Alexei Penzin

Towards a critical theory of “always-on” capitalism

Il faut continuer, je ne peux pas continuer, je vais continuer.

— Samuel Beckett

1. Introduction: Capitalism’s Ends and Continuities

The intention of this article is to introduce the concept of “continuity-form” as a critical intervention into the current theoretical and political debates on the Left. Due to the scope of potential references and contexts, the paper provides only general and condensed mapping for further research, while skipping detailed discussion of particular theories and arguments involved, as well as considerable part of the secondary literature on the topic. First, the article aims to explain why the suggested concept is important to discuss and what optics it can provide for analysis of contemporary capitalism. Then it explores the little-known discussion of this theme in Marx’s foundational political-economic texts. Finally, it points out briefly some contemporary cultural and political dimensions, which become recognisable with what is called here “the continuity-form”.

1.1. Thus why are these reflections on “continuity-form” and “counter-continuity” necessary and what is that problem to which this concept can critically respond? To get immediately to the central point, it is enough to refer to the questions and standpoints, widespread among radical theorists today, such as the straight and impassionate question “when and how, finally, will capitalism end?” Another widespread form of the same concern would be various and quite obscure prophesies of a “living in the end times” ranging from kind of politico-eschatological perspectives on self-destructiveness of contemporary capitalism to concrete dangers and disastrous evidence of the complex phenomena of capitalist devastation and destabilisation of the natural world. In less theoretical but more acute form, this central concern is echoed in people’s responses to the warmongering of recent times driven by greed and cynical calculations, to the new right-wing populist deceptions of dispossessed masses and incredible growth of inequality on the global scale. Those responses sound as desperate wondering: “When this massive and repetitive absurdity will be over?” Today, this “over” is imagined in less utopian and inspiring forms than before, based on assumptions ranging from explosive and unpredictable technological acceleration, random catastrophes and ecological disaster to a chance of new sequence in radical politics.

But maybe, before asking the questions about the end of capitalism, it would better first to investigate its monstrous “no-end” continuities? The first hypothesis that is suggested here relies on assumption that perhaps exactly the continuity is an important intrinsic characteristic of the modern capitalist ontology itself, and it is not only an empirical fact of the day (like the incessant functioning of “27 / 7 society”, etc.), or something that can be re-arranged during a new cycle of economic crisis. To repeat: not rejecting the urgency of the questions about a possible end of capitalism, it would be more consistent to explore first the capitalism’s stubborn and multiple continuities themselves, as well as the ways of its critique and potential political subversion, anchored in militant research that would need general and orientating critical concepts such as the “continuity-form”.

Certainly, those capitalist continuities were unleashed and became visible in the monotonous and non-teleological sequence that began after the collapse of the communist alternatives of the 20th century. The “end of history” – hypothesised in the 1930s by the philosopher Alexandre Kojève (Kojéve 1989) who in fact initially understood this idea as nearing advance of universal communism[1] – was overtaken in the 1990s by hegemonic neoliberalism and interpreted as definite failure of any alternatives to capitalist order and its liberal-democratic institutional and ideological framework. Here we can suspend for a while those reasonable and well-argued challenges and critiques addressed to the very idea of the “end of history” in its neoliberal interpretation, in order to explore its relevance for a critical study of capitalist continuity. Indeed, the Kojève’s idea, if we abstract it from the contents of the assumed historical closure (communist or neoliberal), would suggest exactly the emergent paradigm of a post-historical continuity without any end or goal, as the end was already eliminated. The monotonous formal continuity purified from any teleology would present exactly the historical-ontological premise of the current state of affaires.[2] For Kojève, who derived the idea of post-history from his highly original reading of Hegel’s Phenomenology, this sequence was marked by a “circularity” of our knowledge and modes of behaviour as everything what can be said and done – in principle – was already said and done. In our reading of Kojève, rather against the grain, we would suggest taking this as not an epistemological but rather an ontological aspect of the non-teleological sequence, considering it as literally “without end,” as a pure continuity-form imposed on the society.

