Cartographies of the Absolute

Cartographies of the Absolute

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Cartographies of the Absolute by Alberto Toscano, Jeff Kinkle

Can capital be seen? Cartographies of the Absolute surveys the disparate answers to this question offered by artists, film-makers, writers and theorists over the past few decades. It zones in on the crises of representation that have accompanied the enduring crisis of capitalism, foregrounding the production of new visions and artefacts that wrestle with the vastness, invisibility and complexity of the abstractions that rule our lives.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781780992754
Publisher: Hunt, John Publishing
Publication date: 02/27/2015
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 311
Sales rank: 1,069,724
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Alberto Toscano is Reader in Critical Theory at Goldsmiths, University of London.

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Cartographies of the Absolute

By Alberto Toscano, Jeff Kinkle

John Hunt Publishing Ltd.

Copyright © 2014 Alberto Toscano & Jeff Kinkle
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78279-973-3


Capitalism and Panorama

Prophecy now involves a geographical rather than a historical projection; it is space not time that hides consequences from us. John Berger

Vision and value

In the context of a widespread preoccupation with the aesthetics of politics and the politicisation of art, less attention has been accorded to that area of practical and theoretical effort which we could temporarily class under the rubric of the aesthetics of the economy (we say temporarily, since a rigorous exploration of such an aesthetics soon enough challenges the separation between politics and economics). The latter comes to the fore with special urgency in moments of crisis, when our cognitive and political deficit, faced with the unravelling of a system whose intelligibility was always partial but is now suspended, can be registered at the aesthetic level – very broadly construed to include both artificially constructed representations and the individual and collective organs of perception.

As an initial methodological proviso, it is worth noting that representations of the economy and in the economy cannot be compartmentalised without losing the complexity of the question of representation itself. Susan Buck-Morss's essay 'Envisioning Capital' provides some orientation in this regard. Importantly, Buck-Morss presents the 'making' or 'fixing' of the economy as a fundamentally representational problem, to the extent that this process involves establishing agency and efficacy for an abstraction – 'picturing' economic relations and transactions as a unity, a totality, or even, to quote Marx, as an 'automatic subject'. Among other protocols, this mapping practice involves projecting a virtual external point from which to grasp and navigate a situation in which one finds oneself multiply embedded. Such an attempt at economic cognitive mapping is thus a kind of transcendence laboriously extorted from immanence, a painstakingly constructed dis-embedding.

In this story, the eighteenth-century invention and stabilisation of diagrams and images of the economy marks a kind of epistemic and political shift with significant repercussions for the very idea of representation. The economic representations which, in intimate conjunction with theoretical developments in political economy, allow one to envision capital, can, for instance, short-circuit or circumvent the problems of a linear, sequential discourse, as in the French physiocrat François Quesnay's reflections on his tableau économique: 'the zigzag, if properly understood, cuts out a whole number of details, and brings before your eyes certain closely interwoven ideas which the intellect alone would have a great deal of difficulty in grasping, unravelling and reconciling by the method of discourse'. The tableau thus allows for a kind of totalising snapshot of temporal and material movements, which a sequential diagram of production would be incapable of figuring.

Quesnay was trained as a physician, and in light of this fact we could also think of the disciplinary sources of these representations: for instance in the passage from blood circulation, to the circulation of humans in cities, to circulations of money and resources. The diagrams are not only diagrams of flow but also of origination (for the physiocrats, in the 'fertile' relation between landowners and farmers). It is crucial then also to think of the metaphorical reservoirs from which these representations draw, for instance the relationship to mechanical and organic models of the economy, with their varying presuppositions about the latter's integrity, composition, operation, degradation; and also to link these economic representations to their political counter-parts, thinking of the passage, for instance, from the visibility of Quesnay's table, overseen by legal despotism, to the charting of the effects of the division of labour over time in William Playfair's Commercial and Politics Atlas of 1786, the first major work to use statistical graphs (Playfair is credited with inventing bar, line and pie charts).

Writing on the origins of the economy as an autonomous and self-defined domain, Timothy Mitchell underscores the efficacy and influence of 'mechanical analogies for the functioning of economic processes':

At the same time, professional economists continued to imagine mechanical analogies for the functioning of economic processes. Irving Fisher's 1892 doctoral dissertation, which Paul Samuelson called 'the best of all doctoral dissertations in economics', developed a mechanical model of an economic market consisting of a network of cisterns, levers, pipes, rods, sliding pivots and stoppers, through which the flow of water represented the working of the principle of utility. In 1892 he built a working model of this contraption which he used in his classes at Yale for years, until it wore out, and in 1925 he replaced it with an improved model. Fisher argued that the model provided not just a picture of the market but an instrument of investigation, and that the effect of complex variations in the market could be studied by altering the positions of the various stoppers, levers and pivots.

