AUGUST 13, 2012
DO YOU REMEMBER STARTING your first blog (or maybe it was your mother’s, or your girlfriend’s, or your dog’s)? Were you hawking a hobby, angling for authorship, or looking for love? In choosing a platform, did you tarry with Xanga or settle for Blogger? How did you manage the temptations and letdowns of vanity-Googling? Did blogging ameliorate your loneliness, or amplify it? And, when the end finally came, did Ye Old Blogge dwindle away from malnutrition and amnesia, or did you finish it off with a swift and deliberate declaration of disengagement?
In Blog Theory, political scientist and media critic Jodi Dean argues that reports of the death of blogging have been greatly exaggerated. When personal web logs failed to deliver love, fame, and reliable income streams, blogging didn’t disappear so much as migrate into newer social media and information technologies such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and word clouds. Although the word “blogging” has begun to be eclipsed by new brands, platforms, and assorted neologisms, Dean notes that blogs have regrouped as marketing tools on corporate sites, in the form of both user-generated content streams and editorial boosterism. On the home front, mommy-bloggers and teen fashion consultants use WordPress and YouTube to rezone their kitchens and closets into intimate retail showrooms, adapting the mass media techniques of product placement and celebrity endorsement to the theater of daily life and the cultivation of niche communities.
Dean analyzes blogging as a feature of “communicative capitalism,” a term she develops from thinkers associated with the Autonomia movement, like Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri, and Tiziana Terranova. The Autonomists, whose origins date to the late 1960s, were Italian Marxists who wanted to disassociate social transformation from official organs like trade unions and political parties in order to grant more agency and inventiveness to informally organized workers, artists, and unpaid laborers. Heirs of and respondants to the Autonomists, including Jodi Dean, use the term “communicative capitalism,” to designate the replacement of industrial labor by service economies that manufacture experience, trade in entertainment, and thrive on data (examples include theme parks, brand hubs, and junk bonds). But while Autonomist-inspired thinkers like Terranova see at least some locally transformative (or “autonomist”) potential in internet communication, Dean argues that our online activity almost always ends up sustaining an information and marketing network. “Communicative capitalism,” she writes, “is that economic-ideological form wherein reflexivity captures creativity and resistance so as to enrich the few as it placates and diverts the many.” In Dean’s account, the internet is an affect machine that feeds on both the steady pulse and the emotional spikes of our online fidelities. With every digital communication we offer ourselves up to the web-crawling, content-scraping marketing gods. Our search is their find.
Dean calls the world created by all this communicative chatter a “blogipelago,” a term she prefers to the more widespread “blogosphere”:
“Blogipelago,” like archipelago, reminds us of separateness, disconnection, and the immense effort it can take to move from one island or network to another.
In Dean’s blogipelago, writing, reading, not-reading, and shopping have become indistinguishable actions “in an endless loop of reflexivity.” The landscape of Twitter, she notes, is dominated not by 140-character poets of daily life but by automated bots and social media marketers. Dean dubs the inhabitants of this distracted globe “whatever beings,” creatures of indifference who enjoy communication for its own sake, without caring too much about what is actually being said.
Although Dean borrows the term “whatever being” from another Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben (who speaks of “l’essere qualunque” in his book The Coming Community), she grafts his more affirmative account of the “sheer generic potentiality of being” onto the flippantly adolescent (and very American) “Whaaaat-ever.” Dean features teen entrepreneur and self-taught graphic designer Ashley Qualls, whose free MySpace layouts have generated millions of ad revenue at her website Whateverlife.com. The whatever blogger just wants to get something up there, to connect, to be counted, to leave her mark, to start a meme. Dean calls this “reflexive communication”: communication caught up in its own excited loops of chat. Personalization, she argues, shapes and neutralizes every act of participation by putting the focus not on a sustainable collective identity but on the giddy “look at me” moment of the Instagram and the status line. The whatever blogger is, like, fifteen, forever.
