Semiotic Capitalism

Semiotic capitalism: Social subjection and machinic enslavement

Maurizio Lazzarato
Signs are far more than ideological raw materials and “capital” is far more than a simple economic category relating to the circulation of goods and the accumulation of wealth. According to a definition of Félix Guattari’s that dates back to the seventies, Capital is a “semiotic operator” that affects all levels of production and all levels of stratification of power and subjectivity.
According to Deleuze and Guattari, the semiotic components in control societies always operate in a dual register. The first is the register of “representation” and “signification”, organized by signifying semiotics (the most important of which are “natural languages”) for the purpose of producing the “subject”, the “individual”, the “I”. Signifying semiotics fulfil the functions of social subjection and subjective alienation since, through representation and signification, they create and allocate roles and places, they provide us with a subjectivity and they assign us to an identity, a gender, a profession, a nationality, etc. so that everyone is implicated in a semiotic trap that is both signifying and representative.
The second semiotic register is organized by a-signifying semiotics (such as money, analog or digital machines that produce images, sounds and information, the equations, functions, diagrams of science, music, etc). Like Félix Guattari, we can call these “a-signifying” semiotics for, while they bring into play signs with a potentially symbolic or signifying effect, they have a machinic rather than a symbolic or signifying effect in the way they actually function.
Signifying semiotics speak, interpret, narrate, perform, while a-signifying semiotics fulfil the functions of machinic enslavement since this second register is not aimed at subject constitution, but at capturing and activating pre-individual and trans-individual elements (affects, emotions, perceptions). Stock-exchange indices, economic statistics, scientific diagrams and computer languages do not generate discourse; they operate, rather, by keeping the socio-economic machine running. Let the European Central Bank raise its bank rate by 1% and tens of thousands of “projects” go up in smoke for lack of credit. Let the French national health service accounts show a deficit and decisions on ways to cut spending are going to follow.
Thus, signs and semiotics can operate according to these two heterogeneous and yet complementary logics; they can fulfil two functions at the same time. On the one hand, through a-signifying semiotics, they have a direct impact on the real, they produce processes, trigger actions, work, constitute the input and output elements of a social or technological machine while on the other, they produce meaning, representations, discourses in which the subject recognizes himself/herself and is alienated from himself/herself. On the other hand, through signifying semiotics, signs are no longer linked to processes but to representations, to meanings. The same semiotic devices can be devices for both machinic enslavement and social subjection simultaneously. Television, for instance, can constitute us as subjects, as users, or it can even use us as simple relays for transmitting information, emotions, affects or signs, which trigger an action-reaction sequence. We have the privilege of being subjected simultaneously to the effects of both.
One can detect a certain family resemblance in the way Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, and Rancière use the concept of (social) subjection. In contrast, however, a-signifying semiotics and their functions of “machinic enslavement” have no corresponding concept in any contemporary political, linguistic or philosophical theories, and they represent one of the fundamental contributions by Deleuze and Guattari to our understanding of contemporary societies. It is perhaps Félix Guattari who has gone furthest to analyse the specificity of the relationship between the semiotic system and the capitalist system. Capitalism is regarded as a specific valorization process, based on “indexing” and “symbolization” systems that mobilize a range of signifying and a-signifying semiotic systems, which have a dual function. On the one hand, they connect and “formally” group together heterogeneous areas, asymmetric forces and power; on the other, they organize the integration and shift in focus of these areas and forces.
From this point of view, contemporary financialization is merely an increase in the – mainly a-signifying – semiotic indexing and symbolization systems that allow the differentials in valorization in all areas and between all areas to be managed. The mass media constitute other semiotic information management systems that, by using mainly natural languages, allow the differences in behaviours, opinions and meanings to be integrated and their focus shifted towards the logic of power.
What matters to capital is control of the semiotic devices that allow it to manage the integration and shift in focus of “differences”. Semiotic devices are simultaneously devices for management and “comparison”, for “scheduling” and for “computerization of material and economic goods, of individual and collective human activities and of technical, industrial and scientific processes, since whatever “is capitalized by capital is semiotic power”. The semiotic devices of government occur at different levels. They articulate the problems that matter for a society and an era by turning them into slogans and deploying them in “worlds” and “universes” of meaning. They bestow the power of speech and at the same time remove it, by organizing the interpretation / transmission of these slogans and these universes of meaning for increasingly diverse audiences. And finally, they transform these same slogans and worlds of meaning into the conditions necessary for the subjection of individuals, the conditions by which they are turned into subjects.


For Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze, the statement of problems is one of the major issues of politics since we have the solutions we deserve, and these solutions are determined by the questions we ask. For Deleuze, the predominant statements, representations and meanings operate like a “grid” that affects our mode of perception, feeling and understanding all at the same time.
The grid operates by imposing a certain discursive universe, a certain vocabulary, a certain imagery upon the governed, within which they will be made to think, express themselves and act. Everything that happens, everything one does and thinks or everything that one might think or do, is folded over this grid of statements and meanings, which represents the limits of one’s interpretation and articulation of the world. For Foucault, the power to pose problems is a power to politicize, i.e. the power to introduce new objects and new subjects into the political space and make them the focus of a struggle and a debate. “Problematization ( … ) is the entire set of discursive and non-discursive practices that introduces something into the interplay of true and false and constitutes it as an object for thought.”
This function of instituting / selecting “problems” and “solutions” operated by signifying semiotics establishes an initial distribution between the governing and the governed. The governing have the power to define the problems and formulate the questions (they name the possibles), by establishing in this way whatever is remarkable, important, relevant, worth acting upon and articulating. Meanwhile, the freedom of expression of the governed is exercised within the limits of a “doing“ and “saying” that has already been codified, predetermined by the problems and solutions of the governing.
The discursive devices (television, newspapers, opinion polls, elections, marketing, etc) operate on the hypothesis, which is a complete fabrication on their part, that there is a consensus on the problems, that there is agreement on the presuppositions, that there is no disagreement on the questions that deserve to be asked. Every day, we are invited to choose but the terms on which we operate our selection cannot be the object of debate, only of consensus. Instead of threatening the constituted order, these choices serve to confirm and consolidate it.
The “problems” and meanings, as Deleuze and Guattari remind us, are always the problems and meanings of the dominant reality, and the communicational machine of signifying semiotics is only there to produce and repeat this obvious fact. The “problems” or the “grid” of dominant statements and meanings are real semantic barriers. Anything that doesn’t fit into the consensual definition will be literally inaudible, incommunicable and incapable of being transmitted.

The narrating function of signifying semiotics

The media don’t just transmit slogans. They actualize them, they deploy them in “worlds” and “universes” of images, words and signs through stories and narrations that don’t describe the real but rather institute it. Michel de Certeau summarizes this new narration function of signifying semiotics admirably: “The media change the profound silence of things into its opposite. Once constituted in secret, the real now jabbers away. We are surrounded by news, information, statistics and opinion polls. Never has history talked so much or shown so much (...) Our orthodoxy is made up of narrations of “what’s going on”. Statistical debates are our theological wars. The combatants … move forward, camouflaged as facts, data and events. They set themselves up as messengers of a “reality” (…) But in fact they manufacture it, they simulate it, they cover themselves with it, they believe in it – they thus create the stage of their law ( …). “ 1
The message circulated by the slogans is an injunction: “Be quiet”, say the press journalists, the TV presenter or the political leader: “ ‘There are the facts. Here are the data, the circumstances, etc … Therefore you must …’” 2. The once ‘secret‘ real now jabbers. “The real, as told to us, interminably dictates what must be believed and what must be done.”3
The stories and narrations actualize the consensus in worlds and universes of discourse and meaning.
Unemployment, the perfect example of a slogan in our societies, is simultaneously interpreted and narrated as the disease in the social fabric that must be cured by employment, and the event in security societies that must be constantly talked about and staged with figures, statistics that invite comment by experts, intellectuals and the unemployed themselves to try to integrate, via the meaning of the communicational machine, the inequalities that the economy is increasing.
The discourses on unemployment are meant to circulate both the fear that pervades the entire labour market and at the same time a mission to mobilize society for the future. The “narrative conjunctions” compensate for the growing “disjunctions” created by the division of labour, by the differential treatment put in place by public policies and by the increase in inequalities. Signifying semiotics guarantee the creation of a reparatory meaning, by supplying a common frame of reference for the increase in “differences” (inequalities of status, of income, of access to welfare, etc), which is meant to hold them together and to constitute a shared objective. Discourses, stories, narrations create the possibility of a real reconciled with itself, the image of society’s regained unity (in view of the social divisions), the image of a security that exorcises fear.


