All Roads Lead to Alienation (Part 2): …But Is That Really Such a Bad Thing?

The last post on this topic, whilst using ‘alienation’ in its title, didn’t really address alienation itself in much detail. This was an oversight — one rightly pointed out by @cyborg_nomade on Twitter when they asked the most obvious question — to me anyway — that I hadn’t really considered in the context of talking about social media: “why struggle against alienation?

I think it’s worth taking better account of this question, for further clarity, and in the process I might figure out where exactly my previously expressed feelings are coming from…

Why ‘Alienation’?

The last post on Facebook alienation was, to my mind, an over-long mess and I was surprised by its positive reception. Whilst there was plenty of theory drawn on, it grew out of a very personal attempt to understand an innate desire to flee some platforms because of their ubiquity in different and (what I’d like to be) distinct parts of my life.

With any such attempt at an exit from a social media platform comes a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t conundrum: Facebook-as-(literal)-work made me feel alienated, as did my opting out of it as a platform that most of my IRL friends use to communicate with one another…

Such a feeling is not, as suggested last time, the seed of a “Luddite moralism”. I’m not morally against the ubiquity of communications technologies — I use Twitter, Slack, WhatsApp and WordPress daily — constantly, even — and I get a lot out of those platforms. (Obviously.) I have also previously been very cynical of those people who remove themselves from all social media as a hamfisted way of indicating they have taken on a vague political stance and then get grumpy about other people not giving a shit about their self-imposed digital monasticism (that’s the dumbest way to do politics)… But I am sickened by Facebook’s particular ubiquity in both my social and working lives.

With social media becoming work — something which I’m not doing currently but have done on numerous occasions over the last 5/6 years — Facebook becomes like my friendly cyberboss. I remember some YouTube interview with Žižek in which he derides the rise of the Friendly Boss archetype in corporate office environments as a dissolving a boundary of resistance — no comment on where he actually ends up going with the analogies but I think he raises an interesting point when he says, in the first few seconds of the video:

Of course I have nothing against the fact that your boss treats you in a nice way and so on. The problem is if this not only covers up the actual relationship of power, it makes it even more impenetrable. 

His point is, who do you rebel against as a worker when your boss is your mate? What happens to that structural demarcation of labour and power? He points out that it becomes impolite to rebel as your friend-boss takes any discontentment with work personally.

The joy of being a freelancer is that, working in very small teams, this is rarely a problem for me. My “bosses” are usually my mates first and that survives any working relationship. Previously, however, when working as a part of something much bigger, when I’ve had to run social media accounts, it is Facebook itself which ends up taking on the role of overarching corporate “Friend”. Push notifications become to-do lists. Facebook Messenger becomes a space for planning a night at the pub and providing customer service. The “Friendly Boss” becomes impersonalised to the point that it is detached infrastructure which nonetheless produces the same affects.

Wanting to rebel and distance myself from that becomes a snub to the friends who share that space with me unrelated to the work I’m paid for. The dynamics become so utterly impenetrable as to negatively effect my non-working life with friends who are not involved in this immediate labour structure whatsoever but nonetheless are through their immanent relationship to that platform in a social context. So, if I want to leave work at “the office”, that means disconnecting from the internet. That can be healthy but, in many other ways, that becomes a form of (quite literal) social alienation. I’m in no position to have a separate “work phone” and so the work becomes oppressively pervasive. These were the feeling behind my original post

But what does any of that mean for a concept like “alienation“? Are we still talking about Hegelian-Marxist “alienation” here? Or are we simply talking about an regretful detachment from an idealised social “reality”? But wait a minute… What’s the difference? Is this instead just a partial alienation I’m trying to articulate and grumble about? Is it even alienation at all? How are you meant to critique anything from this position?…

“There’s Alienation And Then There’s Alienation…”

This problem was introduced in a short exchange between @cyborg_nomade and @omnicorrupt on Twitter, both in reply to my original post. Following @cyborg_nomade’s question about the implied necessity of struggling against alienation, @omnicorrupt writes:

Alienation is not so much something to be diagnosed as it is always a very real and practical pain in the backside. Indeed, we are always already struggling against it, and we don’t have much of a choice in the matter.

However, @cyborg_nomade argues that, in their experience, alienation is “rather enjoyable, but maybe I’m just a masochist.” @omnicorrupt responds:

There’s certainly alienation and then there’s alienation. But in the Hegelian-Marxist sense, it’s never a good thing. I compare it to a kind of social itch that you just can’t seem to scatch, a gnawing tension of distance and baseline misunderstanding.

