Technocultural Subjectivation

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= How does technoculture produce its subjects?

A contribution by Jodi Dean.

(Source: a very short version of a chapter that appeared in the journal Chair et Metal, a French Canadian journal that doesn't seem to exist any more. - Jodi Dean)


How does technoculture produce its subjects?

"My thesis is that individuals in mediated, capitalist technocultures subjectivize their conditions within an ideological matrix of publicity and secrecy. People’s experience of themselves as subjects is configured in terms of accessibility, visibility, being known. Without publicity, the subject of technoculture doesn’t know if it exists at all. It has no way of establishing that it has a place within the general socio-symbolic order of things, that it’s recognized. (The dot-com version of this might be something like, “without a website, you’re not even there.”) The technocultural mode of subjectivization, in other words, is celebrity. Celebrity is the form of subjectivity that posits–that presupposes and reproduces–the ideology of publicity. Publicity in technoculture functions through the production of a subject that makes itself into an object of public knowledge.

I raise this question of technocultural subjectivity as a counter to the more prominent emphasis on identity in cybercultural studies. In the early moments of the Internet, theorists emphasized sexual experimentation, role-playing, gender-bending, and multiplicity.1 Networked communications, it seemed, were the ideal laboratory for postmodern theories of fluid or fragmented selves. Regardless of whether a theorist celebrated cyberian identity play, condemned it, or even worried about the reinscription of old, unappealing identities, that cyberia should be theorized in terms of its impact on identity was generally taken for granted. With the emergence of the Web, however, this emphasis on identity seems quaint, a nostalgic evocation of a pre-political time of freedom and possibility that was never there. The fluid identities celebrated by early theorists now look more like consumers (being) driven to find the next new thing, to produce and reproduce themselves via images, technologies, entertainment, and commodities. Anonymous cybersex brings less a flourishing of desiring selves than does the ready availability of immediate satisfaction close off desire in a new circuit of entertainment and stimulation. Indeed, as the prevalence of conspiracy theory suggests, the very desire to know that characterizes the public of democracy now takes on a different form, configured through and as a never-ending process of searching, linking, and (re)producing information.2 We might say that these days, instead of really wanting to know, people are enjoined to know, to keep up to date. With permanent, easily accessible information, there is no excuse for not being up on the issues. (And, the injunction to know is of course accompanied by its obverse, the dismissal of news junkies and Net cruisers and couch potatoes who spend all their time consuming media and ignore “real life.”)

So what kind of subjectivity is installed when everyone is supposed to know and the technologies believe for us? I argue elsewhere that technologies encouraging us to search and link, databases, of information from which something always seems to be missing, and democracy as a system of distrust call subjects into being as conspiracy theorists.3 Here I consider another mode of subjectivization, celebrity. The same technologies that call on us to link also call on us as known, as sources of content that are of interest to cameras, websites, and credit-card companies. The knowing subject, in other words, is first interpellated as a known subject. Whereas the conspiring subject emerges as a subject of desire, the celebrity emerges as a subject of drive. I draw here from Slavoj Žižek . At its most basic level, Žižek explains, desire takes the form of nonsatisfaction; to remain as desire, it can only be a desire for desire. Drive, however, “stands for the paradoxical possibility that the subject, forever prevented from achieving his Goal . . . can nevertheless find satisfaction in the very circular movement of repeatedly missing its object, of circulating around it.”4 Drive is a loop, a cycle in which the subject is caught. Repeatedly trying, doing the same thing over and over and over again, even when, especially when, the actions are doomed to fail, is a pleasure in itself.

A lot of people worry today about their secrets spilling out and circulating all over the Net. True, the Internet poses major problems with respect to the accumulation, aggregation, and dissemination of personal data. But, the issue of secrecy is usually presented as a kind of “outing,” as a way that one’s personal life becomes a matter of mass, public interest. This is strange. Who really cares? As every promoter, advertiser, and public relations agent knows, it’s not like mass audiences of people are out there, waiting and ready for our revelations, completely interested in the mundane details of our individual lives–or even in our most personal fantasies. But this is precisely the anxiety that accompanies expansions and intensifications in networked technologies. A recent survey of over 2000 American households–with Internet users and non-users–showed extreme concern about personal privacy online.5

The Role of Celebrity

"celebrity should not to be understood as a form of symbolic identification. One is not looking at oneself from the perspective of an ego ideal, judging and evaluating oneself from the perspective of an Other to whom one’s acts register.12 Rather, the gaze to which one makes oneself visible is a point hidden in an opaque and heterogeneous network. One is compelled to make oneself visible precisely because of the uncertainty as to whether one registers at all. Celebrity as a mode of technocultural subjectivization is also not a kind of idealization or an instance of imaginary identification. One is not simply imagining oneself as a movie star or going through life as if on a stage. Instead, one is driven by the sense that one is known combined with the unbearable excess of ways in which one might be known repeatedly to make oneself visible, accessible. That celebrity is, in way, inescapable is clear when we think of the terms that express those who to some extent have failed (to register in the symbolic domain): they are unknown, nobodies, “you don’t know who they are.” Put somewhat differently, the sense of being known should not be reduced to some kind of naive fantasy whereby one imagines oneself as a celebrity. Rather, most people in technoculture know full well that they aren’t really celebrities. In fact, this anxiety about not being known, this tension between the conviction that one is known and not known, is a key component of celebrity as mode of subjectivization 13 And, it’s materialized in new communication technologies, in the screens and sites of networked technoculture. So, even if one knows that she isn’t a celebrity, she acts as if she believes that she were. The technologies believe for her.

To register as a subject in technoculture, one has to present oneself as an object for everyone else. The phenomenon of the celebrity criminal effectively illustrates this point.14 Here, the dynamic of celebrity culture reconfigures the terms through which criminality is understood. Arthur Bremer, who, after failing to assassinate Richard Nixon decided to shoot George Wallace, both scripted his activities and responses and understood his crime as way to end his anonymity. (In fact, his failure to kill Nixon was the result of a fashion faux pas: Bremer wasn’t wearing the right suit and went home to change, thereby missing his opportunity.) The primary goal behind the Unabomber’s bombings was getting publicity for his anti-technology manifesto-- “In order to get our message before the public with some chance of making a lasting impression, we’ve had to kill people.” With an eye to his celebrity status, John Lennon’s assassin, Mark David Chapman, lost 50 pounds before his People magazine interview."


Footnotes from Jodi Dean:

1. See, for example, Alluquere Rosanne Stone, The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1995). Slavoj Žižek also makes this point, The Ticklish Subject (London: Verso, 1999). 2. I make this argument in Publicity’s Secret: How Technoculture Capitalizes on Democracy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002). 3. See Publicity’s Secret. 4. Žižek, 298. 5. “Surveying the Digital Future,” The UCLA Internet Report, 12. See Slavoj Žižek’s discussion of symbolic identification in “Class Struggle or Postmodernism? Yes, please!”Contingency, Hegemony, Universality, Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau, Slavoj Žižek (London: Verso: 2000) 116-117. 13. Joshua Gamson notes that, “we live in a time when many people seem to worry that they are nobody . . . television has come to serve as a certification of somebodyness,” Freaks Talk Back (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998) 214. 14. The examples here come from Neal Gabler, Life: The Movie (New York: Vintage, 1998) 181-185.