Johanna Bruckner

Body Talks. Subjectivation, ‘emotional objects’ and the economy of desire

Body Talks


Subjectivation, ‘emotional objects’ and the economy of desire


There has been a focus in the post-operaist tradition, which affirms that subjectivation takes place in the pre-symbolic state of perception. While the pre-symbolic or pre-individual (the affective) is paradoxically the dominant mode of production today, it yet may inhabit the conditions which offer escape to capitalist domination. My contribution with this text is to consider how subjectivity is produced by the experience of our feelings in relation to how they are attached to certain objects. The performers Hedda Parkkonen, Roberta Cepagglia, David Espinosa Angel, Eva Streit, Milena Stein, Isabell Suck and Karen Kan participating in the performance installation “Body Talks” play an important role in developing my arguments. The following paper is structured in the form of an essay which is built in response to my artistic work.




The chorus whispers on the stage:


“Symptom of instituted faith and care.


We are happy to be recognized by machines while we forget what it means to be recognized by our personality. Can we speak of an invaluable happiness that exceeds the economic calculus? What then is the key to uneconomic happiness? Can we think of a happiness that does not fulfill the orders of economic valorization?[1]

How can the smartphone circulate as a “happy object”? Or, is it a “sad object”? How do the young audiences participate in affirming it a “happy object”? How does it, in turn, affect their individuation? The following text investigates subjectivation processes of teenagers and young adults in relation to their smartphone and their attachment to it as an ‘aesthetic machine’. The focus of my investigation lies on the device as an affective object, which I will analyze in the light of what the cultural scholar and feminist Sara Ahmed calls a “happy object”. My concern is to address subjectivation as a product of how feelings and objects are linked today. If teenagers do not experience happiness or pleasure from the ‘right’ things, they become alienated – detached from their (virtual) community which is often marked by desires linked to specific cultural practices or ideas. The way we experience an object desirable, often in the form of a commodity, can involve a range of affects, which are governed by the modes of explanation that are offered. How do the young audiences imagine their subjects in relation to how their tastes are fashioned by biocapital? This text, which forms a part of my artistic research project “The Observant Participators” questions individuation in the light of the media-economic control of our desires by the very circulation of specific objects; the production of affects in the light of governmental conduct. As a visual artist with an academic background in Cultural Studies and Social- and Cultural Anthropology, I chose to work with pupils in the age between 18 and 21, who are in higher education in contemporary dance. My artistic research, which has taken place through participatory engagement over a couple of months, will be shown in am essay-film-installation called “Body Talks”; financed and supported by the Austrian Ministry for Art and Cultural affairs. In the present text I will read my field observations against Sara Ahmed, and the theory of subjectivation in Maurizio Lazzarato’s concept of “machinic enslavement“, in response to the colonization of public desire of a media-saturated society today.[2]


Today commercialization pervades our consciousness. Everybody is expected to consume products that will bring them economic advantage, satisfying individual desires while leaving behind their commitments as social beings responding to other human needs. Competitive individualism has been denunciating more and more younger people via the fetishization of technology in consumer- and celebrity cultures, the affirmation of ‘life-style’ over substance, the endless refashioning of the self. In these ways, the new global economic order has been constructing new entrepreneurial identities while reorganizing the bourgeois subject.[3] Yet, the production of value relies not only on the economically determinable qualities, but also on the mental and affective values. Emotions and sensations have been marking identities through the attachment to brands, lifestyle codes or inclusion in communities.


The reconstruction of subjectivity in the “affective regime” of late capitalism is an aesthetic project.[4] Sara Ahmed’s analysis of how objects are loaded with emotional qualities offers a critical framework to discuss subjectivation processes in the economy of desire[5] today. Guattari’s concept of machinic enslavement allows us to analyze not only the young adults subjection to the phone, but to consider possible exit strategies resulting from the proposition of the device as an abstract machine. By pointing to the phone’s unhappiness or empty happiness which it produces (discussed in my workshops) at the level of the exhausted body, we may conclude by speculating how feelings may participate in the actualization of situational ethical demands (the latter will be revealed in my art work). My aim is to critically refer to what the economic medialization of emotions do on our bodies today at the level of individuation, while they are embedded in the regulation of economic control shaping our social and cultural worlds.


During my studies at the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm last year (2012) I was working in the outskirts of the city, in an area where mostly families with teenagers from various backgrounds live, and observed how the teens’ cultural production is based on their obsession with a significant device – their smartphone. I have been reading Sara Ahmed intensively at that time, together with postoperaist writings on affective labor. Back in Hamburg, I decided to work with young performers in education because I was interested in the processes of how people recognize their individuation as a cultural learning process. To work with performers, then, results from my background interest in regarding performance as a form labor, or, more precisely, “living labor”. This Marxian term is often taken into account when referring to general or continuous self-performance as the dominant mode of being in a creative economy of competitive self-entrepreneurs.[6] It is an activity by which the human body becomes the transaction field of possibilities, which derive from a continuous actualization of capital as human capital.  Studying their performances on their phones as a form of play,“living labor” offers a basic description for evaluating subjectivation embedded in the new economic order today.  This term, conceptualized by Paolo Virno, describes those working conditions, by which value is extracted from our ability to think, dream and imagine. It thus suggests that life itself is a form of labor, which not only operates by integrating subjectivity in the mode of production, but is essential in the production of subjectivity itself.


