Thursday, July 29, 2010

On Capital as Image

Achille Mbembe. Image by Aude Dieuda

It is under a clear blue sky that the champions arrive at Orlando Stadium. Situated on a hill overlooking a valley in the Soweto area of Johannesburg, the arena is spectacular, a place to see and be seen. This brisk, sunny morning is full of promise, and the arriving competitors are full of expectation. I am among them, and as we move through the tunnel toward a luxuriously fertile pitch, the stadium’s aisles yawn, its thousands of hungry chairs warming in early sunshine. We participants in the Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism arrive early for the main event: Capital as Image, by Achille Mbembe. I shivered with anticipation; Mbembe is a distinguished scholar, famous for thrilling audiences with theoretical rigor and agility. On this particular morning, his supporters expect a hypnotizing performance.

The audience’s expectations are quickly fulfilled. But we also discover Mbembe’s hypnotism demands a willing engagement. Rather than passive delivery, this event was staged as “studio session,” a format that is deliberately tentative, tirelessly exploratory and resolutely fragmentary. Mbembe begins by explaining the rules of this serious game: there will be no attempt at systematicity, but goals may be achieved through hypothesis, proposition, and risk. I am already uncertain, but Mbembe raises the stakes further—he informs us that these calculated risks could lead nowhere—for the goal is not to pin down the proposition, but to circle around it. Mbembe is running in the direction of Walter Benjamin’s theses, and suddenly there is a flash that places us all in a moment of danger.

Mbembe continues by revisiting a proposition longstanding in archives of critical theory: Whatever we mean by capital, in order to understand its workings, its winding pathways, it will help to define it as image, and as spectacle. Mbembe describes the questions concerning image and spectacle that suddenly appear: What kind of image is capital? What type of spectacle is it? Who produces capital (as image)? For what purposes or effects is it produced? Mbembe insists that any response must be validated empirically. In this instance, he makes reference to Hans Belting’s work in visual culture—Belting does not always treat images as works of art, but as informing instances of cultural activity. The “question of the image” is an issue of various disciplines, and while there is immense literature on the subject, no single discipline can encompass the image. This unmanageability is apparent when the disciplines reach their end limits. To demonstrate this point, Mbembe schematizes two disciplinary examples: theology and philosophy. For Mbembe, in theology the image is universal, and its image claims theological significance. The image is reduced to a single common denominator, with unifying formulas developed with a practical end in view. Philosophy, on the other hand, is concerned with phenomena of the visible world and the truth of ideas. In this theoretical context, the material image is a possible object of linguistic or mental abstraction. It is clear such vast methodological differences present overwhelming theoretical odds.


Mbembe stays home. He reminisces about his interest in the problem of the image, which he says comes from a childhood in Cameroon, where television was not a part of life. He left the country in 1980 and saw his first movie at twelve years old, his next at nineteen years old. It was not until his thirties that he began attending movies regularly. He contrasts the popular cinematic experience with his local experience of masking, and explains that his childhood world was governed by socio-political debates about the mask as image. This personal experience provided a sense that the image involves more than the object, but also a series of mental acts that carry characteristics of the image. Mbembe was made to understand everyday life as a series of interactions between things and actions. The point here is to demonstrate the experience of the image is always personal, localized and contextualized. The image concerns issues of ontology, social principles, seen and unseen worlds, principles of apparition and oscillation. He notes how the image is activated through mediations, and refers to two intellectual traditions that address these issues: a tradition of French thought that (in line with Martin Jay’s arguement) denigrates the image, and the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, which, in various ways, approaches the image as a source of anxiety. On this occasion, Mbembe’s anxiety is with the problem of image and calculation; image and spectacle; the image understood as a set of associations.


Mbembe leaps. We land with him in Paris, reading philosophy and aesthetics, approaching the image in a different manner. This time, we are made to see the image as a question present in art history and theology, but external to philosophical discourse in the main. The claim here is that in the French tradition, literature is the space of the image. At once, key players enter the game: Bataille, Foucault, Deleuze, Blanchot, Nancy and Heidegger. In sweeping movements they chase a finite image. Mbembe slows them down by marking the imago, the death mask (I turned, awaiting the arrival of Barthes and Schapiro). Mbembe takes a time out: Why the death mask? What is the connection with capital?

Another turn. We are now in Berlin with Nietszche, Wagner, other German’s, in the shadow of World War One’s incomprehensibility and death, running toward meaning.

Momentum shifts. Now we approach Christian mythology, Lazarus and Martha make an entry, and Death is defeated by Jesus Christ’s masterful technique of excavation (it is even an iconoclastic moment, in which the gravestone is overturned).

The unseen image plays on, runs to Debord and through Baudrillard, is nearly glimpsed in spectacle, capital, capitalism, then shape-shifts and becomes another name for exteriority. Mbembe points to a radical exteriority, something like death itself, but fake, a naked presence that never actually becomes authentic experience.


Mbembe pushes harder. This time, Debord and spectacular society enter the arena to the cheers of modern society. Life here is an accumulation of spectacle, not a collection of images, but social relations transformed into material forces. Spectacle is both outcome and goal of the dominant mode of production, not added, not decorative, but at the core of society’s real and flowing into a world in which deceit deceives itself. Ranciere breaks in to emancipate the spectator, and we turn to look at ourselves, just as the image reappears to ask: How do we view? How do we look without falling into stupification? Mbembe calls a penalty: What about the politics of viewing? How could a (new?) pedagogy of viewing help confront the double bind of the ontology of the image?


Mbembe circles back. Debord’s intuitions have foreseen the centrality of images in contemporary mass culture. The image moves faster and faster, producing specular, screen culture as it goes. Virilio begins keeping time; Merleau-Ponty perceives imagistic movement. For Mbembe, the two team up to wonder how to think and understand ballistic trajectories—Mbembe wants to regain contact with the landscape. From the ground, Mbembe observes self-made traps of technological innovation and (along with Bergson, Deleuze and Guattari) sprints towards emancipation. Running with Mbembe, we happily end up where we began, confronting and confronted by images and their workings—but this time, we look more carefully. Mbembe pauses, looks at the spectator, and wonders: What sort of value do images bring to capital?

In the interim, more questions are raised. The concept of the fetish might add to game. During a commercial break, Pietz offers a genealogy of the mysterious concept. Others query about the relation between the image and the body, the meditating experience of the body, its location, and its experiential role. Images of currency appear, if only to pull apart movements from material based currency to paper based promises.


Mbembe plays to win. He passionately describes his World Cup—the daily work of watching, analyzing, loving and hating, the stuff of risk, speculation and investment—to outline the image as a center of indetermination. Such indeterminacy lingers long after discussions about the image have ceased. The proceedings of this spectacular event spill into subsequent discussions and open new spaces of inquiry. I will work towards a stopping point, then, with a remark about spectacle and the visual image.


Mbembe invites us to the field, and even those of us who just came to watch are surprised to learn that it is impossible to passively observe—we are all (unavoidably) active participants in a contest of visuality and meaning. As Mbembe notes elsewhere, visual phenomena may hypnotize, overexcite and paralyze the senses. Spectacular images create and express collective identities central to the creation of new images, the deployment of power, and political actions. Put simply, spectacular images are compelling and generative forces. In the end, we are left with more openings than closures, more questions than answers. We are left looking for that which we cannot see.

Raél Jero Salley


Jonathan Klaaren said...

Lovely and well-written. Let's watch more soccer and analyze/reflect on more social change!

Christopher H. Smith said...

Well-done, Raél!

Post a Comment