These activities of modelling, diagramming, and envisioning are thus representational in what is perhaps a counter-intuitive sense, since they break with a model of representation as mirror, photograph, or correlation between signifier and signified, index and referent. As representations of practically-abstract processes and relations, they are also representations of invisibilities.

What is it that we see in fact, when we 'see' the economy? In Buck-Morss's account of Adam Smith's vision, only the results ('invisible except in its commodity effects'), from which, by induction, we infer a process (the division of labour, the real protagonist in Smith, whose distributional effects are spoken of in the providentialist, theological image of the invisible hand): 'We see only the material evidence of the fertile process of the division of labor: the astounding multiplication of objects produced for sale. Commodities pile up'. Parenthetically, we can recall here a famous dramatic flourish from Marx's Capital:

Accompanied by Mr. Moneybags and by the possessor of labour-power, we therefore take leave for a time of this noisy sphere, where everything takes place on the surface and in view of all men, and follow them both into the hidden abode of production, on whose threshold there stares us in the face 'No admittance except on business'. Here we shall see, not only how capital produces, but how capital is produced. We shall at last force the secret of profit making.

Much of the modernist corrective to the aesthetics inhering in the Marxist representation of capital – be it in Brecht's critique of photographic realism or Louis Althusser's speculations on the realism of the abstract – will of course strive increasingly to separate representation from sight. For, as Marx's own work makes plain, when we walk into the factory we don't see capital 'itself' any more than we see it in the market.

These novel representations of a causally determinant but invisible system are also formative of certain modes of subjectivity and patterns of desire. This, for instance, is how Buck-Morss correlates abstraction, representation and agency in the classical political economy of Smith:

Looking up from my work at this landscape of things, I cannot see the whole of its terrain. It extends beyond my ability to feel. And this blindness leaves me free to drop my sight to the short horizon of my own self-interest. Indeed, blindness is the state of proper action. Within that horizon, however, desire is free and knows no bounds. This desire expresses itself as a pursuit for things. The pleasure of mutual sympathy, when I find my companion entering into my situation as I into his, is replaced by the pleasure of empathy with the commodity, when I find myself adapting my behavior to its own – which is to say, I mimic its expansiveness.

The shift between different regimes of economic practice can also be traced in terms of forms of envisioning, which is also to say forms of abstracting – in the sense of selecting, extracting, and shaping material for cognition and action. Indeed, Buck-Morss details an increasing formalisation and stylisation in the movement from classical political economy to neoclassical economics, which is both inscribed in and impelled by a different representational regime. We can then in a sense 'read off' the politics of neoclassical economics from its relation to visual display:

Neoclassical economics is microeconomics. Minimalism is characteristic of its visual display. In the crossing of the supply-demand curve, none of the substantive problems of political economy are resolved, while the social whole simply disappears from sight. Once this happens, critical reflection on the exogenous conditions of a 'given' market situation becomes impossible, and the philosophy of political economy becomes so theoretically impoverished that it can be said to come to an end.

Among the productive insights in this inquiry into the envisioning, graphing and diagramming of capital is its focus on money as 'the measurement of economic activity, the universal representation of all commodities.' One may even see money's hegemony as leading, especially with its detachment from a standard or base (in gold, namely), to a general 'ungrounding' of representation, from floating currencies to floating signifiers – a theme evident in the concern with credit-money in the philo-sophical writings of Lyotard and Deleuze & Guattari in the days of the 'Nixon Shock'. Alongside the greater abstraction and volatility of money, we can follow Buck-Morss in noting how the formalisation and mathematisation of the graph – supreme tool and emblem of neoclassical economics – entails that representation no longer needs to refer, in the sense of being physically mappable onto the outside world. As she puts it, the graph is 'not a picture of the social body as a whole, but statistical correlations that show patterns as a sign of nature's plan'.

Where her approach is perhaps less productive is in the contention that Marx's contribution is in making visible the embodied suffering generated by capital's voracious abstractions. Das Kapital's 'critical eloquence', she writes,

is derived from the fact that we are plunged beneath the surface of commodity exchange to the actual level of human suffering – here thousands of factory workers – that was the lived truth of really existing capitalism during the era of its industrialization. Marx insisted that the human effects of the economy be made visible and palpable, and this remains his contribution to political economy no matter how often his theories – of crisis, of value, of increasing misery – may be disproved.

