Notes on Audience-Taste, Education and Capture

Disclaimer: This convoluted essay is a product of me processing recent events and my writing projects in Media Studies. But just because this is related to a school project, doesn’t mean I do not take these seriously. In fact, I’m probably more serious about this now more than ever. Writing these down to at least make it available out here, and to get back to it later. Then again, this disclaimer is from me asking for apology for writing this essay so convoluted that what I am saying might slip.

Let me know if there are things that aren’t clear. I could sure use some conversation.

Philippine Cinema is lucky to have an Erik Matti: not that we are expecting him to speak for any sort of good for his liberalism is not capable of reaching that point of moral reflection. But, at least we can hear him speak for himself and the non-points that he gives every single time. Over at a recent thread (posted August 26, 2019), he, again, expressed his cynicism on the state of Philippine Cinema, which, ended with his usual guilt-tripping. Not that there’s nothing to learn from him too. The things he’s pointing out are important: lack of newness in cinematic form and content, consumption, production, complicity to capital, labor, etc. Then again, these are all in the service of retention of the cinema that he knows and the cinema he’s working at: again, he’s speaking for himself, nothing for us to benefit from, even when he speaks of this ghastly figure of “the audience.”

An important shift happened at the comments section when film director Frasco Mortiz pointed out the thing a lot of liberal thinkers has been pointing out as the root-cause of it all: education. But his point is mainly of consumer behavior: “Years of dumbing down the Filipinos have taken its toll in every aspect of our lives, including TV and Film preference.” Whether or not this adds to the guilt-tripping Matti has laid upon his post, is still to be decided.

Something is left unprocessed at the thread: is this “dumbing down” a result of the education Mortiz has been talking about? Instead of answering there directly, a longer response, I think, would be more fitting.

Let’s try to go back again with Matti’s rant: the earlier part of his post concerns mostly of content. Basically, what’s he’s on to is to roundabout blaming a certain sense of complicity of the “film artists” to the “audience’s taste” and to what’s the tried and tested formula to sell. He left a window for speculation: that maybe, there’s an audience somewhere. But the bottomline is that, the frame of reference that he’s looking at his assessment of cinematic practices is this speculative notion of “audience preference.”

To synthesize Matti’s and Mortiz’ points: the “audience preference” to which Matti’s points are framed, is a result of what Mortiz, and later on Matti, identified as “years dumbing down” of the Filipinos, which Mortiz has pointed out as an issue of education.

Let’s just say that this is true: as a supplementary to knowledge, these preferences are a result of dumbed down education. Which is to say, that what we refer to as “dumbness” is learned.

There’s a ring of truth in this, something which Matti and Mortiz has never validated. Something which liberals in general, like Matti would never validate: that education is meant to be a capturing mechanism. To validate this point, otherwise is to rid Matti of anyone to blame but the political structure, which, of course, something that liberals in general are quite suspicious of.

Renato Constantino, in his classic essay “The Miseducation of the Filipinos” noted that “The moulding of men’s minds is the best means of conquest. Education, therefore, serves as a weapon in wars of colonial conquest.” Constantino in his most insightful stance on education, reached a more clarified conclusion, that colonial education has influenced our consumption habits.

Between Matti/Mortiz and Constantino, looms this haunting image of the consumer being formed by colonial education. This dumbed-down learning, so to say, may have been a result positive for capitalism. The cinematic complex which Matti’s been keen on defending and restoring, is quite dependent on this kind of education. Which is to say, there’s really no conflict between Matti’s project of a “different” kind of cinema and this “dumbed-down” education, since the cinema that he’s trying to salvage is something which is produced through the deployment of such “mis-“education. Otherwise, the “different” kind of cinema would never even be thinkable without the “same” cinema that the “dumbed-down” audience consume.

As mentioned earlier, none of the project of Matti would benefit us, or the phantom “audience” that he’s thinking. But something along the line of Mortiz’ problem can be thought of. If the root of the problem has something to do with education, what would be your alternative? Filmmaker Lav Diaz sees an opportunity to educate people through cinema since cinema is so powerful, but does this guarantee that the same will never happen? Isn’t it with the same notion of power that colonial education itself successfully captured the minds of its subjects?

Education supplements capitalism, colonialism or any form of subjugation, through input and endless consumption of information. In the chain of production, the consumer learns through education what it is going to consume. This framework of education relies to positive feedback to the informational input to be harnessed more as exploited labor (either through an extension of working hours or through consumption). In here, production and consumption of cinema is not excluded: whether or not you assumed your “freedom” as an artist either to do “the same” or “something different,” the fact remains that once let go to the market, your film-commodity becomes one which demands positive informational/capital feedback upon consumption to sustain itself. An openly “educational” cinema would perform the same, only to produce surpluses.

Suppose, we suggest education as another key, but what are we going to teach? The “truth” is illusive, especially for those same people who advocates for “education” as the mere key for change. Not that we should dismiss the education project, the method itself is very important, given the fact that Constantino raised regarding its capability for “capturing minds.” In this end, we can propose a strategic end to which education should lean on: an education which unlearns instead of learns. Tentatively, we can call this negative education.

