The capitalist body in perpetual recovery in Melanie Gilligan’s Self-Capital
Platypus Review 115 | April 2019
IN LATE 2008 AND EARLY 2009, the world’s financial markets collapsed under the immeasurable weight of unregulated speculative market practices in relation to subprime lending, debt accumulation, and the monopoly of finance capitalism. Labeled “The Great Financial Crisis,” the collapse led to the loss of $7.4 trillion in stock wealth in the U.S., alone. The response to the financial crash arrived in the form of a series of massive government interventions that attempted to offset the consequences of the overarching failures of neoliberalism. Through the implementation of wide-sweeping austerity measures, executed by federal governments from the U.K. to the U.S., the financial burden for the recovery was shifted to the backs of ordinary citizens, while the banking sector, which had both recklessly driven speculation and prospered enormously from it, went largely unscathed in the aftermath of the market’s collapse. In fact, life-saving bailouts were arranged for the perpetrators of the financial risk-taking that had left many worldwide homeless and jobless. In his essay “Lawless Capitalism,” economist Steven A. Ramirez outlines the lack of punitive measures imposed on the U.S. financial sector and predicts the subsequent catastrophic fallout for the global economy. He writes,
The stock market crashed to new lows in March and then marched back rapidly thereafter. Combined with all their subsidies, the market volatility paid off handsomely for the banking elite. In the first half of 2009, Goldman Sachs set aside $ 11.4 billion for bonuses, or the equivalent of $750,000 per annum per employee. This return to business as usual, with the U.S. taxpayer subsidizing the risks of the financial sector, threatens more market instability into the future, as the financial sector seems certain to pursue ever more risk. This cannot be termed capitalism– instead it constitutes a corrupted economic system rigged at the top for elite enrichment only.1
While Wall Street had been exercising damaging financial practices for decades, it was the ruinous brew of loose regulation and sub-servitude on the part governments internationally that brought about the cataclysmic events of 2008, when the majority of the global populace began to feel the impact of this system. Governments, worldwide, had allowed for the creation of a neoliberal construction of capitalism; wherein the production of fiscal instability and destruction is rewarded, the taxpayer bailout of irresponsible financial institutions is lauded, and the boom and bust cycle is considered a natural phenomenon.2 It was within the context of this global financial disaster that Melanie Gilligan’s three-episode film Self-Capital was created.
In this work, Gilligan delivered sharp criticisms of “The Great Financial Crisis,” firing back on sociopolitical events in real-time, calling attention to the unregulated and unstoppable forces of both public and private structures of power that nurtured the large-scale economic crisis. Created in 2009, Self-Capital explores the complex interactions that connect bio-power and imposing neoliberal capitalist structures with the ill, but recovering, social body. Throughout each of the three episodes viewers follow a personified Global Economy, portrayed by actress Penelope McGhie, as she struggles to work through a series of prescribed body-oriented techniques and exercises. Throughout the course of these therapeutic practices, Global Economy attempts to revive her depleted ego and energy, while reconstructing her ideological trust and confidence, lost after suffering a complete and utter meltdown. Giving a singular human form to the abstract body of global labor, Gilligan simultaneously represents global socioeconomic and political oppression’s affect on the individual and the much larger social body. She takes this strategy of physical embodiment a step further by casting McGhie for all roles throughout the Self-Capital series. The actress appears in the films as two therapists, their subject, a receptionist, and a bookstore cashier. This singular casting of roles, wherein Global Economy sees her image everywhere through a mirror of the total labor force she represents, articulates the ineffectiveness of self-regulation and self-care within neoliberal market-based economies. Gilligan grounds her arguments against the neoliberal framework of capitalism through an examination of Marxist terminology and practice, giving form to the cyclical nature of capitalism described in contemporary Marxist writing. Her work investigates the role of self-care and health management in relation to the individual and society, unregulated financial networks, and the emergence of immaterial labor. She effectively creates a context through which failure can be understood as a constant threat to and perpetuating symptom of a value-based society.
