Whatever, Life


“WhateverLife.com is simply put as an ‘inside joke’. It then developed into something else- as ‘For whatever life you lead’- meaning there would be information and fun things for anyone and everyone! (Which is why I’m always expanding in content…er, as much as I can!) [[[Or, for the long story…a night at Bre’s back in 2004 (playing Mario Party 2 or 3…)- we both lost to computer characters (I think DK was on EASY)- So I throw the controller down and walk off. On my way, I say ‘Whatever, Life’- as sarcastically as possible. Then I started thinking about how neat of a website name it would be. Here it is. 🙂 ♥ ]]]”
— Ashley Qualls, founder of Whateverlife.com, a hugely succesful MySpace layouts website.

The quote above was taken from ‘Blog Theory: Feedback and Capture in the Circuits of Drive’, the new book by Jodi Dean, arguably one of the most striking voices working today at the crossroads between contemporary radical political thinking and new media technologies. In a breathlessly compelling fashion she expands her earlier explorations of what she calls “communicate capitalism”, a notion indicating the role of networked communication technologies in the advancing convergence of democracy and capitalism. By focussing on blogging and related practices of online disclosure, discussion and surveillance, she tries to access and unravel the current conjuncture of media, subjectivity and politics. The anecdote of whateverlife.com is used to illustrate what she considers as one of the key features of communicative capitalism: the emergence of so-called “whatever beings”. The term, introduced by Giorgio Agamben and further developed by Dominic Pettman in his fascinating book ‘Love and Other Technologies: Retrofitting Eros for the Information Age’, points at contemporary modes of belonging unbound by inscriptions of disciplinary identity. In Agamben’s words: “a being whose community is mediated not by any condition of belonging (being red, being Italian, being Communist) …but by belonging itself”. What matters is belonging, not that to which one belongs. Pending in limbo. At the same time, blogs and other personalized “participatory” media say: whatever happens to me matters – if only just for a second. Mattering matters, but only in and of itself. Convenience surpasses commitment – just leave your mark. This is what the popular blank word “whatever” (not coincidentally also the English title of one of Michel Houellebecq’s books) suggests: communication without communicability. In the networks of communicative capitalism, everything can be said, but all that is said merely serves as a contribution to its infinite flows of information and entertainment. What or who is irrelevant, as long as something is said (which is precisely what Pentagon’s “Message force multipliers” rely on). The only thing relevant is circulation itself.

“What could motivate whatever beings? What might move them? As Agamben conceives them, they seek nothing, they lack nothing. They co-belong without struggle or antagonism. It would seem, then, that they are not political beings at all; their being is a-political, beyond politics. They neither attack nor resist; they are neither inside nor outside. Perhaps it makes better sense to think of the politics of whatever beings in terms of their setting. They are moved and propelled; they circuit through contemporary networks”.

