Numismatics of the Sensual, Calculus of the Image: The Pyrotechnics of Control

Author: Jonathan L. Beller
Published: February 2003

Abstract (E): The article is an attempt to formulate a political economy of vision. For this, it explores the similarities between the growing abstraction of the medium of money and the evolution of image production in postmodern times. This comparison between the money economy on the one hand and the visual “economy” on the other brings out the alienating effects of image making in a techno-capitalist society. According to the author, we are today confronted not so much with the alienation of our senses (this being a typically modern phenomenon) as with the sensualisation of alienation. In other words, postmodernity has economized sensuality as such, it has turned the image itself into a commodity and by this has hollowed out our perception of reality. By means of a close analysis of Carl Sagan and Jodie Foster’s Contact the author both illustrates this thesis and formulates a plea to restore “contact” with, that is to recuperate our lost humanity in what he characterizes as the society of the spectacle. [mb]

Abstract (F): Cet article tente d’établir une économie politique de la vision. Pour ce faire, il s’attache à explorer les analogies entre l’abstraction croissante d’un média spécifique, l’argent, et l’évolution de la production des images dans l’ère postmoderne. La comparaison de l’économie monétaire d’une part et de l’ “économie” visuelle d’autre part, démontre les effets aliénants de la production des images dans une société technocapitaliste. Selon l’auteur, notre société contemporaine n’est pas tant confrontée à une alinénation des sens (phénomène typiquement moderne) qu’à une sensualisation de l’aliénation. Dit autrement, la postmoderné a créé une économie de la sensualité, elle a transformé l’image-même en marchandise, ce qui a conduit à un appauvrissement de notre perception du réel. A travers sa microlecture de “Contact” (Carl Sagan & Jodie Foster), l’auteur donne d’abord une illustration de sa thèse principale, pour plaider ensuite en faveur d’un nouveau “contact” avec le facteur humain perdu dans ce qu’il faut bien considérer comme une société du spectacle.

Keywords: cinema, Marxism, dialectics, political economy, Simmel, media theory, postmodernism

The forming of the five senses is a labor of the entire history of the world down to the present.

–Karl Marx

The Vanishing Mediator

In “mention[ing] a final trait in the style of contemporary life whose rationalistic character clearly betrays the influence of money” (Simmel 1990: 443), writes Simmel, “by and large, one may characterize the intellectual functions that are used at present in coping with the world and in regulating both individual and social relations as calculative functions” (Simmel 1990: 443-4). He adds that “Their cognitive ideal is to conceive of the world as a huge arithmetical problem, to conceive events and the qualitative distinction of things as a system of numbers. Kant believed that natural philosophy was scientific only to the extent that mathematics could be applied to it” (Simmel 1990: 444).

Because “the money economy enforces the necessity of continuous mathematical operations in our daily transactions” (Simmel 1990: 444), “the exact interpretation of nature [is] the theoretical counterpart to the institution of money” (Simmel 1990: 446). These tendencies toward abstraction and mathematical precision, are characteristics of what Simmel calls “the objective mind” and mark the internalization of the logic of the movement of money. From Karl Marx’s analysis of commodification, to Georg Lukacs’ analysis of categoricality and reification, to Jean Baudrillard’s analysis of semiotic codification in For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign much has been written (including the bulk of my own work) on the tendency towards increasing abstraction under capitalism. Commodification, itself a process of practical abstraction by which qualities are grasped as exchange values penetrates ever more deeply into nature and perception itself, results first in the generalization of abstraction and second in what might be ordained as historical periods of abstraction. As shifts in the quantity of abstraction precipitate shifts in its qualities, for example in the sequences Colonialism, Imperialism, Globalization, or Impressionism, Cubism Neo-Realism, Virtuality, or Cinema, Video, Computer shifts in the intensity of practices of abstraction coincide with different modes of perception. For the present purposes, I would like to describe that process thus: The practices of abstraction which, as noted in Simmel, become a general cognitive and indeed psychological tendency under the industrial reign of the commodity form, are fully realized and then surpassingly transformed under the reign of the cinematic image; cinema becomes a new type of calculative function for regulating both individual and social relations.

While Christian Metz’s model of “financial feedback” between the cinema industry and the spectator’s metapsychology should come to mind here because it implies a model for the mutual modification of corporeal practices and aesthetic form, let us stay with Simmel for a moment. Simmel says of law, intellectuality and money “that all three lay down forms and directions for contents to which they are indifferent” (Simmel 1990: 442). So too with film. Cinema, by which I really mean the moving image, requires celluloid moving through sprockets (and now tape across heads or CD-ROMs in drives), as well as a series of evolving conventions and program formats badly described as “film language.” In both cases (of hardware and “language”) the medium is indifferent to the contents. I have argued elsewhere that cinema is a new order of capitalization which brings the industrial revolution to the eye (Beller 1995; 1999). Building on this thesis regarding the industrialization of the senses, we may deduce that while remaining embroiled in “material relations” cinema is a techno-phenomenological institution, itself a registration of a shift in the affective intensity of the formal logic of the movement of capital. As the predominant assemblage (machine-body interface) responsible for the general phenomenon of what might be called image-capitalism, cinema marks a movement from the rational to the sensual, from the calculative to the affective. This shift, which has also been observed in the history of advertising, accompanies what must be grasped as a dialectical transformation of the status of objects, first circulating as exchange-value in the pathways prescribed by capital, and then, in a later moment (in what amounts to a dematerialization of the object), as the image circulating in the new pathways of capital. The movement of the image is the new process of capital, and the zones across which it moves are capital’s new pathways.

