to Home page  

Of Mice and Men
Reflections on Eisenstein and Digital Imagery

Paul Willemen

to Index of Issue 8
to Next Article
to Previous Article
to Subscribe page
to Rouge Press page



On a BBC Radio 4 program in early 1999, some cyber-nut claimed, in all seriousness, that Dante had invented cyberspace – or, at least, that La Divina Commedia was a prototype for it. With all the hype (often only interrupted by imbecilic nonsense) that infests any discussion of the accelerating digitalisation of most media, it is worth reflecting on some aspects of digital technologies in the visual media which do point to the emergence of new concerns; or which, to say the least, appear to accelerate existing trends. Two such concerns meriting further thought are the waning of the indexical dimension of the image, and the consequent changes in its relation to the subjectivity, implicating both the narrator and the reader/viewer of the image, which animates and supports the publication of images.

There is no need to dwell on silly notions such as the digital media’s alleged development of some form of non-linear narrative: narrative constantly loops back and branches out, condenses and proliferates uncontrollably, which is precisely why the ‘meaning’ of a story can never be fixed once and for all. Narrative never was linear, so to proclaim the discovery of non-linear narrative is absurd.

In the same vein, interactivity has always been a feature of any representational media, from religious rituals to painting, novels and cinema. Indeed, pen and paper constitute an ‘interactive’ medium, and interactivity has been a significant feature from classical Chinese poetry to the call-and-response structures of gospel and jazz music, to Surrealism’s ‘exquisite corpses’ and to just about all forms of commercial verbal and imaged discourses in which feedback mechanisms have played a determining role for at least a century. For instance, the tried and (de)tested Hollywood practice of the sneak preview, with its audience response cards which then form the basis of modifications to the film, has been routine since the ‘30s. At most, one could argue that interactivity previously operating via telephony and the post office has been speeded up. To refer to interactivity as a new feature characteristic of ‘new tech’ discursive forms is, again, nonsense. Indeed, in many respects, the digitalisation of information has rendered interaction between reader/viewer and text-production more restricted, in that the protocols governing interactivity have become tighter, narrower, more inflexible and more policed. The expansion of opportunities for interaction has been accompanied by reductions in the scope for action, which now has to be conducted according to rigorously policed protocols; by a trivialisation of the fields where interaction is encouraged (such as games and bulletin boards); and by the increased isolation of the allegedly interacting individuals, as kids lock themselves into separate spaces to play with their computers, and as office workers are separated from their sociable places of work or are reduced to the condition of ciphers in call-centres reminiscent of the surveyed spaces of 1920s typing pools. Open plan office spaces reduce self-selected interactions by increasing the surveillability of employees. Whenever some new tech high priest intones about the non-linear or the interactive, you can be absolutely certain that you are listening to a confidence trickster trying to sell you some snake oil.

However, what does seem to require some extra thought is the apparent change in modes of address deployed by ‘new media’ and, in that context, the fact that new media seem tailor-made for modes of address most suitable for authoritarian and advertising discourses. A second aspect of the digitalisation of information, which includes images, has been raised (but all too rarely) as a problem by a number of intellectuals: the consequences of the disappearance of the indexical dimension of the photochemically obtained image, and the correlative spread of iconic and symbolic imagery which is easier to manipulate and administer – a development that also accelerates the trend towards authoritarianism and advertising, two modalities of the same discursive procedures involving what the linguist Roman Jakobson identified as the conative function of discourse: a way of addressing the reader/listener/viewer in a manner that brooks no challenge or dissent. The most characteristic grammatical form of the conative function is the imperative or the vocative. The choice given to the addressee in such cases is exceedingly limited: either you obey or you ignore the statement, the latter not always being an option that can be safely exercised. These are the only two forms of interactivity allowed by a discursive form in which the conative function dominates.




