Photogenesis and the invisible: on John Cassavetes’ Shadows (1959). Notes for a seminar presentation. by Gerardo Muñoz

i. What is your name? Every time that I have watched John Cassavetes’ Shadows (1959) I end up facing the same question: what is taking place in this film? Perhaps it is the incorrect question insofar as Shadows (1959) is, first and foremost, a film about the event; about “what takes place”. Unlike Hollywood’s telic form over conflict, the whole premise of Cassavetes’ method of improvisation is a way to liberate the event in the moving image. This is what I would like to call here a photogenic event. The whole structure of Shadows is, to this effect, the bringing-fourth of appearing without narration or naming. Hence, what takes place is the way in which characters or figures emerge from light, retracting from the plunge unto theatricality. The photogenetic effect in Cassavetes is a way out of the logic of naming: remember “what is your name?”, as Bennie asks very early in the film (the café sequence). Indeed, the naming is always what emerges after the event, once boredom has kicked him and the separation from light and shadow, human and animal, theater and theatrically have taken place. The taking place in Shadows is a return to an abysmal site predating naming, faces, or intentions: it is absolute proximity. 

ii. The vocation of the quotidian. The photogenetic image works through the texture of life: this is why in Shadows nothing truly happens in virtue that everything takes place. The difference between happening and taking place is an irreducible distinction; mainly, what happens is not provoked a mediation between subjects and objects, but rather at a moment when both subject and object coincide only to immediately suspend each other. What takes place is life’s destiny, which ultimately entails that we are figures of exposure before we are subjects of narrative and causality. As in a diary or a midnight party, what takes place is the clandestine life once it enters in relation with other bodies, languages, and gestures. In this sense, Shadows remains faithful to one and only one principle: how to transfigure the boredom of factical life into a vocation of a clandestine life. It is not too clear that Cassavetes arrives at a successful answer to this problem; almost as if, indeed, to remain clandestine is to insist on the “invisible” image that is always missing from every life. The promiscuity between shadows and light transpires the possibility of the living all the other invisible and nonexistent lives that are scarified within that which we call “life”. 

iii. Under the glorious sky. If the task of vocation opens to the invisible in life, then this means that there is always a dimension that is exterior the anthropological determination. In the solitude of the nocturnal splendor of the late modern metropolis – as in the instance in which Lelia is outside of a Manhattan theater lost in thought or contemplating the shimmering lights above – the existence of the human shines along with the embers of the sky. This most definitely an inherence of paganism in the sense of the medium in life as a mode of appearance without judgement. As one can still contemplate it from the frescos at Villa Fernesina, the pagan gazing towards the sky is not a flight towards abstraction or transcendence, but rather a releasement of life’s destiny as affirmed in the terrestrial presence [1]. Paradoxically, at the moment of the total subsumption of life into the Spectacle, the medium frees the possibility of the deconstitution of life into the modes and resources of appearing. From the photogenic perspective, this entails full saturation on the horizon; from the pagan perspective, the onwards unfolding of existence becomes a fragment in the exploration of the common sky. 

iv. Inharmonious tonality. Now, fragmentation opens a heterochronic disassociation between images and events. Indeed, all of Shadows unfolding bears witness to the way in which the tonality of life is always at odds with the attunement of the rhythms of the world. It is in this threshold where interiority of the self and exteriority of music point to the peak of prophecy. For one thing, because music is the medium through the residual mystery of the “inexpressive” becomes the process of traversing the ecstatic formlessness of the event. This disharmony dislocates the homogenization vis-à-vis the sky of cinematography.  Bresson says something very beautiful about this disharmony: the image of cinematography must be such that it puts in relation the voice and the steps of a person in a way that the protagonist themselves have not foreseen. This nocturnal knowledge between image and sound, rhythm and tonality of life, becomes the triumph of the photogenic medium in which life dissolves in a kinetic outburst without recourse. 

v. The invisible and intoxication. At a very superficial dimension, Shadows is about alcohol consumption; hence about what happens to a life under the stage of intoxication. The only knowledge is that of the oblique pedagogy in which the way of the flesh becomes a pathway for language, friendship, and violence among other bodies. There is no transgression as an intoxicated subject, since intoxication is already the violence against the substance of the subject. In other words – and this was suggested to me by the contemporary artist and designer Claudia Patricia – the logistics of errancy is being able to do otherwise from a site in which no other possibility could have emerged. This absolute necessity moves against reality and the future planning of the metropolis. And here I must return to the beginning: what takes place is what allows a relation with the invisible. Already in 1959, Cassavetes understood that intoxication redeems an ethical life against an epochal phase in which total anthropological exposure would become the concrete utopia of the socialization of capital. 

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Notes 

1. Fritz Saxl. La fede astrologica di Agostino Chigi. Interpretazione dei dipinti di Baldassarre Peruzzi nella Sala di Galatea della Farnesina (Bardi Edizioni, 2017).

2. Gianni Carchia. “Dialettica dell’immagine: note sull’estetica biblica e cristiana”, in La legittimazione dell’arte: studi sull’intelligibile estetico (1982). 

