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Hegel and Netflix

May 26, 2022


The COVID-19 pandemic was not a crisis of capitalism. Instead, it compounded problems within the present regime of accumulation. The precarious status of essential workers, regardless of their living condition, has worsened. In contrast, unrestricted capitalist accumulation in valorizing the market above everything else has been more efficient and has exacerbated social inequality. These contradictory consequences of the pandemic situation prove that the nature of capitalism does not need workers for its completion. The pandemic serves as not so much the end of capitalism but as another moment to sustain its paradox. Digital platforms play a central role in inaugurating the possible future of a workerless capitalism—from workplace technologies to Netflix.


What is being observed at the moment is the traumatic experience of capitalist restructuring. Some critics take the concept of the “shock doctrine” to explain how capitalism survives through the disastrous process. Naomi Klein’s theory of the shock doctrine, her critique of the Chicago School, assumes that “the human cost of shock therapy” is tactically designed to control the working class.[1] The ground of the shock doctrine is undoubtedly the human’s psychical realm and essentially requires production’s social relations. However, the current prevalence of disaster capitalism seems to achieve its culmination by erasing the working class’ presence. This does not mean the removal of workers but the modification of work as such.


This transformation dramatically evolves into the idea of mechanical management based on surveillance technology in this pandemic. In other words, the mechanization of work, the perversion of Taylorism, reconstructs the labor force’s fundamentals and drives each worker to be a part of the mechanism. The financial bull market on technology investment precipitates this shift further and reformulates the distribution of labor. I would call this inversion of capitalism the very essence of “pure capitalism,” i.e., the “free” economic system that encourages individuals’ voluntary competition to produce and trade without government intervention. It is not easy to determine where administrative interference could engage the system if the workers have no human management. “My Boss Is Not Human”(我的领导不是人), an article recently published in Caijing, a Chinese economic magazine, demonstrates how this mechanical surveillance reorganizes the workplace.[2]


According to the report, many Chinese enterprises have adopted artificial intelligence for more efficient and standardized management. The new system works with more than 20 surveillance cameras all over the workplaces and records every worker’s behaviors and activities. An electronic roll call at the entrance is necessary to identify each person and monitor the group. This algorithmic scrutiny, the mechanical transformation of all human actions into data, totalizes the whole process of work like a single machine. The monitoring camera transcribes workers’ performance per second, and the central operating system checks up its efficiency. Each component is designed as a prescribed processing time by the algorithm, and the Intelligent Task Distribution System will recognize and facilitate the due sequels of the worker’s actions. The electronic time attendance system refines the check-in procedures previously set at the company gate. Workers must swipe their cards if they leave the workplace. If they are absent at their seats for more than 15 minutes, the recorded data will be submitted to the central operating system, and the sum of the salary will be automatically deducted at the end of the month.


My point concerning this Chinese version of Taylor’s scientific management does not lie in the fact that Orwell’s imagination of Big Brother has come to be realized, but rather the aim of the administration is to modify the human behaviors for the algorithmic mechanism. There is no such a thing as Big Brother but there is a technological stupidity that seeks to control workers by simplifying their actions.


Any digressive and unpredicted move is discouraged by these processes. However, the workers follow the rules, not because the system tightly governs them but because the norm of the new scientific management, i.e., the command of the mechanical surveillance, forces them to obey the axioms of the mechanism. Therefore, the algorithmic organization of the workplace is not a crucial factor in new forms of management. The problem is that there must be an invisible decision-maker behind the automatic system in solving any accidental and unpredictable outcome, even though the algorithmic mechanism operates without the presence of the human boss in the venue. The void of the surveillance, i.e., the subjective articulation, is always already included in the mechanism and preserves the locus of resistance. The way we passively respond to these new algorithms can oddly be illustrated through our experiences of watching Netflix.


Algorithm and Choice


Recently, I watched two films: Love per Square Foot (2018) and Leap Year (2010). The former is made in Bollywood, and the latter, Hollywood. Interestingly, I discovered the opposite messages in these different products. Love per Square Foot displays the young Indian middle class’ wish fulfillment, while Leap Year presents the American middle class’ disillusionment about their lives.


The story of the Indian movie is about an Indian boy, Sanjay Chaturvedi, and an Indian girl, Karina D’Souza, who work in the same bank. Sanjay is an IT engineer, and Karina is a bank cashier. They both have dreams of owning their own “house” but are constantly interrupted by their personal lives. Sanjay has an affair with his boss, Rashi Khurana, who refuses to leave her husband, while Karina is engaged to her boyfriend, but her mother dithers her dream of owning a house. However, everything starts to change when Sanjay finds out about a joint housing scheme, which is supposed to provide an available apartment to a newly married couple. He suggests Karina to apply for it together, and she agrees to his plan to lie to the authorities that they are married.


