|Author:||Jonathan L. Beller|
|Title:||Identity Through Death/The Nature of Capital: The Media-Environment for Natural Born Killers|
|Publication info:||Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
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Identity Through Death/The Nature of Capital: The Media-Environment for Natural Born Killers
Jonathan L. Beller
vol. 1, no. 2, Summer 1998
Identity Through Death/The Nature of Capital: The Media-Environment for Natural Born Killers
The development of a media-environment which functions as the mise-en-scene for capitalist production via social cooperation—engineered both culturally and by the deployment of military hardware—short circuits, as it were, traditional forms of subjectivity (experience) and of objectivity (events, collective knowledge, reality).  The dis-integration of the subject that occurs as the sensorium takes its cues from a capitalized media-environment begins to offer an historical periodization of post-structuralism and deconstruction, because it links the crisis of subjectivity and of metaphysics (deconstruction, but also identity politics) to the technological and the economic determinants of social life. The consequences of what I call the media-environment are therefore not limited only to 1) the spatio-temporal conceptions of the subject's location as effected through re-presentation (TV, VR, computers, commercial narrative, etc., in short, "culture"), or 2) the subsequent reconstruction of the built environment as a space of flows.  In the media environment, the subject itself is reconceived.
One can grasp how in tele-visual warfare  the spectacular intensity of destruction as well as the illusion of its collective sanction creates certain subjective effects—a sense of agency and power which compensates for the generalized lack of these in daily life. The word "America" can still be made to function in this way. The pre-requisite for this, however, is that the so-called other to whom the self is defined in relation to completes the tendency, already visible in the psychoanalytic work of Jacques Lacan, to become pure image. Such is the final effect when one sees through the eyes of capital. Both the frequency of others (their number and appearance) as well as their depth are affected.
Steadfastly guarding against the tendency of the other to become pure surface, Lacan in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis makes a critique of the solipsistic character of idealism. "The mode of my presence in the world is the subject in so far as by reducing itself solely to this certainty of being a subject it becomes active annihilation" (81). For Lacan this statement describes the inordinate self-privileging of the subject caught up in "the immanence of the I see myself seeing myself." As he says, "The privilege of the subject seems to be established here from that bipolar reflexive relation by which, as soon as I perceive, my representations belong to me." Such a conceit, says Lacan, belongs to an idealism intent upon doing away with the real. "This is the irreducible method of Bishop Berkeley, about whose subjective position much might be said—including something that may have eluded you in passing, namely, this belong to me aspect of representations, so reminiscent of private property. When carried to the limit, the process of this meditation, of this reflecting reflection, goes so far as to reduce the subject apprehended by the Cartesian meditation to a power of annihilation" (81). When the world becomes pure image, the subject-function is active annihilation.
In order to explore this relation among subjects further—a relation which is at once ordained by private property and developed to new and extra-ordinary levels of productivity by cinema and television, I would like to turn here to Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers. Despite the critical attention it has received, the ultimate implications of its form have not been drawn. Natural Born Killers provides a description of the interactivity of subjects and media in the general constitution of a capitalized media-environment. It has, with a high degree of success, abstracted a matrix of the dominant social relations informing the totality of postmodern society.
Born in the contemporary United States, Natural Born Killers is a blitzkrieg narration of the life and love of mass murderers Micky and Mallory. The film stalks the ebullient brutality of Micky (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliet Lewis) from the time that they slaughter Mallory's abusive parents through the remainder of 52 murders. From there, NBK chronicles Micky and Mallory's subsequent incarceration, and eventual escape. The surface of the screen seethes with a veritable jouissance of killing which is continuous with, in the phrase of Jean Baudrillard, "the ecstasy of communication."
