All Roads Lead to Alienation: Melancholy and Communicative Capitalism

I had a conversation with lēves last week on WhatsApp about the pros and cons of various messaging services…

Whilst she had her preferences, I was resolutely more… “disenfranchised”…

To my mind, how best to communicate feels like the ultimate generational problem these days. How many times have you asked yourself something along the lines of: “How do I opt out of this social media hellscape without my actual social life taking a hit?”; “How do I reject the alienation of social media without becoming even more alienated?”

These are interesting, if infuriating, problems — not just for users of these platforms but for those who have built them as well. Facebook is, of course, the most obvious example. As it continues with its efforts towards world domination, consolidating a whole variety of platforms and features under its monolithic “F”, it seems that — surprise, surprise! — many people don’t actually want everything they do online to be consolidated under a single platform. (The difficulty of establishing this gradually in the West has not stopped the company pitching it wholesale elsewhere.)

The more Facebook tries to connect people, the more people criticise the platform’s tandem attempts at monopolisation, undermining the fragmentary principles — “high connectivity, low integration” — that the internet was supposedly built on. Whilst older generations nonetheless continue to flock to Facebook as a Friends Reunited substitute, many younger people have been turning their backs on the enforced ubiquity of its various societal uses, particularly in light of its data misusage debacles.

I made the decision to “opt out” of Facebook quite recently but what has horrified me about the process of making this decision is that I was unable to “opt out” absolutely.

Since initially (but not very consistently) shirking off my meatspace identity for this blog, my relationship with Facebook has fundamentally changed. It is no longer something that I need for social networking — in fact, I’ve found the benefits of posting without a face to be innumerable — but it nonetheless remains a platform that I continue to need solely for work.

Until very recently, I spent a lot of time doing freelance work which required me to run a pretty big Facebook page with thousands of “likes”, using it to upload events and respond to various enquiries and things like that. I’ve done this a few times in the past. In fact, I’ve done a fair amount of consulting work related to digital media, advising arts organisations and universities on how best to build up and use web platforms in interesting and perhaps unfashionable ways, recommending blogs rather than social media accounts — I have always been an advocate for the blogosphere — as alternatives twhich allow staff and/or student bodies to have more control over how they represent themselves online: blogs as platforms for workers, not just marketing departments and CEOs.

Case in point: having run a blog for the entirety of my undergrad years — and for some years before — I was asked by my course leader in my third year to set one up for the course itself to function as a multipurpose online space run by and for students. Part student newspaper, part newsletter, it took off once I graduated and became a place where the staff could show off their activities to prospective students whilst the students used it as a space to post irreverent opinion pieces and exhibition reviews. It was brilliant — institutionally practical (ensuring its survival) whilst also challenging expectations. Unfortunately, it died with the course itself.

Blogs like this made a lot more sense 10 years ago than they do today. These days, blogs are seen as being a bit cumbersome and old-hat — laying the foundations for fully-functioning websites in and of themselves rather than being additional nodes for diffuse representation and communication. Instead, social media now reigns supreme as the only way to connect with “your audience”.

When I now dabble with digital media, for work rather than play, Facebook is almost always the first thing I end up working with, meaning that it has stopped being an escape from work into procrastination and instead become wholly associated with work in and of itself. (I have misused Twitter far too much for this to ever be the case for that platform. It’s too easily corruptible.)

It’s not unlike that age-old problem with emails. Who answers their personal emails in a timely manner anymore? No one — especially if its what you already do at work all day. Now it seems like this problem has spread, like a virus, as media monopolies continuously mutate, in a constant state of flux and disarray, vying for attention and encouraging the most bizarre behaviour and habits. It’s as if Facebook has some sort of autoimmune disease, a victim of its own success as a carrier for digital viruses.

Of course, none of this will be news to anyone working in these areas today — most will no doubt know far more than I do about these sorts of trends — but it tells us something about where we’ve been and where we’re going, somewhat imperceptibly.

I found all of these thoughts and experiences coalescing together as lēves and I discussed how best to stay in touch with one another in the coming months, trying to balance out seemingly conflicting desires for personal connection and digital disconnection.

After our conversation, I ended up turning to Jodi Dean’s writings on “communicative capitalism” — a term of hers that I think deserves far more attention that it has so far received (as far as I’m aware), not least because, in recognising how common these conversations are in my own life, it feels like an apt and under-explored arena for consciousness-raising.

