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

Dean, Jodi JDEAN at hws.edu
Mon Jun 22 16:05:21 UTC 2009

Thanks to Brian for his generous reading and summary of work I've been doing on communicative capitalism.  

1.  Brian writes (in a statement that summarizes, extends, and adds some important details):

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

I agree fully with this analysis--and think it's clearer and stronger than what had been taking me lots of time and space to formulate. This part is really key as the core of the
analytical point (also expressed in the end of the paragraph in terms of identification with finance):  

"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

2.  Brian asks: 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? 

I agree with the description of our divergence in Democracy and Hard Times and the summary of my work.  On other aspects, that's a little trickier. I think
the summary you've provided here is clear and useful and a neat point of intersection for thinking through possible ways of addressing, confronting, the 
capture involved in communicative capitalism. On the other hand, there are some additional theoretical points that I think are important (but may not have
played much of a role in the pieces you discuss here)--the basic one is Zizek's: decline of symbolic efficiency; it refers to the way signification doesn't scale,
how meaning is fragile and unstable, how people speak the same language but don't--in fact, your piece on the Yes Men is a great example of this point; I think
that your concept of 'the privatization of knowledge' may be a variation of a similar insight.

3.  Have you gotten many replies to your message of communicative capitalism?
There was an article in Cultural Politics that took up the idea of communicative capitalism critically. For the most part, though, it's still at the gesture to and footnote
stage. When I've presented in to groups, the initial response is nearly always: but what about Move On? and then the room tends to divide for and against
pretty quickly.  I did an early version at Mama in Zagreb--they were very
enthusiastic. Also, the theoretical criticism is generally that my whole analysis is to dialectical, closed, and gloomy.  

4.  Opportunities of present crisis: this is an amazing opportunity. In the US there is more support for public health care, more opposition to Republicans, more
disgust with neoliberalism than there has been in over 30 years. An incredible point--and the questions that you introduce next are crucial--so, what about new
organizations of society? I confess to getting flummoxed, though, at this stage, as a result of the limitations in my reading. Not much comes to mind--others on this
list probably have a lot more ideas here. Maybe someone has already compiled a 'good ideas for reorganizing society' archive? that could be useful. at any rate,
my sense (coming out of academic political theory) is of a shift away from big ideas (which is what made Hardt and Negri so refreshing when they came out with
Empire) and toward micro-political, policy oriented, and lifestyle based plans. An example that combines all 3: local and community gardening initiatives. Sure, these
are valuable and teach great skills. But they don't seem to me to be adequate left alternatives to neoliberalism.

5.  Isn't it insufficient, now, to merely evoke the old welfare state, or I would even say, the old welfare-warfare state? Yes--it's inadequate. I tend to appeal to it
because of the large scale commitment to social welfare; and, I don't think it has to be necessarily combined with warfare but that these can be understood 
separately. That said, it functions for me as a least a feasible alternative to neoliberalism, or maybe as something that holds open the place of alternative.

6.  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? 

The question of communication here is crucial--my concern has been that the alternatives are narrowing down rapidly; so, folks influenced by Deleuze (including Agamben)
tend to turn toward a kind of immanence and affectivity, as a kind of field of impressions and feelings that can subvert the 'privatization of knowledge' or 'decline in
symbolic efficiency' ; much of the other skill based approach (I'm thinking of the myriad of efforts around ICTs and education) seems to be a factory for producing the
subjects of communicative capitalism. I guess a third path is the micropolitical one--but doesn't this ultimately involve a kind of volunteerism that fills in for the retreat
of the state from infrastructure?  Relatedly (but perhaps lest pessimistic) I've wondered why or what it would take to take over Detroit, that is, to participate in squatting
the city, etc. A quick look at the net presence of groups suggests a relatively small number of local activists who are struggling desperately to help the folks who remain
in the city.

7.  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?

On the universities--I think the situation differs quite a bit in the US and Europe because of the widespread presence of so many private colleges and universities in the US.
At least one dilemma both share: if students are desperate for jobs, what do faculty do? Help prepare them?  On Theory and Event--I'm currently the co-editor (with Michael
Shapiro). We see our role as providing a place for critical, contemporary, 'continental' political theory and philosophy. We sometimes have more experimental pieces than
more mainstream journals. A dilemma we face: if we want to open and hold a space in academic political theory, we have to act like an academic journal (or then hiring
committees won't treat the pieces as publications); yet, we want to push the boundaries of what counts....

8.  Permeability and activism--purely critical is dangerous and can be self-indulgent; so, openness to counter proposals is important; yet, I guess that at this point I
worry that a critical flag against too much tech fetishism needs to be carried and waved and so I still kinda see myself and what I do in that position. 

On activism--my partner and I do a lot of local politics stuff (he is the vice pres of the local Dem party)--this involves lots of door to door and fund-raising,
strategizing with local candidates, meeting and debating about development plan etc. We were involved in a lot of local anti-war stuff here (and in the big demos) around the war in Iraq.
Over the last years I've found myself occupying positions in academic professional organizations (I was 'run' as an oppositional candidate to a slate of nominees for the
American Political Science Association, for example, and now serve on board and administrative committee). I think of this as activism, but it is a kind of politics....

thanks again for engaging my work--Jodi

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