“Even if our cognition were an exact reflection of the objects as they are in themselves, the unity, correctness and completeness that knowledge approaches by mastering one thing after another would not derive from the objects themselves. Rather, our epistemological ideal would always be their content in the form of ideas, since even the most extreme realism wishes to gain not the objects themselves but rather knowledge of them (Simmel 1990: 450). The epistemological ideal attenda
nt to money, then, is precisely the image — the dematerialized object, the object, grasped in its essence by the mind. Though Simmel’s consideration of the abstraction of material content places its emphasis on knowledge and cognition (the philosophy of money), film’s unique polytechnic extension of the process of abstraction (a process which emerges with the institutionalization of exchange-value as the money economy and intensifies with the (dialectically) subsequent spread of production for exchange under capital) restores to cognition its sensual aspect (the practice of money). In the arc that might be drawn from Rene Descartes’ skepticism in “Meditations on First Philosophy” to today’s “Reality TV,” the alienation of the senses today returns as the sensuality of alienation.

Here’s the difficult part. Money as medium is without quality or quantity, it is movement and organization. So also is that new order of money first recognized as the film. Provided that one grasps that film and its descendants (TV, video, computers) put objects into circulation in a new way, and also that one understands in exchange-value the abstraction of the object, that is, a kind of proto-image, s/he will also grasp that each medium (film, money) deploys a logic for the circulation of image-commodities. The classical commodity was, after all, a proto-image, a materiality and a fetishistic excess — it is only the ratio of these components which shifts due to the intensification of circulation called mass mediation. However, the shift in the ratio “materiality to affect” in the commodity, leads/testifies to dramatic shifts in expression.

The interpenetration of the psychic and the numismatic, analyzed at incredible length by Simmel, finds a genuine fusion in the cinematic. Money’s philosophy, its thought, as it were, is recorded by Simmel, yet its mode of conceptualization achieves a higher expression in film — the “philosophy of money” as praxis. As Deleuze all too succinctly puts it, “Money is the obverse of all images that the cinema shows and sets in place” (Deleuze 1989: 77). The twin tines of economistic calculability and material sensuality, emerging in the dialectical schema from an originary alienation first expressed as the commodity-form (exchange-value/use-value) are reunited and merge in the consciousness induced by the image. It is by looking more deeply into the numismatics of the sensual that the possibility of a political economy of vision will more fully emerge.


If the conceits of modernism include rationalization, quantification, standardization and consciousness (even if vis-a-vis the unconscious, for scientificity and the unconscious are two sides of the same coin), then the conceits of the postmodern include sensuality, qualification, flexibility and simulation. As we remember the young Marx in a euphoric moment predicting that, “[a]ll history is the preparation for man to become the object of sensuous consciousness,” we might reflect that in certain respects, the postmodern is the ironic fulfillment of this modern. As students of advertising and fascism well know, the image has eroded a rational-actor paradigm and set in place a model of society driven by rationally contrived irrational urges — Adorno’s psychoanalysis in reverse. But we shall find that the image — the rational production of the non-rational, the truly generalized “end of reason” provides not the restoration of the senses but the sensual illusion of the restoration of the senses. The commodity is repletion of a certain type; when there is no vessel left to fill, repletion becomes saturation.

The senses, evolving in dialectical relation to the medium which the medium of money inaugurates, have passed through a transformation much like land’s conversion to private property through ground rent, and belong now to another logic, to something other than their apparent organic proprietors. In the Deleuzean vocabulary the senses have been “deterritorialized.” For the image economy demands the estrangement not of sensuous labor alone (although that, in its industrial and agrarian forms, remains woefully estranged) but of the senses themselves. Senses — vision, hearing, proprioception — are made to produce against us. They have indeed become “theoreticians,” but theoreticians for capital (Marx/Engels 1978: 87-88). In the language of a dated shorthand we could say that false consciousness has become false sensuality, seeking gratification in modalities which presuppose and corroborate structures of hierarchical society (compare Marx/Engels 1978: 96). Of course, such a phrase only makes sense in a pre-postmodern universe, within a (hypothetical) universe in which the subject-form has not been at least partially liquidated by the developments I am trying to register, but the important thing here is the figure produced — that of expropriation (a relation which raises the question of a relationship between what one might be worthy of and what one receives). The sensitivities of commodity culture, the desires, the visceral affects, the intensities index the deprivation of sense (sensation, sensuality, experience, possibility, plenitude) for the majority of human beings. On a worldwide scale the living hell for most in the form of near starvation and dollar-a-day wages, brings such joy, or the self-image thereof, to the few. Capital forces a redistribution of sensation which at once delimits sensibility (what can be thought and felt) as well as providing a disproportionate amount of commodified sensation to the first world rich. Unmarketable but all too necessary excesses, such as the experience rather than the spectacle of pain, of hard labor, of malnutrition, inadequate health care, governmental brutality, are reserved for the subaltern. It is clear that images do not bring to us the transparency of society and the immediacy of democratic opinion as they were to have done with cinema verite and Dziga Vertov’s kino-eye. Cinema does not bring about the “spontaneous reactualization of the social contract” (Foucault 1980: 161), at least in Rousseau’s sense of it. The contract they realize is in fact antithetical to Rousseau’s: Adorno and Horkheimer’s “enlightenment as mass deception.”


