Politics in an Era of Attitudinal Fragmentation

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Otto Paans:

"In a culture of fragmentation, social media and mass media function like an amplifier of all thoughts. Often, they force users to condense their thoughts in the extreme (in the case of Twitter or Facebook) or to reduce them to images (in the case of Instagram). Surveillance footage is the supreme example of a fragment: only the transgression is televised, often from a single viewpoint (the hidden God’s-eye-view of the camera) without any context or explanation. The result is a cacophony of voices, images, half-formed opinions, idealized representations, and textual snippets. Public space is self-evidently not a Rawlsian “marketplace of ideas” where we argue reasonably and rationally about political measures or preferences, about neutral topics, or about the best alternative for solving a problem.

The fragmentation of reality undermines the very idea of an agora as a level playing field. It turns out that the uneven playing field is not the only problem, but equally the problem is the kind of language games that are being played on it. Virtual protests, vitriolic Twitter exchanges, voting actions that run via talk shows (vote for candidate X or Y), and the careful selections of footage, are all orchestrated and pre-structured by media that function like cinematographic instruments, continuously cutting, pasting, editing, overlaying contents, and presenting choices that are merely “formal” in the Marxian sense. According to Marx’s distinction, they are merely formal (or phoney) instead of real (or genuine) because the possibilities themselves have already been preselected by others. Such choices artificially represent the moment of choice, and they do so in a way that turns them immediately into their opposite. By limiting the possibilities for making a real choice, they highlight to what degree the presented options are preselected and above all insincere.

Moreover, the informational fragments of reality from which we can chose and that are cobbled or stitched together are themselves idealizations. They are either a copy with an idealized original, or an idealized past:

- In fact the heritage museum, such as the one at Beamish in the north-east of England, epitomizes the postmodern process whereby a past is nostalgically recreated as a form of substitute reality. Ex-miners are employed to inform the rest of us about mining in a time in which they did not live, while the need for 'real' mining has all but disappeared. We pay our money and are entertained by consuming second-hand experiences which once formed the basis of social life. To a significant extent we have become tourists in our own cultures.

The idealized media presence of on-line culture deals in images that are substitutes depicting substitutes. The sad fact that young people photograph themselves with an empty Starbucks cup, because the image is more important than reality, is a supercharged simulacrum that not even Baudrillard could imagine. Reality is substituted by images, idealizations, experiences, fragments, and further substitutions. For the spectator, these images present formal or phoney choices: we can choose to like them, dislike them, or ignore them, but in reality, such images are only cut-out and idealized portions of someone else’s lives. They omit as much as or even more than they tell. Any meaningful action about or towards such pictures simply cannot be carried out, because too much is omitted. Their fragmentary, idealized and incomplete nature makes it impossible to meaningfully engage with them. Flashy images of success or a feel-good moment spur only a momentarily enthusiasm that is regulated by the modes of expression of social media. Given the inherently artificial character of such idealization, social media excite a kind of engagement that rarely lasts. They encourage superficiality over prolonged commitment; the heat of the moment over reflection; incessant shouting over rational arguing; and the demand for instant gratification over the complexities of realizing sustainable, institutional, and structural changes. The actions inspired by social media emerge as the total sum of fragmented, individual viewpoints that lack a real collective, trans-individual structure. The shared camaraderie, solidarity, or understanding within a group (e.g., Marx’s idea of “class”) is lacking in the virtual spaces of social media. The cinematographic fragmentation of reality results in a lack of belonging. It presents individual viewpoints as a mass of subjective experiences not united by any overarching structure. Or rather: the mass of subjective viewpoints is brought together by a technological structure that presents itself as a neutral platform but is nevertheless structuring, cutting and cinematographically dividing and fragmenting reality. The platform stratifies, segments, fragments, and structures the space, literally functioning as a script for behavior.

Like speed bumps, security gates, traffic lights, and floor lining, the digital platform nudges or outright coerces users into predefined patterns and sequences.

It creates a choreography of behavior that supports the structuring system — again, nothing but a series of formal or phoney choices. It should also be pointed out that contemporary mass media and social media are themselves products. And they are maintained and refined by corporations for whom users are also themselves products. Everything is commodified. All our clicks, likes, preferences, and choices are meticulously logged, analyzed, dissected, and forcefully yet manipulatively directed back at us in the form of “customized advertisements” or targeted talk shows. This is their business model for colonizing behavior. If Marx could witness the operation of contemporary social media, he would be awestruck by its seamless efficiency, its almost-too-obvious integration with everyday life and its ceaseless, global, 24/7 production cycle.


This immersive servitude is genuinely new, especially since the mechanisms responsible for the control (dopamine production to facilitate addiction, tricks to play on personal guilt or the feeling of missing out, and the subtly manipulative idea of being “in on the joke”) have become our favorite playthings that we won’t give up. It fundamentally alters the way in which we see and experience our everyday lives. Our immaturity is self-incurred because we refuse to discard the toys that enslave us. Moreover, this type of enslavement is not without serious consequences for our cognitive and practical capacities.

