Malabou’s Most Wanted: Fragment from Catherine Malabou on Plasticity and the Death Drive

“Organic life strangely suffers from the same defect as architecture: space is the privileged

metaphor for its developments. But the plasticity of mental life implies an unpicturable

state of things in which emergence and preservation, life and inertia, vitality and passivity

coincide in time—not in space. This simultaneity between the two meanings of plasticity—

the creation of form and the destruction of form—is the main characteristic of the

time of materiality which goes beyond the pleasure principle.”


Moloch, continued

From Glenn Beck’s The Eye of Moloch (2013)

Apparently this passage involves some lightbulb moment wherein a character realizes that the media is like the cattle industry:

“For the men attending, this meeting was a huge success. By the time it was over they’d gotten everything they wanted and more. For my part, I was left with the troubling feeling that I had glimpsed behind the wizard’s curtain and learned things I’d rather not have known, both about my father, Arthur Gardner, and the industry he’d helped to pioneer.

There was a key difference, of course, between the herding and handling of that livestock and the crass manipulation of the buying, voting, and consuming public.

Once the animals were killed the goal was to squeeze every last bit of worth from the carcass: muscle, blood, bone, sinew, skin, and entrails; nothing should be left in the end. In the case of the American people the same sort of value extraction was being plotted, only they were to be systematically drained of all their worth before they died, not after.”

To the John Wayne Airport

Productivity, “Death Drive,” and The Intellectual History of Capitalism in the 1950s


Historians still tend to think of the politics of capitalism in the 1950s as a dull affair. Labor historians grapple with the turn from white-hot class struggle in the 1930s and 1940s––peaking with the strike wave of 1946––to the torpor of class compromise in the 1950s.[1] Intellectual historians of capitalism have similarly tried to tease something exciting out of the thought of the 1950s, often reconfirming our sense of the decade as a time of pacified interests and bureaucratically adjusted passions.[2] In fact, it could be argued that the reason that historians of American capitalism have been so drawn of late to the intellectual history of the postwar Right is that conservatism seems like the only place in which passion, aggression, ideology, and intellectual creativity can be found in the period that Harvey Swados mockingly dubbed “Utopia Unlimited in the Fat 1950s.”[3]

This sense of a pacific Eisenhower-era history of political economy and intellectual history of capitalism only holds up, however, if we fail to attend to the real question that obsessed both labor and capital (and, in its mediating role, the state) in the 1950s: productivity. Reading the Industrial Relations literature, business press, and political language of the 1950s reveals a common idée fixe: to keep the American economy competitive, workers would have to accept that it was now their patriotic duty to become machines, to fully materialize as “manpower” during their hours on the job. Underlying this duty was a universalized guilt—an inner voice urging endless work––that distinguishes, according to Walter Benjamin, capitalism as a religion.[4]

After World War II, a new variant of the postbellum “drive system”—which, “as a result of mechanization and reduced dependence on craft labor” vested massive amounts of power in foremen and superintendents “whose function was to drive employees to work ever faster”––insinuated itself in America’s factories.[5] In 1961, Industrial Relations guru Sumner Slichter lamented the effects of this incipient new “drive system”: “perhaps most important and self-evident among all the causes of low morale, is the use of drive methods by management to sustain and increase output.” The new “drive system,” Slichter lamented,  “compels the men to concentrate their attention and ingenuity upon limiting output, and upon frustrating the efforts of the management to push up the pace.”[6]

The conflict and aggression engendered by the “drive system” was not mysterious: the system itself was predicated upon a sort of channelized industrial sadism. Daniel Nelson describes the turn-of-the-century “drive system” as a political structure premised upon “a combination of authoritarian rule and physical compulsion” and cites period sources who broke down this variety of motivation as a science of hand motions and profanity, “driving, overbearing, and unsympathetic administration of…power”; Slichter observed that in the 1950s-era “drive system,” the foreman continued to rely upon threats in order to obtain results.[7] We should keep this notion of the “drive system” premised on aggression and potential violence in mind as we proceed.

The contradictions inherent in the renewed “drive system” animate a variety of texts from the 1950s, including some we might not think of immediately, such as Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (1955). Ginsberg’s famous poem is a prolonged meditation upon the terrors of 1950s-era productivism, what Swados called the “insane treadmill” of postwar work:

Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! … Moloch whose factories dream and croak in the fog! … Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone! Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks![8][8]

Compare Howl with Harvey Swados’s “Myth of the Happy Worker” (1957):

It is not simply status hunger that makes a man hate work that is mindless, stupefying, sweaty, filthy, noisy, exhausting, insecure in its prospects and practically without hope of advancement… Almost without exception, the men with whom I worked on the assembly line last year felt like trapped animals. Depending on their age and circumstances, they were either resigned to their fate, furiously angry at themselves for what they were doing, or desperately hunting other work that would pay as well and in addition offer some variety, some prospect of change and betterment. They were sick of being pushed around by harried foremen… sick of working like blinkered donkeys, sick of being dependent for their livelihood on a maniacal production-merchandising setup…[9]

The pent-up frustration of the factory worker, Swados observed, increasingly began to take the form of old-fashioned sabotage against the gods of efficiency and output maximization: “bananas stuck in tailpipes, nuts and bolts thrown in tail fins, raw aggression.”

Reflecting upon this cluster of negative affect and paranoid fantasy at work in Ginsberg and Swados––so difficult to process in terms of our habitual readings of capitalism in the 1950s––compels us to introduce a new interpretive term (to make a link, as it were, between one “drive system” and another): “death drive,” borrowed from Sigmund Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920). Reading the literature of postwar capitalism through the lens of “death drive” allows us finally, I think, to come to terms with the demonic character of the 1950s-era productivity obsession, and to think more seriously (to use some familiar Freudian terms) about productivity’s vicissitudes and its discontents.[10] In order to set the table properly, however, we need to review the curious array of fantasies and anxieties that gave rise to the cult of productivity in the first place.


