Saturday, August 26, 2017

On Fetish posted by Richard Seymour

God creates Adam and immediately—sooner than we thought—He speaks to him. This first address, according to the midrash, is a seduction:  
“And the Lord God took the human and placed him in the Garden of Eden” (Gen. ‪2: 15):  
He took him with beautiful words and seduced him to enter the Garden.  
It is seduction that is constitutive of the human entry into language. Moved, captivated by divine messages that escape his full understanding, Adam lives henceforth with these unconscious transmissions implanted within him. The first act of communication, then, brings the human being to a place beyond conscious choice. 10 The French psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche describes in similar terms the first relationship of child and parent. The mother unconsciously transmits to her child seductive messages, which intimate aspects of her life that he is incapable of grasping. The child receives the impact of the other in all her beauty; he is dazzled by a light beyond his comprehension. The alienness of the other is registered; its unassimilable, stimulating message is locked within. From now, the child will be haunted, decentered by his unconscious life. In Freud’s words, “The ego is not master in his own house.”  
 -- Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg, The Murmuring Deep 

Language seduces us into an imaginary domain, an order of images. But it is an image – as with the Apple logo betokening forbidden knowledge – that precipitates our fall. Once we can see, we can look. And once we can look, we can labour.
The garden of virtual delights we call the internet, according to Jonathan Beller, is a factory, extended in space and time. Looking is labouring, and the value of whatever is looked at is just the fetishised form of all the glances, or lingering inspections, that the image draws. Capital posits looking as labouring, and turns looking time into socially-necessary-cybertime. It binds perception to production, orchestrating the extraction of sensuous labour
Capital sets about re-making the image in its own image. The rules of verisimilarity and legibility are modelled on the social structure, so that an image which does not in some way code the norms and protocols of that structure strikes one askance. The cultural pathways of race, sex, nationality and so on are converted into images which can captivate the look, and capture the labour of looking.
The image also excludes, as fetishes do. Rather as the gaze of the shoe fetishist is always drawn short of the point where the legs meet, the image is defined by its scotomisation of reality. As long as our attention is riveted to the circulation of images-as-commodities, it is not on the social realities sustaining the spectacle.
This estrangement of the visual order, this conversion of attention into alienated labour, is what Beller calls the ‘cinematic mode of production’. True to the paranoid, psychotic structure of the theory, he can do no other than offer us a cinematic image by way of explanation. We are in The Matrix, the life-energy we put into the world converted into energy to run the image-world, “imprisoned in a malevolent bathosphere, intuiting our situation only through glitches in the programme.”
Was it a mistake to be seduced into the garden? And how far have we fallen?
Beller’s intense, provocative, stylishly seductive work is justly celebrated. And its eerie plausibility is not just a product of the fact that it conforms to capitalist verisimilarity. Participating in social media as a user -- or "produser" as they insufferably say -- might be creative and fulfilling in some ways. But it is also tiring, draining work. It is emotionally, mentally and physically taxing. To keep the circulation of images going – to feed the feed – we have to sacrifice hours of time that we might otherwise invest in anything else. 
However, if looking is labouring, it is only in a metonymic sense. Beller – not capital – posits looking as labouring. But this only works because looking stands in for all the other activities that we do online which help generate profits for tech platform firms. Looking is a condition for labour, part of the labouring process; it is not the labour itself. Netflixdoesn’t care if you watch, it cares how much you talk about its shows, to maximise its subscriber base. Advertisers ultimately only care for your longing looks to the extent that you demonstrate a propensity to buy. This is why the extraction, analysis, packaging and sale of data is becoming such a profitable industry.
If looking were literally labour – not in the ontological sense that everything we do is labour, but in the specific economic sense of it being a source of value – we would be faced with an almighty puzzle. Here, supposedly, is a new frontier in capitalist exploitation, the harnessing of perception to production. But when, one might ask, was perception not harnessed to production? When was labour not sensual? And if perception is itself a new form of value-production, how does one measure socially-necessary perception-time? How would one calibrate the instruments? And where, as Nick Srnicek asks, is the global capitalist boom as this new seam of value is mined? Where is the dynamic expansion of brand new means of optical production? 
A Rembrandt, Beller says, only has the value it does as the fetishised expression of the looks it has drawn: “all that looking sticks to the canvas and increases its value”. What is the product of this labour of looking? How would one package and sell it? It is evidently not the painting itself, as that is a product of a previous labour-process. The implication here is that there is some intangible surplus-product which has invisibly stuck to the visual. How would one go about evaluating this claim? 
If looking increased the value of a visual object, we would face an interesting paradox. In perhaps the majority of cases, accumulating more looks does not improve the market value – the realisable value – of a visual object. One need only think of the immense proliferation of visual items on the internet whose marketable value does not increase as a result of exposure (memes, for example). And so, just as a visual object is accumulating more and more value (as socially-necessary looking-time), it is becoming less and less possible for this value to be realised. This would be grounds for the economy of visuality to grind to a halt, not for it to become the basis of a new, spectacular mode of production.
But that implies dysfunction, and breakdown which, lip service aside, has no place in the “totalitarian social space” described in Beller’s thesis, where the language of capital has been introjected into the “sensorium”. 
In the Lacanian terms of which Beller avails himself, the subject wholly trapped in the order of images, is psychotic. 
Lacking a symbolic structure to give structure to the imaginary world, the psychotic depends on a knot of delusion to hold it all together. Should it unravel, the subject would be exposed to a terrifying chaos of experience. And a delusion is not in the order of belief, about which one can entertain doubts: it is experienced as certainty, as an objective, intrusive reality. For that reason, psychotic delusion is often discernible not by its incoherence, but by its spurious and often elaborate coherence. 
