“Subjectivities” as the coordination of affect in collective intentionality

Whenever somebody uses the word “subjectivities”, I get the willies. Let me try to say why.

John Protevi quotes Mark Fisher on the Olympics:

Cynicism is just about the only rational response to the doublethink of the McDonalds and Coca Cola sponsorship…. As Paolo Virno argues, cynicism is now an attitude that is simply a requirement for late capitalist subjectivity, a way of navigating a world governed by rules that are groundless and arbitrary. But as Virno also argues, “It is no accident … that the most brazen cynicism is accompanied by unrestrained sentimentalism.” Once the Games started, cynicism could be replaced by a managed sentimentality…. Affective exploitation is crucial to late capitalism.

I’d like to consider the statement:

(1) Cynicism is now an attitude that is simply a requirement for late capitalist subjectivity.

Here are a few reasons why I have trouble in figuring out the descriptive or critical point of statements that take this form. Since this is 1000 words, and if you’re in a “too long didn’t read” kind of mood, I’ve bolded the main conclusions.

Although I suppose there is something we might call a “late capitalist subjectivity” which applies to somebody somewhere, it can only come out as an obvious truism that this subjectivity is “cynical” so long as we are only referring to media matters, and/or urbane cultures. (Proof: any reasonably attentive person will agree that hipsters are ironic dopes and newsmedia is a bought industry.) Be that as it may, it is equally true that cynicism only works because it is successful in exploiting the optimism of the crowd.

Now let’s consider this statement:

(2) Optimism is now an attitude that is simply a requirement for late capitalist subjectivity.

Incidentally, this statement looks as though it is true, given that British police engage in — for lack of a better phrase — smile profiling.

What do we say about (2)? The first thing I’d like to say is that optimism is not a form of cynicism, or vice-versa — they’re entirely different affective orientations. (I do not know how to make sense of political affect except as playing a part in certain orientations towards politics. And it defeats the descriptive point of talking about ‘orientations’ if we think orientations are somehow overlapping in the mind of a single person.) Since optimism is a form of non-cynicism, you seemingly have a contradiction:

(3) Cynicism and non-cynicism are both attitudes that are requirements for late capitalist subjectivity.

But actually, the contradictoriness is merely apparent, not real. By analogy, one may say “There is an indeterminately long list of natural numbers written on my card, whose values are integers that number 1-5; and one of those numbers is 1”, while also saying that “One of those numbers is 2”.

(Digression: so — barring dialetheia — what would it take to refute (1)? Well, working backwards from our analogy, what one cannot say is: ‘”The only number on my card is 1″ and “The only number of my card is 2″‘, since 2 is an instance of not-1. For the very same reason, one cannot say ‘”The only number on my card is 1″ and “The only number on my card is either 2, or 3, or 4, or 5,” since that is effectively the fullest expression of the negation of the claim that the number is only 1. Now, suppose that there is a finite list of politically affective orientations, which is as follows: {Optimism, Pessimism, Cynicism, Realism}. Then, one cannot say that ‘”Cynicism is an attitude that is uniquely required for late capitalist subjectivity” and “One of these: (Optimism or Pessimism or Realism or None) is  an attitude that is uniquely required for late capitalist subjectivity”.’)

So the second thing I’d like to say is that it is not a refutation of (1) for us to assent to (2); if anything, (2) is a friendly amendment to (1).

Hence, a more nuanced statement would be:

(4) “Cynicism is an attitude that is necessary for the managers of late capitalism, just as optimism is required for those who are exploited by it.”

However, the added qualification almost completely changes the subject of what is literally said in (1). We’re no longer talking about mere subjectivities (to use that awkward phrase), we’re talking about a kind of coordination of affect. This involves speaking at a level of description that is potentially more sophisticated than this elliptical talk of ‘subjectivities’.

Interestingly, it is on these grounds that I agree with John, that the Hunger Games analogy falls apart entirely in this case. The districts of Panem are not optimists, but pessimists; the Olympic spectators are treated as optimists. Presumably, the people in the capital were optimists, but we never really met any of them in the film — most were cynics. So it looks like a different dynamic — a dynamic that is as different as that between, say, Brave New World and 1984. That’s why it’s pretty misleading to talk about subjectivities. It’s just not a truthful idiom, it obscures more than it reveals.


I suppose it could be countered that the point of the talk of “subjectivities” is that it tells us something about what we ought to do, or what we ought to feel. So, perhaps general statements that take the form of (1) are phrased in a general way so that they might  imply something general about the culture, even while only really strictly speaking about the affect of the media elites. But, first of all, this would be absurd: see the digression above. If you think absurd beliefs are generally not helpful to the cause of promoting freedom, then this will not like the kind of thing you can say.

And, second, it isn’t immediately obvious to me what the critical or emancipatory point is involved in making sweeping claims of that sort. I want to know what I’m supposed to do with this information, that “cynicism is now an attitude that is simply a requirement for late capitalist subjectivity”. In order for us to be motivated to make these sweeping statements, there should be some tangible rhetorical payoff. And I just don’t know what that payoff is supposed to be. e.g., is the implication that capitalism be substantially better if our overlords were more realistic? Or should the lesson be: if the powerful in society were more realistic, they wouldn’t be overlords at all? Tantalizing possibilities, both, and I don’t know if either are true. But blanket talk about ‘subjectivities’ doesn’t exactly get my sociological imagination fired up.

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