Beginning with the war, and accelerating steadily in the ensuing years, ruling-class Americans became increasingly convinced that labor productivity was declining. There were many reasons that the  “labor question” presented itself in the 1950s as a conflict over productivity and output restriction. The Eisenhower Era was a moment of mass bureaucratic unionism and pattern bargaining. Union leaders pledged certain productivity levels in exchange for wage and benefit gains, often without much contact with rank and file workers or sufficient grasp of the changing realities of the production process. Thus rank and file loyalty to the union was often highly abstract, while frustrations simmered around concrete interactions with union representatives.

Labor-management struggle on the shop floor was shaped by the successive failures of both Taylorism and Elton Mayo-style “human relations”-oriented management schemes. Neither had proven effective at raising productivity without triggering shop-floor discontent and sabotage. As a result, many firms began to experiment anew in the 1950s with piecework and incentive systems: returning workers to a pre-Taylorite, Darwinian factory ambience.[11] Along with continuing battles over featherbedding and labor racketeering, haunted by earlier discourses of “soldiering” and “malingering,” and in view of the imminent specter of automation, 1950s-era capitalism was structured around an intense focus on the palpable pointlessness of industrial labor, and the apparent futility of attempts to induce greater levels of productivity.[12]

According to the bourgeois press, other countries like Germany and Japan, newly propped up by Marshall Plan and post-Bretton Woods monetary and trade policy, seemed to be evincing productivity regimes twice or three times as robust as that of the US. In many industries, however, it was not clear how the United States could compete without mass layoffs or the endangerment of workers’ lives and limbs.

Conventional wisdom took the form of nervous councils of despair, as in Stanford economist John P. Troxell’s foreword to Alexander Heron’s Why Men Work (1947): “financial rewards and penalties” had ceased to be “wholly equal to the important task that we entrust to them–inducing men to work.” For “most of the gainfully employed,” Troxell noted, “there is no clear promise of a prize for sustained effort, and no great likelihood of penalty for withholding it—not in a time of full employment.” “True,” he observed, “we would rather work than loaf, and we enjoy productive work; bootless effort or ‘made work’ of any type is despised.” However, “a general distaste for loafing is a very different thing from that zeal for hard work which is essential to full production.”[13]

There were some deep problems, however, that complicated the picture that economists like Troxell painted of declining national productivity. Most importantly: productivity then lacked (and, as I understand it, still lacks) any sort of definitive measure. In 1961, NBER economist Solomon Fabricant, a productivity hawk, admitted that the “statistical information available for calculating productivity indexes is deficient in various respects.” “We all have far to go,” Fabricant cautioned, “before any of can claim to understand fully the process of productivity change, its causes, or consequences, or to see clearly the way to deal with the issues involved.” The project of establishing clearly “the basic facts of productivity change” remained a task for future economists to fulfill.[14]

Setting aside the problems that bedeviled the calculation of output in a given factory, firm, sector, or the economy as a whole (a problem compounded by cyclical factors that cannot be properly controlled for in even the best regression), no one in the 1950s could decide whether productivity meant maximum muscular exertion by every worker all the time, or capital reinvestment in productive capacity.[15]American capitalists were notoriously averse to compiling and sharing information. It was only with the efforts of Simon Kuznets in the 1930s that the national accounts began to be properly measured: the baseline, in the 1950s, for productivity gains or losses was thus still extraordinarily recent and empirically limited. Furthermore, most economists acknowledged that productivity was subjective: what mattered most was not the real numbers, but the speed or velocity with which productivity was rising or falling, as compared with other firms, sectors, or nations.[16]

Fabricant admitted that productivity––the “measure of the efficiency with which resources are converted into the commodities and services that men want,” a prerequisite for “better levels of economic well-being,” and essential ingredient in ensuring “greater national strength”––was a “subject surrounded by considerable confusion.” People used the same word but meant different things: “As a consequence, various figures on productivity change come into use, and these often differ in significant degree.” The calculation of the rate of productivity change, Fabricant revealed, was not a question of fixed quantities. Properly speaking, “productivity” was a historical question, entirely dependent upon the comparison of norms in one period to norms in another: “What the past or current rate of productivity change is depends on the particular period for which the calculation is made. If no reference is made to the period, and if the period varies considerably from one context to another, confusion results.”[17]

Acknowledgement of these epistemological difficulties did not, of course, stem the tide of complaints about declining productivity: in attacks on labor racketeering and “featherbedding,’ in calls for increased automation and for the non-interference of labor unions in the replacement of men by machines, in a strain of liberal anti-Communism that saw all workplace discontent as the work of CP-trained subversive connivers, in the increasing Cold War-inflected sense of national identity as dependent upon muscular comparative advantage in the form of manpower, measured against all other nations.

Ironically, by most historical measures it now seems that American productivity, in almost every sector of the economy, was actually increasing in the 1950s, and would continue to do so until some point in the late 1960s (in fact, there is still room to debate whether there was a real productivity slowdown in the 1960s at all).[18] The most urgent intellectual historical question, then, is this: why was the capitalist sector so convinced that productivity was on a terminal death-spiral?


The answer, I think, lies in this curious notion of the “death drive”: postwar intellectuals were circling around the disjuncture between capitalism’s self-presentation and its internal mechanisms, without quite knowing how to name their unease: in much the same situation as political theorists protesting royal abuses before the elaboration of theories of sovereignty, or of improving landlords prior to Locke’s articulation of natural law.[19] In this case, the proper term had already been created several decades earlier, and had even been worked up in the “stagnationist” theories of John Maynard Keynes and Joseph Schumpeter—but for obvious reasons (including, most importantly, profound Cold War pressures to vindicate capitalism as against Soviet-style planning), American intellectuals in the 1950s did not recognize that what they were talking about was, in fact, capitalism’s tendency towards “death drive.”