A warning from Marx regarding the cinema: “Though private property appears to be the source, the cause of alienated labor it is really its consequence, just as the gods in the beginning are not the cause but the effect of man’s intellectual confusion” (Marx/Engels 1978: 79). This self-same relation is paramount in the formation and power of images. Though today it may appear that images are the cause of “man’s intellectual confusion,” the alienation of our senses; they are really its consequence. Such is the reason, for example, that Americans do not know or did not see or did not feel the deaths of all those Iraqis, do not dwell on the poverty and prostitution of Asia, do not rise up to help ameliorate the disease and famine imposed upon Africa, do not reckon the consequences of their intervention in Latin America. Images are the alienated, objectified sensuality of humanity becoming conscious for itself through the organization of consciousness and sense. They are an intensification of separation, capital’s consciousness, that is, human consciousness (accumulated subjective practices) that now belongs to capital. Because our senses don’t belong to us, images are not conscious for us. Or rather, they are conscious “for us” in another sense, that is, they are conscious in place of us. As the prosthetic consciousness of the world system, these new sites of sensuous production serve someone or something else. Entering through the eyes, these images envelop their hosts, positing worlds, bodily configurations and aspirations, utilizing the bio-power of concrete individuals to confer upon their propositions the aspect of reality. In realizing the image, spectators create the world.

In my discussion above of the continuity between objects
and images in capitalist circulation it was implied that exchange-value is the spectre in manufactured objects; their abstract equivalence in money as price is a proto-image. When a quantity of money is given for an object, the object is in effect photo-graphed, its impression is taken in the abstract medium of money. What is received in return for money is not, at the moment of exchange, the object itself but the commodity with its fetish-character, its affective, qualitative image component that corresponds to that quantity known as price. We have money given for affect, affect for money.

This system functions by virtue of the conversion of labor time to exchange value (by capital), and the corresponding conversion of money into productive power (by the consumer). Exchange-value is sensuous labor, subjectivity, shunted into an alien(ating) system. When humans’ production is alienated production, that is, when their product is produced for exchange and taken away from them at a socially leveraged discount, work becomes not a satisfaction of workers’ needs but a means to their satisfaction. Marx told us that labor’s “alien character emerges clearly in the fact that as soon as no physical or other compulsion exists, labor is shunned like the plague” (Marx/Engels 1978: 74). To properly understand visual culture the “other compulsions” not specified by Marx must necessarily be part of our investigations. Why do we want to watch TV or be on the computer? In what sense are these compulsory? If the image is a development in the relations of production, a new site of dyssemetrical exchange between “labor” and “capital” and therefore a machine for the production of value itself, how do we explain the hold, that is the entrenchment, of the image? Put another way, how is the desire for television a development in expression of the desire for money? The desire of money?

Dialectical Expansion of the Image

When human beings produce for exchange and when exchange-value glows in the pit of each and every commodity, all things are ready to become images. Indeed, they have already become images. When all things are ready to become images, when each new object exhibits its shining forth, consciousness itself becomes cinematic. The modality of this consciousness is precisely its organization of circulating image-objects. We are first posited as cameras in a universe of fetish-objects and then, in the postmodern we are absorbed in simulation. Consciousness, now a cybernetic relation between flesh and the materiality of production becomes the continuous abstraction of concrete materials according to the laws of exchange. To reiterate, commodities as proto-images induce consciousness as proto-cinema. When necessary, that older, (pre-capitalist?) medium known as language provides a sound track.

Cinema proper develops as a technology of consciousness, in effect achieving a higher level of abstraction and dematerialization of the entire assembly-line process (montage) and thus a more efficient modulation of the consciousness of commodities. It emerges directly out of industrial process and the imaginal consciousness attendant to the circulation of mass-produced commodities, and marks a qualitative shift in perception due to an ever increasing quantity of alienated sensuality. Elsewhere I have linked the emergence of cinema to the falling rate of profit and thus to the need to increase the rate of value extraction from worker/spectators. We can understand the spread of cinema here as the increasing capacity of capital to capture corporeal function to increase the leverage of capital over worker/spectators. Thus, cinema is an alienation effect, a result of the increasing quantity of historically sedimented labor creating a shift in the quality of capital itself. Mediations which formerly appeared as ontological (seeing, desiring) now appear as technological (viewing, producing). The shift in quantity that leads to a dialectical shift in quality, that is, the shift in the quantity of capital that leads to a shift in the quality of capital as cinema, gives rise to what Debord ascerbically calls the “humanism of the commodity,” and indicates a new modality for capital’s valorization. By flattering you with personhood, capital has its way with you. This new modality of capitalism has been most banally misunderstood as “consumerism.” Cinema’s particular administration of sensuality derives not merely from the fact that it is an historical amalgamation of sensuous labor, but sensuous labor alienated from the species on a higher order of magnitude requiring higher speeds of valorization and accumulation. It’s penetration of the human organism is increasingly total and totalitarian.