It is important to note that the mise-en-scene of the film is always represented as belonging to different film and television genres and to media itself (during the opening credits, for example, the characters drive their automobile through images). In short, the mise-en-scene is a media-scape that is on a continuum with the one which has been described as the scene for the production of the Gulf War.  In NBK, there are changes in film and video stocks every few seconds, hundreds of insert edits of fragments from film and television history, bizarre superimpositions and an eclectic blood-pumping sound-track. These elements are at once diegetic and extra-diegetic, sometimes seen by the characters and sometimes merely playing on the surface of buildings or on the screen—expressive but unrecognized—as if part of a postmodern Faulknerian world in which history, consciousness and the unconscious were blended together in a visuo-cinematic heteroglossia.
Although off-hand dismissals of the film as excessive, simplistic, exploitative and hypocritical contain in germinal form genuine concerns, most often these easy dismissals mean something else.  Although certainly not an embodiment of every progressive agenda, the film is in fact a detailed and subtle analysis of the predication of identity-formation and consciousness on violence in contemporary capitalist society, that is, an analysis of the subject-function as "active annihilation."
I would suggest that the misunderstanding of Stone's "critique," in the American press and elsewhere, is most often driven by a certain self-interested necessity. In popular reviews the idea that "Stone uses, in NBK, exactly the same elements and dynamics that he is criticizing," that is, he criticizes violence with violence, was endlessly reiterated. Of course, what the substance of Stone's criticism is according to these detractors, we are most often left only to imagine, but it is perhaps something of the order that "television glorifies violence and this is bad." Stone, we are told, finds it necessary to use the appeal of violence in order to critique it, when there ought to be more dignified ways.
Why this exigency is taken as an indictment of Stone and not of the entire environment in which films are made and seen, I am not entirely sure, especially since it is built into the structure of the film that violence or the threat of violence is precisely the language of intervention in contemporary society—witness Peru, or Wayne Gail's "Grenada," to name but two examples.
Although Stone is condemned for showing the same violence that exists everywhere, which indeed he does, his presentation is no mere repetition. Rather, violence for him is the prerequisite for social visibility, while peacefulness, as the killing of the native-American medicine-man is (too romantically) meant to show, is in the present environment tantamount to disappearance. Better to say then that NBK, which takes violence as the condition of representation in contemporary society, is a considered assault on the following thought-pattern: "Violence is on occasion necessary, attractive to mass audiences, and eminently marketable; sometimes I even watch it, but on the whole, violence is unnecessary, uninteresting and condemnable."
The root of this form of Orwellian doublethink, that is, "the holding of two contradictory ideas in one's head simultaneously and believing them both to be true," can be discovered in Stone's analysis of the production of personality. In the spirit of Debord's idea that "When analyzing the spectacle one speaks, to some extent, the language of the spectacular itself in the sense that one moves through the methodological terrain of the very society which expresses itself in the spectacle" (11), Stone uses the language of media violence to checkmate the assumptions of the culture which takes the spectacle as its legitimate expression.
The story of Micky and Mallory Knocks's ascent to stardom passes not only through a great variety of narrative devices but through a number of television genres. Though the film is held together by the story-line, it is riddled with jarring discontinuities and violent outbursts of action and images which are taken from elsewhere, a space other than the immediate mise-en-scene of the narrative. Because the camera enters the lives and the romantic love of the protagonists, while leaving their victims more or less as caricatures or anonymous, Micky and Mallory appear as subjects; those whom they kill do not. The couple's nameless victims are for the most part targets in the landscape, things without personality. As the gratuitous shotgun killing of the roadside cyclist illustrates, the victims are mere "target practice" because they are not represented as anything other than the statistics or extras which, in this love story, they are. They are extra people—there to be killed. Micky and Mallory become subjects not only because they hold the interest of Stone's camera, or because they assert themselves through violence, but because they accumulate momentum through the liquidation of others. Equally important, their form of self-expression is marketed to other anonymous people who, like Micky and Mallory's victims, are also extras—without personality in the sense that Micky and Mallory eventually achieve it. NBK investigates this social relation in which nobodies pay to be in the proximity of somebodies who appear by annihilating nobodies.
