So Anti-Social: On Capitalist Realism and Digital Vertigo
July 31, 2012
While it might seem a bit of a press to discuss Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism and @ajkeen’s Digital Vertigo in one breath, or really, blog-post, I will do so because they both tackle one issue that is critical to me, albeit from different places: the changing nature of sociality in lieu of the digital.
Fisher writes as a professor, trying to do his job in a time when his students suffer from “depressive hedonia” and “reflexive impotence” both symptoms of capitalist realism: “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible to imagine a coherent alternative to it.” (please see my similar experience when teaching feminist labor films from the 1970s in class last week). Meanwhile, Andrew Keen is also clocking discomfort in his workaday world, although in his case, as one suffering author in persistent and grueling competition amongst the “hyper-visible digital elite,” all of them, himself included, locked into a different totalizing system: hyper-connectivity and sociality.
Given that I am not in the digital elite (where my counts would keep growing and my opinions would thereby effect both the billionaires who rule the web, and the billions who track me), nor do I hope to be, Keen’s read on hyper-connectivity seems a bit overblown as a theory for either the masses or for me. While his book-length rant for the right to and dignity of privacy seems spot-on, his paranoid delusion that we all live our entire lives in the digital spotlight (or would want to) generalizes Internet culture from his own position, and life choices. Again, his fear that the digital elite are scheming for everything to become social, while justified, seems to miss that many humans still do many things offline (while he may not), and that we also lie, evade, and mis- and multiply-represent when we are there (even as they try their best to lock us into “frictionless sharing.”) Furthermore, his deep suspicion of the social seems again to be theorized by someone who is (perhaps rightfully) afraid of people, crowds, and groups because, I suppose, he is a member of the “digital elite,” and therefore a specially visible sort of somebody, and so can not be aware of the marvelous, sustaining, deeply human things people do in groups, big and small (like organizing, being friends, making art, teaching and learning). His suspicion of the social tracks back to those pesky hippies who tried to write their values into the web’s beginnings; a form that “mirrors the bohemian values of its pioneers.”
But all sociality is not about buying, bullying or selling, and all masses are not about conformity. We can be deeply human and in crowds, and some of our most satisfying and liberating experiences occur in collaboration. “The practice of happiness becomes subversive when it becomes collective,” writes Bifo.
Again, here’s where I think teaching comes in—as a social, moral and political act—and where Mark Fisher’s writing, although equally cynical and afraid (and rightly so), hits closer to the mark. I agree with Fisher that the role of teaching in these capitalist realist times becomes more complex (and even counter-intuitive), as other public institutions that might have served young people are erased by neoliberlism’s attention to cost-cutting (and fear of the social): “teachers are caught between being facilitator-entertainers and disciplinarian-authoritatirans.” Man: just see my Learning from YouTube to watch that unruly entertainment/discipline project unroll! But from there—that distinctly and entirely and definitively social experience that moved us on and off the Internet, talking and learning together—I can attest that my truly depressive-hedonist students, while truly luving Google, and their many devices of solitary-sharing, are also hungry, no rabid and open, to talking together about what this depression (and its associated diseases of ADD, anxiety, and loneliness) means and what they might make, given their place within it.