Communicative capitalism, the compulsion to make more text

From Jodi Dean, Blog Theory. Heavy on the Lacan, which I didn’t find very useful; seems like this merely translates phenomena into a coded language more than anything else, which seems like a dead end. But there are several illuminating passages that seem detachable from the Lacanian superstructure.

The first is Dean’s idea of “communicative capitalism” — capitalist system where acts of communication are the main commodity being exchanged, where communication is the most lucratively exploitable — at least that is how I understand it. Here is her definition:

I take the position that contemporary communications media capture their users in intensive and extensive networks of enjoyment, production, and surveillance. My term for this formation is communicative capitalism. Just as industrial capitalism relied on the exploitation of labor, so does communicative
capitalism rely on the exploitation of communication. As Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri argue, “communication is the form of capitalist production in which capital has succeeded in submitting society entirely and globally to its regime, suppressing all alternative paths.” A critical theory of communicative capitalism requires occupying (rather than disavowing) the trap in which it enthralls and configures contemporary subjects. I argue that this trap takes the form that modern European philosophy heralded as the form of freedom: reflexivity. Communicative capitalism is that economic-ideological form wherein reflexivity captures creativity and resistance so as to enrich the few as it placates and diverts the many.

My way of putting this is that we develop our identity and seek recognition in ways that can be captured in networks and are exploitable for other ends. This invalidates the identity discovered through this process — we are forced to be reflexive about our self-creation but the reflexivity makes identity more tangible but more inauthentic feeling. The key point is understanding reflexivity as a kind of trap, a kind of compulsion that generates more communication that doesn’t serve the communicator — the more we try to articulate the self, the further we are from grasping it, the more extensive becomes the alienation. This seems a matter of perspective on communication — we are brought to understand it and sociality more generally as quantitative, abstract. The texture of life begins to vanish, but culturally available modes of pursuing it worsen the problem. She quotes Žižek: “Is not one of the possible reactions to the excessive filling-in of the voids in cyberspace therefore informational anorexia, the desperate refusal to accept information, in so far as it occludes the presence of the Real?” And she adds: “It’s like the feast of information results in a more fundamental starvation as one loses the sense of an underlying Real.” Baudrillard explains this as being caught up in the simulacra. The “filling in” makes ambivalence about connectivity and information surfeit worse; the fantasies of completeness become more elaborate and thus more destructive, corrupting everything they touch. Anything digitized becomes suggest to completeness-mania. Intimacy in friendship is particularly corrupted. Others become “overpresent” — they force upon us “unbearable intrusions of the other’s jouissance.” That’s possibly my main problem with being on Facebook, I think. Others appear fulfilled in their happiness and presence and I am utterly superfluous to it. Always true, but not something i want to be reminded of.

One consequence of the “creative tools” afforded by Web 2.0 is a sense of inadequacy to the tools: “it’s stifling as it confronts users with their lack of skills and imagination.” It structures enjoyment as quasi-social but ultimately solitary, a mode in which one needs not answer to anyone else, in which convenience is the guiding principle. “Convenience trumps commitment,” as Dean puts it.

Central to Dean’s interpretation of blogging is “whatever being” — belonging as belonging, rather than to anything in particular. Participation for its own sake, as a mode of avoiding commitment, perhaps. It structures noncommitment: “With multiple convergent and turbulent media, I don’t have to settle on any one direction or theme … these multiple, circulating impulses incite in me a kind of permanent indecision or postponement, a lack of commitment – what else is out there?

Online, we are not sure of who is watching, so our identity shaping gestures are tentative, incomplete, anxious. “We imagine ourselves one way, then another, never sure of how we appear because we don’t know before whom we appear.” We inhabit simultaneous subject positions, which inhibits empathy in our observers, and in ourselves for the onlooker — what Adam Smith was necessary for sympathy and moral responsiveness. “Caught in reflexive networks – always another move, another level – we lose the capacity for reflection. Our networks are reflexive so that we don’t have to be.” I think we are reflexive; it just is expropriated and is a trap, a punishment within capital’s networks.

The social media forms allow performance of authenticity as immediacy, as “spontaneity” which is a consequence of how messages are consumed rather than composed. We tend to forget in our “sharing” how exposed we are — we think of it as something we do, not a passive state of vulnerability, as it actually is.

Online media concentrate us on the metadata: “Differently put, they track the fact of the spoken as they direct us away from what is said.”

The key point for me in interpreting Web 2.0 has always been this: “Far from inaugurating a new creative, post-monetary commons, media practices like blogging and social networks ease the paths of neoliberal capitalism. Why should employers pay for work that we happily do for free?” Yes. Neoliberal capitalism seems to evolving in conjunction with social media, which lays down the infrastructure for its markets and for the modes of subjectivization it prefers — creating influencers and hyperconsumers and so on. The nature of “unpaid work” has changed from domestic work to this sort of affective labor that can be conducted digitally inside corporately owned networks, establishing norms of civility and reciprocity within them and not opposed to them. But it also makes this work trackable, countable, so the way is paved to making it wage work, explicitly commodified and commercialized. People can reasonably demand payment to do it. The making of bonds becomes a kind of wage work in this emerging neoliberal capitalist society.

So basically this is how neoliberalism currently works: unpaid work in the commons (social being, etc.) is captured in networks where capital can exploit it and where it becomes reflexive for individual subjects. Then subjects have an investment, by capitalism’s terms, to make that work pay, make it commodified abstracted labor. Thus capitalism internalizes more and more of experience to itself, its system, its interpretive lens — more and more human behavior is understood in terms of maximization incentives. Other ideological incentives for action are suppressed. Sociality is thereby proletarianized.


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