Academic journal article New Formations

ATMs, Teleprompters and Photobooths: A Short History of Neoliberal Optics

Academic journal article New Formations

ATMs, Teleprompters and Photobooths: A Short History of Neoliberal Optics

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

The term 'neoliberal optics' refers to the uses of light that contribute to forms of sociality and subjectivity that constitute neoliberal culture. In the discussion of neoliberal optics that follows, two tendencies in neoliberal culture are focused on: the distribution and extension of elements of the self and body by technological means and the appropriation of forms of direct, personal address in order to maintain and exploit affective engagement on the part of individuals towards institutions. This essay examines the role that optical technologies play in the above-mentioned components of neoliberal subjectivity and embodiment by means of an historical analysis of three technologies and their associated practices: the popular photographic self-portrait made possible via the photo booth, the teleprompter and the automated teller machine (ATM). These technologies are popular sites where the intersecting, and at times contradictory, tendencies of fragmentation and engagement common in neoliberal culture are enacted.

The essay is divided into two parts. In the first section, the discussions of the teleprompter and the self-portrait provide a general overview of some key characteristics of neoliberal optics, situating them within a broader cultural context. The discussion of the ATM in the second part of the paper contributes to the preceding discussion of neoliberal optics in a different manner, complicating and extending the claims made in the first part. Rather than simply providing more evidence of those aspects of neoliberal optics discussed in regard to the teleprompter and the self-portrait, the historical development of the ATM draws attention to the ways that, while neoliberal optics continue to be of considerable importance in neoliberal culture, these logics do not wholly define contemporary experience of visual phenomena. However, as much as the implementation of the ATM differed from the structures of neoliberal optics discussed in the first part of the paper, the dynamics of neoliberal optics have been repeatedly invoked throughout the ATM's development as a way of overcoming anxieties surrounding the technology with regard to personal security and engagement.

While invented and introduced before neoliberalism became hegemonic, the technologies discussed here speak directly to the optical aspects of the present conjuncture. For this reason, before exploring these devices further, it is worth pausing to consider the nature of the 'neoliberal' in neoliberal optics. Several scholars have identified neoliberalism with the consolidation of a set of concepts and assumptions in economic theory and public policy in the 1960s and 1970s in various parts of the world with origins going back to the 1930s. (1) At the heart of this tradition of neoliberalism are claims regarding the perfect efficiency of market structures and the superiority of competition between individuals rather than other forms of social interaction. The technologies discussed here are not direct products of such beliefs. Yet recognition of this independence from the 'market fundamentalism' of neoliberalism should not be taken as an argument for the autonomous development of neoliberal culture. Rather, it is recognition that neoliberalism is a complex social formation that involves many different elements; it is more than simply a body of conceptual and theoretical arguments about the economy which has subsequently been implemented within various contexts, a process by which 'neoliberalism proper' fans out across society. (2) The technologies discussed here, and their analysis in light of neoliberal optics, draw our attention to the way that a number of pre-existing technologies and cultural practices have been enlisted in the service of the process of neoliberalization. And, by focusing the ways in which they contributed to forms of technologically-augmented subjectivity as well as the maintenance of affective engagement, they draw attention to the 'regime of individuation' that determine modes of existence and ways of living that define neoliberalism. …

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