1.2. Of course, with contemporary empirical evidences, this sequence of continuities seems to be not absolutely monotonous and consistent. It is full of internal political conflicts, wars or states of exception. But according to the famous sentence of Walter Benjamin, recently reiterated by Giorgio Agamben, the state of an exception itself now became “permanent”, or continuous. The sequence is strained by new waves of economic crisis, by various excesses of neoconservative and neoliberal politics, by violence and instability located at its political level, but it is still grounded in persistent social ontology of the continuity-form. Indeed, the form is present at many layers of the contemporary so-called “24/7 society” whose essential features are not difficult to summarise: the uninterrupted continuity of production, exchange, consumption, communication, and surveillance, with its socio-technical infrastructure of Internet, social media, various incessant social organisations, nonstop algorithms of e-commerce, etc. [3] According to a recent article on the big data and permanent connectivity effects, the characteristic operation of contemporary “surveillance capitalism” is “to link every social activity into a datafied plane, a managed continuity from which value can be generated” (Couldry 2016).

The economic and technological dimension of continuity is reiterated in the social rhetoric of the “continuous education” model whose function is supposed to be nonstop fine-tuning of the labour force in accordance with “flexibility” required by the market. It is efficient in the cultural model of never ending TV series, or in the overwhelming franchising exposed in current cinema industry of “sequels” and “prequels”, or in the media strategies aimed at political neutralisation of any “breaking” event in endless series of its repetitive commenting accompanies with recurring images, etc. In their time, Adorno and Horkheimer were discovering the “cultural industry” in its features of standardization and repetitiveness that rule out unique instances of traditional, or “authentic” creativity to produce the cultural commodity for mass consumption and thus their political deception. Although that industry still allowed some gaps and “informal” elements in it, that happened, so to say, between the series, or the commoditised episodes of production. Now it would be perhaps more appropriate to speak of almost seamless continuity of cultural production and consumption, enhanced by the contemporary digital technologies of image and media.

Even the most intelligent and politically articulated cultural formation – the artistic production – exists today in the permanent “flow” as Boris Groys puts it, meaning that the artwork is not anymore distantiated from the material everyday world as the modernist (or Kantian) aesthetics would suggest, with the institutional support producing separated art spaces such as the gallery or the museum; it is rather immersed in the continuous flow of digitalised images and their intense global circulation. However, Groys does not stress the link between the “fluidity” of the social being of art today to the capitalist predicament, rather elusively referring to the contemporary media and the Internet. At the same time, Groys also emphasises that the “material flow” is not only information and digital images but has its own ontological determination in its forced irreversibility that is close to the analysis of the “continuity-form” we want to undertake here: “However, this flow of information is essentially different from the material flow discussed above. The material flow is irreversible. […] there remains no way out of the material flow – and thus also no way back, no possibility of return” (Groys 2016: 6).[4]

To use, preliminarily, rather a metaphorical way of characterisation, the contemporary capitalism is “always-on” – starting from permanently plugged-in technical devices to various institutions and organisations, it is shaping a continuum, which provides smooth and uninterrupted functioning day and night, 24/7.[5] Of course, those multiple continuities are very heterogeneous and located at different levels – big and small, microscopic and macroscopic, related to various socio-economic and technological processes. Given that the empirical diversity persists, it would be appropriate to analyse general model or form that would be separated and traced in its abstractedness from particular contents, which this form shapes and modulates.

