Communicative Capitalism

It seems I got the title for my book The Spectacle of Disintegration (Verso 2013) from reading Jodi Dean. I read her book Blog Theory: Feedback and Capture in the Circuits of Drive (Polity Press, 2010) in manuscript. On re-reading it, I find this: “disintegrating spectacles allow for ever more advanced forms of monitoring and surveillance.” (39) And “Debord’s claim that, in the society of the spectacle ‘the uses of media guarantee a kind of eternity of noisy insignificance’ applies better to communicative capitalism as a disintegrated, networked, spectacular circuit.” (112)

I think I mean something similar by spectacle of disintegration to what Dean calls communicative capitalism, even though we read Debord a bit differently, but more on that later. After revisiting Tiziana Terranova’s Network Culture in a previous blog post, Dean seemed like a logical next stop in looking back through classic works in #theory21c. I am closer to Terranova than Dean on certain points, but there are things about Dean’s work I greatly admire.

How can we even write books in the era of Snapchat and Twitter? Perhaps the book could be something like the tactic of slowing down the pace of work. Still, books are a problem for the era of communicative capitalism, which resists recombination into longer threads of argument. The contours of Dean’s argument are of a piece with this media strategy.

Dean offers “an avowedly political assessment of the present” rather than a technical one. (3) The political – a term which as Bottici argues was greatly expanded in scope and connotation across a half-century of political theory – becomes the language within which to critique the seeming naturalness and inevitability of the technical. But perhaps this now calls for a kind of ‘dialectical’ compliment, a critical scrutiny of the expanded category of the political, perhaps even from the point of view of techne itself. We intellectuals do love the political, perhaps on the assumption that it is the same kind of discourse as our own.

If industrial capitalism exploited labor; communicative capitalism exploits communication. It is where “reflexivity captures creativity.” (4) Iterative loops of communication did not really lead to a realization of democratic ideals of access, inclusion, participation. On the contrary, it is an era of capture, of desire caught in a net and reduced to mere drive.

Dean draws her concepts mostly from Slavoj Zizek. Elsewhere I have argued that his late work offers little for a twenty-first century critical agenda. But if anyone has made a case for the utility of Zizek, it is Jodi Dean. So let’s approach Zizek then in an instrumental way, and see what use Dean puts him to as a tool.

For both Dean and Zizek, “Ideology is what we do, even when we know better.” (5) It s not a theory of false consciousness or even of the interpolation of the subject. In this approach to ideology, closer to Sloterdijk’s enlightened false consciousness. It is about the gap between thought and action rather than thinking the ‘wrong’ thing.

The key motif in Dean’s thought here is the decline in symbolic efficiency, also known as the collapse of the Big Other. These Lacanian phrases point to a growing impossibility of anchoring meaning or of totalizing it. Nobody is able to speak from a position that secures the sliding, proliferating chains of signification.

One could question this thesis on both historical or sociological grounds. Perhaps the stability of meaning is only ever secured by force. When I studied Vaneigem’s account of heresies in Excommunication, or Andrey Platonov’s account of popular speech under Stalinism in Molecular Red, these looked to me like the decline in symbolic efficiency already, and in both cases consistency was only secured by force.

Moving from an historical to a sociological axis, one might then look for where force is applied. In the United States that might include the red purge, the imprisonment and assassination of Black power and the now global campaign to murder the ideological enemies of the United States via death by drone. Perhaps there’s no Master’s discourse at all without force. The same would apply on a more day to day scale with domestic violence and police murder.

There might certainly be particular instances of the decline in symbolic efficiency, when the function of the Master signifier is suspended, when there is no outside authority to tell us what to do, what to desire, what to believe, and where the result isn’t freedom but rather a kind of suffocation. Dean gives the example of Second Life, where people are free to have their avatars do anything, and that ends up being building real estate, shopping and weird sex stuff. Tumblr might be another example, where being free from the Master signifier seems to mean putting together random collages of pictures and greeting card quotations.

The Master signifier depends on virtuality. It is not just another sign in a chain of signs, but a potential for signification as such, a way to project across the gap between fantasy and the real. Interestingly, where for Paolo Virno the virtual ends up sustaining history as a theological premise, here the virtual is theology as historical premise, as that which declines, taking the possibility of desire with it from the world.

