In a politically minded version of the theory of the user, digital technology is identified with the role of psychoanalytic fetish for the neoliberal subject, covering over and serving as a medium of denial for the trauma incurred by what Jodi Dean (2009) terms in Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies “communicative capitalism.” Following Slavoj Zizek’s coining of “the decline in Symbolic efficiency,” Dean argues that new media serve to punctuate and compromise political subjectivity, usurping it with a sloppy set of imaginary identities that promise an impossible jouissance through a fantasy of total participation online—that mere clicks or likes become a thoroughly deracinated politics or activism on Twitter or Facebook. Seemingly confirming her critical insight, more recently Twitter, in particular, has become the site of an intense battle over what constitutes “Twitter feminism,” with the generation of trending hashtags that aim to “call out” privilege, demonstrate activist solidarity and social projects of transformation, and affirm marginalization all leading to equally heated disagreements over their efficacy.
Perhaps, though, what Dean correctly identifies as an historical trauma (very broadly: neoliberalism) that constitutes a lack at the core of the digital subject, leading to the fetishism of social media, is only a partial account of the problem at hand. For what she seems to mourn in the decline of Symbolic efficiency, whether or not intentionally, is the loss of a possible rational, intelligent and critical digital subject, a user who could spend more time evaluating information and making enlightened political choices, both online and offline. “Imaginary identities,” writes Dean, “are incapable of establishing a firm place to stand, a position from which one can make sense of one’s world” (67). Even though communicative capitalism merely stages the fantasy of participation and wholeness of the self, Dean is able to evoke the prior existence of a more authentic political subjectivity by reference to the nostalgic period of left activism incarnated in 1968, before the ascendancy of neoliberalism and social media had obtained. Indeed, for her it is “The splintering and collapse of the left” that constitutes “the trauma” that results in the fetishization of technology (36). The result? “Political intensities become shorn of their capacity to raise claims to the universal” (32).
What if Dean is right in her historical diagnosis of the decline in symbolic efficiency, but has simultaneously forgotten a more fundamental and deeply repressed cultural trauma of the West, one identified by, among others, Avital Ronell and Luce Irigaray? This trauma would concern sexuate difference: what if the decline in symbolic efficiency is not an obstacle, but an opportunity, particularly for digital feminists, not to become a Subject, but to open onto a different range of technical and feminist political agency that is impossible under any Symbolic regime? Under the Zizekian paradigm, apolitical girls wasting time on Tumblr, for example, are a case of bad ideology interpellating girls to objectify their selves in return for a perpetually, hopelessly deferred jouissance of networked sexual consumption. This is not necessarily a poor diagnosis. However, the implicit reparative, pedagogical solution is unfortunately the inverse of this reactive mode: the girl must have her symbolic identity restored, to be raised to Dean’s “firm place to stand,” where she can finally “make sense of [her] world” and presumably stop wasting her time on Pinterest and get on with the heroic work of overcoming capitalism.
Given Irigaray and Ronell’s reflections on the intimate relation of the technological drive to the repression of the feminine in Western culture, what if the most active dimension of the feminist online is not her complicity with neoliberal consumer culture, but that imaginaries, unintelligible as such to a phallocentric Symbolic order, open onto a radical digital non-sovereignty, the potentiality of the digital to undo the most basic assumptions of Western political and philosophical genealogies? Dean, for one, is certain that the Internet is a Zizekian ideological machine, that “People are fully aware of the media, the networks, even the surfeit of information. But they act as if they don’t have this knowledge” (30), that in the face of the contrary they rely on the technology fetish to produce denial, so that “One believes that one’s contribution matters, that it means something to and within a context broader than oneself” (31, emphasis in original). In this way, after diagnosing the fantasy of subjectivity covering over a traumatic lack, the subject is nevertheless restored as a latent ideal, one merely run amok through bad fantasy incurred by historical trauma. What if, though, feminist users (however poor any nominal definition of “feminists” is after the definitive work of Gayatri Spivak, of course) are not deluded by a digital ideology, do not believe their “contribution matters” or “means something” when wasting time online—what if they are not “acting as if” they do not know their subjectivity hinges on a fantasy because there is no self-possessed, masculine subject of the Internet to recoup from their fantasies in the first place? If social media is, following Laurent Berlant’s sense of the term, utterly ordinary, it feels disproportionate to maintain the dramatic register of Dean’s scenography of neoliberal subjectivity. Something that does have reverberations for the dramatic staging of feminist subjectivity in hashtag activism, for example.
This is, ultimately, a feminist question because as Irigaray has so forcefully demonstrated, “any theory of the subject has always been appropriated by the ‘masculine.’” For this reason, “When she submits to (such a) theory,” Irigaray warns, “woman fails to realize that she is renouncing the specificity of her own relationship to the imaginary.” And it is precisely this specificity that Dean indicts as irrational and psychotic. Taking her diagnosis as chillingly accurate then, it is to the work not of dramatic critique, but bold and ordinary feminist speculation, that strikes me as the value of the digital to a different politics to come.