Blood, Money: Subsumption and Biopolitics in Uncut Gems

All that money, the money is the motiveThe Weeknd

More is said about the contemporary experience of capitalism in the first five minutes of Josh and Benny Safdie’s Uncut Gems than in most of the films about the 2008 Wall Street crash combined. After an opening scene at an Ethiopian opal mine during which two workers, thanks to a distraction created by the gruesome wounding of one of their fellow miners, manage to steal a rock embedded with black opals (the commodity which will be at the heart of the narrative), the film dissolves into a hallucinatory credits sequence. The camera embarks on a journey deep inside the crystalline structures of precious stones slowly transforming into the interior organs of a human body; the camera then pulls back to reveal that these last images are of the digestive plumbing of New York Jewellery dealer Howard Ratner (played by Adam Sandler) who is undergoing a colonoscopy. This faecal inculcation of money as the deeply-embedded structuring force of all thought, being and action, is emblematic of the film’s portrayal of modern capital. It is also the reason Uncut Gems is one of the most interesting U.S. thrillers of recent years.

Sandler’s Ratner is a well-known and well-hated jewellery store owner in the diamond district of Manhattan, a store which he runs with his business associate Demany (Lakeith Stanfield), who brings clients to the store and sells fake Rolex watches on the side, and where Ratner’s mistress Julia (Julia Fox) is also employed. Ratner has three children with his wife Dinah, he also has a serious gambling problem, owing money to various different people, and an addiction to basketball. As soon as Ratner sets foot in his own store, two collectors arrive at the behest of one of Ratner’s creditors and threaten him and one of his employees. This situation is further complicated by the arrival of the black opal from Africa in a crate of fish which we learn Ratner has managed to obtain by communicating with a group of destitute Ethiopian Jews and paying them to steal it. When Boston Celtics forward and NBA superstar Kevin Garnett visits Ratner’s shop, Ratner shows Garnett the opal to try and impress him. Garnett falls under the spell of the stone, convinced it will bring incredible luck and improve his performance, and asks to borrow it, a request to which, after a good deal of pleading, Ratner agrees, with Garnett leaving his Celtics championship ring as collateral. Ratner subsequently pawns the Celtics ring, takes a photograph of the money and sends it to the creditor, Arno, before taking the money (along with money he got pawning a necklace depicting Michael Jackson being crucified as Christ belonging to Canadian RnB artist The Weeknd) and betting it on the Celtics instead of paying his debt.

Uncut Gems, Josh and Benny Safdie, 2019

The number of mishaps that take place in and around these events (all of which occur well within the first half of the film) and those that follow would be pointless to quantify. Ratner is a chaotic storm of lies, idiocy, and self-destructive behaviour, an unstoppable force of mistakes and failures. Sandler’s performance in this regard is electrifying and Uncut Gems stands as testament to the fact that the kind of ‘eternal loser’, a rage-filled emotional wreck often lacking intelligence and a slave to their impulses, which appears as the universal character of Sandler’s career can, given the right framing, be captivating, even brilliant. Like the other film which demonstrated Sandler’s capacity to shine, Punch Drunk Love, arguably the best film of Paul Thomas Anderson’s dark/offbeat comedy period, Uncut Gems is a perfect vehicle for Sandler’s talent. The film sticks to his skin like glue and won’t let go. Everyone else merely orbits around his dark, warped gravity. No other person comes close to occupying the kind of space Ratner does: his all-consuming narcissism is a double reflection of form and content. Ratner’s pursuit of more and more money, whilst simultaneously dragging himself into more and more debt, is unrelenting. The idea of attaining any kind of equipoise between the forces in his life is anathema to Howard. In fact he courts danger and self-destruction so rapaciously that it is almost awe-inspiring. This pursuit eventually culminates in a bet of over $150,000 on Garnett and the Celtics, following the sale of the black opal to Garnett, which will make Ratner a millionaire, a bet made just as Arno and his two hired goons (hired goons!) come to collect what they are owed. Ratner then manages to trap the three men between the two sets of bulletproof glass doors at the entrance to the shop. They, like the audience, are then forced to watch as Ratner’s biggest gamble unfolds on screen, trapped in the claustrophobic moment, exhausted, frustrated, petrified.

