INSITE Journal
Suely Rolnik
Life for Sale

This article appeared originally in the inSite_05 exhibition catalogue, Farsites, edited by Adriano Pedrosa. San Diego, CA: Installation Gallery, 2005.

INSITE Journal
Suely Rolnik
Life for Sale

This article appeared originally in the inSite_05 exhibition catalogue, Farsites, edited by Adriano Pedrosa. San Diego, CA: Installation Gallery, 2005.

A significant shift in the dominant politics of subjectivation came about in the late 1970s, fulfilling a ground-breaking role for the transnational financial capitalism that installed itself across the planet from that time onward. Problematizing this politics—and in particular, the perverse instrumentalization of the force of artistic creation that it entails—is an indispensable task if we wish to confront certain dead ends that this economic regime comports for the life of contemporary societies.

                    To meet this challenge, two detours will be necessary. The first will concern the paradox of human sensibility—the two irreducible modes of sensible approaching to the otherness—and the status of that paradox within the process of individuation. And the second, a genealogy of the dominant politics of subjectivation at the present time.

Paradox of the Sensible

                    Knowing and relating to the otherness of the world as matter implies the activation of different potentials of subjectivity in its sensible dimension, depending on whether the matter-world is grasped primarily as an outline of forms, or as a field of forces. Knowing the world as form calls upon perception, which is carried out by the empirical exercise of sensibility; whereas knowing the world as force calls on sensation, which is carried out by the intensive exercise of sensibility. The latter is engendered in the encounter between the body as a field of forces—constituted by the nervous energies that course through it—and the forces of the world that affect it. In this relation to the world as a field of forces, new blocks of sensation pulse within the body­subjectivity as it is affected by fresh experiences of the world’s varied and variable otherness.

                   “Perception” and “sensation” refer to different powers of the sensible body. The perception of the other brings his or her formal existence to subjectivity (an existence translated into representations that are visual, auditory, etc.), while sensation brings the living presence of the other, which cannot be represented or described but only expressed, in a process requiring an invention—a process of individuation through which a singularity is manifested (such as a way of being, feeling or thinking, a form of sociability, a territory of existence, but also a work of art).

Between these two modes of apprehending the world there is an invincible disparity. This paradox is constitutive of human sensibility, the source of its dynamics, the driving force par excellence of the processes of subjectivation—triggering the inexhaustible movements of creation and recreation of the reality of oneself and the world. The reason why is that the paradox ultimately places the current forms of reality in check, as they become an obstacle to the integration of new connections of desire that provoke the emergence of a fresh block of sensations. Those current forms then cease to be the guides and conductors of the process; they are drained of vitality and lose their meaning. A crisis of subjectivity sets in, exerting pressure, arousing feelings of astonishment and dread, causing vertigo.

                To respond to this uncomfortable pressure, life is mobilized within subjectivity as the power of invention and action. The feeling of astonishment and dread forces the expression of a new configuration of existence, a new figuration of oneself, the world and the relations between them—which is what mobilizes the power of creation (the artistic affect). The same feeling also forces one to act so that the new configuration can assert itself in existence and inscribe itself within the reigning map as a shared reality, lest the process remain unfulfilled—which is what mobilizes the power of action (the political affect, both in its constructive aspect and in its resistance to oppressive forces).

                    The culmination of this process is the passage from a virtual, intensive reality to an actual, empirical one, unleashed by the disparity between those two experiences of otherness. I’ll call this passage an “event”: it is the creation of a world, it is what puts the world to work. In the relation to the world as form, as mediated by representations, subjectivity orients itself in the space of its empirical actuality and recognizes itself within the corresponding cartography of representations; in the relation to the world as a field of forces, subjectivity orients itself within the diagram of sensations, which are the effect of the irreducible living presence of the other; whereas in the relation to the paradox between those two sensible experiences, subjectivity orients itself within the temporality of its vital pulsation—in other words, it orients itself as event, its becoming-other.