Like everyone else, I am exposed every day of my life to the whatever being that Dean diagnoses. My three teen-aged daughters are most certainly “situated in a rich communicative habitat consisting of multiple platforms and applications (mobile phones, social network sites, video, music, and photo sharing sites).” Meanwhile, my students have trouble making it through a fifty-minute lecture without fondling a touch screen. I can see them struggling, wavering, and then finally succumbing, like Weight Watchers in a food court, as I gamely barrel through Power Points and YouTube clips in search of new ways to hold a candle to the worlds they cradle in their laps. Everyone in the room is busy trying to keep up with the cheerful demands of communicative capitalism (connect! join! rank! vote! comment!) as the terms for educational engagement shift beneath our TOMS shoes.
Nor am I myself immune from the pleasures of whatever being: before I dip into my daily share of media experts and design mavens, I skim ads from stores that know my cup size, pleas from political groups whose petitions moved me for a minute, and newsletters from a myriad museums and service organizations I must have visited once with an open heart or open pocket. In this daily encounter with past purchases and abandoned commitments, deleting becomes a new form of memory: Sustainability? Cruelty-free chocolate? Child sex workers? Survey Monkey? Anthropologie? Whatever.
Dean helpfully traces the current compact between blogging, consumerism and agitated apathy to The Whole Earth Catalog, first published in 1968 by Stewart Brand, a charismatic hipster who promoted psychedelic drugs, communal living, sustainability, and — most presciently — personal computing. Grouping together “consumer items and information resources as seemingly incongruous as mystical fiction and geodesic domes,” The Whole Earth Catalog, Dean argues, “suggested a vision of life that combined nomadic tribes and high-tech electronics in a frontier fantasy of do-it-yourself American freedom.” In Dean’s account, Stewart Brand’s libertarianism disavowed its dependence on capitalist institutions, leading to the easy cooption of Whole Earth grooviness by corporate and military-industrial interests. Working these same fields, the hipster giants of Silicon Valley, including Google, Facebook, and Apple, have promulgated a work-as-play philosophy while delivering new lows in American-dream basics like job security and retirement benefits. “Geeks,” she writes, “may be about equality, fairness, and justice among each other (or, as is more likely, they may be about competition and glory, killer apps and venture capital.)” Whatever the professed values of the new communicative capitalists, the results of their innovate-or-die ethos, Dean argues, “is the most extreme economic inequality the world has ever known.”
You might gather from the foregoing that Jodi Dean is a technophobe. Not so. She is in fact an active blogger herself (jdeanicite.typepad.com). But Dean rejects enthusiastic appreciations of the internet as a democratizing and experimental force. Instead, she insists that blogging stimulates consumerism and strengthens surveillance while chillaxing our capacities for collective action. In the blogipelago, “words are no longer ‘subjectivized’ insofar as they fail to induce the subject to stand by them … Since exit is an option with nearly no costs, subjects lose the incentive for their word to be their bond.” Far from politicizing its participants, internet exchange breeds restlessness, irritability, and rage (as well as randomized spelling and a mounting crisis in comma abuse). If you think that crowds are smart and information will make you free, Dean is here to remind you that communicative capitalism actually weakens judgment and concentrates wealth. Considered by the standards of the emancipatory, transformative project proposed by the Autonomia movement — or even the tech world’s own utopian visions — the rise of whatever being can only be regarded as an Epic Fail.
Although many of Dean’s arguments resonate with earlier critiques of blogging, especially Geert Lovink’s magnificent Zero Comments (2007), it is her recourse to psychoanalysis in this context that makes her account distinctive. The internet, Dean argues, is one symptom of a general “decline of the symbolic,” in which the secular authority once invested in law, the state, and accredited institutions of higher learning has dissipated into shapeless crowds that form and dissolve around quixotic waves of viral rumor, toxic trending, and morning-after pop culture recaps. In this world, Dean writes, “we become mesmerized by our own looking.” Not only has the Primal Father long since been shorn of his vital parts, but even the bureaucratic bands of brothers who killed him (think of the trade unions and political parties opposed by the Autonomists) have been laid off, dispersed, and rehired on short-term contracts. In the age of symbolic decline, online degree mills, talk radio, and DIY everything characterize a culture in which expertise has been eclipsed by a militant amateurism: the despotism of the gut reaction and the hegemony of the blank stare.