Communicative capitalism, in the simplest terms, is Dean’s name for capitalism’s newest obsession: data. For Dean, capitalism in the early 21st century has parasitically attached itself to our communicative technologies with such success that it has found new and unprecedented forms of libidinal engineering and cultural subjection.

I’ve written about Jodi Dean’s work a few times in recent years, although I’m not sure if much of that — or any of it — has made its way onto the blog. I was specifically interested in her writings via her influence on Mark Fisher. In a number of lectures and talks, Fisher would speak generally about the rise and further rise of the smart phone as, primarily, a device for communication but one which continues to infiltrate all areas of our lives as an almost transhumanist capitalist appendage.

In his short talk “Practical Eliminativism”, Mark would not mince words:

The constitution of our subjectivity in everyday life is the product of various forms of engineering and manipulation; the reality in which we are invited to live is constructed by PR and corporations, is a form of libidinal informational engineering. So I think this mandates a kind of counter-engineering practice that must be undertaken. … [W]e’ve seen massive behavioural mutations of the human population in the last decade. But they’re turning towards banal ends, such as Facebook, smartphones, etc. What you’re seeing are behavioural tics that have passed through a population, i.e. looking at a screen, digital twitch, etc. These behaviours were not in place ten to fifteen years ago; it was impossible for them to be in place. Now they are ubiquitous.

He continues:

… mainstream culture has become increasingly reduced to folk psychological interiority. Whether it’s reality tv or social networks, people have been captured/captivated by their own reflections. It’s all done with mirrors. The various attacks on the subject in theory have done nothing to resist the super-personalization of contemporary culture. Identitarianism rules. Queer theory might reign in the academy, but it has done nothing to halt the depressing return of gender normativity in popular culture and everyday life. Elements of ‘leftist’ politics not only collude in, but actively organise this rampant identitarianism, corralling groups into ’communities’ defined according to the categories of power: a Foucauldian dystopia. … [I]ncreasingly cultural time is taken up with forms which, at the psychological level, mirror people back to themselves in the most banal possible kind of manifest image. The question now is whether a certain kind of defacialization can be recovered — whether a practical, not merely theoretical, eliminativist project can be resumed, and whether we can start getting out of our faces again.

It is all too easy to hear Mark’s critique here in the voice of a luddite moralism, decrying millennial narcissism. The myth of Echo and Narcissus is most certainly applicable here, but the message is rather that resistance is futile. The tragic conditions of both Echo and Narcissus are imposed on all. Self-love has nothing to do with it. It rather describes the conditions under which subjectivity is formed, through which a subject forcibly ricochets off its own image as its strives impotently for its outside. It is the very basis of subjection under communicative capitalism, all too readily dismissed as a fault of the individual who is only acting according to widespread social imposition.

I’m reminded here of Bataille’s various writings on “communication” in which he wonders about the ways that we can’t help but debase ourselves before each other, undermining our own idealisms of the subjective whole.

Communication, for Bataille, is inherently evil. It is an absolute necessity for being but it is also inherently violent. It is predicated on conflict. Communication, in this way, is a constant challenge to the Idea of the subject as an intact and bordered entity. Communication is the constant piercing of subjects by other subjectivities. It is not limited to language in its form but rather flows from the outside continuously, even in our silences. It is like smoke out the exhaust of inner experience, ruining itself, outside itself. To remedy the onslaught with absolute isolation is to sit in your garage with the engine running. You won’t stop “communication”, you’ll just suffocate on it.


This is likewise an analogy applicable, I think, to the alienation of social media. Under communicative capitalism, communication itself is captured. All our talk of echo chambers and identity politics simply marks the various ways that the subject wrecks itself on its own shores rather than on the shores of others. It is constituted by communication made profitable through the mechanisms of a kind of human centipede. To capture communication is to render it toxic to itself. What is needed, perhaps, is a return to the evil of communication as Bataille described it.