My own sense of the word ‘alienation’ — in the specific context of Facebook — is perhaps best understood as something which has fallen between this Hegelian-Marxist sense and what @cyborg_nomade is implicitly referencing here: a cybernetic and Nietzschean ‘alienation’; a Landian ‘alientation’. On social media, these two positions become entwined and exacerbated at what feels like unprecedented levels.

Although inherently connected, these two forms of alienation articulate two very different positions — one articulates a discontentment, a detachment from our “nature” under capitalism; the other articulates a strategically advantageous pursuit of outsideness. Both are related to labour under capitalism but one takes a negative and the other a positive view of its manipulation of the human subject. Both are valid and both are necessary to grasp here before moving forwards…

Species-Being-Online

Hegelian-Marxist alienation is perhaps best understood, today, in a very general sense. We can point to Lawrence Hinman who once suggested that “alienation” today is so broad a term as to refer to “any form of discontent that cannot be cured by aspirin” (which certainly sounds familiar) but, as cynical as that may sound, this generality perhaps marks the depths to which we’ve plummeted into the murky waters of alienation today, far below the surface of Marx’s much-referenced theory. 

For Marx, alienation was that enforced distance from our “true” nature, our “species-essence”, our “species-being”, our Gattungswesen — a distance which comes from being reduced to a cog in the machine of a stratified capitalist society. Whilst a young Marx may have fallen, to some extent, for the “myth of the given” in this initial argument, suggesting that we have a base sense of what it is to be human and that capitalism distances us from this, the later Marx was clear to note that our “species-being” is malleable and constantly shaped and reshaped by social relations. Our humanity, our sense of ourselves, is, therefore, contingent, but capitalism’s oppressive influence on its constitution, stratifying the social relations that give form to the self, preserves and exacerbates this experience of rudimentary alienation the deeper we climb down into modernity. 

Alienation, then, in this sense, becomes a distance internal to our “species-being” — between the Real and the Ideal; between the conditions we’re (socially) told to strive for and the actual conditions under which we (individually) live. The more historically recent imposition of individualism and the downplaying of the social causes of discontentment are perhaps the most obvious measures of this sense of alienation as it has spread throughout the socialised medias that we wade through on the daily.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. For Herbert Marcuse, we might do well to remember, alienation is a bitter pill that nevertheless has to be swallowed. To find yourself alienated is an unpleasant realisation but, once consciousness of this ontological deficit has been sufficiently raised, it can become a useful one. Seen from this angle, alienation becomes a potential catalyst for social change. It remains negative but it becomes an opportunity at the same time.

Marcuse’s argument is still, essentially, a Marxist-Hegelian dialectical thinking. For example, for Marcuse, art was the best measurement of this form of alienation, but he was not naive — he did not fail to acknowledge art’s prized place on the walls of the bourgeoisie. Art could just as easily be a force for material domination as it could be a force for imaginative liberation. And so, in Marcuse’s dialectical view, these forces should be seen as developing in tandem with one another, each informing the other and growing with the other. It is the challenge of a positive alienation to overcome — and instigate actual social change beyond — capitalist capture.

But doesn’t that suggest they cancel each other out? Social change has certainly occurred at intervals but none so intensive as to escape the gravity of capitalism…

Genealogies of Capture

In subtle contrast to this emancipatory overcoming, Nick Land’s 1990s cybernetic sense of alienation takes its foundation from Nietzsche and his anti-Hegelianism; his rejection of Hegel the dialectician. Nietzsche saw this dialectical alienation as an auto-suicide machine. This certainly seemed true of Christianity, in his experience, with its own internal engine of alienation, which seemed to be undermining Christianity itself through its emphasis on the moral virtues of truth-telling which were undermining scripture in a modern and increasingly scientific world. As Nietzsche writes in the Genealogy of Morals:

The “salvation” of the human race (I mean, from “the Masters”) is well on course; everything is being made appreciably Jewish, Christian or plebeian (never mind the words!). The passage of this poison through the whole body of mankind seems unstoppable, even though its tempo and pace, from now on, might tend to be slower, softer, quieter, calmer — there is not hurry… With this in view, does the Church still have a necessary role, indeed, does it have a right to exist? Or could one do without it? Quaeritur. It seems that the Church rather slows down and blocks the passage of poison instead of accelerating it? Well, that might be what makes it useful… Certainly it is by now something crude and boorish, resistant to a more tender intelligence, to a truly modern taste. Should not the Church at least try to be more refined?… Nowadays it alienates, more than it seduces… 

Nietzsche, whilst he may at first concede and credit Christianity with providing us with foundational allegories of liberation and collective overcoming, argues that the Church, as Christianity’s central institution, now restricts its own ecstatic flows for the sake of its own survival, becoming an institution of repression rather than expression.

