Animal Spirits A Bestiary of the Commons

by Matteo Pasquinelli
NAi Publishers / Institute of Network Cultures, Rotterdam & Amsterdam, 2008
240 pp., illus.   Paper, € 23.50
ISBN: 978-90-5662-663-1.

Reviewed by Jussi Parikka
Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, UK

Stemming from the same soil as Paolo Virno, Antonio Negri, Franco "Bifo" Berardi and Maurizio Lazzarato, Matteo Pasquinelli is trying to claim a position as a pornographer of media theory. His Animal Spirits. A Bestiary of Commons is filled with a fresh breath of provocative statements and topics that are well up-to-date with recent trends in various fields from political economy of biopolitical production to net porn and the "machinic excess" of network culture. For Pasquinelli, it's the psychopathologies of contemporary culture that act as vehicles to the broader contexts in which he is able to discuss post-Fordist theories of culture, Bataille-inspired notions of excess and what brands the book in general: the insistence on the importance of animality in contemporary media culture.

For Pasquinelli, what media studies has forgotten are the "unpredictable human drives", or what Keynes called "animal spirits" that are part and parcel of the supposedly non-human logic of economic cycles. Pasquinelli uses the notion to tackle what he calls the two key dominating fallacies inherent in current media theory: code and flow. Pasquinelli reads the emphasis on (digital) code as a continuation of the older language-centred analyses of structural kind, and the paradigm of (desiring) flows as the modus operandi of network society. To a large extent, Pasquinelli is able to pinpoint the shortcomings of various positions of which especially Zizek is the main enemy that leads to what Pasquinelli calls "code claustrophobia" and the impossibility of any resistance; for the code claustrophobics, everything is anyway subsumed under the Code of the big Other. Pasquinelli is in various points able to pinpoint the melancholic pessimism of postmodernist writers--and also extends a lot of critique towards Baudrillard. As for the critique of flows, Pasquinelli is a bit vague at times, even though this could be seen to be connected to his quite forceful critique of the ideology of liberated flows and egalitarian communication in the age of Web 2.0. Here, against political correctness Animal Spirits targets various discourses and practices which presume that communication in the age of networks is frictionless, costless and based in idealized modes of sharing--hence, peer to peer sharing, Creative Commons and other recent attempts to rethink modes of production based in the assumption of "natural goodness" of the human kind in the age of globalized info capitalism come under attack.

It is in such contexts that his idea of animal spirits becomes clearer. No digital mode of communication or sharing is separated from the animal, so to speak. Concretely this means that what is celebrated as the common has to be established only through the notions of labour, pain, risk, waste and conflict--the mode of networking that is the actuality of life in network cultures. There are "real physical forces producing" the common, and animal spirits are behind every claim to immateriality of network communication.

Even if at times more than apt, Pasquinelli is not always clear what is the regime of the notion of animal spirits. At least this reader was left under the suspicion that there is a fair amount of mysticist danger in raising the notion of animal spirit--as if a call to a primordial, uncivilized, unmediated animality--as the necessary grounding for the high-tech practices. Instead of adding complexity to the assemblages of digital communication, and political economy of biopower, such a notion is in danger of only exposing the dialectic other of the digital, i.e. a myth of animality--and, hence, revert back to dualisms of flesh vs. mind. Having said that, Animal Spirits is not a naïve celebration of the archaic. At times, Pasquinelli seems to be trying to contextualise his materialist ontology in some of the emerging currents of "new materialist" thought (e.g. Delanda) but the connection between the Bataillean animal spirits and some other theories could have been more elaborated.   Only later comes a reference to Deleuze's Bacon-book made, and an elaboration of the ontology of the image as one of meats and nerves--a point that could have been extended to notions relating to economy of attention that were discussed a bit earlier. Perhaps Pasquinelli is suggesting in a Baconian/Deleuzian way to make invisible forces of the animal visible but not completely connecting the section to the wider argument of the book.

