Glitches in Orality and the Stakes of Semantics: A Conversation with Jodi Dean
by Patricia Reed
Patricia Reed: In your monograph Blog Theory: Feedback and Capture in the Circuits of Drive (2010),1 you deploy the medium of the blog to address the general cultural condition set in motion as a result of our everyday participation in networked communications. The blog (although addressed directly as well) operates as a kind of cipher for the articulation of what you call “communicative capitalism” — the exploitation of communication as a circulating force, as an end in and for itself.
Through a Lacanian lens, you identify this circulating movement of perpetual communication as drive, “drive” being that inhumanly human category of pleasure derived from endlessly repetitive, non–goal–oriented actions. Drive, as you have written, attains satisfaction in always missing its mark. The state of communicative capitalism you have described is largely characterized by a decline in symbolic efficiency, where there is no longer any Master–Signifier stabilizing meaning. Rather than enabling an emancipatory possibility of other modes of sense–making, or of subjectification, as many enthusiasts have heralded, this absence of an anchor of meaning ultimately creates anxiety, insecurity, suspends identifications and generates new forms of subjection as a way to ease pressures of the imperative to enjoy.
I am quite sure you have received some backlash for this diagnosis, from those who champion blogging as citizen–journalism, or social media as helping to link peoples together for political congregation, or even with the example of the WikiLeaks platform to function as an archive and distribution channel of otherwise protected documents. How do you negotiate these critiques and the theorization of this cacophonous medium that in a lot of instances circulates banal videos of kittens playing with iPads, but in other cases distributes secret documents revelatory of political malfeasance? Could a distinction be made, perhaps, between circulatory practices (forwarding, retweeting, reposting) and distributive practices (authorship)?
Jodi Dean: The short answer is “commodities have uses.” Marx distinguishes between use value and exchange value not to say that commodities only have exchange value but in order to accent two aspects of commodities. The same holds for the contributions that circulate through digital networks. That they circulate, that they add to an ever–increasing stream, doesn’’t mean that there is no point to any of them. It means that there are multiple, many, changing points of varying duration and registration. Forwarding, retweeting, reposting are additions to a stream. And so are “original” ideas (that is, my opinion on something that I blog or tweet). To that extent, I don’t see a significant difference between distribution and circulation.
PR: Considering that communication is a commodity in and for itself, a commodity one “pays” for with attention (the finite and therefore scarce amount of minutes of a day) in order to participate within and for this stream of circulation, I am wondering if it is also of relevance to fold into the use–value/exchange–value equation, a third term of “exhibition-value.” I use this term as it was originally elaborated in Benjamin‘s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936),2 denoting a transformation of artworks from their ritual status (here we could make a link to a corpus of collective meaning) towards their sheer fitness for exhibition, or view–ability. This shifting is quantitative (a photograph can appear in many places simultaneously, like bits of information on the Web), but this utter visibility and attention also becomes a qualitative marker underlying the work in question.
Compounding use–value/exchangevalue and exhibition–value with regards to communication also calls into relation the notion of the gaze, which you address at length in your book. With the decline of symbolic efficiency you have demonstrated, we no longer have an imagined Other of the ego ideal for whom to exhibit ourselves, but something vastly more traumatic that deals with our own, to use your words, “entrapment within the field of the visible: I see only from one point, but in my existence I am looked at from all sides.” Since we are no longer sure of how we are seen (where we are mentioned, who is “Googling” us), we have a great deal of uncertainty as to our position within the symbolic order. Firstly, do you see relevance in incorporating the notion of exhibition–value within the paradigm of communicative capitalism, and how does the quantification (visibility) of communication impact its qualification (sense–making)?