1.3. It is very important to emphasise here that the massive socio-technological apparatus of the continuity-form produces specific forms of subjectivity that are now being forced to adjust to the incessant social and economic activity or the “flow”. Under the current predicament, the human individuals have biological and anthropological limits of their ability to maintain continuous activities; they need reproduction of their forces. These contradictory demands, one of continuity, and another of reproduction, shape a sort of “double bind” that leads to emergence of subjectivity that is being permanently preoccupied with the time pressure or captured in reactionary and irrational procrastination loops. That apparatus of “installing” the 24/7 continuity into the human individuals is reinforced or facilitated by various digital prostheses that allow the permanent social presence, work and participation. Those are for example the social networks accounts that actually present an ideal continuum of an active presence, exposed to uninterrupted flows of production, communication and quasi-“participation.” Under the capitalist continuities, in which the difference between work and reproduction becomes exposed to various erosions, the “damaged life” (to use Adorno’s notion) presents itself literally as a “continuum”:

James no longer sees any difference between his work and personal life, but sees this as a good thing, ‘It’s like a continuum, I just happen to be doing different activities at different times.’ When he’s working he doesn’t compromise his play time and his social time, he says. ‘It’s an extension of that’. (Quoted in Fleming 2015: 38).[6]

The perfectly neutral and contemplative sentences from the journalistic report based on an interview with a contemporary protagonist of such life forms epitomize – with remarkable precision – the installation of the continuity-form into the intimate core of subjugated subjectivity. Of course, the effects of continuity-form are much broader and not reducible only to the widely discussed topic of “blurring” the borders between work and life in the post-Fordist or the “cognitive” capitalism. [7] They call attention to a longer historical trajectory of the continuity form within modern capitalism that – as this paper seeks to demonstrate – is more fundamental than these specific contemporary conditions.

3. Theses on Aesthetics And Politics of Continuity – and Counter-Continuity of Communism

Capitalism has found a way to make the continuity-form efficient and omnipresent, embedded in incessant flow of production, re-production, control and policing the body of the society.[8] With these developments, the continuity-form becomes not only an abstract concept but also an operative paradigm of the late capitalist social order, corresponding to its economic conditions determined by predominance of fixed capital (the machinery) and the value-form that cannot exist without being encircled into permanent state of continuous and uninterrupted metamorphosis. The research on continuity-form has to be expanded into the terrain of its subjective and aesthetical dimension in modern and contemporary art and politics. In conclusion of this paper we would like only to suggest several brief observation and theses that can show the direction for completion of this study.

3.1. Representing the continuity-form.

In his remarkable essay Photography, written in the 1920s, the outstanding German cultural theorist Ziegfried Kracauer argues that the crucial difference of photography from previous technics of representation is not only the reproducibility of image it enables – the latter was widely discussed by many theorists starting from Walter Benjamin. What makes photography specific is rather the relation to the “continuum” of visual flow that cannot be grasped by our subjective and selective faculty of memory, or to be represented in an artwork of classical type: “Photography grasps what is given as a spatial (or temporal) continuum; memory images retain what is given only insofar as it has significance” (Kracauer 1995: 50). The author continues at next page: “Similarly, from the perspective of memory, photography appears as a jumble that consists partly of garbage” (Kracauer 1995: 51).

Cinema as a technical device of continuous filming makes art even closer to be able to critically – in its left-wing embodiment – reproduce continuity of everyday life.[9] The cinematic “apparatus” is based exactly on the transformation of single pictures into continuous visual flow due to the inertia of the human eyesight. For this part of our argument, only indicated here, the decisive element would be the two texts by the French cultural theorist Jean-Louis Baudry published in the 1970s, "Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus" and "The Apparatus: Metapsychological approaches to the Impression of Reality in the Cinema".[10] For elaboration of his main concept, Baudry uses the term “le dispositiff” which Michel Foucault started to use several years later, and also the term “l'appareil”, apparatus. Baudry suggested an innovative “apparatus theory” of film, focusing on material conditions of cinematic illusion and its “meaning effect” that is produced through the machinery that consists of projection, dark room of the theatre, an arrangements of seats, providing a substantial passivity of the body of the viewer, compared with a sleeping person who is dreaming, captivated by moving images. Especially the first essay is relevant here as it explicitly theorizes the material apparatus of continuity in terms of transformation of single images or frames into continuous movement and than into a “narrative continuity” (continuité):

The meaning effect produced does not depend only on the content of the images but also on the material procedures by which an illusion of continuity, dependent on the persistence of vision, is restored from discontinuous elements (Baudry 1975: 42).

