The age of digital identity: the trap for political action
Cade M. Olmstead / June 21, 2019
( 3 min )
“In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.”
- Guy Debord
When it comes to political expression today, we no longer do things. Instead, we show things. What was once something based in material action, political expression has lifted into the realm of the suprasensible. Or, as cultural theorist Mark Fisher put it, ‘all that was solid has melted into PR’. This process has only been heightened by the advent of social(ized) media. Is it not the case today that each is her own PR agent, selecting and filtering the content to be broadcast and posted? Content which will come to compose her identity or ‘public’ image. Today’s public commons are played out across a range of digital devices, where the totality of political expression finds its articulation in the click of the ‘Like’ button.
What does the ‘Like’ button offer as political action? Quick relief? That is, relief from the guilt of not doing one’s duty. (Recalling here Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek’s critique of charity donations being included in the consumption of a Starbucks’ coffee). Or maybe it is a different matter. It is instead that the ‘Like’ button is part of a libidinal apparatus, a structure of repetitive enjoyment. After all, former tech executives themselves have decried the “dopamine-driven feedback loops” that their platforms are built on. But instead of decrying it outright, it is worth exploring the fact that this libidinal structure may be closer to the heart of human subjectivity than an aberration of some primordial harmony. This relief may itself be an incorporative characteristic of the system.
This characterization of the human animal in this way is by no means an original one. It was German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel who characterized the status of self-consciousness as being desire in general, and following him, French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan who identified the dialectic of desire at work in the construction of one’s social reality. We have to wonder how this libidinal drive of today’s subject comes to shape politics and how it is intertwined with the digital landscape of our political sphere? And more pressingly, we must identify the limits of political action within the horizon of today’s socialized media landscape.
It is on social media where the vast majority of political expression is carried out after all. Is this just because of the technology’s widespread popularity or are the digital commons the only place in which one can be public? Is the virtual in our eyes virtually the only option? So much of one’s identity is increasingly tied up into these social media platforms. The real concern, though, is the playing out of the public speech within a space of quick-fire ego construction and gratification, or recognition. We quickly leave the realm of principled political action for the realm of the plastic.
This is not to say something new about enjoyment and politics. The discontent of the 1960’s has received criticism on similar grounds. The interfacing of social media and politics should instead be viewed as a heightening of this problematic situation. Further, I am not claiming that we may totally surpass the libidinal apparatus, which as earlier pointed out may be something more fundamental to human subjectivity. I am instead calling cause for concern over the new attributes of this enjoyment being increasingly faster, more plastic, and dematerialized. For at least in the 1960’s, mass numbers of people would still actively demonstrate; that is, their political expression was still done through an act of physical, visible presence. Today’s political action is instead nothing more than the circulation of content across media platforms. Sure, social media is able to produce outcomes, but in itself, it does not produce the kind of political action necessary for transforming society.
It is problematic on two accounts. First, in effect, the ‘Like’ button functions as a mechanism of instant action and reward. One can quickly express their ‘voice’ on issues through post reactions, whether it be a thumbs up or frowny face. They can feel as if they have spoken on the matter, and it can be done at a rate of rapid fire. This stands in contrast to doing the elongated, meticulous work of political organizing, an activity unlikely to bring a quick payoff. In the current arrangement, we fall victim to the dopamine drive of endless scrolling and double tapping. Second is the way in which expression is tied into being. What effectively one is is composed of their expressions. The posts, comments, and likes come to be the body, or the avatar, of who we are, and when we become more wrapped up in the realm of the digital, we end up perceiving the world as the total composition of these posts. In this case, the world really is the world wide web. This is problematic because there is in fact a material world apart from the realm of social(ized) media. One where ecological and social catastrophe rest on the future’s horizon and people go without basic necessities of life. It is not that we do not know this, but that it does not threaten our digital identity.
Taking these two points in tandem, we come to see the limit of political action in the landscape of social(ized) media. As the public sphere merges with social media, the range of possible political action comes to be constituted in only what is possible on these platforms. For, it is only on these platforms where one’s identity really exists and can properly participate. The dominance of social media comes to displace the world of materiality. Further, the action that gets conceived of as possible is nothing more than a libidinal outburst into the void of this landscape. All that reverberates in this void is the tantrum of our alienated souls and heard in the reply of its echo is nothing but the return of the injunction, the drive, to enjoy. In the end, there can be only a call to engage in act of serious political organizing. This is not a call to disclude social(ized) media and return to some historically idealized form of living but to act beyond it, to trespass its limit, and to begin conceiving of ourselves beyond its current arrangement. We must do more than represent a political world; it must be enacted.
Cade M. Olmstead is a sociology and philosophy student at the University of Northern Iowa, where he is a member of the Society for Critical Studies