Addicted to “happy objects” and paradoxes:

What is a “happy object”?


Extract from Chapter three. Performance sequence number two:


The educator asked one student about why she always wore headphones in class. She replied that she was not listening to it because her phone wasn’t playing any music. In another lesson, she was playing music at a low volume which one could hear through the headphones, though she was not wearing them. As she was told to switch it off, she replied no one could hear it anyway.

Response from the Participant Observer: It was then the phone that could enjoy the music on her behalf. It is the object of the music playing phone which takes the place of subjectivity.The knowledge of the headphones on the ears or that the music is playing was a reassurance that the code (of the music, or listening to it) was still there or within reach; even though it was not actualized in the moment[7].


Observation: If capital today demands a subject of addiction, this takes place on the aesthetic level. We try to explain this more closely. 


Sarah Ahmed’s work is a provocative cultural critique of how emotions today are shaped as cultural technologies and are invested with power in society. She proposes a theory on a politics of good feelings as a signifier for cultural and political change based on her analysis of queer and feminist scholars, psychoanalysis, the speech act theory and Marxist authors; identifying the ‘codification of affects’ and feelings in today’s economy as a political struggle. Drawing from her experiences as a ‘feminist born into a conservative family’[8], the starting point of her work is her alienation from happiness as a critique of how happiness is used to justify cultural norms as social goods. She offers a critical analysis of how emotions circulate as objects through society and thus acquire value by virtue of how they are invested. Her recent study on the cultural mediation of happiness today precisely questions how subjects are directed toward specific objects by the very “promise of happiness”, while her concern in this work is the very exposure of unhappiness that may give us different imaginations of what might count as good or bad. It is the ‘affirmative turn’ which attached certain feelings to positive values, linking it with progression, whereas others are judged backwards, that is put into question; she turns the assumption that feelings are linked with status and value into means of affirmative critique.


In the following, I am particularly concerned with how emotions become properties of objects, through which the latter accumulate value over time. I will discuss how the objects’ value, which is precisely conceived of an effect of its emotional investment is embedded in an economic regime of subjectivation. To begin with, I will focus on Ahmed’s analysis on how emotions work as a form of capital, which, as she argues, do not reside in commodity, but are produced as an effect of their circulation. I will discuss her analysis in the light of my observations with the performers’ obsession with their smartphones participating in my artistic project. Before continuing my work it is necessary to specify between affect, emotions, and the question of where happiness comes in.


Affects / Emotions 


According to Brian Massumi, affects are not culturally coded and emerge in the realm of the ‘pre-symbolic’.[9] Affects in the Spinozian sense entail the capacity to act or be acted upon. They evolve in the realm of an encounter between object and body as diffuse reactions to sensations or energies. Chaotic and unstructured in their orientation, they could be understood as an intensity which results from sensory stimuli[10]. Emotions, on the other hand, have a “subjective content”, and can  be socio-linguistically determined. Emotions require a subject as they can be understood as composed by language through which they may transfer value.[11] Economic activity often demand “affective relationships”, in order to evoke an intensity in the participating parties. Conversely, affect, and in particular desire, may operate in the form of economic transactions and can be considered a “fundamental motor in any capitalist economy.”[12] 


Thinking Happiness with Spinoza


Spinoza’s description of an affect distinguishes between actions and passions. Whereas actions can be described as that which we control, passions are those forces that control us. Joy is the basis of all affects (the experience of increased power of acting) which can weaken, if someone is not able to control the affection that triggered the joy. In such a case it becomes a passion; which is an increase of power that weakens in the long term. This is where happiness (as a form of enthusiasm) comes in. This state of emotional happening is what Spinoza also calls the ‘ideas’ of the bodily affections. For Spinoza, affections ‘strike’ the body, but affect (affectus) is formed of both, of the bodily affectiones, but also of our ideas of these affectiones. Enthusiasm and happiness are a hybrid between desire (the drive) and joy (the basic affect). Like hope or fear, they are future-oriented and abstract, combined with a yet unknown outcome.[13] Happiness is a “precarious affect”; it is easily displaced and a short event. Directed towards things it circulates as a detached and dispersed form of power which invests in life[14]: the market seeks to govern our desires by impressing us continuously with new shapes, sizes and functions of objects.


In the following, then, I would like to more deeply consider objects’ attentiveness, before turning to the concept of the machinic in order to understand how technologies extract subjectivity on the basis of the “emotion-as-object”.


Emotions as objects in circulation


In her analysis of emotional objects Ahmed refers to Descartes who suggests that „objects do not excite diverse passions because they are diverse, but because of the diverse ways in which they may harm or help us.“[15] In her reading of Descartes she suggests that emotions are shaped by how we get in touch or contact with them; rather than simply residing in ourselves or being caused by objects.[16] For example, we do not love or hate because objects are good or bad, but because we may take advantage or disadvantage of them. The sociologist and anthropologist Emil Durkheim, among others regards emotions not as psychological affairs, but as a social and cultural form and practice[17]. Considering the rise and power of emotions in social movements he suggests that they „do not reside in or originate from any distinct consciousness“; he rather believes that emotions are those forces that hold the social body together. Based on these arguments, Ahmed suggests that emotions then precisely mark the effects and surfaces of how bodies appear and come into being. Thus, emotions are significant for the very constitution and naming of objects. It is crucial that these emotions–as-objects, as she calls it, take shape as effects of their circulation.


