We are our own Big Brother.
In the teleology of traditional Marxism, the working class was to become so immiserated by exploitation and exclusion that it would inevitably throw off its chains, expropriate the expropriators, and establish a new egalitarian social order based on the end of alienation and the maximum fulfillment of humanity’s capabilities as as species. But along the way, in the 20th century, something happened. The bondage of capitalist relations seemed to cease to be so chafing. Instead of ever-increasing misery, consumerism appeared to unleash desire and the potential for elaborate individual gratification hitherto undreamed of.
The proletariat may not have liberated itself as a class, but the course of industrialization offered them unprecedented opportunity to differentiate themselves as individuals.
This obviously presented a problem for Marxist theory. What if the working class didn’t want to be free? In One-Dimensional Man, Frankfurt School philosopher Herbert Marcuse characterized the situation he observed in 1964 this way: “Society takes care of the need for liberation by satisfying the needs which make servitude palatable and perhaps even unnoticeable, and it accomplishes this fact in the process of production itself.” The technological changes in the field of production that were supposed to give workers the tools to liberate themselves instead, in Marcuse’s view, gave capitalists new ways to mask the proletariat’s unfreedom.
The surfeit of inexpensively produced goods transformed workers into consumers, and along with that, class identities blurred. Class could seem less a matter of autonomy and power within the social order, and more a matter of adroit consumption choices. Because in theory all are permitted access to the retail outlets offering these choices, it becomes plausible to believe that we all belong to a one broad-based class — the endlessly elastic middle class, within which we distinguish ourselves and establish our status not as a member of a particular social caste but seemingly as a unique personality. Safely ensconced within the great consumer class, we can believe that we control our own social destiny, we can shape how we will be recognized through the way we choose to express ourselves in the new media that technological “miracles” have afforded us. Our fate is hardly a matter of the historical destiny of class struggle. What could seem more absurd?
When we hear talk of revolution these days, it’s not typically about the overthrow of the capitalist classes and the redistribution of wealth. Instead we hear of the revolutionary possibilities of the internet, which allows for even more opportunities for self-expression, dispersed to as broad an audience as we care to imagine. At first blush, it seems to answer the prayers of Marxist media theorist Hans Magnus Enzensberger, who in his prescient 1970 essay “Constituents of a Theory of Media” argued that it was imperative that the working class seize the means of media production and thereby dismantle the “consciousness industry.” He regarded the new media of his time already as being “egalitarian in structure,” with the potential to “do away with all educational privileges and thereby with the cultural monopoly of the bourgeois intelligentsia.” Properly understood and developed, the media would unleash new forms of social production. “It is wrong to regard media equipment as mere means of consumption,” Enzensberger argued. “It is always, in principle, also means of production and, indeed, since it is in the hands of the masses, socialized means of production.”
More radically than any good intention, more lastingly than existential flight from one’s own class, the media, once they have come into their own, destroy the private production methods of bourgeois intellectuals. Only in productive work and learning processes can their individualism be broken down in such a way that it is transformed from morally based (that is to say, as individual as ever) self-sacrifice to a new kind of political self understanding and behavior.
An emergence of a new social form of production, according to economist Yochai Benkler, author of The Wealth of Networks, is precisely what the internet has wrought. “In the networked information economy” — the successor, in his view, to the “mass-mediated public sphere” — “the physical capital required for production is broadly distributed throughout society…. The result is that a good deal more that human beings value can now be done by individuals, who interact socially, as human beings and as social beings, rather than as market actors through the price system.” But rather than shatter the system Enzensberger decried — the “private production methods of bourgeois intellectuals,” Marxist terminology for what is often now labeled the “creative class” — it has expanded its reach and logic. We may not own factories and warehouses; we haven’t seized the means of production on those levels. But thanks to the Internet, we can now behave as small media companies. The media become the field of our emancipation, encouraging us to mediate all aspects of our everyday life, to locate them on the grounds of these emerging freedoms.
Media serve the ideological function of reducing all forms of political action into identity-oriented posturing.
To Benkler, the networked information economy enhances individual autonomy and permits social production not because of new political goals of class solidarity but because the internet permits “loose affiliation” to characterize production: “The very fluidity and low commitment required of any given cooperative relationship increases the range and diversity of cooperative relations people can enter, and therefore of collaborative projects they can conceive of as open to them.” In this model, collaboration is possible, and perhaps preferable, among strangers who don’t impede the productive relationship with personal and social issues. Everyone can do just as much as they feel like doing; a self-aggrandizing charity rather than a growing sense of social responsibility drives participation.
