Critique of Swarm – Part 4


“Because of the demediatization of communication, journalists – elite ‘opinion makers,’indeed, the erstwhile priests of opinion – now seem increasingly anachronistic and superflous. The digital medium is in the course of abolishing an end to the era of representation. Instead, everyone wants to be present personally and directly – to present his or her opinion without a middleman.” (16)

Again, image is taken for reality. If everyone wants to be “present” and is lead to believe that the digital realm carries an uninterrupted “presence,” it does not mean that the actual digital infrastructure truly allows for unmediated presence. Everyone may wish to present their opinion, but against what may opinion be presented against? The diffusion of hot-takes is fed by algorithmic patterns, yes, but if there is no ‘opinion making’ then who is benefiting? The algorithm itself? If data must be represented and directed how is there no intermediary?

Likewise, political action and mass is turned into the civil sphere or votership. “There is no substantial difference between ‘I am my readership’ and ‘I am my votership.’ But ‘I am my votership’ heralds the end of the politician in the strong sense – that is, politicians who insist on a standpoint and, instead of walking in line with constituents, walk ahead of them with a vision. The future, as the time of the political, is disappearing.” (17)

Oppose this to Jodi Dean’s notion of “comradeship” where political goal unifies outside of citizenship, friendship, or neighborhood. “The term “comrade” points to a relation, a set of expectations for action. It doesn’t name an identity; it highlights the sameness of those who share a politics, a common horizon of political action. If you are a comrade, you don’t publicly distance yourself, even a little bit, from your party. Comradeship binds action and in this binding works to direct action toward a certain future.”(Dean, “Four Theses on the Comrade,” available on e-flux) It should be noted that Dean also criticizes atomization and systemization that comes from digital “communicative capitalism” and social media:

“First, communicative capitalism is marked by the power of many, of number. Capitalist and state power emphasizes big data and the knowledge generated by finding correlations in enormous data sets. Social media is driven by the power of number: How many friends and followers, how many shares and retweets? On the streets and in the movements, we see further emphasis on number—the many rioting, demonstrating, occupying, blockading. Second, identity is no longer able to ground a left politics uttered in its name. No political conclusions follow from the assertion of a specific identity. Attributions of identity are immediately complicated, critiqued, even rejected. Third, because of the astronomical increase in demands on our attention that circulate in communicative capitalism, a series of communicative shortcuts have emerged: hashtags, memes, emojis, reaction GIFs, as well as linguistic patterns optimized for search engines (lists, questions, indicators, hooks, and lures). These shortcuts point to the prominence of generic markers, common images and symbols that facilitate communicative flow, that keep circulation liquid. If we had to read, much less think about, everything we shared online, our social-media networks would slow down, clog up. The generic serves increasingly as a container for multiplicities of incommunicable contents. Fourth, the movements themselves have come up against the limits of horizontality, individuality, and rhetorics of allyship that presuppose fixed identities and interests. The response has been renewed interest in the politics of parties and questions of the party form, renewed emphasis on organizing the many. Cutting through and across the impasse of survivor and system is a new turn toward arrangements of the many and institutions of the common.” (Dean, “Four Theses.” For more on Communicative Capitalism, read Jodi Dean’s essay “Communicative Capitalism and Class Struggle” on Spheres Journal)

However, there is no purely automated process devoid of class or politics within Dean’s explanation: individuals are atomized due to the stripping-away of security to ensure a large workforce that will precariously sell its labor. There is not self-exploitation, only the normal pattern of exploitation, it is simply that the necessity of “self-reliance” and “individual responsibility” has come to dominate the justifications for destabilizing what little security already existed outside of the workplace. Jodi Dean also shares in a depiction of politics that points towards the future. However, comradeship also has a different stance on distance when it comes to respect. While privacy and individual concerns must be put aside, within the realm of the political demand, distance cannot be the bounds for respect because Comradeship is based upon the clear ability to state and unify around aims. One distances oneself politically from those who are uninterested in the political questions and concerns of the party that constitutes the grounds for political comradeship.