1. Ian Christie and Richard Taylor, Reconsidering Eisenstein (London: Routledge, 1993).

  One of the twentieth century's greatest artists as well as theorists of art, Sergei M. Eisenstein, had interesting things to say about such discursive features. It is fairly common knowledge that Eisenstein’s approach to editing and composition was animated by a desire to reduce ambiguity and to exert greater control over the way image-discourses are received by viewers, even though he was equally concerned to expand the range of the viewers’ intellectual engagement with cinema. It has been suggested, perhaps even established, by (for instance) Bernard Eisenschitz at an Eisenstein Conference at Keble College, Oxford, in July 1988 (although the remarks were not included in the book of that conference by Ian Christie and Richard Taylor), (1) that Eisenstein dreamed of being able to ‘play’ – through devices of composition, the synchronisation of the senses and other modalities of montage – the intellect and the emotions of an audience like one plays a keyboard. In that respect, Eisenstein’s somewhat authoritarian dream (it must be acknowledged that this was not his only dream) survives today most prominently in the world of advertising, including the world of pop promos with their emphasis on mood manipulation to stimulate specific thoughts, such as: I must buy this record.  



Variants or, perhaps more accurately, negative applications of Eisenstein’s approach can be detected in contemporary club culture and some shops which seek to extinguish thought altogether by imprisoning people in authoritarian sound bubbles, extending Eisenstein’s principles not in the direction of synaesthesia, but anaesthesia, acknowledging that if montage practices can be deployed to synchronise the senses and to guide the formation of intellectual associations, they can also be deployed to synchronise the senses by obliterating intellectuality, drowning it by way of an extreme example of ‘overtonal’ montage: turn up the volume of ‘the beat’ until its vibrations are physically felt rather than aesthetically perceived, abolishing the distance constitutive of representation and cognition.

This development, now also increasingly deployed in Hollywood cinema as well as in other signifying practices seeking to eliminate thought – a report in Variety in August 1998 noted that from year to year, Hollywood blockbusters have turned up the decibel levels of their soundtracks – seems synchronised not only with a growing trend towards authoritarianism in politics, but also with the increased authoritarianism of the modes of address characteristic of the computer monitor with its plethora of imperatives (file, cut, copy, paste, format, print, etc) and extensive rulebooks stating the obligatory protocols which have to be obeyed by all except those blessed few who have the skills to re-program their computer software packages. Perhaps the starkest indication of the authoritarian desire that speaks through the way a computer package addresses us is some form of the phrase: ‘This program has performed an illegal operation and will be shut down’, which appears on the computer screen when the obligatory protocols have been transgressed. To call such a mistake ‘illegal’ speaks volumes.




2. Mikhail Iampolsky, in Reconsidering Eisenstein, p. 177.

  Such developments prompted me to return to Eisenstein’s writings to clarify some ideas about what has changed in regimes of signification in the shift towards digital imaging. A second reason for going back to Eisenstein was the suspicion that, sooner or later, some techno-fetishist is bound to invoke, abusively, Eisenstein’s name in a celebration of the internet or computer-based art. I suspect that, for this abuse of Eisenstein, his particular notion of mimesis will be invoked. Mikhail Iampolsky quotes Eisenstein’s speech to the filmmakers of La Sarraz in 1929: ‘The age of form is drawing to a close. We are penetrating behind appearance into the principle of appearance. In doing so we are mastering it.’ (2) Iampolsky then went on to argue that, for Eisenstein, the issue was to represent the ‘essential bone structure’ underpinning and shaping reality rather than its surface appearance. No doubt, some techno-fetishist will latch onto that formulation to claim that this is precisely what digital imaging and new media enable. This claim may be further elaborated with references to Eisenstein’s emphasis on drawing, painting and the iconic quality of the cinematic and photographic image.  





3. Ibid, p. 187.

  My argument here is mainly a pre-emptive one: Eisenstein’s theories do not allow any such conclusions to be drawn, mainly because his entire theory of aesthetics and of art practice is based not on the image as an icon or even a symbol, but on the presence of indexical elements in both – especially in the icon. Here I am using Charles Sanders Peirce’s triadic division of signs in which the index, as opposed to the icon and the symbol, retains within itself traces of the physical connection between sign and reality. Indeed, in Eisenstein’s writings, this physical connection is mostly presented as a bodily connection, as in his often quoted remark, made as a young man, that mise en scène is to be regarded as ‘the lines of an actor’s movement in time’. Significantly, Iampolsky’s concluding image, which he claims conveys ‘the essence of Eisenstein’s concept of mimesis’, is very close indeed to one of Peirce’s favourite examples of an indexical image: the death mask, ‘both the face like a skull and the skull like a face … one living above the other. One concealed beneath the other.’ (3) Penetrating to the skull beneath the face is what Eisenstein means by penetrating ‘behind appearance into the principle of appearance.’ Iampolsky concludes his argument by criticising interpretations of Eisenstein’s writings on montage which concentrate on the strictly semantic dimension of juxtapositions, pointing out that this goes against Eisenstein’s own conception of the main, fundamental issue he was trying to address, his Grundproblematik.  