                    This process makes any and all forms of subjectivity into ephemeral configurations in an unstable balance. Thus the politics of subjectivation are elastic, they shift and transform, they emerge as a function of new sensible diagrams and the existing cartographies’ loss of meaning; thus they vary along with the sociocultural contexts, of which they are the sensible and existential consistency. What determines their specificity is, among other factors, their politics of cognition: the place that is occupied by the two modes of sensible approach to the world, the dynamics of their relation, the status of the paradox between them.

                    How then can these considerations be used to problematize the dominant politics of subjectivation today?

Genealogy of the Dominant Politics of Subjectivation

Answering this question requires going back a decade, to the late 1960s and early ’70s, when the long bankruptcy on which the so-called modern subject had embarked—a process of decline that began at the close of the nineteenth century—reached its nadir and provoked an important social, cultural, and political crisis. When I speak of the modern subject I am referring to the figure of the “individual” with its belief in the possibility to control nature, things, and oneself by will and reason, under the command of the ego. On what politics of cognition does that crisis-ridden model of subjectivity depend?

                    Sustaining the illusion of control over the turbulences of life depends on a certain status of the empirical and intensive exercises of the sensible. On the one hand, there is an anesthesia of the intensive exercise of the sensible; and on the other, there is a hyperactivation of the empirical exercise. Subjectivity therefore tends to move exclusively within the limits of its current existential territory and the outlines of its corresponding cartography, which are reified. The experience of the paradox between the new sensations and the current cartography is denied and repressed, and with this, the cause of the feelings of loss of meaning, astonishment, and dread becomes unknown. As a consequence, the powers of creation and action naturally brought into play by the experience of the loss of references are dissociated from sensation—that is, from the effects of the living presence of the other, the signs that they ask one to decipher, and their critical force with respect to the reigning orientations.

                    The result is a hypertrophy of the ego: it oversteps its primary function, which is to guide subjectivity through the meanders of the map of representations, and claims the power of command over the processes of creating new forms of social and subjective life, of providing oneself with a subjective consistency. This gives rise to a feeling of oneself as spatialized and totalized, detached from the world and from temporality—hence the idea of the individual with its supposed interiority. With this kind of subjectivity governed by the identity principle, an anesthesia of its living dimension installs itself as the dominant politic of subjectivation that took form between the seventeenth and the nineteenth centuries.

                    This is the figure of subjectivity that begins to enter its decline at the end of nineteenth century, in a process that will be completed after WWII. The causes for this breakdown have been widely studied and we need not go into them here. Yet there is an aspect to be noted for our purposes: from the late nineteenth century onwards, subjectivity is increasingly exposed to a greater and more swiftly changing diversity of worlds than it had formerly known, exceeding what it had equipped itself for psychically. A negotiation between the virtual and the actual becomes necessary in order to incorporate the new sensible states that are ceaselessly engendered, and that can no longer be contained in their state of repression, as they had been in the modern politics of subjectivation. A new strategy of desire begins to emerge. I will call it “flexible subjectivity” in reference to a notion proposed by Brian Holmes,1  which I will develop here in the sense of its psychodynamics. From the end of nineteenth century and throughout the first half of the twentieth century, this figure appeared primarily among the artistic and the intellectual vanguard.

                    Beginning in the 1950s, and more intensively in the 1960s and early ’7Os, this flexible subjectivity overflowed the cultural vanguard, to take on a palpable presence among an entire generation. A movement of massive disidentification with the dominant model of society was unleashed among broad sectors of mostly middle-class youth throughout the world. The forces of desire, creation and action, intensely mobilized by the crisis, were invested into audacious existential experimentation, in a radical rupture from the establishment. Flexible subjectivity was adopted as a politics of desire by a wide range of people, who began to desert the current ways of life and trace alternative cartographies—a process supported and made possible by its broad collective extension.

                    A series of aspects characterize the new politics of subjectivation. These aspects include the activation of the intensive exercise of the sensible and the emergence of an instance of subjectivity whose function is exactly that of marking the dissonance between the effects of the two exercises of the sensible, as well as the inadequacy of empirical maps and the need to create others, each time that life indicates or requires it as a condition for maintaining its processuality. I’ll call this instance the “self.”