Alongside, and deeply-imbricated with, Sandler’s performance, what makes Uncut Gems so effective is its relentless, frenetic pace. Frantic, blistering, explosive, the film accrues tension like one of Ratner’s high-stakes bets, dragging the viewer’s heart rate into places other films are quite incapable of reaching. The extent of this is such that the last twenty or so minutes of the film, with Ratner pacing back and forth in front of the TV screen where Garnett’s game with the Celtics is playing as Arno and his heavies watch on helplessly, are like nothing so much as living through a panic attack. This panic, this horror, is the culmination of the film’s excesses, it is also a visceral and emotive rendering of the purposeless drive for accumulation, the unending precarity of modern capitalism and its vertigo.

Traditionally, of course, the thriller genre is one which trades on anxiety and suspense. Pace and tension are the bases of its DNA coding. However, ordinarily the tension is built in order for an excessive release, a resurgence of meaning which the plot stabilises through narrative resolution, even if that resolution is subsequently brought back into question by the twist ending, or the “cliff-hanger”. In Uncut Gems no such relief is effected or even hinted at. When Ratner wins his bet he is almost immediately murdered, as is Arno, and the two men in his employ commence a robbery of Ratner’s store as his corpse lies on the floor. There is no let up, even in death. The film ends with the robbery still in progress as Julia, having collected the winnings, climbs into the back of a limousine with two bags containing over a million dollars. Ratner’s son and Demany are both watching the game, cheering Garnett on. We are then shown Ratner’s corpse a final time as the camera enters the suppurating wound on his face and we return to the crystalline structures of precious stones with which the film began. Everything ends in a mire of confusion and further tension.

Ratner and Julia after leaving the club

Part of the crucial effect of pace is that it deliberately resists interpretation, it covers up plot holes and unlikely coincidences in the service of a fast-flowing narrative, and subsequently gets released in set-pieces: car chases, explosions, fight scenes, before the next agglomeration of suspense can begin. These moments of release are almost entirely absent from Uncut Gems. Each moment seems to only up the ante, there is nowhere for the tension to go, it can only keep building. Here then the resistance to interpretation serves different ends: the world of hyper-modern capital offers no time for taking stock. There is only the next gamble, the next score. The extreme length with which this is taken in Uncut Gems even distorts and degrades language: this is why a good portion of the dialogue is difficult to hear or even unintelligible, and why everyone in the film appears to be continually at cross-purposes. Any notion of recognition or social cohesion has been eroded by the individual drive for capital.

This is the lesson the film has for us, and it is a frightening one at that. What becomes brutally evident throughout Uncut Gems is that the absolute subsumption of every single rhythmic fibre of life into the accumulatory logic of capital has rendered every mode of social existence financial. Marx’s account of subsumption, a term denoting the manner in which social relations of production penetrate the labour process, given largely in the appendices to the first volume of Capital identifies a twofold process: formal and real subsumption, associated with the production of absolute and relative surplus value respectively.[1] Formal subsumption designates capital’s takeover of existing labour processes which become functions of valorisation.[2]Real subsumption is the subsequent process whereby capital ‘transforms the nature of the labour process and its actual conditions’ [italics in original].[3] Real subsumption then has a ‘historical directionality’; as it concerns capital’s constant material and technological revolutionising of the labour process.[4] Subsumption then has been utilised as a method for the periodisation of capital, of marking shifts and ruptures in the ways the capital-labour relation operates, even if the structural elements of that social relation remain the same. Jacques Camatte, in his book Capital and Community, pushes this process to its limit, identifying a totalising phase of subsumption (that of the present moment) when:

it is no longer merely labour, a defined and particular moment of human, activity, that is subsumed and incorporated into capital, but the whole lifeprocess of man.[5]

This formulation is not, as Endnotes in their astute account of the conceptual history of subsumption demonstrate, unproblematic. However, there can be no doubt that capital, in its burgeoning, unquenchable thirst to maximise relative surplus value, has sought to monetise an ever-greater proportion of our time outside of the time of labour. We exist in a dizzying mire of: work/life balances, ping pong breakout areas, al desko lunches, hot desking, home working, freelancing, heart-rate and step monitors, team building, networking, unpaid overtime, zero hours contracts, and multitudinous gig economies. The world presented to us in Uncut Gems is such a world. In fact, across the entire film there is no event, no interaction, which does not have money as its centrifugal force. Money is at the heart of every family relationship, every friendship, every sexual impulse, every living, breathing act. Ratner’s only true expressions of sexual climax are as a result of money. In his relationships with both wife and mistress the idea of any separation between love and money is inconceivable, laughable. It is not that some kind of parasite of accumulation, like mistletoe strangling a tree trunk, has attached itself to otherwise commendable values of family, success, and true love. Such a relation would indicate that an operation were possible, a removal of the tumour and the cancerous cells from the healthy tissue of values. But this is not the case. Ratner does not have cancer. The disease is non-locatable, it is both within him and everything around him. This restlessness is (as one of the final shots of the film shows) his very lifeblood and inherent to the structure of every view of the world, every object.

