[iDC] Introduction: The Internet as Playground and Factory

Dean, Jodi JDEAN at hws.edu
Mon Jun 15 22:50:17 UTC 2009


I've been following the discussion thus far. For me, one of the ways it's been useful is as a challenge to think through/across different vocabularies and approaches. I wonder if the discussion on the list over
the summer will possibly start to generate a somewhat more common way of formulating questions and concerns. For example, I read Wark's Gamer Theory, as well as Fred Thompson's work on cyberculture, as acute demonstrations
of the inapplicability of the opposition between work and play in the contemporary setting. Once play was capitalized, it ceased to be an opening to some sort of an outside. Then, the questions become again, how to
conceive networked interactions. I've been trying to approach the question via Zizek's discussion of the decline of symbolic efficiency (Mark Andrejevic also uses this concept)--the benefit of this approach is that
it doesn't proceed from a separation of technologically mediated communication from some kind of other communication. Here's an excerpt from a draft of my essay, The Real Internet. The basic attempt is to consider how the
Real of the internet is circulation, circulation that produces a loop, and a hole, that can never be filled and hence entraps those who use it in a circuit of drive.


Zizek’s early work on cyberspace emphasizes the loss of virtuality as the gaps in the symbolic are filled. The circulation of contributions in the networks of communicative capitalism suggests a different structure, one characterized by drive. There is no “cyberspace” that persists as its own domain. Rather, the networks of global communications occur through a variety of devices, technologies, and media—internet, mobile phones, television, global positioning systems, game platforms, etc.  In fact, one of the more interesting features of massive multiplayer online role playing games is less the creation of virtual worlds than the intersections of game and non-game worlds: players can buy and trade currencies and characters outside the gamespace. The expansions and intensifications of networked interactions thus point not to a field closed to meaning as all possibilities are explored and filled in but rather back to the non-all Real of human experiences. 

Differently put, the Real of the internet is the circulatory movement effected by symbolic efficiency as loss. The movement from link to link, the forwarding and storing and commenting, the contributing without expectation of response but in hope of further movement (why else count page views?) is circulation for its own sake. Drive in the course of its circulating movement takes the form of a loop. The empty space within it, then, is not the result of the loss of something that was there before and now is missing. The drive of the internet is not around the missing Master signifier (which is foreclosed rather than missing). Instead, it is the inside of the loop, the space of nothing that the loop makes appear. Indeed, this endless loop that persists for its own sake is the difference that makes a difference between so-called old and new media. Old media sought to deliver messages. New media just circulates.

Understanding this circulation via drive enables us to understand how it is that we are captured in its loop, how the loop ensnares. First, we enjoy failure. That is to say, insofar as the aim of the drive is not to reach its goal but to enjoy, we enjoy our endless circulation, our repetitive loop. We cannot know certainly; we cannot know adequately. But we can mobilize this loss, googling, checking Wikipedia, mistrusting it immediately, losing track of what we doing, going somewhere else. We are captured because we enjoy. This idea appears in writing that associates new media with drugs, “users” and “using,” as well as colloquial expressions like “Facecrack” (as a friend said to me, well, why didn’t you tell me Facebook is like crack? I’ll be certain to sign up now!). 

Second, as I’ve already suggested, we are captured in our passivity; in the absence of an ego ideal, we remain passive. Differently put, the information not only is necessarily an age wherein we lack the information we need to act, but as it incites continuous search for this information it renders it perpetually out of reach. A concrete example here is the policy of tortured conducted by the Bush administration. A constant refrain concerns the need to get to the truth of the situation, to see more photographs, read more documents—as if had not been known sense at least 2004 that the U.S. was torturing prisoners captured in the so-called war on terror. Since photographs and documents already circulate, since members of the Bush administration—including Vice President Cheney—have already acknowledged that they did in fact approve the policy of torture, it cannot be the case that the problem is the absence of information. What is missing is instead more radical, namely, a capacity to see ourselves as acting. Christian Marazzi makes a similar point in his description of imitative behavior among those working in the finance sector. He writes, “One important result of the empirical studies of the behavioral finance theorists is this very notion of imitative behavior based on the structural information deficits of all investors, be they large or small. . . The modalities of communication of what the ‘others’ consider a good stock to invest in counts more than what is communicated.”   As is well known, an imitative, competitive relation to others is a characteristic of imaginary identification. It makes sense, then, to recognize this imitative behavior as indicative of the decline of symbolic efficiency; unable to find a standpoint from which to assess the adequacy of the available information, bond traders and hedge fund managers simply mimic those around them, stuck in the circuits of global finance. 

The gaze draws us to a third way we are captured in contemporary communication networks. Precisely because the gaps are not filled, because they cannot be filled, we are drawn to them, inscribing ourselves in the images we see, the texts that we read. So although it may make initial sense to consider online interactions as so many ways that we search for ourselves, trying to know who we are, to pull together our fragmented identities, the other aspect of the gaze, its traumatic disruption of the image is vital as well. The satisfaction provided by the group or tribe arises from transgressing its expectations as well. The phenomenon of splicing scary zombie pop-ups into conventional You Tube videos illustrates this point. Just as the viewer has become absorbed in the video, perhaps searching for the ghost or the key to the magic trip, a monstrous image (usually accompanied by a hideous scream) shocks her out of her absorption, reminding her that, in a way, the fault is hers—she shouldn’t have been wasting her time watching videos online, shouldn’t have let her guard down, shouldn’t have presumed that the video images had a flow independent of her investment in them.

Although the discussion of drive here draws heavily from Zizek, there is a crucial point of difference. Zizek emphasizes that the “stuckness” of drive (what I’ve been treating as capture) is the intrusion of radical break or imbalance: “drive is quite literally the very ‘drive’ to break the All of continuity in which we are embedded, to introduce a radical imbalance into it.”  My argument is that communicative capitalism is a formation that relies on this imbalance, on the repeated suspension of narratives, patterns, identities, norms, etc. Under conditions of the decline of symbolic efficiency, drive is not an act; it does not break out of a set of given expectations because such sets no longer persist as coherent enchainments of meaning. On the contrary, the circulation of drive is functional for the prevention of such enchainments, enchainments that might well enable radical political opposition. The contemporary challenge, then, is producing the conditions of possibility for breaking out of the loop of drive.

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