Before discussing specific conceptual and theoretical aspects explored within the work itself, it is important to understand the framework within which the film was made. The events surrounding the production of Self-Capital serve as a critical lens through which to understand the work. The video not only as an exploration of capitalism’s failure in the world-at-large, but also as one produced within the context of a state-sponsored arts institution that was, in light of austerity measures and the world-wide financial crisis, suffering from its own financial crisis at the time. Acting-Director Ekow Eshun, of the Institute of Contemporary Art, London (ICA, London), where Gilligan was in residence, explained the institution’s financial hardships were a “perfect storm” and a “force of nature” stemming from a lack of development department fundraising, a lack of income provided by the Institute’s film distribution arm, and the overarching impact of a financial crisis that was dissuading corporate sponsorships of programs and exhibitions. “Staff members have been told that a financial deficit currently around £600,000 might rise to £1.2 million and if radical steps are not taken the ICA could be closed by May […] a third of its full-time staff of “around 60” would be in line for redundancy.”3 Eshun’s diagnosis of the ICA’s financial struggle is, in and of itself, an example of how the heads of institutions evade responsibility by deflecting managerial responsibility to outside departments and financial conditions. In his statements Eshun strategically avoided discussing the failed financial strategies that he designed, such as the abolishment of day membership fees (a total loss estimated at £120,000) and a fundraising platform based-on the acquisition of corporate sponsorships for exhibitions, programs, and educational outreach. In essence, Eshun’s high-risk strategy for his public institution mirrored that of corporate institutions.4
The degree to which the financial problems of the institution influenced Gilligan’s work is readily apparent through her decision to use the ICA, London as the sole location and backdrop for each scene in the video triptych. Gilligan doesn’t hide the building’s institutional signifiers or attempt to take us out of the reality within which the film was made. In the series’ opening scenes, Gilligan introduces viewers to Global Economy’s failed psychiatrist, one of actor Penelope McGhie’s four characters. Through narration we learn that the psychiatrist is writing a recommendation for treatment to her college on behalf of the patient’s illness. The location of the scene is a clichéd therapist’s office, decorated like a saturated 90s telenovela, complete with pink mood lighting accenting shadows within the frame. After a quick cut, and while the psychiatrist’s narration continues, Global Economy makes her first appearance in the work. She opens a door plastered with large white lettering that spells out “FREE ENTRY UNTIL 11PM – TWO GALLERIES.” Soon after, she walks past what is the unmistakable sight of the ICA’s gift shop and lobby. Gilligan’s presupposed technique, to make apparent the film’s place in reality and to eliminate the opportunity for the audience’s suspension of disbelief by masking the ICA’s environment, provides space for the film to span dual temporal realities, blurring the line between real and imagined space in real time. In fact, the only foreign body in the frame that is not grounded by the outside reality is professional actor Penelope McGhie, who has been brought in from the outside to perform the role of society. Her roles are the only aspect of the videos that require a suspension of belief at any level. Although McGhie’s cast of characters are outside agents in an otherwise authentic portrayal of the ICA and outside world, the act of being cast by Melanie Gilligan can be considered as a parallel to the ICA’s own actions during the institution’s financial breakdown. Director Eshun’s museum crisis management project, The Reading Group, consisted of invited professional artists, critics, and intellectuals performing the role of a much larger arts community working to revitalize and reimagine the Museum from within its own structure. It is through this lens that McGhie’s participation in Self-Capital becomes a form of delegated performance; a term coined by art-historian and critic Claire Bishop in her 2012 publication Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship.
