Cartographies of the Absolute: Cognitive Mapping of Capital as World-System

We must accustom ourselves to think, in our societies in which the political has so successfully been disjoined from the private, of the political as a kind of vice.
– Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future

To map the territory of the mutation, and to forge conceptual tools for orientation in its ever-changing, deterritorializing territory: such are the tasks for the philosopher of our times.
– Franco “Bifo” Berardi, And: Phenomenology of the End

“If Jameson is correct, if the study of ‘capital itself’ is ‘now our true ontology’, then how can we shift from the way we imagine the absolute mapping of the universe and our   knowledge of it to a cartography of capital as world-system?” Ask Toscano and Kinkle in there excellent Cartographies of the Absolute. This notion of mapping, of flattening the immense complexity of our socio-cultural order onto an abstract plane of data, an abstraction of knowledge and theory converging upon the last utopian mindscapes of Western Liberalism at both its point of glory and triumph as if we were studying the ancient maps of Rome or Greece in their heydays as Empire and Utopia is both the center and circumference of thought and being in our time. Yet, this is no triumph, rather a tragedy in the making, and their work harbors a critical enterprise that seeks to map the dark corners and weak points of this deadly world-system.

“Capital” – an abstraction to which we all pay homage, a strange construct of the mind that sits there on the page like an Idea everyone has heard of but no one can quite grasp. Oh, not that many have not tried, both detractors and defenders. Even now we wander the universe of knowledge gathered on the shelves of a thousand libraries, the dusty tomes of scholars, artists, poets, philosophers, historians, critics, theorists, self-styled evangelists or doom-sayers. A world of knowledge  Yet, as they admit maps as part of some singular continuum as system or representation “that takes its cue from the related technologies of GPS and Google maps, while of unimpeachable military and commercial expediency, will prove a remarkably unreliable guide”.

Jameson remarks that the Utopian calling, indeed, seems to have some kinship with that of  “the inventor in modern  times,” and an “affinity with children’s games; but also with the outsider’s gift for seeing over­ familiar realities in a fresh and unaccustomed way,  along with the radical simplifications of the maker of models”.2 A sense of playfulness and innocence, along with a radical abstraction as if the world-system of capital were a grand model, some master game or dynamic video MMO (Massive-Multiplayer-Online Game). Is that it? Are we pawns in a virtual order playing out a game or strategy scenario at the bidding of a hidden world of gods, some Greek Olympus of the determinate Symbolic Order that shifts and plays its abstract game of Capital as if it were a game of chess or Go? No. We will have no pie-in-the-sky theo-philosophical or Platonic Ideas hiding in the secret worlds beyond that like some massive egregore infiltrate and manipulate the collective psychosis we call reality. This is not a game played from the Outside in; or, is it? Determinism or Freedom? Which; either; both?

As Jameson reminds us every Utopian believes himself to hold the key to the mysteries of body, time, and collectivity, and at the same time Utopian thought is a program and revolutionary possibility toward which one moves.  The Utopian vocation  can be identified by this cer­tainty, and by  the persistent and obsessive  search  for a simple, a  single-shot solution to all our ills. And this must be a solution so obvious and self-explana­tory that every reasonable person will grasp it: just as the inventor is certain his better mousetrap will compel universal conviction. (AF, p. 11) The notion of a cartography or mapping of our late capitalism is such an abstraction, a flattening out of knowledge as body, time, and collectivity:

Totality is  then  precisely  this  combination of closure and system, in the name of autonomy and self-sufficiency and which is ultimately the source of that otherness  or  radical,  even alien…  Yet it is precisely this category of totality that presides over  the  forms of Utopian realization:  the Utopian city, the Utopian revolution,  the Utopian commune  or  village,  and of course the Utopian text itself, in all its radical and unacceptable difference from the more lawful and aesthetically satisfying literary genres. (AF, p. 5)

Toscano and Kinkle see in the military and commercial satellites that forever encase our world in a global eye, composing “‘theory machines’ which, while incarnating the logics of relativity nonetheless ceaselessly produces the effect of wholeness”. (CA, p. 21) This sense of Utopian expectancy and control, the shifting gaze of ‘Big Data’ that promises to awaken the depths of the collective thought of the world and promote an intensive regime of total surveillance and security across the face of the earth. Even on the Left we see this Utopianism of the technological sophistication of a global ICT (Information and Communications Technology) system that is encaging civilization in a total network of the gaze – an abstract theory machine that totalizes every aspect of our public and private lives (but is anything private anymore?). Listen to Srnicek and Williams as they sound the triumph of technology and the Utopian impulse:

Through popular political control of new technologies, we would collectively transform our world for the better. Today, on one level, these dreams appear closer than ever. The technological infrastructure of the twenty-first century is producing the resources by which a very different political and economic system could be achieved. Machines are accomplishing tasks that were unimaginable a decade ago. The internet and social media are giving a voice to billions who previously went unheard, bringing global participative democracy closer than ever to existence. Open-source designs, copyleft creativity, and 3D printing all portend a world where the scarcity of many products might be overcome. New forms of computer simulation could rejuvenate economic planning and give us the ability to direct economies rationally in unprecedented ways. The newest wave of automation is creating the possibility for huge swathes of boring and demeaning work to be permanently eliminated. Clean energy technologies make possible virtually limitless and environmentally sustainable forms of power production. And new medical technologies not only enable a longer, healthier life, but also make possible new experiments with gender and sexual identity. Many of the classic demands of the left – for less work, for an end to scarcity, for economic democracy, for the production of socially useful goods, and for the liberation of humanity – are materially more achievable than at any other point in history.3

A populist ideology of collective transformation and control through technology and dreams of reason and rational appeal. An objectification of “machines” as the agents of change, inventors of possibility “unimaginable a decade ago,” – all the wonders of modern capitalist gadgetry put in the hands of the Left as if there might not be a hefty price to pay in human and planetary degradation as recompense. As if suddenly technology were part of some “solarpunk” initiative for a transhumanist commercial: “new medical technologies not only enable a longer, healthier life, but also make possible new experiments with gender and sexual identity…” (IF, KL 56). If this wasn’t from a Leftward set of thinkers I’d swear it was an infomercial soundbite for some corporate assemblage or pharmaceutical company. Talking points for a new Utopia? Optimism for a future filled with material wealth and plenty? Is this the face of the New Left? I’ll be coming back to their book Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work in a future post dealing with post-Marxist Utopianism. Stay tuned…

Experimental regimes? As Luis Suarez-Villa reminds us in Technocapitalism: A Critical Perspective on Technological Innovation and Corporatism “the experimentalist organization is as representative of technocapitalism ism as the industrial corporation was of industrial capitalism. The features and pathologies of this new form of corporatism are likely to be as much a hallmark of the twenty-first century as the factory system and mass production were of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Its effects, although still largely unknown, are likely to be both very troubling and durable.”4 Expanding on this he’ll say:

The systematized research regime, the main instrument of control for experimentalist corporatism, is unable to resolve the fundamental contradictions between the internal dimension of corporate governance,  which revolves around commodification, and the external, social, and collaborative one that is essential for reproducing creativity. The research regime’s failure to resolve these contradictions introduces dysfunctions and pathologies that shortchange its ability to commodify creativity and to contribute to the reproduction of this most precious resource. Those dysfunctions also reflect the failure of managerial dogma to understand the new realities that accompany technocapitalism and the nature of the resources upon which it depends. (TC KL 1768)

Srnicek and Williams envision a popular government, but the framework of the capitalist infrastructure will need to be modified as well. The Left must realize that governments have in our era become corporations, and the usual politics is stage play while the actors pulling the strings are no longer their constituents – the people, but rather the financiers, brokers, and Oligarchs that foot the bill to keep them in power. Oh, sure every election the politico will even blatantly call for reform against such outside corruption, but after the election the bill must be paid and all the millions sunk into individual campaigns by the capitalists demand a share of the pie. As Suarez-Villa remarks the erosion of public democracy is largely due to the deeply asymmetrical metrical relations of power between governance and the new corporatism. This situation is partly a result of the scale and scope of technocapitalist corporatism, which are global and mobile, unlike that of public democracy, which are national or local (and therefore confined to a specific territory). Through this asymmetry, the new corporatism can transcend limitations imposed by the boundaries of the national and the local. Accountability can thus be evaded through mobility and through strategies that pit governance structures in different areas against one another by engaging them in competition for investment. (TC, KL 1795-1799).