  Naum Kleiman noted, in an introduction to the mature Eisenstein’s writings about animation and Disney, that, for Eisenstein, this Grundproblematik, this fundamental, core problem of art practice, was the orchestration of two diametrically opposed registers of experience: intellectual cognition relying on logical thought, as well as on pre-logical, sensuous perception – the former associated with conceptual consciousness, the latter with infancy and what he calls ‘sensuous thinking’. Kleiman quotes Eisenstein’s remarks to the 1935 Conference of Soviet Film Workers:  




4. Jay Leyda, Eisenstein on Disney (Calcutta: Seagull Books, 1986).

  The dialectic of works of art is built upon a most curious ‘dual unity’. The affect generated by a work of art is due to the fact that there takes place within it a dual process: an impetuous progressive rise along the lines of the highest conceptual steps of consciousness and a simultaneous penetration by means of the structure of the form into layers of profoundest sensuous thinking. The polar separation of these two lines of aspiration creates that remarkable tension of unity of form and content characteristic of true art-works. (4)  



Here we have a characterisation of art practice as a way of orchestrating the combination of conceptual thinking and pre-logical, sensuous forms of perception. Translated into Julia Kristeva’s terms, Eisenstein proposes a definition of art as the orchestration of a mix between the symbolic and the semiotic, between the kind of symbolic network of which the language system is the supreme example and the protean world of the Freudian drives, what Kristeva calls the ‘chora’. In this context, Eisenstein does not, of course, use Kristeva’s Platonic terminology. He uses a term on the interface between science and mysticism, plasma, and describes animated beings as beings which behave like ‘primeval plasma’ without any stable form.

For Eisenstein, as Kleiman notes, Disney’s animation constitutes evidence of the productivity of this regressive tendency in art, which necessarily accompanies, in a dialectical relationship, the progressive tendency constituted by the stimulation of conceptual thought. Kleiman comments:




5. Ibid.

  Disney provided direct grounds and material for an analysis of the ‘survival’ of animism and totemism in modern consciousness and art [with] the ‘animation’ not only of animals and plants, but of the entire objective world … In Eisenstein’s view, the very mechanism of a flowing ‘omnipotent’ contour was an echo of the most concealed depths of pre-memory. (5)  


  What has to be remembered in this context is that, for Eisenstein, the protean, pre-logical sensual dimension of the artwork was connected with the body and manifested in the act of drawing. He notes the connection between Disney himself as a graceful body, comparing him to a dancer, and the flexibility of the body and gestures, the gracefully modulating lines of Mickey Mouse’s body, describing the indexical link between Disney and his famous mouse. Eisenstein then waxes lyrical about animation in general:  



6. Ibid.

  How much (imaginary!) divine omnipotence there is in this! What magic of reconstructing the world according to one’s fantasy and will! A fictitious world. A world of lines and colours which subjugates and alters itself to your command. You tell a mountain: move, and it moves. You tell an octopus: be an elephant, and the octopus becomes an elephant. (6)  



Here we have a direct celebration of what we now call the virtual world, the cyberworld. Or do we? Is this divine omnipotence not exactly what computers and digital imaging packages promise us? Well no, actually. Eisenstein is evoking a world or representational freedom in which we are not likely to come up against the dictatorial ‘Illegal operation. This program will be shut down’.