This kind of education is something Paulo Freire already hinted on his classic book, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. He noted that the condition for human existence (that is to exist humanly), is the capability to name the world in order to change it. In this sense, “naming” becomes a form of abduction and abandonment: you capture something to let it go or shift it to another. The “reappearance” of the world is important in this aspect: which can only be possible if the named is changed which requires new names.

In the light of Freire’s naming, Negative Education would bring about changing “dumbed down” education through unlearning it. But before one unlearns something, it must be acknowledged and learned first that that something is learned. “Being dumb” or “ignorant” is learned, and since it is learned, it can be unlearned. Negative Education wagers on Reza Negarestani’s project on cultivating intelligence which, for him, only matures with unlearning its slavery.

Standing in the conditions of intelligence, Negative Education do not see power through control as “evil,” unlike the petty Manichaeism of liberal philosophy. Negative Education completely harness control as an operational motivation to build its own tools to help with his continuous unlearning of slavery. It is in complete contradiction with capitalist capture of positive feedback: it excretes rather than accept information.

This unlearning will become a means to produce new knowledge. It will not guarantee, however, to that these knowledge to come will support Matti’s ideal cinema, as his ideal cinema is only possible through the capture of the minds as slave. Negative Education will actively reject capture as it strive for unlearning.


Narrative Conflict and The Elite

During the past few weeks, I was faced with a challenge over at a writing-gig/sideline to write about the “ultra rich,” as our creative head put it. He’s having me and my co-writer imagine their life. Of course, with the lack and impossibility of social practice, i.e. my class disposition, I am slumped to take the road again, of a commentator rather than the medium which is what us industrial writers should be.

The whole process of writing that piece, something which we were only able to finish yesterday morning, made me rethink of one of Alexis Tioseco’s wish: “I wish someone, anyone, would make a good, thought-provoking film about the Philippine upper class.” The context of which, back in 2009, is of course as a knee-jerk reaction  to what was termed as “poverty porn” years later. Even back then I am within this limbo as to whether I’d take this wish seriously. Perhaps even Tioseco did not think much about this.

This puts the question in front of us: “how are we going to think of the elite, creatively?” I can only imagine the bourgeois narrative conflict in this sense: that is, if we, writers not from the elite, are to write them, the limit of us thinking about them relies on the very conditions that we both share in the mode of production: they own it, and we work for/to it. Them having all the privilege of ownership are only in-conflict with us. The common practice among writers (industrial or otherwise) is to rethink them in-line with their privileges, for what are they without those, right? Bourgeois apologists among the middle class is, of course, set to disagree: they need nuance. But what nuances do they even need? So our tendency as writers not-from-the-elite, if we are to write a story about them, them being in-conflict with one another is to see them in these two possibilities: either that conflict will be very petty; or, it is psycho-pathological, which is of course, still “petty” in a narratological sense.

In the call for nuance, the elite narrative succumb to a kind of psychologism, instead of a rational world-building. Think of the more recent attempts to “humanize” the elite. Say, the films of Gino Santos (The Animals, #Y). At the very least, those are very honest films: there’s really nothing “on the outside” that makes them “special” even on their standard of humanity. It is therefore an imperative within the bourgeois narrative to “look inward.” That is, in the psychology of the characters. And, of course, by “psychology”, most of what their narratives think of are psychological pathologies. Suicide as a recourse of an “unhealthy psychological state” is a bourgeois narrative trope.

Henri Lefebvre has already noted of this trope in a sociological scale. The specialization of work bring about a new kind of practice among those who are relatively well-off and not being burdened by the hard-labour of life: boredom. The capitalist boredom gave birth to stories of adventure among the elite, that there’s more to “everyday life.” Social practices of course, would disagree: nothing in this world can be built without labor. The only real conflict of the privileged is how to avoid labor. Their sense of adventure, their transcendental lives, depends on this avoidance to work. Once that they’ve discovered the whole planet, and there’s nothing more to be explored, they succumb to decadence of any form: the adventurism of the senses. Their notions of psycho-pathologies came from their very own internalized contradiction: their boredom gave birth to their own sicknesses. It is also why serial killers are a hot topic among the bourgeois: despite class disparities (sensationalized serial killers are not from the elite), the narratives of serial killers feed the bourgeois sense of  adventurism.

The pettiness of the bourgeois conflict reside within this sense of psychologism too. There’s really very few imaginable friction among them, most of which are limited to personal struggles. Why are they petty? Because they are trapped in unresolvability: in a literary-narratological sense, unresolvability of conflict make one complicit with fatalism, which requires very low level of imagination and thinking. Since their conflicts are unresolvable, the only possible resolution is stasis: a maintenance of the status quo. The notion of “history repeating itself” depend a lot from this bourgeois maintenance of stasis. It is observable among literary materials involving the elite that they go into cycles: if they are in-conflict among themselves, there really are no contradictory aspects to negate and therefore, no actual development, narrative or otherwise, is possible in the bourgeois literature. Which is why we are mostly provided with a biography of an imaginary elite and not an actual story: we mostly witness a “life” in their narratives. One gets born, grow up and die. There’s no story in there since we are presented with what we already know that’s going to happen: people die.

