Science Fiction Studies

#93 = Volume 31, Part 2 = July 2004

Carl Freedman

Connections of Late Capitalism: Steven Shaviro, Science Fiction, and the Network Society

Steven Shaviro. Connected, or What It Means to Live in the Network Society. Minneapolis: U Minnesota P, 2003. xiii + 289 pp. $49.95 hc; $17.95 pbk.

“One thing leads to another.” (reported by Charlene Duggs to have been said by her mother; in The Last Picture Show [Peter Bogdanovich, 1971])

One approaches Steven Shaviro’s new book aware that the author has already established himself as one of the more exciting and original cultural critics at work today. In a remarkable series of articles and books—perhaps most notably The Cinematic Body (1993) and Doom Patrols: A Theoretical Fiction about Postmodernism (1997)—Shaviro has examined an astonishing range of cultural texts (“high” and “low,” fictional and nonfictional, literary and cinematic, in more different genres than can easily be tallied) and has invariably brought a fresh, intelligent perspective to bear on each. Shaviro’s versatility and mental nimbleness should not, however, be mistaken for eclecticism; an excellent reader, he has never been merely a reader. In nearly all his work, he has also been concerned to establish a complex—but coherent and distinctive—theoretical problematic. The latter, I think, can best be briefly described by comparing it with the position constructed in the later philosophical work of Maurice Blanchot, long one of Shaviro’s intellectual heroes and about whom he has written at considerable length. Like Blanchot, Shaviro strives to establish a standpoint independent of Marxism but compatible with it, and untainted by the muddled centrism of most writing that passes as “post-Marxist.” Shaviro, I believe, would agree that, as long as capitalism remains dominant, no radically valid work can be done from an anti- or non-Marxist position; but he would also insist that, insofar as cultural criticism is concerned, Marxism itself has almost always left something vital to be desired. Blanchot often expresses his own reservations by designating his coign of vantage as “communist” rather than Marxist; and, though Shaviro does not generally adopt this particular terminology, it would seem much within his spirit to do so.

Whatever one’s ultimate judgment of Shaviro’s theoretical project, there are few better qualified than he to undertake it. Probably no other American cultural theorist of his generation has a more solid grasp of all three volumes of Capital (1867, 1885, 1894), or of the main line of European metaphysics, of which Capital, as Lukács famously pointed out, is in many ways the successor and sublimation. Kant is particularly important to Shaviro, especially the first and third Critiques (1781, 1790), which he finds useful in enabling necessary resistance to much that seems to him oppressively Hegelian in (Marxist and other) modern critical theory. Furthermore, Shaviro is as much at home with comic books, rock music, and B-movies as with Kant or Marx. Indeed, to read any substantial amount of Shaviro is to realize how the fashionable interest that many other theorists maintain in mass culture is usually confined to a pretty limited collection of approved trendy phenomena—Madonna, say, and James Cameron’s Titanic (1997), and gangsta rap. Shaviro, by contrast, displays a truly catholic taste in and almost encyclopedic knowledge of American culture, whether clearly or problematically “mass”: from Emerson to Jim Carrey and Kathy Acker, from Wallace Stevens and Samuel Delany to Philip K. Dick and Dean Martin, from the photographs of Cindy Sherman to the films of Jerry Lewis and Andy Warhol, from the music of the Ramones and the theoretical writings of Marshall McLuhan to DC superhero comics, the public persona of Bill Gates, and the “private” secrets of the Reagan nuclear family. Though it is unclear exactly what it would mean to have one’s finger on the pulse of anything so vast, monstrous, and heterogeneous as the contemporary USA, Shaviro comes about as close as anyone does.

