pessimistic about our nihilism

(crossposted to Larvatus Prodeo)

“As a micro-heroic, Nietzschean act of the pajama people, blogging grows out of a nihilism of strength, not out of the weakness of pessimism.”

Geert Lovink’s recent piece on blogs is clearly meant to be provocative. Blogs are at once (hold on to your hats!) irrelevant, a “special effect of software, constituted especially by the automation of links, a not-overly-complex technical interface design issue,” “a digital extension of oral traditions more than a new form of writing,” a hype, evidence of the techno-social condition of cynicism, an amateur project of truth, a product of an online commodity with a clear use-by-date, they are perfect projection fields of the obligation to be empowered by exhibition, apparently they can not be blamed for shutting down thought, they “offer a never-ending stream of confessions, a cosmos of micro-opinions attempting to interpret events beyond the well-known twentieth-century categories,” they “express personal fear, insecurity, and disillusionment, anxieties looking for partners in crime”, and they “bring on decay.”

The piece was given as a lecture in Berlin (March 2006), then more recently in Sydney (December 2006), and has finally appeared in translated form at Eurozine. Bruce Sterling (Wired magazine) has said:

“This has got to be the single most interesting essay on blogging that I’ve ever read. I think every blogger should read this again and again and again until their brain stops exploding.”

There is much to agree with in Lovink’s pithy assessment of blogging, but I can’t quite shake the feeling of being pissed off that the tone of the piece betrays equal measures of poke-it-with-a-stick reflection and call-them-all-losers criticism. The discursive stick is a measure of objective distance (not an objective perspective) and a weapon of provocation, and we (bloggers) are all losers with too much to say about nothing in particular. Where does that leave people who talk about us? Pessimistic about our nihilism(?).

I saw Lovink speak in Sydney and I have written about the presentation here. Over the fold is an extended engagement with the text version of his talk based on this initial reaction. In addition, some of it is based on the paper I presented to the Blogtalk Downunder conference (originally a blog post;). While adding a few more critical perspectives into the mix, I shall largely draw on much the same theory references as Lovink, just to be a cheeky bastard. I have two main problems with Lovink’s argument. The first is that I think he does not engage properly with the event-based nature of blogging. The more serious problem is that Lovink misrecognises the topology of interest that defines the ‘new media’ landscape as a relation of cynical engagement with the structurations of ‘old media’. This misconstrues the affirmative multiplicity of interests of ‘new media’ as the negative in a dialectic with the hegemonic interests of ‘old media’. (Jodi Dean makes some similar comments here.) Also in part, this should be read as an implicit attack on the assumption (voiced clearly here, as another response to Lovink’s talk) that there “is a fatal trajectory from post-structuralism to identity politics to Deleuzeanism to blogging.” At the minimum, blogging should be gauged by its own (immanent, event-based) measure.

Lovink is caught up in the received binary of relevance or importance. Accordingly then, blogging is merely the “triviality that forms the drama of media freedom.” The importance-binary is received from what in Lvink’s terminology would be called ‘old media’, but it extends beyond the media apparatus. When talking about ‘importance’ I am more interested in the function of importance, and not necessarily in its content. What does this mean?

Everyday in newspapers and on television, the radio and the internet the events of the day are distributed into various categories of importance: ‘world politics’ is more ‘important’ than ‘local politics’, or the ‘front page’ is more ‘important’ than the fifth page. Cutting across these divisions of importance are divisions of interest; for example, for whom is the ‘front page’ or the ‘back page’ more important? The positioning of news on the front page of a newspaper or at the start of a news broadcast or the top of a webpage generally means that the news is important, or, more importantly (lol), that it is meant to be more important. Basically, the architectural or proximal distribution of information as news into different times (start of broadcast) and spaces (top of page) of a given medium allows us quickly to recognise how important or not it is.