The technologized visual, as something like a command-central of consciousness, becomes en toto, like a super-consciousness even as it is folded into the unconscious. Taken as a whole, visual technologies become something like a world wide web of management protocols for visual production. The technologized visual is therefore at once above and beneath discourse, the outside expanse that feels like interior depth, and it is indeed the mobius-like folding into itself of this spatial dynamic that produces the famous flattening out of the postmodern. Famously, the outside is the inside. Like microorganisms clinging to one another in a ring in an ocean of images, words desperately strive to impose order the liquid visible by creating small enclosures of the known. As they become more marginal time gives way to space, consciousness to unconsciousness. As in Liquid Sky, what appears as consciousness is only a computer generated and corporately managed dream. All of this unconscious consciousness is structured and organized by the development of capital –indeed it is the development of capital. This claim would dramatize the relationship between capital expansion, visuality, discourse, consciousness and the unconscious in a dynamic way. Narrative is unable to cope with the intensity and pressure of images The figure for the generalization of this process by which visuality overwhelms language is best apprehended in and as the cinema itself, in which, as with the work of Metz, spectatorship is built right into the apparatus as one of its essential moments of valorization but, from an organizational point of view, a lower level function.

Such a figure for the situation of narratives among the images should clearly have an impact on cinematic texts. Indeed, in my work, I have often said that images of cyborgs are paradigmatically the cybernetic interface itself. The gyroscopic space-time-machine in Carl Sagan and Jodie Foster’s film Contact, which I analyze below, supplies another concise image for the new alienation effects that are driven by the accelerating cycles of capital. This claim, or for that matter any other that argues that cinematic texts bear the mark of a new order of capital) should not be cause for undue surprise. Given that the falling rate of profit (endemic to capitalist production according to Marx) drives the intensification of capitalist production in and through image culture, we should not be overawed if contemporary images contain the algorithms of the mode of production.

Here’s how the algorithm is manifest in Contact: Ellie Arroway (Foster) is a rational and thus atheist scientist seeking contact with alien life. Using a radio telescope, Arroway picks up a signal from an alien source, a pulsar 26 light-years away. Under what is first perceived to be an electronic pulsing of the prime numbers between 1 and 101, the signal is decoded to reveal that it contains a retransmission of a video-image of Hitler’s visage from the first television broadcast of the opening of the 1936 Olympic games. This astonishing signal contains an image that has apparently been picked up and beamed back at us by intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. Further decodification reveals that under or internal to the image the signal contains the blueprints for a space-time
machine. The plans show Arroway how with existing technologies it will be possible to build some unimagined machine that uncannily resembles a tremendous 3-D phenokinetescope. No explanation is given regarding its purpose, but the plot makes us aware that neither the detection of the signal nor its decodifciation would have occurred with Arroway’s haunting drive for some sort of contact.

The machine, built with public funds at the cost of billions of dollars, consists of three interlocking off-axis rings with a pod in the center. As it turns out, with increasing acceleration of its cycles this spinning machine (which also resembles the great spinning wheels of Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera) creates a wormhole in space-time. For Arroway and for the spectator, this pathway opens onto a profound alien contact, onto plenitude, the spiritual and as Arroway’s post trip conversion from the rational to the spriritual testifies, to belief itself. Belief, is precisely what the cinema creates, as Deleuze says, it is what the cinema films: “belief in this world, our only link” (Deleuze 1989: 172). As an audience we behold that with enough cyclical speed and state-sponsorship, a change in the spatial and temporal consistency of the universe appears. Such is the result of the evolution of technologies of mediation. As a result of the movement of a cyclical space-time machine Foster travels thousands of light-years to the tropical beach of her dreams and encounters alien life in the form of her deceased father whom she lost in childhood. Significantly, the encounter with alien presence is an encounter with her most profound desires, her childhood, her past, and her lost dreams and her future hopes. She has passed through a lifetime of scientific rationality to attain the plane of immanence.

When she returns to Earth, the perception is simply that her space-pod dropped directly through the rings into the ocean below – she went nowhere. But in spite of the facts and the evidence, Arroway knows that she did. Thus her rational investigations lead her to affirm the primacy of her experience as faith. Mathematically stated, reason plus mediation produces faith. Just as in a previous scene she was not able to “prove” that she loved her deceased father, she cannot prove the truth of her contact with intelligent life in the cosmos. But still something happened to her in that big space/time machine that we might call the cinema.