(I find it bizarre and telling, in this day and age, as this virtuous truth-telling goes out the window in the era of Fake News, that people’s interest in the early Church’s political radical nature has grown as they look for a new basis for their politics in a world seemingly defined by irrationality. I don’t really get it — though I have also written on it.)

Here we see a familiar argument arising from Land’s more contemporaneous critiques of the Cathedral — on my mind after it came up on Twitter recently — in which an atheistic sur-Christian academic left media bourgeoisie (a map of which has been posted below, stolen from Xenosystems, demonstrating its apparatuses of capture) represents this same Nietzschean synthesis of the poison with its prey, so that those who see themselves as the most vocal opponents of the status quo actually end up internally policing debate and freezing the present antebellum of the Coming Revolution in perpetual stasis. 

If the convoluted nature of Land’s Cathedralic flows is too labyrinthine to wrap your head around, let me put it another way, hopefully less susceptible to cooption by the boneheadedly conspiratorial: the internal dynamics of alienation, understood through a Hegelian-Marxist dialectical reasoning, common to modern bourgeois/proletarian society, do not produce a revolutionary synthesis of emancipatory drives but, rather, the political mundanity of an enclosed Middle Class.

The most famous pursuant of this argument — although now seemingly overlooked — was probably Jean-Paul Sartre in his Critique of Dialectical Reason, inaugurating France’s anti-Hegelianism. For Sartre, alienation goes all the way down. Dialectics become fractal relations without satisfactory resolution. Alienation is itself alienated. To save Marxism from being broken down into absolute meaninglessness its recent history must be much better accounted for. And, to his credit, Sartre seems to do a half-decent of that. (His monster two-volume (and ultimately unfinished) work is too huge to dwell on here but maybe I’ll come back to it another time once I’ve had a chance to absorb more of it.) 

Sartre’s position is, in many respects, a founding moment for the philosophies to come over the next few decades in France. It was a position explored by Deleuze, too, in Anti-Oedipus most famously, but also solo in Nietzsche and Philosophy in which he writes:

The speculative motor of the dialectic is contradiction and its resolution. But its practical motor is alienation and the suppression of alienation, alienation and reappropriation. Here the dialectic reveals its true nature; an art of quibbling beyond all others, an art of disputing properties and changing proprietors, an art of ressentiment.

This position that would come to influence so much structuralism and post-structuralism can be found very much in tact in Nietzsche himself. Again in the Genealogy of Morals, he writes:

The beginning of the slaves’ revolt in morality occurs when ressentiment itself turns creative and gives birth to values: the ressentiment of those beings who, denied the proper response of action, compensate for it only with imaginary revenge. Whereas all noble morality grows out of a triumphant saying ‘yes’ to itself, slave morality says ‘no’ on principle to everything that is ‘outside’, ‘other’, ‘non-self’: and this ‘no’ is its creative deed.

What we have here, emerging from mid-century French theory’s revitalised libido, are the beginnings of a failed rejection of an ouroborosic and totalised Academic Marx — as was also discussed on this blog recently — a Marxism that is the victim of its own success, much like the Church. The no of this Marxism is creative in that many of its most vocal and successful critics become associated, by their own material circumstances, with the bourgeoisie, to the extent that the enemy is always Other even when, on paper, it looks like yourself. (And that cognitive dissonance takes some creativity to smooth out for oneself.) And so, as Nietzsche warns us, and as many post-structuralists paradoxically hoped to demonstrate, we might credit Marx himself with providing us with a vision of proletarian revolution but we mustn’t let Academic Marxism slow us down for the sake of its own preservation. (Here we have a definition of “Cultural Marxism” that may actually hold some water, beyond the very weak variety espoused by Jordan Peterson.) (Again, Sartre’s Critique is incredibly relevant here but I’ll save unpacking that for another time.)

It is through this lineage that we become aware of the great void between the impenetrable and totalising Marxism of the academic ‘no’, still espoused by some Twitter gobshites, and the desire-drunk ‘yes’ of an “atlas of libidinal cartography” which Jean-Francois Lyotard would later argue we must now engage with: not a totalised canonical “image” of Marx, but the impossible “total” of a man and his desires. As Sartre would say, “This is not really a totalisation, or even a totality; it is rather a changing indefinite dispersal of reciprocities.” It is desire; always seeking more connections.

It was Lyotard who called most emphatically and deliriously for this desirous Marx — indeed, a “desire called Marx” — to take precedence, contrasting the theoretically drudgery of the proto-Cathedralese of much political philosophy and social science. It is likewise such a Marxism that may have emerged from Mark Fisher’s Acid Communism — and Mark sure loved the perversity of Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy… (I’ll never forget how that passage, to be found via the hyperlink, quoted on K-Punk without much comment, was read out with palpable glee by Mark in the first lecture of his Postcapitalist Desire seminar in late 2016.)