“Productivity,” in other words, was not actually the problem being addressed in jeremiads about “output restriction”: the true problem was far deeper, existential, and apparently unsolvable. It was a problem inherent in capitalism itself. The dialectics of capitalist growth and crisis, the tensions between the commodification of material goods and the commodification of human labor time, and the extraordinary pressures imposed upon the natural world by the imperative for endless growth: all of these, strictly speaking, unsolvable dilemmas were papered over by capitalism’s constricted discourse of need, desire, want, duty. There was something else at work—negative, repetitive, aggressive––in the unfolding of capitalist history. Freud’s name for this “something else” was “death drive.”

Slavoj Žižek reminds us that the first mistake made by students of capitalism is to take capitalism’s own word for it that the system is “actually premised upon the satisfaction of human needs and desires.” Žižek insists that at the level of the system as a whole, “desire” is not the relevant category: rather, we are here in the realm of “death drive,” the “repetition compulsion,” in which satisfaction is always obtained, but at the price of a certain suicidal detachment from the rest of life. Similarly, Jodi Dean’s “Still Dancing: drive as a category of political economy” treats the speculative frenzy leading up to the 2007-2008 Crash as “repetition compulsion” personified: “Drive is a keeping on beyond pleasure, beyond use, beyond desire. In the reflexive turn of the drive, drive’s loop back round itself, activity becomes passivity, stuckness in a circuit…”[20]

Most interestingly, for our purposes, drive’s loops might be intimately connected to the capitalist business cycle, its rhythms of boom and bust.  Dean quotes Žižek (interpolating Marx):

Drive inheres to capitalism at a more fundamental, systemic level: drive is that which propels the whole capitalist machinery, it is the impersonal compulsion to engage in the endless circular movement of expanded self-reproduction. We enter the mode of drive the moment the circulation of money as capital becomes ‘an end in itself, for the expansion of value takes place only within this constantly renewed movement.’

This face of the drive seems particularly apt, for Dean, as a key to “the extreme capitalism of neoliberalism.” At some point, however, “doing the same thing over and over shifts from order into chaos.” Persistent repetition amplified the system’s pathologies, leading to overload and collapse. Sounding a Schumpeterian theme, Dean describes this entropic tendency as capitalism’s “creative destruction,” the “centrality of crisis to capitalism’s peculiar persistence.” Our question is whether “death drive” might not be as applicable to the pre-neoliberal era as to the Age of the Washington Consensus; whether, in fact, it might provide an explanation for why the apparent tedium vitae of the 1950s provided an opening for those who sought to unfetter capitalism’s productive forces from the apparently strangulating arms of the state.

Finally, it needs to be emphasized that “death drive” has a certain radical edge that makes it appealing to some Left intellectuals. Pushed beyond its limit, they wager, “death drive” might point towards a post-capitalist source of human motivation. Lacanian philosopher Adrian Johnston notes, for example, that thanks to the “death drive… the human individual isn’t entirely enslaved to the tyranny of the pragmatic utilitarian economy of well-being, to a happiness thrust forward by the twin authorities of the pleasure and reality principles.” There is a utopian strain to “death drive.”  When we recall that the “pleasure principle,” beyond which Freud wishes to venture is straightforwardly that of the “economic point of view,” the grotesque “hedonic calculus” of Bentham, Johnston’s point of view begins to make sense:

Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand, the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all that we do, in all we say, in all we think; every effort we can make to throw off our subjection, will serve but to demonstrate and confirm it. In a word a man may pretend to abjure their empire, but in reality he will remain subject to it all the while.

Mutatis mutandis, Bentham’s utilitarianism has served as the scaffolding upon which capitalist common sense has rested ever since. Because such a narrow and anemic presentation of motivation and desire will always be inadequate as a guide to the complexities of both political and libidinal economy—because it cannot cope with “drive” in either the Sigmund Freud or the Sumner Slichter sense––there seems to be the need for a notion more or less like “death drive” if we are to understand capitalist everyday life.


Thinking about discourses of “productivity” in the 1950s allows us to draw on the extraordinarily valuable insights of the Lacanians without necessarily agreeing that “death drive” in capitalism is best represented by the pathologies of financialization.

After all, repetition was the guiding value of the Keynesian state (while “disruptive innovation” is the motto of the current sad conjuncture). The postwar order was built on business cycle-oriented planning, steady but unremarkable returns on investments, a low level of unemployment (usually discursively refigured as “full employment”), stable family relations based on the paternal wage-earner, and a culture that was a routinized as any addict’s routine: prime-time TV, a regular cycle of several hundred films per year, radio Top 40s, and professional sports seasons.

What became a problem, in the ordinary neuroses of the postwar era, was desire (this, I think is the historical insight best captured by the otherwise overrated television show Mad Men): how to keep wanting (or, from the perspective of those involved in the sales effort, how to keep other wanting) after the conquest of nature, scarcity, and the business cycle: how to keep the boredom of Rostowian growth and countercyclical planning from feeling like an endless encirclement of the same loop, with each lap representing (at least according to the laws of thermodynamics) an incremental loss of energy.[21]

At the same time, to many intellectuals and cultural workers, “repetition compulsion,” in the late 1950s and early 1960s also seemed to promise a way out (whether it delivered is a separate question).  Is not “repetition” the common aegis under which we might consider John Cage, Andy Warhol, James Brown, Steve Reich, La Monte Young, Tricia Brown, The Grateful Dead, William S. Burroughs, minimalist cinema, the gay underground, custom car and drag race culture, Alan Watts, the Black Panthers, the insistence of protestors intoning slogans in unison ad infinitum; the games devised by industrial workers to beat the time-study men documented by Donald Roy, Alvin Gouldner, and William F. Whyte; or the various returns (to Freud, to Marx, to Lenin) on the Left? Is it not the case that so many of the most powerful critical intellectual and aesthetic responses to capitalism’s “death drive” in the 1950s were marked by a perverse impulse to compulsively out-repeat capitalism’s “repetition compulsion”? If that is so, then perhaps there is still more to say about the movement of ideas through the brutalist corridors of 1950s-era capitalism.







[1] See Nelson Lichtenstein, State of the Union: A Century of American Labor, Revised and Expanded Edition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013) for the definitive account of the weakness of the “labor-management accord” narrative.

