[iDC] Fetish and Trauma: Jodi Dean’s "Communicative Capitalism"

Brian Holmes brian.holmes at aliceadsl.fr
Mon Jun 22 02:43:28 UTC 2009

Why should a number of us be such curmudgeons as to doubt 
that social media offer an uncontrollable space of 
subversive play? Is it because we detest art, popular 
pleasure, multiplicity and ruse, or the fantastic range of 
human potential outlined by Brian Sutton-Smith? Or is it 
because a seemingly fun-loving culture of highly 
commercialized communications developed at the same time as 
we were being manifestly lied to by those who maintained 
that a stock-market logic could provide a perfect form of 
governance? The COMPLACENCE, indeed, the ENTHUSIASM of 
majorities on both left and right toward the core ideas of 
neoliberal policy draws me to the practical value of 
ideology critique, as put forth by writers like Jodi Dean.

Jodi and I both participated in an edited volume called 
Digital Media and Democracy: Tactics in Hard Times (2008). 
Her text is really challenging: "Communicative Capitalism: 
Circulation and the Foreclosure of Politics." In it she 
asks: "Why has the expansion and intensification of 
communication networks, the proliferation of the very tools 
of democracy, coincided with the collapse of democratic 
deliberation and, indeed, struggle?" Since I'd done a lot of 
work with activist artists using networked communications in 
the counter-globalization protests, editor Megan Boler 
naturally thought I'd be on the other side of the fence. She 
asked me straight out: "Brian, how do you respond to Jodi 
Dean's argument and pessimism?"

It was hard to answer that, because as a protester involved 
in large but usually losing struggles even before 9-11, I 
had my own questions about how democratic social movements 
could be cut off at their height and then fade away so 
easily. I acknowledged a lot of Dean's concerns, but I did 
want to point out that a broad, multilayered, highly 
articulated international movement had existed in reality, 
not just fantasy, and that its activities both on the 
streets and in the public spheres where policies are debated 
and opposed had been brought to a stop, not by dynamics 
inherent to networked communications, but by a combination 
of carefully orchestrated media campaigns and violent police 
repression. In the wake of that and other experiences I 
think it is important to go on organizing and maintaining 
even relatively small social movements and groups devoted to 
alternative ideas and practices. I think it important not to 
deny their existence and possibility. Still the mere 
existence of resistance movements in no way precludes the 
idea that there are belief structures and everyday practices 
in our societies that stifle and repress both raw dissent 
and long-term political alternatives among the majority of 
the citizens. And the fact that people who are socialized to 
believe very strongly in democratic ideals and sometimes 
even in subversion nonetheless take part in the sustaining 
rituals of an objectively exploitative and repressive social 
order is exactly why our majority belief systems need to be 
critiqued! Why don't we DO what we SAY we are doing?

Here is one of Jodi's key concepts: "Communicative 
capitalism designates that form of late capitalism in which 
values heralded as central to democracy take material form 
in networked communications technologies. Ideals of access, 
inclusion, discussion and participation come to be realized 
in and through expansions, intensifications and 
interconnections of global telecommunications" [these and 
the following quotes are from the text referenced above, 
"Communicative Capitalism," p. 104]. The problem from her 
viewpoint is, not only does this infrastructure fail to 
deliver a deliberative democracy that can address the 
problems of inequality, environmental decay and war, but 
worse, it becomes the object of a fetishization that exalts 
the technology as proof of a democratic progress that 
manifestly is not happening.

A number of observations are given in support. The first is 
the fantasy of an abundance of messages which should enrich 
the public sphere. But are these messages in the strict 
sense of the word? "One of the most basic formulations of 
the idea of communication is in terms of a message and the 
response to a message. Under communicative capitalism, this 
changes. Messages are contributions to circulating content 
-- not actions to elicit responses. Differently put, the 
exchange value of messages overtakes their use value. ... 
Uncoupled from contexts of action and application -- as on 
the Web or in print and broadcast media -- the message is 
simply part of a circulating data stream. ... The value of a 
particular contribution is likewise inversely proportionate 
to the openness, inclusivity, or extent of a circulating 
data stream -- the more opinions or comments that are out 
there, the less of an impact that any given one might make 
(and the more shock, spectacle or newness that is necesary 
for a contribution to register or have an impact). In sum, 
communication functions symptomatically to produce its own 
negation" [107].

