Alfie Bown
Digital Technologies and the Conditioning of Desire

Alfie Bown
Digital Technologies and the Conditioning of Desire

Mobile phone apps, social media platforms and videogames play a major role in shaping activity in modern consumer societies, and help fulfil a great range of desires. But to what extent are the desires themselves created or enhanced by the technology, and what interests influence the kinds of desires created? In his new book, The Playstation Dreamworld, Alfie Bown explores such issues. Using concepts based in psychoanalysis, he perceives how digital technologies direct our consciousness, especially towards goals that naturalise corporate capitalist social structures. He also considers the social importance of reimagining these technologies for progressive political ends. In what follows, I discuss with him some of the main points he raises in the book.

Alfie BownAlfie Bown is an assistant professor in Hong Kong and co-editor of the Hong Kong Review of Books. He has written two books on psychoanalysis and technology, Enjoying It: Candy Crush and Capitalism (Zero, 2015) and his new book The Playstation Dreamworld, just out with Polity. He writes for many online publications as well, including The Paris Review, The LA Review of Books, ROAR Magazine and The Guardian. He is currently working on co-editing Post-Memes: Seizing the Memes of Production (forthcoming with Punctum).

One of the arguments in The Playstation Dreamworld is that using today’s entertainment technology, especially apps, games and social media on mobile phones, can alter our desire, enjoyment, and even consciousness. For example, you suggest that games such as Pokémon GO or apps such as Uber, JustEat and Tinder do not so much allow us to fulfil desires through the phone as create desires in us. Could you explain how this works and what you see as its potential political and economic repercussions?

Alfie Bown: I do think that mobile phones are powerfully transforming consciousness itself. My book is primarily influenced by the ideas of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, and the answer to your question hinges on a Lacanian approach to enjoyment. For Lacan, enjoyment (both jouissance and plaisir in the French, which are two very different sides of enjoyment) is at the very centre of social life. Despite this centrality of enjoyment to our modes of living, Lacan felt that enjoyment was the thing that existing modes of philosophy and psychology had most consistently failed to account for. In this way we could describe his project as primarily concerned with working out how to understand enjoyment in relation to political and social life. In this spirit, I look at new forms of technology – mainly mobile technologies – which connect us to the objects of our desire (whether that object is a Pokémon, a lover or a delicious meal) and analyse the ways in which the enjoyment and pleasure produced via our technological relationships to objects and humans are changing the way we desire and the way we fit together as a society.

With even a very limited amount of research you can discover some amazing patterns here – similarities in the front- and back-end systems of food apps and dating apps for instance, or shared ownership of apparently diverse and unrelated forms of technology. Patterns are emerging in which increasingly large portions of social life (from games to travel to food to love) are organized by a small group of powerholders with shared interests and shared technological tactics, and I wanted to make some of this visible. These stakeholders are working towards new forms of social organization by going to work on the very ways in which we think and feel.

In fact, this connection between the way we relate to a Pokémon and the way we relate to a lover is what I’m hoping to work more on in the future, as bizarre as that sounds. I want to trace the transformation of love in the age of Silicon Valley and in the world of what Nick Srnicek calls ‘platform capitalism.’ Readers can see a bit of where I am going with it in this recent article. In short, phones don’t just help us get what we want easily and efficiently, they change what we desire and how we relate to desire itself. The problem is that they don’t do so innocently or accidentally, they do so with state and corporate interests in mind. READ MORE

Edward Herman
The Media Image of Terrorism

Edward Herman
The Media Image of Terrorism

Edward S HermanEdward S. Herman – 1925-2017

To mark the passing of leading media and political analyst Edward Herman, we republish our interview with him from our book Weapon of the Strong: Conversations on US State Terrorism. We were fortunate to have Ed’s thorough and enlightening contribution to our project. He will be missed.

 

Margaret Thatcher referred to publicity as the oxygen of terrorism, and this is quite a widely accepted idea; the implication being that terrorism requires mass media coverage to gain support, legitimacy and sympathy.  What would you make of this point in regards to state terrorism?