Yet in Beller’s bold attempt to re-work psychoanalysis in historical materialist terms, the unconscious itself is posited as a product of industrial capitalism and its order of visuality. The unconscious first appears through a gap, a place where the symbolic order breaks down, where speech slips, and in that gap – so Beller claims – around which all the signifiers float and circulate, is an image, the objet petit a, the object-cause of desire. It is, in fact, passing strange to have the object-cause defined as an image when what defines it is precisely that it eludes capture by both the symbolic and imaginary registers. 
Nonetheless, the critical step here is to link Marxism and psychoanalysis through the fetish. The commodity-image, like all fetishes, acts as a screen which excludes: in this case, it is the totality of the social process which is screened out. Capital itself therefore acts as a screen in which the ‘socius’ is both processed and repressed, a tendency that is raised to a new level with the regime of visuality. A regime in which the technologies of optical production open up and fill our lines of sight with the fetishised, spectacular of social experience.
Fetishism, then, does all the heavy lifting in the 'cinematic mode of production', rescuing it from a structure of psychotic delusion. But this move depends on a common and questionable tendency in left cultural writing, wherein terms like ‘fetishism’ and ‘reification’ are extricated from the complex series of epistemological operations that they are embedded in, and generalised to their overall impoverishment. For example, with due care, the psychoanalytic concept of fetishism could be deployed in the critique of ideology, but to treat it as coextensive with fetishism in its political-economic sense strikes me as stretching both concepts beyond repair.
The grounds for their congruity is clear. In both cases, fetishism arises as a consequence of a form of alienation, which it covers up. In both cases, the fetish operates as a kind of imperialist, bringing all reality under its command, mobilising all investments around its own munification. If the sexual fetish is experienced as a kind of force-multiplier, promising more intense orgasms than could be achieved outside of its shadow, that is because of its tendency to monopolise all possible libido investments. If it represents a guarantee of satisfaction, the fetish is also a reduction of the repertoire, a narrowing of the field of attention. Likewise, the fetishised product of the capitalist labour process acquires a strange magic because it has come to embody the human labour-power expended in making it, while also scotomising the wider field of social relations.
These are, however, extremely sketchy correspondences. In the psychoanalytic sense, a fetish is constructed around a castration. In a classic case of fetishism, a man could only be aroused by a woman wearing rows of buttons. The signifier ‘button’ played an important, overdetermined role in this fetish, linked to many memories in which, for example, both his and his mother’s sex organs had been described as a button. His mother had essentially used him as a narcissistic prop, a little penis, until finally, and belatedly, a form of separation was achieved and he acquired his own subjective existence. But he continued to be plagued by the idea that his mother might not have a penis, might need him to be her penis, and thus might eat him, swallow his whole being like a whale (or like a malevolent bathosphere, as if Beller and the MRAs might converge on the idea that The Matrix is a ravenous, castrated mother). The fetish was a compromise solution which enabled him to disavow his mother’s castration, and his own.
An obvious question, then, is whether the ‘alienation’ achieved in the capitalist labour process can in any meaningful sense be described as a castration – even an imperfectly, partially-achieved one. It is a commonplace that in Marx’s terms, alienation refers to several discrete ideas. There is the alienation of one’s labouring capacities under the control of capital. There is the alienation of the products of labour, which one encounters as fetishised embodiments of labour power ‘on the market’. And there is, in the early Marx, the idea of an alienation from one’s ‘species-being’, one’s labouring essence. It is only in the latter sense, that one could speak of an alienation that produces a mourning for a fantasised ‘lost wholeness’, for which a fetish might cover and compensate. But in what sense would this produce an unconscious? Only in the sense, according to Beller, that the unconscious is a realm of production, and production is one with the repressed. The unconscious, then, is not a point of failure of capitalist subjectivisation, but a wholly integrated component of a totalitarian social space. Here we have a split subject working seamlessly and productively for capitalism. Beller disavows the Adornian conclusion that human interiority has been ‘liquidated’ and replaced by the culture industry, and in principle leaves space for ‘extra-economic creativity’ on the part of the masses – but this concession is in no way integrated into his theoretical apparatus. 
And this raises the question of whether Beller is using fetishism qua concept, or, in an ideological sense, practicing fetishism. Whether, in fact, the higher level of articulation and abstraction that he attributes to capitalism under the reign of visuality is in fact a theoretical reification, and thus a fetishised production of his own paranoid style.
But if this is paranoia, then it is far from unique. Shoshana Zuboff’s analysis of ‘surveillance capitalism’ is, in the terms of its own theory and poetics, yet another magisterial account of the internet as a totalitarian space.
The central figure of Zuboff’s analysis is not the deterritorialised factory, but the corporation as a new sovereign – which she calls, without any explicit Lacanian reference, the Big Other. In this view, what big data firms like Google achieve is not the exploitation of a new and potentially limitless seam of value, but the redistribution of citizenship rights. They monopolise privacy, acting with state-like secrecy, while abrogating the privacy rights of their users. Through unilateral action, facts-on-the-ground, they extract a new commodity called data, with no necessity for a feedback loop with populations who aren’t even their real customers.
Zuboff’s case is that ‘surveillance capitalism’ is a distinctive ‘logic of accumulation’ following on from Fordism and financialisation. The ramifications of information technology can be so drastic because of what distinguishes it from ordinary machinery: it “reflects back on its activities and the system of activities to which it is related”, making a whole series of new objects visible for the first time. There has been “a comprehensive textualisation of the work environment”. “The world is reborn as data and electronic text is universal in scale and scope”.