And, of course, we can’t really expect the elite to write about themselves: in the chain of production, them being the owners of the means, will never ever do that. Which is why they hire biographers: the elite are too dumb to even write about their own lives.

Tioseco’s wish for a thought-provoking film about the elite, of course has always happened, but not in the context that he’d actually consider as “thought-provoking film about the elite.” Their only narratological development lies on their own death. The bourgeois apologists among us middle class writers know this: which is why a lot of their bourgeois narratives end with death or they succumbing to their own decadence, but they do not work much as narrative development, but a book end. Again, there isn’t much “thought-provocation” there. Among middle class, of course, the elite are imaginable in dichotomy: as an aspiration and as hate, which are, again, psychologisms. The real conflict of the elite lies on their antagonism in the social relations brought about by capitalism: their antagonism against the working and peasant classes. And in this conflict, the real development of the bourgeois narrative is only imaginable through their own decline towards their own abolition as class.

Between Representation and Visualization

Concerns over “proper” representation has been hot cake since liberal academics weaponized semiotics away from its concern over information and/or data towards a less scientific concern for sentimentalism. There really isn’t any contradiction between the two before this weaponization happened. However, more recent developments on the production of images makes looking at visualization more urgent than interpreting representations.

If we are to re-read de Saussure, the fundamentals of organization of signs as the organization of information, has pointed us now to visualization as the actual practice of image production than representation. The arbitrary and relational properties of a sign can be seen more on the practices of visualization, from cartography to diagrams. Maps, for example, has depicted more accurate depiction and exposition of ideology and its implications, by explicating borders than, say, a film about fascism.

Hyperrepresentation has never really done anything to negate the perceived misrepresentations in media. What happened is more a diagrammatic displacement of images, but still depicting the same data and still performing the same process sets as their perceived misrepresentations, only with a different legend-sets.  See for example, the recent Twilight Zone episodes, where it boasts “representations of minorities” with less and exceptional white casting (recently, for “Not All Men”, which features patriarchy as its subject.) Of course, the new Twilight Zone will be seen as a champion if is looked at with the sentimentalist view and thirst for proper representation.

Representational readings look for “meanings” or “essence” in a non-helpful abstract-for-abstraction-sake way. To look at visualizations is not just to look not with what the images mean, but how the information, these “meanings” in a certain image, are organized. Not just with the sequence, visualization is also concerned with the methods to which the images are organized. This is where ideologies come in. In essence, looking at the history of thought, ideology, as some people say it, is a “way of looking at things.” It is, therefore, a way of organizing information. A method. Rather, a set of methods. To look at how images are conjured, visualized, is to find this set of methods—the processes which govern how the information are presented as images.

Representation, as appropriated by capitalist realism, becomes reactive as time goes by. It settles with anything that would depict the oppressed subject as a minoritarian version of whiteness, or as Reza Negarestani puts it, it settles and “remains within the confines of the Western colonial notion of others as noble savages.” The new Twilight Zone does this Mexican, Asian, or Black version of white people best. So is Jordan Peele’s Us. Or Crazy Rich Asians. Or more recently, the depiction of women-empowerment still within the confines of patriarchy in Erik Matti’s Kuwaresma. “Progressive” content do not trickle down to the method, form always devour content. Representation resides within capitalist realism too, in so far as it does not do away with the methods and structure of capitalism as long as it gets the “proper” images it wants to have.

Representation banks on a perceived totalized being against another perceived totalized being. It is somewhat relatively dogmatic, ultimately consumerist. It settles with a limited amount of choice, with a hope to conserve aspects of these totalized being that champions of representation seek to forward. To repeat myself, none of the champions of “progressive representation” present any actual negation or alternative.

In contrast with representation, which settles with the present, visualization permits an opening for a future. In practice, to visualize is to draw a possible image of what could come out in the concrete. Since it concerns the concrete, it also concerns itself with the relative autonomy of each of the elements it depicts. It is aware of each and its own properties and measurement. These are blueprints, models, plans. Elements of visualizations are present too, in other forms of image-production, in so far as these forms are delimited from “creative” and “anthropological” use. Visualizations, as experimental as they are, also looks into the possibilities and becomings. Less to proving what is, but to what one has and can become.

Is a spectacular form like cinema a form of visualization too? Cinema is a planned, deliberate production of images. It does not merely “represent” or “reflect”, it is also information arranged and organized, something which can be rearranged and reorganized. To think of cinema as a visualization is to capture it to its wholeness, scope and limitation included. If anything, looking at the boundaries of cinema, and looking for boundaries in cinema, captures something close to truth.

DMRTLW 3: “Everything is connected” / “Everything is political”

I once subscribed to the thought. But now when I think about it, I could hear Joey Ayala singing “ang lahat ng bagay ay magkaugnay/magkaugnay ang lahat” with his “lumad” voice. The thought that “everything is connected” brought comfort to my younger self who was  trying to get involved with politics.