Lyotard, echoing Nietzsche’s genealogy of Judeo-Christian morality, argues that academics love the perpetuity, the limbo, of the problem of capitalism:

What happens when the person assigned to the prosecution is as fascinated by the accused as he is scandalised by him? It comes about that the prosecutor sets himself to finding a hundred thousand good reasons to prolong the study of the file, that the enquiry becomes meticulous, always more meticulous, that the lawyer submerged in the British Museum in the microscopic analysis of the aberrations of capital is no longer able to detach himself from it, that the organic unity, that this swarming of perverse fluxes that is supposed to produce (dialectically), never stops moving away, escaping him, being put off, and that the submission of petitions is kept waiting interminably. What was happening then throughout the thousands of manuscript papers? The unification of Marx’s body, which requires that the polymorphous perversity of capital be put to death for the benefit of the fulfilment of the desire for genital love, is not possible. The prosecutor is unable to deduce the birth of a new and beautiful (in)organic body (similar to that of recapitalise forms) which would be child-socialism, from the pornography of capitalism. If there is a body of capital, this body is sterile, it engenders nothing: it exceeds the capacity of theoretical discourse as unification.

Lyotard’s screed is not a rejection of academic rigour, as such. He simply demands we consider the question that became to central to Fisher’s final, unfinished project: “Do we want what we say we want?” To answer that question, we need to take a wider view of the present situation, beyond the cultural production of academia. Lyotard asks, without mincing words: “what was Marx the prosecutor’s left hand doing whilst he was writing Capital?”

Whilst the right hand writes copious amounts on the nature of the commodity, exchange value and the alienation of labour as measurable aspects of modernity, Lyotard essentially asks us to imagine that the left hand of Marx wanking copious amount of cum uselessly into the carpet — and we mustn’t let both acts be reduced to wasteful expenditures.

And so, Lyotard conjures up a Bataillean Marxism, a general economy of Marxist expenditure beyond the restricted economy of his own three-volume study. Lyotard is essentially asking us: How do we fuse the triumphant rigour of the political intellect with the desire-drunk libido of revolution without relegating both to impotence? How do we elevate the desiring “lows” of the left hand to the intellectual “heights” of the right? How do we infuse cum with Capital (and vice versa?)

One such answer has been persistently repressed. Academics have always known it and they have also long sought to suppress it at all costs. We find it articulated most excessively in Georges Bataille’s Blue of Noon — discussed on the blog this time last year — in which the character of the philosophy teacher, Melou, during a notably Oedipal ménage à trois dialogue, is stricken by the contradiction of his politics and social position on the eve of a coming revolution:

Straining his brow in folds, he declared, ‘Should we wrap ourselves in silence? Should we, on the contrary, bestow our help on the workers as they make their last stand, thereby dooming ourselves to an inescapable and fruitless death?’

And so returns the auto-suicide machine, not as pathetic horror, but as revolutionary necessity. The establishment of the middle class is one thing, subsuming class strata into a homogenous Stepford blob, but how do we now accelerate the process and satisfy the thirst for our own annihilation? Is this truly necessary? Is there no other way?…

Machinic Desire

It is here that Nick Land emerges in the 1990s and early 2000s as a renegade academic who attempts to fuse both sides of the onanistic coin in the newly virulent concoction for the contemporary moment of a burgeoning technosphere, all the while relishing the annihilation of his own academic career. 

Land’s only published monograph, whilst an academic at the University of Warwick, remains the best book on Bataille there is and the best book of literary philosophy I’ve ever read. In this book, The Thirst of Annihilation, he charts a course from Nietzsche’s anti-Hegelianism to Bataille’s own recoiling from the suicidal mechanisms of capitalist society, both during and after the official Defeat of Fascism during the Second World War, and this same desirous and libidinal searching has defined his writing — for better and for worse — ever since.

In 1992, Land writes that, for Bataille,

Capital is a headless lurch into the abyss, an acephalic catastrophe. What Bataille recoils from at this moment is not the claustrophobic managerial profanity of capital, but its psychotic flow into ruin.

But, for the late 90s Land, at the turn of the century, the dawn of the new millennium, it seems that we needn’t worry about the forgotten left hand of Marx for too much longer. In the 21st century, it is all too easy to imagine a tab-choked browser populated by pages from the Marxists Internet Archive and the latest offerings from Pornhub. Is this the new home of our revolutionary libidinous subject

You have been dumped into a heterogeneous patchwork of criminal experiments converging upon decapitated social formations. This is where base materialism intersects cyberpunk, FUCK TOMORROW scrawled on the walls


We might understand ‘alienation’, then, in Land’s cybernetic sense, to be a short-circuiting of the Hegelian-Marxist dialectic, as predicted by the most delirious of the post-structuralists. The resulting synthesis is not an overcoming but a bottoming-out of the social strata — but that does not mean that it is libidinally unproductive. Cybernetics immanentizes the Real and the Ideal in alienation’s catastrophic motor and being the ejected excrement of the system becomes a viable option. The internet becomes a nomad’s land for digital squatters. It doesn’t matter how you exit. Just exit. The results of this so far, however, have been utterly dire.