So Toscano and Kinkle belaboring the technological paradigm that seems more an infestation and totalistic form of Utopian mastery ask: “Today we might wonder, when will we stop seeing so many images of the whole earth, so many views of mastery that dissimulate our domination?” (CA, p. 22) The illusion of mastery is all it is, much rather is the postmodern simulated universe of data thrown over the world as if it were already an artificial paradise, a video game to be played by advanced AI’s and software guru’s rather than boardroom executives. As Dardot and Laval tell us the regime of rationality has migrated from instrumentalism and installed itself into a ‘strategic apparatus’:

…rationality has taken material form in a set of institutional, political, legal and economic apparatuses that constitute a complex, mobile network, which is open to resumption and adjustment on the emergence of unintended effects, sometimes in contradiction with initial intentions. In this sense, we may speak of a global apparatus which, like any apparatus, is essentially ‘strategic’. This means that the apparatus is constituted on the basis of concerted intervention in given power relations, aiming to alter them in accordance with a ‘strategic objective’. This objective in no way pertains to a stratagem devised by a collective subject with expertise in manipulation. It is imposed on the actors themselves and, by imposing itself on them, produces its own subject.5

So that this network society bound by the horizon of a new rationality brought into play by the ICT’s that hover across our skies, bringing instantaneous manipulation and communications as if we lived in a total present, as if time no longer were a factor, as we live and work 24/7 under a solar eye, where night no longer exists and people serve the solar economy of excess in ways their parents would have seen for what it is: oppression. But now it is so normalized that we no longer perceive the outside, we live in an infoscape, or infosphere that absorbs us into its artificial mobility and dataworlds in an Onlife system of closure that modernists foresaw but would have abhorred. As Luciano Floridi reiterates:

We have moved inside the infosphere, the all-pervading nature of which also depends on the extent to which we accept its interface as integral to our reality and transparent to us (in the sense of no longer perceived as present). … Indeed, we have begun to accept the virtual as reality. So the information society is better seen as a neo-manufacturing society in which raw materials and energy have been superseded by data and information, the new digital gold and the real source of added value. Not just communication and transactions then, but the creation, design, and management of information are the keys to the proper understanding of our hyperhistorical predicament.6

Absolute Cartography: ‘the aesthetic of cognitive mapping’

As Toscano and Kinkle admit their title came from a phrase in Fredric Jameson’s The Geopolitical Aesthetic: ‘the aesthetic of cognitive mapping’. Ultimately they hoped this “aesthetic would enable individuals and collectivities to render their place in a capitalist world-system intelligible” (CA, p. 23). As they explicate what is at stake “is the figurability or representability of our present and its shaping effect on political action. In a strong interpretation, the mapping of capitalism is a precondition for identifying any ‘levers’, nervecentres or weak links in the political anatomy of contemporary domination.” (CA, p. 23).

This is no longer some theoretical instance of aesthetic instantiation, but rather a war machine for planning and initiating campaigns against a common enemy. The use of such terms as ‘levers’, ‘nervecentres’, ‘weak links’ for navigating and invading contemporary forms of domination is no longer just critique, rather it is the gambit of a new form of social networking that situates itself in the midst of a mobile world or abstract systems and algorithmic culture where surveillance, security, and spycraft have merged into a total world system to enclose the commons in a network of domination. This is a breakaway tactic, a form of viral infestation, seizing on the undercurrents of software hacking and culture to invent tools of emancipation that can be released into the weak points, nervecenters of capitalist organization thereby unraveling the system from within like a worm that hollows out the inner core of a data-vat.

As they’ll say of this new aesthetic, to “propose an aesthetic of cognitive mapping under conditions of late capitalism could be taken as an attempt to force into being a certain kind of political visibility and thus to counter the objective, material effects of a dominant regime of representation” (CA, p. 26). To make visible what is hidden, to make transparent what is opaque in the dark networks of commercial and corporate governance. Reconnaissance, spying, cartography, ‘situational representation’ – this new cognitive aesthetic demarcates with its para-military and urbanist references, a new strategic language that “speaks to us of the entanglement between a totalising vision (its absence, or present impossibility) and a strategic imperative: finding and eventually controlling the ‘levers’; diminishing powerlessness” (CA, p. 31). As they’ll explicate:

The hypothesis that the forms of aesthetic experience are mediated by the
geographies and rhythms of historical capitalism, and that we cannot understand the mutations of narrative without thinking through the disjunction between experience and abstraction, everyday life and the forces of capital in a fundamentally unequal world… (CA, p. 33).

