SF CAPITAL Mark Fisher (2001)

k-punk unhome


Do you really think SF Capital allows monkey flake to make decisions it classifies as important?
Ccru, Swarmmachines

Markets, desire and science fiction are all part of the infrastructure
Nick Land, 'Cybergothic'

Now I feel I've been in space twice
Alexi Leonov, the first person to walk in outer space, after seeing 2001

After American Graffiti, George [Lucas] had wanted to do Apocalypse Now. George ... had worked on the script ... back in 1969.Then, when Warner Brothers backed out, the project was abandoned. It was still too hot a topic, the war was still on... and it just wasn't going to happen. So George considered his options [and] he decided, 'All right, if it's politically too hot as a contemporary subject, I'II put the essence of the story in outer space and make it in a galaxy long ago and far, far away'. Star Wars is George's transubstantiated version of Apocalypse Now. The rebel group were the North Vietnamese, and the Empire was the US
Walter Murch, editor of Apocalypse Now

There's clearly no better time than now to reflect on the degree to which Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey anticipated the future. How far does the world of 2001 resemble the world of 2001?

An intriguing essay by Mark Crispin Miller published in Sight and Sound in 1994, suggests that we do live in 2001's world, but not in the way that those watching the film when it was released in 1968 might have imagined. It was not 2001's simulation of the experience of outer space, Miller argues, that made the film prescient; no, it was Kubrick's vision of commodification and control that was his most important apprehension of the (then) future. For Miller, Dr Floyd, the US scientist charged with investigating the anomalous 'monolith', belongs to a totally commodified, totally controlled environment, an environment that, in 1968, was still a distant enough prospect to provoke horror in the film's viewers. According to Miller,

The world of Dr Floyd (like the new dorm mall or hospital) is a world absolutely managed - the force controlling it discreetly advertised by the US flag with which the scientist often shares the frame throughout his 'excel lent speech' at Clavius [the US moonbase], and also by the corporate logos -'Hilton', 'Howard Johns 'Bell'- that appear throughout the space station.

Those who experienced 2001 back in the 1960s might feel, now, that they have experienced late capitalism twice, the first time as a film, the second as a banalized everyday reality. But what was once satiric prophecy is now blank realism, devoid of any 'ulterior motives', devoid, in many important respects, of any interest. "2001 could not [now] exert its original satiric impact because the mediated 'future' it envisions is now 'our' present, and therefore unremarkable. Whereas audiences back then would often giggle (uneasily, perhaps) at the sight of say, Howard Johnson up there in the heavens, Miller writes,

today's viewers would fail to see the joke, or any problem, now that the corporate logo appears en masse not just wherever films might show, but also in the films themselves, whose atmosphere nowadays is peculiarly hospitable to the costly ensign of the big brand name. We might discern the all-important difference between what was and what now is by comparing Kubrick's sardonic use of 'Bell' and 'Hilton' with the many outright corporate plugs crammed frankly into MGM's appalling 'sequel' 2010, released in 1983.... '2010 is a case of how product placement in the movies are becoming a springboard for joint promotions used to market films,' exulted Advertising Age before the film's release, noting the elaborate plugs for Pan-Am, Sheraton Hotels, Apple Computer, Anheuser-Busch and Omni magazine.

The shift Miller identifies between how audiences responded to 2001 in 1968 and how we would expect them to react 'now' - is a near-perfect illustration of Frederic Jameson's theses about consumer culture and multinational capitalism. For Jameson, famously, the culture of consumer (or 'late') capitalism makes 'satire' impossible, because satire depends upon the possibility of a - transcendent and critical - space between cultural objects and what they 'represent', a possibility that no longer exists. The critical possibilities supposedly available to the modernist creator-author have collapsed in a postmodernist 'total environment' where the illusion of a separate aesthetic and political realm beyond capital is no longer persuasive: a film, we now happily accept, is just as much a commodity as is Coca Cola. So although 2001 is 'about' the "new and historically original penetration and colonisation of Nature and the Unconscious" that Jameson thinks is characteristic of the culture of 'multinational capitalism', Kubrick's film now seems oddly dated, precisely because it imagines that commodification can be resisted, rather than merely exemplified. And the banality of commodfication retrospectively swallows up the film and its creator, too. While Kubrick no doubt remained, up to his death, the very image of the modernist creator, the name 'Stanley Kubrick' is now a brand name, a commodity, whose connotations - even when they include a certain disdain for 'the market' are highly marketable.

Star Wars is metonymically implicated in late capitalism in a way that 2001 never quite could be. What was bought and sold when audiences consumed Star Wars was not in any sense a single (aesthetic) object, but a world, a hype[r]verse. It is, of course, possible to retrospectively transform a single commodity into a series of objects-for-sale, and there are numerous, now very familiar, techniques and strategies that have been employed to this end: the transposition into new technical formats (tellingly referred to as'remastering', of course); the translation into different media (witness Marvel's Jack Kirby's 2001 comic for instance); the proliferation of sequels and prequels (such as the 2010 Miller so reviles). But there's a difference, in kind, between the way in which 2001 has been retro-commodified and what happened - is happening - with Star Wars. Star Wars was designed as a hyper-commodity; not so much a film as a fictional system - a plane of consistency that could be populated with any number of commodities. The switch is from a system of objects to a hype-system, where what is sold is abstract, fictional - but very real.