We might ask ourselves: Does the art of ressentiment itself become the creation of an entirely new subject? I think we can answer this affirmatively but this “new” needn’t be inherently attractive because of its newness. The middle class becomes, in this sense, a New People in a negative sense, produced by the class antagonisms internal to capitalism, closed off from their Outside. This is an argument implicit to some readings of the middle class’s struggle under the weight of their increasing irrelevance and so, perhaps, it is from here that we will discover the prophetic people-to-come replaced by a people-to-die. Ballardian suburban detritus. 

If the middle classes sounds like an unlikely central node around which we are to entangle this argument, we might look to other identities instead — identities that continue to allow access to their outside. As ever, G/ACC comes to mind, providing a much refined challenge to the dialectical of sex, through the pressure-cooked intensifications of gender binarisation and “trans” politics. As Nyx writes:

It is the logic of gender to subsume the Outside into a binarist framework that de-legitimizes the Outside. The feminine is treated as a lack because it resists the phallogocentric tendency towards the order and preservation of humanist equilibrium. It isn’t conducive towards the projects of patriarchy, so it is worthless to it, is given the status of a second-class citizen in the gender binary. It is a double-articulation where the productive potential of the feminine is captured in the service of patriarchy, and so, to accelerate gender is to emancipate the object from its subject, and production from subjects and objects. The Outside which has become identified with the feminine by the very structures of identification it fights against makes its exit from humanism and patriarchy in this feminine form. The feminine becomes untethered from the reproductive logic of humanism; the female is no longer in the service of the male as a machine to produce the future, to produce offspring to inherit the spoils of production, but rather the future produces itself faster than human beings are capable of.

Here, human (re)production is seen as a dialectical machine, echoing the writings of Shulamith Firestone, in which a dialectical relationship between imagination and science continually produces an unknown. This is, for Firestone, culture — culture as “the sum of, and the dynamic between, the two modes through which the mind attempts to tran­scend the limitations and contingencies of reality.”

The overarching technological point is this: You can shape the new world with code. Computer code. Genetic code. Social code. As modernity accelerates, each becomes as malleable as the other. This is likewise the pro-alienation argument to be associated with The Xenofeminist Manifesto:

XF seizes alienation as an impetus to generate new worlds. We are all alienated — but have we ever been otherwise? It is through, and not despite, our alienated condition that we can free ourselves from the muck of immediacy. Freedom is not a given — and it’s certainly not given by anything ‘natural’. The construction of freedom involves not less but more alienation; alienation is the labour of freedom’s construction. Nothing should be accepted as fixed, permanent, or ‘given’ — neither material conditions nor social forms. XF mutates, navigates and probes every horizon. Anyone who’s been deemed ‘unnatural’ in the face of reigning biological norms, anyone who’s experienced injustices wrought in the name of natural order, will realize that the glorification of ‘nature’ has nothing to offer us — the queer and trans among us, the differently-abled, as well as those who have suffered discrimination due to pregnancy or duties connected to child-rearing. XF is vehemently anti-naturalist. Essentialist naturalism reeks of theology — the sooner it is exorcised, the better.

Here, as with Land’s delirious writings, ‘alienation’ becomes a Marcusian horror story in which the “monstrous” are reimagined as the people-to-come. Frankenstein’s monster, inevitably produced by capitalism’s churning up of dead labour, is alienated by its creator and, sooner or later, this monstrosity will have its revolutionary revenge….

“Wait a minute, where am I?…”

Okay, but what the fuck does any of this have to do with social media?

The best place to start, in light of this messy introduction, and in light of @cyborb_nomade’s initial pro-alienation comment, is perhaps with Land’s essay “Making It With Death”, in which he addresses ‘alienation’ explicitly as that word associated with the modern “becoming-zombie at the limit of the modern worker”:

The processes of de-skilling, or ever accelerated re-skilling, the substitution of craft by abstract labour, and the increasing interexchangability of human activity with technological processes, all accompanied by the dissolution of identity, loss of attachment, and narcotization of affective life, are condemned on the basis of a moral critique. A reawakening of the political is envisaged, aimed at the restoration of a lost human integrity. Modern existence is understood as profoundly deadened by the real submission of humane values to an impersonal productivity, which is itself comprehended as the expression of dead or petrified labour exerting a vampiric power on the living.