                    With a functioning self, subjectivity is led to develop its nomadic potential: the freedom of letting go of the territories to which it is accustomed, negotiating between sets of references, making other articulations, setting up other territories. To do this the ego must also upgrade its cognitive capacity, so as to learn how to move within new cartographies. Yet there are many different politics of the creation of territories: for this process to unfold in the direction of life’s movement it is necessary to create them on the basis of the urgencies indicated by the sensations. It is the self that orients this process through its condition as interface between the virtual diagram and the actual map, complementing its function as an alarm indicating that a shift between the two registers is necessary with its other function as the operator of this shift. In this politics, the self replaces the ego as the guide of the processes of subjectivation—as the organizing instance of oneself, and therefore, that which supplies subjective consistency. What forms is a type of subjectivity that embodies the paradox that constitutes it as temporality—in other words, a processual subjectivity that is multiplicity and becoming.

                    This shift in the politics of desire is what provoked a serious subjective, social, and cultural crisis that threatened the existing economic and political regime. In the face of this situation, the power structure needed new strategies to reassert itself and regain control.

                    This would be achieved in the late 1970s and early ’80s. The flowing fountain of creative force mobilized by deterritorialization and crisis would be instrumentalized by capital, which seized upon the social proliferation of flexible subjectivity itself—not only its functional principle, but also the forms of critique that it manifested and the modes of existence that it had invented over the course of two decades. As in the martial arts of the Far East, where one does not attack the enemy’s strength but rather uses it against him, the inventions of the 1960s and early ’70s were to serve as the formula and fuel of the new regime.

Global Reality Show

In the late 1970s, transnational finance capitalism took on its full dimensions, becoming what we may call, with Toni Negri and Michael Hardt,2  “cognitive,” “cultural,” or “cultural-informational” capitalism, stressing that the labor power from which surplus value is now primarily extracted is no longer the mechanical force of the proletariat, but instead the power of knowledge and invention of a new productive class, which some authors call the “cognitariat.” But how is this invention power siphoned off?

                    An idea of Maurizio Lazzarato,3  which I will interpret from the viewpoint of the politics of desire, could help answer this question. Lazzarato points to an important difference between industrial capitalism and the entrepreneurial capitalism that was spreading across the planet at that time. Instead of objects in the Fordist factory, what the new regime fundamentally produces is the ‘‘creation of worlds.” These are image-worlds fabricated by advertising and mass culture, conveyed by the media, serving to prepare the cultural, subjective, and social ground for the implantation of markets.

                    In the late 1970s, subjectivities were exposed to an intensifying deterritorialization, principally because of a powerful deployment of the technologies of communication at a distance and the necessity of adaptation to a market that changed at an ever more rapid rate. But a radical change is introduced by the particular subjective effects of deterritorialization produced by the image-worlds of capital. This particular difference constitutes one of the principle aspects of the politics of subjectivation that emerged at that time.

                    The chain that constitutes this capitalist world-factory includes three types of producers, who are instrumentalized in their labor power of intelligence, knowledge and creativity, but also of belief, spontaneity, sociability, affective presence, etc. The first are the creators, including a series of new productive sectors such as advertising (and all the different professionals it involves), consulting, head-hunters, marketing departments, personnel managers, etc. Those are the strategic equipment for a new kind of war that we have all been living through since that period, which Maurizio Lazzarato calls “a planetary aesthetic war.” A war that takes place over the ready-to-wear worlds created by capital, in the ferocious competition between machines of expression rivaling with each other to conquer the market of subjectivities thrown into crisis. For it is not enough to create image-worlds; they must also have the power to seduce, so that the subjectivities choose them as models for their remapping and concretize them in their everyday life. Indeed, in order for them to move the market, these worlds born in the form of advertising campaigns—whose reality is only one of imagery, a reality of signs—must ultimately be built in social life.