Any careful reader of Shaviro’s previous work is aware that he has long had a serious interest in and knowledge of science fiction. But it is only with Connected, or What It Means to Live in the Network Society that he presents sf as one of his central concerns; and with this volume he becomes, at a stroke, one of our most interesting and valuable sf critics. The volume addresses itself to science fiction in at least three distinct but interlocking ways: by analyzing a good many particular works in both print and film; by providing a running commentary on what might be called the science-fictionalization of contemporary reality; and by presenting itself as a work of science fiction as well. Connected comprises 250 pages of continuous main text, broken into wittily titled one- and two-page sections. The structural precedent is clearly Nietzsche (always a major influence on Shaviro’s thought and manner) but perhaps even more precisely the Adorno of Minima Moralia (1951), itself heavily Nietzschean in presentation. Like Nietzsche and Adorno, Shaviro is a master of expository prose; and there are few recent works of narrative sf more consistently absorbing and enjoyable than the book under review. The guided tour Shaviro offers of our vast “network society”—in which everyone and everything are in one way or another connected to everyone and everything else—provides much the same sort of conceptual excitement and “sense of wonder” that many readers have found in science-fiction novels and stories. Whatever else it may be, Connected is a very good read.

But it is much more too. Perhaps the least disputable achievement of Connected is to have provided some of the best available literary criticism of modern science fiction. Two texts stand out as exemplary for Shaviro in their delineation of global (or galactic) interconnectedness. One is K.W. Jeter’s neglected masterpiece Noir (1998), with which Shaviro begins and ends his volume and to which he frequently returns throughout; it seems to serve, indeed, as the closest thing to a sort of “master text” that Shaviro uses to thread his way through the immense topic—the network society—that he has undertaken to explore. Towards the end of the book, however, Samuel Delany’s Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984) emerges as a second key text, which Shaviro examines at greater length and with deeper intellectual respect than any other single work except Noir.

In Noir, as Shaviro shrewdly points out, the very word connect is an obscene epithet. It is, indeed, the futuristic equivalent of fuck in every unpleasant sense of that term which originally signified the most widely pleasing of all connections. For Jeter’s characters, “Connect you!” is the ultimate expression of insult and defiance, and to be “connected”—far from meaning empowered, as Mafia lingo has it—means to be utterly and hopelessly defeated. There is good reason why, in Jeter’s post-cyberpunk negative utopia, connection should be, not the consummation devoutly to be wished that E.M. Forster famously proclaimed it to be, but instead, as Shaviro puts it, “the worst thing that could happen to you” (3). As Shaviro goes on to explain, “Every connection has its price; the one thing you can be sure of is that, sooner or later, you will have to pay” (3). Payment is meant here in more than one sense, but the primary meaning is the most obvious one: to pay is what you do when you are forced to give your money to someone else.

One way to understand the socio-cultural vision of Noir is to frame it, as Shaviro several times does, as the antithesis to and correction of the sham internet utopianism of John Perry Barlow. Barlow, a Harvard Law Fellow who has also been a Wyoming cattle rancher and a lyricist for the Grateful Dead, is often said to be the first person to have used the word cyberspace (originally coined, of course, by William Gibson in the ur-cyberpunk novel Neuromancer [1984]) in order to describe the actually existing “space” of the internet. Barlow celebrates the latter as the completely free “native home of Mind” (qtd 87); and he insists that the internet is independent not only of political sovereignty and coercion but of all economic relations and thus of all material reality whatsoever. Cyberspace, says Barlow, “is not where bodies live” (qtd 87). Shaviro nicely skewers such imbecility—“[I]f the cops physically drag me away from my keyboard, where does that leave my virtual self?” (87)—but Jeter does the same just as efficiently without ever mentioning Barlow by name. Whereas Barlow is a crudely mechanistic determinist who believes that technical innovation can effortlessly trump relations of property and power, Jeter is faithful to the Marxist principle that property relations and the struggles over them exercise an ultimately determining force not only over the development of new technologies but, even more importantly, over the social deployment of the latter.