[2] In the work of Howard Brick and Daniel Geary, we have learned that putative renegades like C. Wright Mills worked squarely within the cognitive structures erected by equilibrium-obsessed thinkers like Talcott Parsons. See Howard Brick, Transcending Capitalism: Visions of a New Society in Modern American Thought (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006), and Daniel Bell and the Decline of Intellectual Radicalism: Social Theory and Political Reconciliation in the 1940s (Madison, Wis: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986); and Daniel Geary’s excellent study, Radical Ambition: C. Wright Mills, the Left, and American Social Thought (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009).

[3] See Harvey Swados, “The Myth of the Happy Worker,” in Leon Litwack, ed. The American Labor Movement. The recent uptick in left literature on the intellectual Right include books by Kim Phillips-Fein, Angus Burgin, Bethany Moreton, and Jennifer Burns.


[4] Walter Benjamin, “Capitalism as Religion,” in Selected Writings, Volume One: 1913-1926, translated by Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge: Belknap, 2004).

[5] David M. Gordon, “From the Drive System to the Capital-Labor Accord: Econometric Tests for the Transition Between Productivity Regimes.” Industrial Relations, Vol. 36. No 2, April 1997, 126. To a significant degree, the return of the “drive system,” in altered form, rested on unions’ failure to win legal recognition of foremen as laborers rather than management, a development that Nelson Lichtenstein points to as among the most consequential events in Eisenhower-era labor history. See “The Man in the Middle’: A Social History of Automobile Foremen” in A Contest of Ideas: Capital, Politics, and Labor (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013). See also the classic discussion of “The Foreman’s Empire” in Daniel Nelson, Managers and Workers.


[6] Sumner Slichter, Potentials of the American Economy: Selected Essays of Sumner H. Slichter. Edited by John T. Dunlop. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1961), 170-71.

[7] Slichter, 196; Nelson, 42-45.


[8] Allen Ginsberg, Howl and Other Poems (San Francisco: City Lights, 1956).

[9] Swados, “The Myth of the Happy Worker.”

[10] My discussion draws on the arguments of Anson Rabinbach in his extraordinary book The Human Motor. Rabinbach writes about the obsession of nineteenth-century German scientists with the notion that society might discover a way to “conserve, deploy, and expand the energies of the laboring body,” harmonizing “the movements of the body with those of the industrial machine” and perhaps even overcoming “the stubborn resistance to perpetual work that distinguished the human body from a machine.” With the conquest of fatigue––“the endemic disorder of industrial society”––“the last obstacle to progress would be eliminated.” The language of labor power, Rabinbach writes, “was more than a new way of representing work: it was a totalizing  framework that subordinated all social activity to production, raising the human project of labor to a universal attribute of nature.”

[11] See Stephen P. Waring, Taylorism Transformed: Scientific Management Theory Since 1945 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991).

[12] See Andrew Wender Cohen, The Racketeer’s Progress: Chicago and the Struggle for the Modern American Economy, 1900-1940 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004) and David Witwer, Shadow of the Racketeer: Scandal in Organized Labor (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009).


[13] Alexander R. Heron, Why Men Work (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1947).

[14] Solomon Fabricant, “Basic Facts on Productivity: An Introduction by Solomon Fabricant,” in John W. Kendrick, Productivity Trends in the United States (Princeton University Press for the National Bureau of Economic Research, 1961). National Bureau of Economic Research, Number 71, General Series, xxxvi.

[15] See Samuel Bowles, David Gordon, et al, Beyond the Waste Land.

[16] See William D. Nordhaus, “The Recent Productivity Slowdown.”

[17] Fabricant, “Basic Facts on Productivity,” xxxv.


[18] See Alan S. Blinder, ed., Paying for Productivity: A Look at the Evidence (Washington: The Brookings Institution, 1990).


[19] Sigmund Freud, Todd Dufresne, Gregory C. Richter, Beyond the Pleasure Principle (Peterborough, Ont: Broadview Editions, 2011).

[20] Jodi Dean, “Still Dancing: drive as a category of political enjoyment,” International Journal of Žižek Studies, Volume Six, Number One).


[21] C.P. Snow’s crib sheet for the four laws of thermodynamics is apposite: “Zeroth: You must play the game. 
First: You can’t win. Second: You can’t break even. Third: You can’t quit the game.” See:


“Basic questions concerning right and wrong goals to be pursued cannot be settled by [economics] as such. They belong in the realm of ethics and ‘value judgments.'”

P.A. SAMUELSON, ECONOMICS 8 (6th ed. 1955)

Hedonic Treadmill Exhibit B

J Pers Soc Psychol. 2000 Apr;78(4):764-71.

Social comparisons of income in one’s community: evidence from national surveys of income and happiness.


Graduate School of Management, University of California, Davis, 95616, USA.


Two studies provide evidence for social comparison effects of income on subjective well-being (SWB). The 1st study of 7,023 persons from nationally representative samples in the United States shows that the range and skew of the income distribution in a community affects a person’s happiness, as predicted by range-frequency theory. The 2nd study of 8 nations over a period of 25 years shows that decreasing the skew (inequality) of the income distribution in a country increases average national SWB. Both studies strongly support social comparison effects of income within a community, and both results are predicted by range-frequency theory. These studies are the first to successfully extend earlier results of R. H. Smith, E. Diener, and D. H. Wedell (1989) from the laboratory into naturalistic situations. The magnitude of the social comparison effects is smaller than the main effect of income, which implies that nations can avoid creating a “hedonic treadmill.”

Hedonic Treadmill Exhibit A

Am Psychol. 2006 May-Jun;61(4):305-14.

Beyond the hedonic treadmill: revising the adaptation theory of well-being.


Department of Psychology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 61820, USA.