[It is vital to state, categorically, that this monetary DNA coding is not in any way presented as a specifically Jewish problem. The power of accumulation has consumed such notions, everything from religion to sport and family has been re and de formed across the entire scope of human activity.]

To further emphasise this totalising erosion of all other structural ways of being, the infrequent moments of morality are quite magnificently hollow. When Ratner’s wife Dinah finally snaps and tells him how she feels: ‘I think you’re the most annoying person on the planet. I hate being with you, I hate looking at you, and if I had my way, I would never see you again;’ her words are just as emptied of their bite as Howard’s streams of semi-consciousness and bullshit. As for the opals, Garnett tries to chide Ratner for profiteering off the impoverished miners but the pronouncement has all the teeth of a ‘you hate capitalism, but you have an iPhone’. Ratner buys the stones for $100,000 (of course he might be lying) and sells them for $70,000 more. He used his religious affinity with the Ethiopian Jews in order to broker the deal. The miner’s make more in a day than in a whole lifetime. To ascribe a moral binary to such a transaction would be nothing but naivety. This is not the tale of money leading to ruin, we are in a space beyond von Stroheim’s Greed. Ratner’s pursuit, his end point, is not the attainment of money, or not exactly. Rather, like capital’s own mechanisms, the process is that which is being sought, the pursuit of money itself becomes the subject/object of the search. The search and that which is being searched for are one. This is why there is no hope of equilibrium, only catastrophe. Whether this situation is one of Ratner’s own doing or one that is imposed upon him is a false binary; they are co-determining, this thought and modes of action are toward the same end. The feeling of excitement and nausea generated by this is positively exhilarating, and after seeing the film it is impossible to know whether you want to go out and party for three straight days or curl up in a dark corner under a blanket and try not to vomit.

The visual style of the film, the grit and cheap kaleidoscopic colour, emphasises the kinetic energy created by the superbly shifting cinematography and editing, plunging the narrative action into even greater uncertainty, myopia and instability. This added grain, the almost textual quality of the film (both on the pushed 35mm stock and the digitally-added layers),[6] of course suits a film about rough stones and rough characters. However, the degraded image is not some kind of manifestation of morality at the level of form, a grubbiness of lens to go with the unsavoury deeds, but a reflection of the ineffectuality of any such thing. The texture of the world is that of the rock, there is no clarity, no pure gaze to be returned to. This degradation is accentuated further by the film’s use of sound, the non-diegetic music being a haze of strange outbursts of space-age synths, the kind of futurism imagined by the 1980s. As for The Weeknd, who performs in the film’s club scene, the song he sings is inevitably about money. The scene provides one of the few outbursts of rage that might be seen as a rejection of monetary dominance: Ratner becomes incensed at the thought of Julia being lured in by The Weeknd’s wealth and fame, convinced that she is having sex with the artist in the club’s bathroom. He then starts a fight with the Canadian singer, rejects Julia and orders her to leave the apartment he has been providing for her: a decidedly financial form of control. The outcome of the scene is ludicrous (and Ratner’s giant pink shirt only adds to this) and though Julia seems to have some kind of genuine feeling for Ratner his blindness to anything but monetary pursuits prevents all but the very scarcest appearance.

The vertigo of capitalism, its instability and corrosive power, have contaminated and reformed society, and the film, at the most fundamental level of both form and content. This subsumptive power is what led Walter Benjamin to describe capitalism as an ‘essentially religious phenomenon’ defining the mode of production as a cult whose production of debt/guilt expands the condition of despair until ‘despair becomes a religious state of the world in the hope that this will lead to salvation’.[7] There could be few better summaries of Uncut Gems than this. If Nietzsche’s overman, as Benjamin suggests, is the first to recognise capitalism as religion, and bring it to completion, Ratner represents a kind of parodic incarnation; one whose infinite return of opportunities, kindled by the flame of reinvention, present only further chances to fail, further ways of being dragged under.

