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Introduction to Subjectivity and Fantasy in


Action: For a Comparative Film Studies
Paul Willemen
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Comparative Film Studies , Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, 14:1, 96-103
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Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, 2013


Vol. 14, No. 1, 96103, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14649373.2013.746773

Introduction to Subjectivity and Fantasy in Action: For a Comparative


Film Studies1

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Paul WILLEMEN

ABSTRACT Originally written as an introduction to Willemens unpublished book of essays, this paper
provides perhaps the most concise outline available of what he meant by the concept comparative film
studies. Making a strong case for why all thinking on film should once and for all jettison the discredited framework that saw films at the intersection of national specificity and universal values, Willemen proposes that we replace that intersection as an encounter between national histories and the
capitalist-industrial production of culture. This requires us, first of all, to replace the very concept of
universality with what underpins it, namely a pervasive capitalist mode of production. In exploring
the historical-narrative constructions of such a capitalist mode, the argument draws from several disciplines to propose thatcontrary to conventional viewsit is not only language that defines
national-cultural memory. He draws from Marx to contend that past generations accumulated
efforts and experiences are also stored as a kind of labour power, in the form of dead labour in machines
of various kinds. A good way to understand this concept of dead labour, then, is to see the purpose of
narrative as also concerned with proposals, suggestions and dreams about the management of what he
calls the dead labour savings account. Finally, Willemen outlines the way by which such an
approach allows us to rethink the trope of modernity, and whatever it constructs as coming both
pre- and post- that modernity.

KEYWORDS : Comparative film studies, narrative, modernism, labour power


The discipline of comparative literature and
its emphasis on geographically bounded
ethno-linguistic units to be compared
achieved academic legitimacy many years
ago, as Ren tiembles synoptic contribution to Mikel Dufrenne (1979, 8392)
makes clear. Nevertheless, it seems quite
inappropriate as a model for approaching
the study of a thoroughly industrialised cultural form such as cinema. Whereas the
notion of comparative literature evolved in
close dialogue with its romantic twin, the
notion of a common language, culture and
ethnic history as a founding paradigm for
the elaboration of nationalist ideologies in
the nineteenth century, cinema as an industry
has always been, from its first decades
onwards, in the forefront of what has now
come to be known as globalisation. From
the start, Italian, French, Swedish, British
2013 Paul Willemen

and American films, along with performers


and technicians, circulated internationally
without carrying an ostentatious national
logo or provenance. As such, cinema has
always been uneasy with nationalism, preferring to indulge in fantasies of universalism
based on a simple inversion of the languagenational ethnos ideology, thus maintaining
that romantically nationalist ideology intact
while seeming to go beyond it: because
image-discourses
allegedly
operated
without having to pass through the narrow
defile of a particular verbal language,
cinema was often described as the first
genuine universal language capable of
restoring humanity to its pre-Babel unity.
Neither is there any need to recall the complicity between comparative literature and
comparative religion or that Goethes
notion of world literature relied on

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Introduction to Subjectivity and Fantasy in Action


Western-Christian values as the yardstick
with which to measure the degree of a particular, regional literary works adherence
to a norm deemed to be universal. But it is
precisely the whiff of clerical thinking that
attaches to comparative literature that provides a clue as to why the notion of comparative film studies may be worth considering,
mutatis mutandis. In the West, the shift from
religion and its professionals as the legitimators and enforcers of particular regimes of
social power to a more secular notion of
universal valuesa shift accompanied by
the gradual transformation of clerics into
intellectuals and, now, media practitioners
is the history of the emergence of the
public sphere challenging and eventually
supplanting the court as the legitimate site
for the discussion of issues of governance.
That is the history underpinning the
designation of the peculiar mix of moral philosophy and aesthetics known as literaturelit and its crit, as Tom Nairn once
put it, describing the UKanian variety of
the disciplineas the training ground for
modern state legitimators (enforcement
duties have been passed on to the military
and the police). Given that the force driving
this change is the gradual elaboration and
spread of the capitalist mode of production,
which set about its triumphal globalisation
in the second half of the twentieth century,
and given that the history of cinema
coincides with the industrialisation of
culture enforced in the West since the
closing years of the nineteenth century, it
must follow that there is indeed a kind of
universalism that informs cinema as a
cultural form.2
The universalism at issue is not to be
defined or conceived in terms of some imagined beyond of verbal language or of
national cultures defined according to
ethno-linguistic parameters. Nor is it to be
defined in terms of a particular set of values,
the presence or absence of which would
determine a films place in the domain of
world cinema, even though many if not
most histories and theories of cinema
proceed as if that were the case. The universalism at stake which enables comparisons