Contact is a utopian narrative about technology making its progressive way through the cynicism and evil in the world. In spite of human foibles, cosmic destiny will manifest itself through the individual. The film’s recapitulation in a quasi-historical fashion of the evolution of technology, from rudimentary mathematical electronic code, to the repetitive and iconic utilization of programmatic images that gave rise to fascism, to digitized images capable of encrypting liberatory plans, to actuating a kind of spiritual repletion that inspires in its protagonist an apparent transcendence of the social, is also a narrative about the increasing externalization of human power. Put another way, the salvation of the species lies in contact with and recuperation of humanistic aspirations alienated in techno-capitalism. What has been transmitted forth (expropriated) must somehow be recuperated and redeemed. The socialist longings that underpinned certain dimensions of fascism, the love for the father that informs Arroway’s science, must be separated out from the corruption of state power, big business, and genocide. Alienation must be overcome. The forces humans have released as capital, which “confront us as something alien” and simultaneously modify the very warp and woof of the universe, must also deliver the promise of contact with what is most us, most universal — here figured as extraterrestrial life as the embodiment of wisdom, cosmic destiny and life itself if living in the present is to be at all justifiable. However, one might see in the figuration of the space-time machine as cipher of cosmic destiny an allegory of television and the cinema as a spiritual recompense. The Hitler broadcast is returned to us as a sign of a greater intelligence — an endemic intelligence whose destiny shaping potential exceeded our understanding and which holds our fate. The footage of Hitler is at once a reprimand and a promise. Yes, the film seems to say, on the way to truth humans have done awful things but this growth process which includes the growth of technology can and shall be redeemed. What is not said and cannot be said for the film to work its magic, is that this exchange of living labor for spiritual cinema, of life for faith, is also the new technology of exploitation. To the film’s credit however, Contact does fitfully register the calculating instrumentality of governments and multinationals to co-opt this alien force (of cinematic technologies) according to their interests. Indeed contact with originary plenitude made possible by the new technology becomes with the film’s narrative the central point of question for state regulation, legislation and funding, and the desire for it becomes a key political and pedagogical gamepiece.

Appropriately, Contact also registers the possibility that science and its effects are only the outward appearance of a deeply internalized relation. The opening scene in which a camera backs up from Earth, through the solar system and into deep space while the soundtrack, utilizing recognizable radio signals from farther and farther back in time, culminates by passing from stellar fields, into a black hole and out of the young Ellie Arroway’s eye. The implication is that whatever is out there is also somehow inside and that there is a cosmic destiny at work. It is as if the other is already inside us and is shaping our path in ways we do not understand. Arroway’s encounter with her father on the paridiasical beach is an echo of her time with her father as an eight year old. When he puts her to bed early in the film, the eight-year old Ellie asks her father about the possibility of other life in the universe and as he says goodnight we see a child’s drawing of a beach on her bulletin board. The narrative reinforces this sense of destiny. Throughout the film the right people die and others propitiously intervene even if for the wrong reasons to make sure that Foster achieves contact. At some level the message of the film is that the cosmos, alienated through a rationality which is interior to capital, can be somehow reappropriated through belief restored via cinema. In fact, Contact is quite clear on this fact that the image, however tenuous or unresolved, is our only link to the world: The single shred of evidence that scientifically supports Arroway’s claim to have actually escaped the reality principle of Earth and made contact with aliens, is that her video camera headset recorded 18 hours of static during the split second of Earth time that she lost radio contact with mission control. It is that evidence, containing no specific image, but marking pure duration, which is suppressed by the national security advisor and a White-house aid. What is at stake in the organization of the image is nothing less than national security, which in the U.S. context, means capitalism as we know it. Although Contact is clear on the inevitable struggles within the larger framework of media-capitalism, it affirms the socio-political totality as being somehow one with cosmic destiny in such a way the precludes a whole set of questions regarding the uses of technology, to say nothing of its conditions of possibility. In a world-historical moment in which, as Fredric Jameson has pointed out, we can more easily imagine the total destruction of life by military or environmental catastrophe than we can imagine the end of capitalism, we may observe the catasrophic limits placed upon our imagination.

From the origins of capitalism onward, exchange-value, the pre-eminent abstraction informing the development of technology, has become ever
more eloquent both as an organizational force and as a site of libidinal cathexis. The price inside an object which pleads with every observer to restore the object to its rightful owner (you) finds ever more complex and subtle methods of asserting its claim on us, until, finally it is, as in Contact, the cosmic other. Collective alienation require collective reappropriation. Simmel already shows how money structures thought; cinema is the movement of money as experience and belief. The well known phrase “money talks” means only that exchange value has indeed learned to speak, first through the subject-form and then through the machine (Marx 1986: 131-132; compare Althusser 1971). And it speaks as if it were a God. Money talks because objectified humanity is not a metaphor in Marx, but the conversion of human sensuality into material reality–objectified humanity speaks, to, through and as bodies. This is the phenomenon that Paul Virilio refers to in Speed and Politics as “the habitation of metabolic vehicles,” in which alien, collective logics overcode and administer individual bodies. However, in and as commercial cinema money speaks not in our favor, but, taken as a whole, against us, for humanity objectified under capital is, in the old language, an alienated humanity. Those who speak on behalf of capital speak as prophets of a false god in a mode no less theological than any other so-called fundametnalism. As loudly as our alienated senses call for their restoration in the bloody television wars or the heroic struggles of Hollywood personalities, as loudly as the shadows rattle their chains against servitude in the framework of the Hollywood script, their very alienation insures that this call is not heard as a real cry for justice, but as pure simulation, the ecstasy of communication, entertainment, or what have you. The sensual labor which receives and processes the alienated cries of humanity is itself alienated, the result being that the entire bio-sociality of questions from justice to metaphysics is shunted back into the circuitry of capital and remains unable to stand in opposition to it. The crisis of humanity, which is rightfully ours, is itself made to exist for another. It is one media event after another belonging to the god, Capital. Short of a total transformation of social life through what Debord calls “an onslaught on the machinery of permitted consumption” (Debord 1983: 15), we consume our own privation as a spiritual exercise that continues to produce it.

