Spectacular Feast: Social Media and Ultimate Consumerism

I was reading Anti-Oedipus, minding my own business, when I came across this marvelous anthropological observation describing what the chief of a tribe does with surplus food:

“The chief converts this perishable wealth into imperishable prestige through the medium of spectacular feasting. The ultimate consumers are in this way the original producers.” (Leach, 1966, p. 89; quoted in Deleuze and Guattari, 1983, p. 150, my emphasis)

The quote struck me because of the degree to which it can serve to describe the current relationship between social media as a means of production and what we produce with it. In essence, this single quote has given me a nearly-perfect metaphor to articulate what I have been struggling to say since I suggested that production is the new consumption: Hi-tech capitalism (aka, the chief) transforms (commodifies) perishable wealth (social capital) into imperishable goods (money and market prestige) in a spectacular feast in which we (the original producers of the wealth) become its ultimate consumers. And consider the appropriateness of the word ultimate here, signifying both the end of the process —when something that was outside of the market is finally put in the market— as well as the most consummate form of consumerism —paying for things we ourselves produce, and that need not be commodified in the first place… Ultimate consumerism. Since Marx, we have understood that the ‘beauty’ of capitalism is that those whose labor is alienated end up financing capital’s ventures as well: I work at a car factory so I can buy a car. Social media, then, is merely the latest course in this never-ending spectacular feast in which, as Doc Searles pointed out: “the demand side supplies itself.” And who are we technophiliacs to resist the spectacle?

Suddenly, the actions of the brave new cultural producer/consumer appear a bit less daring and revolutionary: reducing difference to a set of pre-defined variables that are data-mined for similarities thanks to the ‘free’ services of SocialProfiling Inc. (that “trojan horse of internet censorship“), remixing and distributing media (text, audio, video, multi) thanks to the ‘free’ services of SocialPublishing Inc., classifying and distributing the products (packaging them for consumption, essentially) thanks to the ‘free’ services of SocialTagging Inc. —all the while believing we are operating outside of capital. Ha!

At whose service is this new literacy? To what purpose is this democracy oriented? What mass have we supposedly left behind?

By this time, you should rightly have lots of objections to my argument, most likely including the words open, commons, or collective somewhere in them. After all, aren’t you reading this blog for “free”? Haven’t I made this post available so that you can quote, reproduce, re-mix or appropriate it “outside” of the realm of profit (or as “outside” as you can get in our context, anyway)? Aren’t I speaking out of both corners of my mouth, then? The answer is: Yes. Now that I have defined the problem, I shall allow myself to go back and discuss certain exceptions. I will continue to handle these exceptions carefully, though, because most of what is out there claiming to be an exception is really not, and because this discourse of ultimate consumerism is still too new. Above all, we must continue to resist uncritical social media-philia, resist the spectacle of the cannibalistic feeding frenzy that is ultimate consumerism.

Actually, I’m less interested right now in identifying specific exceptions than in identifying where the possibilities for exceptions lie. My claim is that they are to be found less in open source, open content, open learning, or open anything, and more in the openness of social reality itself:

…history is a dynamic and open social reality, in a state of functional disequilibrium, or an oscillating equilibrium, unstable and always compensated, comprising not only institutionalized conflicts but conflicts that generate changes, revolts, ruptures, and scissions… (Deleuze and Guattari, 1983, pp.150-151)

And it is precisely because these ruptures exist that exceptions are also part of the rule, that anarchy is allowed at the fringes of order. Every crisis is an opportunity, but every opportunity is a crisis. In fact, as Deleuze and Guattari argue, capitalism depends completely and absolutely on waging war with itself, on testing and pushing its own limits. It is the opportunities that social media affords for moving beyond its own limits that must be seized. If new technologies provide capitalism with new opportunities for control and discipline, and for new opportunities for commodifing the social (that which need not be commodified), they also invite insurrection, as Dyer-Witheford (1999) argues:

It is in cyberspace that capital is now attempting to acquiree the comprehensive command, control, and communications capacity that will finally allow it to, as Marx put it, “along with labour. . . also appropriate its network of social relations.” And yet at the same time it is also in this virtual realm that some of the most remarkable experiments in communicational counterpower are being conducted. (Dyer-Witheford, 1999, p. 122)

But are we simply being ‘allowed’ some controlled revolution? How real are the possibilities for change?