On a different scale however, ‘importance’ or rather the terrain of importance has been shifting in the media apparatus. The shifting terrain of importance has been duly recognised by Baudrillard, where he describes it in terms of the declining efficacy of the symbolic, or what Lovink echoes as the ‘decay of old media.’ (Some would question this assumption of some sort of ‘golden era’.) However, one of the first critics to recognise the shifting terrain of importance in the media was Daniel Boorstin. Boorstin’s notion of the pseudo-event largely influenced Baudrillard’s notion of the ‘media event’ and ‘simulation’. (Essentially below ‘simulation’ is recast through Boorstin’s notion of ‘pseudo-events’ in a more poststrucutralilst way than Baudrillard’s postmodernist antics.) Boorstin’s pseudo-event is derived from the observation that with the development of the modern media apparatus and associated increase in the frequency of news distribution, there was a great need for news content. Therefore, Boorstin argued, this changed the nature of news from ‘events of God’ or accidents of happenstance and the like to a whole range of other events. There was a shift from news gathering to news making. You can read the first chapter of his influential book here. These other events became newsworthy because of the compulsion to produce enough content for advertising regimes. As we are very familiar now, sometimes no news was itself news. But what is a pseudo-event?

Boorstin defined it in terms of form and content. Content was defined working from a mimetic transmission model of media and judging it in terms of an ambiguous relation to reality (‘what did he really mean?’) and more traditional social concerns. It’s form had to be planned, and easily reportable and digestable. However, there is another way to talk about pseudo-events in terms of their function as part of a media apparatus to continually individuate audiences. Simply put: If the media and other social institutions can inculcate the expectation of a particular set of ‘importances’ in the viewing habits of an audience, then these sociological measured expectations can be sold to advertisers as a demographically stratified population.

For example, the tabloid media is the epitome of this contemporary biopolitical art. Tabloids can be defined not in terms of the stupidity or non-factual basis of its content, but in terms of the efficacy of the non-events broadcast or distributed to individuate a given population of consumers and their thresholds of attention. (Did anyone ever think that maybe the new generations aren’t actually attention deficient they are just sick and tired of the obvious stupidity of previous generations’ relations of attention?) The screaming headlines and controversial images of comprised celebrities found in the tabloid media are an aesthetic tool used in the performative artwork of population management. Another example is found in the massive investment of media companies into sporting codes. The good example here is the one day ‘world series’ cricket that was literally invented for the purposes of being a broadcast spectator spot. Fans ‘need’ to find out who won or not, etc. There is an expectation that the media will provide for such ‘needs’. The media apparatus sells this expectation to advertisers.

One might ask how this part of the biopolitical order. It is not on the opposite end of a dialectical continuum with Agamben’s bare-life (although it may be represented as being on a dialectical continuum in a limited case); rather, bare-life is on the fringe of a distribution at which these massive population blocs serve as an often rhetorical, but always virtual, central locus. The media is what Foucault in a different context called an ‘operator of domination’, which reduces multiplicities by actualising them into the great binary rifts that transverses society. The political function of the media is to continually reproduce a population individuated by a few repeated triggers, these are identifiable as moral panics about social issues, results of sporting interests, inflammations of social bigotries, reassuring testaments of normality, and other such monuments to the ‘mainstream life’. There is a concrete crossover between the biopolitical function distributed across the broadcast of Today Tonight and the propaganda of a political pitch mixed up in the daily news. The media intervenes at the level of interest (from Foucault’s governmentality lecture):

“Interest at the level of the consciousness of each individual who goes to make up the population, and interest considered as the interest of the population regardless of what the particular interests and aspirations may be of the individuals who compose it, this is the new target and the fundamental instrument of the government of the population: the birth of a new art, or at any rate of a range of absolutely new tactics and techniques.”

There are other ways to talk about this shifting terrain of importance in terms of trans-local proximity, where, for example, local news in New York becomes global news (experienced on a local level) everywhere else. Brian massumi has written about some elements of this. However, I am not going to bother with the trans-local proximity argument here. The point is that I agree with Lovink when he asks the rhetorical question and then answers:

“Where does the Hegelian certainty come from that the old-media paradigm will be overthrown? There is little factual evidence of this. And it is this state of ongoing affairs that causes nihilism, and not revolutions, to occur.”

However, the old-media paradigm of an assemblage of populations individuated by media technologies broadcasting pseudo-events will not be overthrown, because there is no returning to a Boorstinian pre-pseudo-event media. (No matter how much Fox News would like you to believe that this is exactly what it provides, and no matter the extent to which its viewers mistake the efficacy of their conservative expectations for truth!!!) But why does Lovink apparently dismay over this inability to effect a false return? Because media theorists in general want to maintain the regime of importance inherited from the ‘old media’ because they can then supplant themselves as mediators between ‘old media’ and consumer? Who knows?