Departing from the inquiry into the continuity paradigm attempted in this article, one can generally admit that the entire set of technological inventions, which led to emergence of the new media – from photography, cinema, video, digital image and the Internet – was reflecting exactly the demand for a continuous presentation of social and anthropological experience generated by the late capitalism. The brilliant, though rather fragmentary theoretical suggestions of Kracauer and Baudry rather abandoned today, perhaps, can be re-actualised and extended to the contemporary digital media and cultural practices – as they capture “what is given as a spatial (or temporal) continuum” at its purest form. One could say that – in contradistinction from art photography or photography in its private use as storage of personal recollections, or film as still finite and completed “product” – the contemporary recording and monitoring devices such as CCTV cameras or web-cameras reduce the visual flow produced by everyday life to pure garbage; in terms of the genealogy of the continuity-form, they erase “creatio” of a singular image in favour of pure “continua” which functions as the representational counterpart of the universal continuity-form.

3.2. Artistic gesture – from sovereignty to continuity

Speaking more generally, in terms of art and aesthetic theory, one could suggest – drawing a parallel with our problematisation here – that the classical or representative art was based on sovereign gesture of artist or writer who “samples”, interrupts and transforms the continuity of everyday life into a singular artwork, dramaturgical dialogue or narrative whose aesthetic autonomy was inaugurated by detachment from this continuum. This constitutive gesture could be then interpreted as an expression or symbolization of specific historical moment, social situation and its antagonisms, or could purify itself from any traces of the quotidian, as in some examples of highly “formalist” art of modernism. But the initial gesture that shaped the visual objects or texts as artworks was breaking or at least “folding” everyday sensory, visual and verbal flows.

In his recent book “In the Flow” Boris Groys similarly describes this gesture – as a detachment from the “flow”. For Groys, it is linked not only to the artwork but also to the special institutional spaces – such as gallery and museum – that provide conditions of possibility for art to be art, preventing it from “entering the flow”. The “flow” is understood as the destructive and violent “material flow” associated with irreversibility of time (Groys 2016: 3-7). At the same time, for Groys, the avant-garde shapes and anticipates another paradigm that, vice versa, welcomes the fluidity of art, immersed in the flow of time – or being “sublated to life”, to follow the classical definition of the avant-garde – that now became reconfigured with the arrival of the Internet as the emergent hegemonic form of the “flow”. [11]

So the modern forms of art tend to break with the sovereign gesture of interruption and “sampling”, in the same way as the capitalist political economy broke with the pre-modern institutions and their fragile symbolic continuity. The inaugural avant-garde gesture of crossing the borderlines between art and “life” was not only a critical and radical response to autonomy of art in the bourgeois society (Bürger 1984) or expression of the new “aesthetic regime” that introduces radical equality as Jacques Ranciere argued recently (Ranciere 2006) but perhaps an introduction of the capitalist continuity-form into the artistic and cultural field.

Let us take the recent significant theoretical suggestions by Jacques Ranciere. He argues that the avant-garde is part of "the aesthetic regime" of art that emerges at the end of the 18th century to replace the classical "representative” art. The core of modernist art, according to Ranciere, consists of paradox: art can be avant-garde only so far as it denies itself as art but at the same time preserving a minimal autonomy. The “aesthetic regime of art” creates the territory where art is brought in touch with life that can be transformed under the influence of art. Ranciere is definitely right about general phenomenology of “aesthetic regime of art” that introduces equality and democratic horizontality into the “distribution of the sensory” (la partage du sensible). The equality joins the esthetical field in the form of democratization and equalizing of "low" and "high" genres, and also, eventually, reaches its peak in heroic attempt of the avant-garde to include in the area of the aesthetic experience such phenomena as the political, the everyday materials and environments, and finally the human individuals themselves, offering a radical reprogramming of spontaneously shaped forms of life.