Meanwhile, Leap Year follows Anna Brady’s journey, a real estate worker who is heading to Dublin, to propose to Jeremy, her boyfriend, on leap day. On the date of February 29th, according to the Irish tradition, men cannot reject a woman’s proposal for marriage. She and her boyfriend live in Boston together, but he has not yet proposed to her. His hesitation makes her decision to embark on such an adventure. On the road to Dublin, she meets an Irishman, Declan O’Callaghan, who is an innkeeper and chef. Because of no public transportation, she desperately asks Declan to taxi her to Jeremy’s place. As is typical in any romantic comedy, of course, they gradually find out the mysterious attachment to each other, even though Declan keeps driving her into complications. After many twists and turns, they finally arrive at the hotel, and, surprisingly, Jeremy proposes to Anna there. However, Jeremy’s intention is far away from Anna’s dream. At the engagement party in Boston, Anna learns that Jeremy’s marriage proposal was merely for the co-op board of the apartment building they want to buy, because the unspoken rule of the board is that only married couples can move into the property together. Disappointed, Anna leaves Jeremy and goes back to Ireland to confirm her true love, Declan.


Interestingly, these two films deal with marriage and housing, so to speak, the material foundations of the middle class, in quite an opposite way. For the Indian couple, housing is the necessary fulfillment to their love, but the American heroine regards the property as fake love and decides to give it up for true love. Somebody would simply define this gap as the consequence of different cultural values, yet there seems a more serious ideological distinction in these representations of the middle class. This difference reveals that the Indian imaginary representation of the middle-class life is the imitation of American liberalism. Symptomatically, Love per Square Foot erases the Indian reality of inequality and propagates the neoliberal imperative to manage yourself for well-being. In the last scene of the film, Sanjay, who has successively accomplished his mission, discovers another boy who is standing on his shabby house’s rooftop. They make eye contact and Sanjay smiles to the young man, as if he was the mirror image of himself a few months ago. The gaze of the interactive observation is the principal component of surveillance sustaining the new spirit of capitalism.


On the contrary, Leap Year rails against the fantasy of the American middle-class life. Anna has no real life, and her job is to “stage” an empty house for sale. This figure of the heroine is an image of the typical modernist critique of a hollow life. The Indian romantic comedy lacks this element of modernism. All conflictions of differences revolving around the narrative ultimately reconcile with the whole Indian community through the dialectical process. Despite its standard genre cliches, Love per Square Foot is not a romantic drama, but a post-artistic reproduction of the romantic comedy in a Hegelian sense. Ironically, the movie marks the end of a romantic relationship. It would be affirmed that this post-artistic tendency springs from the recent aspect of the Bollywood style, the re-branding of the Hollywood genre with an Indian aesthetics, which is observed widely in any non-Western film, but what about Leap Year, then? The movie seems to praise the individual right of self-determination touched lightly by feminism, yet criticizing the capitalist consumerism and the neoliberal ethos of efficiency. However, its modernist gestures end up with the utilitarian morality of marriage, concluding that true love must lead to the legal form of family planning. I do not intend here to bring forth the comparative studies of Bollywood and Hollywood further. Suffice it to say that I watched two different films accidentally during the lockdown.


I happened to discover them on Netflix: I encountered Love per Square Foot first, and then Leap Year. I didn’t “intend” to watch two movies one after another. It was Netflix that led me to Leap Year after watching Love per Square Foot. This recommendation was programmed in Netflix’s algorithm. In other words, my taste of the movie selection is read by the new tele-technology of the mechanical categorization. Without this technology, I could not watch two films consecutively, at least the comparative understanding of them. The contingency of the empirical moments takes place in my experiences of two movies by artificial intelligence. Without any doubt, it was “me” who chose it and decided to watch the second movie by checking Netflix’s list of recommendation, but not “my purpose,” which brought me to the choice and decision. Even the hesitation in taking just a few of moments for my pleasure does not belong to the machine. The logic of Netflix relies heavily on my arbitrary choices. That feeling of reluctance makes us believe that “we can choose” or “we have a will to select.”


Teleology vs. Mechanism


Netflix is a mechanism which seems to have no purpose determined by an intelligence external to its existence. It does not have intelligence (even though it is called artificial intelligence) but confuses us with the deferred moments of choice and functions as if we have a purpose of picking out something. Netflix is a mere mechanism which brings together the big random data and makes them necessitated. Half in jest, Hegel already anticipated the advent of Netflix in his discussion of the distinction between mechanism and teleology. In The Science of Logic, Hegel argued that “where there is the perception of a purposiveness, an intelligence is assumed as its author; required for purpose is thus the concept’s own free concrete existence.” He continues,


Teleology is above all contrasted with mechanism, in which the determinateness posited in the object, being external, is one that gives no sign of self-determination. The opposition between causæ efficientes and causæ finales, between merely efficient and final causes, refers to this distinction, just as, at a more concrete level, the enquiry whether the absolute essence of the world is to be conceived as blind mechanism or as an intelligence that determines itself in accordance with purposes also comes down to it.[3]


Fatalism is opposed to freedom, and this opposition can be applied for the opposition between mechanism and teleology. Freedom is only possible in its concrete existence. In this sense, the mechanism is grounded in the immediacy of objectivity. This objective immediacy is the stupidity of Netflix. The algorithm based on the big data would shape our preference of choice. We do not have any “freedom” to take on any by this rule. This iron cage of the tele-technological mechanism is the principle of the platform media in this pandemic situation. The algorithmic machines, such as Netflix, YouTube, and Facebook, tame our taste of objects and serve as the possible formation of the present actuality. Ironically, these functions of technology, the mechanical totalization of objective data, make us believe that it is the essence of our lives. Hegel’s use of teleology will be considered here again for reinstating the “purpose” of technology against the mechanization of life.