For instance, Jeter sees that, in the individual instance, actual physical force can always triumph over supposedly “free” virtuality: “There’s a hardware solution to intellectual-property theft. It’s called a .357 magnum” (255), as he puts it in (I believe) the only boldface sentence in a quite long novel. More consequentially yet, he sees that, in the absence of any revolutionary resistance of the sort that his bleak vision of a passive humanity excludes from the start, there is nothing to prevent the largest corporations from using the latest cybernetic technologies to enforce ever more thoroughgoing and ruthless exploitation of the overwhelming majority of the population. Cops and private cops (the distinction becoming thin to the point of near-meaninglessness) use .357 magnums and even more frightening weapons to stay “connected” with copyright-violators who try to connect with software in ways that flout property laws: most of an intellectual-property thief’s body is destroyed, but just enough neural matter is preserved to allow the thief to “live” an eternity of dim self-awareness in excruciating pain.

Meanwhile, the big corporations develop new ways to make connectedness as profitable for themselves as possible. Junkies (of the heroin or internet variety) have of course always been useful to the reproduction and expansion of capital; the fortunes amassed by AOL and other such companies would impress even the most successful drug kingpins. In Noir, the immense DynaZauber Corporation ironically recalls, in its name, connection in an older, more pleasant sense: Deine Zauber binden wieder—“Your magic binds again”—in the words of Schiller’s lyrical apotheosis to joy that Beethoven set to the world’s loveliest melody. But what DZ is actually up to is driving the theme of connection-as-addiction to its logical and (for a tiny handful of top executives) most profitable extreme. Their project named TOAW (the acronym stands for “turd on a wire”) aims to induce, by remote control, a neurological dependence on electronic signals projected by the company; these signals would directly engage the pain-and-pleasure centers of the brain and so, unlike so-called “addiction” to gambling or the internet, would create and feed addiction in the most rigorous and desperate physiological sense. Yet they would do so without the expenditure of capital that the marketing of heroin or cocaine requires. The result would be nearly pure profit. DynaZauber’s involuntary “customers” would be forced to hand over all their money to the corporation and receive in return nothing of the slightest exchange-value. This is being connected with a vengeance. This is the network society of the (near) future.

“You may say,” writes Shaviro in his concluding paragraph, “that all this is merely science fiction. None of it is happening: not now, not here, not yet” (250). But it is clear that he regards Jeter’s negative utopia as being all too plausible and all too faithful to actually existing trends. At one point Shaviro’s examination of the current development of copyright law even leads him to suggest that we will soon probably see the end of the doctrine of “fair use,” on which his own volume, so rich in quotations from earlier works, heavily depends; at that point, “the publication and dissemination of the text you are reading now will be illegal” (65-66). Yet such pessimism is at least somewhat qualified by the attention he pays to his other privileged sf text, Delany’s Stars in My Pocket. Like Noir, this novel (still Delany’s finest, in my view) offers a depiction of an intricately networked society, though one in the distant future that is galactic rather than merely global in scope.

We need to remember that, though the internet’s origins can be traced to a Pentagon project of 1969, and though scientists began to use it more frequently throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the internet achieved no sort of mass currency until several years after the invention of the World Wide Web in 1990: so that Delany, in 1984, had no acquaintance with the actually existing network society that Jeter could already take for granted (and extrapolate from) in 1998. Given this context, the prescience of Stars in My Pocket is especially dazzling. The novel imagines a galactic federation of over six thousand planets inhabited by intelligent species, most of them loosely connected by a shadowy quasi-governmental agency named, astonishingly, the Web. Among the Web’s most prominent projects is the uneven maintenance of a hypercomputerized information service called GI: the initials stand for General Information, of course, but also Government Issue, and probably Gastro-Intestinal as well. Although GI certainly has serious limitations—its undialectical, positivistic frame of reference, and, as Shaviro points out, the “differential access and imposed scarcity” (239) with which the Web, for obscure political reasons, makes information available—it nonetheless represents a kind of connectedness that seems positively and genuinely utopian compared to the vision of Noir. For all its shortcomings, GI (which operates by a sort of wireless telepathy) is massively educational, making available a huge amount of useful knowledge within a galactic political structure (the Federation of Habitable Worlds, supervised by the Web) that seems largely, if far from perfectly, egalitarian and socialist in character. The contrast with Jeter’s portrait of a nightmarishly late, late, late capitalism is sharp.