According to the hedonic treadmill model, good and bad events temporarily affect happiness, but people quickly adapt back tohedonic neutrality. The theory, which has gained widespread acceptance in recent years, implies that individual and societal efforts to increase happiness are doomed to failure. The recent empirical work outlined here indicates that 5 important revisions to the treadmill model are needed. First, individuals’ set points are not hedonically neutral. Second, people have different set points, which are partly dependent on their temperaments. Third, a single person may have multiple happiness set points: Different components of well-being such as pleasant emotions, unpleasant emotions, and life satisfaction can move in different directions. Fourth, and perhaps most important, well-being set points can change under some conditions. Finally, individuals differ in their adaptation to events, with some individuals changing their set point and others not changing in reaction to some external event. These revisions offer hope for psychologists and policy-makers who aim to decrease human misery and increase happiness.

Copyright 2006 APA, all rights reserved.

A Labor Day Reading

Tillie Olsen, Yonnondio: From the Thirties (New York: Dell, 1972, 1934) 76-79.

“Alright for Tracey to talk, alright, he didn’t have a wife and kids hangin round his neck like and anchor. Alright for him to talk, alright with nothing more important to worry about than getting canned and stepping out a floosie.

And Tracey was young, just twenty, still wet behind the ears and the old blinders were on him so he couldn’t really see what was around and he believed the bull about freedomofopportunity and a chancetorise and ifyoureallywanttoworkyoucanalwaysfindajob and ruggedindividualism and something about pursuitofhappiness.

He didn’t know, so the big sap threw it up, he threw up his job, thinking he was flinging his challenge into the teeth of life, proclaiming I’m a man, and I’m not not taking crap offn anybody, I’m going to live like a man. There’s more to life than workin everything you got to live with outa you in order to keep a job, taking things no man should stand for to keep a job. So he threw it up, the big sap, not yet knowing a job was a straw and every man (having nothing to sell but his labor power) was the drowning man who had no choice but to hang onto it for notsodear life.

So he threw it up, not yet knowing a job was God, and praying wasn’t enough, you had to live for It, produce for It, prostrate yourself, take anything from It, for was it not God and what came was it not by Its Divine Providence, and nothing to do but bow to It and thank It for Its mercifulness to you, a poor sinner who has nothing to sell but your labor power. So he threw it up, the big sap (not knowing), he renounced God, he became an atheist and suffered the torture of the damned, and Good Job (being full of that generation) never took him back into the fold only a few days at a time, and he learned all right what it meant to be an infidel, he learned:

the little things gone: shoeshines and tailormades, tickets to a baseball game, and a girl, a girl to love up, whiskey down your gullet, laughter, the happy belch of a full stomach, and walking with your shoulders back, tall and proud.

He learned all right, the tortures of the damned:

feet slapping the pavement, digging humbly into carpets, squatting wide apart in front of chairs and the nojobnojob nothingtoday buzzing in his ears; eking the coffee–and out; shuffling along the frozen streets, buddy (they made a song out of it) can you spare a dime, and freights north east south west, getting vagged, keep movin, keep movin (the bulls dont need to tell ya, your own belly yells it out, your own idle hands) sing a song of hunger the weather four  below holes in your pockets and nowhere to go, the flophouses, the slophouses, a bowl of misery and last month’s cruller and the crabs having a good time spreading and spreading (you didn’t know hell would be this bad, did you?).

Oh he learned alright. He never even got a chance to have a wife and kinds hang round his neck like an anchor and make him grovel to Good Job. (And I guess it’s just as well, Jim Tracey, because even among the pious who heed and prostrate themselves Its wrath is visited, for Many Are Called But Few Are Chosen, and are not the Sins of the Fathers (having nothing to sell but their labor power) Visited on the Sons, and it’s no fun to see the old lady nag and worry her life away, no fun to see the younguns pulpy with charity starches drowse and chant the lesson after the teacher: we-are-the-richest-country-in-the-worr-uld).

So (not knowing) he threw it up, the big sap, thinking, the big sap, jobs grew on trees and (believing the old bull) a man didn’t hafta take cap off’n anybody, he renounced Good Job–and the tortures of the damned were visited upon him in full measure, he learned alright, alright, that last hour writhing in the ‘piano’ in the chain gang down in Florida.

And there’s nothing to say, Jim Tracey, I’m sorry, Jim Tracey, sorry as hell we weren’t stronger and could get to you in time ands show you that kind of individual revolt was no good, kid, no good at all, you had to bide your time and take it till there were enough of you to fight it all together on the job, and bide your time, and take it till the day millions of fists clamped in yours, and you could wipe out the whole thing, the whole goddamn thing, and a human could be a human for the first time on earth.”

Another Useful Quote from Freud

“As soon as anyone deliberately concentrates his attention to a certain degree, he begins to select from the material before him; one point will be fixed in his mind with particular clearness and some other will be correspondingly disregarded, and in making this selection he will be following his expectations or inclinations. This, however, is precisely what must not be done. In making the selection, if he follows his expectations he is in danger of never finding anything but what he already knows” (1912)

A Useful Quote from Freud

“In the individual’s mental life someone else is invariably involved, as a model, as an object, as a helper, as an opponent, and so from the very first individual psychology, in this extended but entirely justifiable sense of the words, is at the same time a social psychology as well” (Group Psychology, 1921).

The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Vuitton: Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, Publicity Rights, and the End of Narcissism


Sam (career check-forger and safecracker): “I don’t know, maybe it’s a sense of resentment because they make it. I watch them from across the street and hope they have a good day. Today it’s theirs, tonight it’s mine… I just dig stealing. I like it.” Bruce Jackson, Outside The Law: A Thief’s Primer (London: Macmillan, 1969), 11.

“Since capitalist morality is integrated with the structure of money, periods of inflation are always strongly sensual.” Kenneth Burke, Attitude Towards History (1937), 218.