From the POV of 2001, the marketing of the satellite commodities - especially the toys-around the original Star Wars film appears almost quaintly naive.The then small company, Kenner, purchased the rights for the Star Wars action figures in late 1976, a few months ahead of the film's theatre release in summer 1977. Unanticipated, unprecedented demand was allowed to outstrip supply. According to Lenny Lee in 'Star Wars 1977-79' published in Action Figures and Toy Review "beleaguered parents scoured the countryside for Star Wars toys [but] they only found puzzles and other paper products." Nevertheless, the eventual emergence of Kenner's range of action figures in Christmas 1977 'sucked a generation of hapless children into the Star Wars 'hype-vortex' forever.' [6]

Hype-vorticism has been through a whole series of thresholds since.The simultaneous emergence of the Transformers toys and TV series in 1984 was one enormously significant moment: the toys were designed as 'characters' in a 'narrative', in part developed by Marvel, who also published a Transformers comic book series. What began to disappear here was the sense of an original or primary entertainment 'text', surrounded or 'supported' by secondary commodities, a disappearance that has been achieved almost completely now. Remember that moment in Jurassic Park when you realise that the logo of the theme park in the film is exactly the same logo on the Jurassic Park merchandise you can buy outside the cinema? And, with Disney's Toy Story, the loop between advertising, fiction and commodity achieved an unprecedented tightness: here was a film about toys/commodities, some of which were already-established brands, some of which were established precisely by the film (Buzz Lightyear, Woody) all of which were able to commingle on a single plane of (digital) reality.

To map SF capital adequately you have to pit the humanist Marx against Marx the remorseless abstract cartographer of abstract hypercapital.The human-all-too-humanist Marx believed that capital was a fiction that could be cashed out as real value (=labour time).This implied that capital is primordially payment capital (money=time), and that finance capital is capital (only) in its alienated form.The problem is that since, on even the humanist Marx's own logic, capital is essentially alienated (i.e. capital is the discrepancy between 'itself' and human labour-time), it must be the case that the 'purest' form of capital is also capital in its most fleeting, virtual and abstract modes.

Insofar as Marx remained a humanist, he posited a transcendent use value that was distorted and masked by the ruses of capital. But use value - like all values - is no less fictional than capital. What is at issue is the temporal orientation of the fiction.The concept of use value is a retrospeculative fiction, both gesturing towards a 'future' that will never arrive (a time of judgement, when capital will be cashed out as labour-time) while also invoking a spectral 'past' that never happened (a time when needs and desires, culture and nature, could be securely delimited). Capital's apparent orientation towards the future, meanwhile, is 'speculative' only in the sense that it is immediately efficient. Examples of this latter process are now so commonplace they need hardly be enumerated: at the most simple level, borrowing money enables the capitalist to buy what used to be called the means of production, and - at the more vertiginously abstract end of the scale - the existence of a 'futures' market makes it abundantly clear that time itself is now for sale as a commodity.

The priests of use value posit a transcendent or originary human essence which has been corrupted and must be restored. Yet the index of 'the human' does not precede capital. Capital, on the contrary, is thoroughly 'humanist' in that its emergence is contingent upon a displacement of what the social field counts as transcendent from the divine onto the human. Where the primitive socius and the despotic state posit the transcendent as extra-terrestrial and nonhuman, capitalism -the "cultural eradication of the sacred"- relocates the transcendent in the (sim)person of Oedipus.

If you imagine for even a moment that positing capitalism as "the exterior limit of all societies" as Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari claimed in Anti-Oedipus is fanciful, think about the interdictions on interest and usury in Islamic and pre-modern Catholic States. Such strictures only make sense as measures designed to pre-emptively ward off capital, suggesting that capitalism is indeed the 'negative' of all existing social formations, their virtual limit, in effect throughout History as the Thing which is most abominated -the Unnamable, the Worst Thing in the World - around whose repression the social as such is constructed. Capitalism is emphatically not a social or a political system in the way that previous social formations were. Rather, the fact that it is guided by only one basic meta-economic maxim - everything can be sold - and one cultural-political interdiction - keep schizophrenia at bay, at all costs - means that that the variety of social and political formations that it can sleaze into and use and abandon in a manner akin to John Carpenter's The Thing, is in principle infinite.

What is it that theocracies fear about interest? Fundamentally, the operating systems of despotic state formations understand that the folding of time into money, money into time, produces a schizophrenic vortex into which all (social) certainty will inevitably be sucked. For capital, as we know, is not cash. As Deleuze clarifies,

Money plays two different roles, as structure of financing, as a quantity that I called power of x, and as means of payment as quantity of power of y. It is not the same money that is cash and that is capital. All the economists know this, for the great economic question since the crash has been: how is one to build capital with only a little cash, or at the limit, without cash at all.

Buy a car and watch it rust.