The voluntaristic aspects of social production allows participants to circumvent the “morally based self-sacrifice” that Enzensberger associates with bourgeois individualism, but only by placing the self at the heart of production, ushering in a more refined and all-consuming individualism. Benkler notes that thanks to the new media, “many more of us participate actively in making cultural moves and finding meaning in the world around us.” Those cultural moves and meanings, Benkler presumes, only matter when they are mediated, when they are made economically efficacious. Active participation is a matter of permitting the private meanings we make be publicly harvested — it means making our consumption productive as a form of immaterial labor.
The new “social media” forms open cultural production, once dominated by industrial conglomerates and various taste-making elites, to nearly every would-be information producer. Anyone with a Facebook page is now an information producer, creating valuable maps of influence and correlated interests for marketers and manufacturers. But social media is a bit of a misnomer. Online presence is fundamentally individualistic. The incentive for participation is in building identity and its extension, reputation. Through these can be secured a newly measurable attention, which becomes an alternative currency to money and its market-based exchanges it regulates. The new media permit more opportunities for publicized creative self-expression than ever before, repaid in attention or recognition, allowing self-expression to stand in completely for self-fulfillment, as though they were synonymous terms.
In practice, liberatory self-expression through media is a matter of broadcasting the details of our lives in an effort to enrich the meaningfulness of the objects and practices we associate ourselves with, in hopes that both we and the objects will be equally glorified. It’s about making as many twittered “cultural moves” as possible. ”
Jean Baudrillard, in his critique of Enzensberger’s ideas in “Requiem for the Media” (pdf), claims that the seemingly emancipatory media forms preserve the form of reciprocity while denying it in practice, emptying it of its meaning. Collaboration takes place only at the level of what he calls “the code” — the elaborated language of objects and practices that flattens everything to the level of signs or models through which we express our consumerist identity. Advertisers has long since seized upon mass media to develop the idea that products are transformative, enabling you to reveal yourself as a different person. But the ideological impact of the mass media is mainly at the level of form. As Baudrillard explains, the mass media works by “broadcasting events in the abstract universality of public opinion.” This deprives an event “of its own rhythm and of its meaning” and is “short-circuited,” “neutralized into signs.” Hence, a “mortal dose of publicity” is the best way to depoliticize an event. It appears as a parody of itself in the media, becomes a sign, a pose, a posture. Media thus serve the ideological function of reducing all forms of political action into identity-oriented posturing.
Online media forms do nothing to change the ideology built into the older mass media. Instead, they extend that ideology and form of the mass media into personal relations, into more intimate spheres, so that the private is turned inside out and made vulnerable to the consumerist ideology. They turn our everyday lives into the “code” so that our practices are always signifying something in that one dimension, in that language of social practices and objects that denotes status hierarchies. Once personal relations stood in opposition to the “generality of media messages,” and the opposition helped define the private/public dichotomy. Now, Web 2.0 applications and the like have allowed media to assimilate personal relations.
“Collaboration,” recast as isolated individuals connected cybernetically, thus becomes a modality of self-fashioning, for securing an avenue and an audience for the skills one sought to exhibit and have confirmed. We are all turned into broadcasters of the personal, reconstituting friendship as a mode of media consumption; we can consume “friendship” as an entertainment product, passively on a screen, with little obligation to reciprocate or uphold the responsibilities of personal connection, though the ghost of those ideals are preserved in the forms online connectedness can take. We can pretend online networking lets us be better friends, since we are so much more “connected,” we read so much more about what others are doing, we never forget their birthdays, we exchange so many tokens of approval and affirmation. But by giving us tools to automate those gestures of responsibility to the relationship, social networks, etc., hollow them out, instrumentalize them. They become too easy — the equivalent of using a TV remote to change what’s on the screen.
Baudrillard notes that “the absolutization of speech under the formal guise of exchange is the definition of power.” He’s thinking of the electoral referendum as the purest expression of this reduction — but it translates also into the way social networks now permit us to signal “I like it” with a click, encouraging the notion that registering naked approval and nothing more should be the horizon for communicative action. Isn’t that really all that matters? Others in the network are gesturing away, seeking approval, as are we ourselves; shouldn’t we merely exchange that appreciation as straightforwardly possible, so as to not to clutter the field and obscure the approval-seeking performances, the all-important feints at identity?
