Capitalism and Control:
The Oedipal Rise of Steve Jobs

In Danny Boyle’s 2015 biopic of Steve Jobs, the Apple giant has forty-five seconds before he is due to go on stage, introducing the new Apple Mac to a raving crowd of enthusiasts. With the seconds ticking away, he is still thinking about what to include (or not include) in his speech. “I’m back and forth on the Dylan”, he says, trying to decide which verse of “The Times They Are A-Changing” he should quote. He opts, momentarily, for the alternate:

Come mothers and fathers throughout the land ,
And don’t criticize what you can’t understand.
Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command…

John Sculley, then Apple’s CEO, says he’s just lost a bet to software engineer Andy Hertzfeld, who predicted Jobs would make the change. But Sculley is less interested in Jobs’ prevaricating. He wants to ask him a question.

“Why do people who are adopted feel like they were rejected instead of selected?”

“That came out of nowhere.”

Sculley offers up his own version of the rest of the Dylan verse:

Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command,
Your old road is rapidly aging.
So go fuck yourself, because my name is Steve Jobs,
And the times they are a-changing.

Jobs says, contrary to Sculley’s assumption, that he doesn’t feel rejected. “Are you sure?” Sculley asks. “‘Cause it’s not like the baby is born and the parents look and say, ‘Nah, we’re not interested in this one.'” Of course, things aren’t that simple. “On the other hand, someone did choose you.”

Jobs pauses for a brief moment, then offers up something by way of an explanation, a reasoning that seems to come from outside the space of Sculley’s reasoning. “It’s having no control”, Jobs says. “You find out you were out of the loop when the most crucial events of your life were set in motion. As long as you have control… I don’t understand people who would give it up.”

Jobs changes the subject. Why did Hertzfeld make that bet? But the topic doesn’t seem so distant from Jobs’ reflection on control. He is seemingly offended that someone else could so easily identify his own thought processes before he himself had made a decision. If Jobs is so concerned with control, with being the master of his own destiny, how dare someone else predict his own fate ahead of time. He controls the crucial events of his own life now. No one else. What disturbs him, however, is that someone like him, so self-assured of their own genius and radicality, could nonetheless be so predictable.

This moment feels central to so many of the interpersonal tensions that give the film its drama. A few minutes previously, for instance, Jobs is seen arguing with his ex-girlfriend, Chrisann Brennan, and repeatedly denies the paternity of his daughter, Lisa. It is a moment that soon jars with Jobs’ conversation with Sculley. In fighting with Chrisann, Jobs also seems overly concerned about his own sense of control, but he thinks little of how his behaviour will surely only couch his own daughter in feelings of rejection and indeterminacy. Despite this, he still names one of his earliest computers after her: the LISA.

In this way, Jobs’ familial connections echo his insistence that the Mackintosh be an “closed system” with “end-to-end control”. Indeed, there is little in Apple’s development that does not seem touched by Jobs’ genealogical anxieties. He rejects the apparent authoritarianism of IBM, Apple’s principal rival, which sees itself as the “father” of personal computing.

In the film, we are shown Apple’s famous 1984 Super Bowl commercial, in which IBM is reframed as a Orwellian Big Brother-like figure. Jobs stands and watches the advert play out from behind the screen, the scene flipped, rendering himself not so much as Big Brother as the Wizard of Oz, the man behind the curtain, who still cannot resist the desire to step out in front of it and command his own audience.

This is the irony of a film like Steve Jobs, which is structured through a series of behind-the-scenes conflicts, which all occur minutes prior to Jobs taking to the stage, actualising the true image of Big Brother as an authoritarian before a crowd that bizarrely desires its own repression. Wholly captured by his “reality distortion field”, as marketing exec Joanna Hoffman calls Jobs’ peculiar set of blinkers, Jobs cannot see how he is far more representative of the analogy he uses to attack his competition. In rejecting his paternity, like Oedipus, he is all the more fated to become the thing he hopes to deny.

When Sculley returns in 1988, he hasn’t forgotten his earlier exchange with Jobs. “Do you know what I’ve been thinking for the last four years? No newborn baby has control.” For all his apparent “genius”, it is clear that Jobs’ attempts to usurp the personal-computer market are ramshackle and indeterminate. He fails more than he succeeds, until his perseverance prevails. He waits in the wings, until the consumer is ready for his limited options. Though he claims himself as a revolutionary, all he offers his audience is a closed system, incapable of making connections to other forms of PC technology. Indeed, many of his products do not work. When he first leaves Apple, for a time, setting up a new venture called NeXT, Jobs shockingly admits the system does not yet have an OS. He wants to wait and see what Apple needs, manipulating the company that rejected him into buying out his new project. But here we find a kind of productive abortion, as Jobs rejects, even further, the functioning of his own system.

I’m reminded of Deleuze and Guattari’s comments on “a producing/product identity”:

Everything stops dead for a moment, everything freezes in place — and then the whole process will begin all over again. From a certain point of view it would be much better if nothing worked, if nothing functioned. Never being born, escaping the wheel of continual birth and rebirth…

In denying his paternity — past, present and future — Jobs founds Apple on a frenzied stasis. His desire for control does not invent the future but denies its schizoid flows. We live in Jobs’ future, but it is one defined by disastrously Oedipal tendencies. Mark Fisher was right to refer to it as the OediPod.

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