Without the Master signifier, there’s no reason to stay with anything. Bonds can be dissolved at no cost. There’s a dissolution of the link between fantasy and reality, and a foreclosure of the symbolic. It is the gaps in the symbolic that allow access to the real, but those gaps are foreclosed, resulting in non-desire, non-meaning, and in the saturation in enjoyment. We are caught in short, recursive loops that attempt to directly provide enjoyment, but which just repeat over and over again its impossibility.

This kind of recursive or reflexive loop in which the subject is trapped applies to the world of objects too in communicative capitalism. Dean mentions climate change, but the Anthropocene more generally, or what Marx called metabolic rift might be symptoms of such loops in operation, in which positive feedback dominates, with the result that more is more. The capture of both objects and subjects just keeps deepening and expanding. Dean: “More circuits, more loops, more spoils for the first, strongest, richest, fastest, biggest.” (13)

How the hell did it come to this? Dean builds on the work of our mutual friend Fred Turner, whose From Counterculture to Cyberculture tracks the construction of what Richard Barbrook calls the California Ideology. How did computing and information science, which were tools of control and hierarchy, become tools of collaboration and flexibility?

Here I read Fred’s book a little differently to Dean. What I see there is a kind of social and technical field that was always open to different kinds of research and different kinds of result. The wartime laboratory experience in science and engineering was strikingly collaborative, expanding and developing what JD Bernal thought of as the communist practice of real science, and what for Richard Stallman (a red diaper baby) was the commons of hacker practice.

Of course, what the military wanted from such experimental practices was a toolkit for command, control, communication and information, (aka C3I). But even there, flexibility and openness was always one of the objectives. The Air Force’s missile program might have imagined what Paul Edwards calls a closed world of cybernetic control, but the Army wanted tools that could work in the fog and friction of war as flexible, open, adaptive networks. The technology that descended from such academic and military origins was always hybrid and multiform, adaptable in different ways to different kinds of economies, politics and culture, although certainly not infinitely so.

What I find missing in Dean is the sense of a struggle over how tech and flesh were to co-adapt to each other. Let’s not forget the damage done to the conversation about the politics of technology by the cold war purge, in which not only artists and writers were blacklisted, but scientists and engineers as well.

Iris Chang’s account of the fate of Tsien Hsue-Shen in Thread of the Silkworm is only the most absurdist of such stories. This pioneer rocket scientist lost his security clearances for having social ties to people who unbeknownst to him were communists. And so he was deported – to communist China! There he actually became what he never was in America – a highly skilled scientist working for the ‘communist cause’. This is just the most crazy of many thousands of such stories. Those who find the tech world ‘apolitical’ might inquire as to how it was made so thoroughly so.

Hence the California ideology is a product of particular histories, one piece of which is documented so well in Turner – but there are other histories. The belief that tech will save the world, that institutions are to be tolerated but not engaged, that rough consensus and running code are all that matter – this is not the only ideology of the tech world. That it became an unusually predominant one is not some naturally occurring phenomena – even though both California ideologists and Dean both tend to think it is. Rather, it is the product of particular struggles in which such an ideology got a powerful assist, firstly from state repression of certain alternatives, and then by corporate patronage of the more business-friendly versions of it.

Dean write about “geeks” (23, 25) as if they were some kind of freemasonry, pretending to be apolitical, but with quiet influence. One might usefully look here to a deeper history of the kind of power the sciences and engineers have had, one not quite covered even by the ever-expanding sense of the ‘political’ now employed. The counter-literature here might include what for me is Bruno Latour’s best work: his historical study of Pasteur, and of the kind of spatially and temporally concentrating power of the laboratory.

As Latour shows, Pasteur’s actual political-politics were fairly conventional and not very interesting, but the way the lab was able to become a form of power is a quite different story. Can we – why not? – even think of this as a class power, which has accrued over time its own field of heterogeneous interests, and which stands in relation to the commodity form as neither capital nor labor even if – like all other classes – it is forced into one or other of those relations.

For Dean the geek, or in my terms the hacker class, is a displaced mediator, something that is pushed aside. But by what? The formal category of mediator covers over the existence of a kind of struggle that is neither purely political or a ‘natural’ result of tech evolution. We still lack a sense of the struggles over the information vector of the late twentieth century, with their partial victories and eventual defeats.