Bishop defines delegated performance as, “the act of hiring non-professionals or specialists in other fields to undertake the job of being present and performing at a particular time and a particular place on behalf of the artist, and following his/her instructions […] Depending on the mode of filming, these situations can trouble the border between live and mediated to the point where audiences are unsure of the degree to which an event has been staged or scripted.”5 While perhaps filmmaking as a whole can be articulated through terms that delineate all film production processes as delegated and mediated procedures, Bishop’s analysis situates the act of delegated performance as that which moves in and out of temporal realities in such a manner that viewers are unable to distinguish between truth and fiction. The timing of the production of Self-Capital along with Gilligan’s sense of immediacy creates this situation by default, where in the actor’s various roles are unable to become mere symbolic gestures, but instead reflect the very real conditions being undertaken by the hosting institution. The hiring of a professional actor to perform artistic imagining – with regards to both The Reading Group and in Self-Capital – underpins and allows for a microcosmic ‘push and pull’ relationship between the video, the ICA, London’s financial instability, and the greater global economic crisis outside. Try as the viewer might to disentangle the reality of Self-Capital’s institutional setting and situation, the fact remains, the institution is suffering from a meltdown, the market collapse is one aspect of that problem, and those realities are embedded within the video’s frame and the work’s ‘fictional’ narrative.
This reflexive analysis between the ICA’s institutional financial disasters and the subject of Gilligan’s Self-Capital, the failure of capitalist structures, can be further examined by critiquing the nature of capitalism in relation to self-care and internal management procedures designed and implemented as safeguards against large-scale catastrophe. The execution of self-care procedures and management arises out of the cannibalistic aspects of capitalism best described by Karl Marx in his essay The Fragment on Machines. He writes,
Capital which consumes itself in the production process, or fixed capital, is the means of production in the strict sense. In a broader sense the entire production process and each of its moments, such as circulation […] is only a means of production for capital, for which value alone is the end in itself. Regarded as a physical substance, the raw material itself is a means of production for the product etc. But the determination that the use value of fixed capital is that which eats itself up in the production process is identical to the proposition that it is used in this process only as a means, and itself exists merely as an agency for the transformation of the raw material into the product.6
Marx outlines the cyclical nature of capitalism by describing the contemporary production of value as a structure that imagines its internal subjects as raw material that produce not only output value, but also create intrinsic value in and of themselves. To complicate Marx’s statement further, a leap from raw material to human subjects demonstrates the physical and mental demands placed on Global Economy and the workers that are represented as her body. Unlike machines, which never cease production, the human subject (raw material) must take breaks, rest, or otherwise run the risk of exhaustion or death. In Self-Capital, it is Global Economy itself/herself that is exhausted and is suffering from the side effects of a machinic capitalist production gone too far, too long without regulatory measures in place to avoid an internal collapse from external demands. While under hypnosis, Global Economy describes the ballooning demand to produce capital at the expense of the health of the capitalist structure itself. Unconscious, she imagines herself in the ICA cinema crying out, “The body was in very good shape, but it ran itself down. It pushed things too far, now the body must regulate itself, reproduce its productive energies better. There were no limits, but we found limits. Now we will juggle the limits!”7 Not only is Global Economy suffering from the demands of production, but also in a time of complete and utter crisis, she is tasked with reregulating her own body, doing so only to resume outputting capital through the same self-destructive channels that led to her current breakdown. This self-sabotage through the simultaneous acknowledgement of newly discovered sociopolitical economic limitations and implied desire to reconfigure oneself in such a way as to surpass and juggle limitations for the sake of capitalist production, creates the cycle described most commonly as “boom to bust” economics. In his text, The Already Dead, theorist Eric Cazdyn describes boom to bust as capitalism’s chronic illness, that is, an illness that is never resolved, but is present even when the system appears to function well. In his book he describes this illness as having a parasitic relationship to the very nature of a fully functioning capitalist structure. He writes, “This crisis constitutes the system itself; the system cannot function without its internal crisis […] Crisis is not what happens when we go wrong; crisis is what happens when we go right.” Cadzyn continues, "Crisis is not what happens when capitalism goes wrong, but when it goes right.”8 He calls this structural condition “the New Chronic,” a system that exists only by enforcing regulatory measures for the sake of self-maintenance to freeze present structural conditions. Tasked with providing her own self- care, Global Economy has sought out professional council, undergoing numerous treatments, all of which have unsurprisingly fallen short of relieving the damaging effects of the current economic crisis.