Confined to such enslavement, it is hard to focus on a single topic, to maintain a dialogue, and indeed to discriminate between fact and fiction. The endless presence of mass media and social media deteriorates this situation. Currently, we perceive reality as disjointed, turning the core theoretical tenet of postmodernity into a self-fulfilling prophecy. This has deep consequences for our ability to act as a collective, especially for our capacity to realize lasting political changes. By means of a perfected “divide and conquer” strategy, the potential for sustainable political change is eroded. The assault on concentration has turned it into a rarity: our public spaces and private spaces are permeated with an oppressive demand for immediate action and an equally oppressive presence of distractions. The more fragmented, disjointed, and rich in “content,” the better. The culture of gratification demands change now but fails, because it cannot work up the necessary concentration and political longevity to realize an enduring political vision beyond the immediate confines of the present.

The lack of political strength and the ubiquity of divided attention make postmodern culture an easy target for capitalist marketing and divisive political strategies: the endless proliferation of sexualities, cultural backgrounds, political universes, language games, and narratives can be marketed and controlled without too much effort. They are presented as choices, decisions that can be made individually and that can be cobbled together into self-absorbed personal universes. No wonder then, that massive multinationals like Shell, Google, or Exxon Mobil advertise their “diversity.”


As contemporary social and mass media fragmentize our reality, they shatter our commitments, our capacity for prolonged attention, and our consequently our capabilities for solidarity, slowly obliterating the realization that we can organize ourselves without the subtle interference of social media tech giants. Benjamin Fong correctly describes this feature of social media as the “atomizing of individuals.”46 Each of us has a tailored universe, furnished to one’s—carefully manipulated— preferences, but we start to lose the collective dimension necessary for lasting, sustainable, and reasonable political change. That is not to say that people have completely lost the capacity to organize themselves. One should stay clear of such a deterministic, all-out skeptical conclusion. Individual autonomy is not removed by the politics of fragmentation, but its development is hindered and stunted. The “self-incurred immaturity” of contemporary society is a direct consequence of this stunted growth, resulting in an inability to escape this state of immaturity. Therefore, Fong’s point must be taken to its final conclusion in order to describe our predicament fully.

Not only are individuals atomized through social media. Individuality itself is atomized, fragmented into pieces of reality. We cannot be of one mind any longer, because our minds are torn apart through an extreme fragmentation of our attention. Our attitudinal disposition towards reality is fragmentized in a continuous cinematography. The postmodern suspicion of “grand narratives” is not a theoretical choice now: it is the inevitable outcome of a process of existential fragmentation and loss of coherence. In a world controlled through touchscreens and buttons, a grand narrative cannot but appear like an absurdity. What melts into air through the mediation of social media is our grasp on reality. This, then, is Attitudinal Fragmentation. As we have seen, cultural production, when driven back into the monadic subject leads to a mode-of-being that is increasingly subjected to control, distraction, surveillance and manipulation. If our cognitive capacities are stunted and diminished, and reality itself becomes a resource that is directed at us and projected on us, this cannot but have political consequences. Regulative ideals implicit in marketing, surveillance, community guidelines, and self-commodification are not neutral. In a globalized and post-9/11 world, these technologies are quickly turning into political categories.


Recapping the argument so far, we can say that postmodern culture has encouraged the creation of personal bubbles. These tailored universes are customizable for everyone’s individual preferences. Via screens, subscriptions, personalized advertisements, tablets, streaming services, notifications and smartphones, the contents of these universes become entrenched in our worldview as they permeate and mediate our access to reality. As commercial products, they exert an undeniable influence on their users, leading to an attitudinal fragmentation. They provide substitute access to a hyperreality that becomes itself a substitute for an ephemeral and fleeting “authenticity” that seems to veer out of reach as soon as one attempts to grasp it. The creation of bubbles does not occur only on a personal level. Entire political universes are conjured out of thin air. A quick survey around the globe proves the point: emerging nationalist parties on the European continent demand a return to a political universe that is protectionist and conservative; hardline Brexiteers hanker after a time when the British Empire ruled the world and controlled trade relations; nationalism in the US has promoted a protective Pax Americana view backed by Evangelicals who strive to realize a Christian political universe; China has made no secret of its expansionist agenda, driven by a strict party policy to maintain a single, state-authored identity; and Russia flirts with the idea of Novorussia—a new nation with a single identity centered around “traditional values.