Caught in a Trap

The contemporary setting of electronically mediated subjectivity is one of infinite doubt and ultimate reflexivization. Our networks are reflexive, because we create, feed and sustain them. “We are producing the environment we inhabit, the connections that configure us. We provide the feedback that amplifies or ignores. We are configuring the world we inhabit, yet there are ever less what we desire but haven’t reached and ever more what we cannot escape yet still enjoy.“ Networked, participatory media let us stage and perform our own entrapment. Dean links this compulsive complicity to the psychoanalytic concept of “drive”, drawing heavily on the work of Lacan and Žižek. The latter writes, “drive is something in which the subject is caught, a kind of acephalous force which persists in its repetitive movement”. Drive circulates endlessly, round and round, producing satisfaction in the repetitive process of not reaching it. We enjoy our faillure, even if we think we don’t. What we enjoy is the circulation of affect that presents itself as communication – which is exactly what accrues from reflexive communication, from communication for its own sake. As the system draws us in, we become captured in our endless circulation, lost in our repetitive loop. Click. Click. Post. Post. Tweet. Tweet. Drive takes its force and pulsion from loss, the loss of “symbolic efficiency” (aka the collapse of the big Other), the term that Žižek (inspired by Lévi-Strauss) uses to designate the fundamental uncertainty accompanying the impossibility of anchoring and pinning down meaning. “We cannot know certainly; we cannot know adequately. But we can mobilize this loss, googling, checking Wikipedia, mistrusting it immediately, losing track of what we doing, going somewhere else. We are captured because we enjoy”. Now that the gaps of signification and desire are increasingly being filled in and closed off, we find ourselves complying with suffocating injunctions to enjoy, express, be real. And as we try to make sense of it all, go out looking for ourselves, in the brittle hope to pull together our fragmented identity and dispersed consciousness, we only get stuck in the holes around which we circulate. Drawn to these uncertainties, we inscribe ourselves in the images we see, the stories and theories we read. Dean relates this condition to the idea of the gaze – the gaze, however, not as the big Other of the “ego ideal” (the point from which one sees one’s actions as making sense) but precisely as the object of the drive. In this reading, the gaze refers to the subject’s entrapment in the field of the visible: “I see only from one point, but in my existence I am looked at from all sides” (Lacan). What one sees is always incomplete, in need of replenishment. We are aware that all of our actions and disclosures are being watched, followed, remembered – in ways that often exceed our ability to manage or control – but that’s precisely what moves us to keep on posting, confessing and expressing. At the same time the notion of the gaze also reminds us that “what one looks at is what cannot be seen”. In communicative capitalism, the gaze to which we make ourselves visible is a point hidden in an opaque and heterogeneous network (what Lacan calls “objet petit a”), rendering ourselves vulnerable to various forms of exploitation. This gaze refers “not to a specific person whom one imagines being seen by but rather to a more unsettling feeling of an excess disturbing one’s seeing, both in terms of what one sees and in one’s being seen… Lacking answers, ever more uncertain, we become mesmerized by our own looking, entranced by the reversal of looking for an object to looking at ourselves as objects, to becoming objects ourselves”.

“Because one is never sure how one is seen, one is never certain of one’s place in the symbolic order. How, exactly, are we being looked at? One never really knows who one is—despite all the cameras, files, media, and databases. Who one is in the sociosymbolic order is uncertain—and ever changing. The order is never fixed; it is in constant flux. The term for this flux and uncertainty is the decline in symbolic efficiency.”

Driven in circles

Social networks actually provide an effective response to the decline of symbolic efficiency. “Anxious before the gaze, before the disturbing inquiries and intrusions of unknow others, unsure about what to expect, about whether one is succeeding or failing, whether others are friends or foes, we build more reliable, apparently intimate networks”. And so we, the users, the whatever beings, are sucked deeper and deeper into the circuits of drive. Without stable points of symbolic identification, we incessantly oscillate between the imaginary and the Real, “crafting our ever-adaptable, morphing, identities even as they remain threatened and vulnerable to the success, presence, and enjoyment of others. Communicative capitalism commands us to enjoy, at the same time that it reminds us that we aren’t enjoying enough, as much, or as good as others are.” We move from one imaginary identity to another, never sure of how we appear because we don’t really know before whom we appear. Rather than following norms, we cycle through trends. Caught in the reflexive network, we lose the capacity for reflection – our networks are reflexive so that we don’t have to be. “The movement from link to link, the forwarding and storing and commenting, the contributing without expectation of response but still hoping of further movement (why else count page views?) comes down to nothing but circulation for its own sake.” The more we contribute, the more we surrender. As we share our thoughts and upload our videos, there are more opinions to read and images to watch, more responses to write and elements to mix ’n’ blend. So we get lost in our own exuberance: the continuous search for the information we need renders it perpetually out of reach. At the same time the reflexivity of complex networks leads to power law distributions and installs previously unseen dimensions of inequality. But still we believe that our actions can make a difference, infused by fantasies of abundance, inclusion, discussion, and participation (Žižek describes this kind of false activity with the term “interpassivity”). According to Dean, then, this circulation of infostreams is in essence depoliticizing, not because people don’t care or don’t want to be involved, but because we do. The possibilities of access, distribution, sharing and participation that networked communications imply, far from enhancing democratic governance or resistance, result in precisely the opposite: the post-political formation of communicative capitalism. Here Dean’s account differs from the one offered by the likes of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, who also consider communication as capitalist production, but do see potential for political change. With Agamben she argues that communication has “detached itself from political ideals of belonging and connection to function today as a primarily economic form. Differently put, communicative exchanges, rather than fundamental to democratic politics, are the basic elements of capitalist production”.