97

to be made is the universal encounter with


capitalism, a process that has determined
(although it never was the only determination) and accompanied every manifestation
of cinema throughout the world and which,
moreover, has massively accelerated since
the 1950s, eventually generating the notion
of world cinema. Georges Sadouls Histoire
gnrale du cinma started covering cinema in
general from 1946 onwards, but the first
major world cinema chronology, Philippe
Esnaults Chronologie du cinma mondial was
published in Paris in 1963, followed by a
Belgian publication in Dutch in 1976 edited
by Dirk Lauwaert, 83 Jaren Filmgeschiedenis
Een Tijdstabel (1893-1975). Since then, the
notion of world cinema has become generally accepted, unfortunately. Screening
venues attached to film archives have for
many years advertised seasons of national
cinemas and film authors by resorting to the
language of discovery familiar from colonial expeditions as much as from tourist brochures. Alongside this notion of world
cinema, as its inevitable companion piece,
we are treated to histories of national
cinemas elaborated according to the very
same nationalist assumptions that govern
the formulation of romantically nationalist
histories of literature by way of appeals to
some mysteriously unifying spirit of the
nation, mostly located in the spirit of whatever language was imposed as the national
language by some governing group.
That is the unsavoury context within
which the notion of comparative film
studies begins to make some sort of sense.
If we jettison the inherited framework of
film history that locates a film at the intersection between universal values and
nationalist specificity, and if we also
refuse to credit the nationalist mystifications
invoking blood and soil to explain why it
is possibleeven necessaryto differentiate
between one states industrial production of
cultural commodities and that of another,3
it becomes possible to reflect on the ways in
which the encounter between national histories and the capitalist-industrial production of culture intersect, generating
specific ways of discoursing. And it is

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Paul Willemen

worth repeating here that the universality


underpinning comparisons between such
discursive constellations (marked by the
way social-historical tensions between
groups contending for power in particular
geo-political unitsnationsare to be narrativised) is first and foremost the universality
provided by the pervasive capitalist mode of
production. Notoriously, capitalism thrives
on its ability to advance and advocate very
different sets of values as appropriate for
different regions, people and sectors of the
economy, which is why the encounter with
capitalism cannot be treated in the same
way as an encounter with, say, Christian
values: an encounter with forces reducing
everything and everybody to their exchange
value is quite different from a confrontation
with the codified equation between the
good, the true and the beautiful, an equation
propagated by people and institutions that
are neither of the three and seek to counter
the equalising tendencies within capitalism
in favour of even more oppressively antidemocratic, traditional regimes of power.
Given that film history and film theory
were elaborated within the particular forcefield constituted by Europe and the USA, it
should not come as a surprise that it is the
Euro-American model of cinema that constitutes the frame for the existing paradigm of
film studies. And it is equally unsurprising
that the model(s) elaborated to understand
the functioning of that cinemafilm theory
should present difficulties to whomever
tries to understand the workings of nonEuro-American cinemas. In that respect,
comparative film studies does constitute,
not an alternative discipline, but a detour in
order to re-arrive at a better model of cinematic functioning. Comparative film studies
is concerned with the elaboration of a better
film theory by paying attention to the differential encounters with capitalism and the
consequent modulations of cinematic
speech or discourse.
What this book attempts to offer is a set
of suggestions, some more tentatively
advanced than others, for ways of going
about understanding what the corrective
might be, trying to find out how and where

to identify the discursive knots in which the


particularities of the encounter with capitalism, also known as the process of modernisation, may be traced.
In one of his regular diagnostic essays
taking stock of recent history, Perry Anderson (2002a, 14) noted that
Among the effects of the social revolution set in train from the 1960s
onwards were mutations in what Marx
called the character-masks of capital
itself. A certain plebeian marination of
styles and personnel has undoubtedly
occurred. But the more significant
change is one not of tone, but of scale.
Never since the Gilded Age have financial buccaneers and industrial magnates
stalked the earth with such giant strides,
trampling over labour and swaggering
through culture, from heights of wealth
and power Gould or Morgan could scarcely have imagined. A glance at press or
television is reminder enough of the ubiquity of this tribe.