But simulation, despite its saturating and subsumptive character, is at the same time a pouring forth of the Real. In as much as consciousness and the senses are alienated, in as much as immediacy has to pass through a material-consciousness which has required the history of the capitalist world to achieve its cinematicity, Benjamin’s “orchid in the land of technology” (the image that in the cinema appears as if naturally, as if there were no technological apparatus) is the Real. Yes, it is not what it seems — the mechanically reproduced object appearing without any of its mechanical appurtenances and becoming visible in itself, is not the object itself . However, the fact of its seeming, its hyper-reality, is indeed a spilling forth of the Real. “In a world in which really is topsy-turvy, the true is a moment of the false” (Debord 1983: 9). The seeming itself, the very workings of capital, that which eludes symbolization, is that which must be analyzed. The image is a hammer, a blade, an avalanche. All those televised screams, rapes, murders and wars express the real. It may not be that rape, that scream, that murder or that war, which is shown that is the referent of a particular image, but the general condition of rape, brutality and warfare expresses itself in the media-imaginary. These are indeed our images. Therefore, the boquet of orchids, the truths, the histories, the personalities and the intensities of cinema and television are the eloquent testimony to our non-being for ourselves: Contact in short, an encounter with the Real. These after-images of a work process centuries in the making are the expression of our alienation. Our consumption of them is also the performance of a labor which allows us to continually develop a lived relation to our alienation, that is, the alienation of our social product from our will, that is, our lack. As with those early gods, media images, are at first, not the cause, but the symptom of our confusion.

Dialectics of Alienation

To say that media, that is capitalist mediations, are an effect of alienation is neither to indulge a luddite fantasy of a return to a prior state of plenitude, nor to dismiss the possibilities inherent in technological development, but an elaborate, even painful endeavor to imagine a world in which the dead and the dying still mattered. What are the Contact’s Vegans to those who died in the Holocaust, in Vietnam, in East Timor, in Rwanda, and in hundreds of thousands of other crimes against humanity? Are the living so eager to forget the dead who have made them possible? As objects started to spiral more quickly in capital’s gravitational field, and prices began to circulate more widely in space and time, they began to whisper the news of the death of traditional society. Money, though itself without qualities, could, if it had the price, extract the qualities from the commodity even if the commodity were a human being. All of our literary images of worn-out humans from Stendhal to Burroughs testify to this process. Humanity was being hollowed out, consumed, eaten alive. This abstraction of humanity is precisely the logic of the image (and I use the term “humanity” advisedly as the strategic antithesis of the image) — the image proper is the extraction and realization of human qualities in exchange-value. The commodity begins to be truly image when the material itself becomes only a medium for exchange-values now capable of circulating as qualities — qualities which have become abstract, and are general social currency and thus always tied to economistic relations. The material of the image, its substrate, supplies only the smallest piece of grit (a little celluloid, a few atoms of silicon), upon which the opalescent fetish will be cultivated — the new qualities of exchange-value. On mere inanimate matter is encrypted all the subjective pyrotechnics and visceral intensities “belonging” to humanity. Beyond the image –that capitalized imaginary — there is little left but the husk, the impoverished object. The correlative conversion of people into instruments (means) of exchange meant first that they became (for the symbolic of capital) pure corporeality (existentialism/statistics), and then, pure sign-image (objectification/hyper-reality). From the perspective of capital, people were first deprived of subjectivity, and later, as in the case of the diasporas of third world prostitutes and domestic workers, of body as well. When subjective affects and embodiment become the exclusive domain of image-culture, then and only then do humans fully become the vehicles of images, their substrate.

Imaginary War

Just as the vicissitudes of the money economy cause, simultaneously with the development of production, the emergence of ever more complex monetary technologies and properties (from gold to paper money, to debt and credit, to stocks, bonds and options), the visual economy develops its own form of visual technologies and properties: tablets, coins, paintings, lithographs, photographs, films, video, computers. Each successive innovation in the technology of mediation allows for new social functions which at once provide for and force increasing individualization. Credit cards create individual money to be paid by the bearer whereas money was general credit, to be paid by anyone. Video allows us to create our own images so that we might more completely transpose ourselves and our perceptions in accord with the logic of cinema. Each allows for the naturalization/institutionalization
of the dialectically prior medium. As credit shows that money is a commodity, video shows that filmic perception is a commodity. Each of these developments signifies a (spatio-temporal) crisis for the previous technology — credit, for example, before becoming an entity to be bought and sold by brokerage firms arises from a shortage of money. Just as (to an extent) credit is the image of paper money, and paper money is the image of gold and gold (perhaps the first genuine image) is the image of exchange value, video is the image of film, film is the image of photography, and photography is the image of sketching. To a certain extent, the visual technologies mentioned would allow for an accounting of the social activities historically indexed by their money-form analogs. These separate strains coalesce in and as the computers which second by second image (with interest) the business of the world (finance capital), on Wall Street, in Hollywood and around the world.