Whereas neoliberalism posited a market that was intrinsically ineffable and unknowable, every actor engaging on the basis of optimal stupidity and blindness as to the total, majestic logic of the market, now the market is known, and shaped, through data extraction. The more economic transactions are mediated by computing, the more flows of objects, goods, bodies and services can be tracked by sensors and chips, the more surveillance cameras and government and corporate records produce digital knowledge, and the more of every day experience is recorded and accumulated as data (cf Google Street View), the more markets can be pro-actively anticipated, produced and shaped. Reality itself is monopolised and commodified: becoming, in Polanyi’s terms, a fictitious commodity.
Online platforms thus structure their protocols in such a way as to engage in users in producing harvestable data: likes, searches, texts, photos, emails, mis-spelled words, clicks, all of which can be analysed, aggregated and sold. Data is extracted indiscriminately, without informed consent: an offer is made, a hook is dangled, addictions are solicited, but on the basis that the user is never told how the service is paid for. It is not a contract but a seduction. 
The ever-spreading web of data collection enables firms not only to predict which customers will buy or invest based on the profiles constructed by Facebook or Google, but also to track which ones have bought, based on their clicks through to Amazon and other services. Firms can adjust, modify and change the contracts they offer in response to growing knowledge about customers. And of course, thanks to Snowden, we know a little of how big data relates to the security apparatuses of national states.
These processes, Zuboff argues, are not only objectionable because big data violates our privacy. These processes are reconfiguring power, producing “chilling effects of anticipatory conformity”, such that acquiescence is no longer extracted through threats of force or ideological compulsion, but “disappears into the mechanical order of things and bodies”. Authority is replaced by technique, and behaviourism becomes, not a social theory, but a potential social reality.
Like Beller, Zuboff tries to disavow the paranoid logic of the theory by declaring that there is a space for resistance, and that the major force conniving in securing consent for this new mode of sovereignty is ignorance. But, of course, ignorance can’t be regarded as innocent, any more than the ignorance which allows people to rely on tabloids for their information, or which allows people to entertain grotesquely racist beliefs. It is saturated with jouissance, a will-not-to-know.
And this raises the question of where the ‘user’ or ‘produser’ fits in. Somewhere between Zuboff’s ‘surveillance capitalism’ and Beller’s ‘deterritorialised factory’, there is a subject.
The relationship between repulsion and attraction resembles that between the two edges of a Mobius strip. On the one side, there is a powerful repellent force which we call phobic; on the other, the intense libidinised attraction, which we call a fetish. As Fanon said of the racialized body, the same object, appearing in different guises and contexts, can be both phobic and fetishistic. The man with the buttons fetish had to see several of them in a row in order to be aroused; a single button was abhorrent to him. 
In this sense, technophobia and technophilia are different arrangements of the same fetishistic orientation. Blaming the internet, and boosting the internet are both potentially in the position of ascribing to it characteristics which properly belong to human communities. It is clear enough that online media constitute new types of social relationship, characterised by the ‘weak ties’ – someone can ‘like’ you, or a photograph of you, or your current mood or situation, without it meaning much. And it’s equally clear that part of the ‘magic’ of new technologies, from tablets to Twitter, is to keep us talking about the phenomenal things they enable, without thinking too much about the constraints they impose. After all, ‘likes’ and ‘reacts’ are just an objectified, reduction-to-quantifiable-metrics of otherwise qualitatively complex interactions. And, as we know from Zuboff and Srnicek, the reason we are offered the possibility of interactions of this kind is so that they can be tracked, analysed, packaged and sold.
So, there is an assemblage of technologies, institutions and users, but these are all formatted by the logic of competitive accumulation. Nothing takes place on Facebook or Twitter or Google unless it can potentially give rise to a saleable commodity. Far from it being the case that merely looking is labour, we find that we have to engage in a set of measurable, recordable activities which are of use to advertisers.
But, the relationship between capital and its markets, and between platforms and their user populations, is a social relationship. And like all social relationships they’re subject to antagonism, dysfunction, and sometimes resistance. Where online corporations introduce new copyright-protecting devices, others find ways of routing around it. Where Apple tries to limit your choices, there will always be ‘jailbreak’ software and other work-arounds. Where corporations collect, hoard and monetise your data, to the extent that they can come to know you better than you know yourself, users increasingly use proxies, ad-blockers and anti-tracking software. Increasingly, political movements and parties are paying attention to these issues. The idealisation of our new economy overlords has broken down, and silicon oligarchs are coming under increasing scrutiny both as cash-hoarders and data-hoarders.
The efficacy of any moves to put democratic manners on post-democratic platform capitalists depends in part on how well they, and their opponents, each understand the way users relate to the technologies. We must assume that Facebook and Twitter, having accumulated so much data, understand their users well. They understand, not just what their users actually want from the service, but what they think they want. Their marketing strategies, as well as the way in which they format their platforms, tell us what they see. 
Think about the way in which services like Periscope or Facebook Live let everyone know you’re watching, so that it is as though you are a participant in events. Think about the way Twitter has marketed itselfas a place to see “what’s happening”, where the world and all its drama and novelty will be fed to you in edible bites. Think about how Facebook advertises itself as the place where real social encounters happen, where remote or long lost loves can be virtually embraced across oceans. 
The ideology of social media is that it’s like having a servant or a butler, thus democratising luxury. The ideology of social media is that it enhances and extends our agency by offering us a magical, cyborg-like expansion of our earthly powers. The ideology is that somehow it both does things for us, enabling us to live and act vicariously, and enables us to do more in the world, to be more places, to act at a greater distance and on a greater number of people. The ideology is that there is limitless plenty online, away from the tragic world of offline scarcity: just log-in, it’s abundant and it’s free. The ideology is that the technology and its protocols can achieve our goals for us.
This is the seduction, what leads us into the garden into the first place. It is fetishism. Is there any doubt that the platform firms have understood us well? In an hour online, you might sign up to a job-search site and upload your CV, in the hope that the technology will achieve your objectives for you, by finding you a job. You might share content made by other people on your wall, and let the Facebook technology accumulate a react-count while you do other things, thus sustaining a set of weak relationships on your behalf. You might sign an online petition or download an app that explains where to flashmob, in the belief that the internet would do your political organising for you. You might vicariously participate in major news events, or festivals or concerts.
We all know perfectly well that it doesn’t really work this way. The technology chiefly enables us to engage in a strictly defined, delimited and formalised set of interactions. If we want anything beyond that, we have to do it ourselves, knowing full well that it will become part of someone’s data empire. We know that social media ‘abundance’ is just another form of scarcity, that the eye is never satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing, and that our engagement with online ‘abundance’ will tend to lead us into paying for some goods and services that have been carefully marketed for us, anticipating and precipitating our desires. We know that the social ties we form online are weak, and that a like might be worth less than a handshake, or more than a smack in the mouth. We know this, but the technology enables us, invites us, to behave as if that wasn’t the case. As though the technology was a guarantor of our satisfaction, when we know it is no such thing.
Fetishists, though, always find what they’re looking for. If your thing is a pair of leather boots, say, then you’ll notice occurrences of them everywhere, and keep a mental catalogue thereof. Likewise, if a theorist’s kink is fetishism, chances are they’ll find plenty of it. As a rule, left-Lacanians do find it. And the problem here is that the theoretical optic of fetishism can act to perform the same disavowal as fetishism itself. The fetishist’s position is: ‘I know these leather boots aren’t magic, but I’ll get a kick out of pretending they are’. That’s a form of ambivalence in which the truth is both affirmed and denied in the name of enjoyment. Critically, however, the fetishist doesn’t acknowledge the ambivalence. And when theorists take the category of fetishism for granted, as a stable structure of meaning, they too are occluding the ambivalence embedded in it – and thus, the possible sources of change. 
After all, we knew it was a seduction when we came into the garden. We knew there would be trouble, and there was. We were and are not completely ignorant, even if we have been ambushed by the knowledge of just how dark and brutal this place can be. Given this, if we have become part of this machinery and ceded parts of our reality to it, that is at least in part because the ideology, the seduction, plausibly operates on our valid desires. The ‘sell’ of the platforms could not have been based in a complete unreality. And it had to perform favourably, in at least some respects, with traditional media alternatives.
A fetish is a compromise solution. And when the compromise breaks down, and when we are confronted with its failure, with its diminishing returns, with the fact it no longer guarantees satisfaction and perhaps never did, compromise gives way to conflict. We are torn, necessarily. We could be enticed by an intervention seeking to get the fetish up and running again. A new Twitter policy to clamp down on bullies. A new voluntary charter for social media firms. A new anti-fake news initiative. Or we could be persuaded to give up the fetish, and try another way.

