Beyond Metaphor, Mapping Social Systems

The following is a response to recent work by Dr Francis Halsall and Kelley O’Brien, carried out as part of their on-going collaborative project Beyond Metaphor, Mapping Social Systems. In particular, this text responds to some of the issues unpacked in their lectures delivered recently in the Philippines and in Detroit. Those lectures can be viewed here. I know the guys are keen to get a conversation going, so do feel free to leave any comments below.

In Todd Haynes’ 1995 film Safe, Julianne Moore plays Carol, a strangely disinterested south California woman. Carol fills her days by working on ‘some designs’ for her home, meeting similarly disposed women for lunch, and attending joyless aerobics classes. After one such class, a woman exclaims to Carol “you don’t sweat!” She responds, sheepishly, in the affirmative; “it’s true.” However this hint of atmospheric imperviousness is a red herring: throughout the film, we learn that Carol does not underreact to exterior conditions, but rather feels them with far too much acuity. Quickly and mysteriously, she succumbs to what is termed multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS): Carol is by all intents and purposes allergic to the contemporary world.

For Carol the boundary between self and world is rendered far too thin. I was reminded of this film as I listened to these recent lectures. For it is only through an appeal to a systems-oriented conception of the world that a case like Carol’s can happen – and whether her symptoms are made manifest physically or psychosomatically is absolutely beside the point. Something like MCS attests to the inchoate boundaries of human and inhuman, and of the absolute interdependence of these systems: it is in fact a kind of aestheticisation of it. Much like Jameson’s (or Deleuze & Guattari’s, or Baudillard’s) conceptualisation of the schizophrenic, the subject of MCS represents another actualisation of postmodern subjectivity – one radically ajar to the dizzying abstraction of contemporary life.

As Halsall affirms, the adoption of a systems-oriented conception of the world is troubling for a number of reasons. Preeminent among them is the necessary requirement to think in terms of overviews, rather than in terms of individuals or persons[i]: social systems, economic systems, technological systems – each of these does not start with the human per se. Instead agency is refracted and dispersed within a systems view of the world, and the body becomes instead a site of convergence. This has as its effect an inability to figure the vertiginous totality of the world to any coherent or binding standard. This foreclosure to (social) totality, to paraphrase Jameson[ii], results in the failure to imaginatively concretise, or ‘map’ it: by extension, the formation of a viable counter-image is stymied also. For Jameson, then, the inability to figure the totality of the system represents a fundamental impasse to the possibility of socialism, based as it is on a kind of imminently thinkable figuring of totality.

Capital is not thinkable: it is not a thing, but a process. Likewise, it is not located in any one place, but constantly shifts and morphs, traversing and binding other systems. How might it be possible to forge an alternative to it, or even any form of viable critique on which this alternative might be founded? And furthermore: how might a systems-oriented striving towards totality be capacious of holding such a critique? How do systems not simply reiterate the conditions of global capital?

The filmmaker Adam Curtis describes his practice as a means of creating – admittedly wholly subjective – narratives within a general atmosphere of contemporary abstraction. As he says: ‘I believe that it’s possible to make the world intelligible – however complex and chaotic it is. That is the progressive job of journalism. The other reaction – which is to say, ‘Things are just so complex and unpredictable that you can never make sense of them’ – is, I think, one of the main motors that supports the conservatism of our time[iii].’ I think, instead, that is not a one or the other choice – narratives and intelligibility can indeed be created, but only within a backdrop of unintelligibility. A systems view of the world can be sharpened and politicised – and I think Curtis’ work does this to some degree – but only within a schema of general noise. This view might be a means of thinking many things, simultaneously.

Jameson also refers to the preponderance of paranoid conspiracy theories as ‘the poor person’s cognitive mapping in the postmodern age[iv].’ Certainly I don’t know how many people recommended Zeitgeist to me when I was in art college, but it was a considerable amount. Typically, there was a tangible excitement as they recommended it – like they’ve been granted access to a kind of valuable and sacrosanct Truth. And in many ways, this makes sense: these typically ludicrous confections imbue the world with a kind of ecstatically perceptible cogency – they provide an entry point, or a kind of pseudo-Copernican viewpoint on which to ground subjective existence. And, as Jameson says, they do in fact provide a kind of truth: the parameters of their untruths are grounded in the ‘degraded figure of the total logic of late capital, a desperate attempt to represent the latter’s system, whose failure is marked by its slippage into sheer theme and content[v].’ The conspiracy theory embodies a particular yearning for sense; similarly, Jameson’s postmodern subject par excellence – the schizophrenic – is typified by the presence of apophenia: that is, the perception of patterns or connections within meaninglessness.

Within his lecture on system aesthetics, Halsall referred to three case examples: the first, the supporting of ‘immaterial’ technology, and its disavowed irreducibility to the body within the outsource centres of the Philippines; the second, the topographies of Detroit and the infamous practice of ‘redlining’; and the third, the container ships through which global consumerism is supported and perpetuated. All three present key sites of convergence – or indeed visibility – wherein particular systems meet, effectuating an almost grotesque material signifier. I would add another: the contemporary luxury storage facility, where a vast amount of art is currently stored. Here, global capital just stops. This is the obscene counterpoint created by contemporary capitalism: halting, stopping, and taking these goods out of a global economic system. Capital renders them spectral, like a landfill in reverse.

Contemporaneity is fundamentally inflected by the discourse of system: whether technological, economic, political, or subjective, each conceptual horizon’s parameters are dispersed to scopes almost sublime in makeup. The nub, as Jameson has affirmed, is that postmodern ideology is enacted on the basis of reality itself: a systems reality is thus arguably commensurate with the dominant – namely late capitalist – ideology. Now, this is just thinking aloud here, but: how productive is it, in this light, to think the world-as-system? It obviously is one: from what point can its critique stem? O’Brien’s modest (albeit time consuming) project in the Philippines offers one possible example. Having noticed the vast dominance of the national fast food chain Jollibee, over McDonalds, O’Brien went out to photograph each and every of the two hundred and fifty-six franchises in the national capital region. These photographs offer a cumulative affront to global capitalism, and a point of possibility. Within a system of global capital, blips happen – the system can create moments of idiosyncrasy, rather than simple abstracted homogenisation.

[i] Halsall & O’Brien (2015) Beyond Metaphor, Mapping Social Systems, University of the Philippines, available at

[ii] Fredric Jameson (1988) Cognitive Mapping, in Cary Nelson & Lawrence Grossberg, eds (1988) Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Urbana & Chicago: University of Illinois Press, pp. 347-58

[iii] Paul MacInnes (2015) Adam Curtis: “I try to make the chaos and complexity intelligible’ The Guardian, 25th January 2015, available at

[iv] Ibid ii, pg. 356

[v] Ibid


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