JD: That sounds cool. I like your introduction of exhibition–value very much. I translate it in my head into Lacanese where it ends up as a way of thinking about the blurring between the Imaginary and the Real that accompanies the decline of the Symbolic. And, as you point out, one key aspect of the Real here is the Real of the gaze, the traumatic disruption that accompanies our turn towards ourselves as being caught in our looking, as being not only the objects of an indeterminate seeing but also objects caught in the act of looking, and being kind of exposed and embarrassed to be caught. Based on your point regarding quantification, I wonder if at least one of its functions here is as a kind of relief or escape from the discomforting uncertainty of the gaze. Quantification intervenes with a kind of knowledge–effect: no need to be uncertain! Just count! So, we may not be able to say anything about what something means (decline of symbolic efficiency), but we can say that something was said; we can say that it has appeared, that we can count it. And how does this affect qualification? Well, as we have said, it is first of all a response or reaction to prior changes, yet it is a response that further adds to the decline of symbolic efficiency by treating every utterance as communicatively equivalent. To be counted, each has to be equal to the other (like comments on a blog — how many did this post get?). Qualitative distinctions, it seems, can‘t even be made (“it‘s just your opinion”).
PR: That something is said rather than what is said reflects a type of speech-–act without qualities and can be seen as an enactment of the generic potentiality to communicate. You have raised this issue under the guise of “whatever-blogging” in your book, where “whatever” denotes a preference–free, minimum degree of the communicative gesture, expressing no partiality whatsoever, yet not ignoring. You deploy the tag of “whatever” to describe a “glitch in orality,” where exchange is thwarted in advance even as it adopts a communicative form. You twist the emancipatory notion of whatever–being from Giorgio Agamben’s “Coming Community;”3 that is, his idea of a new kind of communal subjectivity that belongs, but to nothing in particular — an essence–less subject, uninscribed by modern identities of ethnicity, nationality, et cetera. Can you elaborate on your critique of whatever–ness, and how these “glitches in orality” operate upon contemporary subjectivity?JD: The popularity of Agamben’s idea of “whatever being” (at least among left academics and intellectuals in the US and UK) stems from the assumption that the primary political problem is the inscription of identity, whether that inscription is national, ethnic/racial, sexual or whatever. Differently put, the idea appeals to intuitions that say we are “post-race” and “post-sex”; we are all unique individuals. The problem with this idea isn’t that people are sexed, raced, et cetera. Rather, it is that the smoothing out of markers of identity is the operation of capitalism (Marx and Engels already note this in the manifesto). It makes absolutely no sense to say that the state can’t tolerate non–identity. As instruments of capitalist domination, states are perfectly fine with non–identity. I should add that I say “states” here as a way to note another problem with Agamben’s position, namely, it is a bizarre, unfounded, essentialist conception of the state. Moreover, what is particularly maddening about the claim that “whatever being” is somehow an advance, an emancipation, a step toward something preferable or better, is the way that it erases the conviction necessary for political struggle. This is what I’m trying to demonstrate in my discussion of “whatever” as a communicative gesture. To a statement or claim, one responds with “whatever,” thereby acknowledging that the other person has spoken — statements were made — without engaging with the content of the statement. As I see it, far from being radical, this is the way power operates in communicative capitalism. We say end the war; the Bush and Obama regimes say “whatever.”
Regarding glitches in orality, my idea in the book was that glitches (statements that refer primarily to the fact that they are stated) index the overall decline in symbolic efficiency (the way that symbols don’t travel beyond localities — for example, Justin Bieber and Slavoj Žižek in an airport waiting lounge, each oblivious to the other’s cultural position). So glitches (like word clouds) only mark the circulation of speech, but don’t invite interpretation, exchange, confrontation. The subject who says “whatever” is then more like a kind of object, one that can perhaps install a barrier, redirect the effort/intention of the first speaker, or invite frustration, but such a subject/object isn’t initiating something new or taking responsibility or working to connect with others. Some left intellectuals think that this kind of obstruction or refusal is a valuable political model today. I disagree. Blocks and glitches might be useful tactics in specific instances, but they don’t build anything on their own.
PR So, is it fair to say, borrowing the language of Alain Badiou, that these glitches of “whatever” communication can perform a function of negation (blocking a given course) yet can be only fleetingly effective politically since these glitches in orality ultimately miss the mark in affirming that very negation? That is, to follow through on the gesture of negation they transform a blockage into a collective impetus of/for novel political re-structuring or enduring contestation?