But to acknowledge Marxism is of course, to acknowledge contradictions, to acknowledge the law of dialectics. Why do things conflict and contradict? Simply put, things, objects, people, formations, everything in the real world, even reality itself, have their own property which can be considered as autonomous. The further development of the focus of physical sciences, from its departure from Newtonian inertia to relativity to quantum physics bring about the validity of everything’s relative autonomy.

The real “theory of everything” resides in this internal property of everything to move by themselves, according to their own set of rules, whether set by its material properties and formations or by its own sentience, in the case of us human beings.

Things, then, can be connected, only through conflict. Not inherently, like the propaganda of the Joey Ayala song.

It is painful to hear how what counts as “critical thinking” in wokeness is the ability to make rhetorical connections to everything. This is where the logic of liberal intersectionality fail. These “connections” are essentially another form of conspiracy theory.

It is in this theory of connectivity that we can find one of the sources of liberal cynicism and petit-bourgeois nihilism. This is the reversal of the understanding of politics as power relations. This theory of connectivity assumes the classic capitalist phantom of the “invisible hand” but this time, this hand “controls” either your mind, your fate. They pass these off as “sad realities.” See for example, contemporary thrillers which features naive persons with high sense of justice as its protagonists always end up “exposing” a grand conspiracy which in the end gets out of their control. Like Star Cinema’s On The Job. Conspiracy theories like these often undermines agency of all forms, and mostly exposes a supposed “dead end” which works for the benefit of those who they think they are trying to expose. Since it undermines agency, it denies dialectics.

Dialectical materialism always assumes agency. Which is why the elementary conflict in human history according to Marx is, still, class conflict, or the class struggle. Struggles assume agency. Marx’ theory of value ensures the agency of the oppressed: the working class are the only ones who produces value, and therefore, has agency. And this agency, along with their self-consciousness of their own conditions, highlights class struggle. The only connection that there is between the working class and the ruling class is their relationship with the means of production which determines the current mode of production.

Seen in the light of dialectical materialism, vague, fatalistic and linear connections disappear, and we are presented with paths which can be taken on different ways. And these paths determine the politics of class struggle.

It is in the same sense that we can say that not everything is political, unlike the common phrase that we could hear from younger woke folks. This might be the same case of misunderstanding, as it was in the personal is political. From what I see, this came from a misreading of Michel Foucault’s concept that power is everywhere. But what did Foucault actually mean by it?

A bit of syntactic play, everything is not inherently political, but there can be politics in everything (or as Dauber-Mankowsky noted, everything can be politicized), provided that these “things” that we are looking at are modes of “relationship.” As understood in contemporary critical theory, what we mean by “politics” is, as I mentioned earlier, power relations. The operative term is “power.”

But what is power? Traditional conception of power has something to do with an “agency” to propose a kind of domination. Foucault challenged this notion of power as “diffused” and has given a kind of inter-change with knowledge. His notion of “power/knowledge” signifies that power has something to do with a capacity to express, and is expressed through accepted forms of “knowledge”, “scientific understanding” and “truth.” To assume the dialectical relative autonomy, is to assume also that power, and not politics, is inherent to everything.

Let’s think of class struggle. Class struggle is, of course, as a signifier, and as an operative concept, itself political. It points out a relationship and not a thing: that is, a relationship within a mode of production. Value, whether use- or exchange-, comes in through modes of valorization after being produced by the working class, which in itself a form of knowledge. Class struggle comes as political, on the conflict on who between the workers or the ruling class should determine value and take credit for it. Both conflicting classes, have their own properties, and move in accordance with these properties — their relationship with the means of production — and therefore perform their end of the negotiation.

What moves the individual power into political is its negotiation with another individual. Communities, tribes, and other group-formation of humans are established through these negotiations. These formations are modes of relationship, which are necessarily established through negotiations in power. Developments, of course, in relationships, especially in relationships within modes of production, do not come smoothly. Marx noted that commodities stand in for our social relationships, most especially, with money as its crystalized form — as the universal commodity. The more that the workers produce, of course, the more that power takes on different forms, since commodities that the workers produce also produces differences in the way social relationships take form.

Of course, looking at it in a general sense, under capitalism, we only have one form of relationship, and that is consumer relationship, a relationship between and as commodities. Contemporary political realities diffuse these relationships more. Neoliberal modes of work force a worker to forget any form of negotiation and contract to make one believe that what he’s doing is his own, as commodities these modes of work shift from analog to digital. It is harder now to think of a kind of disconnect among things and commodity-relationships, but, we need to always remember this simple fact: that politics only happened through these relationships. That what made our every move — or even non-motions — political, especially under bureaucrat capitalism, is because our daily conflict with capital, which involves not just our labor, but the labor of multiple working classes — lives among us through the commodities we produce but never really take enjoyment from.

Overhauling Identity (part 0)

I’ve been going back and forth to this problem of identity. At first, there seem to be a real issue concerning this problem: that indeed, there are unrests seemingly caused by conflicts brought about by differences on this category of identity. Francis Fukuyama himself, on his latest book, framed contemporary political and economic problems in light of identity politics, as if playing with it several years belated than his liberal colleagues. This isn’t to say that Fukuyama has forgotten class conflict, although he still abide by his belief that these conflicts are caused by certain search of an inner entity, an “inner sense of dignity [which] seeks recognition,” which makes his claims less intelligible than it is readable.

