Book Review: “Post-Cinematic Affect,” by Steven Shaviro, Zer0 Books, 2010.
Wrote this in 2011, but I’m updating my website, and adding some new content that should have been here long ago. Enjoy.
Welcome to the post-cinematic mediasphere, the timeless time of the space of flows, the neuro-affective flat ontology of smooth capital. Steve Shaviro’s new text, Post-Cinematic Affect (Zero Books, 2010), is many things. On the one hand, it is a guided tour of the mediascape to come, a futureflash of the way the world will feel once today’s emergent media formations reach their mature forms. On the other hand, it’s also a diagnosis, an attempt to understand the manner in which capital and the image will increasingly intertwine in the world to come. Both media analysis and critique of capital, Shaviro’s slim tome is understated in its presentation, but wide in its potential effects. It’s an important book, one at the cutting edge of the attempt to think the dark underside of the networked age to come.
Shaviro describes his enterprise as an attempt to perform an “affective mapping” of what, following James Cascio and Gilles Deleuze, he calls the “participatory panopticon” of the “control society . . . which comes from everywhere and nowhere at once” (8). In such a world, “personalities. . . [are reduced to] shells within which social forces are temporarily contained” (108), and all terrain is reduced to any-spaces-whatsoever (espaces-quelconque), monadicaly disconnected from each other, yet vague enough to morph at will in the timeless time, the “always being about to happen”-ness (86), of a mediascape which is purely relational, without exterior, and always in flux. Welcome to the smooth space of flows as a vision of hell.
What is left in a world in which the very categories of ages past, including space, time, subjectivity, agency, and community, even the boundaries between media itself, are dissolved in the disjunct unity of a fluid that percolates without end, yet always drains surplus elsewhere? Affect. Waves and waves of affect. Affect, for Shaviro, is counter-representational by nature, it is emergent, transpersonal, distributed, virtual. It is that which flows in the world in which humans used produce and consume commodities in factories and engage with the ‘real’ world. Now, instead, we have the near-completion of real subsumption, leaving us to scrounge for remainders or search for a way through to the other side. As the boundaries between cinema and portable computing, video-games, and websites increasingly begin to blur, as the Deleuzian time-image is drained of its duration by digital composition and post-continuity editing, and as we move to neuromodulatory media forms in which all pretense to plot and character dissolve into the affective high that a figure transmits, we find ourselves increasingly in the post-cinematic video-drome, the ambient wave-space of perpetual revolution, in which player and played are all played by a system that feeds itself on our ebbs and flows.
Instead of subjects and objects, what’s left is figures, and this is precisely what Shaviro works to map. The bulk of the text is made up of close readings of four recent media works, “diagrams” (6) and “machines for generating affect” (3), by Grace Jones/Nick Hooker, Oliver Assayas, Richard Kelley, and Mark Neveldine/Brian Taylor. Shaviro intentionally goes after works dismissed by others as excessive or failed, for he sees in these overblown bits of detrius the trace of the futurescape to come. Shaviro is fascinated by the pooling of affect around celebrity, the currents that flow in and out of the “amnesiac actors” which replace what used to subjects, the shattered dividual subjectivities that play out on the virtual post-cinematic mediascape, and the virtual spacetimes carved out of the flows of affect by its own movement within itself. Like the figures he traces, the media texts he examines are merely traces of movement. What he’s interested in is mutation, the drainage of Deleuze’s time-image, and the production of a new hyper-circulatory paradigm which he prophetically argues is coming to dominate our age.
Shaviro tracks the manner in which many of the buzzwords valorized by contemporary Deleuzian inspired theory are ironicly most apt for describing the most terrifying aspects of today’s world, such that Post-Cinematic Affect can serve as a wonderful tonic to the celebratory sides of contemporary Deleuzian, network/complexity, and futurist paradigms. For Shaviro, contemporary space has become relational and virtual, morphing into anything at will, never committing to one form or another, so that it can always become smooth to serve capital’s needs to mutate and serve ‘just-in-time’ production and circulation. Where there used to be masters (and master signifiers), now there are icons, patterns of modulation, for “modulation is the process that allows for the greatest difference and variety of products, while still maintaining an underlying control” (15). In place of subjects, what remains are points of transfer of affect, figures which echo in simulated interiority the icons which direct them, each composed of the flows whose densities determine the spacetime terrain in which accumulation occurs, siphoned somewhere eternally off-site. Series of “affective constellation[s]” (73), the result feels “unspeakably ridiculous . . . creepily menacing . . . [and] exhilarating” (85). It’s the world of the perpetual music video, in which media sings just for you, in which distributed scapes of feeling wash over transfer points, and yet, one the need for perpetual flow keeps everything vague enough so one can “never leap from affect to concept” (73). And what of the much vaunted hope in networks and complex systems? Shaviro dryly slams contemporary complexity theory approaches: “actually existing capital is metastable. It functions as a dissipative system . . . . operating most effectively . . . at far from equilibrium conditions” (189), such that “networked manipulation works more effectively than a hierarhichal chain of command ever did” (107). It seems possible, however, that there are many types of metastable networks, a possibility that Shaviro doesn’t address.