“The comrade is not the neighbor. Living near someone does not make them your comrade. We may be part of the same locality, the same community, tribe, or neighborhood, without being comrades. Comradeship does not designate a spatial relation or an obligation stemming from proximity or shared sociality. The comrade is not the citizen. Citizenship is a relation mediated by the state. Comradeship exceeds the state. It does not take the state as its frame of reference. One finds comrades all over the world. The Comrade is interesting on this score as it collects letters, speeches, articles, and other sorts of writings from European socialists. Even as the new US socialists are not yet part of the “international,” they emphasize and affiliate with an international political movement. Comrade’s rupture of citizen also manifests when we note state fear of communists as traitors, as those with loyalties to an organization other than the state. In the US during the Cold War (and still today in right-wing rhetoric), “comrade” was used in a derogatory way to accentuate the dangerous otherness of communists. Comrades may oppose other citizens.[…] comradeship has nothing to do with the person or personality in its specificity; it’s generic. Comradeship is abstract from the specifics of individual lives, from the uniqueness of lived experience. It concerns rather the sameness that comes from being on the same side in a political struggle.” (Dean, “Four Theses”)

Digital networking may indeed atomize, it may produce an immediacy and affect that limits goal-oriented politics: “The digital medium is a medium of presence. Its temporality is the immediate present. Digital communication is distinguished by the fact that information is produced, transmitted, and received without intermediaries.”(15) But does it do so by providing presence? It may substitute presence, simulate presence, but it does not provide it. Political action is likewise determined through presence and expression, the present of political action, however, is determined through the possibility of future presence. One must be at the sight of political action, not digitally represented but in active participation, now and again and again. Han’s account of political decline is not one of dominating conflict, but a presence that relates decadence through the death of authenticity or culture, hence transparency is a perversion of being. When Han states “The medium of thinking is quiet. Clearly, digital communication is destroying quiet and calm. Addition – which generates communicative noise – does not follow the way of spirit.” (19) His “noise” and “spirit” are derived from a quotation before where Michel Butor complains “European literature is threatened. What we’re now experiencing in Europe is a crisis of the spirit … the reason is a crisis of communication. The new means of communication are remarkable, but they cause tremendous noise.” (Quoted in page 19, original interview in German on Die Ziet) Han’s version of mediation and temporality, though stated in terms of the future, is just as much defined by nostalgia. However, it is not a nostalgia that exists as an empty center – recognized in its impossibility and therefore demanding action that drives one in other directions – it is a nostalgia that encircles all theorizing and all imagined futures.

When Han talks about transparency he discovers more fertile ground for critique, but his version of transparency seems at odds with the previous statement that writing, letters, were grounded in particular named events “anonymous letters are readily discarded”(3) and the Homo Digitalis “… today’s Homo digitalis is anything but ‘nobody.’ He retains his private identity, even when forming part of the swarm. Although he expresses himself anonymously, as a rule he has a profile – and he works ceaselessly at optimizing it. Instead of being ‘nobody,’ he is insistently somebody exhibiting himself and vying for attention. The mass-mediated nobody, on the other hand, does not claim attention for himself. […] if he is nobody, he cannot be anonymous. On the other hand, Homo digitalis often takes the stage anonymously. He is not a nobody but a somebody – an anonymous somebody.”(11)

How can it be that “under the dictate of transparency, dissonant opinions or unusual ideas are not voiced in the first place”(18) while the web is simultaneously identified as the source of shitstorms and “anonymous somebodies?” The problematic of transparency has been present well before digital technology, and it has plagued left wing movements in particular: look at any small political sect that demands party votes be done without anonymous protection just so that those voted into power can know who their enemies are. The structure of additive data on the Internet homogenizes activity, but it is not simply available to all. Doxing individuals to make their locations and real names available with the intent of attacking them is the most horrible example of Internet transparency, but it is a process that must explicitly be done by intentionally attempting to subvert existing structures. Datafication is a problem inherent in this process, but it is not a public problematic, nor even an obviously private one. The erasure of public and private (really by sublimation into private) is done through ownership. Facebook is not really public speech and as a company Facebook will always fight against any structural change that would recognize posts made on it as public speech. The behavior on Facebook, Twitter, or Discord is defined just as much by finding boards and pages and groups to confine oneself to than by a pure transparent swarm. We may be tricked into believing we act as a transparent organ online, but in reality it is a subdivided, owned, series of packets. Whatever is additive and transparent is not universally additive or transparent – it is confined behind private ownership. Our actual behavior is defined likewise by a turn away from true transparency to group transparency. The overlapping rules and behaviors of these fiefdoms can vary from hives of shame where “dissonant opinions … are not voiced” to forums of legitimate debate and education. The structures that underline these groups, laws, and rules are not collapsible into a mere “atomized totality” of non-distinction. Users, creators, moderators, and owners are all different actors that operate with different interests.

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