So for those of us who are concerned about capitalism and criticism I think there is something that we need to be very careful about if we want our work to have any analytical power beyond vague affect. It’s not that vague affect can’t have a powerful effect or help us build something else, it’s that in the end our writing can be so much more, even more powerful. We are all too often caught in semantic shifts were terms that once were anlytically powerful but become vague and useless. They become coded words that signify styles of discourse, and not much else. In Postmodernism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Frederic Jameson confronts the concept of postmodernism as a symptom and cause of its own semantic drift, its own self becoming less and less denotative, and only connotative not so much of anything specific, but of a vague idea. Jameson’s solution isn’t to discard the concept wholesale but rather to insist that as writers and critics we need to demand that we put in the work to define it each and every single time:
As for postmodernism itself, I have not tried to systematize a usage or to impose any conveniently coherent thumbnail of meaning, for the concept is not merely contested, it is also internally conflicted and contradictory. I will argue that, for good or ill, we cannot not use it. But my argument should also be taken to imply that every time it is used, we are under the obligation to rehearse those inner contradictions and to stage those representational dilemmas; we have to work all that through every time around. Postmodernism is not something we can settle on once and for all and then use with a clear conscience. The concept, if there is one, has to come at the end, and not at the beginning, of our discussions of it. Those are the conditions - the only ones, I think, that prevent the mischief of premature clarification - under which this term can productively continued to be used.
In other words, as I am want to say all too often: do the damn work.
The reason I was thinking about this is that there is now a flurry of writing about the film Snowpiercer and weather or not it is, in some way, about capitalism. Aaron Bady wrote about it over at The New Inquiry and made some quite interesting points, many of which I agree with, but there was something that kept coming up that was bugging me. And it’s this: the way he speaks about “capitalism”. He doubles back on his thesis many times on weather or not the film is about “capitalism” and revolution and even teases at it possibly being Marxist in some sense, but this would only hold if one had a very different conception of capitalism then Marx. The problem here is that capitalism is taken as a known quantity, and already understood baseline, rather than a concept that we should define and work through every time we decide to think about it in a critical fashion.
It’s not that there can’t be different definitions or that semantic shift isn’t an unavoidable problem, that sign and signified aren’t a function of power and ideology. It’s that we just need to be clear. Bady’s post speaks in the language of vague academic cultural Marxism. It implies a shared understanding of it but if it was put under any kind of scrutiny of this analytic programme, it would be found to be lacking.
This is because in the film Snowpiercer, there is no “capitalism” in the Marxist sense: the theoretically infinite accumulation of capital by any means necessary. The Capital-Money-Capital relation is the fundamental relation that is capitalism for Marx. What the film represents filmically is a revolution of a class that is very similar to the lumpenproletariat. There is no accumulation on the train. The train is actually a Bentham-equse utilitarian totalitarian dystopia, where it is not accumulation that sets in motion the entire functioning of the train, but rather ecological management. It is a rational, scientific operation. A figurative and literal ouroboros that eats itself. Class struggle exists, as is evidenced by the various classes and people that live and work on the train, but nobody on the train would be considered a capitalist in the sense that they are pursuing their rational self interest above every other passenger. They exist to exist, their food and living space rationed.
There is much to pillory in this vision of society, but it isn’t capitalism. It is reason, science, authority, power and the lack of alternatives. It does a disservice to the analytical weight of the concept of “capitalism”, of the organization of the society that is describes, if we looked at a society like that presented in Snowpiercer and thought “capitalism did this”. There are machines and workers, sure, but there is no capitalist. There is no realization of surplus value. There is only life.
Just as the term “neoliberalism” has become almost useless because of the way it is carelessly bandied about, we run the risk of the same happening to the “capitalism” if we let it just mean “violent repression” and “gaping inequality”. Both of these things existed before capitalism, and chances are they will exist after capitalism ends. If we want to stick a fork in the eye of the apologists of capitalism, a system that produces both of these things in abundance, let’s be sure to be specific about it, especially when we engage in cultural criticism. This way we avoid the mischief of premature clarification and mystifying our own writing.
Last monday I decided to take a break from working, which, due to the nature of my life, just means taking a break from writing. I was burned out. Burned out from the previous 6 months of research, bibliography building, reading and note taking for my comprehensive exams. Burned out from the three day marathon exam of writing ten thousand words that is to represent my mastery of three distinct fields in my discipline. I then drove myself into the ground even further by riding the high of writing ten thousand words in three days by then turning my attention to starting a draft of an article I pitched to a magazine while simultaneously conducting serious edits on a journal article I’ve been working on for six months with a colleague.
I began to feel very real signs of depression encroaching on me. I felt any motivation to write disappearing while still insisting to myself that I had to keep writing because, after all, these were “fun” projects I was working on. It’s the kind of trap that comes from working in a medium one is professionally and creatively invested in.
So I’ve refused to write anything, outside of twitter, for about 7 days now. It has been difficult. Writing is what I derive my creative fulfillment from. It’s how I reach out to my peers and look for validation. It is where I put stock in my existence. If I am unable to write when I feel the need to write I feel like I lose a fundamental part of how I interact with the world.
But there is something else here that relates to why I’m not writing. Because writing is my job. Even though my job is maybe one of the most charmed (in that I get to pursue my own internal drive for knowledge and get paid by the state for it) it’s still that: a job. Thinking of graduate work, which produces both knowledge and prestige for universities, as work has been one of the most important realizations in how I live my life. I use this insight as a way to moderate my own self exploitation and avoid the ‘culture of productivity' that just about every person I know experiences at a level of anxiety that is historically unique to our society. I've been able to, for the most part, avoid burnouts that result in serious consequences for my body and for my work. I do this by doing something that doesn't seem that radical: I don't work after 5 or 6pm every night and I take weekends. That's it.
This observation, and the clarity it provides, is also one of the reasons that I pay so much attention to journalists and writers of all kinds and their ongoing frustration with being recognized by a for-profit industry with the reward of a wage and a long term contract. So many of these people are already writers - either journalists and critics - and producers of work, either through freelancing or blogging. Yet due to the reality that everybody needs to get paid and at the same time wants to get paid to do something that doesn’t totally suck, there is legitimate frustration that wages are still given to already middle class white men. But let’s not forget, the wage isn’t something that validates our work: it’s a relationship to capital. We can be writers without being people who write for a wage.
So for me it’s a double edged sword, I write for myself and for my peers here on my blog (and don’t let us forget that I *am* still producing value for Tumblr, so it’s a function of today’s ‘hyperwork’) because I have the freedom and the comfort of my universities’ various grants and fellowships to spend some time writing. And yet I’m also writing for academic publications and working on my dissertation. The question of taking a break from writing is a professional and personal concern that, when I think about it, is actually really frustrating. It shouldn’t have to be this way but for now it is.
So this is going to be short and sweet but in “games criticism” twittersphere that I interact with on a regular basis there has been an interesting and frustrating conversation. It begins nebulously with disconnected observations about how jobs in games journalism are divvied up to a cadre of mostly white men. I’ve seen more than once new positions open up at places such as Polygon, (owned by Vox Media with a warchest of capital behind them) go to industry insiders, rather than established and respected, but not salaried freelancers and bloggers. As a result there is ridiculously legitimate anger and frustration.