The force which subsumes presents itself as the truth of that which is subsumed; this is the absurdity of conceptuality. In the case of capital this means that the perverted abstract social forms are the reality of this mode of production; these real abstractions are its truth. Such is the paradox of the commodity fetish: the commodity form masks the social relation by which it is imbued with value. The social form assumed by the product of labour within capitalist society (the commodity-form) causes the social characteristics of human labour to be reflected as ‘objective characteristics of the products of labour themselves’.[8] The fetish cannot be dissolved through mere demystification, or ideological critique, because the perverted form ‘is the way they really are’.[9] The commodities which are traded in Uncut Gems all seem designed to demonstrate the distorted nature of the system which has produced them: the aforementioned Michael Jackson crucifixion diamonds, jewel-encrusted Furbys with moving eyes, fake Rolexes, rings which are valuable merely as memorabilia, even the opals turn out to be worth a tenth of what Ratner hopes. The commodities prove both difficult to exchange and entirely impossible to use: they are absurd even within the terms of their own production. The meaning which the characters, and particularly Ratner, instil within these objects is a meaning entirely tethered to accumulation, and yet they continually fail to realise even this part of their perverted nature, pushing the drive and desperation for more even further.

The paradox of capital then is that it devalues and ridicules the very objects it presents as the truth. These objects are unable to be used, merely passed on, pawned, stolen, sold. Their seeming stability as presented by the fetish which masks the social relation between people beneath a relation between things, is both accentuated and undermined by a hyper-accelerated fluidity and exchangeability that empties the commodity fetish of all notion of meaning. The black opal is, throughout, the ur-symbol of this process of financialisation and totemic instillation. The opal becomes a semi-religious artefact for Garnett, one he is convinced will make him a better athlete. When Ratner first shows the rock to Garnett he tells him that the whole of human history, the whole universe, is contained within the glittering facets of the stone, and when Garnett looks deep into its prisms a historical montage of flickers before his eyes. The world and the opal are recursive; one exists in and through the other and yet both are opaque, unable to quite realise what is being asked of them.

In seeking to build on Benjamin’s reflections of capital as a religious phenomenon Agamben astutely examines the function of the sacred and profane as the movement between divine meaning and the return to common usage, noting that capital, in its expansive and subsumptive power, erases the possibility of profanation through a:

ceaseless process of separation that assails every thing, every place, every human activity in order to divide it from itself….An absolute profanation without remainder now coincides with an equally vacuous and total consecration.[10]

Capital, as a religion without dogma, enacts an absolute separation, one which inheres within every object and human actor, that divides from itself ‘everything that is done, produced or experienced — even the human body, even sexuality, even language.’[11] There can be no profanation, no resistance, as the distinction between sacred and profane no longer holds, there is only the destabilising, all-consuming motion of capital and its expansion.

Gambling, which Ratner does repeatedly throughout the film, presents not a dark and rotten form of accumulation but merely an accelerant. Gambling, like the black market dealing in fake watches, and the egregious use of pawn shops, is just another part of the relentless drive for more. In terms of the religious nature of capitalism, gambling represents a kind of rite, both a distillation of the sacred, the ‘bad infinite’ of accumulation, and a short-cut to access it. There is no loyalty in gambling. The cult of capital has no dogma. Ratner himself says so toward the end of the film, amazed at the fact that he, a fervent Knicks fan (a fan whose most prized possession is a Knicks championship ring), can be made to shout and scream for the Celtics is testament to gambling’s uncontrollable power. What gambling presents us with then is an act of ritual in a world where all distinction between what lies inside and outside the practice of the rite has been completely erased. Life, the profane, the divine, ritual, sacrifice, are all dissolved into a continuously reproducing separation that renders all attempts to exist outside of it part of itself: accumulation is the broadest church of all.