The book is called Blog Theory, and in some ways its strength is its relation – only occasionally signaled – to Dean’s own practice as a blogger. There was a time when I read Dean’s (I Cite) blog religiously, alongside Nina Power, Mark Fisher (k-punk), Lars Iyer (Spurious) and a handful of others who really pioneered a kind of theory-writing in blog form, along side the new kinds of more (post)literary practices of Kate Zambreno and friends.

Blogging also looks like a displaced mediator, a step on the way to the mega-socialized media forms such as Facehooker, as Dean already senses. Dean: “Blogging’s settings… include the decline of symbolic efficiency, the recursive loops of universalized reflexivity, the extreme inequalities that reflexive networks produce, and the operation of displaced mediators at points of critical transition.” (29) Tumblr already existed in 2010 when Dean wrote Blog Theory, but was not quite as perfect an illustration of Dean’s conceptual framework then as it is now. Another name for all this might be the tumblresque.

Such media forms become short loops that lock the subject into repeated attempts at enjoyment, where enjoyment is no longer the lost object of desire but the object of loss itself. All drive is death drive. These reflexive, iterative loops are where we are stuck. Communicative action is not enlightenment. “… what idealists from the Enlightenment through critical and democratic theory, to contemporary techno-utopians theorize as the very form of freedom is actually a mechanism for the generation of extreme inequality and capture.” (30)

This is not even, as in Hiroki Azuma, a return to a kind of human-animal. “The notion of drive counters this immanent naturalism by highlighting the inhuman at the heart of the human…” (31) The all-too-human ability to stick on minor differences and futile distractions drives the human ever further away from its own impossibility.

Communicative capitalism relies on repetition, on suspending narrative, identity, and norms. Framed in those terms, the problem then is to create the possibility of breaking out of the endless short loops of drive. But if anything the tendency is in the other direction. After blogging came Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat, driving even further into repetition. The culture industries gave way to what I call the vulture industries.

Dean identified the tendency already with blogs. They no longer fill a desire for a way to communicate. Desire is a desire for a desire – that absent thing – whereas a drive is a repetition not of the desire but of the moment of failure to reach it. The virtual dimension disappears.

Blogs had their counterpoint in search engines, as that which knows our desires even when we don’t. With the search engine, one trusts the algorithm; with blogs, one trusts one’s friends. Two kinds of affective response dominate in relation to both. One is hysterical: that’s not it! There must be more! The other is paranoid: someone must be stealing all the data. As it turned out, the former drove people to search and search, blog and blog, all the better for actual agencies – both state and corporate – to indeed steal it all. Here I would stress the asymmetry and struggle over information as a crucial feature of communicative capitalism – which may no longer even be a capitalism, but something worse.

The blog for Dean is not a journal or journalism nor a literary form. It may be something like the letter writing of a pre-modern era, which was meant to be circulated beyond the named addressee. It is a sort of technique of the self, one that installs a gaze that shapes the writer. But there’s an ambiguity as to who the writer is visible to. For Dean, this gaze is not that of the Big Other, but of that other creature of Lacan-speak, the objet petit a. In this version, there is an asymmetry: we are entrapped in a kind of visibility. I see from my point of view but am seen from all points of view. It is as if I am seen by an alien object rather than another person. I receive no messages back specific to me and my identity. Ego formation is blocked.

Dean: “Blogging is a technology uncoupled from the illusion of a core, true, essential and singular self…. In communicative capitalism, the gaze to which one makes oneself visible is a point hidden in an opaque and heterogeneous network. It is not the gaze of the symbolic other of our ego ideal but the more disturbing traumatic gaze of a gap or excess, objet petit a.” (56) Hence I never quite know who I am, even though I take endless online quizzes to try to find out. Which punk rock goddess are you? It turns out I am Kim Gordon. Funny, I thought I was Patti Smith.

The decline in symbolic efficiency is a convergence of the imaginary and the real. It is a world of imaginary identities sustained by the promise of enjoyment rather than a world of symbolic identities residing in the gap where desire desires to desire. Unanchored from the symbolic, and its impossible relation to the Big Other, I become too labile and unstable. It is a world of selves with boundary issues, over-sharing, but also troubled by any signs of the success of others, tripping circuits of envy and schadenfreude. It is not a world of law and transgression but repetition and drive. No more lost object of desire, its all loss itself as object. Blocked desires proliferate as partial drives making quickie loops, disappearing into the nets.