The marketability of violence, along with the subjective and economic gradients produced by it, is not merely an accusation launched by Oliver Stone; rather, it is an economic hypothesis acted upon and therefore realized daily by mass media. As Stone's construction of the film through the use of episodes from nearly every television genre argues, Mickies and Mallories are starring everywhere, from cartoons to television news. The film is showing that violence as a product (as a commodity) produces interest, in both the visceral and financial senses of the word, even though it doesn't produce much analysis by anyone other than media commandants, i.e., media producers. This lack of an analysis of violence by those who consume it, coupled to the intensive development in the marketing and sale of violence by people with advanced degrees and six-figure incomes, produces the contradiction in the public sphere that violence is interesting and violence is banal. Violence appeals to the unconscious as a type of fetish because of its proximity to the generalized organization of society even as it is consciously dismissed. This semiconscious attraction of violence draws precisely on our semiconscious participation in rituals of violence. Because those who broadcast violence become personalities and because those who receive violence remain statistics, known to television producers and to each other only as ratings, such a division suggests that personalities are constituted through the annihilation of other persons. Therefore our social relations are mediated by violence on which the identities of personalities are built. As the consumers of these identities we participate in their construction—we ratify the terms of personality. Our consumption of violence is in effect an expression of our relations with each other. Such a form is analogous to that of the global U.S. as subjective agent in the world, hell-bent on a romance with democracy.
This formula for the production of personality precisely reproduces that of other structures which create subjective agency by utilizing the leveraged pyramid of capital. A corporate head who exists intellectually and socially thanks to the labor of nameless workers in the sweatshops of Malaysia or Mexico, exists through a similar annihilation of persons. So too does the owner of bonds and mutual funds. Those who command capital are subjects, those who do not, exist below the threshold of social subjectivity. The construction of personality through violence is not just another form of "free enterprise," it is the truth of free enterprise. The value that accrues to the likes of media icons such as Micky and Mallory, occurs via an economy that prevents other people from achieving personality, that is, from achieving power and status as subjects. Indeed the very personality and subjectivity of victims and consumers alike accrues, in the film, to Micky and Mallory. The more Micky and Mallory kill, the more adored they are. The more adored they are, the greater the violence they have license to effect. They are the sum total of their victims—the collecting of victims is the creation of personality and the creation of personality is a mode of production.
If mid-twentieth-century existentialism held that subjectivity is at base a kind of violence, it was because historically speaking violence was slowly becoming the condition of existence, the condition of saying anything at all. With the decay of traditional societies, to exist for others, to speak to others, to demand a place in the consciousness of others becomes a violent act. Stone develops the idea of NBK through violence not because violence among humans is ontologically given (the infinitely mediated presentation of nature in the film argues that the "nature" of Natural Born Killers is always mediated by culture and technology and therefore can only be a question, never a fact), but rather because historically, in the war of each against all, it has become the language of the times. Nature and history appear as they do through the lens of contemporary violence. The new pre-eminence of violence and the appearance of nature as violence is not merely a matter of fashion or trend, but an historical and economic eruption. Careers, fortunes and nations are built on violence and increasingly, since the Cold War, the threat and the spectacle of violence.  Violation has its immediate effects and its affective effects; it is productive both as event and as representation. However, the increased frequency of both of these conditions makes them merge into a unified productive process. At an international level, this violence at once derives from and ensures the continued exploitation of proletarian and third-world style labor and third-world style polities. At a personal level it derives from the taking of others as means. Wealth and political power are increasingly the conditions of subjectivity, the conditions of articulating anything, at any and all levels of society.