Edward Herman: First, I should note that Mrs. Thatcher’s point is very misleading.  For one thing it obscures the fact that terrorists often resort to violence, and seek publicity, in response to grievances of marginalized and weak people that cannot be addressed through the mainstream media or existing political or judicial processes.  So they may need that publicity “oxygen” to gain desperately needed attention and to breathe at all.  A second point that Mrs. Thatcher evades is that the state often uses the terrorism of the weak (which I have labeled “retail terrorism,” as opposed to “wholesale” – large-scale – terrorism, carried out by the state) in order to create fear, so as to divert the population from unpopular economic policies or to justify the abridgement of civil liberties and arms buildups and war.  The George W. Bush administration in the United States was notorious for regularly using terrorist scares for electoral advantage or to justify some military or political action, scares that were in virtually every case based on trivial, out-of-date, or manufactured incidents.  It is also not true that retail terrorist actions usually create support or legitimize those who engage in them – almost always the publicity given to the terrorists is negative and their cause is not advanced by these acts.[i]

State terrorism may be used either at home or to pacify people abroad, the latter often done indirectly through proxy forces.  If a state is using terror to crush its own people, it needs to make the threat known to the populace to make them acquiesce through fear.  So in this case a certain amount of publicity “oxygen” would serve state terror, although the state may deny and limit information on its terror in order to avoid damaging publicity abroad.  At home not much publicity may be required, given that policy actions, such as people being shot or dragged out of houses and “disappeared,” and word-of-mouth information flows, may suffice to alert and terrorize the populace.

Where state terrorism is carried out abroad, directly or through foreign proxies, publicity in the home country is of course undesirable.  Supporting state terrorism abroad, if described honestly, would be deemed immoral, so truthful publicity would be avoided by the state and discouraged for the media.  The publicity itself would be deemed “unpatriotic,” and in the case of the Reagan administration’s support of the terrorizing Guatemala government in the 1980s, human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch were harshly condemned by administration officials for alleged exaggeration, but also for providing aid to the enemy insurgents and populace under terrorist siege.[ii] READ MORE

Nick Hewlett
Marx on Violence

Nick Hewlett
Marx on Violence

Many past and present revolutionary movements that have used violence to achieve their ends have drawn inspiration from Karl Marx.  Yet when we scan the many books written on Marx, it becomes clear that few examine the place of violence in his revolutionary theory.  Here I discuss with Nick Hewlett Marx’s position on violence and ask how it might guide us in the twenty-first century.

Nick Hewlett

Nick Hewlett is Professor of French Studies at the University of Warwick, UK. He is author of Blood and Progress. Violence in Pursuit of Emancipation (Edinburgh, 2016), The Sarkozy Phenomenon (Imprint Academic, 2011), Badiou, Balibar, Rancière.  Re-thinking Emancipation (Continuum, 2007), Democracy in Modern France (Continuum, 2003), and Modern French Politics. Analysing Conflict and Consensus since 1945 (Polity, 1998).

How would you define ‘violence’?

Nick Hewlett: In order to make the subject manageable, I define violence narrowly, as follows: ‘deliberately causing physical pain, injury or death to others’; political violence is therefore ‘deliberately causing physical pain, injury or death to others with political goals in mind’. This type of violence is sometimes described as personal, or agent-related violence, where the perpetrator or perpetrators are often easily-identifiable. However, it is also necessary to take into account what is sometimes described (after Galtung[1]) as ‘structural’, or society-related violence, meaning harm inflicted, for example, as a result of particular conditions of work, or harm as a result of uneven distribution of resources in society, perhaps resulting in ongoing pain, illness or premature death. Inequality and structural violence are often closely related – the one frequently leading to the other – and it becomes highly relevant when discussing, amongst other things, the ethics of violence in revolt compared with the ethics of established states and governments which may be deemed responsible for structural violence. I should add that I do not include damage to property in my definition of violence, so smashing the windows of a government ministry building or cutting down a fence surrounding a military airbase are not forms of violence, although burning crops or destroying a person’s house might cause so much hardship and suffering that it becomes a form of violence. Certainly, the boundary between violent and a non-violent forms of action is not always clear-cut, nor is the difference between agent-related and structural violence. READ MORE

One Question
The Russian Revolution, 1917

One Question
The Russian Revolution, 1917

One Question is a monthly series in which we ask leading thinkers to give a brief answer to a single question.

