A Spurious Marketplace of Ideas:
Online Ads and Consciousness Deflation

There’s an aside in Mark Fisher’s Postcapitalist Desire lectures that I keep thinking back to at the moment, on the strange irreality of marketisation and consciousness deflation.

Fisher is initially talking about “bullshit jobs”, or at least about the intensification of bullshit in jobs of all kinds, such that even jobs we might understand as “essential” are suffocated by useless admin. He sees higher education as one such job. We accept the social necessity of education in general, but nonetheless recognise the ways that universities are under attack. The issue here, of course, is with the types of education being offered. The British government generally sees universities as incubators of supposed radicals today, and so attempts to implement changes in curricula that are more in line with its ideological position. But this process is totalizing, such that it isn’t just curricula that are strongarmed but working conditions in themselves, making consciousness raising difficult both in and outside of the classroom.

Fisher gives an anecdotal example from his time at a Further Education college:

When people have common experiences and can talk about them, then you’ve got the potential for developing consciousness very quickly. That’s why workers aren’t allowed to talk to one another! One place where I worked, when I worked in Further Education, the Head of Human Resources, who was exasperated by the development of some sort of class consciousness amongst their teachers, was like, “Well, you can’t just sit in the pub and talk to each other!” (Laughter.) She actually said that! What do you mean?! It was like the usually unspoken rule — you’re not supposed to do that. You can go to a pub and just talk rubbish, but you can’t go to a pub and talk about the conditions of your work together. Don’t do that. You can’t do that. (Laughs.)

The obvious intention here is to make workers time-poor. If we cannot directly control your capacity to meet and converse outside of work hours, we will make work so exhausting and dispiriting that all you want to do afterwards is go home and isolate yourself in order to recover before the drudgery begins again. It really is that intentional. As Fisher adds:

Look at it this way: Capital must always … prevent that awareness amongst people that they could live differently and have more control over their own lives. It must prevent that. It has to do it, and it has to keep doing it. Capitalists moan about hard work — and it is hard work! It never stops. It always has to keep preventing that potential.

Universities are, again, a prime example. “Universities were a red base — so-called”, Fisher adds, and so we can see the current acceleration of marketisation within higher education as a way to stifle the actual work of consciousness raising inherent to education itself.

If someone chooses to go to university, at any level, it is essentially a time spent outside of the general workforce where you are given the time to educate yourself in a given field. This is often necessary because education takes time — a time that is far slower than on-the-job training often is, for example. But this is something increasingly and paradoxically stifled from within education itself through processes of marketisation. That is to say, through the implementation of labour temporalities that we generally understand as being other to education itself, education is not improved but suffers. As Fisher explains:

Marketisation: they’re not making any money out of it — it’s not about that! It’s just about stopping the conditions for certain kinds of consciousness developing. Because people were taken out of the workplace for a while — young people — taken out of the workplace, free from those imperatives, and it’s about time, right? In order to raise consciousness, you need time. And that’s the difficulty, always.

An infuriating contradiction is produced, whereby students, in paying astronomical fees, expect more for their money than simply “time” to learn, so time is constricted in general for all, impeding of lecturers’ time to educate properly.

Fisher is then more explicit about how time-poverty impacts a given workforce in other circumstances:

Say you’ve done your day of work and then you go home. Are you going to leave the house now? I’m tired! Then you’ve done a double day of work — you’ve done a full day of work and then you’ve done domestic work on top of that, which is still overwhelmingly done by women more than men. So, you’ve done that, then do you want to go out and raise your consciousness? Yeah, OK, but… I’m kind of tired… (Laughter.) We can laugh about it, but we all do this. We’ve all got forms of this. It’s like healthy eating or something. We know it’s better for you, but why don’t we do it? You might know things but you’re not able to act on them. We can’t be hard on ourselves about it. Time-poverty is real. And that’s what they’ve done! That’s why they want it — scarcity of time! As Marcuse said, we could all be working much less now, but that’s the insanity of it — the full insanity of the capitalist system!

