Friday, February 15, 2008


“Planet of slums, an apt appellation. Right about now, we are crossing a planetary threshold: half of the world’s population lives in cities. This number, more than 3.2 billion, “is larger than the total population of the world in 1960.” By 2020, the number of people living in slums will be more than 2 billion. A single mega-city like Mexico City or Mumbai will soon have a larger population than the estimated urban population of Earth at the time of the French Revolution. Not only those who occasionally allow themselves to wonder about the fate of this emerging world of near starvation, bare-life, and effective non-existence with respect to representation and political economy, but even almost all of those who passionately warn of the horror that exists and the horror to come, believe that the existence of these huge masses of people is somehow extra-economic. While massive poverty is at times acknowledged to be caused by the contradictions of capitalism (particularly the structural adjustment imposed by the World Bank and the IMF in coordination with Euro-American foreign policy and military power in order to service debt), even most radical critics of capitalism believe that the existence of the slum dwellers, what Davis calls “the informal proletariat,” is really outside of and external to capital’s productive base. The slum people in Karachi, Jakarta, Maputo, Kinshasa, among hundreds of other cities, along with the rural poor whose traditional ways of life have been demolished by agribusiness and the money-system and who provide, as it were, the raw materials for slums (in the form of those who migrate to cities), are, from the prevailing economic point of view across the political spectrum, extra people—so much slag thrown off by the world-system. Economists are fond of pointing out that the entire African continent only accounts for about 1% of the world’s economic activity. How many times have we heard that Africa could cease to exist and it wouldn’t make any difference to capitalism? But, and here we must pause to wonder, what kind of economic operation is it when people’s (indeed a continent’s) sole function is to be rendered as data, statistics, information, that can be rendered as “meaningless” or as “a potential threat to stability?” Isn’t this a new moment of planetary organization when humans can, from an economic and representational point of view, be reduced only to the bodies that underlie information or a set of concepts or images—a new order of accounting? This data-crunching reduction and/or mantel of sheer invisibility, this brutal calculus that renders human biomass into a mere substrate for information, is symptomatic of the qualitative transformation of the cinematic mode of production into the world-media system, now organizing attention on a global scale in two distinct registers: that of the enfranchised, who are to “understand” and/or dismiss huge swaths of the planet in a few lines of symbols or in a couple of isolated images as they make their daily movements, and that of the radically disenfranchised, who must attend to this dissymmetrical order of representation through a continuous and lifelong struggle for sheer survival as they make their way through a life in which they count for next to nothing. Like the more familiar relationship to the image of the first-world spectator, this latter relationship too must properly be cast as a new form of work: just being there, staying alive to be counted in the spectacle or not, to be constructed in the world-media system as an infinitesimally small bit of the reasons required to build walls around countries, fund new weapons programs and surveillance technologies, institute new adjustment programs, and launch political campaigns and wars in the high-intensity illumination of the spectacle. This is work, mere survival beyond the frame of representation, to become a standing reserve of information, just as it is also work for the global spectator who must be constantly enjoined to see and therefore produce the world and itself in accord with capital’s accounting. The human has become the medium for information; put another way, the medium is human, despite the fact that human potential is foreclosed by its function.”

-- Jonathan Beller

1 comment:

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