In the face of such a rampage, it is no


longerif it ever wassufficient for cultural
criticism to content itself with endlessly
repeated exposs of the ideological nastiness
underpinning what Europes political
leaders call modernisation. Anderson is
right to draw attention to the need to scrutinise capitals character masks, but that is
easier called for than done. The usual practice has been to try to unmask ideological
constructs rather than to read the masks
themselves. More than two decades ago, in
the context of the grievously reductive
mobilisation of Barthess critique of everyday mythologies, Rgis Debray (1981, 77,
110) pointed to the dangers of getting
bogged down in Ideologiekritik, warning that
The ability of an idea to stir the masses,
to modify the balance of a field of
forces or to induce one or another form
of behaviour is independent of its
truth-value; it is a function of its mode
of transmission (which is technically
and historically determined) and of the
type of cathexis or loyalty it attracts.
Any operation of thought refers to a

Introduction to Subjectivity and Fantasy in Action

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transmission mechanism which structures it from within.4

In other words, capitals character


masks are not simply a matter of ideologies
disguising or hiding some truth. They
appear as the kind of figurations that
Henry James famously detected on a barroom floor or which literary criticism more
genteelly designates as the figure in the
carpet. Ideologiekritik does not offer us the
means of reading that. Going beyond the sloganising of a McLuhan caught up in advertising and marketings reformatting of
intellectual discourse, Barthes relentlessly
tracked the layeredness of texts in order to
try and find out how the ingredients active
within discursive operations, always conducted in historically and materially specific,
technologised forms, actually work and
interact to create what he called galaxies of
signifiers and their semantic nebulae. In
those galaxies and nebulae, also, the character masks appear. Unfortunately, Barthess
towering achievements, some of them now
being reformulated and extended by
Debray, also remind us that, at present, cultural theory finds itself in a position akin to
that of chemistry at the time of the alchemists: one can detect mysterious processes
at work transforming one thing into
another, but the hows and whys remain, for
the time being, beyond our intellectual
reach. Nevertheless, speaking as a reluctant
alchemist dreaming of chemistry (never
mind the anticipation of chemistrys
various branches or of Mendeleevs periodic
table), there is work in other, adjacent disciplines that may well point the way if only
the connections can be made.
Andersons characterisation of the swaggering tribe as composed of financiers and
industrialists already points to a problem:
which of them rules the tribe? For the last
five decades or so, with the development of
multinational corporations and global financial institutions, these two sectors of the tribe
have become so closely intertwined that it is
sometimes very difficult to distinguish their
different boot-prints in the cultural landscape. And yet, as intellectuals trying to

99

understand how what we call culture (itself


a dangerous but methodologically necessary
demarcation of certain activities from others)
works, we should make every effort to identify, at the very least, the basic analytical
toolkit required to make our way through
this landscape in some capacity other than
that of sheep-like prey of the predatory tribe.
In a language more familiar to the
current state of cultural alchemy, this means
that we have to renew our efforts to learn to
read, so that we may distinguish between
figures as different from each other as a
boot-print and a meteor crater. One essential
set of tools is provided by economic theories,
analyses and histories, and there is plenty of
extremely useful material to draw on. For the
cultural side, the names of Jameson, Eagleton, Appadurai, Buck-Morss and Morris
come to mind most readily as reference
points, in addition, of course, to Barthes,
Anderson, Debray and Wollens (1993)
daunting effort to trace linkages between
national-cultural histories and artistic texts.5
In order to focus on the accelerating spread
of digitally inscribed signs in the cultural
landscape, and to do so within the broad
frame provided by these reference points, I
would like to follow up a clue provided by
Perry Anderson (2002b, 9) in a discussion of
internationalism, where he makes a passing
comment about how, for romantic nationalism, the essential definition of the nation
was cultural and its touchstone would be
language, as the accumulated transcript of
the experience of past generations.
A significant part of this books argument is that language is not the only place
where past generations accumulated efforts
and experiences are stored. For Marx, the
labour power of past generations is also
stored in the form of dead labour in machines
of various kinds. The labour of past generations haunts derelict industrial sites; it persists and figures in buildings, landscapes,
books. What industrialists call plant (buildings, machinery, office equipment) is in fact a
resource bank of accumulated dead labour, a
kind of savings account. By adding that
stored, dead labour to living labour, productivity is enhanced and profits can be