This month, on the centenary of the Russian Revolution, we ask:

What is the relevance of the Russian Revolution of October 1917 to us today?

Their responses are collected below.

Russian Revolution

Lars T. Lih

Author of Lenin (2011) and Lenin Rediscovered: ‘What Is to Be Done?’ In Context (2006). Adjunct Professor at the Schulich School of Music, McGill University, Montreal.

In 1917, Russian elite society committed suicide. The educated elites were fanatically committed to a war that was in the most direct sense indefensible: it could not be justified in terms that the Russian people (narod) would accept. The people had reluctantly obeyed orders when the centuries-old traditional government demanded it, but after February the tsar abdicated not only for himself but also (as it turned out) for his entire dynasty, thus leaving Russia suddenly without any source of legitimate authority (vlast).

The continuing war meant that the elite could not restore order in the usual repressive way nor could they refrain from further alienating the people. In these circumstances, ‘All Power [vlast] to the Soviets!’ meant ‘using the forces of the people to do the job the elite is failing to do’ – namely, respond to the national crisis in a way favourable to the great mass of the people (workers, peasants, urban lower classes).

As we might expect, taking on this task led to mistakes, absurdities, and outright crimes. Today, looking back, we should not focus so exclusively as we do on the crimes and absurdities, but rather appreciate the huge dimensions of the challenges handed to the new and untried regime, and the often admirable energy and creativity shown in responding to them. READ MORE

William Davies
Mental Health and Neoliberalism

William Davies
Mental Health and Neoliberalism

Mental health and wellbeing are now major concerns for government and big business, as stress, depression and anxiety become widespread in modern societies. But their focus is often solely on the attitude of the individual, which ignores the particular social and economic causes behind such conditions. Here, I discuss with William Davies the psychological demands and effects of neoliberalism and the science of happiness.

William DaviesWilliam Davies is a Reader in Political Economy at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is author of The Limits of Neoliberalism: Authority, Sovereignty & the Logic of Competition (Sage, 2016) and The Happiness Industry: How the Government & Big Business Sold Us Wellbeing (Verso, 2015). His writing is at www.williamdavies.blog

Historically, most social formations have involved widespread inequality and poverty, and have placed many people under mental stress. It may therefore seem likely that people would experience anxieties and depressive feelings less now, given the relative ease of modern life. So, what is it that makes mental well-being such a prominent matter today? Is it simply that we understand and diagnose mental health issues much more clearly and efficiently now, or are these issues actually more prevalent?

William Davies: Clearly diagnostics techniques exert an influence over the thing they diagnose, meaning that symptoms present themselves differently in different eras, especially where there is a psychological dimension. It is true that the vocabulary and techniques for diagnosing and experiencing depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder in particular have grown since the 1970s, and that this must be considered a factor in their current levels in Western societies. There isn’t some underlying ‘truth’ about distress, that exists entirely independently of the concepts and metrics society introduces for representing and managing it.

On the other hand, the question of why there is so much distress, represented in this way, must still be asked. This distress is not ‘fake’, even if it is conditioned by its historical and cultural context. I think two things are worth focusing on. Firstly, there is the meritocratic ethos of contemporary capitalism, which states that social class is no longer relevant, and therefore everybody ends up with the socio-economic position they deserve. This produces a chronic sense of self-blame, unease, anxiety and self-recrimination, with individuals having nobody to blame but themselves for not being famous, very rich or more attractive. Combine with digital tools that allow all time and space to be used productively, and you have a society without any sanctuaries from economic competition. This, incidentally, is partly why the phenomenon of ‘safe spaces’ is necessary, providing the possibility of being somewhere where vulnerability is accepted, and also why such a phenomenon attracts so much rage from those of an older generation not privy to them.

Secondly, we live in a time of psycho-somatic confusion, no longer knowing what to attribute to the ‘mind’ and what to the ‘body’, with the ‘brain’ serving as a medium between the two. A great deal of mental illness, as discussed and encountered today, hovers in a psycho-somatic space which is existential but also medical at the same time. The medical dimension stems partly from the fact that psychiatry has become increasingly medicalised since the 1970s, and more dependent on pharmaceuticals, but also from the fact that the medical doctor is one of the last experts that we truly trust, and – in Britain – the NHS is one of the last public institutions of all-round care and sympathy. So we turn in these directions in search of those things, as much as because of physical ailments. READ MORE

Richard A. Falk
International Law and Human Rights

Richard A. Falk
International Law and Human Rights

This interview was conducted with Richard Falk by email in 2012 and is included in the book Weapon of the Strong: Conversations on US State Terrorism.