Cinema (the history of cinema as not merely the history of its institutions but as the history of the visual economy, its “open book”) is the spectacle of exchange accelerating its own logic; it is exchange as spectacle and the corollary effects of exchange as spectacle. The corollary effects — including the actual circulation of image-commodities and the affective results of this circulation — are necessary for capital’s valorization. For the moment, cinema thus understood is the crucial juncture because it spans the gamut of the different scales of production, from the simulation of a globe (as “the global”), to multinational corporations, to the grit of the world, the subject along with its interiorities, visceralities and intensities, as well as the far-flung global population. Historically, cinema is first posited by exchange as the circulation of prices and then, today, presupposed by exchange. The commodity is designed as an image by the architecture of capital. In becoming an industry unto itself, cinema moves political economy to a new level of organization. “The spectacle is capital to such a degree of accumulation that it becomes an image” (Debord 1983: 34). Cinema valorizes this higher order of capital — it is the organization and extension of the spectacle. Although we can say that the image is productive in two distinct ways: 1) through the labor of looking –images become more valuable the more they are looked at, and 2) through the self-modification embarked upon by spectators as they retool themselves, the complete political economy of this image, remains to be written.

What began with Lumiere and Edison as a speculator’s novelty became an attraction, then became a montage of attractions, and, at present, has become the main attraction, in some cases, the only attraction. The moving image emerges first as an apparent spin-off from industry at a moment when its conditions were already given by the growing industrial revolution as the movement of price. Cinema as the abstraction of the assembly-line process and enhancement of the sensual pyrotechnics of the commodity brings the industrial revolution to the eye. Let us listen to Guy Debord:

The commodity’s domination was at first exerted over the economy in an occult manner; the economy itself, the material basis of social life, remained unperceived and not understood, like the familiar which is not necessarily known. In a society where the concrete commodity is rare or unusual, money, apparently dominant, presents itself as an emissary armed with full powers who speaks in the name of an unknown force. With the industrial revolution, the division of labor in manufactures, and mass production for the world market, the commodity appears in fact as a power which comes to occupy social life. It is then that political economy takes shape, as the dominant science and the science of domination.

The spectacle is the moment when the commodity has attained the total occupation of social life. Not only is the relation to the commodity visible but it is all one sees: the world one sees is its world. Modern economic production extends its dictatorship extensively and intensively. In the least industrialized places, its reign is already attested by a few star commodities and by the imperialist domination imposed by regions which are ahead in the development of productivity. In the advanced regions, social space is invaded by a continuous superimposition of geological layers of commodities. At this point in the “second industrial revolution,” alienated consumption becomes for the masses a duty supplementary to alienated production. It is all the sold labor of a society which globally becomes the total commodity for which the cycle must be continued. For this to be done, the total commodity has to return as a fragment to the fragmented individual, absolutely separated from the productive forces operating as a whole. Thus it is here that the specialized science of domination must in turn specialize: it fragments itself into sociology, psychology, cybernetics, semiology, etc., watching over the self-regulation of every level of the process.

When the commodity becomes “all one sees,” cinema emerges as a machine –the crystallization of an extant social logic — to regulate the expression of commodities. The academic disciplines are the necessary sub-strata of image processing. Elsewhere I have written about the emergence of psychoanalysis and semiotics as subroutines of image-capitalism. Additionally, cinema emerges as the development and the intensification of the form of consciousness necessary to the increased mobilization of objects as commodities. What Debord refers to as “the second industrial revolution” develops as a strategy for the production of and control over what Benjamin refers to in his writing as “second nature,” i.e., the techno-mechanical world. The movement of commodities appear as a complex of natural forces whose rules must be learned. “To make this whole enormous technological apparatus of our time into the object of human interiorization and appropriation [Innervation]–that is the historic task in whose service film has its true meaning”. The expressive power of the system of production and circulation of commodities develops a conviction in the spectator/consumer/worker of the all pervasive power of the world of objects and of the objective world, or more precisely, of their images. Such subjective experience of the force of objects and of objective organization as cinema (as the cinematic aspect of society) is the other side of the “science” of political economy, of psychology, of anthropology, the affective side. To paraphrase Simmel, the exact engineering of (second) nature is the practical counterpart to the institution of money. The calculus of the image means then, the production of meaning and affect in accord with the requisites of capital valorization via exchange-value in motion. As natural philosophy, media programming, because of its high degree of mathematical calculability –the statistical process which can be utilized to predict the affectivity of the image — approaches the Kantian criteria for science invoked by Simmel.

So. Everyone knows that it is the development of technology that makes possible all those great stories, all those new styles, all those new fetish objects that accompany the age of cinema, but representational technologies do not only train us to cope with the conditions attendant to a particular historical moment’s circulation of value. The “duty” of alienated consumption mentioned above by Debord is a form of dressage for the senses–it is a productive activity– a ritual practice of those “other compulsions” to labor mentioned above by Marx. Neither does the emergence of the spectacle as “the total occupation of life by commodities” limit itself to the inauguration of science-fragments such as sociology, psychology, cultural studies, etc. (and their attendant “star systems”), which are cognition machines for particular constellations of corporeal phenomenon and social o
rganization, that are at base economic — the survival of disciplines depends upon their economic productivity, i.e., their productive engagement with new types of images.