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Paul Willemen

increased. The ownership and management


of that savings account is, therefore, a
keenly contested issue among social groups
competing for advantage and power. As
such, modernising social formations not
only yield narratives (more or less conscious
proposals, suggestions and dreams) concerning themselves with the (re)production of
social and kinship arrangements that are
being contested in terms of the management
of personal affects and ties,6 motifs of tradition and modernity. These narratives must
also, necessarily, concern themselves in
some way with proposals, suggestions and
dreams about the management of the dead
labour savings account: how to use, invest,
liquidate or increase it, and which social
sector shall be the controlling force in those
decisions. It is one of the underlying assumptions of my argument here that image-discourses, and thus the technologies
associated with them, provide a particularly
propitious terrain for narrations venting the
tensions associated with the dead labour
issue. The problem is to read the figurational
patterns or dynamics thus imprinted in texts.
Andersons casual comment suggests
that the widely recognised national dimension of cinema, as a narrative about the way
we (should, might) live social reproduction,
also must harbour a current that connects
with the inscription of changes and tensions
in the deployment of labour power in a
trans-generational dynamic. Such a linkage
would then make it possible, for instance,
to begin to understand how the modernising shift in power-relations that characterises the last 30 or 40 years, as finance
capital asserts its hegemony over industrial
capital,7 press into existence around the
same time, in Hollywood, films otherwise
as diverse as Ang Lees Crouching Tiger
Hidden Dragon (2000) and the Wachowski
Brothers The Matrix (1999), or Scorseses
The Age of Innocence (1993) and Spielbergs
Schindlers List (1993), with their varying
recourse to different techniques and
emphases relating to a menu of production
resources mobilised to concoct discourses
about the transcription of the experience
of past generations. These films (and many

others, in different ways) present a narrativisation of generational change in terms of a


web of semantic strands knotted around
the definition and control of accumulated
past experience. The semantic strands are
dispersed, to be read, at the level of the narrative motifs as well as at the level of the
chosen technological means of expression
and the strategies of address that ensue
from binding the one to the other. As far as
Hollywood has been impacted by the
linkage between broader, long-term socioeconomic dynamics connected with the possibly short-term hegemony of finance capital
over industrial capital, and their different
attitudes towards and valuations of different
ways of storing as well as deploying dead
labour, a start has been made by David
Cooks (2002)8 insightful account of the
changes in Hollywood in the 1970s, but
much work remains to be done. Indeed,
most, perhaps even all existing national
film histories need to be drastically reconceptualised and re-narrated giving due weight
to the footprints made by Andersons tribe.
My use of concepts such as subjectivity,
identity, and even discourse may strike a
reader as somewhat idiosyncratic or subject
to slippages. It may be worth explaining
from the outset that a statement, whether
verbal, cinematic or in any other medium,
consists of the weaving together of many discursive, including semantic, chains, invoking
diverse knowledges in a variety of modalities, from abbreviations to condensed memories, anticipatory fantasies, associations/
connotations and so on, each of them positing
a speaker, an I. In any given enunciation,
the overall subject of the enunciation consists of a bound-together bundle of such discursive chains, the I positions of which
have been mappednever totally seamlesslyonto each other. For instance, in the
simple statement I am homeward bound,
there is one subject signalling the intention
to go somewhere; a second subject is signifying its ability to speak English, a third one
conveys its familiarity with a somewhat
rural and old-fashioned American vernacular
possibly derived from country and western
or folk music; depending on the context, a