Throughout each episode, Global Economy attempts to quell the symptoms of chronic illness that stem from an onslaught of extreme capitalist demands that are taking a toll on her physical body and mental facilities. The unorthodox treatments include partaking in regimented body-oriented exercises ranging from hypnosis, free-form yogic actions, and intensely introspective vocal therapy sessions. These therapeutic actions are prescribed to Global Economy as a form of self-care. For example, in Episode 1, Global Economy sits opposite of her newly appointed alt-therapist who initiates the session by announcing a continuous stream of vague statements in a soothing and calm manner, inducing a trance-like reaction from her subject. In her monotone voice, the doctor begins,
I am speaking Economy, you are lying back and relaxing. No need to think of anything, or to think of anything you might be thinking of, such as the changing focus of your eyes, certain phenomena of life […] Your mind is not thinking with your mind. Your mind might only want to sit there, not moving, no need for it to move, no need to go there, when going there would mean going somewhere, when you prefer to go nowhere...If you know how to go to work, the way a busy bee knows how to be in an advanced society, you can find a way to move a body. Your body is spreading out into the sunshine. You're spreading body can leave your body to the next one who needs a body.9
These passive yet self-reflexive sentences instruct Global Economy to weave in and out of conscious realities to temporarily separate the mind from body. The introspective diagnosis only begins after Global Economy has fallen under the spell of her doctor, provoking Global Economy to reveal the true nature of her breakdown as if no one else (the body) was listening. McGhie’s corporeal embodiment of the abstract large social body through her portrayal of Global Economy lends physical form to the usually private and opaque methods of structural maintenance and stabilization that are enacted throughout the total scope of capitalist society. Her identification of the symptoms of a larger problem cannot be addressed in a public forum and therefore the risk of another collapse is maintained. In this way, Global Economy only attempts to treat her symptoms through this practice, opting to remain forever ill and forever under the thumb of capitalist demands. McGhie’s representation of self-care health management is two-fold. She at once depicts a fledgling social body made up of many individual sick components struggling to work through an oppressive capitalist structure and mimics the performance of an actual person working toward recovery after suffering from a totalizing physical and mental collapse. By extending the representation of an ill social body into the physical realm of the subjects that collectively characterize the tired, overworked, and unhealthy global labor force, Gilligan highlights how the total structure is ill, as well as the individuals working within it. And in neoliberal capitalism, both the society and its individual constituents are expected to care for their own health. This begs the question, what happens when the scope of the illness exceeds the effectiveness of self-care management in times of crisis? What happens when these limits are breached?
Having worked herself to the extreme limit of neoliberal capitalism’s unregulated markets, Global Economy is forced to endure the responsibility of an efficient recovery with the expectation of resuming work as a reinvigorated and productive socioeconomic system. The excess of social and physical labor imposed on the body demands that Global Economy be forever locked in a state of self-improvement; remain refreshed, and highly efficient. This demand is driven by the stress of neoliberal capitalism and its subjects to be a constantly competitive force, operating at a maximum level, at all times, even at the expense of self-immolation. In their book Inventing the Future, theorists Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams describe the conditions for constant training and self-improvement. They write, “We are constructed as competitive subjects – a role that encompasses and surpasses industrial capitalism’s productive subject. The imperatives of neoliberalism drive these subjects to constant self-improvement in every aspect of their lives. […] One’s personal life is as bound to competition as one’s work life. Under these conditions, it is no surprise that anxiety proliferates in contemporary societies.”10 Global Economy’s stress, according to Srnicek and Williams is a natural phenomenon of neoliberalism.