In recent times, some people from the left are taking into consideration whether to abandon identity politics as it has become a means for liberal opportunism. Identity politics, it is said in an article from In the Defense of Marxism, has “allowed a convenient way to deserting the class struggle and abandoning socialism, whilst continuing to pay lip service to “progressive causes”. “ Fukuyama has noted this shift from the left around the 70s to identity politics, but never really noted about this destructive implication within the left itself (of course, he’s never really concerned about it).

The case between American/Liberal-“left” discourse of intersectional identity politics and Fukuyama’s view of inner sense of dignity are two sides of the same coin: that is, both of a view of a certain fixity in the category of identity. A lot is at stake here: there are legitimate concerns of marginalized sectors and ethnic communities of socio-economic neglect from the state, ongoing repression of othered genders, disputes over national territories. But, if one is to inquire into the matter, it seems to be unreasonable that neglect, repression and disputes are caused by this sense of othering. Some would probably see it that way: that it is indeed unreasonable.

But no one seems to interrogate to the essence of this unreasonability itself. Critique of discrimination based on identity tend to become weak precisely because of this dismissal of discriminatory attitude as merely unreasonable or “incompatible” with the times (“it’s already 2019 and you’re still thinking that way”) become itself a mere reflection of the same dismissive attitude of conservatives. These critique most of the time come from affective response and emotional reactions, which, by themselves, left unchecked self-consciously, tend to become unreasonable too. No one seem to look into the very essence of this perceived unreasonability which stem from either a defense or dismissal of identity politics.

Postcolonial and cultural theory, extending their object of studies to gender, race, ethnicity and nationality, has been tools used throughout the years to try to make sense of these phenomena. Their general thesis is that these came mostly as a result of power relations generated by the history of colonization and patriarchal rule. While this may prove to shed some light over the matter of identity problem, contemporary appropriators of postcolonial and cultural theory tend to mythicize this notion of power relations only to generate an unreasonable discriminatory attitude towards anyone who can be associated with their “reactionary enemies.” Which, again, fall victim to the same kind of attitude and method as their supposed enemies.

This recoil towards the flip side of conservativism, the reactionary and irresponsible promotion of openness and tolerance, creates a feedback loop to the same process. Liberal intersectionalism — this unproblematic embracing of identity as a fixed category and hence, requiring tolerance – recently being catered too by a lot of young leftists from the urban centers, also opens itself to the tolerance of neoliberal capitalist logic: they too, are a target market. As these theories and methods do not by itself think of a way out due to their fixation to the fixity identity, it also fail to provide an actual alternative to the situation which drive them to critique in the first place.

To follow through the outline of the problem, this series of essays will try to find a way to overhaul this general notion of identity. I argue in this essay, and for the essays to come, not a dismissal of identity or identity politics, but a reconfiguration of identity and identity politics towards a more reasonable understanding of itself. This set of essays will quite obviously borrow from the functionalist method used by Reza Negarestani in his book, Intelligence and Spirit, wherein he referred to the “essence” or “spirit” of things (geist) and concepts not as a metaphysical entity, but the way things work. We’re looking at identity and identity politics on their supposed and ideal function for us to get a general understanding of how it should be, and for us to recognize what it ought to be, and what can we do to reconfigure it. The search for the geist will then be recaptured back to Mao Tse-tung thought, where we’re making sense of these functions in the light of social practices, and that the development and progress of these functions can only happen through active struggle. And these practices, for Mao, do not just involve participation in economic production, but everything which can be deemed as sensibly productive activities and struggles, which, for Negarestani, are necessarily public or deprivatized for them to be considered as part of general intelligence and intelligibilities.

For this goal of understanding identity, on the next iteration of this series, we’re starting with what’s been assumed already by some skeptics of thinking: that identity is a construct, but were looking at it in a materialist way. Identity, being a construction, is necessarily a product of history, and by being a product of history, is also a subject of either retention or revision. As a category, identity has its own set of criterion of which it identifies itself. These set of criterion changes as the condition which enabled the production those set of criterion change. The criteria and changes of identity can be traced through the changes also of the social practices which in the first place contain the site, materials and methods to which identities are constructed.

Once we have established the materials necessary to produce an identity, the next set of essays will focus on the problems generated by the construction of identities. It is on these parts that we’re going to engage with the perceived “unreasonability” of discrimination, to make sense of these unreasonabilities, and to provide a more rational insight on the real implications and violence resulting from these unreasonabilities. In a way, the critique of discrimination will undergo a process of negation via criticism-self-criticism, which will force it to face these so-called unreasonabilities to make them reasonable. The reason for this is to provide this critique its correct weapon to address identity discrimination without falling into the same rules of what it tries to critique.