Furthermore, whereas personal relationships in Noir are, as Jeter’s film-derived title implies, always marked by the near-certainty of betrayal, Delany’s novel also portrays a kind of informative connectedness quite different from and richer than GI: namely, love itself. Stars in My Pocket is in one aspect the love story of the two principal characters, Marq Dyeth and Rat Korga, who are found to be one another’s “perfect erotic object” (179). Their desire, which Shaviro eloquently describes as “extrabeing, something that has no place in the totality of a world of information” (247; emphasis in original), amounts to a cognition—a connectedness—that transcends the epistemological and institutional limits of GI and the Web. As it happens, it is in just this context that Shaviro expresses one of his sharpest disagreements with my own reading of the same novel. In Critical Theory and Science Fiction (2000), I argue that love is not only the force that moves the sun and other stars—for Delany as so famously for Dante—but may “ultimately be all that stands between survival and Cultural Fugue” (163), a rare but widely feared sort of planetary holocaust that wipes out Rat Korga’s home world near the beginning of the novel. Shaviro (who, I should acknowledge, refers to my work on science fiction in very generous terms) objects that there are both general philosophical considerations and specific textual references that suggest the danger of Cultural Fugue to be, in fact, intimately related to the singularity of Marq and Rat’s intense mutual desire. Shaviro’s point is well taken, and it may be that our readings here are not quite so diametrically opposed as first appears. What I want to stress is that, even on Shaviro’s reading—measurably less utopian than my own—Delany offers a genuine utopian hope, and a more positive vision of connectedness, that must qualify the harsh hopelessness of Noir. In Delany’s world, the Forsterian injunction—“Only connect!”—is not nearly so obsolete as in Jeter’s. “[T]he only ones who really believed connecting was an unalloyed good thing,” as Jeter writes in a sentence that Shaviro quotes (249) in full, “were people who had something to sell and rapists, two categories that weren’t that far apart in this world” (175). But love is totally opposed to both rape and marketing.

In the overall structure of Connected, however, the irreducible far-future utopian hope displayed in Stars in My Pocket appears near the end of Shaviro’s book as a powerful but subordinate counter-theme to the near-future negative utopia offered by Jeter. A great many other science-fictional texts appear along the way, and they tend, on the whole, to count more on Jeter’s than on Delany’s side of the ledger. Shaviro offers superb readings of literary sf (or, in one or two cases, near-sf) by such major writers as J.G. Ballard, William Burroughs, Octavia Butler, Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, Ken MacLeod, China Miéville, Misha, Thomas Pynchon, and Bruce Sterling, as well as of important sf films by directors such as David Cronenberg, Jean-Luc Godard, Nicolas Roeg, George Romero, and Ridley Scott. No better example of the sheerly critical virtuosity of Connected can be cited than Shaviro’s treatment of Red Spider White Web (1990), Misha’s strange and remarkable novel that, like Noir, and despite the gallant critical efforts of Brian Aldiss, Elyce Helford, and others, has yet to receive the kind and amount of attention that it deserves.

In this text the bohemian inhabitants of Ded Tek—accurately described by Shaviro as “a post-industrial wasteland of abandoned factories, empty warehouses, disused railway yards, and polluted rivers” (181)—are excluded from full participation in the on-line virtual economy, their exclusion marked by physical mutilation—namely, the removal of the final joints of their right index fingers. But such exclusion does not mean that they are unconnected—far from it. As in Noir, the networked information economy of a post-industrial American capitalism is even more ruthlessly exploitative and oppressive than the manufacture-based economy to which it has succeeded. Those who dwell in Ded Tek are kept in a state of constant material deprivation and frequent physical danger (not entirely unlike the condition of those who live in many of America’s inner cities today), all for the benefit and amusement of the wealthy elite who inhabit a few privileged urban spaces like Mickey-san. Occasionally, one of the artists of Ded Tek is able to “sell out” and enter (as a glorified servant) the promised land of Mickey-san. The vast majority, however, are confined to what Misha, near the beginning of her novel, hauntingly describes as “a world of living metal” (12-13). It is a variety of living that offers neither warmth nor hope, just as the deadness of Ded Tek displays the usual attributes of death—decay, grotesqueness, a running-down of useful energy—but with the conspicuous exception of peacefulness. Shaviro is at his most illuminating when he explains how the peculiar quality of this “white web” of misery and exploitation is manifest on the level of sentence-production itself: Misha’s “words are like blows; they clang together harshly.... Misha’s language is densely paratactic; it is not organized by any hierarchical logic, but only by subliminal rhymes ... and a sort of stuttering, continually interrupted rhythm” (183). Stylistically, this is connectedness at the furthest remove from the Forsterian variety. “In this way,” as Shaviro goes on to say, “Misha’s prose invokes (as well as describes) a world of intense materiality” (183).