As Web 2.0 naturalizes itself in our everyday lives, discursive, nonprogrammatic communication becomes even harder, as the form of mass media co-opts more and more of the occasions for speech. Baudrillard argues that what is broadcast on TV is ideologically irrelevant because its very form assures that “people are no longer speaking to each other.” With the Web, TV’s logical extension, we can give up talking to one another in favor of broadcasting at one another. This transforms the meaning of “sharing,” which is depersonalized and becomes mediatized. Sharing becomes “social production” instead, simultaneously producing a consumerist self and a wealth of new meanings to be profitably dispersed through the richly developed and exploitable networks of consumerist selves dispersed throughout society.
Sign exchange at the homogenized level is the province of the consumer. As Baudrillard explains,
The generalized order of consumption is nothing other than that sphere where it is no longer permitted to give, to reimburse, or to exchange, but only to take and to make use of (appropriation, individualized use value). In this case, consumption goods also constitute a mass medium: they answer to the general state of affairs we have described. Their specific function is of little import: the consumption of products and messages is the abstract social relation that they establish, the ban raised against all forms of response and reciprocity.
In other words, an exchange of “look at me” communication gestures, or of online broadcasts, do not constitute reciprocity; that’s just consumerism conducting itself as a communication system through us, with our serving as the labor to sustain it (the quasi-voluntary immaterial labor so-called post-Fordist firms have learned to exploit). We get to feel produced within the system as a person with an identity that can grow and respond in accordance with the objects and consumer practices the code systematizes and whose meaning we help shape. All communication is reduced to consumerism, which can be defined as leveraging the social code to enhance our personal brand.
Technophilic enthusiasts often insinuate that it is cynicism about the utopian possibilities of new media that allows the existing power structure to maintain its grip. But cynicism about the new media is not the problem; the media themselves are: The nature of their form “depoliticizes the counterculture” but making all its efforts essentially mean “look at me!” It doesn’t take the scorn of elitists and old-guard skeptics, as Enzensberger had argued. Broadcasting through the media at the individual level can only reinforce individualism, and the redirect the relevance of all broadcasts to the extenuation of that individual’s identity.
Mass media has become decentralized, but the ideology inherent in its form transcends the need for a central bureau of conspirators guaranteeing its efficacy.
The networked information economy reinforces the idea that class is an outdated concept, and that we are all individual, atomized owners of our own mini-means of production. We thereby become bite-sized capitalists, manufacturing our own identity as our flagship product, supporting the social order that relies on such subjectivity. Marcuse had pointed out that society’s “supreme promise is an ever-more-comfortable life for an ever-growing number of people who, in a strict sense, cannot imagine a qualitatively different universe of discourse and action, for the capacity to contain and manipulate subversive imagination is an integral part of the given society.” That is to say, society manipulates our very concept of subversion, makes it seem a matter of personal style. The extension of the means of media production to the masses accelerates that development, giving individuals an ever-larger stake in the development of a self-image, and embedding that pursuit into the heart of production processes.
Baudrillard, too, dismisses the idea of “proposing, as a revolutionary solution, that everyone become a manipulator, in the sense of active operator, producer, etc., in brief, move from receiver status to that of producer-transmitter.” Such a “critical reversal of the ideological concept of manipulation” still, he argues, “conserves the category of transmitter, which it is content to generalize as separated, transforming everyone into his own transmitter.” The consequence, Baudrillard predicted, would be “a kind of personalized amateurism, the equivalent of Sunday tinkering on the periphery of the system.” Some would probably dismiss the blogosphere as precisely that. But that misses the larger point. Blogging and so on are forms of immaterial labor that complement the mass media rather than competing or subverting them. More important, the distinction between amateur and professional in the field of media is becoming irrelevant. An amateur production that could disrupt the flow of mass-media spectacles, stand apart from it and call it into question,appear as something different, is no longer possible — it’s just reality TV, or “lo-fi” music, or “remix” culture, all of which are tolerated and assimilated as genres. Mass media has become decentralized, but the ideology inherent in its form transcends the need for a central bureau of conspirators guaranteeing its efficacy. Instead, mass media, as Baudrillard concludes in a characteristic understatement, “realize the ideal one might refer to as decentralized totalitarianism.” We now all contribute to sustain their form. Our energetic efforts in social media may seem to set us free, letting us say everything we ever wanted to say. But the more we say, the more it all means the same old thing: I’m here! I have my place! Isn’t it wonderful?
Rob would love to hear from you. Drop him a line at horninggenbub [at] gmail [dot] com.
* * *
Follow Generation Bubble’s link feed on Twitter: account name “GenBub_tweed.”
And find us on Facebook: group name “Generation Bubble.”