The bits about "zoology of machines" and "the new 'animal' model for digital culture" are titillating passages, and could have been elaborated--so as to be more specific and hence effective modes of analysis of current modes of digitality whose materiality is borrowed both from complex mathematics and physics but as much from a non-human animality such as insects (think about the amount of insect related research in the context of digital culture from swarms to distributed networks etc.)

As said, at times Animal Spirit's critique against e.g. digital studies is too broad, and hence is itself in danger of losing some accuracy both in its critique and its own argument. It does not give a wide enough picture of the emerging field of software studies that focus on digital code in terms of mapping the crucial relays software has with other modalities of culture. Bioart on the one hand is not, as Pasquinelli claims, reducing life to genetic and digital code but actually involving itself quite seriously in the messy and fleshy rethinking of materiality beyond the human-centred celebration of the organism. At this point (p.57), Pasquinelli himself is implicitly in danger of succumbing into a nostalgic human-centred mode of analysis and a pessimism that reminds one of Baudrillard. Similarly, even if Animal Spirits seems to imply a broad neglect of "the body and nerves that constitute" our digital culture, he does not take into account for example the long and meticulous theoretical work in material feminism by Rosi Braidotti, Elizabeth Grosz or for example Luciana Parisi that have engaged with the changing relations of flesh being remodulated, abstracted and reoriented in new contexts of technologies.

Despite some of its theoretical contradictions and perhaps misaimed critiques, the analysis Animal Spirits offers of various connections between political economy and psychopathologies of current media culture are enjoyable. There is an air of freshness a times in Pasquinelli's take when he attempts to read a whole analysis of current libidinal economies in network culture through J.G.Ballard (although heavily relying mostly only on Ballard's The Atrocity Exhibition, a fact that raises several issues and questions). The at times excellent use of language backs up the gluing of notions of attention economy with modes of gentrification and for example rent as the key mode of contemporary capitalism of symbolic and cultural values. This is where Pasquinelli points out the powers of capitalism in turning alt(ernative) cultures into a perfect brand for a tolerant and innovative profit making--that actually does not in any way challenge the actual economy of ownership. Writing this review in Berlin, one is able to pick up on Pasquinelli's points from an everyday grass roots perception of the changes from subcultures of Berlin to nicely branded creative industries hype and the parallel gentrification from Prenzlauer Berg to Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg.

Even if the later sections on pornography, desire, the image and warporn are perhaps the catchiest ones in terms of the language and expression, some of the arguments are not as solid as the rest of the book. Here for example in the Warpunk against Warporn-text the analysis turns actually to something resembling, not critical, of Baudrillard and Freud (even if with nods towards Deleuze for example). Also one could question whether the strong emphasis on narratives for the collective imaginary and myths fits in with the earlier acclaimed materialist methodology of the book. Again the danger is that focusing on "narratives" as the key form of resistance does not fully take into account the singularity of the media in which "narratives" are formed. For sure, one has to admit that Pasquinelli does talk a lot about for example the crucial role of videophones in bringing in the unwanted images from Iraq to the mainstream media but this line of argumentation is not developed to its logical conclusion. The argument concerning warporn would also have profited from a look into Klaus Theleweit's Männerphantasien , an analysis of the warporn stemming from the dirty libidinal imagination of First World War troops. In the last instance, this reviewer remained a little unsure of what Pasquinelli's own position regarding the role of pornography in the libidinal biosphere of media culture is.

Pasquinelli has a good talent for really picking up fresh perspectives and topics, but with a bit more consistency in the argument, he could turn the good analyses into brilliant ones. His perspectives have much resonance with other media studies perspectives that are there to challenge some old fashioned conceptualisations--the clearest parallel to this reviewer is the work on "evil media theory" by Matthew Fuller and Andrew Goffey (in The Spam Book , forthcoming from Hampton Press.) Is it time for media theory to turn sour, mean and evil, and tackle head on the unwanted, unsolicited and psychopathologic sides of contemporary culture?

Last Updated 1 May, 2009

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