Reclaim the Network
Posted by <Noelle> on 2021-04-19
The old world is dying, and the new one is yet to be born. We live in the age of the TikTok Hype House. Humorous and self-referential opener aside, we live in a sort of unique moment with regards to Internet culture — we are far from the “revolutionary” (can we call it that?) promises of the early Internet, of sleeper-cell-like collectivities like nettime.org (creating “mailing lists for networked cultures, politics, and tactics”), of seeing the web as a place for open-access-communication (although experiments such as the Fediverse still exist, etc etcetera), as platform capitalism has subsumed us all into the algorithm, where even statements like “I am going to destroy the state as it currently exists” are still gamified to produce Twitter and Instagram likes and shares. However, we are not yet in the era of Internet censorship and surveillance that will likely occur in the incoming Biden administration; the recent response to the capitol “insurrection” (insofar as you can call a reactionary movement dedicated to keeping the current leader in power anything approaching an insurrection, mileage may vary) is likely a precursor to a new era of online surveillance that will affect the left at least as much as the right. This uneasy stasis-state that we inhabit culturally/ideologically — where events such as the capitol insurrection and even the unchecked global pandemic have torn at the illusory curtain of capitalist realism (I mean we hate to see it, but events like the capitol riots wouldn’t have happened if people couldn’t see some future beyond static neoliberal hegemony, even if that future is white supremacist and fucked up), but it’s not yet apparent what is rising up to take its place.
This problematic is explored well in Caroline Busta’s recent article, “The Internet Didn’t Kill Counterculture — you just won’t find it on Instagram.” Busta’s prose delves into the well — uneasy, sort of chimeric, ideologically-stomach-churning social lifeworlds of Gen Z (similar to Josh C’s own research on “e-deologies”). At its worst, this ideological flourishing marks the beginning of “counterculture” stripped of its radical potency; this is the mark of E-deology. E-deologies, to put it more simply, are the new versions of political radicalism and idiosyncrasy adopted by “Instagram/TikTok teens” (Post-civilizationism, voluntarist post-agrarianism, “Fully Automated Luxury Gay Space Communism, and of course anarcho-primitivism are mentioned as just some of these ideological bloomings), but they also mark the beginning of the algorithmic, “gamified” undercurrents of our current gamified social lives (going back to an earlier blogpost presentation and the concept of “data voids,” perhaps; ideologies that feel at first glance like the neural network combination of completely arbitrary concepts).
I would call this stage of the gamified, of the gimmick (as Sianne Ngai compellingly argues in “Theory of the Gimmick: Aesthetic Judgment and Capitalist Form,” (2020) the gimmick is the dominating form of — there have got to be better words to call it than “late capitalism”) capitalist surrealism. This new phase is not a complete break from Mark Fisher’s usage of capitalist realism — referring to the neoliberal stasis of imagining futures and lifeworlds not predicated upon capitalism as the dominant form of political economy — but a more implicit change in affect, from the depressive anhedonia Fisher wrote about (veering into resigned complacency that “this is as good as things can get”) to more of a widespread anxiety/delirious state — we can see clearly that the end of the world IS easier to imagine (and to live through, as the contradictions of capitalism’s inability to deal with pandemic, reactionary movements, etc. become manifestly clear), than the end of capitalism, but the inability to see a straightforward way through this crisis leads to the multitude of splintering “e-deologies.” This period is in turn reflected in our art and advertising, which I plan on analyzing further here and in my subsequent blogposts. Busta writes “... maybe here, we do have an aesthetic counter to the wallflower non-style of Big Tech: a raging messy semiotic meltdown of radicalizing (if absurdist) meme culture where the only ideological no-go zone is the liberal center. Key here is that most of this activity is happening under the guise of avatars, pseudonyms, and collectively run social media accounts where direct lines between IRL subjects are rarely clear. The “niche personal branding” is gamified — push an account to the extreme, see what happens. If the platform shuts you down, start over.” Of course starting over just benefits the platform itself, which creates the double-bind of creating content that escapes capitalist realism, as Fisher might accomplish; nevertheless, e-deologies and the loosely distributed networks that characterize them accomplish their own new kind of cultural doing.
In Alexander Galloway’s chapter of “Excommunication: Three Inquiries in Media and Mediation” (2013), he reaches into the realm of mythology, taking the mythological figures of Hermes, Iris, and the Furies as three models for understanding “”new media”” as such, networked communication as such — where Hermes stands in for the hermeneutics of interpretation, Iris for the iridescence of networked immediacy, and the Furies as our representatives of the swarm of the distributed network. What would it mean to create networks, connections, literacy, comradeships (which of course I argue are all versions of the same thing, as entangled as politics and aesthetics etc etc"that ferment, that fester, that move slowly beneath the skin, that writhe under the surface of the state, etc etcetera? In other words, that swarm? To know and effectively defeat the enemy in combat (the enemy as nothing short of capitalist realism itself), we must become acclimated into its tactics while not falling into them — we must become unknowable in turn. Something more than its parts. Busta sort of gets at this in a subsequent passage: "It's as if, grown up in a fully networked Earth, Gen Z has bypassed counterculture, finding it futile in the face of a hegemonic system that more clearly resembles a Hydra than the monolithic forces that legacy counterculture was rebelling against. Intuiting that any activity directly opposing the system will only make the system stronger, the next generation is instead opting for radical hyperstition: constructing alternative futures (pay attention to that plurality imperative here in Busta's prose) that abandon our current infrastructure entirely (the emergence of blockchain-based currencies, for instance, or calls to not merely reform, but fully abolish the police)." In other words, rather than sticking ideologically to one dogmatic future current/currency (drawing attention to a moment on how these e-deologies nevertheless function as a type of social currency), they swarm not only in numbers and sockpuppet accounts but in fragmented memes, concepts, theories. Going back to the final section of Excommunication [I also want to touch on Thacker's middle section on "dark media" at some point], McKenzie Wark writes that, "Perhaps there is already a third kind of mediation at work, which Galloway names after the Furies. The sign for this stage is not a Hermes or Iris, not a humanoid man or woman, but the pack of beasts. They are a flock of indefinable number, a multiplicity or a complexity. They are an incontinence of form." Seeing the rise of e-deologies and hyper-accelerated communications in this framing can help us think about the potentials of these loosely distributed networks (or to be at the intersections of art and technology for a second, this “incontinence of form,” the swarming at the center of all things) and their relations to capitalist realism. Or whatever comes after that.