The last part will look into the liberal solution for identity discrimination: the irresponsible promotion of openness and tolerance. This critique aims to expose how liberal intersectionality and tolerance do not lead toward any actual unity, but rather, it settles for tolerating unrest also without any suggestion of struggle. This irresponsibility stem from its own aim for stasis: that tolerance makes way for a smooth flow of capitalist desires. As liberal openness and tolerance forgoes the value of struggle, it also hampers the capability of man to reconfigure himself and his history, as what is actually being promoted with openness and tolerance is also an openness and tolerance to the current, that any sort of futuristic imagination – of leaving out dominating and marginalized identities of the current into the dustbin of history for actual progress of humanity; any sort of progressive and constructive activity outside the framework of the present – has become a threat.

To overhaul identity is to reconfigure the understanding of ourselves from the multiple facet of stasis to a unifying march towards history. It is only through this overhaul that actual diversity – the autonomous uprising of polyphony – can happen. That it is possible, because we’re beginning to acknowledge the non-fixity of this category: the acknowledgement of identity as synthetic. And with this acknowledgement, we were now able to control it, and change it in any way we see fit for our benefit.

Dialectical Materialist Responses to Liberal Wokeness (No. 1)

Today, I’m trying to start a serial again, hopefully something which I can sustain. Still, something non-cinematic in focus. I’m trying to address in this series what the title says: responding to liberal “hot takes” through abstracting them with dialectical materialism.

The method takes from the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist line which abstracts phenomena in social practice. Mao distinguished social practice from simply doing: that social practice can only be found if one is to contact doing within the living environment of the act. That social practice do not just involve production, but the whole sphere in which man lives and comes into contact with every relation (political, artistic, class, etc). But as a dialectical process, this do not mean that every aspect of social relations live harmonically, but, in essence, they exist independently from each other. Contradictions exist because we do not really exist for other beings or objects. Nature has always been in contradiction with other living beings. The tiger do not particularly care of our existence, but since it has its own needs and presets, it tries to devours things and beings which contradicts its own existence: you pass through its territory, it will attack you; it gets hungry, it will eat the first living thing it would smell. The same thing goes with human beings. Mao noted that the primary contradiction in the capitalist society is class interest. Which is why capitalism acts also as a devourment of energy since the owners of capital really is in contradictory existence with the labor force.

To situate specifically in the context of Philippine realities, dialectical materialism looks at the semi-feudal semicolonial configuration of capitalist ownership as base and its effect in social reality. It is within this context that the more specified configuration of Imperialism, Bureaucrat Capitalism and Feudalism are being addressed as drivers of capital.

For this first edition, I’m addressing the statement common among urban woke liberals and new age maoists alike:

The artist has a social responsibility for truth and justice

We need to place the concept of the artist in the backdrop of economic base to see whether this responsibility actually exist. In this sense, we need to distinguish the act of artistic production, or labor for that matter, from any other activities like, say, political, social, etc. As such, labor is private, at least under capitalist circumstances. In this situation, it must be assumed what artists and other working people are actually assuming in the first place: that labor and politics are autonomous from each other.

Since the act of production — most specially of anything artistic — is private, we can never really ask on any form of social responsibility on the onset, even though artists themselves gain their insights from exploiting the social realm of life. Seeking social responsibility from artists is the same as capitalist green politics seeking environmental responsibility from industrial companies: they do so not for the rehabilitation of nature, but for the assurance of the reproduction of the value-extraction process. That in the future, we can still exploit nature. In seeking social responsibility as an act of guilt-tripping, we reproduce capitalism through the reproduction of the socially responsible artist and socially conscious art, in the same manner that green politics assures further exploitation of nature (not to mention, of workers) by environmentally friendly companies.

But under capitalism, autonomy is not assured. Although, mere act of artistic production itself is not yet the site of capitalism, it gets crystallized in the act of its exchange. In the age of bureaucratic capitalism, a lot of cases in artistic production involve the artistic commodity being exchanged even before it was produced, through grants and other acts of patronship politics. It is in this sense that capital and its supporting political superstructure gets in the way of artistic autonomy. Capitalist extraction of value has always been in the form of blackmail: you don’t eat if you don’t work. Which is why, under capitalism, value is not intrinsic to an artwork. For any labor to be of value, Marx noted there should at least be a social necessity for a commodity before it can be said that the labor expended is of value. There is such a thing as useless labor: a labor expended on a thing which has no social necessity. Generically, there is a social need for art. Atomically, nobody asks for a specific artwork, of say, your feelings, your lovelife, or your sexual kinks, or even your political views. It is in this sense that art as a self-expression is valueless: no one asks for you to express yourself through your artwork, therefore, it’s useless.

But in the present context, art gains its value not on any form of actual material extraction, but through speculative means. This is where curators come in, and also publishers, critics, “influencers”, bureaucrats, museums, art markets, auction houses, workshops, artist talks, etc. But as much as the relationship is social, under bureaucrat capitalism, transactions remain private. You just can’t be a young, rising, breakthrough artist without, say, rubbing elbows with one who’s who, or at least, you can’t get the grant without tickling the interest of one possible member of the selection committee. Art in the 21st century is produced not as an expression, but as an algorithm. The value of any artwork stem from contradictory interests of multiple speculators, artists included. There are sellable artworks, and there’s a pattern for to attain sellability. Or at least, the algorithm is based on who do you want to sell your shit.