This formulation could almost be reversed. It is not just that Marx's visualisations of mortified labour are expressly drawn from factory inspections and their meliorist, pragmatic aims, but that there were more detailed, incisive and poignant contemporary accounts of the misery wreaked by capitalism – not least Engels's own Condition of the Working Class in England. Though without doubt conditions comparable to, or worse than, those depicted in the mid-nineteenth century by Marx are still constitutive of contemporary accumulation, it is not the historically and geographically specific descriptions of human suffering, but the dialectical exposition of its founding dynamics that renders Marx's approach unique. What is at stake in this representation of capitalism is, to borrow Donald Mackenzie's expression, an 'engine, not a camera'. If Marx is still relevant then to the question of capitalism and its representation, it is to the degree that his theories – of crisis, of value, of increasing misery in the shadow of towering wealth – remain analytically and critically incisive even when his (borrowed and dramatised) descriptions of the cruelly concrete effects of abstract domination become anachronistic.


Though our concern here is primarily visual, when issues of opacity and invisibility are at stake it is not possible to ignore that the impasses of an economic aesthetics sometimes escape the tyranny of sight over cognition, that representational dramas may play themselves out through other senses. The notion that capital – as an infinitely ramified system of exploitation, an abstract, intangible but overpowering logic, a process without a subject or a subject without a face – poses formidable obstacles to its representation has often been taken in a sublime or tragic key. Vast, beyond the powers of individual or collective cognition; invisible, in its fundamental forms; overwhelming, in its capacity to reshape space, time and matter – but unlike the sublime, or indeed the tragic, in its propensity to thwart any reaffirmation of the uniqueness and interiority of a subject. Not a shipwreck with a spectator, but a shipwreck of the spectator.

Yet unrepresentability need not be approached solely in this iconoclastic, quasi-theological guise. A surfeit of representations – of personae, substitutes, indices and images – may turn the unrepresentability of capital into something more akin to a comedy of errors, a sinister masquerade. Those abstractions that in one register are as immaterial, mute and unrepresentable as the most arcane deities, reappear in another as loquacious, promiscuous, embodied.

In classical rhetoric, prosopopoeia, the 'personation of characters', as the Roman rhetorician Quintilian puts it in his Institutes of Oratory, was the figure that made it possible for another to speak through oneself – to ventriloquise the soliloquy of an enemy, for instance; it also made it 'allowable even to bring down the gods from heaven, evoke the dead, and give voices to cities and states' (think for instance of the 'father of the atom bomb', Robert Oppenheimer's infamous détournement of the Bhagavad Gita: 'Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds'). Readers of Capital will be familiar with the extensive use of this figure in the whole representational choreography of commodity fetishism, which shows us how the most bloodless of formal abstractions are put into motion, irrespective of the psychology of buyers or sellers, by the representational relations between one commodity and another. And so we have passages such as the following, from Volume 1, Chapter 1:

We see, then, all that our analysis of the value of commodities has already told us, is told us by the linen itself, so soon as it comes into communication with another commodity, the coat. Only it betrays its thoughts in that language with which alone it is familiar, the language of commodities. In order to tell us that its own value is created by labour in its abstract character of human labour, it says that the coat, in so far as it is worth as much as the linen, and therefore is value, consists of the same labour as the linen. In order to inform us that its sublime reality as value is not the same as its buckram body, it says that value has the appearance of a coat, and consequently that so far as the linen is value, it and the coat are as like as two peas.

The personation, or representation, of the real abstraction of value in the relation between commodities (this is still at the level of the relative form of value, before the revolutionising representational and abstractive powers of money enter the stage) is not a mere rhetorical ploy. It involves displacing the locus of subjectivity from persons to value, variously identified in Capital as 'an automatic subject', 'the dominating subject', a 'self-moving substance'. In a world that truly is inverted (rather than just erroneously perceived), men and women too speak, or are spoken by, the language of commodities.


Excerpted from Cartographies of the Absolute by Alberto Toscano, Jeff Kinkle. Copyright © 2014 Alberto Toscano & Jeff Kinkle. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements x

List of Illustrations xii

Introduction. The Limits of the Known Universe, or, Cognitive Mapping Revisited 1

Part I The Aesthetics of the Economy 27

Prologue: What Does the Spectacle Look Like? 28

Chapter 1 Capitalism and Panorama 33

Chapter 2 Seeing Socialism 78

Part II Cities and Crises 101

Prologue: Slums and Plows 102

Chapter 3 Werewolf Hunger (New York, 1970s) 105

Chapter 4 Baltimore as World and Representation {The Wire, 2002-2008) 137

Chapter 5 Filming the Crisis (2008-) 157

Part III Monsieur Le Capital and Madame La Terre 185

Prologue: Cargo Cult 186

Chapter 6 The Art of Logistics 190

Chapter 7 Landscapes of Dead Labour 218

Conclusion 237

Notes 243

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