As few as one-hundred years ago, it was perhaps unnecessary to be on television in order to really exist. Today, only those who command the most attention are genuine personalities. Those who have nothing (the indigent, the homeless, the planet's impoverished majority) cannot speak, and those who have little speak through their consumer practices. One of the things we (those of us who have little) buy are images of personality. The consumption of these personalities helps us to imagine what it would be like to actually have one. That action, which in its own meager way realizes a desire for individuality, is necessary because if we did not believe in the possibility of eventually having a personality we might not believe in individuality which means we might not believe in "representative" democracy, or in America, or in that Truth among truths: humanity's social nature itself — capitalism. If we doubted more rigorously the moral rectitude of capitalism, its truth as an expression of human nature, its incontestable force of destining the world, we might become more imaginative. In valorizing the circuit which constructs personality at our own expense, we consume and internalize the very relation which negates us. We pay to retain our faith in the system which denies us precisely what we desire: agency. We renounce our own agency for the myth of agency. This is the nature of representative or, better, representational democracy in capitalism.
The sublime proportions of Micky and Mallory's agency puts us all in our places; indeed, these figures exist in place of us. It is their "lifestyle" which is represented and we who quietly pay to see it. Our payment, it must be emphasized, is not rendered in the single act of trading money for admission to a theater or for video rental, but is our valorization of the affective complex generated and objectified in our viewing of film and TV in general. What is unique about NBK is that the film provides us with an opportunity to see what we have made. We are forced to reckon with what our participation, our activity and our aspirations generate. To claim exemption is, in short, to lie. Micky and Mallory's existence is not based only upon the liquidation of their immediate victims, but on the liquidation of us all. Additionally and at the same time, they murder so that we don't have to. Their personalities, acquired through killing, sustain our (necessary) belief in the possibility of subjective agency, since we exercise so little of our own. Micky and Mallory's murderous escapades help us to affirm our own existence as subjects, an existence which in the environment of capital we might only fully realize through the very same means as they employ. Through murder Micky and Mallory become personalities and personalities become our role models. Should we desire to become anyone, there is the path of the star system: Micky and Mallory, or the subject "America" in the Gulf War.
As the driving scenes in NBK beautifully assert (Micky and Mallory drive through a road of moving images), it is media finally that is the mise en scene of the film: the media is the environment: at once the space where power, capital and murder are negotiated and the very possibility of their negotiation. Television is an essential component of global organization, it provides the environment for the perpetuation of everything. Micky and Mallory travel through a world of images. This is not to say that the media landscape is nature, but that it has replaced primordial nature. It is a second nature made possible through the intensive logic of capital. The environment, everywhere penetrated by technology, capitalized by technologies for the reorganization of space, matter, consciousness and the genetic code overdetermines the terms of appearance and action for concrete individuals, their meanings and their possibilities. "The spectacle is the accumulation of capital to such a degree that it becomes an image" (Debord 11). Thus the environment and all that it encompasses appears as images. The media-world selects for Mickies and Mallories, as the Darwinians might say, and in this world they too select their prey according to the rules of the media environment. The nature of Stone's killers derives from capitalist mediation—they are subjects who embody the logic of the media economy. In short, they are forms of capital.
Stone does not so much offer a critique of media society as provide a text with which its contradictions can be thought. In my opinion, most of the angry dismissals of NBK occur at the moment when the logic of the consumption of violence begins at a semiconscious level to indict the liberal ideologies informing the intellectual positions and practices of free-market liberals, that is, at the moment when violence begins to appear as the necessary underside of the free market. Thus, the hasty condemnation of NBK is, in the Orwellian vocabulary, an example of "crimestop," the refusal to continue a line of reasoning which might lead to "thoughtcrime," i.e., unorthodoxy punishable by non-existence. In order to maintain that the free-market is the bastion of individual freedom, human possibility and collective achievement, violence must be relegated to the status of a mere accident, exception or moral failing, and must not appear endemic or systematic, that is, it must not appear to be directly produced by the free-market. To praise the free market and to condemn violence must not erupt in liberal consciousness as an essential contradiction, that is, as a form of nonsense or a lie. The Persian Gulf War must remain a justified corrective to a violent Iraq, not a violent act of neo-imperialism, necessary both for the destruction of surplus (in order not to return it to the general population and subvert the wage structure) and the production of pro-corporate America affects. East Timor must remain invisible. We must believe that dictators and so-called terrorists, inasmuch as they feed off of the lives of others, are immoral actors, not products of the free market responding to it as subjects in accordance with its own logic. America, the subject of history, cannot maintain its essential innocence if violence emerges as its basic premise.
