Sunday, 20 May 2012

'Bodies in space' - comments on social media and political mobilisation

There's a very thought-provoking interview with Mark Fisher over at New Left Project, which covers a range of issues. This is an extract which I think is worth re-posting, though I obviously recommend reading the whole article. Fisher is asked:

Turning to technology then, you describe social media in Capitalist Realism as being ‘profoundly illiterate’, replacing genuine engagement with what you call ‘slogan recognition’—but yet they have also played some part in the recent mobilisations around the world. How do you assess the advantages and disadvantages of social media?

This is his response:

‘Profoundly illiterate’ comes from Deleuze and Guattari, who talk about capitalism in general not really being a literate culture. And you see that tendency to what I call post-literacy intensified. I think with social media in general it is a classic case of dialectical ambivalence. We’ve seen the respect in which they can mobilise people, although it may well have been overplayed. At the same time it is foolish to deny that it played some significant role in those events. And it was also part of everything that happened at the end of 2010 with the student movement in the UK—social media played a role in that.

At the same time because of the matrix it is plugged into, we don’t know what social media would be like if it wasn’t plugged into late capitalism. That’s why it’s difficult to judge it in itself. Certainly at the moment a large proportion of social media is reproducing capitalist subjectivity for sure, reproducing and intensifying it. But we don’t know if that’s a property of the media themselves or an effect of its current situation.

Nonetheless, one of the things I think is particularly notable is, and I think it relates to this question of cultural stagnancy, is attentional erosion. It’s partly why something like Twitter, I think, it does substantially erode one’s capacity to concentrate on anything. I’ve tried to spend a lot less time on Twitter lately and I think the danger of Twitter, as opposed to Facebook, is tied up with how useful it can be. I tried to spend a lot less time on Twitter before and then ‘Hackgate’ happened and the riots happened, and there it sort of came into its own as a form of counter media. Mainstream media is increasingly intolerable and the only way to work with it is by a counter media network provided by things like Twitter, it makes it more bearable.

But at the same time having our consciousness permanently segmented in that way makes it very difficult to concentrate on anything. I don’t want to get into saying that ‘in the good old days of face-to-face interactions’ and all that. I don’t think that’s a useful comparison. The really important contrast is the one between forms of attention giving.

One’s capacity to do things like read a book is rapidly deteriotated by something like Twitter. Also in terms of things like writing – in the past when you found a difficulty or an impasse in writing you sort of had to get through that by sticking with it. It’s now so easy to avoid that struggle to get over an impasse because of the distractions that are immediately available.

And I think that goes for everybody in culture, captured in a phrase from Linda Stone (some Microsoft Executive turned therapist guru)—‘continuous partial attention’. I think this is the kind of thing that social media is producing in all of us—which is, in a way, quite a nightmarish situation: A world in which no one is really paying attention to anything.

And the point as to why I think this is different to ‘the good old days of face-to-face interaction’ is that this form of digital twitch distracts from everything including itself. It’s not as if you fully pay attention to your Twitter feed. It is, by its very nature, kind of fragmentary and it produces this panic sense of belatedness. You always feel as if you are behind, which in a sense you are by the nature of the medium. It would be good to drop into this tickertape immediacy now and again, but it’s not the nature of Twitter that you can drop into it. It’s permanently diverting a large portion of your attention and that means your capacity for other kinds of attentional focus is eroded.

Sherry Turkle’s book, that came out last year, Alone Together, gives a really powerful account of the phenomenology of social media and its effect on particularly young people. What she discusses is the intricate etiquette that’s involved with the social media particularly amongst the young, an etiquette worthy of Jane Austen, where teenagers will spend an hour on a one word text to convey the right level of nonchalance. That phrase, ‘alone together’, captures a lot of the subjective quality of what it is to be plugged into cyberspace. There is this form of degraded collectivity which goes along side this feeling of solitude which never goes away.

I think what is significant about the role of social media in things like the Arab spring and the student militancy was that it broke out of its own conditions. One of the problems of the social media, going back to the blogs and discussion boards, is the interminable debate quality. As if there is an infinite time to debate things rather than to get involved and do them. And what is quite clear was that the tendency to endless debate was broken by mobilisation.

But the mobilisations went against the tendencies of social media because it was about the revival of an older style of politics, visions of bodies concentrated in space as opposed to bodies distributed in space that is the normal tendency of cyberspace. I think this then poses another problem which is the way in which communicative technology has colonised our sense of the modern, since our only vision of what is modern is tied up with communicative technology and that any kind of resistance to it or any kind of alternative to it almost seems like a reactionary throwback in a way.

And the issue for me is 1) how do we break out of this capturing of the present and possibility in the future by the communicational and 2) how do we articulate the kind of politics that is technological and really doesn’t depend upon this older model necessarily of bodies being together in space. That seems a real problem actually.


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