In the very next section of the essay I am quoting, Eisenstein goes on to contrast this divine creative freedom of the animator (or the Photoshop operator) with the world of Henry Ford’s assembly line and the rule of bankers, which he characterises as the ‘grey, grey, grey world’ of those who are





7. Ibid.

  shackled by hours of work and regulated moments of rest, by a mathematical precision of time, whose lives are graphed by the cent and the dollar ... those who are forever at the mercy of a pitiless procession of laws, not of their own making, laws that divide up the soul, feelings, thoughts, just as the carcasses of pigs are dismembered by the conveyor belts of Chicago slaughter houses, and the separate pieces of cars are assembled into mechanical organisms by Ford’s conveyor belts. (7)  



One of the interesting aspects of this characterisation of American modernity is the implied contrast between montage (the orchestration of the fusion between the intellectual and the sensual) and assemblage, the latter leading to this curious thing called ‘mechanical organisms’: cars. The difference between the divine omnipotence of the animator and the grey oppressiveness of the assembly line is the elimination of the sensual, of the physical, of the body in the process of production. The rules and laws of production, if not of your own making (as they are in animation), generate merely ‘mechanical organisms’, organisms from which any trace of the indexical has been eliminated.

One of the characteristics of digital imagery is that the technology is caught up in two separate but related dynamics, each leading towards a very specific, as yet still slightly utopian – in my view dystopian – horizon. The first dynamic projects the ability to construct an image, pixel by pixel, according to the rules and codes imposed by computer language, the program. This is already possible, but prohibitively expensive in time and resources - hence my characterisation of it as still slightly utopian. The second dynamic is the fantasy of plugging bodies directly into electronic gadgetry, or vice versa. This leads to the more chilling speculations about projecting films on the inside of one’s eyelids by plugging chips into the parts of the brain which control the optical nerves.

The significant shift to be noted in relation to the image is the abolition, the reduction to zero of its indexical dimension, so that the film image and the still photograph become iconic, just like drawing or painting. Dai Vaughan cites a report about David Hockney carried in the Independent on Sunday (21 October 1990), where the painter apparently used a digital photo camera and talked of ‘the end of chemical photography’. In a recent interview after the showing of his ‘Grand Canyon’ painting, Hockney changed his view, bemoaning the loss of the indexical dimension in image making. Vaughan writes at some length, and very pertinently, on the drastic implications of the shift from the photochemical to the digital image:





8. Dai Vaughan, For Documentary: Twelve Essays (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), pp. 181-192.

  What concerns me is that we shall wake up one day and find that the assumption of a privileged relation between photograph and its object, an assumption which held good for 150 years and on which ciné-actuality is founded, will have ceased to be operative. And when that happens, it will not be because some thesis has been refuted but because the accumulation of countervailing experiences – of the simulation of the photographic idiom, of the electronic recombination of photographic elements, of ‘photographic’ processes where intervention between registration and reproduction of the image is not only easy but inescapable – have rendered null that ‘trust’ for which the idiom has simply been our warranty. And once we have lost it, we shall never get it back. (8)  


  Vaughan went on to illustrate his point with an example from a 1991 BBC Arena program in which Laurie Anderson’s face ‘morphs’ into that of a baboon:  




9. Ibid.

  I assumed this to be a bit of electronic jiggery-pokery … until I read ... that for this sequence Anderson had had to spend fourteen hours in makeup, unable to eat, drink, or scratch her nose. There was a time – not so long ago – when the implications of this, in terms of discomfort and endurance, would have remained present for us in the sequence; now they did not. A sense of the effort and impediment of the represented world is one thing lost when we cease to see that world as necessary to its representation. This is the price of Terminator II. (9)  


  With the gradual loss of that ‘believability’ which keeps image makers more or less honest and which has the annoying – for authoritarians – ability to show that situations are often not at all the way governments or other authorities would like to represent them to us, our ability to ‘make sense’ relatively autonomously and democratically, is irrevocably diminished. To quote Vaughan one last time, photography and cinema have  


10. Ibid.

  always represented an impediment to the word of authority by virtue of its ultimate appeal to something prior to that word. It is surely not fortuitous that the age of the chemical photograph has broadly coincided with that of mass democratic challenges to entrenched power. (10)  



The draining away of the indexical dimension of the image through digital manipulation is anti-democratic because it makes the administrative control of meaning easier by facilitating the control of the flow of information (literally: the control through pre-programmed software packages of the bits that are combined to construct images), transforming images to the extent that even ordinary snapshots come under suspicion of having been ‘configured’. An image of a person in a room need no longer mean that the person was in that particular room, nor that such a room ever existed, nor indeed that such a person ever existed. Photochemical images will continue to be made, but the change in the regime of ‘believability’ will eventually leech all resistance that reality offers to ‘manipulation’ from even those images.