The dialectical interplay between temporal vectors and the scaling between verticality and horizontal mapping between “experience and abstraction” set the tone for this work, and one must commend such a project in a time of desperate transition such as ours with so much at stake: climate catastrophe, global civil-war and unrest, migration, medical emergencies (viral etc.), sixth-extinction, drug and global crime, etc. We live in a world so complex that the very notions of older Leftist theory are no longer viable in such a network society. We need new experimental forms such as Toscano and Kinkle, Srnicek and Williams, Dardot and Laval, and Suarez-Villa each in their own way are enabling. I cannot do justice to their work in such a short space or go into details or a critique. I’ll leave that for other posts.

Even as they begin to sum up their own conclusions they ponder such an undertaking, saying,

It remains to be ascertained to what degree the very desire for cognitive mapping is haunted by the fantasy of a ‘perfect ratio’ between the personal and the social, an aesthetic and political romanticism in which a disoriented subject of the capitalist core would project the possibility of true political knowledge and experience into the lives and struggles of subalterns. (CA, p. 37)

 As a collaborative work they “conceived of it – in part compelled by the constraints of long-distance collaboration – as something like a collection of investigations, commentaries and arguments on, from and about works that have stoked our own cartographic desire” (CA, p. 40). That says it all “stoked our own cartographic desire”. In the end they see theirs as a critical enterprise that “poses an aesthetic problem, in the sense of demanding ways of representing the complex and dynamic relations intervening between the domains of production, consumption and distribution, and their strategic political mediations, ways of making the invisible visible” (CA, p. 44).

Maybe we all need to be stoked in that fire… Milton in his grand poem Paradise Lost once spoke of making the “darkness visible,” maybe in the end Toscano and Kinkle want to make the Absolute that is Capital a little more visible to our political mediations, thereby opening up a view onto a world system that up to now has sought the dark power of secrecy and global dominion.


  1.  Alberto Toscano and Jeff Kinkle. Cartographies of the Absolute. Zero Books (February 27, 2015) CA
  2. Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. Verso (April 17, 2007) AF
  3. Nick Srnicek; Alex Williams. Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (Kindle Locations 52-62). Verso. IF
  4. Luis Suarez-Villa. Technocapitalism: A Critical Perspective on Technological Innovation and Corporatism (Kindle Locations 1762-1768). Kindle Edition. TC
  5. Dardot, Pierre; Laval, Christian (2014-03-11). The New Way Of The World: On Neoliberal Society (Kindle Locations 7419-7423). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.
  6. Floridi, Luciano (2013-10-10). The Ethics of Information (p. 17). Oxford University Press, USA. Kindle Edition.

5 thoughts on “Cartographies of the Absolute: Cognitive Mapping of Capital as World-System

  1. I can’t believe S.C. Hickman is human. He is an Android, a machinic theory robot.

    “Not in an ordinary language but in the schiz language of a strange new world where images heat up and suddenly red-shift, where faces take flight from their heads, where the “smooth space” of the primitive nomads of the future clash with the “striated space” of despotic capitalism, and where time-binding technologies rebel against the reterritorializing codes of “space-binding” technologies.”
    – Arthur Kroker

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As much as this is very important information and a great read, if we also want to talk honestly about politics, capitalism, science, technology, and the future…we might also want to include, for example, Dean Radin’s latest talk with IONS or Ed May’s book about his work leading the government project STARGATE. Just saying…

    Like

    • Yea, I’d love to say something about a 1001 things, but time and capacity leaves me with what I can… as is I probably have a wider across-the-board survey of current thought than most sites out there… just saying… of course one person cannot get to everything, I’m not an AI… 🙂

      But, by all means if you’ve got a post up on these individuals for whom I will probably never review due to their New Age obscurantism, paranormal endeavors, and parapsychology, etc. … but feel free to provide a link. Just saying…

      Like

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