Connecting Nodal Points
A few years ago, while researching a project, I came across a curious book whose subject matter I could describe today, not without a touch of irreverence, as a manual on alternative techniques of circulation. I had been observing how a number of consumer products continue to circulate beyond their purchase moment, via their public display on the body of the consumer. Such is the case of clothes, jewelry and personal electronic devices, but also of products that are consumed socially like beverages, books, among others. My interest was in finding ways to disrupt the fluid continuity of this process, particularly in finding disrupting tactics already at play in the social sphere. I found in the book I just mentioned, a perhaps extreme, but no less pointed, example of engaging commodity circulation while, at the same time, momentarily but assertively interrupting its image projection through bodily display. Eventually, the lifted merchandise eventually finds its way back into the traditional channels of circulation, but for the brief instance during which time the stolen product is worn in disguise, a different relation to the body is founded, one that reverses the practice of enhancing one’s identity via identification with the image conveyed by the wearable product. I am calling this situation a reversal simply because instead of the product covering the body, it is the body that covers the product. Say we uphold this reversal, however provisional and isolated it may be, and enhance its potential through aesthetic recombination, similarly to how Critical Art Ensemble, following Guy Debord, defined it as making use of already existing representations and recombining them in disruptive ways.
Following these thoughts, I produced a video called Blind Spots in which I use the instructions from the book as point of departure. While shoplifting was the tactical point of departure for Blind Spots, the video used techniques from a visual vocabulary that references television commercial spots. In the video, from scene to scene, a series of products is revealed out of their temporarily occluded spots in the body and presented against their stated retail prices, similarly to what is used in commercials but here converted from expense to income. The objective was to attain a disjointed encounter between opposing strategies as to short-circuit the subjectivizing mechanisms present in persuasive communication. Such an outcome is not directly transitive from the piece to actual life but they could function as a discursive rearrangement of established norms, a disjunctive conjunction, to use the terms Jacques Ranciere elaborated as a play in the ambiguity of resemblances and on the instability of dissemblances.
Blind Spots explores a particular facet of shoplifting, the instance of disguise of the stolen commodity. This fact situates the shoplifting gesture at a nodal point that operates a shift in the subjectivizing mechanism ruling the relations between body and commodity. But there are other questions worth exploring in related subject areas, and the occasion of this essay presents the opportunity to expand the initial investigation. A case in point are those situations that involve technology-enabled means to control the movement of products, particularly those devices used in retail to prevent the so-called unauthorized removal of articles. In the recent past, EAS (Electronic Article Surveillance) was prevalent in retail stores as a means of countering shoplifting; in fact they are still in use. These days the security industry is heavily pushing for the indiscriminate use of a more evolved technology. Radio Frequency Identification tags, or simply RFID, are comprised of two related parts: on one end there is an integrated circuit for storing and processing information; on the other, there is an antenna for receiving and transmitting the signal. This tag can be used not only to track the article’s unauthorized movement but also to control inventory. Walmart notoriously implemented RFID tags in its stock control system and integrated with its suppliers via extranet to minimize the occurrence of out-of-stock items, reduce overstock and automate supply orders. But the most controversial use of RFIDs is to be found in the Human Microchip Implant version of these tags. Initially targeted at serious medical cases that require immediate attention facilitated by the embedding of the patient’s critical information in the chip, it has since been used by companies and government to controls access to restricted areas. Counter activity already exists in the form of hacking into the chip via scanning of its signal to either clone or disrupt it, bringing a situation once limited to science fiction literature into the mundane level of commodity logistics management.
What remains consistent, regardless of technological advances, is the managerial need to control the physical location of bodies as they flow through space. This body is ever more enhanced by prosthetic devices and voluntary inscription in locatable grids, typically via GPS enabled phones, but it is still the actual body, not solely its virtual double that is the focus of control. Like other technical advancements, the defensive rhetoric appears to amount to a residual, not to say negligible, profit percentage, especially when compared to the enormous gains afforded by new opportunities for profit extraction. For example, GPS-enabled triangulation of the potential buyer at the moment of intersection with a store that matches the consumer’s interests as per their stated profile of interests maximizes the chance of impulse buying. Such logic is not a novelty; a cursory look at the developments in retail display systems reveals a direct correlation between logistical rearrangement and exponential growth. The product accessibility introduced by the department store in the retail economy translated into increased impulse driven consumption. On the other hand, shoplifting also progressed as a result but typically at a fraction of the rate of increase in profit. We could say that its very conditions of possibility share the same source with a capitalist invention designed to maximize profits. Not unlike residual unemployment under neo-liberal regimes, shoplifting subsists alongside the retail machine as a necessary remainder. In spite of the disproportion between shoplifting costs and the size of the security industry, shoplifting is portrayed as the villainous debaser, out to destroy the virtues of commercial exchange. But contrary to this vigorous rhetoric laid against it in the manner of a moral battle, shoplifting is not really meant to be extinguished. It is more useful, for the sake of justifying disproportional counter-attacking measures, that this irritant factor be simply sustained at a tolerable level.