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Identity, love and death posted by Richard Seymour

I.  Identity, in the modern sense, is necrological. It is an obituary notice. It overwrites us, in lapidary fashion, with the deposit of history. Here lies the subject: sex, race, class, nation. A list of attributes.

Given this, it is striking how little effort we put into historicising identity. As Marie Moran points out, prior to the Cold War, the term 'identity' tended to be used very little. Where it was used, it was only in its narrow philosophical sense, of the 'sameness of an entity to itself'.

From the first green shoots of identity-talk in the 1950s to the Combahee River Collective Statement in 1977, identity slowly became the dominant idiom for understanding the shared experience of oppression. It was projected backward into history, so that Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and W E B Du Bois became pioneers of identity politics.

Forty years later, amid an explosion of identity-talk permitted by the internet, it is still unclear what we are actually talking about when we're talking identity. It is difficult to even pose the question because we talk about identity as though it were self-evident; as if the self was evident, and evidence of itself.

Yet the polyglossic proliferation of individual, corporate, political and national identities, and identity crises -- the mere idea that a corporation could have an identity and an identity crisis -- is surely novel enough to demand explanation. Is 'identity' a new concept, or a new label for an old concept, or just a label without any real conceptual integrity?

II.  The growing cultural fetish of ancestry, emblematised in the BBC television series, 'Who Do You Think You Are?', is based on the premise that something in our identity eludes us, and is bigger than us. The claim is that we have been unknowingly identifying with the dead.

The characteristic double-take of identity is that it is somehow both about singularity and belonging. Our identity is who we uniquely are, but it is also the weight of history. It is both difference and belonging.
To be too identified with the group would be experienced as oppressive. And yet, one of the worst forms of social punishment is banishment from the group, with its rehearsals in childhood: "go and stand in the corner, facing the wall."
Conformity is to be mocked, but so is pretension, and we are always doing both. Our communities, our mother-tongues, attract us and repel us. They give us our places from which to speak, our ways of being, with which we both identify and dis-identify.

Sticking with the theme of childhood, isn't one of the earliest experiences of identification our finding out who we are and what we're like from our parents? They tell us what we need -- does baby need feeding? does baby need wiped? They mirror back to us what they perceive as our traits. Naturally, this reflects their own fantasies and fears. Later, when we're asked to describe ourselves, often we're describing these early descriptions.

So if identification in one sense is an identification with history, the dead, in another sense it is an identification with the descriptions of ourselves offered by others. We call the latter a personality. And a personality is just a more-or-less convenient fantasy to enable us to survive and get along without tearing one another apart.

It seems obvious that neither history nor the mirroring of others can fully capture who we are, for all that we might put every ounce of spare energy into fortifying our identities. We could never be fully self-identical. That is why, as Rimbaud put it, "I is another". Or, as per Othello, "I am not what I am".

And why we can never be anything other than ambivalent about identities, which are always ambivalent about us: they chew us up but they spit us out as well.

III.  Ambiguity and complexity are not necessarily disadvantages. Not knowing what we're talking about is never a bad place to begin, as long as it enables us to de-familiarise 'identity'; to dis-identify with it.

If 'identity' is a complex concept, it might well be what Moran, following Raymond Williams, calls a keyword.

A key compresses lots of complex information, enabling us to quickly decode or unlock something. A keyword condenses complex and various meanings because it describes, informs and is part of equally complex social changes.

From this point, the bewildering polysemy of identity is useful, because it gives us an enviable point of access to the way in which social practices and institutions covered by it have been evolving. And anyway, as Moran shows, the complexity can be pared down for analysis to three types of meaning: legal identity, personal identity, and social identity.

The legal sense of 'identity' tells us something about the rise of political controls, policing techniques, borders, and so on. A legal person must be self-identical for the purposes of prosecution or deportation. The distribution of modern citizenship rights depends on identity in this sense, as the contemporary panics about 'identity theft' and 'identity fraud' demonstrate.

The personal sense of identity brings with it something else, on top of self-sameness: the idea of identity as a substantive property and proprietorial substance. It is something we can own: 'my' identity, 'my' uniqueness, 'my' belonging. The qualities described as identity are assumed to be both in some sense 'deep', at one's 'core', and yet also fluid and constructed. Identity in this sense is also something that can be consumed; we can introject objects offered to us on the market, invest them with libido, and make of them a new side of our selves.

The third, social sense of identity, would appear at first glance to be a purely external idea of identity: your identity is just how the world has classified you. And yet it also usually invokes a substantive property inherent in the group, something internal and common to all its members, which must in turn be registered publicly and politically.

IV.  What is clear is that at least these last two senses of identity entail a form of essentialism; the substantial self-sameness of individuals and communities, howsoever conceived, being of the essence. But if identity is a reifying category, what is it that is being reified, and how?

According to Moran, it is the 'social logic of capitalism' itself which, by governing the range of people's actions, incentives, expectations, motives and commitments, produces certain distinctly capitalist patterns of signification. Signification, as a means of semantic production, depends for its repertoires on the everyday, ordinary practices and behaviours that it arises in.

Identity-talk, therefore, derives some of its common-sensical force from the surrounding framework of property rights, and possessive individualism: the idea that we are the proprietors of our own distinctive qualities. The ability to master and dispose of these qualities is the essence of capitalist freedom. The ability to acquire and trade off, to brand and re-brand, is at the core of practical citizenship.

Likewise, in the post-war era, the emergence of consumption as a major social and cultural activity, as a leisure pursuit, and then as a social-comparative and competitive pursuit, lent itself to the idea that we could consume different selves -- because, in fact that is exactly what we began to do.
The emergence of modern forms of security and biopolitics, with rights and state access predicated on identity built over the edifices of older forms of racial sovereignty and patriarchy, would add another layer to the cultural force-field in which identity emerged as a keyword.
It would, of course, be at best negligent and at worst culpable to leave it at capitalist common sense. There are other senses, residual cultures, resistant formations, and they too shape the conflicted structure of identities.
V.  This brings us back to ambivalence, a dynamic played out every day in our relationships with others.

The romantic relationship merely has the potential to raise this omnipresent force to its most volatile pitch. The romantic relationship, with its swings between desire and repulsion. The separation anxiety and intrusion anxiety. The orgasmic melting of bodies and the post-nuptial separation and need to be alone, and conversely the blazing row followed by blissful make-up sex. The strange ecstasies of the hatefuck wherein identification and dis-identification are combined. We are always striving for, and not finding, the 'right distance' from the moving object of our identifications.

Part of being in nature and yet unnatural is that we are social animals, yet also anti-social, yearning toward unity and separation. According to Paul Verhaeghe, this is nothing less than the pull of Eros and Thanatos. Which is to say that identity is both eroticised and necrotised. 
Now that this is integrated within the infrastructure of platform capitalism, -- wherein identities are as fragile as the weak ties sustained online and yet essentialised and procured and cultivated like property -- don't we see this erotic and necrotic dialectic of identity played out everyday online? Isn't it the sadomasochistic script of our combined self-identifications and self-loathings, without any mediating ludic structure?

The tempestuous rows within internet communities, the toxic pulsions of identification and dis-identification, the passionate solidarities and sudden rows when we find we're not really as alike as we thought. The libidinised investment in online 'celebrities' which turns suddenly and horrifically awry once our identifications disappoint us and we begin to berate and degrade them.

Identity is, yes, necrological. It is also -- and co-constitutively -- passionately erotic.

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Racism and child sexual abuse posted by Richard Seymour

Operation Sanctuary has uncovered, prosecuted and convicted members of another large child sex grooming ring, this time in Newcastle.

As is always the case when the majority of the perpetrators are not white, this has provoked a 'debate' about race, that vacillates between the hand-wringing and the downright sinister. Sarah Champion MPhas managed both, attacking the Tories from the right on race, and berating the "floppy left" for finding anything problematic in this. In particular, Champion avers that these offenders are "predominantly Pakistani" and castigates the government for not investigating this. Such debates are not provoked when the perpetrators are white, and this tells us something about the role of "race and culture" as talking points.