The spectacle begins to emerge from the money-form as we have known it — not only in the production of codes on computer screens for statistically evaluating complex options packages on Wall Street (these codes are money) but in the commonplace conventions of social codes: screened “representations” and “programming.” The disciplines mentioned above might be taken as the catalogues of phenomena which, like Marx’s extensive tabulation of prices, could be considered empirical data for a political economy of culture: Psychoanalysis, for example, as the science of a new set of phenomena emerging from the intensification of the interruption of language function by the image (Lacan’s objet petit a as the image itself) (Beller s.a.). The inflation and eventual devaluation of the psyche and psychoanalysis (its migration from medicine to advertising), or the cycle of boom and bust in semiotics are historical shifts indexing the overall saturation of consciousness by images (where the unconscious, meaning, and postmodern depthlessness become something like three stages of the image). As well, there is the production of consciousness itself, as a screen (in Lacan’s terminology), a machine which affects the same presentation and filtration practices as attend to moving images and circulating commodities. Behind the shine of the scene on the screen, knowledge of the production process is left on the cutting room floor, along with those with whose blood the image was made. The repression of history and of the perpetual violence which today underpins the constitution of all Western subjects is displaced by the total occupation of life by the spectacle. Thus the spectacle and the attendant emergence of disciplinary and industrial specializations as sciences of the particular dimensions of the human interface with the objectified world show that all interactive sites are now potentially productive sites — sites of capital investment and exploitation, but also (and here is the as yet unwritten accompaniment to this map of domination) sites of struggle.

We have heard that in the postmodern struggle occurs over representation, not in the modern sense of political representation (which today seems to be but a marginal sub-routine of the overarching capitalist program) but over representations–style politics, performativity, “articulation,” etc. Representation, presentation, performance are forms of currency that confer buying power. Televisual currency for example produces competence in social codes, that is, socially necessary codes (in the sense of socially necessary labor time) which translate into, among other things, access to power. That is why everyone wants to know the news, be the fashion, talk the talk, and surf the wwweb. In the most pernicious (widespread) forms of postmodern media-culture, democracy is everywhere proclaimed and class struggle everywhere submerged because the representatives of representation claim (under their breath) a partial truth as total truth: Representation is not about money, representation is style, and anyone can have that. Yet, in the manner of Baudrillard’s For A Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, the codes within representation provide access to money–and vice-versa. What we consume is the process of commodification as culture, what we produce is ourselves as commodities. One thinks here of Benjamin’s description of fascist aesthetics in which we are invited to consume our own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the highest order.

The fact that so many wannabe citizens today invest in style shows only what we think we already know and understand: that style has, in the postmodern, become a privileged realm of struggle. However the play of struggle in style (which has genuinely uplifting as well as devastating effects) produces socially cooperative subjects and rarely disturbs the overall organization of cinematic society with its absolute dependence upon and non-representation of third-world labor. Indeed, style-politics may be gleaned as part of the so-called cultural turn that at once marks the economicization of sensuality, and characterizes the current liberal multi-cultural de-essentialization of terrorists. Communists, Orientals, Africans, African-Americans, Latin Americans and Arabs who were formerly terrorists by virtue of race and/or nation, are now such because of their flawed culture. Or so goes the mainstream rationalism in the USA Today. Whoever agrees with and thrives under the violent hierarchical regime betokened by the infinitely hypocritical liberal values of late capitalism, is fine, as good as white for the most part; and, as far as the regime of culture is concerned, whoever protests is a terrorist (spelled with an “n”). Thus, the economicization of perception results in a world-scale transcoding of racism and capitalism as matters of culturalism (“the muslim world”), while allowing all the virulence of racism and economic exploitation to continue to wreak its violence on the world. As a necessary part of the process, the pentagon reconfigures nuclear bombs, annexes huge allocations of human value (cash), continues its murderous presence on every continent and broadcasts a mis-en-scene of fear fostered by ignorance. Not a pretty picture, but it’s ours, or rather, of us. Let us work to retransmit it not to inspire an imaginary transcendence, but rather such that all can taste the blood inherent in each pixel and be impelled to make the world anew.


Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes towards an Investigation.” in Lenin and Philosophy. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971.

Benjamin Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” in Illuminations. ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken Books, 1969.

Beller, Jonathan. “Dziga Vertov & The Film of Money.” boundary 2 vol. 26, no. 3 (Fall 1999); 151-199 [].

—-. “The Spectatorship of the Proletariat.” boundary 2 Vol. 22, No. 3 (Fall 1995):171-228.

—-. “The Unconscious of the Unconscious”. Unpublished manuscript. Sine anno.

Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. Detroit: Black and Red, 1983.

Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 2: The Time-Image. trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta. Minneapolis: Minnesota Press, 1989.

Foucault. Michel, “The Eye of Power: A conversation with Jean-Pierre Barou and Michelle Perrot.” in Power/Knowledge, New York: Pantheon, 1980.

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. Collected Works, vol. 28. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1971.

—-. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Marx-Engels Reader, ed., Robert C. Tucker, New York: Norton, 1978.

Simmel, Georg. The Philosophy of Money. 2nd edition, ed. David Frisby. trans. Tom Bottomore and David Frisby. New York and London: Routledge, 1990.

Bio: Jonathan Beller is currently visiting assistant professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz in the Department of History of Consciousness and Literature. He has published widely in numerous reviews and is the author of among other things Kristology and Radical Communion: Works of Emmanuel Garibay (1999). His latest book is called The Cinematic Mode of Production: Towards A Political Economy o
f the Society of the Spectacle


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