For Land, “death”, conceptually understood as the limit of the subject, is the moment of revolution under capitalism: “The limit of capital is the point at which transcendent identity snaps.”

However, what Land predicts here, years before Facebook was even invented, has only half come true. Affective life has been narcotised, attachment has been lost, but identity has been far from dissolved — it has been reified in a way that Sartre, even Marx himself, perhaps warned us about. (Sartre: “Marx clearly indicated that he distinguished human relations from their reification or, in general, from their aliena­tion within a particular social system.”) And so, it is human relations — communication itself — that has been alienated through the fascistic reification of the subject. Communicative capitalism dissolved the distinction between human relations and their reification, resulting in a further — and deeply traumatic — reification of the subject.

Despite the warnings given to us, such a result has been a long time coming. As Land writes in his essay “Circuitries”, continuing this line of thought, and addressing this point explicitly, he takes aim at our hypocritical understanding of the way that capitalism reifies the human subject — the history of philosophy has done this just as successfully!:

Traditional schemas which oppose technics to nature, to literate culture, or to social relations, are all dominated by a phobic resistance to the sidelining of human intelligence by the coming techno sapiens. Thus one sees the decaying Hegelian socialist heritage clinging with increasing desperation to the theological sentimentalities of praxis, reification, alienation, ethics, autonomy, and other such mythemes of human creative sovereignty. A Cartesian howl is raised: people are being treated as things. Rather than as … soul, spirit, the subject of history, Dasein? For how long will this infantilism be protracted?

This Landian alienation acknowledges that both social and individual subjection are internally alientating under capital and philosophy itself is not outside of this. The burgeoning technosphere, accelerating faster than humans can socially think about it, may be just what we need to break out of the cycle. It is this outside that must be reached rather than the internalised outside that is produced only imaginatively through ressentiment.

What is most disappointing, and what Land recently pointed to as being responsible for his own philopolitical disillusionment, is that the very opposite has happened. In his interview with Justin Murphy, Justin first asks Nick:

…if you could kind of mentally go back to the 1990s, when you’re theorizing all these kinds of radical ideas at the beginning. What was the first crack in that tendency for you? Like what gave, exactly? Was there a particular realization or insight or problem or anomaly in your viewpoint in the 90s that kind of cracked and made you see that all of these radical emancipatory ideas are not going to work…?

To which Nick responds:

These things come in waves. Wave motion is crucial to this. There was an extremely exciting wave that was ridden by the Ccru in the early to mid-1990s. You know, the internet basically arrived in those years, there were all kinds of things going on culturally and technologically and economically that were extremely exciting and that just carried this accelerationist current and made it extremely, immediately plausible and convincing to people. Outrageous perhaps, but definitely convincing. It was followed — and I wouldn’t want to put specific dates on this, really — but I think there was an epoch of deep disillusionment. I’d call it the Facebook era, and obviously, for anyone who’s coming in any way out of Deleuze and Guattari, for something called “Facebook” to be the dominant representative of cyberspace is just almost, you know, a comically horrible thing to happen! [Laughs]

I just really responded to this with such utter, prolonged disgust that a certain deep, sedimentary layer of profound grumpiness — from a personal point of view — was added to this. But I don’t think it’s just a personal thing. I think that accelerationism just went into massive eclipse …

In wanting to explore this a bit further, I found an essay by Daniel Tutt on “faciality” in Deleuze & Guattari that summarises the stakes of their concerns very well:

The face is an imperial machine, depending on certain social formations for its creation and its deployment. Enveloping language and destroying semiotic systems, the face announces signifiers that language (re)produces. This “imperialism of the face” is one designed to crush all other semiotic systems. 

Faces are dependent upon “abstract machines” attaching to body parts, clothes, and objects –- facializing them all in a whirl of overcoding. The face overcodes the subject, which is why the face functions as the “black hole of subjectivity” for D & G, as the material traumatic thing -– as the Lacanian real, what they call the “wall of the signifier.”

[…] What they advocate for is a move away from the imperial imposition of the face and the abstract machine’s imposition of faciality by noticing how the imperial face cannot handle polyvocality or rhizomatic traits. It’s the schizophrenic that is the model for de-facialization. “Schizos lose their sense of the face, of landscape and of language and its dominant significations all the time” (Pg. 188 A Thousand Plateaus

Facebook, then, becomes this absolute but also multiplicitous alienation through the totalising but nonetheless superficial signifier of its opposite. How often have we said, when feeling adrift, that it is nice to see a “friendly face”? Facebook, in its imposition of the “friendly face” as “friendly boss”, has only helped the desire for defacialisation dwindle and die.