The difference between Micky and Mallory and the rest of us is twofold. First, they are celebrities and we are not—they do capitalism better than we do. Second, they do capitalism so well because they have fully internalized the logic of television—they produce according to the protocols of television. Its properties are their environment. During their predatory escapades atom bombs explode, the walls of buildings screen images of flame, the entire world is a screen on which is projected their momentary thoughts and feelings. Their thoughts and feelings, their moods and affectations are not only signified televisually, they are televisual images, historical fragments of decontextualized moving images summoned up by who knows what. In short, Micky and Mallory have tele-vision and therefore treat people as images. By treating others as images they become icons. Their relationship to the world and to others is in fact not subject/object, but rather subjective/image, or better, god-image. They see their entire lives through television and televisual conventions, hence they naturally select victims the way we would images, wiping them out by remote control when they tire of them. Capitalism turns empathy into television and humans into images.
This is the lay of the land. There is a spectre haunting the house of Hollywood. What NBK shows most graphically is that massive social formations (a nuclear bomb blast, for example) are today experienced on the same level as a pang of jealousy or a bad mood. The quantity of inequality has induced a qualitative shift in the form of its appearance. The image of the atom bomb is on the same scale as a subjective impression. Images have taken pre-eminence over what was once known as reality; they have supplanted our experience. In this situation of the gross violation of the law of equivalence, people no longer relate one to one. There has been a terrible shift in scale. One death or thousands or millions of deaths today carry for a viewer the same weight as an emotional twitch. With the inequality of power and representation prevalent in the world, this situation is not merely theoretical, but real and realized. Hundreds of thousands dead in Iraq, Bosnia, Rwanda, barely perturb: we are powerless in the face of that and hence give it but little thought. At the same time the whims of the few, be they Presidents, political entrepreneurs, drug lords or financiers can change the lives of thousands, even millions. If we are natural born killers, then it has taken all the artifice of corporate capital to help us realize our present nature.
The media-environment which today enfolds the sensorium is not a completely new set of effects. As I have suggested elsewhere, cinema is an extension of the relations of commodities, commodities which have themselves always been mediations. Cinema and now television are machines for the extension of the rationale of objects (which are impacted social relations) into consciousness and viscerality. They express the point of view of the commodity with the same degree of centrifugal variation that is possible in commodity production. The laws of exchange of which object relations were and are their expression shift into the visual environment. The world of alienated objects in other words, which slowly was perceived to have its own alien will, helped to create new perceptions and was the consequence of new perceptions.
Today the tendrils of the prosthetic body of capital have a grip not only upon objects and therefore upon the relations of production but upon images and therefore upon the senses, a grip which forces the production of new sensations and new sensibilities. Among these new sensibilities are geographical dislocation and the overall conversion of objects (which are always objectified subjectivity and therefore subjects) into images. Subjectivity, on the other hand, if one chooses to hang on to the term, now achieves, inasmuch as it exists as such, a sort of specialization as spectator-destroyer. Those who see and are seen seeing, are seen because they destroy. Recognized subjects are seen because they destroy and because they destroy what they see. Those who merely see have a lot of destroying to do before they might actually be seen seeing.
Baudrillard, Jean. The Ecstasy of Communication. Trans. Bernard and Caroline Schutze. New York: Semiotext(e), 1988.
Beller, Jonathan. "City of Television: Metropolitan Affects and the New Americanism." Polygraph 8: New Metropolitan Forms, 1996.
Castells, Manuel. The Informational City: InformationTechnology, Economic Restructuring and the Urban-Regional Process. Oxford: Blackwell, 1989.
Debord, Guy. Society of the Spectacle. Detroit: Red and Black, 1983.