The re-constitution of life in economic terms is not merely financial (there is, for us, no such thing) but has a distinct political component: it is deeply-implicated with the neoliberal conception of freedom. During Foucault’s lecture series The Birth of Biopolitics, delivered at the Collège de France in 1978–79, part of the discussion focuses on Nobel economics laureate Gary Becker’s notion of human capital. In Foucault’s account of the emergence of biopolitics through the development of liberalism, neo-liberalism comes as a mode of governmentality which seeks to produce the radical freedom of the market. Becker’s theory, for its part, describes an understanding of human activity in which all human decision making processes have been subsumed by the prevailing economic rationality, all action is determined through the logic of investment. Parents invest time in certain aspects of parenting to stimulate certain patterns of growth; acts of criminality are re-cast in the terminology of risk vs. reward. Each of us enters the ‘game’ called capital and decides which stocks we wish to secure. However Becker, lacking a critical theory of social forms and the understanding of the mechanism by which economic wealth is actually produced, fails to see that what this world of potentiality and flow actualises is not a kind of social fabric of freedom and enterprise but rather a frantic chaos of precarity, with most actors forced to perform a multitude of temporary acts of labour just in order to maintain their existence. We exist in a world where the mainframes which now perform stock market trading operate at a speed faster than a human thought, literally beyond comprehension. The computer, the tool by which an enormous proportion of labour in economically developed countries is performed, is not only at work but in our home, in our pocket, even embedded in our fridge door. We are both submerged in the rhythmic processes of production at every turn and incapable of understanding how those processes are shaping the world around us. The factory work which produces these tools, let alone the mining for minerals, is hidden from us. The very production of the tools which create global communication remain dark to us. We are in a sea of opportunity, but each one we seize only reinforces our own precarity. The endless permeability and malleability of such a life is not a revelatory freedom but a vertigo-inducing horror. This horror is the material from which Uncut Gems is mined.

Pushing these considerations further one might even suggest that Uncut Gems depicts a capital that is historically post-spectacular, in the sense of the term used by Debord in his analysis of the shift from production to consumption as the determining factor of identity in post ’45 capitalism. This is not to suggest the decline of the spectacle as a determining social force; rather that its constitutive relation to identity has shifted. If the spectacle was the historic period of capitalism which ‘corresponds to the historical moment at which the commodity completes its colonisation of social life’;[12] the current phase is the one by which the very instability of the system itself becomes the predominant constructive mechanism of social identity. Identity is not obtainable through either sphere: production is a distant, geographical fiction, and consumption is nothing but a fleeting exhibition, a diamond-encrusted Furby with flickering eyes. It is the time when the ‘falling rate of use value’ has hit rock bottom.[13] Instead, the only constitutive element of identity is its very instability, the impossibility of any ground. The signifiers presented by the spectacle from which one might construct the self cannot hold, fragmentation, dissolution, become the key determinants of form. Instead, identity itself, as an alienated solid social presence determined by consumption, becomes a comfort, an object of nostalgia: holding on to family or “geekdom” or basketball loyalty or a magical black opal, while every day capital’s violence shatters and re-moulds us in the service of surplus value. This is the aura of sweetness, the heimlich feeling that glows behind the Furby’s dead eyes. The spectacle, as a ‘social relationship between people that is mediated by images’,[14] has revealed the hollow gulf residing at its core, and this very emptiness has taken over, in the name of flexibility, leaving us both disenchanted with capitalism but too precarious to effectively resist, and wishing for a time when we could identify through consumer excess. Ultimately then, what makes Uncut Gems so effective both as a thriller and as a film about contemporary capital are one and the same. The film’s real achievement is that it uses the production of emotional states of tension and surges of adrenaline that form the affective crux for the thriller genre in demonstrating the horror of the unrelenting drive for accumulation at the core of the violent social relation of capitalism, forcing recognition.

[1] Marx, Karl, Fowkes, Ben (trans.), Capital Volume One, (London: Penguin, 1976), p.1025.

[2] Marx, Capital Volume One, p.1021.

[3] Ibid., pp.1034–35.

[4] Endnotes, ‘The History of Subsumption’, Endnotes #2(2010), available: https://endnotes.org.uk/issues/2/en/endnotes-the-history-of-subsumption (last accessed: March, 2020)

[5] Camatte, Jacques, Capital and Community (London: Unpopular Books, 1988) available: https://www.marxists.org/archive/camatte/capcom/ch03.htm (last accessed: March, 2020)

[6] For more information on film stock, see: https://nofilmschool.com/uncut-gems-cinematographer-darius-khondji

[7] Benjamin, Walter, ‘Capitalism as Religion’, Selected Writings Volume 1, ed. Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), pp.288–9

[8] Marx, Capital Volume One, pp.164–5

[9] Ibid., p.165

[10] Agamben, Giorgio, ‘In Praise of Profanation’, Profanations (New York: Zone Books, 2007), p.81

[11] Agamben, ‘In Praise of Profanation’, p.81

[12] Debord, Guy, Donald Nicholson-Smith (trans.), The Society of the Spectacle (New York: Zone Books, 1995), p.29

[13] Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, p.32

[14] Ibid., p.12

Yorkshire person. Editor @readysteadybook. Writer @thequietus, @3ammagaine, @gorse_journal, @LAReviewofBooks + more. Communism, literature, philosophy.