One answer to this process is obvious: it is necessary to put the emphasis on the process of reading itself; education must concentrate, not on the transfer of information nor on the reproduction of value systems, but on the urgent task to equip people with the necessary ‘thinking tools’ required to make sense of historical processes so that individuals may become better at assessing the ‘likely’ verisimilitude of any account or representation of the world. Unfortunately, and perhaps again not coincidentally, this is also the time of ‘dumbing down’, of training rather than education, and of the proliferation and aggressive celebration of anaesthesia (the above-mentioned sound prisons designed to obliterate thought, the promotion of films as physical sensations rather than as complex emotive-intellectual experiences, and so on.)

Eisenstein’s writings draw attention to a more subtle, but equally important, aspect of digitalisation: in digital imagery, the icon no longer registers the presence of the body. It removes the dancer’s elegance of gesture and movement from Mickey Mouse by severing the link between the animator’s body and the graphic line. The digitally constructed death mask has lost any trace of the dialectic between the skull and the face, any trace of the dialectic between index and icon. In this respect, and probably in this respect only, some value may be attached to something with which Jean Baudrillard’s name is associated: the digitally made, pixel-constructed image of a death mask still combines elements of both logical and pre-logical, sensuous thought, but it does so only as a simulation of that connection.

Nicola Bruce’s I Could Read The Sky (1999) shows that what is at stake in the increased reliance on digital imagery in the film industry is far more than simply the deployment of a labour-saving technique. The film appears to be about Irish labourers whose physical energies have been ruthlessly exploited by British industrialists with the connivance of governments. The film presents itself, with all the hallmarks of an avant-gardist discourse, as a narration by an Irish worker recalling scenes from his life. These memories are then made to stand for the collective experience of Irish emigrant labourers in Britain. In fact, though, besides liberally indulging in imagery recalling a stereotypical Ireland, the narration of the film dispossesses the labourer even further, as the narrator constantly, and contrary to the statements made in the subjective voice-over, usurps the place of the labourer and installs itself very ostentatiously as the film’s real subject. The images and recollections triggered by the labourer-speaker are transformed, digitally, in such a way as to disconnect the memories from the remembering character: distances, framings and other image manipulations autonomise the recalled images, removing them from any position that can be construed in relation to a body in actual, historical space (which is something cameras cannot avoid doing in the course of registering scenes photochemically), taking them away from the speaker in the story and monopolising them as signifiers of ‘with-it-ness’ of the ‘speaker’ of the film, designated only by a name in the credits as the director. These digital manipulations often give the film the appearance of a first-person narration, with, for instance, direct address of the camera as if it were a character. Except, of course, that the first-person in question is manifestly not attributed to the character which says ‘I’ on the soundtrack. Instead, the speaking first-person is neither the speaking character nor the image of that character we see in the diegesis, because their relation to what is shown does not connect with the image-track. Instead, the cinematic narrator credited as director slips into the place of the enunciator of the memory images. This act of expropriation, ostensibly in the service of a protest against the exploitation of Irish workers’ physical energies, in effect (probably unintentionally, but that is irrelevant) further expropriates the Irish worker by leeching away the character’s personal memories, his mental energies. In this film, memories are no more than raw material, mere triggers for the demonstration of the cinematic narrator’s skill at packaging and selling the suitably transformed and ‘digitally enhanced’ memories of anyone incautious enough to make the results of their mental labour publicly available. The resistance of the real pointed to by Vaughan is in the process of disappearing in this film – admittedly a first, still primitive and under-financed effort exploring the ‘potential’ of digitised narration. The film is a genuinely avant-garde product in the sense that it shows us ‘things to come’. And it is not Steven Spielberg’s ode to advertising (Saving Private Ryan [1998], showing us how to sell a war), nor George Lucas’ computerised versions of infantile ‘cowboys and Indians’ games which show most directly how to expropriate whatever personal possessions exploited people may have left at the end of their lives. While bemoaning the old-fashioned industrial exploitation of physical labour power, I Could Read The Sky demonstrates how to exploit the ‘mental’ residues of people’s lives, the things industrialists did not find it easy to turn into a profit. This demonstration emerged from the independent film sector sponsored, appropriately, by the state and the ‘innovative’ sectors of private enterprise, commercial television.