Bloggers in their infinite wisdom (distributed across many minds) have largely called, “Bullshit!!” on the ‘old media’ and its biopolitics of the image. The blogosphere represents a shifting topology of importance, the extension of which is immanent to the performative act of blogging. Cats aren’t allegedly important, but they are the number one blogging topic, and this fact is allegedly ’important’ for ‘old media’. The topology of importance in the blogosphere is an expression of a multiplicity of interests, not the Spectacular expression of a Hegelian dialectic of importance versus non-importance. In other words, saying the functional thresholds of importance have changed is more than a simple inverse to the pessimistic hand-wringing exclamations about the alleged rising nihilism of postmodern cynics. We need to engage with these new thresholds of importance and multiplicity of interests on their own terms, not from the measures inherited from the ‘old media’ apparatus and their distribution of ‘pseudo-events’.

For some reason many media theorists seem to think it is bad that ‘little people’ produce media that is organised around their shared interests rather than the old situation of having their interests dictated or at least cultivated in the broadcast model of media. The classic example is that people are more interested in their cats than the ‘politically important’ Israel-Palestinian affair. A general injunction is sounded out to become more political (that is, to recognise the importance of political interests), without properly understanding what is going on when the terrain of interest has shifted away from the received categories. There is a disconnection here, not of the media apparatus but of empathy. To put it in such a way that may anger a few people, but I think captures precisely the problem: Maybe more Palestinians need to blog about cats? There is a poverty of interest, but can this poverty be aligned with the capacity to cluster such interests either through dialectical top-down mechanisms or through more fluid performative trivialities of the blogosphere?

This leads to my second point about blogs from Lovink’s talk. What does it mean to call blogs an event-based media? As I have argued above, ‘old media’ is not actually event based, but pseudo-event based. The rhythmic production of pseudo-events must match the expected circulation of news commodities as individuating triggers of audience production for advertising (or politically as citizenry constituencies, etc). Newspapers must fill the front page of their daily newspaper and so on, but what if no ‘newsworthy’ events have occurred? That is, the newspaper was only actually published when something properly newsworthy happened in the world. (Wouldn’t that be the stuff of a Ballard short story? “The no news day“? lol) To a certain extent this is what we have in the situation of blogging. The cadence of blogging is something different to the forced production of pseudo-event news of old media. Rather than the cyclical material rhythm of the media industry, the temporality of blogging belongs to that of the event.

Now by ‘event’ I am following in the footsteps of Alfred North Whitehead and others including Gilles Deleuze. My original blogging paper was written using the only resource on events at that time available to me (i.e. that I had read), Deleuze’s Logic of Sense. Since then I have read a fair bit more. 😉 According to Whitehead an event is something that happens. Due to the deficiencies of language and our inheritance of Aristotelian logic into common sense we often mistake an object that is ‘ingressed’ into the extension of event for the event itself. Deleuze extended Whitehead’s ruminations on this atomistic conception of events in his book The Fold into a conception of the event as a continual fold of reality into actuality from virtuality. Basically, Deleuze added the virtual dimension to Whitehead’s argument. (As a nerd aside: The residual Platonicisms identified by Badiou as allegedly found in The Logic of Sense (ideal events) are a direct result of Deleuze’s Whitehead infleunce (Whitehead calls them eternal objects).)

Anyway, forget about all this philosophy of the event, for our purposes Foucault is actually more useful. Specifically I am referring to Foucault’s inaugural lecture to the College de France where he talks about “commentary” because he stakes out a peculiar relation of scholastic commentary to books as the object of commentary. According to Whitehead, an object is the recognition of something repeated as part of an event. A book is an event and elements of which are found by commentators and repeated in commentary. If I remember correctly, Foucault makes some snide remark about acolytes who find elements of a book that were meant to be found. The object of the book remains on the shelf, but the event of the book is now distributed across all the commentaries. (For example, Eric Alliez in his book Signature of the World rethinks commentary with a Deleuzian spin arguing that the differential repetition of philosophical thought, so it is repeated in new ways, is the appropriate mode of philosophical commentary, exemplified in Deleuze’s works.) Blogging is best thought of in a similar relation between event of the world and its extension and distribution across the blogosphere as the event of the world is written up as part of the network medium (link to my blog and a related quote from Pierre Levy). As Lovink writes:

“Blogs offer a […] cosmos of micro-opinions attempting to interpret events beyond the well-known twentieth-century categories.”