Now, contrary to what Champion claims, she is not breaking new ground here. Back in 2012 when a string of major child sex abuse stories, inculpating politicians, celebrities, senior police and others, exploded onto the national news, there was also a national panic about Muslim men as a result of child sex rings in the north. Keith Vaz MP explained on BBC Radio that one in five of the perpetrators of child sex grooming are British Asians. He was drawing on data from the Child Exploitation and Online Protection centre.

Even he wasn't breaking new ground, merely reiterating what Jack Straw MP had said years before. This is an old and dishonourable tactic by a certain kind of politician. In particular, it is Labour politicians who think that they have to demonstrate their un-PC credentials by pandering to racism.

That this is in fact what Champion is doing, and knowingly, is disappointing given her record. She won her seat by defeating a toxic Ukip campaign orchestrated precisely on the axis of a panic about child abuse, implicating British Asians as a menace to white sexual innocence. Ukip claimed that Labour was more worried about political correctness and not being racist than in protecting white British kids.

Champion did not, at the time, concede ground to the racist fearmongering. She, as a professional with direct experience in dealing with child abuse, knows the literature and expertise well enough to refute race-baiting. And she increased Labour's majority. Now she is repeating the Ukip lines.

There are a few things to clarify before a sensible discussion can even be had. First of all, "race and culture" should not be spoken in the same breath, as if they are the same type of thing. Cultures exist, but they are raggedy in outline, porous, and changeable. Their outlines are more like weather fronts than borders. Races don't exist, except as a political and ideological construct. The idea that any one specific culture could be imputed to British Asian men is incoherent.

Second, as an elementary point of logic, correlation is not causation. Commenting on the CEOP figures, an investigator told The Guardianthat the higher representation of British Asian men in the data is likely to reflect not 'race' or 'culture' in these cases, but occupation. In other words, these grooming rings were made possible by a night-time economy populated by young girls moving between taxis and fast food outlets. Which, given a racial segregation of the labour force, meant that there was a unique opportunity for a small number of men, mostly British Asian in the case of Operation Sanctuary, to generate a grooming circuit, based on attention, flattery, parties, booze and drugs. Relatedly, where biases toward the over-representation of a particular minority group have been found among child sex abusers, typically it is because race is indexed to other factors that make children vulnerable, such as class.

Third, proof of the stereotypical nature of this debate is Champion's claim that gang-related child sexual abuse is "predominantly Pakistani". This is often asserted, but there's no evidence for it, and the CEOP figures simply don't bear that out. "Just 35 of the 415 Asians are recorded as having Pakistani heritage and thus highly likely to be Muslim, and only five are recorded as being from a Bangladeshi background. The heritage of 366 of the Asian group is not stated in those figures." As a result, the CEOP is quite explicit about its inability to draw any nationwide conclusions based on the fragmentary and partial nature of its data. It depends entirely on data deriving from cases reported to a police unit investigating these crimes.

Fourth, the construction of child abuse along racial or national lines depends entirely on how you focus your search. The majority of sex offenders in the UK, according to statistics collected by Sheffield Hallam University, are white. In the figures collected in 2007, 5.6 per cent of the sex offender population was 'South Asian' by origin, and 81.9% white. Taking into account the fact that this was the prison population, and that there are racial biases in the criminal justice system from arrest to prosecution, it would be surprising if these figures didn't exaggerate the representation of British Asians among the sex offenders population.

Fifth, one reason for the extraordinarily high rate of estimated non-disclosure is that the majority of sexual assaults are inflicted on children. And abuse selects for vulnerability. This means that there is, even in the best official data, a huge zone of blindness. But with the data we have, it is possible to say that the majority of child sex abuse is not like the grooming cases. It usually involves one-to-one assaults, in a residence, either first thing in the morning, during after-school hours, or at midnight. So, attempting to draw wider conclusions about the nature of child sexual abuse from the high profile grooming cases is at best a mistake.

The problem with Sarah Champion's intervention is not that she wants to talk about culture. If we started to talk about the cultural biases and cognitive distortions that enable abusers, that would require a careful and nuanced discussion, which would take into account the specific ways in which different groups of offenders -- be they the abusers at Kincora Boys Home, the groomers of Rotherham and Newcastle, or the fathers who assault their children ongoingly -- are informed by their cultural self-understandings, their religion, their socioeconomic position, and so on. It would not try to simplify all this by forcing it through the morally charged and oppressive grid of race.

To reinforce race as the appropriate framework for analysis and police action is to, as Sarah Champion admits, raise the pitch of nationwide Islamophobia. It is also to add one more giant weapon to the arsenals of silence. Children don't speak out for many reasons. In part because they fear they will not be believed, in part because they fear punishment or revenge. But one of the best known reasons is their fear of the process of accountability and prosecution itself. Their fear, in a word, that the process will run out of their control, that it will have consequences well beyond their intentions. If you turn child sex abuse into a national morality tale about race relations in 21st century Britain, you haven't made it easier for people to speak -- especially children who are particularly vulnerable because of the way they are racialised.

Because contrary to Champion's claims, this sort of intervention is not about protecting children. Racism is not child protection.

Addendum: Since I wrote this, Sarah Champion has taken to the pages of The Sun to further incite racial hatred. The headline: "British Pakistanis ARE raping white girls ... and we must face up to it". Followed by the first sentence: "Britain has a problem with British Pakistani men raping and exploiting white girls."

It is not trivial to point out that the majority of those arrested, prosecuted and convicted in this latest grooming circle in Newcastle are not Pakistani. To respond to this case by, as Champion has from the start, inciting against Pakistani men, is to conflate all the men with brown skin who were arrested, be they Iraqi, Bangladeshi, or Indian into a sort of racial amalgam, a Muslamic horde.

It also goes without saying that Champion styles herself as someone very brave and original, as though what she is saying has not been said over and over again by opportunistic Labour MPs, Tories, Ukippers, Sun columnists, and so on. "There. I said it. Does that make me a racist?" She asks. Yes.

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Dropping like bees posted by Richard Seymour

I.  I'm in Iceland, watching bees feverishly court the foxgloves in the stinging cold. 
They're working as though there weren't a billion tiny specks of rain drifting down on them like smoke. As though it really were summer.
And I am abruptly reminded of the need for this frantic labour. If the bees were to disappear as a species, humans will join them. Some say within four years. We will drop like bees, by the billions, famished.
We depend, albeit obliviously for most of our existence, on the bees for a huge amount of the food we eat. The mere work of pollination is worth billions -- of people, and pounds. It is worth tonnes and tonnes of exportable crops.
The sudden, sharp collapse of bee colonies across Europe and North America over the last century has been, gradually and reluctantly, correlated with capitalogenic climate change. A body of research tracking the relationship has begun to develop. Certain pesticides may also accelerate the problem, beyond the point of repair.
The interesting thing about the phenomenon of colony collapse is that it resembles an abrupt and irreversible work stoppage. The workers bees simply quit, walk off the job, leaving enough food for the short-term survival of the queen and infants.
We all sort-of-knew of, but took for granted, the sexual and reproductive labour of pollination. Until the possibility of its sudden withdrawal brutally forced us to face up to an unacknowledged dependence. One species-death brings another in its wake.