                    Here intervenes the second type of producers of the chain: the consumers, those who actualize its reality in empirical existence, and thus simultaneously become producers of the regime. They must have great cognitive agility to catch and select the plurality of worlds that never cease being released into the air all at once; an athletic mobility of the ego to leap from one world to the other; a plasticity in resculpting themselves according to the parameters of a new mode of being specific to each ready­to-wear world. With the labor force of these subjective powers the consumers participate in the production of the worlds created by capital, concretizing them in empirical reality.

                    To this end, another whole new series of professionals comes into existence, who are the third type of producers of the capitalist world-factory: personal trainers, personal stylists, clothing stylists, fashion advisors, dermatologists, plastic surgeons, estheticians, designers, interior architects, self-help writers, etc. Their major business is consultancy; it consists in selling their advice to the consumers to help them to achieve this new kind of flexible subjectivity. This process gives rise to a self-for-sale that commercializes its power to signal the dissonance between the virtual and the actual in order to produce the worlds of capital, either as creator, consumer, or consultant. A showroom-type flexible subjectivity is embodied here: what is exposed to the other—reduced to the condition of spectator/consumer—are the elements of the latest fashionable worlds and the ability and speed to incorporate them, in a kind of marketing or advertising campaign for oneself. In the face of this aberration, a question arises in our minds: what is so seductive about the ready-to-wear worlds created by capital? What differentiates them from actual, concrete worlds?

                    The answer to this last question leaps out before our eyes, if we can cut through the tightly woven veil of images that mesmerizes the empirical exercise of our visual sensibility and obfuscates its intensive one. We can then see that what seduces is the image of self-confidence, prestige, and power of the characters inhabiting these image-worlds, as though they had resolved the paradox, forever rejoining the ranks of the supposedly “guaranteed."4  In other words, what seduces about the image-worlds created by capital is, basically, the illusion they convey that there exist worlds whose inhabitants would never experience fragility and feelings of vertigo, or who would at least have the power to avoid them or to control the disquiet they provoke, living a kind of hedonistic existence, smooth and without turbulence, eternally stable. This illusion bears the promise that access to such a life is possible, and even more, that it depends only on the incorporation of the worlds created by capital. A perverse relation sets itself up between the subjectivity of the receiver/consumer and these image­characters.

                    The glamour of these privileged people and the fact that, as media beings, they are inaccessible in their very nature, is interpreted by the receiver as a sign of their superiority. As in a perverse relationship where the seduced idealizes the arrogant indifference of the seducer—instead of seeing it as a sign of his narcissistic poverty and his incapacity to be affected by the other—the receiver/consumer of these characters feels disqualified and excluded from their world. Identified with this image-being and taking it as a model in the hope of one day becoming worthy of belonging to its world, consumer subjectivity begins wishing to resemble it, placing itself in a position of submission and perpetual demand for recognition. As such a desire remains unsatisfied by definition, the hope is short-lived. The feeling of exclusion always returns and, to free itself of this feeling, subjectivity submits even more, continually mobilizing its forces to a higher degree, in a breakneck race to find ready-to­wear worlds to be embodied and concretized.

                    This mendacious promise constitutes the fundamental myth of integrated world capitalism5 —the driving force of its politics of subjectivation, the difference that it introduces in the contemporary experience of deterritorialization. The illusion that upheld the structure of the modern subject takes on a new formulation here. It is transvalued and attains the apex of its credibility in the religion of cultural capitalism. A monotheistic religion whose scenario is basically the same as in all the religions of this tradition: there exists an all-powerful God who promises paradise, with the difference that capital is in the role of God and the paradise that it promises is within this life and not beyond it. The glamorous guaranteed beings of the worlds of advertising and mass-culture entertainment are the saints of a commercial pantheon—”superstars” that glitter in the image-sky above the heads of everyone, announcing the possibility to join them.