If such contributions to the literary criticism (and film criticism) of modern science fiction were all that Connected had to offer, it would still amount to a major achievement in sf studies. Pilgrim Awards have been granted for less. But, as I have already suggested, the book offers a good deal more, too. Jeter, Delany, Misha, and all the other authors whom Shaviro explicates so skillfully are not only the objects of his critical analysis but also his collaborators in what Fredric Jameson might call the “cognitive mapping” of our own network society. It is a society that in many of its aspects increasingly resembles imaginings familiar to us (if at all) mainly from science fiction, and therefore a society whose mapping may (or must) draw on the unique cognitive resources of sf. Shaviro well understands that sf is neither reportage nor prediction. Instead, it is, as he puts it toward the end of his volume, “about the shadow that the future casts upon the present” (250). In the “Preface,” he makes much the same point at somewhat greater length: “Science fiction is always written in the future tense—conceptually, if not grammatically. Not only is it about what has not yet happened, but its very structure is that of the not-yet-happened. It addresses events in their potentiality, which is something vaster and more mysterious—more perturbingly other—than any actual outcome could ever be” (xi; emphasis in original). Shaviro reminds us of Lenin’s injunction that one’s political and conceptual orientation should always be as radical as reality itself; and he argues persuasively that it is by writing socio-cultural theory as science fiction that such radicalism can be attained.

In order to make a just evaluation of Connected, we must, therefore, ask what kind of insight Shaviro provides not only into numerous novels and films, but also into the very fabric of our contemporary, science-fictionalized reality. This is, of course, to judge the book by very exacting standards, but standards that the book itself demands.

My view is that Connected helps us to understand the world we inhabit in more useful ways that can be meaningfully considered here. But there is one theme that seems to me more important than any other, and one that I suspect Lenin himself would have especially appreciated: namely, Shaviro’s grasp of the apparently near-boundless capacity for creative destruction displayed by an increasingly advanced—which is to say an increasingly capital-intensive— globalized capitalist economy. One of Shaviro’s fundamental insights here—one that he shares with much of the best work currently being done in Marxist economic theory—is that the forcible “primitive accumulation” of wealth that Marx describes towards the end of Volume One of Capital as the necessary basis for the “take-off” of European capitalism is not to be considered only as an originary moment in the history (or prehistory) of the capitalist mode of production. Rather, it is a permanent feature of the system, though of course one that takes different forms in different historical epochs. In our own network society, digitization appears as a privileged form of contemporary primitive accumulation: “Just as British landlords, at the start of the sixteenth century, expropriated the peasants and enclosed formerly common lands, so multinational corporations, at the start of the twenty-first, are appropriating data that used to be in the public domain and turning culture itself into a private preserve” (43). The privatization of humanity’s cultural heritage is deeply creative in the sense that it amounts to a genuinely new way to further the reproduction and expansion of capital. It is destructive only in the sense that it works to eliminate all human values, such as artistic creativity or personal freedom, other than capital accumulation.

