Mental and Material Images of Contemporary Capitalism

Szilvia Ruszev

Mental and Material Images of Contemporary Capitalism


What are possible artistic forms of resistance in the context of contemporary capitalism, which is aiming at the colonization of our mind, affects and desires? This essay examines contemporary post-cinematic media within the framework of contemporary capitalism, labeled as cognitive, neuro, mental, emotional, affective, platform or surveillance and capitalism’s entanglement with other oppressive ideologies and positivist neurosciences, that results in so-called “neuroculture”. I explore how these oppressive ideologies exert themselves through contemporary media technologies and produce specific formal-aesthetic predicaments such as high quality, smoothness, operationality, modulation, fluidity, flexibility and the manipulative microtemporality. Furthermore, I point at artistic practices capable of unsettling hegemonic structures underlying technology, form and content in contemporary media production and consumption such as the digital abject, the glitchy, the low resolution, and the extreme slowness. The transdisciplinary research is situated within the field of cinema and media studies and invites ideas from cognitive sciences, neurosciences, computer vision and philosophy.


cognitive capitalism, neuroculture, media assemblage, digital abject, hyperimage

Référence électronique pour citer cet article

Szilvia Ruszev, « Mental and Material Images of Contemporary Capitalism », Images secondes[En ligne], 03 | 2022, mis en ligne le 16 février 2022, URL :

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Figure 1. Screenshot interactive part1. 

Note on the structure

The essay consists of two parts. In the first, I map the framework of the essay: the entanglement between contemporary capitalism, other oppressive ideologies, and neurosciences; the formal-aesthetic predicaments produced by these entanglements; and possible ways of infiltrating these predicaments. The first part is a linear text. The second part of the essay is a hypertextual assemblage (Fig. 1.) of images and text fragments delving deeper on issues discussed in the first part. The collection of images constitutes a diagram offering a serendipitous reading through specific post-cinematic images. The form of the assemblage as a dynamic structure befriends heterogeneity and the fragmentary within its rhizomatic structure. The second part acts as a counter-gesture to the categoric, linear, and normalizing singular perspective of the first part, although they can be explored in any order. The media assemblage invites a contemplation and exploration of the montage of images and text. The meandering lines represent the possibilities of entanglements between the images. By hovering and clicking on an image, predetermined paths can be actualized offering further readings. 

Let your imagination lead you to further associations! 

Link to the website:


Ubiquitous visuality, virtuality and technological acceleration are conditions of the contemporary media landscape that seem self-evident in our everyday life. Generations are growing up surrounded by the multiplicity of screens, in a hybrid techno-cultural mediasphere2 that augments, if not completely supersedes our natural environment3. Media in the 21st century has been theorized as post-cinematic, with new kinds of images continuously emerging in a “digital, interactive, networked, ludic, miniaturized, mobile, social, processual, algorithmic, aggregative, and convergent media environment”4

At the same time, contemporary capitalism5 has reached a stage in which it turned toward immaterial, cognitive and affective production and commodification. Capitalism is interested in our minds and affects, and thus positivist brain-centered neuroscience seems to be the perfect field to create ideas, tools and methods underpinning contemporary capitalism’s ideology. The interdependence of mind-focused capitalism and brain-centered neuroscience results in what some call neuroculture6, a cultural landscape that revolves around a normalized and biological view of the mind separated from the body. 

Material images, produced by technologies of contemporary capitalism, oversaturate our sensory environment and colonize our minds by imposing and normalizing mental images. As a consequence of the virtual and networked character of the surrounding mediasphere defined by the predicaments of contemporary capitalism, central categories such as the self, time, space and cognition have been re-evaluated through contemporary media. On the one hand, there is an immense normalizing force, not only in the ways in which these categories have been defined by contemporary capitalism, but also in the formal-aesthetic character in which these categories become images. On the other hand, media produced by the same technological and socio-cultural predicaments of contemporary capitalism, has the capacity to reflect, critique, question, infiltrate or destabilize the system from within. 

Contemporary Capitalism

There is common knowledge about the fundamental traits of capitalism such as the accumulation of profit, upholding private ownership and the freedom of the individual in a competitive market, based on wage labor. Capitalism’s main critique is that this setup, seemingly geared toward a free market and economic growth, causes exploitative and oppressive structures for a large group of people. What this essay is focusing on is the way in which capitalism developed in the 21st century, enmeshed with the exponential advancement of networked digital technologies in a globalized world. Currently, the product in which capitalism is interested is knowledge and affect, both invisible and inseparable from the person who “produces” them.

The contemporary state of capitalism has been labeled in different ways, such as cognitive, neuro, mental, emotional, affective, platform or surveillance capitalism depending on the perspective of the author. Nevertheless, all these adjectives converge around the shifting interest of capitalism from material production to the colonization of the mind by utilizing the power of networked, digital media technologies. As Yann Moulier Boutang asserts “material labour does not disappear, but it loses its central role as a strategic asset”7.

Historically, the perspective on contemporary capitalism that concentrates on the ways power structures target cognitive production connects to the Italian Marxist movement of operaismo. Giorgio Grizziotto writes about a shift from the industrial to a biocognitive stage in which technological transformation exerts its power through devices such as mobile phones that became inseparable from our lives as thinking, feeling and material bodies. Tiziana Terranova summarizes it as follows: