“Well this was unexpected” I say to myself in strangely vertiginous moment of calm. But then this exclamation is followed by a doubt, a question, was it? Was a global pandemic like this ever actually that far away, isn’t it true that for some time now it has been reasonable to suspect a crisis of some magnitude to befall the global economy, virus or no virus? The possibility of a normality-shattering crisis has lain at some indistinct moment arguably for a decade now. It was a question of when, not if it would arrive.
This doesn’t really do as much as we’d like to think to prepare us for its moment of arrival. As Jodi Dean observed poignantly on Twitter, no amount of dystopian fiction prepares you for the sadness of collapse, and in this vein no amount of theory prepares you for the events of history to play out in front of your eyes. Perhaps there is something of this to the immediate and widely derided responses of various theorists, from Agamben to Badiou, not to mention the almost impossibly fast announcement of a new book by Zizek on the coronavirus pandemic. Where do these academics of varying fame find themselves in the progression of events? Arguably, nowhere. They, like the rest of us, are simply swept up within them, whether they are pantomime performer or lecturer. Their comments, while previously more welcome, now have a tendency to come off as hackneyed, detached responses from people who have spent too long staring at the same piece of paper. Sure, we could apply the analysis that holds the virus as the confrontation of capital with its suppressed Real, and perhaps it holds, but in some sense, it all seems to be a bit obvious, and more to the point it tells us nothing of how to handle it, how to proceed from this moment, even the minutiae of living under it.
Part of the problem with tackling events this time around is quite how simultaneously real and unreal they seem, evoking in one breath a million fictional pandemics, zombie outbreaks and collapse scenarios, but in its horrifying, alienating reality outstripping any of them. Only a month ago, the idea Europe would now be in an effective quarantine scenario would have sounded outlandish, more like some kind of alternative history series than current affairs. The notion that nothing really happens here, that epidemics, wars, social collapse are things that happen in other places, the “third world”, had set in deeper than we could possibly imagine, a bubble of western exceptionalism that was inexplicably supposed to keep us safe from the ravages of the world. There was never really any reason to think that “normality”, as in the rhythms and flows of daily life, would continue unabated indefinitely, even if its sudden imposition means that the eventual disruption was nigh impossible to plan for.
All of this means in all likelihood that a lot will have changed on the other side of this crisis, the co-ordinates will shift, in fact they already have [What Brexit?] but it’s entirely unclear at this stage to whose benefit and to what end. It’s possible, yes, that the floor may be opened for a number of previously maligned socialist policies and ideas, but just as likely, indeed the pessimist in me suggests more so, that the far right will gain more from all this. It’s not hard to see how an argument for hard borders can be constructed from the emergence of the pandemic, as much as for UBI or other measures. The left should be careful in our pronouncements, and remind ourselves of the current stakes of power. While the virus and its reaction is demolishing our unchecked notions of capitalist normality, in some quarters it only seems to be more fuel for the fire of anti-leftist contempt. In light of all this, before any grand calls for building a utopia from the ashes, I will hold my tongue. Reality is too violent and mercurial to fashion as we would wish.
And so I’m left to read through the rest of Adorno’s Minima Moralia, a text that I’m finding takes on a strange relevance at a time like this. Adorno’s famous miserablist outlook, aphorism after aphorism, seeming to make a morbid degree of sense in the current climate. That famous quote of his from a Spiegel interview has come back to me repeatedly. Two weeks ago, the world seemed in order, well, not to me… I don’t mean, and I doubt Adorno did, to single myself out for some kind of special awareness here, but something Adorno really strikes at, more than a lot of Marxist thinkers I’ve read, and even in his most questionable moments, is the horror and death that not only lies underneath but facilitates our comfort. It’s why, while I understand our wish in these situations for a return to normal, that it would all go away, this wish is also predicated on a kind of exceptionalism. We expect to live in a bubble for which others must die. Not only this, but their deaths are invisible, buried, easily ignored. The kind of stark inequality and societal violence that oils the cogs in the quotidian monolith of capitalist routine becomes a horror we can’t collectively turn away from at times like this. Society returns with a vengeance in conditions of isolation.
