues, "always means asserting power over extralinguistic constituents that are at once somatic, ethological, mythologic, institutional, economic, political, and aesthetic."

By mastering language, an individual masters this power, and, in so doing, masters herself. An enunciation's primordial conditions stake out territories of existential possibility, and the actual emergence of an existing self in a particular territory confirms this possibility. With subsequent enunciations the self in question achieves greater consistency. Lazzarato continues: "The self-relation to the self, self-affectation, and self-positioning draw on the signs, myths, narratives, and conceptualizations that, rather than acting as translation (which is in any case impossible) of the existential into the discursive, serve as a cartography for localization and access to processes of subjectivation and to existential territories." Though you may neither reduce the map to the land nor the land to the map, the map recommends certain paths over others for crossing the land, which, for its part, has influenced the map to recommend those paths. "Knowledge of existence requires what Guattari, following Vico, calls a 'topical art,' an art of cartographies," Lazzarato writes.

Lazzarato's call for an art of cartographies chimes with his understanding of a self's consolidation as ultimately an "aesthetic experience" and "autopoetic" event. "The essence of the 'current crisis' lies in the incapacity of capitalist forces to articulate the discursive and existential dimensions," he writes, "in the impossibility of assembling ensembles of actualized economic, social, and technological flows and the virtual and incorporeal dimension of subjectivity production, existential territories, and universes of value." The stories told about neoliberalism simply don't work the desired effects. The formation of subjectivity — one convenient to neoliberal aims, particularly — is a dead letter, thanks to an absence of a "mythical consistency" that might compel such formation. In terms of an art of cartographies, neoliberalism is a map drawn on wind and running water.

Yet neoliberalism's failures do nothing toward removing the need of getting our aesthetic act together quickly. "Just as the artist must not wait for whatever kind of inspiration is going to come," Lazzarato writes, "political action must construct and invent tools and procedures of experimentation, research, and intervention aimed first of all at the production of subjectivity rather than at the economic, the social, the linguistic." Whatever their eventual characteristics, those new tools and procedures must set in motion a passage "through points of nonsense, through the asignifying and nondiscursive which in politics manifest themselves in the strike, revolt, or riot."

Some critics of 2011's Occupy insisted that participants' unwillingness to make concrete demands proved the movement's undoing. Following Lazzarato, you might answer this by insisting that making demands would have achieved little because it would have signaled failure or unwillingness to break with convention. Occupations, on the other hand, offered intimations of other ways without attempting to impose them. Like all successful strikes, revolts, and riots the actions in Zuccotti Park and elsewhere sought to "suspend time for a brief moment and create other possibilities from which, if they take on consistency, other subjectivations and existential crystallizations might proliferate," writes Lazzarato. When left-liberal commentators credited Occupy with having "changed the conversation" about the distribution of the nation's wealth, the claim may have carried more weight than even those making it realized; for any change in conversation suggests a change in those engaged in the conversation.

In the final chapter of Signs and Machines, Lazzarato moves from Guattari's ideas to a consideration of Foucault's and Rancière's. He specifically fastens on parrhesia, a rhetorical figure that figures crucially in Foucault's final lectures. Defined as speaking candidly or truthfully, parrhesia stands in a tricky relationship to constitutional guarantees to equality. Parrhesiastic speech, Lazzarato writes, "mobilizes the speaker's singular relations with himself and with those whom he addresses," and in so doing presents an instance of enunciation, of a fully performative speech act of "ethical differentiation," because "it means taking a position in relation to the self, to others, and to world."

Parrhesia implies that political subjects constitute themselves as ethical subjects, capable of taking risks, posing a challenge, dividing equals according to their positions, in other words, capable of governing themselves and of governing others within a situation of conflict.

If a parrhesiastic utterance does not set its speaker at variance with others, it does set her apart sufficiently to trouble the presumption of equality that informs the speaking context. The possible dissonant notes may disturb otherwise harmonious themes. "In democracy," Lazzarato writes, "competition, agonism and conflict between equals who claim to speak the truth degenerate into the seduction of orators who flatter the people in the assemblies." Without the possibility of ethical differentiation via parrhesia, anything predicated on political equality effaces individual subjectivity in the name of that equality, leaving only demogoguery and parliamentary theatrics.

The task becomes to free subjectivity from parliamentary theatrics by delivering it from the stage and taking to the streets. An individual must mount a performance with her very person to supplant the tepid line readings of institutional debate. "Gestures, actions, example, behavior, and physical presence constitute expressive practices and semiotics addressed to others through means other than speech," writes Lazzarato. In the available fund of alternatives to speech are such possibilities as "provoking, scandalizing, forcing others to think and to feel, and so on." These tactics, because they rest on "practice and experimentation" as opposed to words alone, stand a chance of surpassing the present, limited horizon of possibilities.

Lazzarato deems it paramount that individuals live their politics. Indeed, he doubts that it is possible not to. He writes that "politics cannot be defined as a specific activity, because it is joined to ethics (the construction of a subject of reason and speech) and truth (discursive practices that demonstrate and argue)." The contents of an individual's subjectivity — perspectives, experiences, feelings, beliefs, and desires — all come under the influence of what Lazzarato, following Foucault, terms "the 'microphysics' of power relations." The shaping and winnowing action of power relations give rise to a "distribution of the sensible" (Rancière's phrase) that resolves into hierarchy at every level (man/woman, us/them, bourgeoisie/proletariat). If you wish to overthrow neoliberalism, or capitalism itself, the distribution of the sensible must serve as your field of battle: Lazzarato calls for a "new militantism" of individuals who have realized new ethico-political potential through experiments and procedures yielding heretofore unimagined modes of subjectivity formation. Any movement taking its cues from his prescriptions might wish to take the name Situationiste Individuel.

Lazzarato concludes Signs and Machines by posing a question. "How do we invent and practice both equality and ethical differentiation (singularization)," he asks, "while breaking with the machinic enslavements and social subjections of modern-day capitalism that have a dual hold on our subjectivity?" In other words, how do we have a "unique" self without capitalism's potent mechanisms of differentiation? Regrettably, the text leading up to this question offers little answer beyond calls to provoke, scandalize, and force others to think and feel. Such performative techniques may have their troll-bait appeal, but you can't help wondering whether they offer anything beyond that. Like the characters of Broch's trilogy, people alive today are sleepwalking through a time between two ages. And with so much at stake in the age to come, it might be enough simply to wake them.