Looking at these instances of algorithmic social relations, any form of class-conscious ethics will only pass through the void of self-expression. There is a non-unitary relation between art as self-expression and political participation. Although, it is not yet antagonistic, since we’re failing to address each on their own terms. It is also through this non-antagonistic “resolution” of self-expression and political participation that political art meets its doom. Most political art succeeds artistically, that is, it is generating the value that it speculates, no matter how limited it is. We’ve never learned from the early 1900s modernists. The fact that Duchamp’s The Fountain is still valued may resonate still its poetic project (of exposing the non-sense of art’s speculative market), but like most subversions, Duchamp’s projects are political failures.

On a recent episode of Hermitix podcast, Nick Land noted on how on every attempt to construct a post-capitalist project, capital revives through every intelligent successes that these constructions are doing. He clarified that success here is still in the capitalist framework, that is, success is when value can possibly extracted from the thing being produced. The same regression can be seen on every attempt to salvage art and trying to make it work with a political content. As such, none of the agenda flows through the art-object produced. To make politics succeed artistically is a site of positive feedback which reinforces self-regenerating circuitry of capitalist production-for-profit. Land noted on how Mao’s attempt to actively suppress capitalist tendencies as one of the more viable attempts to escape this positive feedback loops.

To go further with Mao, it is also him who suggested to let go of the bourgeois “artistic moods”, which cybernetically feeds capital circuitry. On the onset, this is a war-tactical suggestion for art to be used and be made to work for struggle against imperialism. The ethics of this do not fall on any assumption of inherent function of art and artists in general, but its usability for the struggle by answering the question: for whom does one make art? This question is not used to impose guilt but as a starting point of critique. It exposes the position of the object produced and who produced it. It necessitates an escalation of non-unitary contradiction of art and politics to an antagonism. It is only in this site of antagonistic, partisan deployment that we can pose ethical questions. But not in asking for a responsible way of doing things, but for seeking accountability after the crime.

New Age Maoist Aesthetics

A trend seems to be happening among young, urban activists and allies: they get easily fascinated and responsive of positive representation of politics, rebels and activists on any platform, especially on popular capitalist art. Cultural representation seems to be the name of the game. What is formerly subversive has now become a default setting. Cultural representation is easy and, in the era of neoliberal multiplicity, profitable. In fact, contemporary cultural products tend to capitalize into notions of diversity and multiplicity (rhizomes, anyone?), only to the point that what is represented is not the marginalized being presented in contrast and as alternative against the status quo, but the marginalized performing (for) the status quo. A kind of trickle-up effect: productions representing the oppressed are re-valuated and appreciated with ruling class criterion and are being produced for the expropriation of value by the ruling class.

Representation is comfort food. Representation made the privileged from marginalized origins feel empowered. As for people from privileged origins being newly organized on political movements, positive representation of protesters, activists and rebels is hoped to bring about a reinforcing effect. But the effect is floating, since the source of reinforcement is merely imaginary. I’m not saying that efforts for organizing the petit bourgeois and the middle class stops with this. Other organizational activities are being done, of course, other than recruitment and other popular propaganda. I’m not addressing organizing here. I’m addressing the aesthetic appreciation caused by these practices.

It seems like the form of appreciation of what I call as New Age Maoism only get from Mao’s assessment of art his response to the 2nd problem, extol or expose, but without its element in class analysis. What makes it “New Age” came from a certain mystical disappearance of the other aspects of Mao’s problematics in art. Most specially disappeared are the more important problems: the problem of class-stand and the problem of Marxist scholarship. New Age Maoism happens when organized petty bourgeois tend to extract a comfortable portion of Maoist thought compatible or tolerable for their class origins. A complete reversal of the requirement of transformation in Marxism-Leninism-Maoism which seeks for the person to delve into the difficult task of criticism and self-criticism: of self-consciousness of one’s own class origins and of contradictions and antagonisms.

New Age Maoism is a Maoism devoid of any antagonism. It’s an impotent version of Maoism. It does not enable weaponization, that is, as a mode of aesthetics, New Age Maoism do not fulfill the task of art and literature to “fit well into the whole revolutionary machine” since such mode of appreciation do not abstract the work to contribute to the struggle. If it does so, only for aesthetic appreciation.

New Ageism abhors contradictions. New Age encorporated to Maoism demolishes the most significant aspect of its theoretical line, which is the acknowledgement of contradictions and intensifying them to the level of struggle. It exchanges acknowledging and dismantling antagonisms for “conflict resolution” and harmonious existence between antagonistic class interests (most of the time, benefiting the exploiting classes).

As aesthetics, New Age Maoists are overwhelmed with representations of many kinds. Influence of liberal intersectional politics makes a good trap for New Age Maoists. With the overabundance of representation in popular cultural products, the attention given by New Age Maoists contribute not with the cause of the struggle, but to the validation of the products and its audience. Jonathan Beller noted on how before the turn of the 21st century, paying attention became a source of capital’s extraction of surplus value. In the age of communicative capitalism, paying attention and giving reactions to images contribute to the capitalist expropriation of value.