Now that the dust has settled, solidified and developed into its own geographic strata, what to make of that mythical construct we like to call the blogosphere, wherever we might identify it. What is its supposed influence? Does it still exist? Did it ever exist? What lessons can be learnt from it? Was it even important? Did it succeed? Did it fail? If so, why? All of these questions are beyond my specific knowledge to answer, so in an act of knowing disappointment to anyone who might have started reading this and expected answers, I’m about to utterly fail to deliver any of them, speaking as I do from a position outside any kind of identifiable “blogosphere” if it did or does exist. The only reason it arises for me at all is as influence, a something I discovered or unearthed as a retrospective echo among the still present archives of K-Punk. The blogosphere everyone refers to is largely only evident in that vast hall of dead hyperlinks, in hundreds of severed references, mentions whose referents are long forgotten, perhaps buried on someones hard drive but likely never to see the light of day again.
And perhaps its better that way, as a ghost. It’s quite likely, given its ongoing, unfinished nature, that a lot of that material was “better when you were there”, that much of it has dated, faded like the hopes and fears that drove it, like the neoliberal consensus it responded to. Its important not to hypostasize our wishes in the failures of the dead, and therein lies the risk of a million hagiographies and gleaming platitudes regarding the excitement of a faded institution or moment. To keep, preserved in formaldehyde, some idealised vision of the early internet era belies our current moment, one in which any “blogosphere” cannot really exist in that form again; in fact, the promise of the net, that counter-cultural excitement swirling around cyberpunk imagery and tech-futurism has, like countercultures before it, become largely and seamlessly subsumed into the silicon valley sprawl, a vast network of information harvesting and management prefigured by the famous essay by Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron on the Californian Ideology.
This tendency of countercultures to become re-incorporated into hegemonic structures can be felt throughout the 20th century, exemplified in the “capitalist hippy” archetype of the Californian Ideology. In some sense, it strikes at the heart of the critical apparatus of sub-cultural politics or aesthetics, reflecting the libertarian critique of the state back in the form of endless cybernetic flows and free market teleology. It is this movement, from underground opposition to newly adapted forms of hegemonic social control, that above all may lead us to question what value cultural politics by itself can have. It might not be a stretch to say that there was something absent from the hope of these movements, from the faith in aesthetic and culturalist change they exhibited. There is a tendency for some to place an inordinate degree of faith/hope in cultural politics, usually in a transparently self-engorging manoeuvre, placing their own discipline of interests at the centre of change. “Art can change the world” sounds good, as does “art changes how we think”, and both may be true in one way or another, but they remain problematic in some key ways. My skepticism of both statements emerges not in their underlying truth, but their implications, what might be missing from these statements and what may lead us to uncritically support them.
The problem with these approaches is, to risk repeating some Marxist slogans, but necessarily so, that they will tend to remain locked into, at the mercy, of the current social order, the mechanisms of production and exchange which foreclose and stifle the change they hope to enable. If we are to tentatively return to the subject of the phantasmic blogosphere, this issue arises, we could say, in the ubiquity of the internet itself, and the problem facing theory/philosophy at all in the age of the very online. If it existed anywhere, the “sphere” as such is to be found in the comments and hyperlinks, the tethers and conversations extending beyond the blog posts themselves, and which have mostly become either inaccessible or eerie remnants. Whereas its conceivable that at one stage this engagement was an exciting back and forth, where sparks flew and ideas were exchanged, such conversation has long since dissipated, moved into the perpetual hellscape of twitter or calcified into the odd response here and there. Where it does exist [twitter, for example] the problem I’m getting at asserts itself, whatever one says, whichever carefully worded, lengthy provocation, statement or revelation you unleash into the world, the internet as a perpetual, ubiquitous parasitic supplicant is there to swiftly bury it under a heap of clout-chasing generic content. In the days of always-online totally wired total anxiety, the idea of using the internet seems relatively quaint, such is its presence as a kind of second unconscious nagging at the back of your brain.
