A protest photograph is forwarded on facebook. An Egyptian tweet comes through on the Aljezeera or Guardian twitter-live-feed. Where do these “come from”? The easy answer is of course “the photographer” or “the city square” or “the author of the tweet” (as if tweets had authors like Moby Dick). The problem with the easy answer is that it’s wrong, another problem is the difficulty of explaining how it is wrong.
Take, for instance, any form of cultural production. Take sculpture, take pottery, take essay-writing, take photography, take architecture. Where is the work produced – what is the location of production/instantiation of a/the new artifact? It is not when the photograph is taken, or when the sculpture is planned or conceived – it is rather when a decision is made to show this photograph rather than another. Or, to construct this sculpture at full scale rather than one which is intuited as less potentially successful (I’m thinking of Serra’s workflow here). The cultural production is, in other words, in the decision to put forth the work. Not the making of the work, but the setting it into the cultural location, produces its reality and the infinite (but not incoherent) potential connections, effects, excrements, alienations.
For the photographer this is even more obvious – you might take a hundred, or a thousand, or a hundred thousand photos – and show ten, or one. The “work” of bringing forth the work is just as much in the critique, the choisir, the de-scission which limits the indefiniteness of a thousand incognizable instances down to a meaningfully interrelated and comprehensible (or at least workable) complex, set, frame.
Or, and I’m changing tracks a little here, for the Essayist – what is the role of the editor, or the editorial committee in the work? He/they might give comments surely, but mostly editors keep content out. They keep content out by particular writers, and they keep writers out. They keep ideas out, they order what is presented (or through elimination select the work which the appropriate ordering power of human capital behind it) in a way appropriate (or so they think) for their “publication”). And this is a key transformation – from the space of the self-curating artist (which might only exist as an ideal in the audience’s mind), to the editorial cutting room floor – where the production is mostly outside of the “production”, the key productive (publicative) decisions are in the elimination. And this is most, if not exclusively, the mode of cultural production which is normalized today: we live in nested hierachies of incredibly exclusionary force which keep out and let in on the basis of percieved standards, quality, audience receive-ability, (cash, etc.)
And so far this is easy – we have distinct humans fulfilling distinct human tasks. Sure, they’re under institutional control, organizational forces, meeting deadlines and “the public” as such (which means immediately confronting the imaginary), but they are still basically humans. But how can we make sense of twitter? Or net-spread protest photography? Or the evening news? I contend these forms of cultural spread, viral images, emotional production, are like the essayist and his editor but in place of editor we find a monstrous vermin. No, not a vermin, more a whale (and like the whale from Moby Dick, more than you can measure or count on). It is probably not an accident that a whale is displayed when Twitter crashes – the whale is the ancient symbol for what lurks in the deep, what is beyond your comprehension, what is too terrifying to imagine.
And that’s where we live – we live in the body of the whale. On all sides we are surrounded by forms of cultural production where the active productive effects (selection, but also reflexive and viral spread and amplification) are not the decisions of humans, but the product of bogglingly complex vortexes of desire, anticipation, quickness, affect, mood, none of which “exist” in person, but are aimed at by institutional structures which reward and valorize a certain way of “having your pulse” on things. Where is that pulse? Where is that valor? It’s not in any particular person, and it’s anything but the dream of some dystopian capitalist. What it really is is a monster. But more on that later.
The first thing you learn from the recognition that the active, or most active component of cultural production is not human, is maybe you do know what the medievalists meant when they said that God played an essential role a communities cultural production. “God” is, after all, a way of conceptualizing that which can’t be conceptualized – that which can’t be understood mechanically in terms of its various components and the easily cognizable relations between them. The “Devil” is, on the other hand, the prototypical archetype of evil, or of an evil-person, meaning it stands both for the disintegrative effects which terrorize communities and also the evil person (the pathological one who uses you only for his or her own ends, every word carefully connived to extract from you your trust, your wealth, and your goodness). “God” is a word for the relations between community members which, distinct from the humanistic actions or desires of any particular person, produce the context for production (and also interpretation – but that’s another essay) of cultural work. We don’t have such a word, and therefore these inter-spaces or “inter-subjectivities” (bad term!) appear to us as a monster we name “Capitalism”, but we immediately reject this term (or we should) on account of being under-specific. But it has to be under-determinative because it’s actually a name for God (or the Devil, but “that’s another story”).
To clarify something important: monsters are real archetypes of chaos which threaten societies or groups – and you have to archetype chaos, and value challenging it, otherwise your society will fail to value confrontation with the unknown and become bitter, cruel and weak. If for us the festive iconography of cars burning, buses killing, and tweets (re)tweeting is the primary manner of cultural production, we can’t but think of it as a whale, a monster, a God. But what kind of God is this?
Well, that’s the question!