The threat of failure, although constant, is the disciplinary measure that provides the societal drive to be constantly improving oneself. Gilligan best represents the pressures of work performance anxiety in a manic scene wherein Global Economy partakes in a therapeutic exercise that focuses on her ability to function within the socioeconomic context of consumer to cashier exchange. Shot in the ICA’s gift shop, Global Economy stands face-to-face with the museum cashier and initiates a series of confused transactions that fail to be comprehensible at times by either the buyer or seller. The purchases by Global Economy are small – books, magazines, DVD’s – but the value of each object and the structure that dictate those values are obscured and nonsensical. Nonetheless, the transactions continue at a rapid pace until eventually the buyer and seller switch their places and subsume their roles, with Global Economy moving behind the cashier’s desk and the cashier now making purchases. Gilligan uses the switch to draw attention to the lack of division between labor and leisure. She illuminates how the boundaries between the two states of being within a neoliberal capitalist framework are blurred, demonstrating that often there is not a clear distinction to be made. At the conclusion of the scene and episode, the cashier-turned-consumer explains to a confused Global Economy that neoliberal capitalism is a cyclical framework with very clear objectives. Their conversation begins with Global Economy’s question, "So now? You must work. And then? Then you eat. Then? Then you sleep. And? Then you work. And then? Reproduce. Oh, and then what? Do it again, but...but what? Get paid less. Ah...”11 What is not described in the cashier’s description of the routine of work/life labor is the maintenance of the subject once exhausted. It is inherent that a subject of neoliberalism will provide its own self-care while under the pressure to produce. Outside of sleeping and eating, the absence of care reinforces neoliberal capitalism’s indifference to subject preservation. There can be no separation between work and life if one is to remain competitive and working, and one cannot be adequately productive if one is ill. Reproduction guarantees the labor force is constantly replenished.
In a neoliberal construction of capitalism, the reproduction of workers is maintained and supported by biopolitical state functions, or as Gilligan describes, “forms of governance [that] aim to maintain the functioning of the social body within a relatively homeostatic range through pre-emptive regulatory actions aimed at averting forecasted dangers.”12 In Self-Capital, however, the responsibilities of the state are in question and have failed under the weight of shifting economic practices. In her essay “Affect and Exchange,” Gilligan describes the focus of her artistic practice as, “representing systemic economic shifts while contrasting them with their affective impact on people.”13 The economic shifts represented in Self-Capital mirror the contemporary transformation of a global economy that was previously reliant on factory labor models of production (modernization) as the means of its capitalist proliferation into the construction of an evolved labor economy which exists outside of a Fordist construction of capitalism. Within this post-Fordist construction of capitalism, the labor force is focused less on the production of material products and durable goods in order to delineate value. Instead, the production and management of knowledge, information, data, services, and expanded networks of communication are the primary means through which capital is both defined and accrued. In 1997, sociologist and philosopher Maurizio Lazzarato coined the term ‘immaterial labor’ to describe this emerging form of work. He defines immaterial labor as,
Labor that produces the information and cultural content of the commodity. The concept of immaterial labor refers to two different aspects of labor. On the one hand, as regards the “information content” of the commodity, it refers directly to the changes taking place in workers' labor processes in big companies in the industrial and tertiary sectors, where the skills involved in direct labor are increasingly skills involving cybernetics and computer control [...] On the other hand, as regards the activity that produces the “cultural content” of the commodity, immaterial labor involves a series of activities that are not normally recognized as "work" – in other words, the kinds of activities involved in defining and fixing cultural and artistic standards, fashions, tastes, consumer norms, and, more strategically, public opinion.14