Reviewing Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Pauline Kael wrote: “There hasn’t been as excitingly American a film since The Manchurian Candidate.” In a similar spirit, we might say that there hasn’t been as excitingly American a film as Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring— (if we conceive of its “exciting American-ness” as a commitment to documenting pathologies of celebrity culture) since Robert D. Siegel’s 2009 brilliant Big Fan. Alternately, we might say there hasn’t been as excitingly American a film since Nick Gomez’s 1996 overlooked masterpiece New Jersey Drive, if we conceive of The Bling Ring’s “exciting American-ness” as a function of its fidelity to the transgressive sanctity of the teenage joyride. Strangely enough, critics on the Left have not greeted The Bling Ring with the enthusiasm that one might expect. In the paragraphs below, I try to make the case for Coppola’s film as a profound neo-Brechtian meditation on the contradictions of contemporary capitalism, winding through the wilds of Intellectual Property law and the short, unhappy life of the psychoanalytic theory of narcissism.

Drawing inspiration from the real-life exploits of teen outlaws Rachel Lee and Nick Prugo in 2008 and 2009, The Bling Ring charts a path from boredom and anomie to the narcotic thrills of illicit access to the forbidden kingdom of celebrity abundance. Lee and Prugo’s fictional doubles, augmented by a band of Calabasas misfits, quickly move from jiggling the door handles of luxury cars at night to TMZ- and Google Earth-aided robberies of the dream homes of young Hollywood’s A-list celebrities. The aim appears not so much to acquire the unattainable markers of wealth and status (although that is certainly an important motivation), but to play house in the forbidden domestic interiors, to inventory and catalog the glittering fetish objects lurking in the walk-in closets, to experiment with breaking and entering as a kind of sympathetic magic.

Formally speaking, The Bling Ring is a study in measured repetition, minimalism, self-discipline and intentionality. Coppola is particularly interested in the relationship between transgression and repetition, abandon and control. The Bling Ring is especially insistent on the tension between the eros of the present moment, and the drive towards electronic capture of current pleasure for the sake of retroactive enjoyment—perhaps the central dilemma of our contemporary neurotic complexes. Every act, however incriminating, is accompanied by a “selfie,” a Facebook update, a text. There is something anhedonic—not to mention lonely––about the relentless documentation. For whose sake are these actions being archived, and what kind of archive is being absent-mindedly created by all of these inscriptions, filings, and punching of virtual time cards?


“Uncut diamonds, artistically speaking, may be legitimately taken away from their idiot-possessor, provided the thief will well and truly cut them, thus giving them a new brilliance. This is not a theft, properly speaking; rather, it is a duty. It is good that diamonds should be stolen, be they yours, ours, or another’s provided only—this is essential—that the new possessor exhibits them to better advantage.” E.F. Benson, “Plagiarism” (1899).[1]


One (perhaps fair) complaint about The Bling Ring is that it is boring. In its own way, it is true: The Bling Ring is boring. At a certain point, however, as John Cage and Andy Warhol and Lauren Conrad all made a point of teaching us, boring becomes interesting. Walter Benjamin once observed that the best storytellers adopt a “chaste compactness” that “precludes psychological analysis” in order to lull listeners into a state of relaxation. The highest form of this trance-like state of receptivity to narrative, for Benjamin, is boredom: “the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience.”

Alexis Neiers, a “bling ring” associate (played in The Bling Ring by Emma Watson in a performance so rich in dialectical ludicity that it ought to be the subject of an entire special issue of The Drama Review) would no doubt question Benjamin’s chicken-and-egg equation. Neiers recently suggested that it was precisely Coppola’s refusal to give the “bling ring” members any sort of identifiable dramatic “arc” that had resulted in the creation of so boring a film:

“I actually haven’t seen it yet, so I don’t want to be that person who criticizes a movie without seeing it first. Having said that, from the looks of the trailer and a lot of the reviews I’ve read, the characters are supposedly quite one-dimensional… Where is the arc?”[2]

Throwing shade with the effortless grace of Elvin Jones applying drumstick to ride cymbal (“All I know is that if they made a movie about [Sofia Coppola] and the only thing that she does is ruin the Godfather franchise, she probably wouldn’t think that was fair and the audience would find it kind of boring”), Neiers’s comment is telling. Speaking about The Bling Ring to an addiction-and-recovery website, peddling herself as a “brand” via a highly marketable uplifting narrative of youthful prodigality and adult redemption––her own example points to the very redundancy of any cinematic deference to the “arc” imperative. “Arc” imitates life.

The dramatic “arc” that verifies a person’s personhood might also be thought of as the dominant expression of contemporary liberal ideology, which insists that a “life” is unrecognizable without an “arc,” but that some lives (however punctuated by suffering, trauma, and recovery) aren’t lives at all.

Asked to describe The Bling Ring’s message for young viewers, Paris Hilton (a victim of the “bling ring” crimes who appears as herself in several scenes) invents a moral takeaway out of whole cloth, deferring to perhaps the oldest of American ideological investments, the Protestant work ethic: “There’s so much more to life than all of these possessions and everything. And if you want those things, you’re going to have to work… just like I did.”[3]   

Shakespearean comedies end with a wedding; Hollywood “social issue” films end at the courthouse. Transgressing the formula that organizes the latter tradition throughout the film—refusing, that is, Neiers’s demand for an “arc” or Hilton’s confabulation of an uplifting “message”––Coppola finally honors it, but in a highly ironic and ambiguous gesture. At The Bling Ring’s conclusion, the protagonists confront the law: some of the stolen goods are returned, and a judge hands down some prison sentences. But Coppola does not plot out this trajectory in service of punitive superego satisfactions, nor out of some latter-day deference to some informal Hays Code. What doesn’t happen, miraculously, is any sort of soapy catharsis, an angry monologue, a crescendo of emotion, a bottoming-out.

The film’s structure remains faithful to the “bling ring” experiment: premised upon the question of whether it is possible to enjoy oneself, and for how long, for how long at a given time, what to do with the disappointment that invariably follows, what the limits of escalation might be. The law, here, functions simply as a limit. The Bling Ring takes no joy in punishing the teens. Its moral economy is oriented towards different concerns, different questions. Thus we would take issue with Bret Easton Ellis’s Twitter evaluation of the film as  “surprisingly conservative and yearning for analog,” a “finger-pointing movie shaking its head about Those Crazy Kids Today…” It is hard, in fact, to recall a recent film less conservative, less nostalgic for the good old days, less judgmental about the much-maligned Millennials.


