Friday, February 25, 2011

Communicative Capitalism

As a new blogger I have to ask myself a hard but simple question: why am I doing this? The sun is shining, my legs ache to again go jogging in the forest, flowers are blooming in my garden, and I sit behind a closed window, sifting through information on the internet, each day learning more how little I knew the day before. Sure, I love writing. And “having” to publish keeps the discipline in line. But what am I trying to achieve here? Clearly I want to do my part in saving the world, but the world can hardly be saved through writing texts that nobody reads.

It was on a day with thoughts like these that I discovered Jodi Dean's theory of Communicative Capitalism. Jodi Dean is a political theorist, Zizek expert and writer of the blog I Cite. She has a refreshing pessimism for a sunny day and, thanks to a sick-day in bed (indeed, when the sun was shining), I was able to read through her 34-page article on communicative capitalism. The link to her blog is directly to an excerpt from her article and if you want the full 34 pages, you can download them via her blog. Herewith I'll just give you a few excerpts and comments with no claim of capturing her whole theory.

Dean basically argues that all of our talk about politics is keeping us from being political. But I'll let her speak for herself:

Struggles on the net reiterate struggles in real life, but insofar as they reiterate these struggles, they displace them. ...participation in online communities often provides a sense of satisfaction that actually dampens a willingness to interact with the real world.

When you’re communing with like-minded souls, you feel like you’re accomplishing something by arguing out the smallest details of your perfect future world, while the imperfect and actual world takes no notice...

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...

The proliferation, distribution, acceleration, and intensification of communicative access and opportunity, far from enhancing democratic governance or resistance, results in precisely the opposite...

...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 necessary for a contribution to register or have an impact). In sum, communication functions symptomatically to produce its own negation...

...the intense circulation of content in communicative capitalism forecloses the antagonism necessary for politics...

Instead of engaged debates, instead of contestations employing common terms, points of reference, or demarcated frontiers, we confront a multiplication of resistances and assertions so extensive that it hinders the formation of strong counter-hegemonies.

A contribution need not be understood; it need only be repeated, reproduced, forwarded. Clay Shirkey summarily puts it, “Diversity plus freedom of choice creates inequality, and the greater the diversity, the more extreme the inequality” (Shirkey 2003).

...in an age celebrated for its communications there is no response...

Well, Jodi, I'm sure your points are arguable. I'm sure there are statistics out there showing the benefit of all of our communications. I'm sure that NGO's can boast better philanthropic results in our socially networked era. For that matter, so many more NGO's have been founded! There is so much engagement! And in light of the demonstrations in the Arab world today, which, everyone knows, are the direct result of networked media, one could really dispute your theories.

But I think I won't be the one to argue with you on this sunny day. I'm beginning to sense that all this activity – all this talk, all this analysis, all this networking – is just a nebulous metamorphosis of the good-old bystander effect. But instead of the cries of Kitty, we are ignoring the cries of billions. Because we cannot hear anymore with this din.

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