“As multiple-recombinant ideas and images circulate, stimulate, they distract us from the antagonisms constitutive of contemporary society, inviting us to think that each opinion is equally valid, each option is equally liked, and each click is a significant political intervention. The deluge of images and announcements, enjoining us to react, to feel, to forward them to our friends, erodes critical-theoretical capacities – aren’t they really just opinions anyways, Feelings dressed up in jargon? Drowning in plurality, we lose the capacity to grasp anything like a system. React and forward, but don’t by any means think”.

Running on Empty

The loops and repetitions of the circuit of drive characterize the dynamics of the networks of communicative capitalism, the ways its flows capture subjects, energies and aspirations. Accompanying each repetition, each loop or reversal, is a little nugget of enjoyment, a smidgen of attention that attaches to it, making it stand-out from the larger flow before it blends back in. Enjoyment (or jouissance in Lacanian terms) is key here. We keep on contributing to the networks because we enjoy it (in fact, the open architecture of the internet enables and requires the capture of enjoyment insofar as it is premised on users’ contributions). Not that we like to admit to it: at the same time as we’re posting, browsing, skimming, we’re always imagining that we surely have something better to do: read a good book, clean the house, participate in a political rally. While fantasizing out loud, the necessary confrontation with drive is constantly suspended. “Confident in what we would prefer to do, if only we could, we overlook what we are actually doing. The fantasy of enjoyment covers over the fact that we are already enjoying, that we get off, just a little bit, in and through our multiple, repetitive, mediated interactions”. Moreover, the overall multiplicity of these interactions obscures their embeddedness in the communicative capitalism that makes them possible in the first place. That’s how blogs and social network platforms, situated in a logic of drive, function as “displaced mediators”, accessing and amplyfying the key features of communicative capitalism: the intensification of mediality in reflexive networks (communicating about communicating), the emergence and failed subjectivation of whatever beings (beings who belong but not to anything in particular), the circulation of affect (as networks generate and amplify spectacular effects). The very media practices we enjoy, that connect us to others appropriate and reassemble our longings (not for something we want but rather lack) into new forms of exploitation and control. What is too often idealized as the very form of freedom – reflexivity – is unveiled as a mechanism for the generation of inequality and capture, smoothing the paths of neoliberal capitalism. Even as globally networked communications provide tools and terrains of struggle, they make political change more difficult—and at the same time more necessary—than ever before. According to Dean, the blind faith in the transformative power of our networks, the believe that they are capable of changing politics just as they changed our economics, can only be explained if one thinks there is no politics other than the market. “This Lack or absence of the political is the hole around which networked communications circulate. Or, more precisely, this loss of a capacity to think the political circulates as drive.“ The open question Dean leaves us with is if we can develop media politics beyond communicative capitalism. How to break with and through the fantasies attaching us to communicative capitalism? Where to look for strategies that redirect and disrupt the loop of drive?

“Communicative capitalism is a formation that relies on imbalance, on the repeated suspension of narratives, patterns, identities, norms, etc. Under conditions of the decline of symbolic efficiency, drive is not an act; it does not break out of a set of given expectations because such sets no longer persist as coherent enchainments of meaning. On the contrary, the circulation of drive is functional for the prevention of such enchainments, enchainments that might well enable radical political opposition. The contemporary challenge, then, is producing the conditions of possibility for breaking out of or redirecting the loop of drive”.

Image: still taken from ‘Nam June Paik’s Fingerprints’ (Taly & Russ Johnson, 2006)