The village of Hollywood was planned according to the notions

People in these parts have of heaven. In these parts

They’ve come to the conclusion that God

Wanting a heaven and a hell, didn’t need to

Plan two establishments but

Just the one: heaven. It

Serves the underprivileged, unsuccessful

As hell.

Bertolt Brecht “Hollywood Elegies” (1941-47)

For non-celebrities then, the right of publicity is essentially a “right without a remedy.” Even where a non-celebrity plaintiff can establish a claim, problems in establishing damages will foreclose an effective cause of action. For some analysts, this is considered a good thing, as they deem it “folly … [to] extend the right of publicity to non-celebrities who cannot demonstrate that their identity has any significant commercial value.”[4] K.J. Greene, “Intellectual Property Expansion: The Good, The Bad, and The Right of Publicity” (emphasis added).



It would not be surprising if future historians look to The Bling Ring as evidence of a culture absorbed in a chaotic flux of meaning, and a crisis that circled around two linked terms—“personhood” and “value.” In a capitalist moment premised upon anxious temporary fixes to the problem of “personhood” and “value,” a new centrality is enjoyed by the legal doctrine called the “right of publicity.” The “right of publicity” covers the legal question of whose semiotic personhood has value, and whose does not.

Perhaps the easiest way to dive in to the world of “publicity rights” is to consider the news links that appear on the right-hand margin of a popular “right of publicity” website as a kind of conceptual poetry:

Rihanna files $5 million lawsuit against Topshop for unlicensed t-shirts/Donald Trump seeks $400,000 in cybersquatting case/Lindsay Lohan sues Pitbull and Ne-Yo for use of her name in song lyric/Hollywood Reporter article on Right of Publicity and alleged Boston bombers/Chubby Checker files lawsuit against Hewlett Packard for unlicensed “Chubby Checker” mobile app/Can Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas stop a third party trademark application for “Flying Squirrel?”/Tim Tebow and potential Right of Publicity legal action against MY Jesus T-shirts/Apple objects to In Icons’ plans for a Steve Jobs action figure/Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino sues Abercrombie & Fitch on Right of Publicity grounds/Nelson Mandela’s licensed clothing line, 46664, his ID number while in prison/Kim Kardashian sues Old Navy over a lookalike in advertisements/Disney files for “SEAL Team 6” trademark, the name of the elite special forces unit that tracked down Osama bin Laden/Charlie Sheen tries “Winning” through cease and desist letters/Marilyn Monroe rights sell for a reported $50 Million/Cypress Hill member sues Rockstar for use of his life story in Grand Theft Auto/Axl Rose sues Activision for $20 million over inclusion of Slash character and Velvet Revolver songs in Guitar Hero game/Bob Marley to become the top grossing deceased celebrity? Predictions of $1 billion by 2012/Supreme Court refuses to hear Major League Baseball appeal over fantasy baseball and use of stats/Evel Knievel, Kanye West settle lawsuit.[5]

$50 million here, $50 million there: pretty soon you’re talking about real money.

Derived from the uniquely American notion of a “right to privacy,” famously created ex nihilo by Samuel Warren and Louis D. Brandeis in an 1890 law review article, the “right of publicity” was worked out by UCLA law professor and pioneering Hollywood intellectual property attorney Melville Nimmer in a 1954 essay. The “right of publicity” quickly became an organizing frame for a wide variety of tort claims pursued by celebrities against entrepreneurs who sought to profit from unlicensed deployments of famous faces, personas, catch phrases, and voices.

The “right of publicity” case law history is almost impossible to believe: ranging from a foundational 1937 case about the unauthorized use of the photographic image of performer Sarat Lahiri in an article about sideshow “Hindu rope tricks,” to a fight over a 1984 Dior ad using a Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis impersonator at a fake wedding for “the Diors” (shown hobnobbing with the real-life personages of Gene Shalit and Ruth Gordon). The conceptual limits of the “right of publicity” can be seen in the most legally complicated contemporary cases: on the one hand, the question of compensation for the use of likenesses of unpaid college football players by video game companies, and on the other hand by efforts to regulate the legal Wild West of online “murderbillia” auctions.

The “right of publicity” forces us to ask some difficult questions. How does one decide who is a “celebrity,” and who is not, especially since the rise of reality TV? How does one evaluate similarity and difference in popular forms where so many people look more or less like one another, imitation is universal, and cultural producers freely share common tropes (what the law treats as scènes à faire, aesthetic materials so ubiquitous as to belong, effectively, to the public domain).

In a Hollywood regime that, since 1909, has operated under the aegis of “work-for-hire” and the legal fiction of “corporate authorship” (which means, in plain English, that cultural workers are presumed to be handing over all lasting property rights in the things they create unless otherwise specified) what kind of science fiction future lurks wherein corporations own the rights to our very personalities? Alternately, what would it mean if courts find the unique personas of celebrities to be descendible as a matter of inheritance law? There is something morbid about this, a haunting of the living by the dead. On a different register, what are the implications for First Amendment freedoms of a robust “right of publicity” regime? The law protects the “parodic” and the “newsworthy,” but these terms are hardly self-evident, and a legal challenge can take years and millions of dollars to resolve. What chilling effects take root in the meantime?

Reading The Bling Ring against the recent history of the evolution of the “right of publicity” allows us, I think, to read the film’s broader meanings as a guide to the wobbly surface of contemporary capitalism.

This is no arbitrary link. Several protagonists of the actual “bling ring” were reported to have sold their “life rights” to the producers of the film on the basis of Nancy Jo Sales’s 2010 Vanity Fair story—well before the legal business attending the alleged robberies had been settled. Because there is much confusion about the current state of “Son of Sam” laws that prohibit criminals from profiting by selling their stories, “publicity” or “life” rights are often commodified and monetized via the more innocuous-sounding mechanism of “consulting fees.”