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Introduction to Subjectivity and Fantasy in Action


fourth could be signalling its ironic distance
from the phrases Western or hobo connotations; and in the context of this introduction, there is a fifth subject positioning itself
as the donor of an example addressed to
readers capable of reading and understanding English, and so on. A more sophisticated
example is provided by Adorno (1998, 281
283) where he shows how a pre-modern
voice resounds alongside the eminently modernising voices enunciating the main philosophical works of Kant and Hegel.
As a result of the possibly unfamiliar conceptualisation of concatenated grammatical
subject positions, confusion may arise
around my use of the term subject. A
double meaning is, unfortunately, endemic
in the English language, where it may
denote both the grammatical subject of a sentence and the (psychologised) notion of the
individual
subject,
also
sometimes
described as a sense of the self. Here, I
want to suggest that a human subject, a personalised agency identifiable as a narrator or
even an author, is indeed a concatenation of
multiple grammatical subjects folded into
and over each other according to the protocols provided or suggested by particular
thought-frameworks or ideologies (or by an
idiosyncratic amalgam of such frameworks).
The coherence of the apparently directive
voice designated as the narrator, the subject
of a films enunciation, is thus no more than
an as if unification, an imaginary coherence
attributed to and assumed by a personalised
subject: a narrator conceived as a person
analogous to you or me as individuals. How
the slippage from the grammatical to the individual subject is achieved in and by texts is a
complex debate in itself requiring the mobilisation of many disciplines including psychoanalysis, poetics, theories of history as well
as of historiography and so on. Nevertheless,
I think it is worth running the risk of that confusion, for the time being.
As for the notion of identitya concept I
try to avoid usingthat is no more than a
politically truncated version of a persons
concatenation of subject positions, a kind of
straitjacket into which, for administrative as
well as political purposes, we are fitted.

101

An identity is a reductive version of the


bundles of subject positions, more or less
loosely bound together according to the circumstances and contexts, available to and
practised by us under coercion. I do not
wish to suggest that an identity, the model
of which is what a passport makes of us, is
necessarily and always a bad thing. Clearly,
the administration of social affairs would be
impossible without such methodological
reductions. But identity becomes a poisonous concept when interest groups try to
pin us to a defined (by them) identity, a
restricted notion of personhood designed to
regulate our social behaviour, codes of
conduct, sexuality, freedom of movement
and association and so on. At times, of
course, notions of identity are applied with
brutally oppressive, even lethal force,
which is why I stress the value of a notion
of subjectivity that allows each of us, at
least to some extent, to modulate the constellation of subject-positions, which we want to
constitute as a self in particular circumstances and for particular purposes.
Nevertheless, in spite of allowing, for
methodological purposes, such a starkly
polarised opposition between subjectivity
and identity to underpin my conceptualisations of discursive practices, I have to
acknowledge that in reality, matters are not
quite so clear-cut, as the novels of Raymond
Williams are designed to demonstrate.
Perhaps, instead of designating subjectivity
and identity as a binary opposition, it
would be more accurate to conceive of these
two notions as moving in opposite directions
along the circumference of a circle. Initially, in
our apprenticeship period, when learning
what it means to exist as a social beinga
process always circumscribed by specific,
geographically and historically particularised
social institutionswe also learn about the
difference between identity and subjectivity.
The two notions then increasingly diverge
as we learn what it means to be identified
as a member of various nested concatenations
of socially defined groupings, from our place
in a family grouping to broader kinship
networks, from socio-geographically circumscribed groupings of peers to which we are

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Paul Willemen

solicited or said to belong (in age, class,


gender, employment not to mention sexual
orientation and ethnicity) to terms of in- or
exclusion from nationally or internationally
framed institutions). That learning process
yields what I construct as the polarised opposition between subjectivity and identity. In
the end, though, subjectivation (involving a
sense of self that can only be made to coincide
with an identity at the cost of Procrustean
amputations) and identification come
together again as two terms in a tension that
must be seen as constitutive of the very
fabric of our experience as individuals
always tied to specific times and places.
What makes us us, is not the result of the
identifications imposed upon us, nor the
ways in which we subjectively negotiate,
evade, modify or modulate those impositions. Instead, it is the result of the way we
experience and live those very tensions, at
which point both identity and subjectivity
can be seen as imaginary sites outlined by
the folding over and into each other of grammatical first-persons (I-positions) that
coagulate into possible (historically determined and therefore always changing) speaking positions underpinning a sense of agency.
A second, equally intractable problem
concerns my fairly cavalier separation
between the modern and the pre-modern, a
distinction to which I gesture as if it were
a real distinction. Of course, I acknowledge that we can only speak from within
some version of modernity, and that our definitions of whatever is pre or post that is
necessarily defined from within that
version. There are only, to adapt Derridas
phraseology, spectres of possible pre- or
post-modernities. The latter, incidentally,
are beginning to look more and more like
the former, making distinctions between the
directionalities of vectorial change in contemporary societies increasingly difficult to
discern, which, no doubt, is the reason why
the post-modern spectre is so frequently
trotted out nowadays in what passes for cultural analysis. Nevertheless, my distinction
between the modern and whatever went
before, even though produced from within
(invented by) modernity, gestures towards