According to Lazzarato, the transformation from a post-Fordist society, in which the workforce is simply subjected to the coordination of capitalist operations, occurs when workers are “expected to become ‘active subjects’ in the coordination of the various functions of production.” Three of McGhie’s portrayed characters in Self-Capital can be considered metaphorical representatives of ‘active subjects’ operating within the contemporary global labor-force. As Global Economy, McGhie personifies both the neoliberal capitalist framework within which immaterial labor is becoming the prominent means of production and a subject operating within immaterial labor’s structure. As such, the role positions the global economic force as a subject under the control of the very procedures that it produces. As Global Economy is struggling to come to grips with the implications of a dynamic labor force that operates using highly-specialized language and unfamiliar procedures, she has sought the services of specialized care providers to ease her current moment of crisis. With the help of her psychiatrists, Global Economy actively works to identify and resolve the issues which led to her bleak diagnosis. She attempts to search out and identify problems within her own system to offer strategies for coping with or solving abstract issues. As depicted throughout Self-Capital, her labor includes not only yogic workouts, but also mental and linguistic exercises including decoding language to communicate clearly to a network of capitalist constituents. For example, in Episode 2, Global Economy reads a series of capitalist terms out loud to herself to identify language that symbolizes unproductive components of the global economic system. When she recites and processes agreeable terms, she swallows them as if eating chocolates. When she recites and processes defective terms, her face puckers in disgust, until she ultimately ejects the words from her body by vomiting them out in the museum bathroom. In his essay “Affective Labor,” Michael Hardt discusses a statement articulated by Robert Reich, arguing that labor practices that do not lead to material ends, but nonetheless involve laborious activity constitutes one face of immaterial labor. He says, “Robert Reich calls this type of immaterial labor ‘symbolic-analytical services’ – tasks that involve ‘problem-solving, problem identifying, and strategic brokering activities.”15 This account of immaterial labor describes Global Economy’s work to function.
Global Economy’s two psychiatrists also illustrate the concept of immaterial labor through the lens of affective labor, that is, labor which “involves the production and manipulation of affects and requires (virtual or actual) human contact and proximity.”16 The in-person care provided to Global Economy, in the form of analysis, counseling, and instruction, is considered a valuable service, the end result of which is an intangible product that nonetheless produces capital. In a letter to her colleague, Global Economy’s principle psychiatrist describes relief as the product of their service, stating, “My hope is that you can help relieve some of her inner turmoil so that she might at least, continue as she is.”17 The means through which Global Economy’s relief is to be achieved includes a regiment of body-oriented and mental techniques designed to provoke a suspension of affectual transformation. However, their techniques do not endeavor to clarify the very real circumstances of Global Economy’s systemic meltdown, but instead are only focused on addressing the emotions which are “speaking from the deepest parts of [her] body.”18 The doctors are providing a manufactured service which entails manipulating the individual subject’s affectual nature and therefore the affectual nature of the entire global economy, fostering a community influenced by and embedded with information culled from experimental psychiatric therapies.
Gilligan’s metaphor extends outside of the frame of the video into the contemporary landscape of 2008, wherein industry has shifted from a materialist production-based economy to an immaterial service and care-based economy in the form of social networks and consumer communities. The psychiatrists stand in for the service providers who labor to generate capital through affectual influence and Global Economy takes the position of the impressionable subject(s) who prefers a manufactured sense of ease, comfort, and well-being, rather than wallowing through her very own crisis. This relationship is not simply parasitic, wherein healthcare services maintain the status quo for an unhealthy and vulnerable subject, but it can also be terminal as Eric Cazdyn reminds us when he discusses the implications of treating socioeconomic symptoms without identifying the underlying illness. While arguing the dangers of prescriptive medicine, Cazdyn articulates the locus of health management services: “Prescriptive medicine begins with the axiom of health management: as long as illness is managed in the meantime, we do not have to worry about curing for the future. The prescriptive meantime becomes the permanent destination rather than a temporary moment of development. Control over the symptom is the gold standard, and even though the underlying illness is still understood as malignant, the management of the malignancy is now possible in new ways.”19 These “new ways” further illustrate how capitalist production takes advantage of new forms labor that only exist in response to management needs. In Self-Capital immaterial labor, in the form of affectual labor, represents how economic shifts generate the production of affective treatment and manipulation services in order to cope with destructive side-effects, specifically in times of crisis.