While researching the film, Sofia Coppola and her producer, Youree Henley, reportedly met with Neiers and her mother, arriving finally at a sum of $100,000 for the “life rights” of the Neiers family.[6]

Complicating matters, Neiers was at the same time wrapping up filming on a reality show, Pretty Wild, for the E! Network (scenes from which also pop up in Coppola’s film), a show that soon began to seek viewers’ attention by foregrounding Neiers’ deepening legal troubles. Making the whole story more farcical, several of the adults involved in the legal and law enforcement aspects of the case also signed “right of publicity”-related agreements while they were still involved with the case. In fact, Sales implies strongly that Prugo’s defense was mishandled by a fame-seeking lawyers hoping to cash in, and observes that the state’s prosecution was severely hampered by LAPD detective Brett Goodkin’s attempts to leverage his involvement with the case (Goodkin plays himself in The Bling Ring and was paid $12,500 in advising fees while the case was still active).[7]


“For Rosalind Krauss, video was the medium of narcissism because video could not be about its own materiality or formalism, could not be reflection, but only reflexive. Digital then being the duller medium of composition. We are coded, we encode: we encode, we are coded. Thus, we compulsively return as zombies, to the possessive case, to an I for an I.[8] Vanessa Place, “Zombie Poetry,” 2013.

“The new narcissist is haunted not by guilt but by anxiety… Acquisitive in the sense that his cravings have no limits, he does not accumulate goods and provisions against the future… but demands immediate gratification and lives in a state of restless, perpetually unsatisfied desire.”[9]  Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism (New York: Norton, 1979).


The paradoxes of the “right of publicity”––and the The Bling Ring’s focus on its protagonists’ relentless self-documentation––suggest that it might be appropriate to conclude with the question of narcissism. 2013 will be remembered, after all––among other distinctions––as the year in which the category of “narcissism” was slated to be dropped from the psychotherapeutic bible, the DSM.[10]  (A hue and cry following the announcement of narcissism’s proposed termination led to its re-inclusion in the just-published DSM-V). But why were the DSM‘s compilers initially convinced that narcissism had become obsolete?

Perhaps narcissism is changing. Perhaps this is one message delivered to us by The Bling Ring. 

One source of humor in The Bling Ring is the spiritual investment of the Neiers clan in the New Thought/prosperity gospel narishkeit of The Secret: that hodgepodge of Mesmerism, Christian Science, Bruce Barton, and Eastern metaphysics that captured that media’s imagination at the crest of the housing bubble. It is hard to imagine a more classically narcissistic creed than that peddled by The Secret’s life coaches and hucksters.

It is not The Secret’s idiotic vision-boards and cheerful stupidity about the real conditions of social and political life, though, that confront the viewer as the most dangerous ideological mutation documented by The Bling Ring. It is the terrible atomism, the sense that a utopian project could even be erected around the mysteries and pleasures of solitary acquisition. Here, I need to be careful: I do not wish to slip into vulgar anti-consumer polemic that is the common coin of the Left. With James Livingston’s recent Against Thrift, I am much more interested in the potentials of a Marxist commitment to the pleasures of shopping, to the horizons of self-expression and self-display often found in commodity culture (not to mention that shopping for today is an eminently more socialist act than saving for tomorrow).

Nevertheless, we need to come to terms with the present state of narcissism: what Peter Sloterdijk calls the “new solipsism,” an adjustment of “homo alphabeticus,” accustomed to self-objectification in “ego-technological” forms like diary writing to a new regime of “interfaciality” (a moment in which we relate to ourselves, and to others, via the “close-up,” the exchange and intercourse of faces, the “self-care cycle,”).[11] Sloterdijk reminds us of Elias Canetti’s prediction of a society in which “every person is depicted, and prays before his own image.”

If this narcissism has become our universal condition, then the challenge for the Left is to think about how it might be mobilized towards collective ends, to hear James Brown’s “I wanna kiss myself” as a revolutionary slogan. Such a project is suggested by Adam Kotsko’s Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide To Late Capitalist Television (a text that could as easily be called Why We Love Narcissists). Kotsko, asking why we are so drawn to Don Draper, Tony Soprano, and Homer Simpson, proposes that our fascination is not driven by wish fulfillment or identification with the aggressor. TV sociopaths, Kotsko proposes, allow us to ask: “What if I really and truly did not give a fuck about anyone?”

By allowing us to work out, experimentally, the incommensurability of total devotion to self-actualization and commitments to “the inescapably social nature of human experience,” TV’s meditations upon extreme forms of individualism compel us to strengthen our vision of what a sociality worth fighting for might look like (beyond lamenting the friendless bowler or pining for the Victorian village green). What Kotsko is arguing, I think, runs directly parallel to the questions Coppola asks in The Bling Ring: What is the current arrangement of the way that we are collectively permitted to want things? Who decided that? What are the pleasures and what are the pathologies of this arrangement, and what would it mean to want different things in different ways? Why is it the young woman who is so often made the avatar of putatively dysfunctional wanting, and why do we seem to take so much pleasure in humiliating her? Most profoundly: why are we so anxious as we approach the things we want?

Or, as Johnny Paycheck once asked: why must the most luscious peach be always out of reach, and the one you can’t have, you desire?

[1] Quoted in Paul Saint Amour, The Copywrights: Intellectual Property and the Literary Imagination (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003).

[3]  “Forget Versailles: When Sofia Met Paris” Mickey Rapkin, Elle. June 13, 2013.

[4] K.J. Greene, “Intellectual Property Expansion: The Good, The Bad, and The Right of Publicity” 538), Chapman Law Review, Vol. 11, No. 3, 2008, 538. Greene cites Alicia M. Hunt “Comment: Everyone Wants To Be A Star: Extensive Publicity Rights for Noncelebrities Unduly Restrict Commercial Speech,” Northwestern University Law Review, Summer 2001, 95 Nw. U.L. Rev. 1605.

[8] Vanessa Place, “Zombie Poetry.”

[9] Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in An Age of Diminishing Expectations (New York: Norton, 1979), xiv.

[11] Sloerdijk, 98.