But that is, precisely, the necessary bargain of the free market. For instance, the latter allows today’s entertainment industry, through a series of perfectly free and “legitimate” financial transactions, to work towards “a more thorough control over speech and expression than Stalin or Ceausescu ever dreamed of” (47). If the freedom of commercial contract—the freedom to convert anything whatever into private capital—is to be preserved, it must sooner or later trump every other sort of freedom to which we may have been accustomed. “In the globalized network society,” as Shaviro points out, “the ‘free market’ is the sole arbiter of value”; thus, in the absence of any other effective standard, “[i]f the market is ‘free,’ then nothing else can be” (61). Yet the real genius of the system—of the white web, as Misha would say—is that this unprecedented alienation and transformation of human freedom and creativity into private capital typically takes place today not only without the sort of physical violence experienced by the dispossessed peasants of half a millennium ago, but, often, without any deeply felt sense of violation at all. The free market has become as “natural” as the air we breathe (which, indeed, has in some places itself already been partially transformed into capital). It is in this way that Shaviro sees how the unforgettable slake-moths of China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station (2000) are thoroughly capitalist monsters, terrifyingly inhuman in their (literal) dispossession of sentient consciousness, but utterly at one with the “normal” economy of New Crobuzon. The slake-moths are “literally unthinkable, yet at the same time, they are entirely immanent to the society that they ravage” (171). I would add that what Miéville has done by inventing the slake-moths is basically to restore our sense of violation that the constant predations of capitalism have all but numbed out of existence.

Clearly, Shaviro’s understanding of the material infrastructure of our network society is antithetical to the economically illiterate pseudo-utopianism of those who see only the promise of freedom in the unfettered development of cybernetic, post-industrial capitalism. Shaviro exposes not only John Perry Barlow but also those he calls “the technolibertarians of Silicon Valley and Redmond” (3). The latter assume the free market to be a marvelous synthesis of rape and expropriation—of strenuous capitalist competition—with the perfect harmony and balance that comes of the system’s being a supposedly self-regulating mechanism in which all happens, at least in the long run, for the best. But this image of the market is merely the self-image of the “soft fascism of the corporate network” (4) that is in fact dedicated to the alienation of all human potentiality into the circuits of “free” capital. We might add that this fascism remains “soft” only to the point that the system finds no urgent necessity for the physical force that is fairly prominent, for instance, in Noir. The actual threat of prison that the US government, at the bidding of Microsoft and other high-tech corporations, has aimed at certain individuals who have stolen nothing but have written computer codes that could slightly inhibit Microsoft’s accumulation of capital shows that the .357 magnums of which Jeter writes are still in plentiful supply for whenever they might be needed.

But what also needs to be stressed—perhaps a little more than Shaviro himself does—is that a grasp of the political economy of connectedness not only refutes bourgeois wishful thinking but also supplies a necessary Marxist corrective to the traditional Marxist wishful thinking and triumphalism that for more than a century habitually saw “the final crisis” of capitalism in every moment of the system’s uneven development. Every serious hiccup in the process of expanded capital accumulation was seized on as heralding the final conflict. Shaviro well describes the source of the confusion: “Marxists have hoped ... to see capitalism collapse from its self-generated crises, which is to say from its internal contradictions. But the trouble is that these very crises and contradictions are also what keep capitalism alive” (222). In other words, crisis, which spurs capitalism on to discover new modes of accumulation (both extensively, in colonizing new geographic areas of the planet, and intensively, in finding previously unsuspected resources, like digitized culture, to be commodified) is not contingent but essential to the capitalist mode of production—to a greater degree, indeed, than most Marxists, perhaps including even Marx himself, have realized. The capitalist appetite for creative destruction is strictly insatiable, and logically must sooner or later be baffled by the fact that the resources of a finite universe are ipso facto limited. But so flexible and imaginative has capitalism been in finding new options for itself that it is now impossible to guess just when or how the moment of final exhaustion will arrive. Shaviro reminds us that Ken MacLeod, in his self-consciously Marxist version of post-cyberpunk sf, has imagined that capitalism, having depleted one planet, will eventually expand into outer space; and it is a good deal more difficult now than even 20 years ago to dismiss this notion as “merely” science fiction.