Richard FalkRichard Falk is Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University. He has authored, edited or contributed to 40 books, including: The Great Terror War; The Costs of War: International Law, the UN, and World Order after Iraq; Achieving Human Rights; and International Law and the Third World: Reshaping Justice.

What do you understand by “hegemony”? Should the United States be categorised as a “hegemon” or an “empire”?

Richard Falk: To be a hegemon is inherently ambiguous, usually implying some mixture of dominance and legitimacy, that is, being seen as contributing global leadership in a generally benevolent manner. As such the meaning of hegemony is subject to varying interpretations depending on how the historical role of the United States is interpreted. After World War II, facilitating the establishment of the UN and aiding the reconstruction of Europe, the United States was widely viewed, at least in the West, as a benevolent hegemon. In the non-West, the US was often perceived as a supporter of the colonial powers in their struggle to maintain control over their colonial possessions, and was viewed far more critically, especially by emerging elites that were more inclined to socialist development paradigms than to the capitalist ethos favoured by Washington. More recently the US has more accurately been viewed as a militarist “empire” that fights destructive wars and intervenes in a variety of societies, especially in the Middle East to retain control over oil reserves, and lends crucial support to Israel that not only oppresses the Palestinian people but threatens to convert the entire region into a war zone. At present, the United States, with over 700 foreign military bases, navies in every ocean, a program to militarize space, and drone bases planned for all regions of the world, is increasingly perceived in relation to its hard power diplomacy, a threat to political independence and stability for many countries. It is perhaps best viewed as an “authoritarian democracy” within its own territory and as “a global state” of a new kind when considered internationally. READ MORE

Judith Butler
The Discourse of Terror

Judith Butler
The Discourse of Terror

This interview was conducted with Judith Butler by email in 2012 and is included in the book Weapon of the Strong: Conversations on US State Terrorism.

Judith ButlerJudith Butler is Maxine Elliot Professor in the Departments of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature and the Co-director of the Program of Critical Theory at the University of California, Berkeley. Her many books include: Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity; Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”; Precarious Life: Powers of Violence and Mourning; and Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable?

To what extent, in your view, do the ways in which mainstream media select and contextualise events determine the boundaries of public thinking? You have said on one hand, regarding the “framing” of war and terrorism, that, “Efforts to control the visual and narrative dimensions of war delimit public discourse by establishing and disposing the sensuous parameters of reality itself”,[1] but also that “specters are produced that haunt the ratified version of reality”.[2]

Judith Butler: There are surely many ways that this happens, but we can note at the most obvious level the way in which forms of resistance or violence get cast as “conflicts” that assume two sides that are fighting only against one another. We are more often than not asked, for instance, to regard Israel and Palestine as in a conflict of this kind, a framing that sets each of them on equal footing, and implicitly analogizes the political situation to a fist fight, a soccer match, or a domestic quarrel. So if, then, the only two intelligible political positions are “pro-palestinian” or “pro-israeli,” the presumption is that one’s position is determined by a sentiment that wants one side to win over the other. In the meantime, what is lost is any sense that the Palestinian resistance to Israeli colonial rule is waged from a situation of occupation or expulsion, that there is a military order that controls the boundaries of what would be a sovereign Palestinian state, that the land on which that state is now thinkable has been radically diminished by an ongoing practice of land confiscation and appropriation. So we set the actors on the scene through the banal discourse of “conflict” in ways that fully deflect from the history and struggle of colonial resistance, refusing as well by that means to link the resistance to other forms of colonial resistance, their rationale, and their tactics.

Obviously, visual renditions of war not only establish what can be seen, and the audio-track established what can be heard, but the photographs also “train” us in ways of focusing on targets, ways of regarding suffering and loss. So photographs can be forms of recruitment, ways of bringing the viewer into the military, as it were. In this way, they prepare us for war, even enlist us in war, at the level of the senses, establishing a sensate regime of war. READ MORE