Book review of: Animal Spirits

On: September 14, 2009
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About Sjoerd Tuinema
I'm a New Media MA student at the University of Amsterdam, carry a bachelor degree on Communication and Media Management, do design-work and am known as a notoire media junkie.


In Animal Spirits, Matteo Pasquinelli takes on a burdensome task of elaborating on modern digital culture (or capitalism) from the viewpoint of complicated philisophical sociology. This goes alongside John Keynes’ definition of the animal spirits as a dynamic endogenious force within the multitude (a take on the the masses): “Keynes defines the irrational and unpredictable forces struggling behond stock markets and pushing economic cycles as animal spirits”. What comes forth from the introduction of this term is that the animal spirits don’t allow much (political) interference, controversely, its animal force might well be triggered only by the policies themselves. The spirits take back the part autonomy it has lost during the highly bureaucratic introduction of the Empire (Negri & Hardt): “It is crucial to underline the autonomous and productive force of the animal spirits. The physiology and neurology of the human animal, its libidinal, emotional and psychopathological economy, has become a complex battlefield in the age of so-called advanced capitalism.”

Within this Empire, the Animal Spirits as a slumbering beast, is waiting to be unleashed. According to Paolo Virno‘s “Grammer of the Multitudes”, this animal side of the multitudes is still always present in society: “the unconscious of culture and politics is rooted in the natural aggressiveness of man as a animal”. Further, the faces behind the Empire’s (and the character of which the ‘dark side of the multitude resists’) status don’t remain hidden in it’s form. At this point Pasquinelli introduces three philosophical methophors based on a bestiary, namely the parasite, the conflictive hydra and the bicephalous eagle. These concepts would have been earlier developed by Serres and Virno, where authors like Freud, Lazzarato, Baudrillard and Guaratti were influential debaters.

The bestiary concepts take the sole role disruptive force between the symmetrical relations in the archaic capitalism, although at the same time they’re also critical for the survival of the current state of the society. The bicephalous beast for example, originally based on the relations between power and desire is “far from repelling us, it appeals to us”. The three concepts are implemented on thoughts on different subjects such as the the commons (which experienced a revitalisation with web version, ‘Creative Commons’); the ‘creative class’ or ‘creative city’ (writing upon the supposedly marketing language of Richard Florida and similar theorists) and pornofication of the society (on Netporn or war politics). From here I’ll elaborate on each of the introduced concepts.

The material and immaterial perspective on modern culture appear useful in most debates, Pasquinelli defends this view by stating that “something always [stands] in relation to an external surplus and not as a virtual system held apart or abstracted from material concerns”. Also, the author tends to not only focus the materialistic code (or the representation), but also on the flows (the production, basically the energies behind the media use and production). As for the commons-debate for example, the supposed reinvention of ‘collective production’ appears broken in it’s core representation. For this argument Pasquinelli quotes Neoist Anna Nimus about Creative Commons (CC): “It’s a mixed bag of cultural goods are not held in common since it is the choice of individual authors to permit their use or to deny it. [CC] is really an anti-commons that peddles a capitalist logic of privitization under a deliberately misleading name”. As such, the only thing that’s really ‘free’, is freely copyrighting by the original producers without the capability of accumulation by other producers. Pasquinelli refers to Dmytri Kleiner’s who defines copyfarleft and copyjustright as the only workable production modi: “The solution is [..] copyfarleft, a license with a hybrid status that recognizes class diversions and allow workers to claim back the means of production”. In this discourse, the dream of the collective production goes far beyond the hype machine of the commons ‘collective production’ which it claims to facilitate.

A 16th centery drawing of the hydra

A 16th centery drawing of the hydra

In the following chapter, Pasquinelli goes on to the subject of creative class as described in the popular works of Richard Florida (as ‘The Rise of the Creative Class‘). After the social value traded ‘monetary accumulation’ for ‘innovation’, the society also focussed itself on slogans as ‘everyone is a creative’, as the ‘age of the social reproducibility’ finally has taken form. For this creative (knowledge) economy to emerge, the key for maintaining succesful is essentially by controlling the innovation: “Controlling the speed differential of a knowledge invention means simply keeping its dominant position within the immaterial sphere, the wider material context and network of cooperation.” The material manifestions lead back to the local political agenda’s, who’s defended under the flag of symbolism. “The image of ‘creativity’ is the collective symbolic capital transformed into monopoly rent and applied to a distinctive part of society (..) The ‘creative class’ is a parasitic simulacrum of the social creativity that is detached from the precariat and attatched to the upper class”. This notion of creative is thus held up by European cities like Berlin, Amsterdam and for example of Barcelona’s @22 project. All of these modernist projects relied on gentrification, a class struggle that’s represented by the hydra (of which the raging heads hit each other).

In the last chapter, sexualization is discussed as a social model: “The Freudian perverse polymorphism of infantile sexuality is portrayed as a model for the libido of the whole nation, and more generally, for the collective imaginary.” Especially on the side of U.S war-politics the radical form of romanticism (namely pornofication) is taken as the case for portraying the bicaphalous beast of society. Ever since the production of the image, and the ‘phantasy images’ that has evolved from the Middle Ages, has taken their own role as they seek spectacle in subjects that surpass the mere entertainment value. In this situation, Pasquinelli states that “pornography can be taken as a radical case study of the condition of the image in the contemporary climate”. In the case of Warporn the tensions mainly revolve around the civilian journalism versus the pornographical imagery the U.S Military. Instruments like the videophone have appeared a resourceful tool in exposing the war against terrorism. In this media warfare, when Rumsfeld tried to prohibit the video production productions, an internetvideo popped up of him shaking hands with Saddam Hussein in 1983.

Beyond the warporn, the explicit pornofication could be seen as a sign of the end of the Empire: “In the last half century, pornography has become ubiquitous, a mass commodity (..) that is almost free in the age of the internet. Pornography itself can be considered the ultimate by-product of an exhausted technological Empire.” After this apocalyptic prognosis, it’s uncertain if there’s a proper alternative for the vacuum of the ‘desire’ itself: “Even when we defend pornography we deal with a desire that is never definable and predictable”, which refers back to the character of the animal spirit itself.

In the end, the framework of the bestiary and the Animal Spirit has proven to be useful in nuancing the modern day’s hypes by measuring them to the radical and libidinal forces of individuals. These unpredictable forces have seem to be productive, competative and sometimes arbitrairy assaults. Although in the end this ‘fury’ might be expressed in day-to-day actions that provoke somewhat towards the bureaucratic and political beast, sometimes in the form of useful sabotage, or otherwise like a rebelling bourgeois bohemian. Also, the bestiary and specifically the emphasis on both the immaterial digital and the material world deliver some insights that are worthwhile. Though, the explicit meaning of the metaphors isn’t always that obvious, the concepts themselves seem up to date as they are unraveled.

Especially the linkage between the commons (the parasite) and the creative city (the bicaphalous eagle) is cleary there, both of the chapters seem to supplement each other, since they’re more or less on the same subject matter; that of social production. Therefore the pornography and image chapter felt like a neccesary addition for the completion of the ‘animal spirits’ concept without referencing to earlier arguments. Also, the pornography chapter feels a bit more thin on the authors, since it mainly relies mainly on the English science-fiction writer J.G. Ballard, who’s a proper contributor when it comes to a abolishment of the Empire, but doesn’t give the thesis a intellectual knock-out. Nevertheless, ‘Animal Spirits’ is a complete plea to what can be called the impact of the animal psychology in the information age.

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