For Bataille, communication does not submit to the structure imposed on it by linguists (sender, receiver, message, etc.); it destroys this structure. It is never the transmission of a message existing independently, as a signified, between two subjects whose identity remains intact and untouched by the process: communication is loss of self in the absence of message on both sides…

With regards to this, I hear cynical echoes from Twitter and the blogosphere that wonder, incredulously, why Accelerationism is even still a thing. If you look around you, all we’re doing is slowing down. This is certainly true of the forms of capitalism we’re now all too familiar with. As far as communicative capitalism is concerned, it seems like we’re only just becoming aware that the brakes have been cut.

To return to Fisher: in order to get out of our faces again, he argues that we must resist the apparatuses of capture embedded within our communications technologies. This is why, for Fisher and for Dean, the smartphone is the primary instantiation of a Marcusean “biological foundation” for communicative capitalism; the most visible example of how the libido has been most recently engineered for capital’s benefit.

The question nevertheless remains: How are we to get out of our faces again when faciality is today more forcibly imposed on us than ever before?

This is not a new challenge although it has been entrenched ever deeper. Herbert Marcuse, in his brilliant Essay on Liberation, even predicts it, way back in the 1960s, presaging the new materialism of Deleuze and Guattari by conflating a Nietzschean genealogy of morality with a Freudian analysis of our civilisation’s discontents. Marcuse writes:

Once a specific morality is firmly established as a norm of social behaviour, it is not only introjected — it also operates as a norm of “organic” behaviour: the organism receives and reacts to certain stimuli and “ignores” and repels others in accord with the introjected morality, which is thus promoting or impeding the function of the organism as a living cell in the respective society. In this way, a society constantly re-creates, this side of consciousness and ideology, patterns of behaviour and aspiration as part of the “nature” of its people, and unless the revolt reaches into this “second” nature, into these ingrown patterns, social change will remain “incomplete,” even self-defeating.

I didn’t appreciate just how much I felt this before, struggling with my own bemused pursuit of a politics of communist collectivity, inevitably trapped under the mask of neoliberal subjectivity. I had not previously connected Dean’s analyses to the constant low-level depression that Facebook, specifically, has fostered within me as a major part of my working life. I had not previously considered just how complicit so many of my interests and daily activities are in this overarching system. And what about this blog? Does it teeter on the edge on the hypocrisy as its audience continues to grow?…

Following this melancholic crisis and returning to Dean’s writings, I came across an article of hers which I wasn’t previously familiar with: “Communicative Capitalism and Class Struggle“, a 2014 essay written for the Spheres Journal for Digital Cultures.

Dean has written about communicative capitalism a lot and I’m always amused by how many of her essays include multiple footnotes to her own previous works. Here, quoted for the sake of further clarity, drawing on her own vast back catalogue of other writings on the topic, she defines “communicative capitalism” as follows:

Communicative capitalism refers to the form of late capitalism in which values heralded as central to democracy materialize in networked communications technologies. Ideals of access, inclusion, discussion and participation are realized through expansions, intensifications and interconnections of global telecommunications. In communicative capitalism, capitalist productivity derives from its expropriation and exploitation of communicative processes. This does not mean that information technologies have replaced manufacturing; in fact, they drive a wide variety of mining, chemical, and biotechnological industries. Nor does it mean that networked computing has enhanced productivity outside the production of networked computing itself. Rather, it means that capitalism has subsumed communication such that communication does not provide a critical outside. Communication serves capital, whether in affective forms of care for producers and consumers, the mobilization of sharing and expression as instruments for “human relations” in the workplace, or contributions to ubiquitous media circuits.

This is what we all inherently know, deep down — and now more than ever, following the data scandals of recent years. “Communication serves capital“.

Dean’s analysis begins to feel like a tightrope between those aspects of modernity that are so hard to think about: the occulted yet monstrous scale of our communcations networks and their co-opting of the minutiae of our quotidian online existences. Rather than jettisoning the problematics of “platform capitalism” out into the barely thinkable scale of “Big Data”, communicative capitalism allows us to consider, practically, just how complicit our daily communications now are in capitalism as a global system, allowing for the initiation of practices of consciousness raising immanently at our fingertips. The task of resistance, however, is not to be underestimated.