Such bubbles are fiercely protected, their inhabitants ferociously combative and single-minded. This feature alone is worth some reflection: in a world that is cinematographically fragmented, political and ideological universes provide “safe spaces.” They conjure up a world in which one can be authentically single-minded again. In such bubbles, one can ignore all historical evidence and adhere to a fascist vision of the world; one can disregard all other religious affiliations and view them as mere heathens; or one can steadfastly believe in a flat Earth, even despite all evidence to the contrary. The simultaneous absence and caricaturizing of the “Other” characterizes these political universes. Such places provide a new fragmentation of reality while at the same time claiming to overcome it. In a fluid reality, they are driven by the easy-to-excite group-think, obsessive fears, and insider vs. outsider frames of reference. One important case-in-point here is the emergence of neofascism, a political orientation long thought dead, buried or at least marginalized. However, in a postmodern, connected, globalized, and fragmented world, it thrives. It emerges as a vaguely familiar but dislocated political vision, yet it has adapted to a new and fragmented world.


The postmodern rejection of any overarching field of reason is no longer just an epistemological position, but instead a political reality. The rejection of the modernist engineer has delivered each of us in the hands of the bricoleur. Mass media provided conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers, and religious fanatics alike with communicative platforms to showcase ideas that were originally beyond mainstream credibility. However, their presence in the “arena of debate” appears to legitimize their points of view. The fluidity of the present is characterized by its refusal to take on a solid form, to crystallize into something tangible or even coherent. The ever-changing shape of our cognitive landscape coats yesterday over with the presence of a forced forgetfulness. The visual representation of the “swipe” on a touchscreen is the postmodern visual par excellence: any vertical hierarchy is gone, and the center of attention can be swept away to the left or right at any moment. It appears as optional and replaceable, expendable even. If reality does not deliver what is desired, it can be replaced by a more convenient picture. Reality itself becomes an image, a two-dimensional representation that can be manipulated, cut, switched off, transported, uploaded, downloaded, and infinitely copied. If reality itself appears as non-fundamental or optional, it is no wonder that cinematographic fragmentation becomes a lethal political tool. The fact that political elites can harness a targeted cinematography and that citizens seem to tolerate it only vindicates its power. This is not to say that societal unrest and dissent have disappeared in a media-controlled landscape of distractions and fragments. Due to attitudinal fragmentation, this uneasiness simply refuses to crystallize into something lasting and even coherent. A part of the problem here can be traced back to the disintegration of collective power. No longer is State power concentrated in the hands of a single person or social institution. It is distributed according to a different principle. What Baudrillard called “the axiological, directive, and salvageable phantasm of power” is not salvageable anymore. One cannot aim one’s arrows against a political power that appears as spectral, fragmentary and fluid.


What is so unsettling in this situation is that the traditional understanding of dignitarian democracy, truth, and integrity is treated as if it will vanish overnight because it is irrelevant in the current order of things. In a political reality that is thoroughly fragmented, seemingly discordant elements and events appear together in a surrealistic tapestry. In a world built of fragments, the institutions of the past are only useful as nostalgic symbols, invoked when a sense of weight and tradition is required. This is why the return to Statist nationalism is a postmodern gesture, closely correlated to the re-emergence of neo-fascism. In both cases, the symbols of a long-lost world are invoked to create a more-real-than-real political universe in which the problems of the present are conveniently conjured away. The ultimate fluidity is reflected in the phenomenon of globalization: it connects the entire world population, and all of its cultures, customs, conflicts and viewpoints. Against this image of maddening complexity and plurality, the populist political response is to “keep things simple” by arbitrarily cutting out a convenient portion of reality. Whether one chooses to discriminate between one’s nation and the rest of the world, or between white and colored people matters little: the gesture is one of willfully looking away in the face of the hyperreal world—it is better to have gratification now than to work through the effort of having to face a traumatically fragmented reality. The problem here is not just the creation of an “Other,” but its negative mirror image: the world is too complex and a new universe—a simpler one, preferably—is needed to impose a sense upon reality. The political universe creates not only an “Other,” but necessarily also an “Us.” And in a world that is already fragmented, such a strategy yields only heavily distorted images that defy any fixed interpretation. The old critique of ideology in the age of Nazism or Communism did at least have the advantage that it had to deal with clumsy narratives and all-too blatant lies. In such a situation, it was clear that State ideologies were artificial constructions.48 However, the fragmented images let loose on citizens in contemporary media culture are not capable of—and not intended to—cohere into something intelligible or articulable at all. This highlights a core characteristic of the informational fragment: it is a distraction, a commercial or a simplistic ideological image that depicts a reality that is ridiculously simplified, or all-in-one, one-stop shopping. Often, it is a distraction that doubles as a commercial that doubles as an ideological representation. A commercial may distract one from thinking about one’s predicament, especially if it is often repeated or entertaining; yet, it is also an ideological representation, because it addresses one as a consumer, or as the stereotypical middle-age male, or as an empowered businesswoman. The fact that one is pressed into a predefined role, but that this is covered up is typical of postmodern culture. Careful irony and purposive nostalgia are the keywords of the postmodern political order."