One final function performed by signifying and a-signifying semiotics remains to be analysed. They don’t just construct, interpret and transmit slogans, or narrate and deploy worlds and universes. It is impossible to dissociate the workings of the semiotic machine of interpretation and transmission of slogans from those of a machine of subjection. In security societies, we see the coexistence of a multiplicity of sign systems. We have already analysed one of these systems through the transmission of statements – slogans. The process of subjectivation / subjection constitutes a second. In this system, the signs no longer refer to signs, but to the subject. The signs, meanings and statements do not refer to their endless proliferation but rather to the boundary beyond which they cannot circulate, which is constituted by the way the subject uses them in order to influence himself/herself and act by himself/herself.
Taking television as an example, we can derive a simplified schema of how these security devices of subjection operate to “silence” the public by making it “talk”. As is the case with psychoanalysis, television works on the basis of a limited number of statements that have already been codified (the “grid” mentioned above). These are the statements (the “problems”) of the dominant reality and television claims to transform them into the statements of individual subjects. It encourages us to speak as subjects of enunciation (sujets d’énonciation), as though we were the cause and origin of statements, whereas in fact we are spoken by the machine of communication and we are, as a result, just one of its effects. We are transformed into subjects of the statement (sujets d’énoncé).
If you are interviewed on television, (whether in a literary discussion programme or a chat show, or even on reality TV where you talk about your experiences), you are set up as a subject of enunciation. (“You the viewer or you the esteemed guest, who are making television” ). You are then subjected to a machine of interpretation / expression with several constituent parts, which takes over your enunciation and you are likely to become a mere component, a cog in the audiovisual machine (a subject of the statement). First of all, you come under the control of a non-discursive machine that interprets, selects and standardizes your attitudes, your positions, your expressions – and this is before you have even begun to speak. As a subject of enunciation, you are folded over a prefabricated audiovisual semiotics. Your voice, your gestures, your intonation, your positions, etc are going to slide, more or less meekly, into codified devices of expression. As soon as you open your mouth, you are interpreted by a discursive machine, in which the journalist is just a terminal who measures the gap that might still exist between your enunciation, your subjectivation, your meanings and the statements, subjectivation and meanings that are expected of you.
At the end of the interview, your words are folded over statements and modes of expression that are imposed on you and expected of you so that, beneath the folds of your mental reality, lies the dominant reality. On television, you are always in danger of being trapped in the dominant meanings and subjectivations, no matter what you say or do.
Deleuze speaks of a “crushing of the enunciation” by means of a pre-existing code that doesn’t manifest itself negatively as repression, but in positive terms as encouragement to speak, as an invitation to express oneself in such a way that the subject “will feel he/she is talking, but will be unable to say a single thing about what really affects him/her.” There is no point in talking: the entire machine of interpretation and subjectivation is “designed to suppress the conditions for a genuine enunciation”. The communicational devices disconnect you from your own collective arrangements of enunciation and draw you into other collective arrangements (television), which individualize you as a split subject, as a subject divided simultaneously into the cause and the effect of statements.
All the enunciative devices in our security societies (opinion polls, marketing, elections, political and union representation, etc) are, on the one hand, more or less sophisticated variations on the division whereby the subject of enunciation must be reflected in the subject of the statement.
As a voter, you are invited to give your views and exercise your freedom of choice as a subject of enunciation, but at the same time you are spoken as a subject of the statement since your freedom of expression amounts to nothing more than a choice from among possible options that have already been codified by others, from a choice between (“right-wing” and “left-wing”) alternatives that prevent you from exercising the power to state the problem. In the same way, marketing and advertising are a daily training for choosing between alternatives that are established and offered to us by the market and by companies. It is clear, therefore, how the machine of communication can operate as a form of mass psychoanalysis. It translates what you say into another language; it shifts the origin and the meaning of your words and gives you an explanation of your true statements and your true desires (which the company can then tap into). Michel de Certeau draws the same conclusions. The proliferation of statements, messages and signs blocks the emergence of the conditions needed for a singular enunciation. The constant buzzing, the incessant circulation of words and signs “creates an absence of words”, denying humans the possibility of “an enunciation that is peculiar to them”.
In order to articulate a “true”, singular enunciation capable once more of creating divisions, viewpoints, a space for self-expression, we first have to interrupt the circulation of languages and signs targeted at “all, but true of none”.
1 Michel de Certeau, The Certeau Reader, ed. Graham Ward, (Blackwell Publishing: Oxford, 2000), p.124.
2 ibid.
3 ibid.


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