Monday, June 22, 2009

Something More Terrible Than Fight Club: The Girlfriend Experience and the Coming Human Strike

“In the early 1970s there was an advertisement shown in Paris movie theaters that promoted a well-known brand of stockings, “Dim” stockings... Anyone who watched even a few minutes of its images, however distractedly, would have a hard time forgetting the special impression of synchrony and dissonance, of confusion and singularity, of communication and estrangement from the bodies of the smiling dancers...Each dancer was filmed separately and later the single pieces were brought together over a single sound track. But the facile trick, that calculated asymetry of the movement of long legs sheathed in the same inexpensive commodity, that slight disjunction between gestures, wafted over the audience a promise of happiness unequivocally related to the human body.”

– Giorgio Agamben, Dim Stockings

“The young girl makes love in the same way she washes her car”

– Tiqqun, First Materials for a Theory of the Young Girl

"The Spectacle is capital accumulated to the point that it becomes image"

– Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle

This is not a time for fight club, is it? The cynicism of the '90s appeared to have reached some sort of apex of anomie near the end of the decade. We could no longer choke down our own image as bored consumers, pathetic workers, and depressed youth. The course of action became disturbingly clear: one could either kill everyone in their vicinity, or learn how to fight with others. With some dumb luck, the anti-globalization movement made an appearance and gave so many bullied children, computer nerds, and petty sociopaths a new collective house alongside the indigenous people of wherever, the left, and the lesbian avengers. Then, as goes the activist version of Revelations, Osama Bin Laden came long and ruined all our fun—returning the image of darker skinned people who believe in stuff to a more scarier position than people with masks breaking stuff. The banality of cinema (exceptions included: Children of Men, JCVD, Let the Right One in, and Paradise Now) analogizes this trite world of false good vs false evil. In the bad ol' days, we didn't know it could be better, we tried to believe in things, and now, silence.

Steven Soderbergh's new cinematic trauma, The Girlfriend Experience, captures the world after the world ended—and History is as banal and horrifying as ever. The Obama election and the economic crisis are a less than subtle background to an everyday life that reflects each and every shameful ounce of the emotional and material poverty of our times.

Sasha Grey, self-described existential porn star in “real life,” stars as Chelsea, a high-end escort. We follow her lukewarm calculated performances through all echelons of bourgeois society. We can thank Soderbergh for the most amazing, boring, and frustrating scenes of something like sex. Chelsea spends scene after scene talking to her agents and her website and brand development teams. Questions of anonymity are brought up alongside meaningless gestures of affect: “hows the family?”

We are reflected our own image—running into an old friend, a business acquaintance, a sister, having an interesting conversation, performing being-amicable. We press the “hows the family” button, a response. We press the “Ha! Remember when you...” button, a response. We poke fun at one friend's less than charming qualities, multiple responses from the crowd. Others come to dine or get drinks at such a charming, lively, or “funky place.” This isn't simply the shameful cultural habits of late capital, it is capital. Chelsea knows this, and would prefer to get paid for it.

The relationship between immaterial labor, care taking, and sex work, is illuminated in The Girlfriend Experience. Shoderbergh, oscillates between scenes of Chelsea talking to men about their financial predictions, Google-ratings, and Obama as they undress revealing underwear with diaper-like qualities and scenes of her boyfriend, Chris, working as personal trainer with men and women in a gym, referred to as a “boutique.”

Nothing new to the seasoned craigslist whore, there is still an element of provocation in Soderbergh's elucidation of the current postionality of workers in our biopolitical hell. The incredibly wealthy men with families could not function as such without their high-end escorts who play at being-the girlfriend. The friendly performances of Chris follow succinctly. The gay men need someone to hit on at the gym to function as gay men, the petty bourgeois woman needs someone to touch her, and encourage her to do her best. These John's and Janes don't even desire the sex-object anymore; they desire “the real thing.”