I have, I trust, made tolerably clear how Shaviro not only explicates science fiction but uses his favorite sf texts, and how he works alongside their authors in order to explicate “what it means to live in the network society,” to recall his justly immodest subtitle. But I cannot conclude my analysis of this very important book without confessing that it does possess aspects that seem to me less illuminating than they could have been. To re-invoke Blanchot’s terminology that was discussed earlier, I do not think there are any moments in Connected when its communist clarity, humanity, and good faith are less than impeccable. But I do think there are times when Shaviro might usefully have been more rigorously Marxist than he actually is.

For one thing, though Shaviro never forgets the economic base of the technology that enables the connected, networked society, he does, I think, sometimes exaggerate this technology’s scope. On the very first page of text, he says, “Today, the technosphere, or the mediascape, is the only ‘nature’ we know” (ix). This is certainly not an inadvertent or careless statement, for its gist is repeated several times. In a gloss on Marshall McLuhan, Shaviro says again, “The mediasphere is the only ‘nature’ we know” (23), and, writing of corporate domination of the media, he maintains that the “electronic media are to us what ‘nature’ was to earlier times” (64). The scare-quotes consistently placed around nature are significant, for they suggest that the truly natural has been so thoroughly eliminated from the contemporary environment that the concept itself survives only problematically, usable only if placed sous rature—“under erasure”—as Derrida would say. Can such an absolute claim really be justified? This position seems to me reminiscent of, and may well have been directly influenced by, Jameson’s now canonical theorization of postmodernism—always a key concept for Shaviro as well—which Jameson defines as the cultural logic of our current economic moment of late capitalism, “when the modernization process is complete and nature is gone for good” (Postmodernism ix). Gone for good? That is very gone indeed.

What I object to in these formulations by Shaviro and Jameson is not simply that they ignore a wealth of empirical counter-examples—though I have, indeed, always been fond of Katherine Hayles’s insistence (aimed against certain different but not wholly unrelated hyperboles of the postmodern) on the reality of the contemporary “Iowa farmer who has spent the day inspecting his seed corn, feeding his hogs, and spreading manure on his garden” (321). Is the mediasphere truly the only nature that such a person knows? But my more fundamental objection is theoretical. Briefly put, the kind of absolutism that Shaviro and Jameson share on this point seems to me more Hegelian than Marxist. Specifically, what gets elided here is the crucial Marxist category of uneven development (to which, as we have seen, Shaviro is quite sensitive in his understanding of capitalism’s crises of overproduction and underconsumption). One key quality of the Marxist narrative of human development is that it is (like certain modernist novels) an anti-narrative as well: one that proceeds by fits and starts, is constantly interrupting and doubling back on itself, and never, ever, proceeds in a smooth, homogeneous way. Nothing ever happens that is not qualified and negated at the same time, and, as Althusser insisted, there is no coupe d’essence (or “essential section”) through which a supposedly homogeneous totality of the historical current can be made visible. Though the supersession of nature by a technically and culturally mediated “second nature” is surely one of the salient (and extremely science-fictional) characteristics of our own late-capitalist moment, I think that such supersession must be understood as one unevenly distributed characteristic among many: not as absolute and unrivaled, as though contemporary history were to be understood by means of an indwelling quasi-Hegelian essence. Jameson’s inclination toward such idealism is less surprising than Shaviro’s. Jameson’s early championing of “a relatively Hegelian kind of Marxism” (Marxism ix) has been pretty consistently (if usually implicitly) maintained throughout his career; and I do not think it is disrespectful to the brilliance and scope of his work during the late 1980s and early 1990s to observe that postmodernism for Jameson is, at bottom, the latest avatar of the Hegelian Zeitgeist. But Shaviro has generally stood against Hegelian totalization and for the stress on singularity that he finds in Kant and Nietzsche (the latter of whom he follows Gilles Deleuze in reading as a sort of neo-Kantian). Yet he too, I think, falls into a variety of Hegelian historicism. Perhaps, as President Nixon might have put it, we are all (at least sometimes) Hegelians now.