In the following I will concentrate on how emotionality, especially happiness is conceived of a happening that arises from the contact with the other, which shapes it as object-as-emotion. 






The adults’ “happy objects”


„To bring into play emotions, sentiments, the whole of one’s life outside work ... means, in fact, to make the whole person productive.“[18]


I am happy when I see an envelope on my phone, so I keep checking it continuously. And because I know that my action will affect a friend at the other end, I know that I will be affected it turn because of the friend’s reaction (Milena Stein, participator in the project).


According to Ahmed, emotions put us into contact with things. We judge something as good or bad according to how it affects us, whether it gives us pleasure or pain. Happiness then functions as an instrument that directs us toward things. In Milena’s description it is the other, the friend who is the binding force which shapes the relation between affects and the object as a “joy-object”, mediated by a sign – the envelope. So, it is not that people become happy about something, it is that “things become happy” for them, if they imagine encounters with things that will cause happiness to them.[19]


Thus, to experience their object as being affective or sensational is to be directed not only toward the device but to whatever is around that object. So things acquire their value as goods, insofar as they point towards happiness as a field of enjoyment. In the teenagers’ case they are those activities or pleasures they experience when being in contact with that friend, practice or object. Objects become happy means by which they are embedded into a larger matrix of signs in the forms of friends circuits, life styles or cultural practices they can come in touch with, communities or other cultural markers, which affirm their respective identities (though a conglomerate of music, games, or activating new realities through different apps). The circulation of objects is thus the circulation of goods as life styles, tastes or values, which interact in the very actualization of the object. Speaking of a “happy object” however does not mean that objects embody good feelings, but they are rather perceived as necessary for performing a distinct reality. The people rather share an orientation and a commitment towards those values, which they perceive as the cause of good feelings. It is the subject’s “arrival” at those objects coded with distinct values that points one towards happiness. Happiness moreover plays a role in shaping their affective milieu – the world they move within and act from, and from which they orient themselves by establishing their world of satisfaction. 


In her essay on things and language Hito Steyerl discusses Walter Benjamin’s relation to things which “are never just inert objects, passive items or lifeless shucks“. They are rather production of internal and external tensions, affective traces, and hidden power relations, which all keep being modulated when exchanged, „and in their exchange they are loaded with meaning through which they become invested with signs“. “Objects can be interpreted as conglomerates of desires, wishes, intensities and power relations.“[20] She further suggests that there is also a life in the object which conceives it “in modulation”. Thus, the commodity is not understood as a mere object that circulates and increases value but is always a condensation of social forces and powers.


Today certain objects become invested with positive affect when specific signs, through which they are represented, are affectively loaded – such as the envelope which Milena Stein mentioned. But the good life gets imagined through proximity to certain objects while other lives and realities are hidden, judged as backwards or even per button erased.


You only do things that others will like that you do. You don’t do things you cannot immediately post and blog on our phone; so you only do things that are representable (Eva Streit).


The teenagers mind an "inappropriate affect“ or something that may cause an inappropriate reaction. The state of being affected functions as a control zone that affirms others that she or he is being affected in the right way. The young people’s self-assertion has to do with “correct emotionality.”[21]


I conceive it an angry object. It makes me angry because all these apps, and installed programs tell you how to feel good, etc., they make the object appealing to you. It always tries to impress you with new things and apps (Karen Kan).


Negative feelings paradoxically participate in affirming objects in the light of capital interest. Anger is inextricably and unmistakably entangled in the power it seeks to challenge[22] and which it is subjected to.


It is a disgusting machine: it stresses me that it is supposed to make us happy. I am getting very angry about that medial regulation of our emotions. But it stresses me that it is such a false machine. It lies to the people’s consciousness, because in fact it does not make them happy. This machine speaks to yourself, always trying to tell you that everything is just fine. They simply tell us when we need to be affected and how. And most people believe them. Maybe it is empty. Producing an empty happiness. The market again proceeds from that empty happiness or depression by inventing new products against those effects, like therapeutic strategies for example. They find their strategies to always gain value from what they do with us (Hedda Parkonnen).


Consumption expands the market and has been entering our personal and private lives (Anonymous performer).


A subject that keeps policing her tastes also controls the others’ subjectivity (Milena Streit):


The object is all about connecting to your friends. But, friends become objects of consumption. I expect them always to be available. I consume their availability. This is a very negative thing. Relations that are deeply emotional turn into a matter of measure. Then I do check all the time if they had responded, for example, and so I control my contacts as if we had contracts. You check if some already read your message, because the new apps do show you these things.


Moreover it is the control of timing, duration and personal time: You control others’ time too when you check if they already read your news you sent them.


We recognize our subjects in the light of the other, which we fully incorporate in ourselves (Participant Observer).


