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

davin heckman davinheckman at gmail.com
Mon Jun 22 14:23:28 UTC 2009


Such a fantastic post.  And there is precious little to add to it, except,
perhaps, the magic of cynicism.  It is the very enthusiasm of
techno-utopianism and our "open" society which opens it up to critique.
Expectations have been ratcheted up to such a degree that it begs the
inevitable question:  Where is our utopia?  When are we allowed to ask for
it?  Demand it?  If it is impossible, then, why?

The semiotic games that Barthes critiques in the Semiotic Challenge--"Cook
Gold with Astra" and "Gervais Ice Cream--You'll Melt With Pleasure"--can be
applied to the economy and the entire socio-political order, in general.
While we are accustomed to these trite, hyped-up celebrations of consumer
technologies and their capacity to do connect people, and by implication or
proclamation, the inevitability of a more egalitarian social order (of the
kind offered in Kelley's text)...  I think most people can regognize, at
some level, that these messages are like the ones people like like me have
been hearing our whole lives.  We are so surrounded by these messages that
there is a tendency to acquiensce to them, and use them pragmatically.  If
we are naive, we get excited about them.  If we are cynical, we yawn.  But
all of these responses feed the same possibility: In the face of
disappointment, people might actually do something about it.

This is where I get so hung up on data-rich exchanges which can scuttle
attempts at capture and analysis (the cheapest and most efficent being
face-to-face contact).  At some point, it becomes necessary to figure out
which register people are using when they communicate.  And what deeper
concerns circulate under that register.  So much of US politics circulates
on that surface level, where people quibble over the particular enactments
of the messianic cycle of consumerism, as a means of "attacking" the deeper
problem, but in the process, missing it entirely.  I don't know how many
people I have met who have directed the political aggression at "Democrats"
or "Republicans," but who ultimately recognize that the two are not far
apart, while the actual problem is much more fundamental.  Yet so much
energy is focused on interacting with the fetish.

Symbolic exchanges force people to communicate to each other through
accepted signs, and for the most part, these accepted signs carry a set of
connotations which evoke particular responses.  This is why, for instance,
someone like Lessig must always acquiesce to the popular connotations of
"socialism" and say, without even discussing socialism, that it is
associated with "coercion."  At some level, Americans cannot even have a
conversation about socialism without first disparaging it in some way.

On the other hand, there are those exchanges, and they may be face to face
(or virtual) that allow for the symbolic terrain itself to be arrived at by
a highly particular negotiation of consensus.  So that you can rhetorically
cut through the superficial associations and speak of substance.  An
encouraging attempt at this is Bill Moyers' interview with Mike Davis...
http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/03202009/profile.html  --A rare sort of
exchange in the United States.

To bring this back to the question of labor and web 2.0, I think that when
we generate content, it is always important to try to achieve some sense of
the ends to which this content will be put to service.  Simply "putting it
out there" means that, perhaps more than has been the case in any other
time, that the very words themselves are industrialized (certainly, this has
been the ambition of "branding" and "marketing").  In my ethnic and women's
studies courses that I took in college, a great deal was made over the
loaded nature of the language that we use, how using the dominant vocabulary
tended to restrict consiousness to understanding problems and solutions
selectively.  While, perhaps we are more conscious now of the received
nature of language and the constructed nature of consciousness, we have to
ask ourselves if this critical awareness has actually served to free
consciousness, or if white, patriarchical, ethno-centric discourse has
simply been released to the commons because a more efficient technique of
managing the linguistic terrain of consciousness is underway.  As you have
pointed out, companies like ChoicePoint effectively change the economy of
symbols, ditching concepts like "the mass" in favor of the "lifestyle
category" or "psychographic" or the radically personalized consumer profiles
they are working on now.

In the end, the techniques we use for communication are going to be made
"economically."  Do we want them to remain personal?  Do we strive for
scale?  If so, when and how do we use which technique?  We cannot engage
each other without some medium of exchange (these can be gadgets, they can
be styles, they can be political parties, they can be government
institutions), but there are meaningful distinctions.  And I don't know that
it makes you a killjoy to imagine that our actions in this regard are
without consequence.  In fact, believing in benign technological progress
(or any determinism, good or bad) itself is the surest way to kill "art,
pleasure, multiplicity, and ruse", because it short circuits desire.

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