Zero comments, the extremely familiar phrase used as the 
title of Geert Lovink's book on blogging, seems to point in 
exactly that direction. Dean goes on: "Even when we know 
that our specific contributions (our messages, posting, 
books, articles, films, letters to the editor) simply 
circulate in a rapidly moving and changing flow of content, 
in contributing, in participating, we act as if we do not 
know this. This action manifests ideology as the belief 
underlying action, the belief reproducing communicative 
capitalism" [108].

In addition to (or in compensation for) this basic 
meaninglessness of the message -- its inability to elicit 
either a collaborative response or a friend-enemy 
confrontation -- Dean describes a technology fetishism that 
applies to the machinery and processes of communication. She 
details three modes of fetishism: condensation, 
displacement, foreclosure.

CONDENSATION: "The complexities of problems -- of 
organization, struggle, duration, decisiveness, division, 
representation, etc. -- are condensed into one thing, one 
problem to be solved and one technological solution" [112]. 
Example: the problem of people in democracies is supposedly 
that they aren't informed: so give them information 
technology! "Additional examples of condensation appear when 
cybertheorists and activists emphasize singular Web sites, 
blogs, and events... so small that [they don't even] show up 
on blog ranking sites like daypop or Technorati" [113]. She 
goes further with a study apparently showing that in the US, 
increasing disclosure in chemical emissions, food labeling 
and medical error came exactly at a time when attempts to 
impose binding legislation were being defeated...

DISPLACEMENT: "Politics is displaced upon the activities of 
everyday or ordinary people... What the everyday people do 
in their everyday lives is supposed to overflow with 
poliical activity: conflicts, negotiations, resistances, 
collusions, cabals, transgressions, and resignifications. 
... To put up a Web site, to deface a Web site, to redirect 
hits to other sites, to deny access to a Web site, to link 
to a Web site -- this is construed as real political action. 
In my view, this sort of emphasis displaces political energy 
from the hard work of organizing and struggle" [113].

FORECLOSURE: "The political purchase of the technological 
fetish is given in advance; it is immediate, presumed, 
understood. ... Saying that 'revolution means the 
wikification' of the world [as done by Schneider and Lovink 
in some manifesto] ... relies on an ontologization such that 
the political nature of the world is produced by the 
particular technological practices. Struggle, conflict and 
context vanish, immediately and magically. Or, put somewhat 
differently, they are foreclosed, eliminated in advance so 
as to create a space for the uopian celebration of open 
"To ontologize the political [that is, to give it the 
character of an immediate, primary and necessary reality] is 
to collapse the very symbolic space necessary for 
politicization, a space between the object and its 
representation, its ability to stand for something beyond 
itself. The power of the technological fetish stems from 
this foreclosure of the political. ... Technologies can and 
should be politicized. They should be made to represent 
something beyond themselves in the service of something 
beyond themselves. Only such a treatment will avoid 
fetishization" [114-115].

All of the above does happen quite a lot, in my experience. 
For example, in Europe we have seen the initially 
politicized "tactical media" mostly decline into gadgets 
displayed at festivals sponsored by corporations and 
consensus-hungry governments, with some theoretical 
discourse (such as my own) included in order to make sure 
the stuff looks serious and the academic public has 
something to chew on. In the US, someone like Kevin Kelly 
can still produce a piece of obscene techno-corporate 
boosterism like his recent text, totally distorting any 
specific historical meaning of the word "socialism" -- a 
move quite close to those of net-cooperation theorist Yann 
Moulier Boutang, the editor-in-chief of the supposedly 
post-hierarchical journal Multitudes which I used to be part 
of, who continues to talk about "the communism of capital" 
as though we were still beneath the spell of the 
dot-communist nineties. Since there is (or was) money in the 
digital realm, and also unlimited space for writing, why not 
let your leftist fantasies expand there, and pick up 500 
euro at the door?