If machinery is a “weapon” then it can, as Cleaver says, be stolen or captured, “used against us or by us.” Or—to use Panzieri’s perhaps richer and less instrumental metaphor —if capital “interweaves” technology and power, then this weaving can be undone, and the threads used to make a different pattern.

This need not imply a crude “use and abuse” concept of technology of the sort neo-Luddites have rightly criticized. We can accept that machines are stamped with social purposes without accepting the idea that all of them are so deeply implanted with the dominative logic of capital as to be rejected…

This is not to say that technologies are neutral, but rather that they are often constituted by contending pressures that implant in them contradictory potentialities: which of these are realized is something that will be determined only in further struggle and conflict. (Dyer-Witheford, 1999, pp. 71-72)

So why, then, haven’t we moved beyond capitalism? Is capitalism really the best social machine, to use a Deleuzian-Guattarian term? Has there not been enough struggle and conflict? I’m not sure those questions can be answered. But one thing is certain: mere technological innovation (of the “new technology X will completely revolutionize Y” kind) will not bring down the machine, but help feed it:

The social machine’s limit is not attrition, but rather its misfirings; it can operate only by fits and starts, by grinding and breaking down, in spasms of minor explosions. The dysfunctions are an essential element of its very ability to function, which is not the least important aspect of the system of cruelty. The death of a social machine has never been heralded by a disharmony or a dysfunction; on the contrary, social machines make a habit of feeding on the contradictions they give rise to, on the crises they provoke, on the anxiety they engender, and on the infernal operations they regenerate. Capitalism has learned this, and has ceased doubting itself, while even socialists have abandoned belief in the possibility of capitalism’s natural death by attrition. No one has ever died from contradictions. And the more it breaks down, the more it schizophrenizes, the better it works, the American way. (Deleuze and Guattari, 1983, p. 151)

In other words, we will not bring the machine down by rage alone, by the contradictions this rage might engender. Maybe we should start by recognizing, like the Borg, that we are already part of the machine, participants in the spectacular cannibalistic feast it has placed before us. Only then can we begin to desire alternatives, and draw plans for different “machines of struggle”:

Deleuze and Guattari speak of revolutionary organization as the creation of “machines of struggle.” This has to be understood carefully. For Deleuze and Guattari, any assemblage of desire —at a subjective or social level— is a “machine.” The term is aimed to break with humanist concepts of natural identities, to emphasize (as Haraway does with her concept of “cyborgs”) the constructed, produced, and collectively fabricated nature of psyche and society. Thus when they speak of radical political organization as the creation of nomadic “war machines,” while they certainly do not preclude armed struggle, the phrase has a far wider dimension. They are thinking in terms of aggressive, mobile, decentered organizations, capable of being built or dismantled as needed, that can harry and erode the structures of established order—”state machines.” (Dyer-Witheford, 1999, p. 182)

Doesn’t the conflict between “mobile, decentered” machines and “state” machines sound familiar? I can only hope that we are capable of assembling machines of struggle different from those of terrorism and state repression. Or will we be too distracted by the spectacle of cannibalism, of ultimate consumerism? We are, after all, a culture that fetishizes new technology, and the self-indulgent satisfaction it momentarily affords while it pushes the limits of the system.

Offline References:

Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1983). Anti-oedipus: Capitalism and schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Dyer-Witheford, N. (1999). Cyber-marx: Cycles and circuits of struggle in high-technology capitalism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Leach, E. R. (1966). Rethinking anthropology. London: University of London Athlone Press.

Creative Commons photo credit: Mister Wind-Up Bird

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