Communicative Capitalism :: Complicating Networked Resistance

1 05 2009

Since settling on the rhetoric of social movements–specifically the impact of digital communication structures on social movements and their dissemination and articulation of persuasive messages–as my scholarly field of focus, I’ve been honing my skeptical eye.  After reading so many articles that express a naïve joy about the use of information communication technologies (ICTs) in confronting the ruling powers, about how Web 2.0 is ushering in a revival of democracy, I’m wary of any argument that too eagerly posits technology as that last tool collective resistance needs to achieve its variegated goals.  Lurking in my thoughts through all these readings was a simple, nasty, “Bah.”


Now, “Bah,” is as reductive as it gets; thus, it’s hardly satisfying, let alone adequate after a few utterances.  Which is why I must express some gratitude to Jodi Dean and her article, “Communicative Capitalism: Circulation and the Foreclosure of Politics,” from the book, Digital Media and Democracy: Tactics in Hard Times.  It comes at the perfect time.

Dean’s main claim is that ICTs, our globally networked communication structures, aren’t exactly helping in bringing radical change to neo-liberal capitalism.  Actually, they’re hindering. “The proliferation, distribution, acceleration, and intensification of communicative access and opportunity,” Dean writes, “far from enhancing democratic governance or resistance, results in precisely the opposite, the postpolitical formation of communicative capitalism” (102).

This is, of course, speaking “on the whole.”  We can point to plenty of examples where ICTs were instrumental in mobilizing large amounts of people, several in a remarkably short amount of time.  Just look to the recent show put on in Moldova, organized in large part through Twitter.  But while we should never downplay these occurrences or shy away from attempting to find powerful theories and terminology that help explain them, neither should we valorize them unnecessarily or lump all technological use by actors of resistance together.  Dean’s article is not addressing this use of ICTs in mobilizing people; indeed, she points to it as solid grounds on which to disagree with her article.  But, she still questions, if  “such instances of intense social meaning will drive larger organizational efforts and contribute to the formation of political solidarities with more duration” (119).

Dean’s argument is structured around the debunking of fantasies/fallacies, two of which I’ll outline here:

The Fantasy of Abundance:  Lots and lots of stuff (opinions, polemics, statistics, etc.) on the net = Democratic potential.  To debunk this, Dean contends that there’s been a shift from “message” to “contribution” and now the exchange value of a message is more important than the use value.  Phrased differently, what’s important is not that messages are being understood and responded to, as much as the fact that they contribute to the constantly enlarging steam of content.  For Dean, messages lose their specificity in communicative capitalism; stripped of their singularity, their “contexts of action and application” (107), they simply become part of a massive data flow.  It’s not that messages aren’t important, as I read her argument—it’s that the circulation of them is more important, so much that it overshadows the message itself.  Of course, the easy counter-claim is to point out that high circulation is because of the message’s importance.  What Dean is driving at, I think, is that there’s too much reliance on the high circulation = active change equivalence, coupled with a vague fetishization of circulation itself.

The Fantasy of Participation: A key point here is that the Net displaces political activity.  Struggles of everyday life are moved to a virtual sphere, obviating push to organize at street level.  Because we feel like posting a blog (like this one) is participation, political energy is redirected, or perhaps distracted, away from “real” organizing.  Here, too, Dean’s argument hinges on the “boots on the ground” dilemma, as she notes that “Internet politics” can remain solely at that level without translating over to street mobilization (cf. Dean campaign of 2000).  We feel like we’re participating, but it’s a protected space, containable, predictable, etc.

This issue spills out over the issue of digital communication, even though Dean doesn’t explicitly state it.  Ontologizing the political, she astutely notes, has worked to foreclose the political, collapsing “the very symbolic space necessary for politicization, a space between object and its representation, its ability to stand for something beyond itself” (114).  Because everything is political, the real politicization that’s needed for change gets divested of energy.  Because file-sharing is political in itself, the larger context in which it operates is forgotten.

At the end Dean contends that, “Even as globally networked communications provide tools and terrains of struggle, they make political change more difficult—and more necessary—than ever before” (119).  What makes me nervous, of course, is precisely this course of passivity with the conviction of active resistance.  As Zizek writes, “You think you are active, while your true position, as embodied in the fetish, is passive” (The Plague of Fantasies 21).