I do not mean to disavow all the artistic and activist 
projects I have collaborated on and written about over the 
last fifteen years, particularly not because quite a lot of 
them were overtly antagonistic and unfolded outside official 
spaces -- but nonetheless the effects of technological 
fetishism and its linkage to corporate profit are still very 
clear to me, and I have very often seen governments using 
the idealism of open source and DIY activism to cover over 
the pursuit of business as usual. Already a couple years ago 
I wrote a text called "The Absent Rival: Radical Art in a 
Political Vacuum," to describe exactly the lack of 
meaningful confrontation that had been encountered by 
activist groups like the Yes Men. Especially now I am 
puzzled by the passivity of the American citizenry who have 
just been royally ripped off by the corporate-financial 
class and yet since Obama's election, no one has taken to 
the streets, even while Geithner, Bernanke and Summers do 
everything to reinstate the power of the bankers. It's 
obviously not just the fault of social media, far from it, 
but why are people in the overdeveloped countries  no longer 
able to use the tremendous communicative possibilities 
offered by the Internet to organize themselves politically, 
as they (we) were seemingly able to do around the turn of 
the century? That they are doing it in Iran right now is of 
course fantastic, and it recalls some of the potential (see 
for example the very enthusiastic text by Henry Giroux on 
Counterpunch -- you wonder, did he somehow miss Seattle and 
Genoa?). But Iran is a totally different situation from 
here, it is a closed society, ours is a liberal society, 
founded precisely on the legitimacy granted by open 
communication. Openness is a tough nut to crack, precisely 
because there is no shell, no outside.

Let's consider what I think is Jodi's most challenging idea. 
The question is stated in the text from which I have been 
quoting: "If Freud is correct in saying that a fetish not 
only covers over a trauma but that in so doing it helps one 
through a trauma, what might serve as an analogous 
sociopolitical trauma today?" [110]. The answer is most 
fully stated, fittingly enough, in a short "Reply" she made 
to Wendy Brown and a number of other critics of 
neoliberalism in the journal Theory & Event, 11/4 (2008). 
Now I will offer a long and sustained quote from that reply:

"The idea of communicative capitalism highlights the way 
participation and the freedom to express oneself are 
essential to the economic success of neoliberalism -- 
telecommunications networks are inseparable from production, 
consumption, political expression, and state surveillance. 
The more people participate -- blog, email, register their 
opinions -- the stronger the telecommunications 
infrastructure necessary for financial flows and markets and 
the greater the opportunities for surveillance. Under 
communicative capitalism, then, communication functions 
fetishistically as a disavowal of a more fundamental 
political disempowerment or castration.

"If Freud is correct in saying a fetish not only covers over 
a trauma but in so doing helps one through a trauma, what 
might serve as the analogous socio-political trauma today? A 
likely answer can be found in the left's role in the 
collapse of the welfare state: its betrayal of fundamental 
commitments to social solidarity. I want to flag three 
aspects of left failure in order to mark some of the 
political aspects of the open site of trauma...: the left's 
abandonment of workers and the poor, its retreat from the 
state and repudiation of collective action, and its 
acceptance of the neoliberal economy as the "only game in 

"The late 1960s and early 1970s witnessed a set of profound 
changes in the world economy, changes associated with 
declines in economic growth and increases in inflation and 
unemployment. Powerful figures in the corporate and finance 
sectors took this opportunity to dismantle the welfare state 
(by privatizing public holdings, cutting back on public 
services, and rewriting laws for the benefit of 
corporations). For the most part, the American left seemed 
relatively unaware of the ways business was acting as a 
class to consolidate political power -- a fundamental 
component of which was the passage of a set of campaign 
finance laws establishing the rights of corporations to 
contribute unlimited amounts of money to political parties 
and political action committees. Instead, coming out of the 
movements associated with 1968, increasingly prominent 
voices on the left emphasized and fought for personal 
freedoms, freedoms from parental and state constraints as 
well as freedoms for the expression of differences of race, 
sex, and sexuality. While these ideals were situated within 
movements for social justice, their coexistence was 
precarious, as tensions at the time between workers and 
students made clear....