JD: Not quite — because there isn’t a communist or even left politics affiliated with these glitches of “whatever” communication. Politicians, ceos, media, and corporations employ these modes. Any local or particular political effect will depend on a whole series of factors separate from the glitch — the setting of the glitch, its politicization, who says it to whom, who is frustrated or deflected from doing what.
PR: Because we can engage the minimum degree of communicative awareness (whatever-exchanges) as we participate via circulation within this vast archive of the Web there seems to be an underlying thread in your book towards the lack of fidelity or follow-through in our communicative gestures. What I am getting at here is the capacity to easily “unhook” from the Web — or as you say, “exit” — at almost any point of exchange with no consequences. As such, there is little fidelity to being bound to our own words. I would very much agree with this diagnosis for people who can participate in the Web with relative freedom, but since the operations of the Web still fall under sovereign jurisdiction, I don’t see the consequences of words being universally addressable. For example, I may take to my blog to radically criticize the German government, but when the same words are used by a blogger like Ai Weiwei in criticizing the Chinese government, the consequences are wholly (and dangerously) different. How does sovereign interference and jurisdiction operate in your theory of communicative capitalism? How do the various states of permission delineated by sovereign protocols work upon our fidelity to the words we speak?
PR: The archive, in its conventional form, is usually an institutionalized space for the collection, preservation and cataloguing of artifacts, images and documents, where there is a clear, authoritative structure validating its contents. Interested researchers and people purposefully sift through organized and trusted materials to gather exemplary evidence for an argument or narrative. When we consider the Web as a practice of archiving, the circulation of communication, there are substantially fewer degrees of accountability (I hesitate to say no accountability, since brand-name news sites like the New York Times are generally apprehended as trustworthy and adhering to journalistic codes). With this lack of authority inherent to the sprawling nature of the Web, you have identified three modes through which such trust in content is delivered: via search engines (trust in the algorithm); via blogs (trust in knowing the knower); and via social media (trust in the audience of friends). How do these three modes of trust-making work among themselves? How does authority in communicative capitalism operate via an economy of attention?
JD The easiest answer is to keep the focus on capitalism. So, something that goes viral — gets a lot of hits or tends to be quickly monetized — or the site that enables the going viral (YouTube, Facebook) is capitalized. The stimulation of multiple contributions (from blogs to posts to updates to comments or whatever) results in the emergence of “the one.” The idea is that complex networks (characterized by free choice and preferential attachment) follow “powerlaw” distributions (the influential work of Albert-László Barabási explains how this works) wherein the item at the top has twice the popularity/incoming links as the next item, which has many more than the third item, and all the way down till you get to the long tail of items (say, blogs ranked 100,236th and 102,451st) where the differences between them are minimal.
On the trust work, the sorts of trust I mention make most sense if restricted to the early years of practice uptake, say, the first five years or so of blogging and the years before Google and Facebook established hegemony. In those early years, the differences emerged. Now, though, powerlaws are what matter (on Facebook, this means the number of people with more than 1,000 friends or the number of people who update frequently — usually, 20 percent of one’s friends will be posting 80 percent of the items in one’s feed). Google, of course, tweaks the results of specific searches, but the powerlaw rule still applies: the first one or two items in a search list will get clicked on vastly more times than the ones on the fifth or sixth page, et cetera.
PR: Word clouds are the devices you have so poignantly used as an example in tagging the shift from the qualitative to the quantitative in information apprehension. In word clouds, all context, word proximity and meaning is lost in favour of repetition. Anecdotally, I was recently at a lecture where the speaker made a word cloud out of various definitions of democracy he found on the Web, so we were left with “people” and “government” as the weighted words. Now these two words would probably appear as weighted in almost any definition of political organization, whether totalitarian, fascist or democratic. Needless to say, I found this quite infuriating, as there was no attempt to think of a definition, and the word cloud was presented as semantically self-evident to the audience. In your view, is this shift from the semantic to word density a result of the economization of attention related to an overabundance of information (we simply have no time for the deduction of meaning)? How does this shift fundamentally alter processes of thinking?