The allegorical framework of Self-Capital is established by a shared relationship between the financial crises occurring at both the ICA and the world-at-large. The lack of spatiotemporal distance between these simultaneously transpiring events – the failure of neoliberal capitalism in the form of the 2008 financial crisis and the represented metal breakdown of Global Economy – is balanced by the artist through clever dialogic and visual representation. However, several scenes within each of the three episodes emphasize the tension between the extreme present and the recent past, tilting Gilligan’s carefully constructed balance and provoking the blurring of real and imagined contexts. In standard forms of allegory, the past and present and all the sociopolitical issues particular to each context are clearly defined, allowing for subjects to be emblematic rather than carry the weight of events as they transpire in real-time. In Self-Capital, everything and everyone is subject to the allegorical references depicted. The present moment is filtered and represented through its own construction.
Gilligan’s framework draws attention not only to the financial situation occurring within the ICA that serves as the backdrop for the work, but also for the larger crisis occurring outside the institutional setting. Furthermore, Gilligan extends the allegorical device, creating a mise en abyme effect by giving the social body a somatic form within which the effects of the financial crises (plural) are represented as lingering affectual and emotional distress.20 When we watch Global Economy struggle to articulate the underlying causes of her total collapse and meander through seemingly redundant therapeutic exercises, so too are the ICA and international governments implementing trial and error strategies. This lack of distance between actual events and those represented in the work pushes the allegorical work into strange territory wherein the cinematic 4th wall hangs in delicate balance; upheld only through the work’s reliance on a professional cast, script, and technical elements such as lighting and sound design. In fact, Gilligan would eventually utilize these technical components to loosen the work from its parabolic condition.
Gilligan reveals the allegorical framework during the closing scenes of the final episode. At the start of the scene, Global Economy is seated in an office at a desk working to decode the bureaucratic language of an online state pension guide. She begins reading the pension forecast in a straight-forward manner but pauses on the word “estimate.” On a piece of paper, she attempts to pen the word. She writes, “e-s-t-i-m-a” and then fumbles to list the remaining two letters, treating the language as coded symbols that denote mathematical functions rather than philological meaning. She writes, “e-s-t-i-m-a-l-o equals estimalo.” Then, recognizing her failure to construct a coherent sequence of letters (symbols), Global Economy begins frantically dissecting words using arithmetic operations, creating mutilated terms that “sound right.” The word “estimate” transforms into “Estinaop.” The word “additional” transforms into “Acdiseot.”21 Global Economy’s inability to read comprehend the language is mimetic in its depiction of the laymen attempting to read incredibly complex and circuitous governmental language, ironically constructed to make the information explicitly clear. Suddenly, the camera cuts away from Global Economy, as her struggle to decipher government language continues. The camera is directed outside of the ICA London, looking over the city’s skyline. Here, the two temporalities collide; the world created within the framework of Gilligan’s allegory, Self-Capital, and the outside world where the effects suffered by Global Economy are being played out in actuality. The metaphor lingers only through the Global Economy’s continued reading. But as the lens scans the metropolitan horizon line, her voice fades out and the scene pauses on scaffolding that lines the museum’s façade, which indeed needs repair. The image then cuts to black.