"Identity politics proved a boon for the right, enabling the 
alliance between social conservatives and neoliberals. The 
former opposed the welfare state for the way it allegedly 
undermined morality and family values, encouraged 
criminality, abortion, and sex outside of marriage, and 
benefited the drug-addicted and lazy more than the sober and 
diligent. Engaged in struggles against social conservatives 
on all these fronts, many leftists embraced the emphasis on 
freedom and attack on the state prominent among neoliberals. 
The state seemed but another repressive authority, its 
provisions tied to the sexism of the traditional family and 
the racism of the white mainstream. Unions appeared corrupt, 
already part of a status quo limiting opportunities to the 
white and the male. Likewise, in the wake of more than a 
quarter century of anti-communism, ever fewer leftists found 
in Marxism a viable language for expressing political 
aspirations. They argued that oppression occurs along 
multiple axes; a focus on class obscures the diversity of 
political struggles. The economic problems plaguing the 
welfare state, moreover, suggested to some the limits of 
political attempts at regulation and redistribution. Given 
the imperatives of complex systems, some form of capitalism, 
it seemed, would and should persist; what was needed were 
guarantees for the rights and differences of all within 
capitalist societies, a more radical or participatory 
approach to democracy.

"Yet, as they echoed the criticisms of the state prominent 
among on the right, leftists failed to envision a new form 
of social solidarity. Instead, they continued to emphasize 
the plurality of struggles on a variety of social and 
cultural terrains and affirm different modes of living. Such 
an emphasis and affirmation enabled an easy coexistence with 
consumer capitalism insofar as choices of fashion and 
entertainment could be quickly read as political 
significant. Anti-racist? Wear a Malcolm X t-shirt. 
Gay-friendly? Fly a rainbow flag. The ease of political 
expression, the quick availability of the affective thrill 
of radicality, could let more people feel like they were 
politically engaged, even as the shift in political parties 
from person-intensive to finance-intensive organization 
strategies reduced the political opportunities open to most 
Americans to voting or giving money.

"In short, many on the American left responded to the attack 
on the welfare state, collapse of Keynesianism, and 
emergence of a neoliberal consensus by forfeiting their 
historical solidarity with workers and the poor, retreating 
from the state, and losing the sense that collective 
solutions to large scale systemic inequalities are possible 
and necessary. The failure of solidarity was manifest 
perhaps most acutely in President Bill Clinton's destruction 
of welfare guarantees (aid to families with dependent 
children) in favor of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families 
(capped at five years) in the Personal Responsibility and 
Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. Republicans 
didn't eliminate welfare; Democrats, the party associated 
with the interests of the poor and the working class since 
the Depression, did. This failure of solidarity is closely 
linked to the left's withdrawal from the state—even as 
various elements on the right developed strategies for 
funding and winning electoral campaigns, interpreting the 
constitution, and rewriting laws, even as corporate and 
business interests steadily increased their political 
investments, the left failed adequately to defend what had 
long ago been won, namely, the notion that the most 
fundamental role of the state is insuring a minimal social 
and economic standard below which no one is allowed to fall.

"Finally, as it overlapped with a reluctance to offend any 
particular desires for freedom, backing away from the state 
resonated with a sense that there is no alternative to the 
market. And, more than simply an approach to the 
distribution of goods and services, this sense is more 
profoundly a sense political inefficacy: we can't do 
anything about anything. In part, the loss of agency results 
from the prior acceptance of the inevitability of 
capitalism. But, it results as well from an underlying 
skepticism toward uttering the word "we," toward speaking 
for others and in so doing failing to recognize their 
difference and specificity. Indeed, to this extent to speak 
of the left in the U.S under communicative capitalism makes 
no sense—there is no such collectivity."