3. Bresson on Bresson: Interviews, 1943-1983 (NYRB, 2016).

Going nowhere: on Jason E. Smith’s Smart Machines and Service Work (2020). by Gerardo Muñoz

Jason Smith’s Smart Machines and Service Work (Reaktion Books, 2020) provides us with a renewed cartography of the labor transformations in the wake of automation and the cybernetic revolution, which has ultimately created a “vast service sector” (9). Although at first sight Smith’s book seems to be preoccupied with questions of technology innovation in the post-fordist epoch, the central vortex of the book sheds light on the notion of “servant economy” that has become the fast-evolving segment of today’s job-market. Smith notes that the expansion of the servant economy propelled by automation “poses special obstacles to organization and action in a fragmented workforce. The rise of the “servant economy”, increasingly forces workers into smaller, spatially dispersed workplaces, where they carry out labor-intensified production processes…. deemed low-skill occupations and therefore poorly paid” (14). The new region of the service economy is an effect of the exceptionality of capital form self-abdication where unemployment becomes an existential problem for the social fabric. 

The nuanced analysis undertaken by Smith shows how the fragmented spatialization of labor has become the byproduct of the automation in which control, optimization, and feedback ensemble a new regime of total calculation. Already in 1956, Friedrich Pollock warned of a potential “totalitarian government” that could lead to mass unemployment. Pollock’s Cold War predicament was not off target: the fear of totalitarian unemployment (Habermas would call it crisis of legitimation) was answered with a total (service) economy that compensated for the paradox of stagnation of profit growth. The encompassing force of real subsumption through compartmentalization of services rendered effective James Boggs’ “nowhere to go” in the final dispensation of historical capitalism.

The phase of stagnation announces the “productivity paradox”. Smith writes glossing Mason: “If ours is an age defined by monopolies, cheap credit, rent-seeking and asset bubbles, it is not due to the concerted efforts of elites keen to forestall or smother in the cradle a new, sustained period of productivity gains….despite claims to the contrary, the weather of stagnation and drift that has settle over the advanced capitalist economies since the 1970s, and special since the turn of the century is attributable in no small part technological inertia” (41). The boom of “diversionary gadgets” are on the side of unproductiveness; and, as Ure argues, “do nothing towards the supply of the physical necessities of society” (43). But perhaps diversion usage accounts for the mobilization of the medium of the new phase of automated capitalism. In other words, precisely because traditional form of political legitimacy has crumbled, zero value technology becomes the compensatory psychic equilibrium within the process of abstraction of profit. The subjective dimension of the “medium” in the new phase of automation operates to drive dynamism in the “historic low” of labor productivity growth and the disjointed structural relation between economic growth and rise in wages (64, 69).

One of the conclusions that one can derive from Smith’s rich political economy empirical analysis is that the expansion of the service economy is fundamentally an anti-institutional phenomenon, both at the level of social forms (unions, movements, legal grounds for disputes) as well as in terms of mediations of exchange (intellectual labor, shadow-work, spatial relations to urban centers, etc.). In this sense, the absolutization of the regional “service economy” is the reallocation of reduced labor. In the same way that all ‘originary accumulation’ is an ‘onging accumulation’; the “crisis” of the economy is always already the recurrent stagnation of growth. But Smith notes with precision: “services therefore appear to obscure more than it clarifies” (80). This new process of rationalization mobilizes the valorization of the outside, that is, of every non-market sphere. This process draws a specific ordo rationality: “The true “advances” such as they are, have been in the domination of the labor process by employers: their ability to coerce more labor out of a given hour by means of refinement in supervision, oversight, and workplace discipline” (112). 

Mirroring the optimal logistics of cybernetic and automation processes, one could claim that the expansion of the service economy initiates a regime of governmentality that allows for the attenuation and cost-benefit management of flows. Now I think one can clearly see that “service” is not just an avatar to formal processes of value, but also, as Ivan Illich showed, a secularized theological concept of the Christian notion of hospitality. According to Illich, hospitality was transformed into a use of power and money to provide services and needs [1]. For the ex-Catholic priest, this meant nothing less than the corruption of human freedom, which became tied to the logistics of equivalence. This is why, more than an economic theory, neoliberalism needs to defend an ever-expanding freedom of the subject. In the context of deep social atomization, the service economy self-legitimizes itself as absolute freedom in the social (141). 

At the end of the book, Smith notes that in the wake of automation the relation between political struggles and the new economic composition begin to diverge. There is on one side the model of the teachers and that of the expendables (146-147). In a sense, the “nowhere land” registered by Boggs in the 60s has only intensified, as modern politics forms no longer seem up to the task in the face of total extraction and exclusion. If we think of arguably the most successful leftist political strategy in the last decade or so (the strongest cases have been in Latin America and Spain), the left populism rooted in the theory of hegemony; it becomes clear that after the empirical analysis of Smart Machines, any set of ‘equivalential demands’ is already a demand for exploitation within the regime of the service economy. During this months of pandemic the right has been calling for the immediate reintegration into the economy, bring to bear the internal production at the heart of the project of hegemony. Rather than thinking about a new multitude or unified subject of class, the expendables that Smith situates at the outskirts of the metropolis (the ‘hinterland’), constitute perhaps a new experiential texture of life that is no longer moved by representation but rather expression; it is no longer defined by class, but consumption; it is not interested in negation, but rather in “discovery” (148). Indeed, the new marginalized surplus population does not constitute a new “subject”, but an energy that seeks an exodus from the ruins of the political given the collapse of the whole framework of leftist hegemony [2]. It seem reasonable to think that it is precisely in the threshold of Boggs’ call for a “discovery” (a movement of anabasis), devoid of place and time, where the unfathomable stagnation of our epoch is defied.

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Notes

1. Ivan Illich. The Rivers North of the Future (Anansis, 2005). 

2. “Onwards Barbarians”, Endnotes, December 2020: https://endnotes.org.uk/other_texts/en/endnotes-onward-barbarians