JD: Is it a result of economization of attention and response to an overabundance of information? Yes, and it is also a product of the demise of professional journalism and of the development of cool apps. We could also say it is an effect of cultural dumbing down (and appealing to more advertisers). It is easier (and much less controversial) to show an image of words than to interpret a text. An interpretation will be political; it will require thought and nuance. And thought and nuance are challenging as well as time-consuming.
Generally, are word clouds presented as semantically self-evident? Or are they presented as images that take the place of meaning, that displace our attention from the dismantling of the conditions of possibility for meaning? We are told that a picture is worth a thousand words — this would only make sense if the words were part of the equation, part of the environment, if they were offered as supplements and interpretations. Instead, we get images that replace words. For example, it is easier to connect with a variety of different people via images, where no one has to concern themselves with what the images mean, or with whether or not we interpret the images in the same way. We can skip the semantics entirely (which reminds me of the idiocy of the remark uttered as an excuse for cutting through a discussion at the moment it gets serious, “it’s just semantics” — yes, precisely, the semantics is what is really at stake!)
PR: I think this discussion of semantics is quite interesting, especially when one starts to fold in the issues of Netbased activism. The most prominent (of late) forms of Net activism from the likes of WikiLeaks and OpenLeaks instigate tools for transparency as a mode of public accountability and (possibly) justice. These are, of course, not particularly novel ideas in the field of journalism — journalists have historically used anonymous sources and leaked documents in order to reveal malfeasance — but the platforms for collecting have been technologically overhauled with encryption devices, making this data collection on a world-wide scale feasible. Both organizations allow users to supply documents anonymously (which, as we have seen with the case of Bradley Manning, is not 100 percent secure), yet they deliberately avoid semantics by collecting a vast archive of documents that are later “sorted” semantically by news organizations and woven into digestible articles. There is definitely a hope from these organizations that the exposure of information will generate tangible, political repercussions. And indeed many people have written about the influence organizations such as WikiLeaks have had on some elections as well as providing informational impetus against certain political regimes. What I think is of relevance (Slavoj Žižek has also spoken about this) is that these leaks did not in fact reveal something surprising, they mainly served to confirm suspicions about activities of diplomacy and war. That said, do these transparency tools, as well-intended as they may be, not risk falling into the trap of the fetishist disavowal, meaning that we all know better, but… whatever? As a theorist/philosopher of both media and politics, I’m curious to hear your take on these new tools for the facilitation of informational transparency. How do these mechanisms for exposure operate politically? What are the “semantic responsibilities” of this type of political activism?
Another way to think about it — the idea that democracy depends on transparency, that the actions of democratic governments are and should be transparent to the demos — presupposes a number of conditions that are absent from our contemporary setting: a populace that focuses on specific matters of concern, a segment of that populace with the will and capacity to act on these matters, political representatives that respond to these concerns. Notice that this little equation leaves out the impact of corporations, class antagonism and a media environment that facilitates dispersion, novelty, intensity, images, slogans, inattention, et cetera. In this setting, adding more information dissipates focus and any opportunity/site for concerted action.PR: You criticize the democratic promise of this global network under the guise of a communalist ideal in your book: the ability to collaborate, generate and share information would create freer, more fulfilled forms of being. What has been (and often still is) envisioned as a space for individual expression accessible to many across the globe, you have situated in the category of a “displaced mediator,” meaning a device, platform or idea that accounts for fundamental change yet where the mediator is quickly overtaken or radically shifted by the very change it has instigated. What has been striking to me having seen the development of the Net from a relatively insider perspective — I pay the bills designing/programming Websites — are the ultra- rapid processes of gentrification and “centrification” that have been ushered in and which are occurring at a speed much faster than by any urban comparison. By “centrification” I mean the paradox of a medium that wills to sprawl (the network) vis-à-vis centralized hubs through which a large chunk of communicative activity passes, which calls to mind your reference to powerlaws. By gentrification, I mean the visual franchising of expressive platforms (we appear with the same Facebook layout, generic blogging templates, Flickr accounts, and so forth). What these platforms offer (and market) is the promise of connection, sharing and self-expression, but I think what needs to be questioned is the relation between self-expression and self-exposure. What I am getting at here is this capacity to express “whatever” statements through a centralized hub, in a generic presentation form, coupled with the exposure these statements engender for both an unknown gaze and the gaze of trending/ marketing (and ultimately revenue-generating enterprises). As someone who is both critical of networked communication and an active blogger, how do you negotiate this expression/exposure threshold?