As we have seen, the tendency toward the supersession of nature by a heavily technologized and commodified culture is, for Shaviro, ultimately an effect of the advance of globalized capitalism. The corresponding tendency within the capitalist mode of production itself is the supersession of labor-intensivity by capital-intensivity, or, in other words, the increasing prominence of finance capital as against industrial capital. This is one of the most consequential of the “laws of motion” of capital, as was made clear by Marx in Volume Three of Capital and by many others after him. But here too, I think, Shaviro sometimes exaggerates, turning a relative tendency into an absolute—and in this case impossible—fait accompli: namely, the complete triumph of finance capital, which now appears as if unmoored in the material creation of wealth. This idea crops up several times in Connected—and, for instance, introduces what seem to me some problematic notes in Shaviro’s generally excellent reading of Philip K. Dick’s superlative novel Ubik (1969)—but is perhaps most lucidly stated in an analysis of the contemporary stock market: “[T]he logic of financial markets today is entirely phantasmatic and nonrepresentational. Stocks do not represent values that exist in the real world; rather financial speculation itself is what generates all those real-world values in the first place” (41). To imagine that financial speculation can actually produce value in this way is, I think, to fall again into idealism, and a variety of idealism more politically consequential than any Hegelian historicism. For all his normal communist shrewdness, I think that here, for once, Shaviro has been deceived by the capitalist system whose deceptiveness he usually exposes in such a penetrating fashion.

For, after all, the notion that finance capital, in and of itself, might create wealth is nothing other than the perennial dream of the capitalists themselves. It certainly did not originate with contemporary bond traders and dot-com tycoons. On the contrary, it goes back at least to the merchants of the northern Italian city-states during the fourteenth century. As Giovanni Arrighi, one of the most compelling historians of capitalism among scholars at work today, has explained, every cycle in the history of the system has ended with a “wonderful moment” of renewed power and riches when high finance has seemed to be operating strictly on its own. But the bubble has always burst, and the moment has never lasted: “On the contrary, it has always been the preamble to a deepening of the crisis and to the eventual supersession of the still dominant regime of accumulation by a new one” (215). The “wonder” has always proved illusory, and it could hardly be otherwise—for reasons graspable by empirical common sense as well as by Marxist economic theory. However complex and mystifying the mediations may become, money—the “stuff” of finance—would be desired by no one and would lead to no social or political power were it not ultimately exchangeable for commodities, i.e., for material products of the human hand and brain that possess use-value as well as exchange-value. Money that existed solely for its own sake would be a matter not of science fiction, but of fantasy (in the worst and most reactionary Tolkienian sense). What’s more, it is easy to see why the absolute autonomy of finance should be such a continuously seductive capitalist fantasy. For such autonomy would amount to the complete disconnection of finance capital not only from industrial capital, but, even more important and at just one more remove, from labor itself. A finance capitalism complete unto itself would satisfy the ultimate right-wing dream, the dream of a capitalism without a working class. Understandably dazzled by the apparent wizardry of high finance today, Shaviro has, I think, granted it more ultimate power than it could ever really possess, and, in so doing, has inadvertently lent comfort to a politics fundamentally opposed to his own.

My disagreements with Shaviro, then, are significant. Even so, they are relatively minor compared to all that seems to me brilliantly valid in his work, from which I, like many others, have learned much. Connected is in many ways, I believe, his best production to date, and one looks forward to his future output with renewed eagerness.

Arrighi, Giovanni. The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power, and the Origins of Our Times. London: Verso, 1994.
Freedman, Carl. Critical Theory and Science Fiction. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2000.
Delany, Samuel. Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. New York: Bantam Spectra, 1985.
Hayles, N. Katherine. “The Borders of Madness.” SFS 18.3 (November 1991): 321-23.
Jameson, Fredric. Marxism and Form: Twentieth-Century Dialectical Theories of Literature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1971.
─────. Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1991.
Jeter, K.W. Noir. New York: Bantam Spectra, 1999.
Misha. Red Spider White Web. La Grande, OR: Wordcraft, 1999.
Shaviro, Steven. The Cinematic Body. Minneapolis: U Minnesota P, 1993.
─────. Doom Patrols: A Theoretical Fiction about Postmodernism. New York: Serpent’s Tail, 1997.

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