Denby, David. New York Magazine 5 September 1994: 46.
Gottdiener, Mark. The Social Production of Urban Space. Austin: U of Texas P, 1994.
Lacan, Jacques. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: W.W. Norton, 1978.
Negri, Antonio. "Twenty Theses on Marx." Polygraph 5: Contesting the New World Order. Trans. Michael Hardt. Durham, 1992.
Romney, Jonathan. "Virtual Violence." New Statesman and Society 24 February 1995: 49.
Simon, John. National Review 26 September 1994: 72.
Sharrett, Christopher. "Movies vs. the Media." USA Today Magazine March 1995: 37.
Virilio, Paul. Speed and Politics: An Essay on Dromology. Trans. Mark Polizzoti. New York: Semiotext(e), 1986.
—. The Vision Machine. Trans. Julie Rose. London: British Film Institute, 1994.
1. For more on the term "social cooperation" see Negri: "When the capitalist process of production has attained such a high level of development so as to comprehend every even a small fraction of social production, one can speak, in Marxian terms, of a 'real subsumption' of society in capital" (139). This subsumption of society in capital means that that in principle all human activity is potentially productive labor for capital.
2. See Castells. See also Gottdiener, who writes, "The process of socio-spatial development associated with the present phase of Late Capitalism is deconcentration, which produces a distinctive form of space—the polynucleated, sprawling metropolitan region" (198). My argument is that in the society of control in which social relations in their entirety have been subsumed by capital the structure of the built environment is homologous with the structuring of representation and subjectivity.
3. Here of course the Gulf War is the usual example, but one should see this as only a particularly striking example of the generalized war on subsistence and laboring populations being waged politically, culturally and economically every day.
4. See my essay "City of Television: Metropolitan Affects and the New Americanism."
5. Excessive: "More troublesome still about Natural Born Killers is the picture's basic fascination with its subject. Of course it is difficult to analyze something without in some way representing it, but the joyride aspect of this movie makes it less than the coolheaded and sardonic critique of media culture that the film at first affects" (Sharrett 27); simplistic: "NBK... certainly represents some kind of breakthrough in terms of the speed and intensity with which it marshals its images, but it does so without any rhetorical complexity. By throwing enough extreme images at us, it proves we live in an extreme world... NBK is a clumsy, stupid, extremely tiring film that leaves you numbed and disinclined to form any complex judgments" (Romney 49); senselessly exploitative: "For no apparent reason, Mr. Stone's camera spins around in all directions and angles, and goes back and forth from colour to black-and-white. The picture ends with glimpses of two real-life killers: the Menendez brothers... Other examples of real-life-murderers-as-popular-heroes appear on Mr. Stone's screen along with the final credits. No justice is seen to be done but a lot of money is being raked in at the box-office" (Economist 119); hypocritical: "How lamentable...is Oliver Stone's latest and most horrible film, NaturalBorn Killers, from a story another current hotshot, Quentin Tarantino. Mr. Stone's narcissism and megalomania, like badly driven horses, run away with this gross, pretentious, and ultimately senseless movie. Purporting to show how crime appeals to the American public, and how the media exploit it for their self-promotion and the public's cretinization, it is manifestly far too enamored of what it pretends to satirize, even if it knew how to do it...Natural Born Killers is neither wise nor witty enough for a satire, and displays only the depraved unhingedness of a hypertrophic ego" (Simon 72); hypocritical (again): "Natural Born Killers is like bad sex and a bad drug trip combined. It's an ejaculatory farce, but without satiation or rest. Stone pushes well beyond plausibility, yet we are meant to take the movie seriously as the essential, rabid truth of our times—we are meant to take it as satire. Stone can't successfully satirize anything, however, because he can't distance himself from his subjects. He's driven by the logic of what he hates, or what he claims to hate" (Denby 46).
6. Weapons no longer have to fire but have to seem to be able to destroy. See Virilio's Speed and Politics and The Vision Machine.