Chelsea and Chris as images being-images, are able to perform their way across the bridge of fiction into a whole regime of playing at being. In one montage, Chelsea negotiates with a web developer about how to increase her rates and hits. She poses questions in a pseudo-web speak, referencing “that thing that makes me show up in Google searches” which are fielded by the developer playing at being professional, who makes up pay-rate on the spot. He is clearly doing this labor through an expropriation of his work's facilities which we see in the background. Chris, on the other hand, is searching around to increase his rate as well. He talks with a miserable gym owner about its faculties using synergy and nu-speak. They share laughs. The next scene he is trying to use his subtle transgression as leverage to get a raise. He's been shopping around. The economic crisis is an ace card for Chris's current boss, and of course, some blabbering about being a team player. Unfortunately Chris is not a “t-shirt kind of guy” By the end of the scene it, would appear Chris's Boss's sentimental maneuver—“you've been working here for years, man”—pays off.

The liberal project of neutralization is made no more clear than in the non-violent communication between workers and bosses, employers and potential employees, and contractors and who ever the fuck pays them. Only one thing can be communicated: a gesture in every direction, the total domination of capital. We can hear anyone of our assistant managers “If you have any problems, just come talk to me, as two individuals. Nothing is more pathetic than facing an enemy alone, as an individual.

At some point in the film Chelsea's mystical “personology” books inform her that a John, a happily married John with children, might be the one. She is invited to go away with him for the weekend. Chelsea is perhaps confused about “this feeling that I have, ya know.” She's convinced “it's just something she has to do.” We wonder if she has never had a crush or if we have said such dumb shit in our lives too. Unfortunately, its probably both. It proves to be a surefire way to defeat her boyfriend's hold on their previous positions about dating Johns. She goes. Rupture. Fizzle.

The Girlfriend Experience will not seduce everyone to smash windows across the world. It is not an action movie. Life is not action packed. However, intentionally or not, the film lays the terrain for some of the biopolitical conflicts of our time. If the concept of history as a history of social war is going to mean anything it must be understood as an elaboration of a concept of the history as class struggle. Soderbergh's film presents us with just this cinematic gift. Through our lens of insurrection we can make total sense of the banal and horrifying life presented in The Girlfriend Experience. And perhaps, through our proletarian techné, we can profane the film's status as a philosophical commodity form. If Sasha Grey wishes to make existential porn, and ruminate on yet another meta-character in a movie, so be it. It is her real positionality, played by Chelsea, that ought interest us. It is in the fact that the so-called existential porn-stars of the alt porn genre cannot be made separate from the material worlds they are attached to. Thus, Sasha Grey, alongside some Senator, alongside our high-school friend, share in a practice of increasing their facebook rates by any means necessary. The youth in France and Greece use their social capital the wrong way, and territories light up. Mousavi declares a stolen election from twitter and accidentally becomes complicit in a revolt against the fabric of theocratic society. And Oakland? Make hyphy a threat again? Social war.

“they're doing...being totally of control”

– a police officer speaking over police radio about rioters in St. Paul at the Republican National Convention

Capitalism is a system of the flows of capital. It dominates all relationships. All relationships become relations of the flows of the capital. Capitalism is tautological. Everything is included, even the excluded. Capitalism functions by each circuit of capital having its proper place. If something severs or impedes the flows of capital, in any relationship, then capitalism can begin to not-function. If humankind, like a vegan slop of multiculturalism, constitutes a whole (a subject, a multitude, whatever), then it is how we produce a whole, how we function which must be examined, and interrupted.

To block any given artery of the metropolis, to block a road with burning objects, we interrupt the flow of capital from the center of the metropolis (the city) with its margins (rural areas) and in-betweens. After the fire goes out, the metropolis functions again, and perhaps prepares itself to manage such interruptions in the future. However, what is interrupted is not merely the relationship of commodities flowing through the metropolis, but the relationship between us and commodities. The generation of affects and sharing of complicity is of far more interest to an isolated and disempowered proletariat, than the imposition of punishment on this or that evil business.

The new subjectivities of the metropolis are just as miserable as the old ones: the high-end escort, the bike messenger, the craigslist whore, the anarchist, the graphics-designer, the web programmer, the hip hop artist, the DJ, the personal trainer, the private mercenary, the alt-porn artist, the transfeminist academic, the gay landlord. Our task is to locate these subjectivities, locate our being, and practice an ethics beyond suicide.