Some aspects of I Could Read The Sky, especially the way the digitised images look, might remind some viewers of a classic of the British independent cinema, the Berwick Street Collective’s The Nightcleaners, Part 1 (1975) – in which one of Britain’s best and most imaginative film makers, Marc Karlin, refilmed documentary footage, slowing it down to the point where images become grainy and highly contrasted. At the time, this was regarded by some as an unwarranted, overly aestheticised use of images which ‘objectified’ the women nightcleaners in the image. And yet, in spite of the reframing involved, the images in question never dispossessed the women of their bodies, their spaces or their gestures. On the contrary, these were the very dimensions of the image which the film’s aesthetic devices managed to highlight. The shift in mode of address from ‘documentary’ footage to the slowed-down images was real enough and regarded as too intrusive an intervention by the film’s narrator/director. Here we had the narrator of the film directly addressing the viewer, saying: ‘Look at this. Look at these women, their lives, their emotions, their gestures. Look at them closely.’ This was a far cry from the disappearance of the indexical dimension of the image. On the contrary, the aesthetic effect, although superficially not unlike the look of a digitised image, was precisely to draw attention to the indexical dimension of the filmed image.

Peter Delpeut’s film, Diva Dolorosa (1999), resorts to similar strategies for his scrutiny of images from early Italian melodramas featuring the great ‘divas’ Lydia Borelli, Francesca Bertini, Pia Menichelli and others. Again, the mode of address shifts. The scenes of the films in which the women performed are transformed. As with the Nightcleaners film, the director/narrator directly addresses the viewer, cranking up the film’s conative function: ‘Look at this! Look at it closely, and you will see something emerge that an ordinary viewing of the film allows you to "overlook".’ What the scrutinised images of the emoting divas reveal is itself quite complex. By treating the photochemically obtained images in this manner, Delpeut reveals something of the underpinnings of our desire for cinema; he draws attention to the very cinephilia that keeps these images alive, thus stitching the viewer’s desire together with the filmmaker’s desire around the very ‘figuration’ of emoting women in melodramas. In addition, the scrutinised images change from images in a melodrama to images in a documentary about the actresses themselves: it is the actresses themselves, their facial gestures, their way of looking, their gestures rather than the characters’ which come into focus. One of the aspects Diva Dolorosa allows the viewer to engage with is the very problem of female subjectivity, its coming to expression within narrative, dramatic and social conventions designed to obliterate or negativise female emotion. The grandiose aspects of the diva slowly begin to make sense as a kind of exaggeration resulting from the very energy, not to say violence, required for their subjectivity to fray its way through the stories, through the melodramatic mise en scène deployed in the service of stories which are meant to contain them and to force women into the straightjackets of bourgeois behavioural and emotional codes. Again, the mode of address has shifted away from the axis between story and viewer to the actualisation of the relationship between narrator and viewer, but at no time in Delpeut’s film is the indexical dimension of the actress’ images lost. On the contrary, the indexical aspect, the very trace of these precise women having ‘existed’ and acted in front of a camera which caught something of their ‘presence’, increases as it becomes the very ‘ground’ of the film.

The key issue here also is that, by shifting the connection between the physical and the symbolic into the realm of the digital or the realm of simulation, the image practices are simultaneously shifted out of the domain of the artist and into the domain of the administrators, the ‘packagers’ of images. Henceforth, artists will gather images which will then be brought to publishers and broadcasters and advertising agencies where they will be digitised and submitted to bureaucrats and administrators who will subject them to the required computer protocols, marked by a plethora of imperatives (do this, do that ... ) in order to make these images fit specific sales strategies – and, of course, the ideological strategies associated with the celebration and maintenance of ‘market forces’. The narrator and mode of address that emerge from such a strategy is: ‘Never mind what the images are about. Just buy my services as an expert image manipulator willing and able to deliver any discourse tailor made to the current market requirements.’