Mark wrote about this in his essay “Touchscreen Capture”:

The genius of communicative capitalist capture is that it is indifferent to content. It doesn’t care how many anti-capitalist messages are circulating, only that the circulation of messages continues, incessantly. This is a seemingly perfect system of capture in which “[c]hanging the system seems to entail strengthening the system.” One consequence is that an “invidious and predatory political-economic project that concentrates assets and power in the hands of the very, very rich” is disguised as its opposite: an open, participatory system that offers increased access. By this sleight of hand, structural antagonism is made to disappear, “multiplying … into myriad minor issues and events”. And what is it that drives this circulation if not our desire — one more connection, to give one more reply, to keep on clicking? […] It is not human groups or individuals who have access to an unlimited wealth of information; it is capitalist cyberspace that now has virtually unlimited access to us — to our nervous systems, to our appetites, to our energy, to our attention. We become a channel through which communicative capitalism circulates and proliferates, slaves to click drive, a drive which erodes our impulse control at the same time as it keeps a permanent record of everything we do.

Such is the minefield of personal-political problems that so many of us now openly and articulately struggle with. My 2018, for instance, feels defined by the guilt associated with the impact of my messaging (or lack thereof) on a localised scale; the guilt of wanting more control over my cognitive expenditures.

I am repeatedly blindsided by the guilt of not being as attentive as I perhaps should be to the messages I receive on social media or in my inbox. I’m always paranoid that people must think, “Well, you spend so much time blogging, why can’t you just look at an email or a Facebook message since you’re already online?” The answer is — genuinely — because it’s work.

This isn’t to go so far as to dismiss texting as some kind of “emotional labour” or anything like that — “emotional labour” being a phrase so frequently and incorrectly deployed, as if its mere use, signifying the act of pointing and naming cognitive expenditure, is enough to wriggle free from ubiquitous processes of subjection. In fact, I suspect that what I feel is so common as to no doubt have helped birth this very misuse of the concept of “emotional labour” — that is: as far as my brain is concerned, at the most basic Pavlovian level, communications technologies have dissolved any healthy distinction between the cognitive work I do in an office or during set hours at home and what I do when I’m at home on my own time, interacting with people not in my immediate vicinity.

And that’s bad, especially when these are now the only ways in which I can stay in touch with some of those people that I love but who live far away.

Related to this, we can observe that Dean makes clear that she is only talking about “affective forms of care for producers and consumers, the mobilization of sharing and expression as instruments for ‘human relations’ in the workplace, or contributions to ubiquitous media circuits”, but who can draw the line between those communiques made under the watchful eye of an office manager and those which you do at home? Communicative capitalism infects your superego, making any technical distinction moot. How are you supposed to set boundaries for yourself when technology insists on erasing them completely?

To feel the benefits of time off, of time to myself, I personally feel like I have to be (communicatively) off the radar. This has never been a necessity for me before, and sometimes it wanes when I’m out in the middle of nowhere.

During the most recent years I spent living in Hull, for instance, Twitter was my lifeline to the rest of the world. London, however, feels like a city where you are constantly buffeted around like trash in the wind, and I am often desperate here in wanting to feel like I have more control over what occupies my mind.

In orbit of this problem, Fisher goes on to address similar concerns in “Touchscreen Capture”, drawing on the politics of boredom, best encapsulated by his subheading: “Everything is Boring, No-One is Bored.” He writes that “capitalism has effectively solved the problem of boredom” but with that comes a lack of control over your own (over)stimulation. The suggestion seems to be: how can you be sad or anxious when everything you could ever want is at your fingertips? Running parallel to this is “neoliberalism’s successful tendency to privatise stress, to convert political antagonisms into medical conditions or failures of will.” The neoliberal logic of inner experience seems to be that mental illness, taken to be an individual deficiency, is obviously antithetical to our current age of cultural collective abundance, even when the causes of both are one and the same.

Dean puts it perfectly — so perfectly, in fact, I think I want this on a t-shirt — when she writes:

[C]ommunication has become a primary means for capitalist expropriation and exploitation. Linguistic, affective, and unconscious being-together, flows and processes constitutive not just of being human but of broader relationality and belonging, have been co-opted for capitalist production.

My personal politics — apparently sometimes unclear — revolve intensely around this last point.

Some eagle-eyed readers might recognise in this diagnosis the seeds for many an argument made in orbit of the patchwork debate around these parts. I’m reminded, yet again, of some of Justin Murphy’s recent writings and discussions around communism in which (perhaps intentionally or inadvertently — it’s hard to tell) he highlights the fateful confluences of much contemporary thinking about capitalism and communism.