Self-abolition is realized as the pure means of the human strike. Positioned as high-end escorts to the super rich, we can imagine how such biopolitical assaults could interrupt the economy. In Q.libet's upcoming essay “The Heart of War” a form of combat dubbed “heartwar” is theorized. Its means, the heart; its object, the heart. Imagine if, rather than merely taking money from elites for a job well done, Chelsea's character, alongside others, practiced the same destructive love we practice with each other, ambitiously. Collective emotional strikes, either through disruptions of the normal structure of the family and escorts, or through a refusal to do care labor, can cause rifts that would stretch out in their affects. One can imagine making demands, or just expropriating and making attacks. A well situated group of escorts can gain access to far more resources and capital then currently situated insurgents in the anarchist milieu. Escorts can find common desire with other sex workers or care workers. The beautiful can go on strike against being beautiful—become disfigured. The streetwalkers can do being-in-love with entire police precincts. The entire industry of care and desire, can go on strike against their very being. Human strike after human strike.

Being well positioned, means being well positioned to interrupt. The revolts of '68 taught us that even the privileged have become decomposed by capital. The revolts of today, will show us what life which has endured all the horrors of psychology, medicalization, miserable wages, irreversible time, rape, policing, war, biotechnologies, and cybernetics is capable of. The modern subject is dead. May we be so fortunate that subjectivity can finally be undone as well. Our being is on life support. Unplug it.


  1. Seriously, HOLY FUCK! Can we stop all the political jargon for one minute, clear our grossly priviliged and annoying throats of their shit-filled, dead-end, cyclic wanderings, and just say what we desire, do what we want, and feel without hesitation or delay? Or, alternately, are we forced to resort to the same trite symbols of our esoteric language and academic-rooted rhetoric over and over again just to boost our own intellectual self-esteem and feign eloquence at the cost of any direct meaning?

    So much time and energy goes into the compilation and creation of theoretical discourse that mostly ends up taking the form of: "blah blah blah". But it is my contention, that more often than not(to the radical minded human critter wary of political discourse and critical theory even if its slapped with a pretty, market friendly anarcho label) such cryptic and, simply put, failed attempts to communicate mostly serve to alienate radicals from those whom we have come to depend upon to reassure our queerness, otherness or whatever word you want to assign for feeling dislocated from much of humanity, both internally and externally speaking. Why not fuck a friend, through a brick at a bank, or simply cut oneself open if only for the painful joy of biological self-discovery? Wouldn't any of the aforementioned objects provide more immediate satisfaction, quicker, hotter blood flow, and most importantly MORE FUCKING FEELING than taking the time, as I am now, to milk our smug little brains onto sterile computer screens? I'd rather smear my own blood on this page than peck out words, and yet, I'm not, and I would venture to predict that the the same is often true of yourself in relation to your own inner wants and needs. When it comes to actualizing desire, I proclaim that you mostly don't. You're broken by the same system you to live to abhor. You exist much of your waking life in abstractions. I am just like you, but I feel so very far from you, always, even when your sweat hits my body when we fuck, even when you spit on my face when we fight. It's so far beyond a painful realization of the contemporary state of human ineffectuality, I rarely cry anymore and that makes me want to cry, but I can't, and that's just it.


    I do not write under the pretense or illusion of being separate from this plague of radical theorizing, and I must admit, I certainly take filthy pleasure in the overwrought irony inherent in the very naughtiness of writing this to you now. But I feel I have some advice, or a plea rather. I beg for an experiment that could maybe one day be institutionalized to forcibly bring about our own liberation from the blase infections that have invaded our bodies: chew on your words and try to taste them before you decide that it's something you'd really want to eat, digest, and and shit back into the world, lest we risk poisoning ourselves to boring, silent deaths.

    Please take this criticism light-heartedly knowing that I might very well be speaking in the direction of my own ego insofar as I have seen him, her, and they mirrored in yours. And cheer up comrade, there's probably nothing you can do to change anything.

    Most Sincerely,
    a hopeless ex-dreamer, ready to die

    Oh yeah, and that HOLY FUCK, could we make it happen?

  2. God?

    Life is a mystery
    Everyone must stand alone
    I hear you call My name
    and it feels
    dun duh dun duh...

  3. I wonder what they would have said to marx 150 years ago.

  4. great piece. wholly disagree with the first comment, what jargon? i don't think it comes across as mediated at all...