Of course, every social media application has arranged itself around such compulsive feedback loops, and is designed to become relied upon. Over the last decade at least its become commonly accepted knowledge [though increasingly perhaps an imaginary salve] that success or popularity comes with riding the algorithm, and countless how-to guides have been vomited out of the self-help industry regarding social media branding, on how to optimise your presence, gain followers, become insta-famous, and so on. This reminds me most prominently of some thinkers connected to Operaismo, specifically Paolo Virno regarding the prominence of virtuosity in the workplace, roughly speaking labour without product, where the performance inherent in the work itself is tantamount to the product we might expect of it. It may not be overstepping the mark too much today to say that in comprising a kind of 21st century virtuoso, the social media entrepeneur takes Virno’s formulation of Poiesis and Praxis on board and then some. Their labour is the presentation of life, the sustained simulation of behaviour seen in profiles, updates and curated posts, geared carefully towards gaming the system, repeated and practiced to the extent to which lives are lived around it in a wholly predictable inversion of the supposed supplementary nature of the online. What’s more, none of this, in the name of furthering their brand and product, makes an iota of sense without the public reach afforded it by the internet, while at the same time this same public reach serves as a constant barrier, an insurmountable distance to the kind of “presence” once pined for; we inevitably find that even given a certain degree of reach or success, the sheer amount of available material online is the very thing swamping the spotlight.
The emergent nature of this new, parasitic entity of information and communication, whether we call it communicative capitalism, semio-capitalism, not capitalism at all, or just, quite simply the internet [though this does admittedly seem wholly insufficient given the kind of social stratification and sheer level of functionality that is afforded it beyond the merely online components], is something that arguably inevitably swamped the hope of an online intellectual counter-hegemony in an avalanche of information and “content”. And all this content, for what, to what end, to what benefit? It’s inevitable to bring him up in this context, but Baudrillard offers us the best prefiguring of this situation when in The Ecstacy of Communication he emphasises the loss of both private and public space, “The one is no longer a spectacle, the other no longer a secret.” What this text perhaps emphasises is something of the futility of our attempts to escape all this, to retreat to “real life” when real life itself exists in thrall to this supposedly immaterial online space. Baudrillard, in his retreat from Marxism, somewhat abandoned himself any kind of hope of radical change, and there is little of this to be found in his texts, which tend to function more as diagnostics or provocations.
And here is where I step back from fully accepting the thesis of Baudrillard’s work, and the problem common to many of the outer reaches of post-structuralism presents itself, precisely that of immaterialism, and the way this move towards an all-consuming open-ended-ness itself begins to preclude any hope of shifting reality, of building something anew. The problem with much of our attempts to grapple with the issue of the virtual is perhaps simply the assumption of its virtuality, the shearing of it from the body, from visceral being, and even from the technics and commodity production that made it possible. Could it be that buried within all our texts and expositions on the virtual is an unspoken, unaddressed privileging, or assumption of the real? What is, ultimately, so unreal about the virtual. In which way can we so readily separate our “real” and “online” existence beyond an enacted mythology? Indeed this is the primary feature of Baudrillard’s hyper-reality, precisely this confusion of reality and unreality. But perhaps he didn’t go far enough, was there every any distinction between the two?
This is the problem we face if we wish to undertake any analysis and prescription of cultural politics today, that of materiality/digitality, the inevitable inadequacy of any approach which attempts to fallaciously extract the tendrils of economy, production, flesh and bone, from the lake of information and knowledge. The importance of Baudrillard was precisely in noting the extent to which the two were connected and could not be unconnected, to which the influence on our behaviour and thought by machines could not be undone. This was the fear of Adorno when he spoke of the fascistic mirror of the machine in Minima Moralia, the authoritarian movements of technology exerting its malign influence on human bodies, and the problem of the technological cannot be sidestepped if we wish to change a world already driven by it. A critique of the seeping influence of the californian ideology and the undoubtedly reactionary tentacles of its largely unnoticed ideological aims surely must be accompanied increasingly by a plan of action, a new form of engagement with the technological.
Blogging at least partially failed as some meaningful underground through a failure to really achieve this. The onward march and current domination of web 2.0, the ubiquitous social media twitch, smartphone at the side of every good citizen of the Californian republic, every denizen of Apple Google, Microsoft, likely all of the above, has centralised communication and data in a way that might have seemed like Sci-Fi imagining twenty years ago, and ultimately we all answer to those who sit in the drivers seats of these corporations. McKenzie Wark has identified from this what she calls the “Vectoralist” class, an attempt notably to reimagine the terms in which we describe the current moment that, even if it doesn’t catch on, should be taken more seriously than some have done. Because, in all our time advocating some kind of cultural alternative, a kind of digital Gramscian-ism of counter-hegemonic strategy, it could be that our failure to, in Wark’s terms, be more “Vulgar” in our Marxism, our forgetting of how important the underlying structures of production and exchange are, may have allowed something nastier to creep in through the back door.