According to the participants’ statements it can be summarized that the state of being happy connected to their practice on their phone is only an “artificial” one, because satisfaction and happiness are medially controlled.


Using your phone has very much to do with playing yourself, rather than functioning in your life. Life today is all about play. Subjectivity is born in that playful game you become from within. All you need to have today is the profile of a professional player (Karen Kan).


It is a lonely object because it makes people lonely. They get stressed by the lost happiness, the loneliness, they experience in turn. It is not a good object, even though we spend so much time with it. People have it because they want a “carrieable” social network. They need their friends to be with them all the time. But this form of sociality today is a joke; it is artificial, that is why people get so sick from it (Eva Streit).


The “faceless subject of medial communication” is simply “Gerede“. It is a discourse without structure which is not interested in what you speak but that you are being able to speak. It is that what you type and write on your screen without actually being attached to it (Participant Observer).


The medial circulation of happiness cannot be connected to a good life. The economic power of capitalism is far more complex than relating positive affect to moral judgment or behavior (Participant Observer).


Capital is a mediation device of our feelings. That says that the judgment about certain objects as being happy is often already done: Certain objects are associated as the cause of happiness because they already circulate as social goods before we happen upon them, which is why we might happen upon them. Their value as happy objects is acquired over time; which also means that desire is shaped over time[23]. Crucial to this analysis is the circulation of objects as goods, which acquire value by the very circulation. The visual language of the media industry affirms those codes that try to attract and impress upon your body. To consider more precisely how happiness circulates as a good we need to turn to the concept of affective economies.


Affective economies


We have claimed that happiness works in relation to objects or bodies, by which it is actualized as a matter of contact. This is embedded in the actualization between signs and their movement through the public.


It is a device that evokes ‘emotional chaos’, where happiness, anger and anxiety or even disgust always appear in a matrix together. An object is never bound to a single feeling, but is always a meeting point of different emotional reactions, which evolve into a feeling that cannot be captured by a single signifier. This “emotional chaos” is one which we have chosen and this ‘selection’ is done by how the object appears to us. Our state of feeling coincides with numerous other affections at the same time (Anonymous performer).


Ahmed reworks Freud’s concept of the unconscious emotions which are conceived of „an affective impulse (that) is perceived but misconstrued, and which becomes attached to another idea.“[24] In her reading of psychoanalysis, emotions are dynamic and move in different directions; sideways, forwards and backwards. Given that precarious character of emotions, she speculates that emotions work as a form of capital: “affect does not reside positively in the sign or commodity”, but is produced as an effect of its circulation.[25]


In “Capital”, Marx discusses how the movement of commodities creates surplus value, which through circulation and exchange acquires more value. „The value originally advanced, therefore, not only remains intact while circulation, but increases its magnitude, adds to itself a surplus value or is valorized. And this movement converts into capital.”[26] Ahmed applies this theory of the object on emotions as objects and offers a theory of passion conceived of an object which can accumulate over time. As affect does not reside in an object or sign, she argues, it is an effect of the circulation between objects and signs which is based on the accumulation of affective value. The more signs circulate the more affective they become. So, the more people buy their souls into the smartphone (as cultural signifier and practice) the more affective it becomes, as its object increases in value as an emotionally loaded object. It is loaded by the value of desire; loaded by the capital of happiness, through which it circulates faster, and with ever-increasing speed. So that is uncool not to have one.


These observations lead me to argue that the happy object is connected to the production of the human state of being happy; but only a distinct use will reproduce it as a happy object. It is only when we do specific things that the object can evoke the feelings in demand. Thus, affects are governed to labor on objects in order to keep them happy. This observation marks how happiness is attached to the ‚production’ of specific affects; we take part in producing how we want to be affected; we labor to be affected; in order to reproduce that specific object with a distinct emotional quality to circulate.


These new types of ‘aesthetic work’ draw on the concept of immaterial labor in which value derives from a “general productivity of the social body – dispersed through technologies and human bodies, connected in new, shifting assemblages”[27]. This is what Marx described as an evolution of the 'general intellect', “in which abstract knowledge is in the process of becoming the main force of production and will soon relegate the repetitious and segmented labor of the assembly-line to a residual position.”[28] Paolo Virno actualized Marx's concept as 'mass intellectuality' or ‘cooperative intellect’ which he describes as a “real abstraction with an operational materiality”; and which organizes the production worlds in late capitalist societies.


I will now more deeply investigate Ahmed’s concept of circulation of objects and her focus on Marxist analysis with respect to postoperaist thinkers as well as Deleuze and Guattari’s notes on capital (and the process of value addition through affect). It is then not simply the circulation of signs that needs to be considered, but the changes in the ways in which labor has been expanding its concept; from which the circulation of objects as “machines of feelings” (Guattari) must be more closely examined. But circulation itself is a far more complex process involving labor, subjectivity and biopower, which I would like to have a closer look at, in order to understand subjectivation. In the following I am also linking the “happiness of certain objects” to the dominant force of capitalism that governs our biological body.


“Happy objects” and machinic subjects


People today are trying to see everything through the lens of their phone. They forget that they have real eyes, a real body. For example they are watching a whole concert through the lens of the phone (Karen Kan). 