“Actually existing communism”, understood in its supposedly pure form as the ontopolitical opposite of capitalism, is paradoxically more possible now than ever before, thanks to the very mechanisms of communicative capitalist capture and its harnessing of collective energies. Justin, in recognising this, seeks to follow it through to its logical conclusions. The acceleration of the status quo under the guise of a nonexistent radical intervention, like accelerationism popularly (and incorrectly) understood as the willful acceleration of things as they currently are.

Defining communism basically as “a theory or system of social organization in which all property is owned by the community and each person contributes and receives according to their ability and needs”, we might observe that it is communicative capitalism that seeks to own our communities, empowering us superficially so that it might mine the noise we make for its own ends as we suffocate in our social vacuums. Too few of us admit that our visions of a 21st century communism are inherently useful for capitalism.

Were it not for the political upsets of the past two years, Facebook might have instantiated a form of communism like that which we see in the 2017 film The Circle, blogged about recently, echoing Justin Murphy’s own “aristocratic communist” patch. Communicative capitalism allows for the reemergence of the spectre of communism in the popular imagination, but only on capitalism’s own terms, instantiating a communist ideology that remains self-defeating, albeit in a new way than those instances that indelibly mark the theory’s history.

Patchwork (as I personally see it anyway) is like a jagged rock to communicative capitalism’s birth canal hall of mirrors. This might explain why it provokes such untold and superstitious terrors in the minds of many, but drastic measures are surely necessary to reclaim a politics of relationality and belonging from capitalism’s consolidated mimicry of leviathan.

Whilst the Left continues to talk so much about being-together and the feel-good politics of its historically communal (and sometimes communist) thought, it repeatedly fails to attend to the forms in which it presents these ideals, under the shadow of capitalism as its historical “oppressor”. Patchwork might likewise cunningly echo the movements of some capitalist mechanisms but they are decisively less about capture and more about breaking of the chains of subjection.

Here, it is worth backtracking somewhat, to how Dean’s previously referenced article starts: provocatively, with a roll call of examples that show just how necessary our thinking about the nuances of communicative capitalism is, not just so we might resist it but so that we might better understand what it is exactly that we are already rebelling against:

We have entered the first phase of the revolt of the knowledge class. The protests associated with the Occupy movement, Chilean student protests, the Montreal protests, European anti-austerity protests, some components of the protests of the Arab spring, as well as multiple ongoing and intermittent strikes of teachers, civil servants, and medical workers all over the world, are protests of those proletarianized under communicative capitalism. These are not struggles of the multitude, struggles for democracy, or struggles specific to local contexts. Nor are they merely the defensive struggles of a middle class facing cuts to social services, wage stagnation, unemployment, and declining home values. They are fronts in a class war under the conditions of global communicative capitalism.

Mainstream media babble about Facebook and Twitter revolutions was right, but for the wrong reasons. It was right to draw our attention to networked media, to suggest a link between the protests and ubiquitous communication networks. But it was wrong to think that protests are occurring because people can easily coordinate with social media, that they are primarily struggles for democracy, or that they are indications of a push for freedom on the part of networked individuals. These revolts make sense as class struggle, as the political struggle of a knowledge class whose work is exploited and lives are expropriated by communicative capitalism.

I am using the term knowledge class very broadly to designate those whose communicative activities generate value that is expropriated from them. I have in mind both the wide field of knowledge labor and the voluntary, unpaid, everyday activities of media use that are traced, stored, aggregated and analyzed as a proprietary resource for capitalist accumulation. Paid, unpaid and precarious labor should not be treated separately. As Enda Brophy and Greig de Peuter powerfully demonstrate, they constitute a “circuit of exploitation”. Brophy and de Peuter use the smartphone to articulate this labor circuit, making sense of it in terms of work typical of a “cybertariart”. The “circuit of exploitation” around the smartphone moves from extraction, assembly and design through mobile-work, support-work, and e-waste.

It’s a bleak outlook but she concludes by highlighting the most obvious other forms of resistance that so many engage already with, many examples of which are explored in these blogospheric parts on an almost daily basis:

[F]ragmentation, the use of images over demands, and being out of doors, are not remarkable tactical innovations and advances. They are practical responses to a setting in which our communicative engagements are expropriated from us.

There’s use for a patchwoke U/Acc yet.


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