According to Hegel, the objective moments “stand in self-subsistent indifference as objects each outside the other, and, as so related, they possess the subjective unity of the concept only as inner or as outer.”[4] Meanwhile, when the essential unity of the objects turns posited as “distinct from their self-subsistence” and its concept is subjective, but supposed as “referring in and for itself to the objectivity, as purpose,” it is teleology. Hegel continues to claim that “since purpose is the concept posited as within it referring to objectivity, and through itself sublating its defect of being subjective, the at first external purposiveness becomes, through the realization of the purpose, internal.”[5] This argument clarifies how purpose becomes an idea.


Hegel’s teleology separates his idealism from other idealists, in particular Berkeley and Kant who regard mind and rational subjectivity as the origin of objects. For Hegel, whatever spiritual or ideal, further Kant’s self-consciousness, does not emerge at the beginning of thought and being but at the end of those procedures. Hegel’s spiritualism presupposes the traumatic “education” of spirituality extracted from the defects and errors of subjectivity. In this sense, Hegel’s teleology allows us to think beyond the necessity of mechanisms like Netflix. The purpose of the technology ironically lies in the flaw of its mechanism, i.e., the subjective hesitation, our reluctant pause before the choice. In other words, there is no final decision there, only undecidability, which has not the absolute other from the outside, but deferring differences from within. The Hegelian use of teleology aims at bringing in a metalogical approach to the automatic algorithm.


Resistances within Mechanism


In my opinion, Hegel’s conception of teleology can be understood as the early consideration of today’s automatization. The algorithmic categorization such as Netflix reveals how the mechanical necessity reserves the internalized purpose. Even though the mechanism seems automatic, there must be the hesitating decision-maker behind the machine. When the Gulf War broke out in 1990, Félix Guattari wrote an essay, “Towards Postmedia Era,” in which he put forward the potential resistances in the mechanical categorization of media. He pondered the images of warfare on the television and states that those images made us lift off into “an almost delirious universe of mass-media subjectivity.”[6] He argued: “The growing power of software engineering does not necessarily lead to the power of Big Brother. In fact, it is way more cracked than it seems. It can blow up like a windshield under the impact of molecular alternative practices.”[7] What are these “molecular alternative practices” of media? Put in a Hegelian sense, they would be possible with the creation of purpose in the use of technology. For Guattari, the practices of “post-media” must be the expressive mediation against the mechanical representation of reality, since the good old day of media is nothing less than the scientific and positivist imagination. There is no powerful Big Brother in the new tele-technological situations, but many potential resistances within them. In this sense, what is urgently needed is to invent the “purpose” of post-media; in other words, the concept of it which stands in and for itself. The creation of the self-determinate concepts is the main task of “pure metaphysics” about “pure mechanism.”


Following Bergson, Gilles Deleuze defines his own philosophical purpose as pure metaphysics that is adequate to modern science and technology. It is not difficult to see the similarity between Deleuze’s pure metaphysics and Hegel’s teleology, but what separates Deleuze from Hegel is his understandings of negation. This rejection of the Hegelian negation leads Deleuze to argue that Hegel’s concept of confliction is another aspect of difference.[8] In line with Deleuze, Guattari emphasizes the “minor” use of technology. The concept of a minority implies the affirmation of differences, i.e., those that are not subsumed to the majority’s generalization. The minor use of technology is nothing less than the creation of “inner purpose.” My accidental encounter with two different movies on Netflix and my criticism of what I watched would be one of the possible practices which take the experimental opportunity against the mechanical necessity.


What is to be done in this disaster capitalism is to affirm the contingency within mechanism and create the uncategorized purpose beyond the norms of algorithmic technology, which are designed to modify our behaviors according to the mechanical automatization. I believe that such resistances to the technological affordances and the mechanical modification of desire will be the groundless basis of politics against “pure capitalism.”

 

[1] Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2007), p. 81.

[3] G.W.F. Hegel, The Science of Logic, trans. George Giovanni (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 651.

[4] Ibid., p. 630.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Félix Guattari, ‘Vers une ère post-média’, Chimères 1996/2 (N° 28).

[7] Ibid., pp. 16-17.

[8] Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition. Trans. Paul Patton (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), p. 222.

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