Karen suggests that the social, affective body is completely under control of the technological device. The body only operates in the light of that technology. It is melted with technology. This melting is what Maurizio Lazzarato calls machinic enslavement. Paradoxically it works precisely on the affective level, the circulation of the object invested with affective value.


People who spend their entire lives on the phone are phone zombies. The subject as a zombie is rather an animal than a subject today. It is only defined by the others’ interests and desires. Both, the device and the human are in a very organic relationship, because they both feed each other. Organic, because it is very animal like to be so attached to a thing, and forget thinking. People are so much in their thrives to be into that thing, that they forget their intellectual capacities. It makes animals of all of us. This object is it that makes their melting with it; by completely defining its tastes and likes (Milena Stein, together with me).


How then does subjection to the device as a happy object take place?


In his essay “The Machine”, Maurizio Lazzarato asks how to imagine social subjectivity when the affective body paradoxically represents a primary source of capitalism today. Maurizio Lazzarato is a sociologist and philosopher and writes on ‚immaterial labor’, debt issues and the crisis of the wage system, and “post-socialist” movements. He is well known for his paper on “immaterial labor”, by which he explains how labor, in response to the ‘new’ economy, is defined in the mobilization of intellectual and affective capacities. He takes on the assertion of capital as a “semiotic operator“ (Guattari) drawing on the analysis of subjectivity as a product of sign systems embedded in economic circuits. His main question focuses on how the social subject may be organized in order to find exists from the mechanisms of economic subjection under the dominant operation of capital. In his text he uses the concept of the Machine introduced by Deleuze and Guattari and puts it against a postoperaist and Marxist tradition by which he seeks to expand the definition of capitalism today. Applying Lazaratto’s elaboration of the machine, I will examine those features that define subjectivity through the very mechanisms of enslavement to a machine by referring to the smartphone. The enslavement of the human body intertwined with the constitution of subjectivity as an “abstract process” will be considered. I will then link the arguments of machinic subjectivation in our case to those arguments discussed with the happy object in the beginning.


Subjectivity and the Machine


Maurizio Lazzarato defines new communication technologies which are based on image-, sound - and networked production as a new type of machine. In contrast to mechanical machines, he argues, these have a new relationship to the duration of perception, sensitivity and thought and thus function by turning life into value as they put perceptions and affects to work. That “affective duration”, which characterizes their operation, is a form of power that is connected to emotion and impressiveness rather than sovereignty. It is that power, which precisely acts by attracting the human desires and sensible consciousness with their applications, images, sounds, and other things that it can offer the individual on the level of the aesthetic. That is how new technologies affect: their mediated attentiveness influences subjects’ decisions. It is then that both, subjects and machines are made sentient, affective beings through which capital is put to work. Let us describe this machine more closely.


Lazzarato’s arguments on the machine derive from a Marxian analysis on the factory in Capital. Marx argues that from one perspective the factory is “a social body of labor” that determines the production process as the dominant mode of operation. Here it is primarily a matter of the “combined co-operation of many orders of workpeople“, as well as ideas, values and affects. Marx offers a second perspective on the factory: he claims that “the automaton itself is the subject, and the workmen are merely conscious organs, co-ordinate with the unconscious organs of the automaton, and together with them, subordinated to the central moving-power.”[29] It is precisely this second aspect that Lazaratto refers to in order to formulate his arguments on subjectivation processes and the machinic today. He proposes that a machine defines its subjects not only as its users where it subjects them to their power; but subjects are rather defined by their actions that the machine requires when used. The machine then only functions through the activation of their users. This works as it operates by mobilizing sensations and desires (relationships not yet fixed in language, nor assigned to a subject). He then suggests that subjectivity is produced through a series of codes for machinic enslavement, which exceed the material and consciousness and operate in the realm of the ‘pre-conscious’.


“Phone enslavement” and subjectivity in the creative economy


The smartphone exceeds its technological apparatus by which it circulates as an affective device - a happy object as we have suggested - which operates at the level of impression, attraction, and desire. It operates through a set of codified features such as modes of expressions, behaviors and the activation of styles. This device is linked to “perceptual fascination”, emotional intensity (be it positive or negative affect, anger or joy) which operates at the sentient level of the body and the brain. The media present it highly loaded with easiness, well-being and individual satisfaction; equipping it with qualities that exceed its usual function as a communication device.

On the basis of these ideas, the cultural theorist McRobbie speculates that “new, neoliberalised modes of governance are reorganizing labor around that impressiveness residing in a certain value of ideas or objects (…) while producing an ideal of self-expressivism which relies on individual effort.”[30]This work ethic is often linked to the production of a creative, flexible behavior, which is then sold and to be affirmed at the level of the subjectivation.


Subjectivity thus becomes a measure for reproducing distinct values; it moreover suggests with whom we communicate, which posts we blog, which material to be stored in our archives and which apps we use. Subjectivation is part of the knowledge production by which the affective machine is affirmed. In this creative state of coming into being, subjectivity is never an end point; but the result of a machinery (such as affirmed by the imagination of being a “mobile CV”, for example), whose production never stops. Accordingly, Deleuze and Guattari define the subject neither as one constructed out of language nor as the cause of discursive utterance. Subjectivation is produced in the sum of ‘assemblage’ nodal points: subjects are produced within the matrix of verbal, affective and social forces that interact in heterogeneous processes which mark the subject as a body of plural arrangements of objects and ideas, which we attach our lives to.