Dean associates this pink slime of emotion, data, and cant with what Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan called the “drives.” Often translated as “instincts,” Lacan insisted that Freud’s original German term Trieb is more mechanistic and less biological than the English or French word “instinct” implies. Lacan insisted that the oral, anal, and scopic drives trace involuntary, repetitive movements towards and around partial objects. The jump-start actions of the drives produce momentary bursts of enjoyment without ever actually reaching their destination. Whereas Lacan sees “desire” as linguistic and symbolic, organized by a series of substitutions that enable the higher cognitive functions of metaphor and analogy, he associates the drives with the stream of inchoate and mesmerizing images cast up by bodily processes en route to discharge. Desire begins with castration and ends with money, language, law, and thought; the drives begin with milk and shit and remain forever mired in the sludge of objects, affects, and images associated with consumption and its waste products.
Like the psychological drives, whatever being is defined by its intensities of feeling (horror, panic, glee, pique), rapid, montage-like jumps between disparate images (pudgy Pomeranians, naked children with lipstick, tsunami survivors, artisanal gummy bears, duct tape prom dresses), and a restless, roving rhythm (one more click, link, image, deal, friend…). Blogging, she argues, is drive-like in its “movement without message, movement with intensity, movement outward and back … Drive circulates, round and round, producing satisfaction even as it misses its aim, even as it emerges in the plastic network of the decline of symbolic efficiency.” In the world of the drive, affect and image trump ideas, while tweeting bots, mutant memes and roving splogs (spam blogs) prey on authorship in order to destroy authority.
Dean’s turn to the drive illuminates the giddy circuit-happy formalism of life online, but, from a psychoanalytic point of view, she may be too pessimistic about its consequences. For Lacan, both desire and drive have a necessary place in any social and mental world; both are equally subject to pathology and enervation as well as to ethical exercise and subjective blossoming. If Dean aptly diagnoses the phatic emptiness of contemporary communication as a manifestation of the drive, that doesn’t necessarily mean that “whatever being” bears no relationship at all to the symbolic order. I would suggest that internet-inspired enterprises as diverse as fan fiction, slow food, community-supported agriculture, vintage clothing swaps, and craftivism may assemble new values and styles of organization that do not simply evaporate into the fetid, self-reflexive burp of capitalist communication for its own sake.
It becomes clear that Dean is at war with affect, which she defines as “a movement which estranges the subject from its experience” The manic cooing triggered by viewing The World’s Cutest Dog (http://www.facebook.com/Boo) jetpacks the subject out of herself, in a feeling rush that circumvents genuine human contact, self-knowledge, or political connection. But do all affects sap agency in this way? Perhaps curiosity, wonder, satiety, consternation, solicitude, bewilderment, or love also launch “movements that estrange,” but in ways that might clear room for more efficacious forms of thought, action, and affiliation? Although Dean develops the idea of communicative capitalism from the work of Autonomists like Hardt and Negri, she rejects the Autonomists’ positive valuation of “affective labor”: that is, forms of work that both require emotional expenditure and sustain the emotional lives of others. (Forms of affective labor might include changing diapers, making dinner, tending the sick, and writing a screenplay.) Although the arousal and servicing of emotions feeds communicative capital, Hardt has argued that affective labor can also support alternative forms of life outside or at the edges of the capitalist grid. Blogging and social media have an organizational role to play here, as we see in the fair trade and urban farming movements, or (in the period since Dean’s book appeared in 2010) the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street.
Certainly Dean is asking the right questions about online life, even if her answers seem excessively doomy. How can our daily acts help shape the new digital environments that so relentlessly shape us? Earlier forms of mass-mediated expression certainly floated their own versions of “whatever being.” The idle novel reader or the frivolous novelist frittering away her time on meaningless trivialities was a staple stereotype of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. And before the novel, there was theater: in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the new secular drama of Shakespeare and his contemporaries was perceived to participate in a dangerous medium of empty signs. Plays, novels, and cinema may indeed have distracted their early audiences, but they also assembled alternative spaces for imagining other worlds, sharing new kinds of relationships, and recording variant forms of speech. We certainly need vigilance and critique to help us resist dotcom charisma, and no one is fiercer or smarter than Dean on this front. But that doesn’t mean we can’t keep scanning our digital worlds for glimpses of the good life.