However, things are not all so bleak. Twitter has been a liberating experience for me in allowing me to get out of my face again and blockchain technology likewise becomes a potential form of organisation that is faceless in its trustlessness and hiddenness — something Land is now actively exploring in his Cryptocurrent book, being serialised over at Urban Future. He likewise expresses his hope in his interview with Justin:

I think we’ve come out into an absolutely incandescent, new phase of technological and economic possibility driven by this fundamental dynamic vector of the internet. The basic socio-historical conditions right now are every bit as exciting as anything that was around in the 1990s. Totally.

This is likewise an optimism expressed by @cyborg_nomade in the original Twitter conversation:

to become torn from the social is to begin to dissolve personhood (faciality), so that what’s seething underneath can come to the fore. what Facebook did was connect everyone back together, and strengthen attribution, so that all the usual human shit surfaced again. [1]

anonymous communication is the most amazing tool to being alone (which, as someone who values solitude, is truly something hard to come by — people are everywhere) [2]

Real and Id(eal)

To recap: Communicative capitalism processes and immanentises the Real and the Ideal. The id of the individual is hijacked by the Facebook superego and the ego which emerges in between is reduced to a data-product. Being honest about this becomes a strangely radical act — from the perspective of popular media — but what is most apparent is that so many people who work online and have somehow monetised their faciality in order to make the most of the opportunities of the present moment, and later rebel against this, seldom have the linguistic armoury to actually articulate what they’re going through.

And that’s not their fault — that’s the result of the enclosed systems they are embedded within which demolish any sense of a critical Outside.

So, what do I mean by alienation under communicative capitalism? I mean that alienation is itself alienated — and so much more than when Sartre first said so. Faciality becomes an imposition, threatening (and even enacting) a digitally-mediated body dysmorphia. This isn’t a productive alienation towards a new subjectivity: it’s a Lovecraftian alienation within the prison of interiority, breaking the individual down into their own recursive void rather than the social sphere at large.

So is the question now really, “How do we alienate this alienated alienation?” If it’s really alienation all the way down and, as many Hegelian-Marxists and Nietzscheans alike may have argued, if we should want overcome or bottom-out of this process, it seems like we’re in for a shock as the prison of interiority continues in all directions much further than we anticipated. (Well, for most of us…)

Yes, the blockchain certainly feels like a very interesting development in this area and we shall have to see if it can be implemented in enough areas to break the cycle but, that aside, I don’t know what we’re supposed to do. Has the damage already been done?


Personally, I’ve grown up on social media, in many respects, although I do remember the days of pre-internet computers. One thing I’ve been depressed to discuss with my friends over the years is how many suffer from bouts of depersonalisation. I’ve regularly suffered from this myself since at least my late teens — it’s the main reason I never got into psychedelics and never got along with weed; I’ve never needed drugs to detach from my Self.

Depersonalisation has always, for me, been the result of an anxiety attack, mentally squashed from presenting itself outwardly / physically, and instead bottoming-out into a Sunken Place, much like in the film Get Out. A feeling of regressing backwards into your own skull, looking in the mirror and not recognising the face that looks back. It’s a dangerous numbness that so often precedes instances of self-harm and I’ve always wondered how much of a coincidence the pervasiveness of these experiences amongst people that I knew growing up was related to the rise of MySpace and Facebook.

That’s not a politically advantageous alienation. That’s mental illness. That’s the individualising mechanism of the social suicide machine. 

Get Out‘s faciality is particularly racialised, of course, and this alienation of self is no doubt Marcusian in its racial structuring but also its cultural productivity. What the rest of us feel is something new in its pervasiveness, something in between these two critiques — the Hegelian-Marxist and the Nietzschean. This new experience is certainly attached to this same lineage of capitalist subjection but now we lack the habit of critiquing it to the extent that so many others once did.

That’s the alienation I’m talking about and I think it needs continually addressing because, so far, no theories of emancipation have managed to crack it. We remain stuck in the thinking of the post-structuralists whilst technological subjection threatens such theories with redundancy before we’ve managed to internalise them.

Things have only gotten worse and worse — socially, at least, even if, as individuals, we might be able to find some solace…

This blog has always been a half-hearted attempt at tackling this sense of alienation on a very personal level, even if it has not been vocalised rigorously as such. Speaking as “Xenogothic”, the social alienation that this blog and my Twitter account has afforded me over the past uear has hugely enjoyable, but the internet presents many more forms of alienation besides this which, perhaps as a result of the joy, have become harder to bear.