So -- the fondness of the left-leaning middle classes for 
the subversive proliferation of individualized messages made 
possible by networked communications actually helped us get 
through a trauma, which was the realization that we were and 
continue to be complicit in breaking the pact of social 
solidarity that fomerly allowed for a redistribution of the 
wealth between the professional and the working classes 
after the Second World War. The EXPRESSSION of 
"dot-communism" or any other belief in networked social 
cooperation was a compensation for the FACT of neoliberal 
rollback of collective welfare provision, with the consent 
of the middle classes who could save on taxes and profit 
from the new investment opportunities and new professional 
activities that appeared with the "monetary turn" of the 
1980s. This interpretation is all the more striking when you 
realize that the expansion of civilian telecommunications 
technology was initially driven by the corporate sectors 
that made financialization into their class strategy in the 
1970s; then the massification of the Internet in 1990s, 
while socially much more complex, was again financed by 
speculative investments. So that the middle-class adoption 
of communications technology as a utopian object of desire 
clearly represents an identification with the power and 
prestige of finance -- even if anyone who knows the history 
of the Internet could never reduce its fabrication and 
technological form to this kind of simple ideological 

There are more things to be drawn out of Jodi's texts on 
exactly how people manage to distract their attention from 
the difficult truths of contemporary society, and I hope in 
a later post to tease out some of them. The point here, I 
should be clear, is not just to be melancholically critical, 
but instead to use the opportunity of our virtual assembly 
to do some work and to ask how that work could become 
practical -- how a group or rather, a network of artists and 
technologists and intellectuals could better understand the 
sort of collective predicaments in which we are all caught, 
so as to start devising strategies to get out of them.

To this end, I want to ask Jodi, do you agree with the ways 
that I have characterized, first our divergence in that book 
I referred to, and above all, the way I have summed up one 
aspect of your current work? Would you insist on adding 
other aspects to get at the heart of what you are trying to 
say? Have you gotten many replies to your message of 
communicative capitalism? Above all, what do you see as the 
political opportunities of the present crisis? I realize we 
are not yet to a point of collapse by any means, that 
Geithner and Bernanke (or rather, Citi and Goldman) want to 
reflate the derivatives markets and monetize the debt away, 
in short that Grand Theft America is still the favorite game 
of our oh-so playful elites -- but despite all that, the 
literal bankruptcy of neoliberal governance has never been 
so manifest, and the middle classes can no longer easily 
delude themselves with credit and mortgage refinancing into 
thinking that they really profit from the speculative economy.

Is it not vitally necessary for intellectuals to begin 
proposing a new organization of society? Do you see anyone 
doing that? Isn't it insufficient, now, to merely evoke the 
old welfare state, or I would even say, the old 
welfare-warfare state? You show very effectively that 
communication is fetishized, covering over the very 
inequalities that financialized communication helps to 
generate. But doesn't the aspiration to education and 
self-cultivation, characteristic of people in all the 
developed economies, require that communication itself be 
used differently, in order to foster other forms of 
self-cultivation which do not exclude effective political 
cooperation? How to do that concretely? For example, how to 
use the universities differently? How do you evaluate the 
kind of critical project that has been developed over the 
last decade by a journal like Theory & Event in which you 
participate, along with Wendy Brown, Paul Passavant and others?

I realize that you are particularly interested to follow 
some of Zizek's intuitions and to see where the 
financialized economy is embodied in practices of hysterical 
or perverse enjoyment, and I am sure there is some 
understanding to be gained there. But would you agree that 
at this point any purely critical discourse is too 
one-sided, that it must now become permeable to constructive 
proposals, even if they are tentative and experimental? Do 
you engage in political activism or organization yourself? 
Are you particularly interested in specific forms of 
activism, party politics or organization?

I know it's a lot of questions, so answer any way you like. 
Hopefully this more sustained reading of one person's work 
can add something to our ongoing project here.

best, Brian

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