Something happens and bloggers comment in particular ways. The event shifts from that which has happened to incorporating the elements of the event now distributed across the blogosphere. Lovink is spot on when he suggests: “the network is the alternative [to ‘old media’].” That is, the synergistic concrescence of all these differentially repeated elements of events (what Whitehead calls prehensions) across blogs produces and modulates events on different scales. As Deleuze intimated in The Fold, the structure of events forms a nomadic baroque architecture, and the models and images of inter-blog citations and networking that I have seen are thoroughly ‘baroque’.

The complexity of blogging becomes apparent when the two points outlined above are brought together – the topology of interest and the event-based nature of blogging. The scale of blogging as an event is determined by the shared interest distributed across the network of bloggers. This is different to ‘old media’. In the ‘old media’ apparatus what was important was largely disconnected, or connected in a very roundabout way, to the actual interests of an audience. The ‘old media’ have attempted to correct this through 1) mechanisms of ‘choice’ and quasi-sociological audience research, 2) more recently the saturation of interest through an inundation of ‘choice’ (or its inverse when the commodity is distinction, etc) and 3) pitiful astro-turf campaigns that attempt to mimic the bottom-up manifestation of interest.

Of course, this is a simplified representation. The reality is that the supple baroque event-based structure of the blogosphere is insinuated in the more rigid hierarchical mode of media distribution of ‘old media’ and other stratified social institutions. Two examples:

When a new movie or some other media commodity is to be released the blogosphere is driven by genuine interest in the impending release. The release has a date, something is going to happen, it happens, and it this ‘happening’ is rendered unto blogs. As I have personally found, media companies will contact bloggers to try to sway your opinion by offering inducements (free DVDs in my case) and so on. The interesting questions that come from this do not end up with a lament about disaffected cynics, but with how the powerful media apparatus has been forced to respond to this shifting topology of interest manifest as an event-based ‘buzz’. How do media companies attempt to harness and mine the ‘buzz’ in the blogosphere?

The second example is not really an example but an observation regarding the condition of politics. People blog when they are compelled to. Blogging in itself is an effort, one that often requires a lot of courage. There is a line drawn between the world (of some happening) and oneself across a blog. This existential dimension of blogging is completely absent from most of ‘old media’. The only exception here are the relatively new television shows powered by audience voting. The challenge is firstly how to cultivate this exceptionally personal presence online and second how to enrich it by opening it up further in relation to the world. Traditional politics no longer cultivates anything other than anti-charismatic machine men and women whose sole purpose is to maintain the status quo. How to help people help each other democratically cultivate interests? Blogs in some humble way might be able to help, and I think they have already started to do this. (You are reading this, aren’t you?)

Getting on my extra-high soap box: We should be trying to assemble the social from these relations of interest, involving what Bruno Latour has recently called “matters of concern,” rather than attempting to operate within an economy of expectation received from the commercial interests of ‘old media’. A good example is the work Lovink is doing through his Institute of Networked Cultures.

3 replies on “pessimistic about our nihilism”

  1. I am trying to focus on my own work, so I can’t respond as I would like to, but thanks for this post. The material on Whitehead in particular is interesting, because it gives some points of reference that I never had when I initially tried to read him (I got there via Stengers, not Deleuze). To be honest – and with a literary studies PhD to write, with no real reference to this theoretical tradition in it – I didn’t have the time. I have to remember that you’ve done some work on it when I finally go back to try again…

    One concern: the concept of “pseudo-event” seems to imply an empirical hierarchy?

  2. empirical heirarchy indeed! but only from the pov of a transmission model of media, where something ‘false’ is transmitted. Another way of getting to where I do above is by asking, if it is not the media event, then in what way is a so-called ‘pseudo-event’ an actual event? Instead of trying to figure out what the media vector is, I am asking what does it do? It produces a biopolitical event of an individuated population involving the media as — to use another d&g-ism — an ‘apparatus of capture’.

    On this point see Bogard’s essay:
    However ‘distraction’ as such is only one point-relation in the curve of affect activation from interest to excitement. The dissonance and resonance effects of the body’s affect amplification circuits needs to be understood in a much more complex way than ‘distraction’.

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