Eisenstein’s authoritarianism, demonstrated in his dream of control over the viewer's processes of conceptualisation and emotion, does not extend to the removal of the artist’s body from the process of art production. If you do, then you get merely assemblages, mechanical organisms. And yet, that is precisely what digital imagery promises us: not just the liberation of the image from its connection with ‘nature’, with the physical world, but the removal of all traces of the body in favour of the protocols controlled through computer codes and software packages. That is the difference between digital icons and other iconic imagery such as painting, etching or drawing. Here, the divine omnipotence of being able to tell mountains to move or octopuses to become elephants must be mediated through keyboard commands and clicks of mice. The distance between the digital icon and Eisenstein’s celebration of the iconic image can be measured in terms of the difference between two kinds of mice: the computer’s mouse and Mickey Mouse. The difference is one between the transmutation of aspects of Disney’s body into the drawing of a mouse, and images created by mice. It is too tempting to resist pointing out that, in the latter case, the mice are manipulated by rats. This is not an unfortunate side-effect of digitalisation, it is in the very dynamics of the thing, one of the main reasons for the relentless hyping of new media: whereas Fordism allowed for the intensification of the exploitation of the physical energy stored in the body’s musculature, digitalisation is the Fordism of mental labour, of thought-work. Computers are to mental labour what the conveyor belt was to physical labour.


11. D. F. Noble, ‘Digital Diploma Mills’, October, no. 86 (1998), pp. 107-129.


  The implications of that change are only now beginning to be addressed. The transformations in institutions of higher education as described by Frank Noble are the tip of the iceberg. (11) In many universities, administrators are dreaming (and beginning to implement the dream) of a luxurious ‘university’ headquarters free of students and teaching staff, paying cheap, casually employed young graduates to whack courses onto the Net which can then be sold to a ‘service provider’ and marketed to ‘students’ – for a fee, of course. Interactive contact between teaching staff (employed for a few hours only) and students can then be reduced to a couple of weekends per year.  

12. Giovanni Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century (London: Verso, 1994).





13. Stephen Byers, BBC Today, Radio 4 (13 September 1999).



A further implication of digitalisation is only beginning to dawn on us. In his persuasive account of the history of capitalism, The Long Twentieth Century, Giovanni Arrighi showed that the currently globalised triumph of capitalism has reached an important limit making a further developmental stage difficult to imagine, because it would require an expansion of territory beyond the earth in order to mobilise and control further resources for exploitation. (12) Arrighi ends his book with scenarios involving not only the end of capitalism but also the end of human history with it, as systemic crises and escalating chaos generate ever greater levels of violence. The digital offers an alternative scenario not envisaged by Arrighi, who concentrates on the economics of extracting profit from the activity of joining physical energy – that is to say, labour power in the conventional sense – with raw materials. Digital information management and administration open up a whole new continent: making it possible to harness and exploit intellectual energy, the ‘other half’ (so to speak) of human beings which hitherto could not be industrialised effectively enough and which prompts people such as the British Minister of Trade, Stephen Byers, to deliver incantations to ‘the knowledge-driven economy which is where our future lies’. (13) It will take a long time of determined collective action to prevent his ilk from subjecting us to such a future.

What such a knowledge-driven economy means to the venerable caste of clerics, transmuted in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries into ‘intellectuals’ (teachers, artists, journalists, doctors, lawyers and so on) is nothing less than the promise of radical proletarianisation – that is to say, the formation of a new working class alongside the ‘traditional’, physically labouring working class, each assigned its particular geographic territories, preferably at some distance from those who control the electronic information platforms.




Should this strike one as a fanciful or paranoid notion, it may be helpful to remember Joan Collins’ trial a few years ago in the USA. Her publisher sued her for having delivered an unpublishable manuscript. She won the lawsuit because the judge confirmed that writers were supposed to provide a specified quantity of words relating to an agreed menu of themes. To shape this quantity of words into a publishable commodity was the responsibility of the publisher, not the writer. Similarly, the BBC has taken to commissioning raw footage from ‘independent’ filmmakers, with the BBC staff reserving to themselves exclusively the right to select and shape the harvested images and sounds into broadcastable commodities. Joan Collins’ trial gave new life to the term ‘wordsmith’, while the BBC is busy transforming filmmakers into image peasants who, like the peasants contracted to supermarkets or to United Fruit, bring their tailor-made produce to ‘the company’.