Such a world, for Shaviro, is one best described by the much valorized term “flat ontology.” For when anything can become a medium of exchange for anything else, the ability to distinguish between master signifier and the chain of signifiers slips on the smooth space of numbers which, for Shaviro, underpins the whole apparatus. For it is “digital transcoding as common basis” (134) which allows for the interchangeability of everything that can be quantified. The result is the precaritization of work, the shift from physical to symbolic production, material to affective/intellectual labor, production to financialization, and the near complete real subsumption of the world by capital, such that “everything is a potential medium of exchange, a mode of payment for something else” (46). For Shaviro, “the only thing that remains transgressive today is capital itself . . . [it] transgresses the very possibility of transgression, because it is always only transgressing in order to make more of itself, devouring not only it’s own tail but it’s entire body, in order to achieve greater levels of montstrosity” (31). Within the perpetual now of the modulatory regime, motion and duration are simulated, and resistance is, at least so it seems, futile.
Or worse, it is incompossible. For if the fear of our current, cinematic age may be summed up by the words “chaos rules,” uttered by the uncanny fox in Lars Von Trier’s recent trainwreck of a film Antichrist (2009), the dystopia to come is probably best described, by Shaviro, as “incompossibility reigns.” Shaviro’s symptomatic reading of another recent cinematic trainwreck Richard Kelley’s Southland Tales (2006) (by an equally talented director, I might add), shows how in tomorrow’s mediascape, the properties that used to belong to individuals – personalities, facades, desires, fears – are now shattered amongst numerous sites, while individuals are now required ‘flexible’ adaptors, ready to play any role, grasp hold of and channel any fragment of what used to be referents of the ‘real’ world, and all just to survive. The world to come is one in which not only is everything possible, but everything has already happened, and is already happening, now, all at once, even if it is all virtual, so that none of it can stick, resulting in a depthless simulated miasma. What’s left is are networks of modulations of affective constellations, and the constant jerking between what Bolter and Grusin have described as the poles of hypermediation and immediacy (115) . Like the inside of some cruel quantum particle, Shaviro shows us the dark side of contemporary science, media, economy, and society. Can anything be done?
Towards the end of the work, Shaviro discusses what Benjamin Noys (136) has called the strategy of ‘accelerationism’ – if it’s impossible and/or undesirable to go backwards or slow things down, then perhaps the solution is to try to make things go faster. As political strategy, Shaviro smartly remarks that the collapse that a hypertrophic crises could lead to could in fact lead to formations much worse than what we have now. But aesthetic accelerationism is a strategy endorsed by Shaviro, in that it allows us to explore the landscape countours of the world in the process of formation. Works of art send out probeheads, to use the Deleuzian terminology, examining new ways of being, potentially revealing new forms of resistance in the process.
Shaviro diagnoses the problem, yet is careful not to recommend any real cures – only time will tell where this is all going. But he clearly has his finger on the pulse of the cannibal impulses of our anticipated present. If we are to find any hope in between the lines of Shaviro’s dystopia, it is that perhaps there are ways to turn the very tools of capital against itself. Shaviro seems to hesistate – he knows we cannot go back, but we also cannot go forward on our current path without the dystopian world he analyzes in his text from coming true. But perhaps there are other types of networks, other types of meta-stability, flat ontology, relational space, virtuality? This, it seems, is the deeper question this text tries to ask, and it is a question that truly hits at the debates central to contemporary theory today. And while Shaviro occasionally nips at the counter-strategies composed by Michael Hardt and Antonion Negri, it seems that this is because Shaviro feels that the real strategies of resistance are yet to come.
While at times risking Baudrillardian fatalism, Shaviro seems to point at one ray of hope, namely, that new media formations can teach us, in their own way, how to once again, to use a phrase employed by Deleuze, “believe” once again in the world (60). But before we can get there, we need to map the new terrain, and that is what this slim yet sly volume seeks to do, and suceeds masterfully.