The codes that the smartphone brings with it – the affective reality, interpreted by us – produces a machine of subjectivation: it places a subject instead of it. The statements and codes the machine actualizes are transformed into a subject itself. It succeeds in presenting statements that conform to the dominant reality of capitalism as through they were the statements of individuals, by constructing a machine that interprets their words and their expressions. In the end it is the machine itself that extracts a subject which presents itself the individual cause of its expressions. Subjectivation here is a form of labor that works for the reproduction of subjectivity by affirming the link between machine and code. This process is affirmed by and linked to the transformation of the “iphone worker” into “human capital”, into a self-entrepreneur of himself; activated in the link between subjectivation and exploitation. He involves the immaterial and cognitive resources of his/herself, while on the other, the master and slave relation is actualized. To summarize our previous arguments on the machine in the words of Lazaratto: “the device acts as a device of machinic enslavement by investing the basic functionality of perceptual, sensory, affective, cognitive and linguistic behaviors, and so can work on the most fundamental impulses of human activity and of life itself. Machinic enslavement operates as it mobilizes and modulates the pre-individual, pre-cognitive and preverbal components of subjectivity, causing affects, perceptions and sensations as ‘unindividuated’ to a subject.”[31] In our smartphone enslavement we are no longer users, or communicators of whatever we do, we no longer have an external relation to it. We are rather bodies affirmed as components of the device, the machinic co-part, an addict. “It is through the machinic enslavement that capital succeeds in activating the perceptual functions, the affects and the unconscious behaviors, the pre-verbal, pre-individual dynamic and its intensive, atemporal, spatial, asignificant components”[32]. These mechanisms ultimately allow capital to control the desire, which is carried by humanity. An economy of desire is mobilized by the machinic subjection of the body to the device which actualizes its affective value by which signs circulate and thus increase the devices’ presence and status.


There is a living aspect in the machine, as Milena Stein makes it clear.


It is not only like an animal, but it also treats ourselves “animal-like”. It reduces our thinking to the object. Our thrives more and more distance themselves from an intellectual subject; because it is all only about one thing; that desirable object.


According to Foucault, capitalism today defines itself as a biopower: It puts life in the center of the production of added value. The production of value by affective powers make up life. “Living labor” is a central concept in Marx’s critique of the organization of work in society. “Living work” is a creative, differential, abstract conception of manual labor describing that one’s imaginations, thoughts and affects are put to work. Lazzarato applies this notion of living labor to argue that “today work is only productive to which it is able to integrate and discipline desire.”[33] It is that the production of subjectivity based on those machines takes place beyond the use and exchange value; in the realm of the production of living capital.


Beyond emotional control?


„It [the phone] is a cheap way to communicate and to get to know people. You do not need to have much money in order to be autonomous“ (Karen Kan).


The concept of the machine is introduced in order to point to the possibilities of independent, autonomous processes of subjectivation based on their possible ‘failures’. A machine is always marked by failures through inconsistency, drop out, break down, uncontrolled inefficacy, and the unforeseen. Thus, outcomes which are uncontrolled und unforeseen escape the signifier of language and are often abstract in their codes. Failure in the Deleuzian sense then can also be read in an affirmative way. Reality today is available as a digital document and no decision is final.[34] Deleuze’ concept of failure is moreover reflected in the heterogeneous, unstructured ensemble of affects which always keep unique and singular in their expressions when fashioning a subject. This view supposes that individuals may always construct an alternative modus of action at the subjective level. As there is life at work, it is the affect’s infinite, indetermined and chaotic capacity itself, which is an autonomous force in its very actualization. So, this ‘organic machine’ “is capable of self-organization, and is self-referential, even in this mechanical state.”[35]It is equipped with the power to set abstract processes in motion. This concept is what Deleuze and Guattari describe by using the term of the refrain. It suggests that in the very mode of exodus, subjectivation becomes detached from the relations of power/knowledge, which subjectivity in the refrain can escape. The refrain is precisely an ‘abstract machine’ that eludes the processes of enslavement, and features a subject that instead crosses boundaries and thresholds: It is an enunciation, a gap, a sort of non-discursive, indetermined focus.


(To repeat) The “faceless subject of medial communication” is simply virtual “Gerede“. The German word “Gerede” describes a discourse which is without structure, and which is not interested in what you speak but that you are being able to speak. It is that what you type and write on your screen , and communicate without actually being attached to it. This language is extremely precarious (like XO, CU, 4U)…very short and in its form actually detached from the person. What is directed is the feeling (Participant Observer).


“Gerede“ is the basic machine of post-fordist production because it demands an affective body. Yet, „diese Grundlosigkeit erlaubt es, neue Formen der Rede (des Subjekts) auszuprobieren“. That in its form „grundlose Gerede führt einen Riss in das Paradigma der Referenzialität ein.“[36] It actualizes plurals of refrains in the mode of communication at the level of the aesthetic. 