Of courses there are those who would celebrate this kind of (post)subjectivity. It could have been a step towards Guattari’s planet of six billion perverts, all coupling and breaking in desiring machines of wildly proliferating sorts. Dean explores instead the way the decline in symbolic efficiency was framed by Agamben as whatever being. Dean: “whatever being points to new modes of community and new forms of personality anticipated by the dissolution of inscriptions of identity through citizenship, ethnicity, and other modern markers of belonging.” (66) For Agamben, some of this is a good thing, in the dissolution of national identities, for example. His strategy – reminiscent of Baudrillard’s fatal strategy is to push whatever being to its limits.

As every blogger knows, this media is not about reading and interpreting, but about circulating the signs. TL;DR, or “too long, didn’t read,” is the most common response. For Dean, the “whatever” in whatever being is a kind of insolence, a minimal acknowledgement that communication has taken place with no attempt to understand it.

Agamben thinks there might be a way to take back the positive properties of being in language that communicative capitalism expropriates. He looks forward to a planetary refusal of identity, a kind of singularity without identity, perhaps other ways of belonging. Dean: “the beings who would so belong are not subjects in the sense that European philosophy or psychoanalysis might theorize.” (82) To which us card-carrying Deleuzians might respond: so much the worse for psychoanalysis and philosophy!

Dean is disturbed by the apparent lack of antagonism of whatever being. But is it apolitical, or just a phenomena in which differences work out differently, without dialectic? Dean: “I can locate here neither a politics I admire nor any sort of struggle at all. What could motivate whatever beings?” (83) They don’t lack anything. But maybe that’s the point. Of course, whatever being does not evade the state in the way Agamben might have hoped. The capture of metadata enables a recording that does not presuppose classification or identity. The back hole of the masses has been conquered by the algorithm. Their silence speaks volumes.

Agamben thought the extreme alienation of language in spectacle could have an kind of ironic coda, where that very alienation becomes something positive, a being after identity. He actually has a positive way of thinking what for Zizek and Dean is drive. Are whatever being really passive, or just a bit slippery? Why is passivity a bad thing anyway? Maybe there was always something a bit backward looking about Lacan.

In The Freudian Robot, Lydia Liu reads Lacan as reacting against the information science of the postwar years. As Tiziana Terranova shows, this was a period in which questions of texts and meanings were side-stepped by new ways of analyzing information mathematically, as a field of statistical probability. Here I am closer to Terranova in thinking that it is time to rethink strategy on the terrain on information rather than that of meaning. Dean does not: “What’s lost? The ability to distinguish between contestatory and hegemonic speech. Irony. Tonality. Normativity.” (89)

But were these ever more than illusions intellectuals entertained about what was going on in communication? Here I find reading Platonov salutary, as his accounts of the language of early Soviet times is really more one of frequency and repetition rather than a politics of ideology or propaganda. I don’t think the road to strategy necessarily always passes through critique, or through a politics of the subject as formed in the symbolic register. Perhaps the flux between the imaginary and the real is where the human resides most of the time anyway. It is not as if the symbolic has reliably been our friend.

Dean mentions Friedrich Kittler’s cunning reworking of Lacan back into media theory, but I would pause to give it a bit more weight. For Kittler, Lacan’s famous tripartite of imaginary, symbolic and real is actually an effect of a certain moment in the development of media. It was a stage in the evolution of Haraway’s cyborg, when different technics became the mediating apparatus for different flows of sensation. For Kittler, the imaginary is the screen, the symbolic is the typewriter, and the gramophone is the real. This explains so much of the anxiety of the literate classes: the struggle of the typewriters against the screen, insisting on this or that symbolic order against the self/other fluctuations of screen-generated media, and with the grain of the voice as residual stand-in for the real beyond both. All of which, of course, media ‘convergence’ erases. We’re differently wired cyborgs now.

