Video School

Jonathan Beller: The Digital Ideology

Working through ideas that he elaborates in greater detail in his underappreciated 2006 book The Cinematic Mode of Production: Attention Economy and The Society of the Spectacle, Jonathan Beller’s talk at the New School’s Internet as Factory and Playground conference in 2009 starts with a consideration of the rapid change in the power of the sign function. He briefly discusses Marshall McLuhan, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, and Jean Baudrillard, “media negatrons” that all argue for the primacy of media in the structuration of society. Beller’s emphasis on the image and image-producing technology differentiates him from Stiegler and in some ways Terranova, in that he sees the digital as not merely the endgame of language itself but also a visual regime, one that is perhaps even more effective in its ability to transmit ideology (or as Marx would say, to form “mental conceptions.”) This digital ideology, according to Beller, includes both Silicon Valley utopian libertarianism (which Terranova also tracks and argues against) and “the Italians” (Terranova included it would seem), with their embrace of capital’s tendency towards the radical reduction of the value of labor power and the pure abstraction of financialization. Both ends of the digital ideological spectrum elide the existence of a global underclass crushed underfoot.

In a trenchant critique of the left wing of digital ideology, Beller takes aim at arguments like Terranova’s that posit a collapse of the relevance of the labor theory of value. He argues that “the Italians” have been able “to think that value has become immeasurable and that the labor theory of value has been transcended” only because of (nodding to Christian Fuchs) the fetishization of the wage, thinking that without direct monetization, the financialization of social value has become immeasurable. Quoting his Cinematic Mode of Production, Beller reminds us that “the labor theory of value is the theoretical expression of the actual robbery of workers’ life-energy through an unequal exchange with capital.” Echoing work by theorists like George Caffentzis (who has urged leftists not to take the experience of capitalism in the West as paradigmatic of capitalism itself), but also harkening back to Ernst Bloch’s idea that not everyone lives in the same “now,” Beller reminds us that entire swaths of humanity have been robbed to the point of death, made invisible, and reduced to “a recording surface for someone else’s message.” Even when it comes to the most developed information technology, declarations of the collapse of the labor theory of value are premature; financialization and speculation are actually the processes through which the value form is made legible to capital as it continues apace with the real subsumption of the sensorium. Citing Patricia Clough’s work on the new empiricism and Chih-Hsien Chen’s concept of the “fictitious audience commodity,” Beller points to the speculative nature of advertising and the ever-proliferating metrics of attention that inhabit social media. “Exit the wage,” he says, and “enter the derivative.” Beller hammers home the point that even in the most abstract of labor processes, a commodity’s value is still generated by the labor power of a human body, and the capacity of this body is still finite.

Jonathan Beller is the professor of Humanities and Media Studies and Critical and Visual Studies, Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, NY.

Andrew McKinney‘s Video School explores the relationship between technology, human labor, and everyday life in late capitalism.