In her representations of the failure of neoliberal capitalism through the lens of the ICA London’s fiscal problems and the wider 2008 financial crisis in her film Self-Capital, Melanie Gilligan offers critical insight into the construction of sociopolitical structures and ideologies which produce, maintain, and encourage the propagation of systemic failure as an effectual socioeconomic model to a disenfranchised and exhausted global population. Specifically, Gilligan’s work highlights how affect is fostered and manipulated by constructs of neoliberalism to distract the social body from realizing the totalizing effects of the failed capitalist system. In the work, Global Economy is not simply struggling to self-regulate and provide self-care, she is also completely helpless in all her efforts to decode her ailments and communicate them to those who might offer systemic solutions. Locked in a state of perpetual illness, Global Economy struggles around the clock to implement corrective measures in the face of a terminally ill economic system. This situation implies a lack of boundaries between labor and leisure; the melding of culture and capitalism. As Lazzarato says, “life becomes inseparable from work […] capitalist production has invaded our lives and has broken down all the oppositions among economy, power, and knowledge.”22 Without a moment for rest or recuperation from the bombardment of capitalism’s nasty side effects, it is no wonder that Global Economy is experiencing a debilitating physical and mental collapse.
It is unfortunate that in the ten years since Gilligan’s films were created, capitalist economies have suffered further distress. In fact, the side effects of neoliberal capitalism have intensified, due in part to a continuation of the same high-risk economic practices that led to the 2008 crisis, and in part to world-wide elections that have placed neoliberal figureheads like Donald Trump and Theresa May in political office. In this new reality, not only is Global Economy ill, but the “psychiatrists” who are responsible for aiding in recovery, have been replaced by capitalist CEO’s and by their champions who are unable and unwilling to acknowledge the disease in the first place. While Gilligan created an allegorical work urging witnesses of the 2008 financial crash to seek new economic alternatives, today’s embrace of neoliberal political leaders is symptomatic of a global society blind to capitalism’s terminally ill framework. How then do we imagine new futures where the health of our global economy is not reliant on a value-based society?| P
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- Ramirez, Steven A. Lawless capitalism. New York, 2013, 181-182.↩
- In his book, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, David Harvey defines the term Neoliberalism. He writes, “Neoliberalism is in the first instance a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade. The role of the state is to create and preserve an institutional framework appropriate to such practices.” See: David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Oxford, 2005.↩
- Charlesworth, JJ. “Crisis at the ICA: Ekow Eshun's Experiment in Deinstitutionalisation | Mute.” Metamute.org, 2010.↩
- Bishop, Claire. Artificial hells. London, 2012, 219-226.↩
- Karl Marx. “Grundrisse: Notebook VII – The Chapter on Capital.” Marxists.org, 2016.↩
- Gilligan, Melanie. 2009. Self-Capital. Video, (episode 1). 27 minutes. Franco Soffiantino Contemporary Art Productions, Milan.↩
- Cazdyn, The already dead. Durham, 2012.↩
- Gilligan, Self-Capital (episode 1).↩
- Srnicek, Nick. Inventing the future. London, 2015.↩
- Gilligan, Self-Capital (episode 1).↩
- Gilligan, Melanie. “Affect & Exchange,” Fillip, 2012.↩
- Lazzarato, Maurizio. “Immaterial Labor.” Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics, 1996, 132,3-146,7.↩
- Hardt, Michael. “Affective Labor.” boundary 2, 2: Summer, 1999, 89-100.↩
- Gilligan, Self-Capital (episode 1).↩
- Cazdyn, The already dead.↩
- I am using the phrase ‘mises en abyme’ as it is referenced in Sharon Mounanda’s essay “’Mises en abyme’ and Narrative Function in Zola’s ‘La Curée.’” To draw her own argument using the term, the author borrows from Dällenbach, stating, “this definition encompasses not just narratives within the narrative but any entity which reflects, wholly or in part, the content, the structure, or the writing process.” See: Sharon Mouanda, “’Mises en abyme’ and Narrative Function in Zola's ‘La Curée’”, Modern Humanities Research Association, 103: 1, 2008, 35-45.↩
- Gilligan, Self-Capital (episode 3).↩
- Lazzarato, Maurizio. “Immaterial Labor.” Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics, 1996, 132,3-146,7.↩