                    The belief in the religious promise of a capitalistic paradise is what sustains the successful instrumentalization of subjective powers. The feeling of humiliation that this belief produces and the hope to one day “make it” and escape exclusion mobilizes the desire to realize the ready-to-wear worlds offered on the market. It is through this dynamic that subjectivity becomes the active producer of these worlds: a voluntary servitude that is not achieved through repression or obedience to a moral code, as in the traditional monotheistic religions where access to paradise depends on virtue. Here, the code does not exist, but on the contrary, the more original the world that the corporation conveys, the greater its power to compete, understanding originality in this context as a mere artifice of image that differentiates one world from all the rest. This difference is what seduces, since its embodiment would make the consumer into a being distinct from and above all the others—which is essential in this politics of relation to the other, because it feeds the illusion of being nearer to the imaginary pantheon.

                    In this context, public life is replaced by a global reality show orchestrated by the cultural­informational capitalism that has taken over the entire planet. A kind of worldwide display screen where people jostle their way toward a possible role as an extra, a fleeting and imaginary place that has to be incessantly administrated, invested and guaranteed, against everything and everyone. The contemporary politics of subjectivation thus found a way to confront and neutralize the reactivation of public life brought by the social propagation of a flexible subjectivity in the 1960s and early ’70s. It embodied the shift from an identity-based principle of subjectivation to a flexible one, but only as a more successful way to reinstate the anesthesia of the modern subject and its dissociation from the effects of the living presence of the other.

                    On one hand, the nonstop creation of noisy new ready-to-wear worlds provokes a hyperstimulation of the paradox between the two exercises of the sensible, and of the suffering it brings; while on the other hand, the dissociation of subjectivity from the cause of this anxiety is pushed to the extreme by the perverse relation established between the consumer and the market, whose driving force is belief in the promise of paradise. The self, in its function as an alarm that signals the necessity of creating new territories, is therefore instrumentalized by the market; and the ego takes over the management of the forces of creation and action that this alarm convokes in response. But the ego knows only the empirical exercise of the sensible—its primary function being, as we have seen, to guide subjectivity through the cartography of current territories. When it is placed at the command of the processes of creating the cartographies of oneself and the world, the ego has no way to know the causes of the vertigo arising from the experience of the paradox that causes it to lose its references. It tends to interpret its disorientation as the result of a collapse of its very subjectivity, and not only of its current configuration. It then begins to fabricate imaginary reasons that are supposed to explain its distress—hence the feelings of inferiority and exclusion. To protect itself from its unease, it represses the feeling by constructing defensive barriers. Given that this state is mainly mobilized by the image-worlds proposed by capital, the most obvious defensive strategy consists in seizing upon their images and trying to fulfill them in existence, in the hopes of overcoming anxiety.

                    Thus the instrumentalization of subjective forces by capital comes full circle. In fact, all the phases of the subjectivation process are used as primary energy for the production of worlds for the market: intensive and empirical sensibility; the unease of the paradox between their two exercises (which is turbocharged by the market); the pressure that this feeling of unease exerts to realign oneself and the world; and the forces of desire, creation, and action that this pressure mobilizes. What begins to take form is the population of hyperactive zombies that will proliferate increasingly across the planet in the last decades of twentieth century and the beginning of twenty-first, as the models of a winner-take-all subjectivity.

                    The experimentation that had been carried out collectively during the 1960s and early ’70s in order to attain emancipation from the dominant subjectivity pattern became indistinguishable from its incorporation to the emergent politics of subjectivation under cognitive capitalism. Many of the protagonists of the movements of the previous decades fell into the trap: dazzled by the celebration of their creative force and their transgressive and experimental posture, which had formerly been stigmatized and marginalized, dazzled as well by their prestigious image in the media and their high salaries, they became the creators of the worlds produced by capital.

                    How to liberate life from these dynamics that suffocate it? If the dynamics in question refer to the functioning of desire and correspond to the subjective politics of capitalist religion, then there is no way to disassemble them except by intervening in that dimension. To meet this challenge we must place ourselves in a hybrid zone where the powers of healing, creating, and resisting come all together into play and the borderlines between art, politics, and therapeutics become indiscernible.