Then comes an apparent non sequitur in Fisher’s narrative. Although it appears like an unrelated aside, however, it extends the implications of time-poverty not just to individual productivity but also to consumerism. The further benefit of a scarcity of time, after all, is that it makes us more willing to accept a more general scarcity of resources — this being another way of understanding the contradiction at work in higher education: students want more out of their time-money, but conjoined with a scarcity of resources, experience only even less value for their time-money as a result. But of course, this contradicts capitalism’s sense of its own abundance. So it is necessary that we feel inundated with choices — of commodity, of degree, of employment opportunities — even if those choices are wholly pointless, spurious and unappealing in being laden with more of the same normalised bullshit. We are faced, then, with

the production of spurious commodities that nobody wants, like slippers with the faces of alligators or whatever… Imagine, you see those sorts of things and the amount of work that’s gone into them; the amount of effort that’s gone into transporting them from wherever to get to Lewisham where they’re less than a pound and no one wants them…

The link feels tenuous, but I think it is insightful. These “spurious commodities” will be a sight familiar to anyone who has gone to a market in the UK. You’ll find things you need — cheap fruit and veg, cheap clothes, random households appliances — but also a cacophony of ephemera that might be useful to someone or desirable in its peculiar novelty but in such an abundance that it is hard to imagine a future for most of it other than the scrap heap.

Ultimately, its usefulness doesn’t matter. It’s all there for you to consider regardless, as part of an inescapable semioblitz that interrupts thought itself. It is consumerist noise, which we may ultimately pay little mind, but which nonetheless intervenes in and constricts our attention spans.

I am admittedly taking Fisher at his word here. Personally, I feel capable of walking through a market and ignoring all of this — or so I think to myself. And yet, I can’t help but notice the same abundance of useless ephemera online as well, where its impact is far more obvious.

Since Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter, I have retained the habit of blocking most ads on sight. But what I notice these days — as everyone has — is the vast increase in ads for utterly useless things. Whether it is life-coaching from capitalist hacks or the same useless commodities I’d expect to find in the corners of a local market, I spend most of my time blocking ads that are for things I could never remotely imagine myself wanting or engaging with. Then why are they advertised in the first place?

Ultimately, I must conclude that it is irrelevant whether I purchase these things or not. It impacts my use of Twitter regardless, such that the drudgery of scrolling past all of these useless things changes how I engage with the platform. And again, how I use Twitter hardly even matters. That I am seeing these things alone is enough to generate ad revenue, I suspect, but the indirect result is I also use Twitter in general more passively.

This is particularly egregious at present. The horrors unfolding in Gaza have brought Twitter back to life. The past few weeks I have engaged with the platform more than I have in recent memory, reading the swathes of information shared, further strengthening a sense of solidarity with the Palestinian people as consciousness of their struggle is emphatically raised by an international community of reporters, activists, researchers, and observers. As horrible as the past few weeks have been — a horror that cannot be overstated — Twitter has not felt this productive as a political space for years.

This makes the passive scrolling past ads for useless things all the more surreal, however. Their imposition is all the more jarring. An abundance of political messaging suddenly overrides the superficial abundance of spurious commodities. It really does feel striking, however, that it takes such an impassioned outpouring to do this. Consciousness is being raised in spite of Musk’s exacerbation of bullshit ads.

Unfortunately, over the past few weeks, I have been suffering from very poor health (and a bout of depression to boot). I am leaving my flat infrequently, and so I have not experienced any of the street protests supporting Palestinian resistance. I can only imagine how these protests feel in actuality. But the footage of tens of thousands on the streets nonetheless seems comparable to the outpouring online. The semioblitz of everyday life is overrun by signs of other kinds. In videos, I do not see advertising in its ubiquity, but Palestinian flags. It is so necessary and so powerful. Still, I wonder how this same kind of outpouring, this actual abundance of a raised collective consciousness, might be sustained in the face of other, more mundane injustices.

This hardly feels sustainable once the atrocities stop, and so there is a hope that nothing goes back to normal, that the Palestinian struggle galvanises a fury to reject not just Israeli fascism but the fascism of the capitalist everyday (of which Israel is just a particularly egregious example). Indeed, the unbelievable lengths that Israel is going to to seed its impoverished propaganda feels like a mask-off moment for our reality at large. So much is faked, exaggerated. So many sets of teeth are lied through. And yet, although we refuse Israel’s attempts to manufacture consent for war crimes, we are taken in by similar strategies on other issues by other government (such is the “culture war”). What comes next? A general strike for Palestine right now, then the world? This was a situation we only imagined and hoped for two years ago. I wonder if now this feels that much more possible…

Still, the question remains: why does it take such an extreme situation to arrest this semioblitz and highlight its ideological incongruities? Perhaps this is a question already answered. It is worrying that we must be inundated with so much information about Gaza to overcome the information that otherwise distracts us. This is the information overload necessary to shake us from the mundane semioblitz of spurious commodities. These commodities, in their ubiquitous mundanity, signify the accumulative obstacle that makes it so hard to raise consciousness of other issues. These ads remain so pointless and ignorable, but perhaps now we can make ourselves more aware of the ways they facilitate, in their abundance, an ignorance and passivity towards so many other things regardless.

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