II.  Let's say it again: we sort-of-knew. And we sort-of-know about multitudes of other ecological dependencies, even if we proceed as though we didn't know. 
The term for sort-of-knowing but ignoring is disavowal. In psychoanalytic terms, we disavow in order not to admit our castration, our dependence. And this particular disavowal is an operation of capitalist social relations. 
It is not that it would be a good idea to re-enchant the earth, even were that possible. But disenchantment, as Adorno & Horkheimer have shown from one perspective, and Carolyn Merchant from another, was part of a gigantic civilizational rupture as the sixteenth century turned into the seventeenth century, bring new modes of oppression and exploitation with it.
The augmentation of the early modern state as it struggled to manage the emergent capitalist system. The acceleration of the Reformation into a continent-wide war that consumed eight million lives, produced a demographic crisis, and triggered the formation of a new states system. The enclosures and witch-hunts, the re-regimentation of gender on the basis of a division between public and private. The transformation of animisms, magical practices and alchemies of the Renaissance into the mechanistic, experimental sciences of the Enlightenment.

The gains of this continental cataclysm, of course, need little elaboration here. We enjoy perpetually longer lives, expanding capacities, mobilities, and literacies, and perhaps even the possibility of human emancipation before human annihilation, because of the progressive part of that explosion. 
But, bringing with it a new set of social relations, it also brought with it a new set of conceptual distinctions and dichotomies. Above all, the creation of 'Nature' as a distinct and subordinate realm of being, over which 'Man' enjoyed dominion. And if Francis Bacon liked to imagine 'Nature' as a woman, to be interrogated, chastened, and brought under control, the division of being envisioned here would see women, workers, and black and colonised subjects, placed firmly in the camp of 'Nature'.  
If the disenchanted earth, atomistic and mechanistic, was finally regarded as being so available for domination, it was because it had been deprived of anything that could be regarded as agency. It was a raw material, potentially resistant, but otherwise strictly dependent and subordinate.

III.  In this way, capitalism obscured its own conditions of possibility, even as the screen image of capital as a sleek, immaterial, weightless spirit is perpetually obscuring its vulgar agrarian origins, its basis in the exploitation of plant, animal and human labour.
The disavowal of what we sort-of-knew has consequences. If we cannot simply re-enchant the earth, we need to re-discover at the level of theory what has been blotted out of everyday perception.

This starts with the acknowledgment that, as Jason Moore puts it, capitalism is a civilizational order that is "co-produced by humans and the rest of nature". It depends as much on the unpaid work and energies of forests, rivers, and wind, as on the unpaid work of women and slaves. Capitalism is a "multispecies affair". The bees work for capitalism.

There is, as Moore suggests, not only the "socially necessary labour-time" of commodified labour, but also the "socially necessary unpaid work" of uncommodified labour, which "crosses the Cartesian boundary" between 'Human' and 'Nature'. 
To make all this labour happen on terms commensurate with capitalist production, capitalists and states have to take hold of, observe, measure, classify and code all the various 'natures', human or not. They have to subject them to a capitalist grid of intelligibility, which is the grid of commodity production. All of these processes, wherein different forms of 'nature' are converted into preconditions for capital, Moore calls "abstract social nature".
This, drawing directly on Donna Haraway's work, demystifying and dismantling the nature/culture opposition, assigns its findings a specific theoretical value within marxism. And in so doing, it gives the term "capitalocene" its proper conceptual basis (see Daniel Hartley's perspicacious but sympathetic critique here), without which it would simply be a sarcastic rejoinder.
But it brings us to this. Capitalism's "law of value" was always "a law of Cheap Nature". And yet, of course, cheap nature was always a fiction. "Abstract social nature" organises its exploitation so that its costs are externalised, driven outside the circuit of production: but they are still costs borne somewhere. And we are beginning to see where: they were piled up somewhere in the future, for generations unknown to encounter as their cataclysmic end.

From various directions, the strains are showing, and revealing themselves to be potentially terminal. The possibilities of extinction multiply. In our thousands, in our millions.

