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

Brian Holmes brian.holmes at aliceadsl.fr
Wed Jun 24 20:35:26 UTC 2009

Jodi Dean wrote:
 > ...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.

Jodi, after looking very closely at one of your texts, I 
tried to do something similar with another one ("Enjoying 
Neoliberalism") and found myself taken further and further 
afield as I sought to understand the roots of this discourse 
on the decline of symbolic efficiency. Doesn't it originally 
come from Levi-Strauss? Finally, what seems most incisive in 
everything I've read are two quotations from the text you 
originally sent in your introduction, The Real Internet:

"The Real of the internet is the circulatory movement of 
drive — the repeated making, uploading, sampling, the 
constant pulverization that occurs as movement on the 
internet doubles itself, becoming itself and its record or 
trace — 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’s circulation forms 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....

"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 or redirecting the loop of drive."

The problem that I have with the endless cataloging of 
symptoms that characterizes, not only the typical Zizek text 
but also so much of critical left discourse in America, is 
exactly this circulatory character that neither loops the 
loop, achieving anything conclusive -- that is, defining 
anything one is really against -- nor escapes the litany of 
symptoms in order to formulate a positive project that could 
be acted upon. In your texts you give structural 
formulations of this trap, some of which are 
psychoanalytically penetrating, as in the text "Enjoying 

What I like about your work is that it tries to be 
relatively concise and clear, showing how a structuring 
relation in society -- like the one between hyperconsumptive 
ecstasy and monstrous criminality -- is embodied in specific 
figures and patterns of circulation. What I have not yet 
found, however, are substantial discussions of "the 
conditions of possibility for breaking out of or redirecting 
the loop of the drive." Doesn't that become the most 
important thing at a certain point?

Years ago, when I wanted to understand how so many cultural 
traits of the rebellious sixties had become integrated to 
the managerial strategies of the contemporary capitalist 
economy, I developed the figure of "The Flexible 
Personality." The original subtitle was "Breaking the 
Cybernetic Circles." After that, rather than making the 
essay into a book as some people advised me to do, I went 
deeper into political activism and tried to interpret or 
participate in singular versions of an aesthetic practice of 
dis-identification, leading to creation of 
project-identities or temporary collectives. I think there 
is, indeed, a "jouissance" of activism, which is no doubt 
irrational but also liberating because it displaces the 
circuits, breaks the endless "hunting pattern" of a 
homeostatic system imbalanced by its human operator, and 
finds a ground which has been strategically chosen: the 
ground of a political conflict in a particular place with 
particular people around particular issues. These 
experiments are also subjectively very interesting, because 
they leave you with an ability to focus your passion in a 
certain way, rather than being carried infinitely along to 
the next objects of painful enjoyment offered in the various 

The traces of my participation in those kinds of experiments 
form a book of essays, Unleashing the Collective Phantoms. 
Now, that's all well and good, but the question why such 
activities do not "scale up" is a real one. What do you 
think about it? Where do you look for transformatory 
strategies that redirect the loop of the drive? What are the 
politically progressive ways of shaping subjectivities that 
do not just get lost in the shadow-plays of declining 
symbolic efficiency? I imagine you have written on this, so 
feel free to simply point to work you have already done.

all the best, Brian

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