In his crucial essay Postscript to the societies of control Deleuze distinguishes between the disciplinary societies (such as described by Foucault) and the new control societies. Control is exercised by cultural, social or economic codes which mark the social language of participation in these fields; or upon distinct ‘nodal points’, which, for example, are actualized in the form of micro computers, phones or other technologies that operate on the basis of humans’ desire. Smartphone users signal such a post-disciplinary framework, in which their device controls the subjects’ movement in society. The performance scene of the headphone wearing student in the beginning of this text underlines that teenagers have become their own masters of control by which they escape the subject-object dualism that the ‘machinic’ subjection puts on them. Capital today operates by addicting its users; and this control takes place on the sentient, aesthetic level. Their affection caused by the device affirms the subject as one detached from the power of the school (creating their own agendas and schedules beyond the school disciplinary framework; always finding space to be autonomous), the device on the other hand controls their affectivity. For McRobbie, the discourse of pleasure caused by certain ideas, objects or work is “a process of autonomization bound to 'governmentality', in which the practice of government is seen in the wide sense as the ‘conduct of conduct’”[37], which encompass “the whole range of practices that constitute, define, organize and instrumentalize the strategies that individuals in their freedom can use in their dealing with each other.”[38] The theory of emotions as circulating signs affirms that affect (as described by Ahmed) functions as an instrument of control; as the mediating force between control and enclosure. While the individual's freedom basically means “the possibility of either accepting or refusing his assigned status, [it can be moreover understood] as (…) the possibility of permanently redeploying one's capacities according to the satisfaction“(...)[39] one obtains from contact with certain things.


These arguments stress how much control is being exercised today via emotionality; and how the social self affirms these affective codes by buying their desires into specific objects. The method by which the self is fashioned today is a technology that operates on the affective, sentient level; it is carried out by the circulation of emotions as objects. In that way emotions connect to competition, control, and possibilities. Consumers’ desires are shaped by the circulation of goods which they are ruled to buy themselves into; which yet offers them the possibilities of creating a space for self-formation. Teenagers are consumers who increasingly participate in the production of experiences as commodities, which can be viewed as a new ‘code of conduct’ by which they are ‘trained-up' to be affectively bound to the practice of being creative.[40] The people who learn the technologies of self[41] on the basis of emotional regulation, become competitive, actively responsible, self-regulating 'entrepreneurs of themselves.”[42] The circulation of happiness is always already a machinic circulation, which marks feelings as machinic affects. Insofar as feelings can enslave the subject via the circulation as objects, it decodes them at the same as it recodes their ‘behavior’, as Deleuze/Guattari would put it. The more feelings are put to work, the more abstract their surplus matrix, the greater the possibility to escape the dominant mode of operation and subjection. Feelings not only behave like an abstract machine; as affects they are invested with the powers to move beyond the objects they are attached to.


This is the starting point of my performance and film.[i]





[1] These thoughts are inspired by reading Jan Verwort’s chapter “Faith, Money, Love“ in Antonia Hirsch (Ed.) Intangible Economies, Vancouver, 2012, pp. 117-132; with an emphasis on p.127.

[2] An essay-film-installation is being produced, which consists of rehearsals and production scenes for a staged, fictive theater play. In six workshops, which take place throughout autumn and winter 2013, seven young contemporary dance performers reflect on their subjectivation processes in relation to their smartphone between self-assertion, satisfaction, and exhaustion in five chapters. (Hedda Parkkonen, Roberta Cepagglia, David Espinosa Angel, Eva Streit, Milena Stein, Isabell Suck and Karen Kan). They produce choreographies based on the performances such as wiping, minimizing, maximizing, deleting, hiding, and investigate the effects of the phone-play on their bodies. Each chapter introduces the choreographies with a chorus - a thematic statement we have written together in the course of the workshops. The chorus speaks from the perspectives of the bodies - Body Talks. Their bodily performance of the device leads them to an exhausted and symptomatic body. As the place of production I chose one of the students’s training halls, to feel the exhausting, and hard work, connected to the brave new labor of general self-assertion- and performance today.

[3] See for example in Stuart Hall, Afer Neoliberalism: Analysing the Present, The Kilburn Manifesto, London, 2013, p.17f .

[4] Mark Fisher, A social and psychic revolution of almost inconceivable magnitude: Popular Culture’s Interrupted Accelerationist Dreams. E-flux journal #46, 6/2013, see under,  15.10.2013.

[5] This term refers to how authorites today direct the production of specific emotions in order to stimulate transaction. Eva Illouz, for example, offers a broad description of emotional capitalism. Post-operaist thinkers such as Bifo Berardi, or Paolo Virno also speak of semio– or cognitive capitalism.

[6] See for example the writings of Sven Lütticken on “General Performance” at, or various texts by Diedrich Diedrichsen on cultural- and media industries; as well as contributions to creative industries by Angela McRobbie and Marion von Osten at, among others.

[7] Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism. Is there no Alternative? Winchester, 2009, p.24.

[8] This is how she calls herself on

[9] Brian Massumi, Ontomacht. Kunst, Affekt und das Ereignis des Politischen. Berlin, 2010.

[10] Antonia Hirsch, Intangible Economies. An Introduction. In: Antonia Hirsch (Ed.) Intangible Economies, Vancouver, 2013, p.8.