New Age Maoists celebrates the image. But in the overabundance of representation, these images of representation floats around with other images of funny cats, Wojack Memes, feel good quotations and other poor images widely exchanged and further compressed for faster transmission and value extraction. The celebration of the image denies class struggle. It exchanges the actual participation to political struggle for the representation of activism or politics; actual revolutionary thinking for a revolution in thought.

Not that New Age Maoism doesn’t have a problem. In itself, it depends on the unity of petty bourgeois class standing and revolutionary aesthetics. This is resolved through the dismissal or unthinking of the revolutionary in the revolutionary aesthetics, and only consider its aesthetic side. Or worse, a consideration of revolution but only in aesthetics. It seeks to salvage cultural products, especially what we call political art – regardless of the political economic rubric of its production – solely based on its representation of politics. It is not that salvaging and extolling revolutionary elements in a work is not important, the problem is that, to salvage is the first impulse of a New Age Maoist. More importantly, and more dangerously, New Age Maoism forgets the conditions on how art, literature and newer forms of representation like film are produced under capitalism.

The danger of forgetting the conditions of production in exchange of extolling representation is in the blindness of the forces of exploitation which lies on the production of the images being celebrated. Greatest recent case is the extolling of the film Heneral Luna (2015) produced by corporate-bourgeois comprador studio, TBA, owned by Fernando Ortigas and Eduardo Rocha. The titular general, extravagantly performed, is seemingly anti-American. But the film isn’t just about him. It does not really uphold an anti-imperialist stance. But the images of extravagant and violent hero sold better, and as intended. New Age Maoism does not contradict marketing: it effectively affirms it and re-interpellates the activist to being a consumer.

This “forgetting” seems to be an unconscious act. And the fact that it is unconscious bears more danger. It reflects a lack in theoretical and practical understanding of modes of production, most probably due to a lack also of a practical application in the understanding of things. Marxist-Leninist-Maoist analysis is admittedly an uncomfortable thing to do as it involves actual intellectual – and to some extent, manual – labor contrary to the comforting thoughts given by petit bourgeois essentialism. For the analysis of mode of production be not-prioritized and be shelved into forgetting even in the analysis of seemingly trivial objects (like art, literature and film) poses a danger of repeating the ruling class discourse. People from the urban movement defending Quark Henares’ statement on “film and music as modes of self-expression” – assuming a political autonomy in the production of cultural products under capitalism – missed the point of a Maoist critique of art. Universalizing statements from the ruling class and their stalwarts like Henares bear no universal position on truth just yet on the function of things: what art, literary and film production mean now are still to be determined by the outcome of the protracted people’s war.

Symptoms point to possible remedies. Since the dismissal is unconscious, a conscious – if not, self-conscious – attempt towards further abstraction and theorization of the analysis cultural products in the theoretical line of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism needs to be revitalized. An insistence of a theoretical practice (praxeology) is needed. Admittedly, with the demands of the time piling up among organizers and activists – with the deepening crises of accelerated global capitalism, intensified anti-people campaigns of the reactionary government – a day’s work seem to be lacking to address another point of a problem. But in this mess of chaos that a correction and realignment in thought of the theoretical line is needed more than ever. Positive activities are happening though, in the recent educational discussion festivals organized by different sectors: seems like the necessity for addressing the problems in the theoretical line are being resolved. What needs to be done is to resolve – again, addressing Mao’s 4th problem in the Talks at the Yenan Forum – the study of theories of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism for more effective and intensified aesthetic-critical interventions.

This remedy being suggested is also a prevention for further aesthetic opportunistic use of the revolution and revolutionary aspects of the people’s culture for the benefit of one’s petty bourgeois desire and art. Mao’s intervention on art and literature seeks the reverse, and rightly so: for art to be of use for the people and the people’s struggle. And for that to happen, it necessarily places art not in the final instance, but art is reduced into a tool as it bears almost the same liberalistic potential as the violence of a gun. Not in the expense of choosing between the two, but using both cultural and political struggles as means to further the agenda of the people.

Much as the cultural and political struggles are both of equal significance, so is the determination and analysis not just of form and content in art and literature, but also what enables their production. Such a task tend to convert an analysis to criticism. Mere aesthetic appreciation is impotent and useless, criticism sets analysis in motion. But it is a criticism which do not push further the liberal agenda for art. It is a criticism which carries a “struggle on two fronts”: it demands a resolution between politics and art, not in the sense of representation or a “mixing” of it. Dialectical resolution demands a struggle in-process and not just mere unification. Dialectical resolution demands for art and politics to be raised antagonistically within the form and content of both art production and criticism. And these cannot be done through a simple salvaging of “progressive” content from reactionary sources. The task is to break form, content and political economy: the practices of producing the form, the practices of producing what is being said in the form, and what enable the production of these. As Mao places it: “The criterion for judging subjective intention or motive is social practice and its effect.”