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Thursday, July 20, 2017

Playing Dead posted by Richard Seymour

“The eternal silence of infinite space terrifies me.” – Blaise Pascal, Pensees.
In 2014, Jo Milne heard a human syllable for the first time, and broke down into helpless sobs as though it were the first voice in the world. 
The noise rang, she explained, with a very high pitch. The sound, rushed through her body. Sounds became irresistible, addictive. The light switch clicking on and off, the throng of water. Hearing was not simply a mental event, but a powerful somatic event. 
It is always the same, when a nurse turns on the cochlear implant and the deaf begin to hear. There is a silent second of confusion and confirmation. Did I? Is it? A light switch clicks on. And then, water.
The first voice in the world, for those not born deaf, is that of the mother. We make a meal of her words. We must do so, as Hopkins implies, because we are hungry for them: “Wild air, world-mothering air … My more than meat and drink,/My meal at every wink.” We are hungry because we are missing something and are not at peace with the world.
The syllables which mothers begin to feed their children well before birth, might be just as overwhelming for the child to hear, and just as addictive, as they are to the congenitally deaf person hearing for the first time. Lacan called it lalangue: the sing-song, the music, of maternal babble.
The sing-song is a somatic event. The syllables, or letters, enter the body and mark it with enjoyment, just as Milne described. The psychoanalyst Serge Leclaire goes so far as to claim that, if you could accidentally sing these letters in a certain sequence and in a certain tone, you might plunge someone into rapture – since these letters are their unique formula for bliss.
Your relationship to speaking and silence, in other words, begins with your mother. And it begins before birth, before that first coming up for air, well before the words start to make sense.
It can be both the best and worst thing in the world when the words stop. Silence creates a space in which fantasies roam free. You can hear yourself think, whether or not you like what you hear. Pascal was terrified of what he might hear given infinite space and time.
To experience an abrupt break in the flow of words, then, might be to experience time in a particular way. The usual images of time – a river, an arrow – won’t help us here.
Suppose instead that you are traversing a giant, sticky web, and with each step a new thread attaches itself to you.
More and more threads stick to different parts of you, and pull in different directions, until eventually you have to pause and try to sort it all out. 
But the more you pull at this knot, or that snag, the more you get snarled and tangled up.
And you stop and think about your predicament.
And only then notice the silent observer in the corner of the web, still, implacable, waiting.
This is one way of thinking about the predicaments of life, and the temporal threads we are all caught up in, consciously or otherwise. We are all doing time, all working to various schedules, tangled up in the threads of expectation and commitment, some of which we know nothing of.
Silence in that sense can be a lag, a delay, a slackening in one of the threads. It takes a while to actually decide that someone is being silent, because silence is built in to the rhythms of conversation. Maybe less than a minute in face to face conversation, an hour or so on instant messenger, a day or so by email, depending on the context.
Once you’ve ascertained that there is, indeed, a silence, it snarls up all your other threads. What is going on? Is it passive-aggressive? Is there something wrong? If I nudge, will it be rude? Can I get on with other things? 
And if the relationship matters to you, and if you can’t just snap the thread, you might begin, after a period of irritation, to feel a cold anxiety creep over you. You might worry that they have died, which is a way of wishing them dead. The anxiety might seem to be about the loose thread and to what it pertains, but it also contains an awareness of that impassive, patient gaze.
The linguist Colette Granger tells the story of a five year old child, who did not speak any English. Having arrived in an English-speaking kindergarten, he was completely, disturbingly silent and non-responsive for five months. Until one day the class took a trip to the zoo, and passed by a display case containing a large, reticulated python. The child was suddenly animated, grabbed his teacher, pointed at the python and said: I know this! I know this! This is my home, teacher, this is my home!
When you learn a new language, as you usually do when you’re an infant, the first thing you do is fall silent. You might occasionally utter learned syllables, holophrastically. But for a time, there is no creative speech.
Experts on language acquisition call it a ‘silent period’, but they call it that as though they think of it as empty, an absence. As though nothing interesting is happening until someone starts talking. As though everything stops when the child is put to bed and the lights turned off.
For Granger, silence is filled with meaning: a symptom, which has something in common with the eternal oath of silence we all ultimately undertake. In dreams, muteness is a common symbol of death. In death, we are all silent, and silence is a death of the self.
But what kind of symptom could it be? In psychoanalysis, a symptom is a way of speaking; it is the grammar through which a set of existential questions are addressed to the Other. Am I female or male, subject or object, alive or dead? Silence, keeping mum, mummification, can be a way of playing dead.
Something is lost when we begin speaking. The linguist Roman Jakobson remarked that in learning a language, “the child loses nearly all his ability to produce sounds”. The infinite variety of noises made by a babbling child is lost forever in a kind of phonic amnesia, and only some of them are learned again. 
“Perhaps,” says the philosopher Daniel Heller-Roazen, “the loss of a limitless phonetic arsenal is the price a child must pay for the papers that grand him citizenship in the community of a single tongue.” 
But what is also lost is the unspoken existence which was hymned with this polyphony of babble. The unspoken being still bubbles over – one might say babbles – with inarticulate meaning, speaking in tongues, but is lost to conscious experience. In learning a language, we gain an identity, a place from which to speak – “a room of one’s own,” as Virginia Woolf had it. At the same time, we give up our previous accommodation, the unspoken self, the part of experience which words somehow don’t touch. 
When words are fed to us we are expected to eat, and forget about whatever it is that can’t be said. And for a while, we have no room of our own. We are in a liminal space, where the old has been lost, but the new has not been assimilated. We clam up, because there is no place from which to speak, and we are angry and troubled, and don’t know why.
Something has been lost. We are at a loss.
In this sense, silence might not just be playing dead. It might betoken that something has actually died.
Self-formation, Melanie Klein thought, is a melancholic process; the self being produced out of the traces of objects that we have lost or been separated from. What we lose when we first gain language is, by definition, beyond articulation. It is an unrepresentable, unknowable object, and so it can’t be mourned.
Part of the mourning process involves bitter reproaches to the lost object which has let us down. But it is when we don’t know what it is we have lost in the object because our attachment to it was always narcissistic, that we direct the reproach at ourselves and experience a terrifying existential impoverishment. When, in addition to that, the lost object itself is beyond articulation, and so couldn’t even be represented as a loss, it remains unconscious. The trauma – and it is a trauma, insofar as it completely and irreversibly transforms your inner life – becomes a psychic landmine, awaiting activation.
Of course, the loss here is illusory. The pre-language ‘self’ is a retroactive fantasy, a product of what Freud called ‘Nachtraglichkeit’ (deferred action). Deferred action is itself just an everyday linguistic phenomenon. Lacan gives the example of a sentence; you don’t know the meaning of the first signifier until you’ve heard the last in the sequence. And if, at an unconscious level, the sentence is only finished ten years after it began, that is one of the ways in which a trauma can be belatedly activated. 
In second-language acquisition, we lose a fantasy of linguistic omnipotence. Not only because for a time we inhabit a language that we can’t master, but also because we realise that our previous linguistic self wasn’t all that we thought it was. This brings into being, activates, a primordial loss of pre-linguistic omnipotence; of the mythical time when everything was seemingly provided, sufficient, without the mediation of words.
A self is a fantasy, an image of ‘what I am really like’ by which we represent ourselves to the world. Selves are more-or-less skilful diplomats; they’re what we have to stop us from ripping each other to pieces. This is why Winnicott described the ego as a ‘false self’; but he also argued that it allowed for a ‘third’, transitional space to be created between ego and unconscious which could be the locus of creative freedom.
And what happens when you have to learn a new language, according to Granger, is that a self dies, a fantasy of mastery and competence, for a while the locus of creativity is lost, and so for all practical purposes you fall silent. You pull the coffin lid shut.
What would it mean to be addicted to words? 
Addiction is, in its own way, a kind of silence. Not a diction, but – as the addiction specialist Rik Loose puts it – an a-diction. Why bother speaking when you can bypass all that and get a direct line to enjoyment by mouth, nose or vein? 
Perhaps this is one reason why addictions are on the rise, in an era of atomisation. Toxicomania, the administration of so-called toxic substances, is but one variant of the tendency. The addiction to the noise of social media is a dependence on another kind of toxicity.
It is well known by now, though addiction therapists seem to have no idea what to do with the information, that the same quantity of drugs have widely varying effects depending on who they’re administered to. 