I’ve thought about this more and more recently as I struggle to keep up the mystique. Xenogothic was meant to be an attempt at escaping this Facebook faciality — or so I said in my very first post — and for the first 8-10 months it was very successful in this regard. Less than 5 people who were friends with me IRL knew it was me. Thta’s no longer the case. Mostly by choice.

I love writing and I increasingly want to do more of it — I’m never, ever satisfied; the itch is never scratched — so if there’s a fine line along which I’m able to walk and maintain this as a semi-anonymous space whilst be open to other opportunities for personal growth, I want to make that happen. This stuff is important to me, to the extent I want it to define me but a “me” that is separate from the data cow of the social media face farm, and I think that’s fine. But, as I try to figure out just where that line is, I’m all too aware of the minefield I’m walking through.

I love YouTube, for instance, and I watch more PewDiePie than I’m comfortable to admit. I used to think about being a YouTuber years ago but I’m terrible in front of a camera. PewDiePie is likewise terrible in front of a camera but it hasn’t stopped him becoming a one-man media empire (at least, not quite yet) and his journey has been fascinating to me.

Here is a guy who seemed to fall into a weird, undercoded faciality that he has maintained — very, very successfully (financially speaking) — for almost a decade. However, I only started watching his videos a year or two back when he was in the midst of rebelling against this increasingly consolidated sense of online-self, when the more he started to work with big companies and institutions — Disney, most notoriously — he began to wrestle more and more openly with his experiences of alienation. His self-destructive behaviour — which has resulted in a whole bunch of controversies and is certainly not defensible — has felt like the indirect fallout from this. He is the perfect example of someone who is painfully aware of the system they have become entrapped by but who can’t play by the rules and also can’t really articulate his experiences in a way that might help himself. (And has also looked to the likes of Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro in his quest to rebel against it.)

Take this video as a case in point, which discusses issues of emotional labour (explored here recently) and marks the start of an easily trackable swerve away from the YouTube hegemony and towards critics on the right of politics: 

Just as Woke Capital is a bad rebrand of leftist theory for new alienated, the left needs to get louder about the ways in which it can combat this. Mark Fisher wrote plenty on it but those essays never reached the amount of people they should have. (I’m thinking about “Touchscreen Capture” here specifically.) 


Rhizome Addendum

To end on a lighter note:

Personally speaking, the name Xenogothic, as I’ve repeatedly said, was borne out of a feeling that I’m not a very good Goth, of not wearing the right face, of not acting or looking the right way. I wanted an identity that wasn’t beholden to any kind of reductive aesthetic.

This desire is, I think, inherently related to that same sense of alienation and self-hatred that comes from being expected to play some sort of game — generally a careerist one — and one which I was concerned might end up being the death of me. I just wanted to make stuff without it having to be considered as some sort of CV. I wanted to express myself without everything having to be presented as a product or another rung on the ladder of a social-mediated illusion of a career. 

I did a postgrad degree not because I wanted a better job or better pay but because I just wanted to learn to write and think better and I wasn’t getting that from anywhere in my life at the time. And, thankfully, I think that’s precisely what I got out of it. And I can’t think of a better thing to have done with that weird year back in academia than channel it into a deliriously productive blog whilst I go back to the kind of job I was doing after I finished my photography degree. It’s just the latest attempt at getting out of the face I’m aware I’m supposed to wear and, so far, it’s been incredibly successful. 

This blog feels more like me than anything else I’ve ever done or continue to do with my life, and at the same time it barely feels representative of me, or the me that has so far existed online on social media.

The desire for this, I now realise, has been bubbling for a long time. I came across this old series of photographs in the midst of writing this post that I was putting together sporadically between 2012-2016. I would take double exposures of my environment and my face, one after the other, capturing two sides of a moment where identity dissolves into something else through the photographic process. Plants always worked best for this and, serendipitously, these photographs predated any real understanding of Deleuze & Guattari’s rhizomatics.

Newport, 2012

I never quite had a name for the project and I never quite managed to make enough good ones to make a series out of it. But I’m glad I didn’t. They weren’t meant to be about me. They were meant as anti-portraits. They were photographs about the way photography itself is so tied to my thoughts but which, due to its very nature, is always detached from any originally phenomenological grounding. Subject and object dissolve into one another, and something else is born.

I realised today that this is what they were always about. They were precisely about this desire for porosity; for indeterminacy; for facial flow. This desire to get out of your face(book) again.

Llanarthne, 2015
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3 thoughts on “All Roads Lead to Alienation (Part 2): …But Is That Really Such a Bad Thing?

    1. i might write something more long-form dealing with those same topics. one thing that interestingly came to mind as i read is how much experience of social media is actually shared. i started my blog and my twitter account (and got rid of my profile picture on fb) basically all to try and subdue the excruciating facialiy of the zucc-thing

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