Lost in the circuit of digital connections, my head swims vacant, adrift in a web too vast to comprehend. Utopia has always been a hermeneutic horizon for me, not in the sense of somehow being met, but rather, as an ever elusive elsewhere, an objet petit a forever deferred out of reach.1 There have been a torrent of social movements in the past decade, claimed by many (outside of these movements) to have only been possible due to social media.2 I contest the notion that social media is democratically progressive through an account of commodity fetishism, alienation and exploitation; hyperreality as spectacular society; and détournement as jouissant transvaluation.
Democracy, at its core, is dialogic—where the utterances of then, weigh on the utterances of now, in anticipation of the future (Reimers 1998). With the advent of the electronic, however, the dialogic subject splinters into a multitude of sites—a schizophrenic intercourse, instantaneous yet asynchronous—seemingly incapable of holding any dialogue at all (Sobchack 2004). Through the abstraction of reality into bits, the electronic grants users ever more manipulation over a reality, that although may resemble the material, is simply a simulation (Nunes 1995; Sobchack 2004). From data-bending to independent journalism, one (seemingly) retains all control over the production and circulation of one’s data—data that may never reach anyone else and yet is increasingly perceived to reach everyone (Dean 2009). In cruel irony, electronic presence grants the promise of total empowerment through total alienation—the dialogic collapsed into itself (Debord 1994).
Enter big data, the adapted regime of liberal democracy, which presumes that ever greater accumulations of digital data will lead to ever more accurate (and useful) informations (van Dijk 2014). This seamless merging of capitalism and democracy provides the fiction through which our digital selves lose touch with reality. Digital information circulates endlessly in a total world of its own, without any structures, positions or procedures that hold anyone or anything accountable (Dean 2009; Evans 2006). This spectacle of user activity is, in Debord’s (1994) own words, “nothing more than an image of happy harmony surrounded by desolation and horror”—a total disconnect masquerading as connectivity—Narcissus fixed upon his own mirage, too afraid to reach out in fear of dissipating himself. The power elites know better—he was never there to begin with.
While the bourgeoisie (and other users) may acknowledge digital contributions, they need not respond, engage, nor consider any of it (Dean 2009). Hyperreality operates through surface interactions, simply because there is nothing deeper. There is only the virtual potential that comes to precede material performativity (Nunes 1995). Space and time collapse into a hyperpotential point—a place “more real than the real” in lieu of ground participation (Baudrillard 1994; Dean 2009; Nunes 1995; Zizek 1996). The internet becomes the fetish through which we disavow our democratic lack, shoring the capital of the real into a prosthetic god, the slaughtered dream of enlightenment humanism, which led us into this situation to begin with (Dean 2009; Nunes 1995; Zizek 1996).
On the other side of big data, capitalism strives triumphant, data-farming millions of their free labour in likes and tweets, sold as commodity packages to transnational advertising firms, repackaged and returned as targeted adverts (Fuchs 2014). There is no transparency. Users hide their profiles from one another, but never from those who hold the most power, because there is no choice (Fuchs 2014). Connect or fall wayside. Big data crunches through the crippled dream of democracy, so that the big wigs of social media can get a fat pay check. Nothing has changed. The rallying cry over the success of social media ignores the fact that all our data and labour belongs to someone else. Virtuality has been corporatised; the hyperreal has become a brand platform, concentrated into the hands of an elite minority (Fuchs 2014; Ritzer 2015). We are the 99% reliant on the technologies of the 1% we oppose the most. A shift into a consumptive society does not efface the necessity of taking back the means of production, of going beyond a slave morality that must constantly define itself in terms of the masters.3
Liberal democracy was never great to begin with, after all, have we ever had the ability to vote our bosses out of office?4 Its narrow confinement in the political sphere leaves us utterly vulnerable to social and economic coercions, with beneficiaries and immigrants (currently) taking the brunt of the blow. But four decades of neoliberalism has effaced any substantial vision of an alternative in the public imaginary. When your livelihood is threatened by a totalitarian corporate presence, it becomes a survival tactic to turn elsewhere for hope. Herein lies the deceptive charm of digital democracy. While spaces can be carved out digitally, these spaces still rely on the physical technologies of capitalism—toxic processing of rare elements, sweatshop assembly of components, fossil-fuel powered distribution systems, digital-waste dumping—one cannot escape exploitation whilst the system remains in place (McGuigan 2012; Slack & Wise 2015; Taffel 2016).
Commodity fetishism works to disavow these realities. The ossified labour of production is transformed into a commodity on its arrival into the sphere of exchange. Who hears of the workers’ plight when buying a new iPhone? Instead, one hears of how innovative, elegant and bold the new model is (McGuigan 2012; Slack & Wise 2015). iPhone, show piece of Silicon Valley, which would not exist without the exploitative labour of lower-class women in Asia. Of course, we still know this process happens. The fetish does not efface reality, but rather, actively denies it (Dean 2009). Like a spectral haunt, one must see to disbelieve. One must actively close one’s eyes. The fetish transfers all responsibility from oneself to the object—frees us of the burden of living with ourselves, of knowing that we actively reproduce our own living hell (Dean 2009; Zizek 1996).5 The fetish comes to stand for both our lack of agency and our means to agency (Dean 2009); a prosthetic god in place of das Ding, the thing we cannot actually obtain, but which we circle around, indefinitely, reproducing the condition that originally led us to it—lack (Evans 2006).