This suggests that the toxicity resides, not in the substance itself, but in the subject. The happy pills have no more magic than magic beans; they have a blunt somatic force but there has to be something else, a set of psychodynamics, to act on. It might be a form of unacknowledged depression, or anxiety. It might be that what the drug does is suppress a conflict, or disarm repression, freeing up a lot of psychic energy that can be experienced as euphoria. But whatever it is, the effect of the drug is meaningful, in that it has some relationship to subjective truth.
What does this have to do with sound and syllables? Let’s go back to those lines from Hopkins for a moment. The poem compares the air to the Virgin Mary. It is an act of erotically-charged idealisation. It hymns life, breath, maternity: the iambic trimeter is deliberately speedy and emphatic, the variation of couplets and triplets in the irregular stanzas conveying almost an improvised feel, as though he was singing this in prayer. But what are the unconscious conditions for this idealisation? 
If the Holy Mother, the idealised mother, is “My more than meat and drink/My meal at every wink”, this betokens an aggressive, cannibalistic impulse that is belied in the ecstatic poetics. The Holy Mother is already dead, of course, like all ideal mothers. “Not flesh but spirit now.” But that’s another sense in which idealisation is a convenient cover story: a refusal and transformation of the drives. To devour the mother’s words is to devour a bit of her. To make a meal of “world-mothering air” is to make a meal of the sanctified mother, and thus of the very conditions for life, including one’s own. 
The death-drive lurks here. 
Silence can be a form of playing dead. And as we know from the stillness of crocodiles in the wild, just before the jaws abruptly open and snap shut, playing dead allows one to eat the other. So, playing dead, we can wait for the other to speak: and then, if they venture too incautiously, snap the jaws shut with merciless force. 
However, there are many ways of wishing someone dead. And, from another point of view, cannibalism is a form of passionate identification. Or to put it another way, identification begins with eating. When orally evaluating objects as infants, we are deciding which we’d like to ingest, and which we’d like to spit out. We are deciding what objects in the external world should become part of us, or not. To eat someone’s words is to identify with them; indeed, to love them, to accept them as a master. Much as to eat the eucharist, and swallow the word of Christ, is to identify with a dead son.
What we are speaking of here, being played out in Hopkins’s poem, is a form of conflict – a contra-diction – known as ambivalence. It is, thanks to his diaries, no secret that Hopkins bitterly resented his violent father and, though more at ease with her, at least partly despised his mother for supporting the patriarch. In an unpublished rhyme, he had a character named Mrs Hopley refer to her children bidding their father goodnight: “Bid your Papa goodnight. Sweet exhibition!/They kiss the rod with filial submission.” 
It is also fair to say that Hopkins struggled with his drives, and desires – his ‘evil thoughts’ about animals, his ‘temptations’ regarding young men, his masturbatory ‘sins’, his refusal even to eat a peach out of aversion to its juicy sweetness. It was as though he felt there was a toxicity in him.
The addict’s solution to this contra-diction is a-diction. It is to stop swallowing the word and start swallowing booze or pills instead. This is an oral short-cut, a bite through the knot of drive, desire and repression. But a short-cut to what? The junkie literature gives us the answer: death.
But this is not death as a scientific fact; it is death as psychic meaning, death-in-life. In the literature, poems and art made by men influenced by addiction, death is figured as a woman. 
Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, written under the influence of opium, contains these lines: “Is that a DEATH? And are there two?/Is DEATH that woman’s mate? … The Night-Mare LIFE-IN-DEATH was she,/Who thicks man’s blood with cold.” This is the repressed truth of Hopkins’s lines on the Holy Mother: “Laying, like air’s fine flood,/The deathdance in his blood … Men here may draw like breath/More Christ and baffle death…”. It is the Mother who is no longer alive, he fantasises, who can give life.
But to figure death as a woman is to turn death into a choice: an erotic object-choice. Properly speaking, this is a denial of death in the carnal sense, which is not a choice. It reflects the fact that, unconsciously, we don’t believe in the possibility of our own mortality. And yet it flirts with death, seeks a kind of fusion with it, just as the Catholic Hopkins saw in the Eucharist the possibility of a fusion with the dead mother. 
And it achieves a death. Entering into a relationship with a drug, one drops out of the web of history – one’s own past and future, and that of the world – and inhabits a liminal zone beyond time. This is what is meant, or one of the things that is meant, by a death-drive. After all, what gives you your stable, intransitive existence as a subject other than your relationship to others (the Other)? A relationship that is necessarily mediated by words? If a-diction is a way of bypassing conversation, getting a direct line to enjoyment, it is also where the subject goes to die.
Bibliomania (a-diction to books), of which lexicomania (a-diction to diction-aries) is a special type, is a way of being hooked on words. Historically, the idea was linked to problems of pedagogical control: children who read too much were apt to get out of line, their thinking becoming undisciplined. It was Coleridge who complained of “the mischief of unconnected and promiscuous reading”, a phrase that is doubly telling.
It is as though reading had, by the early modern period, become a way of having one’s cake an eating it. A spurious, ‘unconnected’, long-range intimacy was made possible by the printing press. The pace, volume and nature of reading is dependent in the first instance upon an economy of production. And the rise of the printed novel enabled a glut of solitary pleasures, routing around the Other.
The way in which technologies become part of the fabric of everyday life means that over time their effects become naturalised, such that they are no longer seen as being problematic. Indeed, the idea that you might separate yourself from the habits of everyday life and read a book in tranquil solitude doesn’t seem especially pathological. I am not suggesting that a certain relationship to reading can’t be problematic; but certainly a great deal of the initial reaction was moral panic.
The jolting break with print culture, has brought with it an entirely new mode of “unconnected and promiscuous reading” (and a new moral panic). The idea that reading leads to flightiness of thought, excessive lightness of foot, appears much less appropriate to a linear mode of reading such as the printed book, than to the associative, hyperlinked mode of reading found on the internet. A mode reading that is strangely both connected – which depends on connection, cannot do without the Other – and unconnected.
Almost all possible addictions have been subject at some point to the displacements and exaggerations typical of moral panic, and social media addiction is no different. But moral panic takes addiction as a given, known quantity, when of course it isn’t. What I want to suggest is that addiction to words in this sense might be similar to gambling addiction.
Compulsive gamblers play with a set of signifiers – the dots on a die, the suit on a card, the symbols on a slot machine – which in themselves are utterly meaningless. They ask of these signifiers a question – “what am I? what is my destiny?” – and they stake their being on the answer that those signifiers give. And when the answer is not what they wanted, they ante up; and when it is what they wanted, they ante up again, because this struggle is timeless, eternal. They get a strange pleasure from betting everything, tied to a terrible guilt over the debts they accumulate. Of course, in the long run the house always wins: and that is the answer given to the compulsive gambler. You are a loser, and your destiny is to die.
This is just a speculation on my part – a gamble or roll of the dice – but I want to suggest that if you were to conduct an analysis of tweets, quite a lot of their contents would include signifiers that are strictly meaningless (and not just phatic terms like ‘tbh’ and ‘fwiw’). In a sense, for social media addicts, tweets are combinatories of signifiers that are rolled on to the platform like dice, as a speculative test of luck. As a way of posing the existential question. 
Yes, the signifiers are not totally arbitrary, but nor are the choices that one makes in gambling (higher or lower, red or black, hit or sit, etc). No matter how random one tries to make them, they will always be determined by the laws of the unconscious. And of course, just like in gambling, in the long run the house always wins. The answer in the long run is always the same; and the addict always antes up. And having anted up yet again, against all advice and all evidence, the addict always offers the same rationalisation for doing so – one day I’ll have a big win and then I can quit. The unconscious fantasy behind such rationalisations is that they can master death.
This brings us back to another function of playing dead. It doesn’t just allow you to eat the other; it allows you to escape being eaten. Of course it is extravagantly paradoxical to describe a noisy activity like social media engagement a form of ‘silence’, a form of ‘playing dead’. To be absolutely clear, for many people it isn’t. But one way of posing the question of social media a-diction is to ask what this highly distracted kind of engagement, this unconnected connectedness, allows one to avoid saying? 
The mordant irony of the compulsive gambler’s unconscious fantasy of defeating death, is that the daily conflicts, debt and guilt they build up can become so horrifying to live with that they actually kill themselves. The spread of social media suicides allows us to think that something similar could be going on there.
Playing dead, ultimately, has something in common with the eternal oath of silence we all undertake.

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