But Ranciere does not explain why this regime was gradually established. Ranciere’s explanation is based on the premise of “equality” – art re-introduces the political question of equality, brought by the French revolution, into aesthetic realm. Thus art and non-art become ultimately equal and that is why potentially any non-art, non-aesthetic “sensible” could be included into artistic practices. This explanation seems to be quite insufficient, and we are well aware of all vicissitudes of the argument about formal equality in capitalist society, already stressed by Lenin in his famous distinction between “formal” and “real” democracy. From our point of view developed in this sketch of the concept of continuity-form, the aesthetic regime of art or the avant-garde as “sublation of art to life” are expressions of the capitalist continuum – art and life stand in continuity as they are forced to stand in it.

3.3. Counter-continuity

These considerations immediately raise properly political question – what would be then a real resistance to the continuity-form? Are the avant-garde’s cultural forms only sophisticated reverberations of the dominant continuity-form? As concluding remark, I would like to suggest a brief look at the resistances to monotonous pressures of the capitalist continuum, as they are critically reflected in contemporary political and cultural practices.

Remarkably, with strengthening the continuity paradigm of late capitalism, the revolutionary ways of resistance to it were taking many forms, emphasising the interruption or an exodus (myth about the great general strike, violent disruption, etc.) but also dreaming of a grand counter-continuity to come in the shape of a permanent revolution, or the continuity of struggles in spite of all defeats (as, for example, literally indicated in the name lotta continua, “continuous struggle”, for the Italian radical political organisation of the 1970s).

Without much exaggeration, we can say that communism became the name for ultimate and radical expression of resistance to the imposed continuity of the capitalist value-metamorphosis – as a different social and even ontological regime. Even the “real communisms” of 20th century contained in itself a kind of suspension of irreversible movement of value-form, a dysfunctional attempt to suspend it or at least slow it down, or suggest another continuity, planned and managed by the whole society, and not by elemental forces and flows of the free-market economy.[12]

The radical art and politics today are attempting rather to produce a counter-continuity of all sorts. In terms of cultural production, the paradigm of continuity has its parallel in so called “process-based” or “time-based” art and cultural practices, focused on the activity in the present that has no teleological structure and conclusion, so it can be stopped at any moment without any loss of meaning. Boris Groys, who sees modern and contemporary art as a laboratory that anticipates, diagnoses and produces contemporary forms of life with their specific political and philosophical problems, outlined the far-reaching importance and symptomatic value of these practices (Groys 2009). In another recent essay, “Under the Gaze of Theory’, Groys notes,

Art programmes and machines, however, are not teleologically oriented. They have no definite goal; they simply go on and on. At the same time, these programmes include the possibility of being interrupted at any moment without losing their integrity. […] Such an action is conceived from the beginning as having no specific ending – unlike an action that ends when its goal is achieved. Such an action is conceived from the beginning as having no specific ending – unlike an action that ends when its goal is achieved. Thus artistic action becomes infinitely continuable and/or repeatable” (Groys 2016: 37).

Groys’ explanation here is quite different from that one we explore here. Although he refers to “materialist theory,” he rather links the non-teleological character of the artistic performance with existential-anthropological theme of human finitude and lack of time than with the ontological pressure of the capitalist continuity-form. The “materialist theory” makes us aware of the finitude, and provokes a sense of urgency and, consequently, a hectic activity whose form is not goal-oriented, again, because of lack of time.[13] As Groys pointedly noted, recently updating his analysis, and extending his observations to the field of the political, the contemporary forms of resistance and struggles – such as temporary and sometimes contingent occupations of public spaces – are unique in the sense that they can be stopped at any moment but because of their non-teleological character these closures cannot be qualified as “defeats”.