two things that I have found no other,


better, way of designating. One is the question of directionality: the archaicising or
modernising vectors that result from any
particular orchestration of the many
voices that are discernible in the corridor
of voices dramatised by texts. The second,
even more intractable problem, is that of
the baggage that comes with the mobilisation
of a before that is always already preformatted, so to speak. To resist what needs to
be resisted in some particular version of
modernity (say: the modernity that imperial Britain claimed to incarnate), it may be
useful, even necessary, to mobilise some
aspects of a before. In that sense, the
version of the premodern mobilised may
well be itself a form of modernisation that
seeks to go beyond the dominant version
of modernity on offer by those in power.
However, I remain uneasy with such a theoretical possibility if it involves, as I think most
positive invocations of a before do, the
repudiation of the equalising tendencies represented by the notions of individuation and
subjectivity. Nevertheless, I am not clear
enough, as yet, about the meritsor
dangersof deploying a future anterior
tense to re-narrativise selected aspects of a
before against what is. Directors such
as Ritwik Ghatak or Kumar Shahani seem
to me to deploy a cinematic equivalent of
the future anterior by mobilising selected
aspects of a (constructed) tradition to
suggest ways of going beyond the limits of
the modernity they face and suffer. But I
am the first to admit that a great deal more
analytical and critical as well as theoretical
work is required before I can claim to see
my way through that particular thicket of
political-cultural-temporal twists and knots.
Notes
1. Editors note: This was originally written as a draft
introduction to a proposed volume entitled Subjectivity and Fantasy in Action: For a Comparative Film
Studies. The book was never published.
2. For the background to this line of argumentation,
see Harvey ([1982] 1999), Arrighi (1994), Hohendahl (1995), Eagleton (1984), Lears (1981), Kern
(1983) and Ohmann (1996).

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Introduction to Subjectivity and Fantasy in Action


3. Briefly, my argument is that the specific network of
linked institutions that form the State (such as the
judicial, legislative, military, educational, syndical,
political institutions, and more) address individuals living within the states boundaries in particular ways and oblige people to address it in
equally specific ways, producing what we have
come to know as national cultures. For a fuller
exposition of the argument, see The National in
Paul Willemen (1994).
4. Debray subsequently developed a new discipline,
mediology, to study how processes of social organisation determine ways of thinking. A summary of
his approach can be found in Debray (2001, 2002)
5. In addition to Marx, see the classic introduction
provided in Harvey ([1982] 1999); for a long-term
perspective, see Arrighi (1991, 1994 and 2003). As
far as Hollywood is concerned, even though he
hardly mentions it, Brenner (1998, 2003) remains
the key reference point. For the most helpful
recent attempts to begin connecting these economic analyses to aesthetics, one should consult
just about everything written by Fredric Jameson
and Meaghan Morris; Terry Eagleton (2002),
McKeon (1987) Arjun Appadurai (1996), BuckMorss (1989) and Wollen (1993) provide good
starting points.
6. This is not to underestimate the emotional turmoil
that actual, living people may experience when
they themselves are caught in such processes of
social reproduction: having been socialised and,
so to speak, formatted in one way, then having to
or wanting to re-format oneself in a different way
can be exceedingly fraught and painful.
7. In this shift, extensively chronicled by economists,
there are tensions and changes almost as epochal
in cultural-economic terms as those accompanying
the final, triumphal assault of industrial capital on
the absolutist regimes that marked the period
between, roughly, from the middle of the nineteenth to the middle of twentieth centuries,
which is also the background to nationalism and
to the massive attention paid to technologies of
vision.
8. I am greatly indebted to his work.

References
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