[11] Encarnación Gutiérrez Rodríguez, Affective Value. European Institute for Progresssive Cultural Politics, 2010, see under, 30.8.2013

[12] see quote 9

[13] I summarized their reading of Spinoza as I did not have the capacity to carefully study Spinoza myself. Goetz Bachmann & Andreas Wittel, 2010, see under, 17.11.2013, Happiness works in relation the characteristics of Enthuasiasm as speculated by Marina Vishmidt.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion. New York, 2004, quoted after Descartes 1985, p.349.

[16] Sara Ahmed, 2004, p.5.

[17] Emil Durkheim, The rules of Sociological Method. New York, 1966, p.4; see also in Lutz and Abu-Lughod 1990; also in Sara Ahmed, 2004, p.9.

[18] Otto Penz, Immaterielle Arbeit und Chancengleichheit. Conference Paper, Momentum 11, Gleichheit fordern, 2011, Hallstadt, zit nach. Cristina Morini, The Feminization of Labour in Cognitive Capitalism, in: Feminist Review 87, 40-59, 2007, p.46, see under (, 30.5.2013.

[19] In the workshops, the performers often don’t speak about themselves, but make teenagers as the object of their analysis. Whereas some of them show a rather critical perspective on their smartphone, they argue that they observe a different behavior among their younger colleagues, friends, brothers or sisters, for example. When I often refer to “teenagers” in the text, then it is the performer’s actualization and construction of the teenagers behavior.

[20] Hito Steyerl, The Language of Things. European Institute for Progressive Cultural Politics, 2006, see under, 12.10.2013.

[21] Sara Ahmed, view her blog under, 12.9.2013.

[22] Patricia Putschert, Nicht so regiert werden wollen: Zum Verhältnis von Kritik und Wut. European Institute for Progressive Cultural Politics, 2008, see under 1.12.2013.

[23] Sara Ahmed, 2004, 44ff, and 4-16.

[24] Sara Ahmed, quoted after Freud, The Unconscious. London, 1964a, p.177.

[25] Sara Ahmed, 2004, p.45.

[26] Karl Marx, Capital. A critique of political economy. Harmondsworth, 1976, p.248.

[27] Amanda Bill, 2009, quoted after Terranova, 2006. In: Joasia Krysa (Ed.)

Curating Immateriality: The Work of the Curator in the Age of Network Systems, Autonomedia (DATA browser 03), p.29.

[28] Paolo Virno, Grammatik der Multitude. Wien, 2007, p. 3.

[29] Maurizio Lazzarato, The Machine. Institute for Progressive Cultural Politics, 2009, see under, 23.11.2013.

[30] Angela McRobbie, 2002, quoted after Du Gay / Pryke (Eds.), Cultural Economy, London, 2002, p.100.


[31] Maurizio Lazzarato, 2009 (see quote 27).

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism. Winchester, 2009, p.54.

[35] Gilles Deleuze/Felix Guattari, Postscript to the societies of control. Cambridge, 1992, p.71; see also in Lazzato, 2009.

[36] Paolo Virno, Grammatik der Multitude. Wien, 2007, p.127.

Translation for the German: “Unsubstantiated chitchat (or loose talk) implements a rupture in the paradigm of referentiality”.


[37] Amanda Bill, Happiness, Fashion and Creativity, 2009, see under, 2.12.2013.

[38] Amanda Bill, 2009, quoted after Foucault, 2003, New York and London, p. 41.

[39] Jaques Donzelot, 1991, Chicago. In: Burchell, Graham et al. (Eds.)

The Foucault Effect:Studies in Governmentality, p.251ff.

[40] Nigel Thrift, Economy and Society. Volume 35, Issue 4, Oxford, 2006, p.35.

[41] A term described by Foucault, which suggests a self that governs her/himself by the very powers of “life itself“.

[42] Gordon Colin, 1991, Chicago. In: Graham Burchell, et al. (Eds.)

The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality, Chicago, pp. 1–53.

[i] Body Talks


An essay-film-installation, 30 min. in 5 chapters, and a performance installation, 20 min.


Over a couple of months I have been working with young performers currently in higher education. In workshops for a staged play they are expressing “refrain-subjects”, joy-subjects, “empty and exhausted subjects” through improvised performances and rehearsed choreographies. They reflect bodies which seek exists from their alienation of their smartphone play. The choreographies are based on the performers’ reflections of their encounters with the phone, through which they investigate their own subjectivation processes between self-assertion, satisfaction and exhaustion. The rehearsals are filmed. Each chapter introduces the choreographies with a chorus - a thematic statement we have written together, which speaks from the perspectives of the bodies. The performance they produce in the dance studio contrasts those ‘real’ movements on their phone. Wiping, deleting, hiding, maximizing, etc. While these performances may apply the codes of capital acceleration by their human labor power, they keep autonomous in their very acts of play (the repetition). Postfordist play beyond capital interest. It is the hard work of continuous and permanent self-realization and self-assertion that is affirmed by their desires. The participants invent new subjectivities on the basis of their machinic device that they melt with.The question remains which subjects of resistance are being produced in this realm of unstructured and chaotic individuation in the sentient sphere.