This disguised sustainability allows the system to continuously re-invent its mechanisms of self-defense and in the process recycle itself toward previously unexplored territories. A good example is the recorded music industry. For years now this industry has been leveling an inquisition-like battle against individuals who engage in free downloading of music from the Internet. It has gone to unimaginable measures to sue teenagers, single mothers and the elderly. At the same time, advantageous deals were being arranged, notably with My Space and Google in China to allow people to do precisely what they have forbade in the U.S. and Europe: listen to music without paying. The difference is that when this activity is performed in the terrain of tightly defined agreements, which is to say paved by profitable partnership contracts, the once unproductive listening activity has again become lucrative. Once a new business model is conceived, the moral ban is lifted and the same activity is proclaimed ethical.
Now that we have established the lack of moral grounds in such pleads by ascertaining their sole profit logic, it remains necessary to unhinge the fundamental polarity between good and evil that frames the circulation of commodities. To accomplish this task we need to tackle the situation from a tangential perspective. Instead of operating within the available terms as set in place by the given discursive framework, we should dispute the very framework and broaden the scope of the situation. Rather than ask if we have the means to afford this or that product or service, we should inquire on the conditions that determine such affordability. Then we can proceed to adjust reality to need, instead of simply conforming to the reality of need. An extraordinary case in point was the Autoreduction initiative that took place in Turin in the Fall of ‘74. Following from the increase in bus fares by the order of 20 to 50% by two private local companies, the workers whose salaries were not increased to accommodate this excessive burden, refused to comply. After their vain attempts to obtain results via protests, they decided to auto-reduce the fares back to the original amount, prior to the arbitrary price increase. Faced with the monetary disadvantageous alternative of stopping service altogether, the bus companies were returned to their profit logic and chose to take the money, which they initially refused. In this example, the tactic consisted in assuring the continuity of the bus service. What was renewed, or in this case retrofitted, were the terms of engagement. Once the framework was rejected, what were initially incongruent positions became liberated for creative rearrangement. Without a doubt, this is not a model that can be easily generalized. The event was largely dependent on the political and historical conditions of Italy and the innovations introduced by the Autonomia movement. But the lessons from this specific post-Fordist tactic, outlive its timely occurrence and remain available to us in the terms of a theoretical proposition that prescribes the displacement of given frameworks combined with the factual rearrangement of established plateaus of experience.
I’ve began this essay with a cursory description of the ideas for Blind Spots and then expanded the scope to include other aspects of its object. While in the first part, I described the re-arrangement of the relation between body and commodity, in the second part, I exemplified the reconfiguration of the terms of a social experience. There is a marked homology between these two sequences that, in spite of their vast difference in scale, suggest a conceptual transitivity between a singular and isolated gesture on one end and a multiple and interconnected action on the other. The possibility of such transitivity, that is to say of this unobstructed passing between disparate domains of experience foregrounds the art practice from which Blind Spots comes out. Substantiating my focus on micro-experiences is the idea that a mere dislodging of isolated instances can be connected to much larger events.
- Caime, Gabriel, and Gabriel Ghone. S(h)elf Help Guide: The Smart Lifter’s Handbook (Hagerstown: Trix Publishing, 1996).
- Ensemble, Critical Art. The Electronic Disturbance (New York: Autonomedia, 1994).
- Ranciere, Jacques. The Future of the Image (New York: Verso, 2007).
- “Electronic article surveillance (EAS) system,” in Electronics manufacturers, http://bit.ly/JflTY.
- Williams, David H. “The Strategic Implications of Wal-Mart’s RFID Mandate,” in Directions Magazine, http://bit.ly/ahlmP.
- Newitz, Annalee. “The RFID Hacking Underground,” Wired News,http://bit.ly/kN3wh.
- See Beckerman, Ray. “Recording Industry vs.The People,” Recording Industry vs. The People, http://bit.ly/iUvaf and Borland, John. “RIAA settles with 12-year-old girl,” CNET News, http://bit.ly/Prn4R as well as Itzkoff, Dave. “Woman fined $1.92M in music piracy case,” The New York Times, June 19, 2009, http://bit.ly/14xcUR.
- Arrington, Michael. “Stealing Music: Is It Wrong Or Isn’t It?,” Techcrunch, http://bit.ly/Luen8.
- Autonomia: Post-Political Politics, Semiotext(e)/Foreign Agents (Los Angeles: Semiotext(E), 2007), 73.