It is telling that Dean wants to resist the “snares” of cognitive capitalism. (95) Dean: “Every little tweet or comment, every forwarded image or petition, accrues a tiny affective nugget, a little surplus enjoyment, a smidgen of attention that attaches to it, making it stand out from the larger flow before it blends back in.” (95) It is hard not to read it in media terms as an appeal by those invested in one media cyborg apparatus to resist the one that’s replacing it. Of course the new one is part of a political economy of domination and exploitation – but so too was the old mass media apparatus.

Of course there’s things one can tease out of a conceptual frame that puts the emphasis on the subject’s relation to the symbolic order. But I don’t see this as a truly essential theoretical tactic. In many ways I think it more productive to follow Terranova and think about information as a ratio of signal to noise, and beyond that as a kind of dynamics into which one might attempt to intervene with information tactics. This is what the situationists called détournement.

I would want to bring the concept of détournement more fully into relation to the work of both writers, as I think it is a more nuanced way of thinking the montage practices of Terranova’s network culture. For Dean, “The politics that montage suggests is a politics released from the burdens of coherence and consistency.” (104)

But isn’t information politics always about frequency, about the probability of certain information appearing with certain other information, about affective states thereby generated? It is only intellectuals who really think political communication is anything else. Even economics may be not much more than this. In the vectoral age, as Boutang suggests, nobody knows the actual value of anything, so the problem is outsourced to a vast cyborg of plug and play info-filters – some human, some algorithmic.

Such an information ecology has its problems, of course. It knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. As Debord was already suggesting, the integrated spectacle integrated itself into the reality it was describing, and then ceased to know the difference between the two. We now live in the metabolic rifts produced by the wildly improbably molecular flows this produced, which in turn generates the disintegrating spectacle some call the Anthropocene.

What both Agamben and Dean miss about Debord is that the concept of spectacle was always doubled by that of détournement. This is clear in The Society of the Spectacle, where détournement gets the key last chapter (before the concluding coda). There Debord restates the case for the literary communism he and Gil Wolman first proposed in the 1950s as the avant-garde strategy for the era of spectacle. Détournement is precisely the tactic of treating all information as the commons, and refusing all private property in this domain.

Contra Dean, this has nothing to do with a ‘participatory’ politics at all. It was always about the overthrown of the spectacle as a totality. Nor was Debord really contributing to the undermining of ‘expertise’. On the contrary, he dedicated his Comments to those few on both sides who he thought really had the knowledge to either defend the spectacle – or attack it. The same is the case with the book he helped Sanguinetti write about the Italian spectacle of the 70s – The Last Chance to Save Capitalism in Italy. He was well aware of the dangers of recuperation back into spectacle. It was indeed one of his major themes. Dean: “The spectacle contains and captures the possibility of the common good.” (112) But this is already the central point of his late work, which is about withdrawal rather than participation.

Of course, détournement itself became coopted. Free information became the basis of a new business model, one that extracts surplus information from free labor. But this means moving détournement on from free data to freeing metadata. This may require not just détournement and critique but actually building different kinds of circuit, even if it is just in the gaps of the current infrastructure.

For the time being, one tactic is just to keep putting into circulation the conjunctions of information that generate the affect of solidarity and the commons. It’s a way of taking advantage of the lateral ‘search’ that the decline of symbolic efficiency, or at least the lack of coercive force maintaining it, affords. There is surely a place for what Dean calls “discipline, sacrifice and delay.” (125) But Rome wasn’t unbuilt in a day, and it may take more than one kind of subject-apparatus cyborg to make a new civilization. The party presupposes a milieu. It is an effect and not a cause. Let’s build a new milieu.

This civilization is over and everyone knows it. One need look no further than Andrew Ross’ account of environmental justice in Phoenix, Arizona to see the scale on which we have to imagine building another one. That is an organizational problem that calls for all sorts of different solutions to all sorts of problems. There can be no one ‘correct’ critical theory. They are all just tools for addressing parts of a manifold problem. Dean’s work seems well suited to the diagnosis of a certain subjective short-circuit and one possible solution to it.

Strangely enough both Dean and Terranova have a use for the concept of the virtual, but here I would follow Debord and think more in terms of constrained situations and available resources. Both the Lacanians and the Deleuzians, otherwise so opposed, may both be a little too theological for the times.

McKenzie Wark

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