JD: I like your gentrification and centrification analysis very much. The gentrification idea seems really useful in thinking about the decline in popularity of MySpace and the increase in popularity of Facebook. Anyway, regarding your question: it’s hard. I don’t think I negotiate it very well. And I know that the ways I try to negotiate it aren’t unique to me. That is, about six months or so after I started blogging, trolls started appearing, saying all sorts of sexist, racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic stuff, as well as attacking me personally. At first, I thought, wow, I am being attacked. And I must find myself being attacked because it is important to attack me. That was a mistake — all bloggers with open comments get attacked when their readership increases. The mistake I made was in thinking that I was completely invisible (that no one was reading and that I was immune from attack) and then that I was visible (appearing in some significant way). Using your terms, the mistake, I think, is that I didn’t see how blogs are like urban spaces/encounters. Not everyone you see on the subway in New York City will be smiley and engaging, but that they disagree with you (or hate you or want to shock you or are absorbed in their own stuff) doesn’t mean that what you are saying matters or has some kind of significance. At any rate, like any blogger (and most of the blogs in my little portion of the Blogipelago go from time to time through periods of open reflection — “why am I doing this, should I quit,” et cetera), I reflect on why I blog and had to become more responsible for the fact that people I know read the blog and that people who know people I might discuss in my blog (theorists and philosophers, for example) may also read the blog. So over time I have become less personal with my posts, less open to writing whatever I might think. This might be a personal drawback — I don’t go through a process of dealing with something bothering me in as direct and accessible a way — but it is probably ultimately a good thing because I avoid the polemics that were really strong in our blog area a few years ago. And I think another advantage of confronting the fact of exposure is that it incites me to be less drawn to mediated interactions and redirected back to face-to-face ones. This isn’t easy for me, but the challenge is worth it.
PR: You conclude your book by questioning the very possibilities proffered by the networked form as a tool of potent political agency, pointing to a critical doubt of trying to overcome communicative capitalism through the means of participatory circulation that fosters its particular hegemony. You postulate that overcoming this hegemony might require a radical cut in our ethos and practice of communicative circulation. As we are very much caught in these circuits of communicative drive, it is extremely difficult to imagine outside these frames as to how this cut would manifest and what other forms communication might take, without resorting to regressive modes of nostalgia for the “good old days.” As tough — and perhaps impossible — to answer as this may be, do you have any speculations as to how this cut in the circuits of drive might come about? How might we begin to affirmatively counter this hyper-circulation within which we are caught? (By affirmative, I mean not merely blocking circulation, but affirming other models of communicative co-existence.)
JD: Slavoj Žižek has a nice expression in his book The Ticklish Subject (1999). He says something about “installing lack,” or making contemporary subjects aware of lack. This is another way of saying inciting desire. I think it is crucial to incite a desire for communism, to incite experiential appreciation for the failure of media/communication to address the fundamental inequality and exploitation that is destroying the world. This would mean to recognize that the Internet is a means and tool, but not an end in itself. It would mean to fight against the fetishistic delight in new apps and products (and this is, of course, a self-criticism on my part!) and it would mean always to think about the ways these products are made (Foxconn, et cetera) and the politics that we need to engage in, in order to change these conditions. So I want to affirm antagonism, division and class war as other modes of communicative co-existence, modes that condemn exploitation and inequality and that take universal egalitarianism as their fundamental political premise and the idea of “from each according to ability, to each according to need” as their goal.