When we realise that the digitalisation of the image involves, by reducing (even absenting) the role of ‘the physical’, the ‘sensuous’ (by reducing and eventually absenting the indexical aspects of the image), the redefinition and reformatting of intellectual labour as an industrially administerable process – then the stakes in discussions of the digital become clearer. A process started in the mid-nineteenth century, the industrialisation of literature, is finally beginning to extend itself to all cultural production. In the notes to his Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin cited Friedrich Kreyssig’s 1865 assessment of the success of the French playwright Eugène Scribe (1791-1861), identifying him as the exemplary cultural administrator-entrepreneur, a figure analogous to contemporary publishing and television’s commissioning editors, newspaper editors and all those responsible for the Saatchification of the arts:








14. Walter Benjamin (trans. H. Eiland & K. McLaughlin), The Arcades Project (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), pp. 671-672.

  It did not escape [Scribe’s] eagle eye that, in the last analysis, all wealth rests on the art of getting others to work for us. So then, groundbreaking genius that he was, he transferred the principle of the division of labour from the workshops of tailors, cabinetmakers and manufacturers of pen nibs to the ateliers of dramatic artists, who, before this reform, working with only their one hand and one pen, earned merely the proletarian wages of the isolated worker. An entire generation of theatrical geniuses were in his debt for their training and development, their awards, and, not infrequently, even their riches and reputation. Scribe chose the subject, sketched out the main lines of the plot, indicated the places for special effects and brilliant exits, and his apprentices would compose the appropriate dialogue or verses. Once they had made some progress, their name would appear on the title page (next to that of the firm) as a just recompense, until the best would break away and begin turning out dramatical works of their own invention, perhaps also in their turn recruiting new assistants. By these means, and under the protection afforded by the French publishing laws, Scribe became a multimillionaire. (14)  



In other words: the real cultural ‘producers’ are the ones who determine and provide the ‘templates’ for marketable cultural production; the rest of us, artists and intellectuals alike, merely ‘play’ (i.e. produce) within the virtual parameters specified for us by the cultural bureaucrats-entrepreneurs. In addition, the digitalisation of the means of production ensures that, where ‘our’ productive efforts are deemed not quite in line with what those bureaucrat-entrepreneurs decide the market to be, the cultural administrators now have the means to modify and re-style (relatively cheaply and efficiently) the cultural products in question. That is what is meant by ‘interactivity’ by the promoters of the digital: ‘we’ are allowed to interact with specific, pre-formatted templates, and ‘they’ will interact further by ‘restyling’ and polishing the resulting cultural ‘software’ before putting it on the market. Increasingly, the people who used to be called artists and/or intellectuals come to be seen for what they are: employees in what Theodor Adorno called the ‘culture industries’ or what politicians now call the ‘knowledge industries’.

By way of a postscript to this argument, I would like to add that, of course, there are some positive aspects to computers and digitalisation as well: it is nice, at times, to be able to afford electronic servants to take some of the drudgery out of some activities involved in mental labour. But that is a trivial benefit. The real benefit, perhaps, of the proletarianisation of the intellectual is that computers may well enable us to distinguish more clearly between intellectuals and the kind of cut-and-paste people still far too often described – and employed – as intellectuals. Take any catalogue issued by an academic publisher – not to mention essays in magazines or newspapers or radio or television broadcasts – and you will see that the vast bulk of what passes for intellectual production is, in fact, simply cutting and pasting, recycling selected bits of existing texts according to a limited number of ideological protocols. Perhaps digitalisation may be able to help us distinguish between those people and real intellectuals: the former deserve to live in a future shaped by the corporate control of the ‘knowledge economy’ which they are so assiduously helping to bring about; the latter are the people who are able to discern connections which are not available in any pre-formatted archive and who remain alive to the project of trying to figure out how the complex dynamics of a multi-layered history actually work. As every silver lining has its cloud, we may grant that the ‘knowledge industries’ enabled by the management of the digitalisation of ‘thought work’ could help to differentiate between cut-and-paste clerks and intellectuals. But a more likely scenario is that it will help to identify and expose intellectuals, leaving them to struggle, in Yeats’ words, like a fly in marmalade.


to Rouge Press page  
© Paul Willemen and Rouge 2006. Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.
to Subscribe page
to Previous Article
to Next Article
to Index of Issue 8
to Home page