3.4.Il faut continuer”: Communism

An enigmatic anticipation of a politics of counter-continuity in its contemporary form can be audible perhaps in the words of Samuel Beckett's narrator in The Unnamable whose main problem is how “to go on” (it is important that “to go on” is “continuer” in the French original), in spite of full exhaustion of forces and meanings of such “going on”. This figure can be a prototype of a counter-continuity activist with his enigmatic but not teleological programme: "…everything will continue automatically, until the order arrives to stop everything" (Beckett 2009: 363).

These passages, definitely, have long history of commenting on them. Adorno dedicated a long and dense passage to the Beckett’s principle in his Aesthetic Theory:

Beckett, indifferent to the ruling cliché of development, views his task as that of moving in an infinitely small space toward what is effectively a dimensionless point. This aesthetic principle of construction, as the principle of Il faut continuer, goes beyond stasis; and it goes beyond the dynamic in that it is at the same time a principle of treading water and, as such, a confession of the uselessness of the dynamic. In keeping with this, all constructivistic techniques tend toward stasis. The telos of the dynamic of the ever-same is disaster; Beckett' s writings look this in the eye. Consciousness recognizes the limitedness of limitless self-sufficient progress as an illusion of the absolute subject, and social labour aesthetically mocks bourgeois pathos once the superfluity of real labour came into reach. The dynamic in artworks is brought to a halt by the hope of the abolition of labour and the threat of a glacial death; both are registered in the dynamic, which is unable to choose on its own. The potential of freedom manifest in it is at the same time denied by the social order, and therefore it is not substantial in art either. That explains the ambivalence of aesthetic construction. Construction is equally able to codify the resignation of the weakened subject and to make absolute alienation the sole concern of art - which once wanted the opposite - as it is able to anticipate a reconciled condition that would itself be situated beyond static and dynamic. The many interrelations with technocracy give reason to suspect that the principle of construction remains aesthetically obedient to the administered world; but it may terminate in a yet unknown aesthetic form, whose rational organization might point to the abolition of all categories of administration along with their reflexes in art. (Adorno 2002: 224-225)

How to interpret this passage? First of all, Adorno opposes “Il faut continuer” to the cliché of development, or bourgeois progress applied to art, it is “an illusion of the absolute subject.” The same train of thought is about uselessness “telos” or any teleology in relation to “Il faut continuer” as – in our language – subjective affirmation of the continuity-form. Adorno associates this “principle”, “Il faut continuer,” with what he calls “construction” – dependent or not on the Soviet Constructivism, never explicitly named in the text of “Aesthetic Theory.” “Construction” is one of the modalities of what Adorno calls autonomy of art. This modality is rationally produced and that is the danger of its association with rationality of the “administrated world”. At the same time, aesthetic construction, or form of continuity, is ambivalent: it is able both to denote “the resignation of the weakened subject” to the administrative capitalist rationality and “to anticipate a reconciled condition that would itself be situated beyond static and dynamic”? As an aesthetic construction, the continuity-form could be perhaps disarmed and re-codified. How else we could call this condition, if not an “aesthetic communism” anticipating a real social state or that “dimensionless point” where the reign of the continuity-form can be somehow deactivated, and the form itself can be re-appropriated?

In the striking political and aesthetic principle proclaimed by Beckett we can probably discern a distant echo of coming struggles – both non-teleological and, strangely, undefeatable – against the capitalist continuity-form. The emerging radical understanding of “real communisms” of twentieth century goes beyond well-known clichés about their inner negativity and failure. Perhaps, precisely the awkwardness of the Soviet “command economy”, its “inefficiency” is only witness of an early attempt to counterbalance the incessant effectuation of the continuity-form? What would this mean – that stopping of the ontological-economic machine, except of terminal collapse or disaster? Can a true communism be conceived as possible ontological alteration of the “flow”? Perhaps, any future communism – with all concrete political events and struggles that need to happen for this – is to be a project of an ontological counter-continuity, or it will not be anymore.