Cash is depotentiated capital: an enterprise cannot realise its capital, only a'private' individual can, but this is effectively a translation from one kind of currency (fluid finance capital) to another (purchasing capital). In the process of translation, money is severed from time-reference, whereas, in capital proper, time and money implex into each other. You can buy time, and in that time you can accumulate more capital, with which you can buy more time, in which...

It's important to note that, in the humanist-Marxist-socialist-workerist model, the process of cashing out capital into labour also, supposedly, dispenses with fiction. At the moment when labour-time reasserts its rights, the fictional will be unmasked, its power dissipated. Yet, as Jameson rightly insists, we are amidst "the emergence of a new realm of image reality that is both fictional ... and factual."

In place of Sartre's existentially-tormented man, or Foucault's disciplined subject, we are presented now with what Burroughs and Deleuze identify as the agent/victim of Control. As Miller recognises, Kubrick's Dr Floyd is just such a 'control addict', whose "impulse to retreat from nature, to lead a 'life' of perfect safety, regularity and order in some exalted high-tech cell, and to stay forever on the job, solacing oneself from time to time with mere images of some beloved other, is ... the fundamental psychic cause of advertising." Baudrillard recognised that advertising had long since ceased to be about simply selling objects. "If, at a given point, the commodity was its own publicity (there was no other) today publicity has become its own commodity." Since it "envelops us from every side" advertising "at the same time eliminates the hotly controversial problem of 'belief". Advertising, "destroyer of intensities, accelerator of inertia", expands to insinuate itself into every area of the social field, and in this very exorbitance, abolishes itself, becomes something else.

In the age of "mlicroprocessing, digitiality, cybernetic languages" Baudrillard argues, advertising - "still imaginary and spectacular" - has already been surpassed. Anticipating Cronenberg's Videodrome, Baudrillard invokes Philip K. Dick's "papula -that transistorized advertising implant, a Sort of broadcasting leech" as a "prefiguration of the psychotropic and processing networks of the automatic piloting of individuals next to which the 'conditioning' by advertising looks like a delightful change in fortune." But even Dick's neuronically-integrated advertising polyp is too locked into a superseded moment of capital where advertising, product and consumption can still be thought of as separate.

What Baudrillard was already alive to back in the 70s was the difference - then scarcely understood, now all-too familiar - between advertising (which sells Commodities) and branding (which hypes hyper-commodities). In the hype-commodity regime, the moment of consumption is no longer isolatable as such, since commodification is so diffuse that it insinuates itself into every area of 'everyday life'. In the e-conomy, as we are well aware, 'attention' is both a form of consumption and itself a commodity which can be sold. The hyper-commodity is not an object, but an intricate, microsensitive, semiotic web, inducing participation and 'involvement.' Baudrillard again, "It is not by chance that advertising, after having, for a long time, carried an implicit ultimatum of an economic kind, fundamentally saying and repeating incessantly 'I buy, I consume, I take pleasure,' today repeats in other forms,'I vote, I participate, l am present, 'I am concerned'."

Accordingly there no longer a ruling class but a Control or Management class which itself first of all Controlled and Managed, not by transcendent laws, but by immanent circuits, in which 'everyone' 'participates', but for whom 'no-one' is responsible, and whose products 'no-one' wants.

It's of course no accident that the current power elite (Spielberg, Lucas, Gates, Blair) belonged to the so-called counterculture of the 1960s. Capital, needless to say, is indifferent to individual human motivation, but happy slaves are better slaves, and the reprogramming of the way the master class thinks (about itself, about workers, about capital) has been crucial to the presentation of the multi-nationalised capital's current dominion as immutable fact. And George Lucas' 'transubstantiation' of Apocalypse Now into Star Wars is emblematic of the shifts in late capitalism since the 60s. The smooth transition from hippy to hyper-capitalist, from slacker hedonism to authoritarianism, from engagement to entertainment, retrospectively reveals what the punks knew so we when they cackled 'never trust a hippie'. Far from posing any threat to capitalism, the dope-smoking, soap-dodging rockers of the 60s were acting as capitalism's reserve army of exploiters, whose time spent at festivals and on the experimental avant-garde fringe did little or nothing to engineer lines of collective escape, but yielded instead resources for the new forms of enslavement that loom everywhere around us now. Exactly those likely to have 'approved' of Kubrick's critique of corporate-controlled environments in 1968 are now administering their own 'total control' systems, all the more sinister for their shirtsleeves 'informality', all the more enveloping because the bosses wire themselves into the circuit, flaunting their own self-exploitation as both inevitable and exemplary. As Deleuze and Guattari had it in Anti-Oedipus, "The bourgeois sets the example, he absorbs surplus value for ends that ... have nothing to do with his own enjoyment: more utterly enslaved than the lowest of slaves, he is the first servant of the ravenous machine, the beast of the reproduction of capital. 'I too am a slave'- these are the new words spoken by the master."

For a chilling image of how SF Capital induces auto-zombification in the master class, you only have to look at the face of our glorious leader: that ashen carnival mask, its grim, cheerless Joker-grin flashing with ritual efficiency, its blank eyes illuminated by empty evangelism, darkened by perpetual irritation - the PM's being run by Videodrome… and no-one owns Death TV.