Katherine’s Notes on “Paying Attention” by Jonathan Beller – 12/6

Our discussion of Jonathan Beller was facilitated by Ryan and his introduction started with an explanation of where Beller is coming from in this work. Beller is an American film professor and he is drawing from two related traditions of Marxist critique:

1. Situationists (Parisian writers and artists of the 1950s and ’60s) who believed that capitalist ideology had systematically permeated everything in a person’s life, including their environment. Capitalist production had recently moved out of the factory and followed people home. They called this ideological system the Spectacle.

2. Autonomists (Italian intellectuals of the ’60s and ’70s) who were associated with the larger ‘Autonomia’ tendency in Italy, a popular movement that won significant power through strikes, occupations, and other tactics aimed at (re)claiming urban space. They used the term “social factory” to describe the expansion of capitalist organization beyond the workplace. For them, all of a worker’s life, from the factory to the home, was increasingly organized around capitalist production of value. As manufacturing declined worldwide from the ’70s on, this shift accelerated.

The chief product of the “social factory” is human subjects. According to this theory, contemporary capitalism encourages a proliferation of identities tied to accessories, ideas, attitudes, gestures, etc. Performing these identities, by consuming the right products, behaving in the proper way, etc., drives entire industries (e.g. fashion, education, domestic appliances, interior design, etc.). The middle class can at least hope to derive some benefit from this competitive process (careers, social status); the poor tend to have identities forced on them. The point is that all identities, even negative ones, can generate profit for capitalists (gangsta rap, for example, capitalizes on urban crime, sponsors clothing lines targeting African American youth, etc.).

Beller claims to have pinpointed the mechanism by which the social factory operates, by acknowledging the quantitative side of what earlier theorists had qualitatively described. He draws on the concept of “attention economy,” which supposes that attention is a vital, finite resource that can be measured and controlled. First developed by management theorists in the workplace to increase productivity, it later spread to the consumer realm. Beller argues that cinema was the technology that enabled this shift, by making attention to circulating images central to the production of value. When a film is watched, value is added to it (meanwhile you pay for your ticket and you get entertained for a bit). Today media is the organization of all human activity. One’s personal preferences are constantly being data mined so that when you turn on a TV or radio, read a magazine, or open a web browser, you are presented with dozens of ads that not only vie for your attention, but have already been tailored to your interests (or people like you) so you don’t even have to think about what you might be interested in reading, watching, or experiencing. It’s all been predetermined for you.

Beller’s examples are:

Attention Trust- a startup company “dedicated to the protection of online users’ attention. To protect our right to our own attention, the Trust offers free downloadable software that tracks and records registered users’ attention. Later perhaps, the Trust will arrange to sell our attention for us.”

Root Markets- “an effort to securitize attention, that is, to bundle and sell attention on secondary markets.”

Google’s ‘Adsense’-“auctions searchable terms to the highest advertising bids.”

A list of examples we came up with:

Facebook asking you to ‘like’ something
Gmail’s ads that correspond to your personal electronic mail messages
Amazon’s ‘People who viewed this item also viewed this other one we thought you might like’
Any retail store you go to asking you for your phone number and/or email address
The Texas Tribune making you either log-in to their site so they can track what you’re reading, or have you complete a quick survey before you read any article
I was watching the local Fox affiliate here in Austin (Fox 7 News) the other night and they asked people to choose via text which ‘news’ story they would like to see next. Wtf?

Another claim that Beller makes is that the increased use of, or dependence on, images in our daily lives has affected our cognitive abilities, making it harder to comprehend our condition: “With the rise of visuality comes the erosion of language and therefore of certain kinds of reason.” Appealing to peoples’ emotions is much more effective at making people react in a manner a capitalist can control (as opposed to trying to appeal to logic). Our thoughts have become conditioned to produce value, or as Beller puts it: “capital has captured the cognitive-linguistic capacities of humanity.” One result, as one of Beller’s teachers once remarked, is that “Today we can more easily imagine the death of the planet than we can the end of capitalism.” If people keep taking this story of impending doom for granted, without thinking about any alternative existences, then capitalists will have an easy time overseeing their social factories. Beller says it more bluntly. “There is an economics to ignorance as well. The Bush administration has provided ample evidence about the profits than can be made with socially produced stupidity: Americans are stupid by design. Never perhaps have forms of ignorance that include carefully calibrated racism, historical, economic and political blindness, and a sheer inability to analyze or even retain the simplest of facts been turned to such productive ends.”

Todd brought up the point that Beller assumes here that language is the superior form of communication. Perhaps moving toward an image culture is just part of human evolution. Interesting…

The group then discussed forms of resistance to the social factory.

A consumer boycott-cum-labor strike such as everyone agreeing to stop watching TV for a week?
This may not be effective since media is not limited to TV. Is it possible to boycott all of media? Going that far seems impossible.

Todd also suggested writing letters and send them through the mail instead of email?
This would limit our forms of communication and is too slow. Perhaps we could just write more letters in addition to writing emails. Hand-written letters do seem pretty safe from data mining.

Jorge suggested ‘culture jamming.’ Adbusters turns advertising into a weapon to use against those who rely on advertising to program our minds in order to gain capital. They also put out the call for Occupy Wall St. to organize. Along those lines we could also use negative media attention (our own) against the media organizations that use extreme tactics to limit peoples’ speech. Most people oppose media blackouts and there was general public outrage in the U.S. when the Occupy Wall St. movement was not being covered by the mainstream media initially. Someone mentioned the documentary Breaking the News.

Ethan asked where the artists were in all of this? Why aren’t those who make films, etc. for a living presenting more of an opposition to their media being co-opted, especially those with left-wing sympathies? Probably the best answer is that artists are not above (or they don’t exist outside of) the social factory, in which they occupy a small but potentially very profitable niche.

We wound up sort of agreeing that everything about humans is commodifiable and exploitable, but at the same time, anything the capitalists can use for their gain so can we, because ultimately it is us (humans) they’re using. Instead of our minds being the raw material and ourselves the product of a social factory, we can use our own minds as the raw material for our own products that can remain nonproprietary.

For example, Facebook commodifies our relationships, but the way it was used by the people participating in the Arab Spring movement was essential to its success. It’s also currently being used to the benefit of the Occupy movement. As long as people are aware of the social factory and of the various ways this realm of capitalism is exploiting people for their gain (i.e. we have to maintain a certain level of media literacy), we can come up with ways to work around it and resist it. It’s a start anyways.


One thought on “Katherine’s Notes on “Paying Attention” by Jonathan Beller – 12/6

  1. here is interesting counterargument to several critiques of ‘new media.’ the author doesn’t discuss Beller or any economic critique; he’s responding to popular arguments about how the Internet changes the way we think:

    Tech conservatism becomes a matter of gestures of resistance to the infinite flow, refusing the deluge, rejecting plenitude by choice rather than by necessity — an impossible choice from within the paradigm of rationality from neoclassical economics. It must define the self in terms of what appears to be its willful ignorance, not its assimilation of endless iterations of novelty. It must privilege instead immediate and unmediated experience as integral to being, to self-recognition. From this perspective, buying vinyl records, for example, becomes a profoundly conservative act rather than the hip posturing of the would-be bohemian leisure class. It’s an act of resistance, even defiance, but essentially it remains a nostalgic yearning for the old order, for the limits and hierarchies of the culture industry at its zenith. If we can imagine nothing more than that, this these are the noble gestures we’re left with.

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