Digital democracy is no different. Reification generates digital phantoms—circulating content with no (material) performative weight, desirable for their exchange value only (Dean 2009; Sobchack 2004).6 Exacerbated by hyperreality, this capital signifies nothing but the simulation itself, a hyperconnected network totally integrated into all aspects of modern reality, whilst simultaneously, totally apart and disconnected from it (Debord 1994; Nunes 1995). Trapped in this (ir)reality, big data comes to resemble the solution—‘We simply have not communicated enough! We simply must communicate more!’—never questioning whether the digital communication we partook in was the cause of our alienation to begin with (Nunes 1995).7
It is here we must recognise no Ding will ever make us whole, but that our futile chase still bears consequences on the world. A system of desire, after all, is also a system of power. Desire circulates what power produces, reifying our material conditions as the only conceivable world amongst a multitude of (im)possible alternatives (Foucault 1978). However, in our spectacular society, simply disavowing the digital (as the digital has disavowed the material) gets us nowhere. We live in a digital society; and though “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” (Lorde 1983) the master’s tools can still be reshaped into weapons. Social media is not socially progressive. It is built by capitalists, and no matter how good their intentions, it must profit to survive in the competitive global market. It must exploit the labour of coders and users, server technicians and rare-earth miners, checkout chicks and sweatshop workers, along with countless other producers and consumers connected into this circuit.8,9 Social media is not socially progressive—but people are.
Enter détournement, the transvaluation of that which currently exists through the violent irruption of meaning (exchange value) for ends outside of capital (use value) (Debord 1994; Situationist International 1958). The pleasure of the fetish is confronted by the jouissance of subversion, the repetition of the traumatic real that led to the fetish’s formation to begin with (Debord 1994; Evans 2006). Where pleasure limits (to what has already been), jouissance transvaluates; and although jouissance never reaches das Ding either, it breaks apart the ossified (false) wholeness of the symbolic (Dean 2009; Evans 2006).10
Case in point, vaporwave, the coming together of digital subjects (the quintessential isolated producer/consumer) to reveal the spectral residue of capital relations in the marketing of 90’s products and services.11 Through both temporal distancing and satirical exaggeration, the promise of a better future is re-framed as artificial and hollow, surface-images lacking any substantial core. Vaporwave reveals our crushed reality through bitter mockery. ‘Drink happiness,’ but don’t feel it. ‘Maybe she’s born with it,’ maybe it’s alienation. ‘I’m lovin’ it,’ but not myself. Advertisements lose their glamour through an excess of reflexive editing and the juxtaposition of commodities with expressions of self-loathing and worthlessness.12 Vaporwave as détournement turns the bourgeoisie’s creations against themselves, at the same time it generates a solidarity of radical estrangement amongst digital users (Debord 1994). Vaporwave retools social media for a resurgent use value, precisely because its message appears only on the surface; because it is—explicitly—hyperreal. Isolated by digital postmodernity, individual suffering reacts as a collective generative impotency. As Marx (2004) put it himself, “What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers.” An immanent critique of social media, through social media, for a better social media, which never was and never will be under the false elsewhere of a capitalist now.
1 See McGowan’s From the Imaginary Look to the Real Gaze for a concise explanation of the objet petit a.
2 Occupy, Arab Spring, Black Lives Matter, to name a few.
3 See Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morality, or wiki master-slave morality.
4 Not that voting has ever counted much for anything (see Draper’s Marx on Democratic Forms of Government).
5 See Sartre’s No Exit, Being and Nothingness if you’re feeling particularly masochistic, or just wiki the gaze, being-for-others and bad faith.
6 In other words, cultural capital, the particular statuses afforded by particular consumer goods. Jager bombs as trashy, craft beer as cultivated. Goods not consumed for their material utility, but rather, for their cultural utility.
7 Communication with no response is no communication at all.
8 Think of all the food and transportation involved, the hegemonic culture of coffee that dominates student and white-collar communities. The entire network of consumable leisure activities which prop up the production of any technology company, and ultimately, the reproduction of capitalism as a global political, economic, social and cultural order.
9 This labour is highly gendered, classed and racialised. The emotional labour of women in the ‘west,’ the cripplingly low-paid labour of women in the ‘east.’ Though these lines of division were created by colonial powers hundreds of years ago, they still structure the present and will continue to do so under an economic order that minimises costs to maximise profit, with no regard for any other aspect of existence (just look up suicide rates and climate change).
10 In our case, the digital dream that keeps the left fractured, market-oriented and identity-focused.
11 See Derrida’s Specters of Marx, or wiki hauntology.
12 The first, reflexivity, acts to reveal the constructedness of the product. The second, juxtaposition, connects the product to the wider social phenomena of alienation and suicide.
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