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Facebook: emancipator or opiate?

In one of the comments threads, a debate has just opened on the nature of Facebook. Below is the first comment (Terry responding to John), but please get involved in the discussion!

‘John, the point of facebook is an interesting one, as I see facebook as an inherently capitalist phenomenon, something that might simply not occur in a (utopian) socialist society. Its tenets revolve around a) voyeurism – but in a purely reductive/sexualised manner, creating yourself as spectacle and viewing others in this way (I like particularly the fact that you can pay money for cyber ‘gifts’ in the sense that even the gift is reduced to a pure symbol). b) following from this, the reduction of one’s life to a host of easily interpreted signs (these very pictures/groups/likes and dislikes). c) procrastination – which for me is the central point of facebook, underneath it all, and explains the natural extension of the site from one of communication to the incorporation of apps such as farmville. Once again, ‘opiate for the masses.’

Not only is facebook an inherently capitalist production, then, but it is capitalism’s logical extension (amongst other phenomena).

Going on from this, what would socialist facebook look like? Well, who knows, but it would be informed by a socialist ideology and therefore manifest the tendencies of the culture in question.

That is to say that whilst the communicative aspects of facebook are truly excellent, it is otherwise obnoxious – like capitalism itself.’


About Daniel Hartley

Leverhulme Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Leeds.

18 responses »

  1. I think this opens up two types of questions: practical ones and theoretical ones.

    The practical questions, which also link to discussions in other posts, relate to how communication systems would be organised in a different, let’s say socialist, society. Would ‘social networking’ exist? Why, why not? How would we stay in touch?

    The theoretical questions have more to do with what Terry outlines above. For me, an interesting question that Facebook raises is a very simple one: who am I? Is the ‘I’ that I represent myself as being on Facebook the ‘real me’? What is the difference between the self I present to others and the self that I experience as my genuine self-presence? Is there even a real ‘I’? What if the real ‘I’ was just an illusion and the reality was precisely the ‘I’ I perform myself as being on Facebook (I carefully select my profile photo, I construct a very particular list of music and movies, join v. specific groups – all the while constructing an image of myself that I project to others). What if the ‘subjective I’ – my sense of the real me – is less real than the ‘objective I’ – the I projected back to me by the responses and the gaze of the other voyeurs with whom I share Facebook, and who Facebook calls my ‘friends’?

    Finally – to Terry – I think we have to be careful when we speak of Facebook as having a ‘point’ – esp. when that point is ideological. Is Facebook an entity capable of intending something? More broadly, does a system intend something? Is there really a little fat capitalist sat somewhere intending for Facebook to be a distraction for us? Not really, which means – perhaps more terrifyingly – that the system is capable of keeping us occupied and in a zombie-like trance without even meaning to do so.

  2. Dan,

    Well, I think ‘point’ only indicated exactly your last point – that being ‘what culturally determined manners/ways of seeing/ways of interacting it manifests.’ Perhaps ‘point’ is too evocative of a co-ordinator (the fat capitalist), and I should have instead used the term – ‘prevailing use’.

    ‘Without even meaning to do so’ is, as you were hinting, the very manner in which ideology functions (and facebook alike).

    The question of the ‘I’ is one that worries me about facebook, as in it is speeding up current issues (how we see the ‘i’) and carrying them off to places and extremes that we’ve never fully been to before. The same with a lot of technology, since this sort of peer communication is what is behind a lot of it (iPhone facebook etc…). I’m off for a run to try wake up, feel terrible today.x

  3. Good question Tezza, what would socialist facebook look like? I believe this is in part an answer:

    As facebook wanes in its ability to hold our gaze in all of its obvious capacities (never?), perhaps its other potentialities will come to the fore–such as its function as a tool for activism. Facebook’s ‘appropriation’ by students and faculty at unis such as Goldsmiths [see link] and Leeds [see UCU strike], and indeed figures like Naomi Klein certainly indicate as much. Facebook as Deleuzian war machine?

  4. Basil, thanks for the contribution. Don’t really think we need to start referring to something as complex as the ‘Deleuzian war machine’ to point out something as patently obvious as that people use Facebook for political activism as well as for leisure purposes.

    Does anyone have anything to say on the practical side of things? How could communication systems be organised in a socialist society? What models do we currently have that suggest future possibilities?

    Let’s get the more practical thinkers involved before this descends into a grad student wankathon.

  5. I should probably point out that I was also implicating myself in that great wankathon!

  6. Easy Dan, I believe Basil was making a slight jest there and perhaps we can elaborate on the ‘war-machine’ in terms available to non-deleuzians, and show how it has practical applications.

    Deleuze argues, unless I misread completely, that against the highly structured (and hierarchically so) state, the ‘war-machine’ is that which introduces a ‘flat space’, that which disrupts the formation of new hierarchies and constantly breaks free of existing dualisms. I think that the mediation between theory and praxis is incredibly interesting and necessary on this very point, and too many people DO labour in the realms of Deleuzian wankathons, but let us not reject the theory on that basis, but use it to form something decent.

    So, facebook as this would be a similar system that broke away from the
    hierarchies of our accepted ways of thinking – on commodities, on others. It would mean a facebook with the ability to stretch beyond hierarchy. In a pure sense, this is impossible, but perhaps there could be a version of facebook that did somehow foreground the revolutionary aspects of this international communication we have at our fingertips.

    The question this leads me to then, and one that the ‘war-machine’ point has made me realise, is: do we need a separate facebook (ie, a separate operating system), or can this ‘war-machine’ (the force/entity/whatever that comes and disrupts) appear and manifest itself within the current one?

    Basically, can we continue to use facebook?

    Anyway, ‘learn, learn, learn’ as someone once said.

  7. The reason the Deleuze point helped me is because I was pretty much feeling – NO TO FACEBOOK – before, and maybe this is rubbish. Any thoughts?

  8. Hello everyone, hope you all are well; some thoughts, albeit inchoate, on the discussion:

    I think it is problematic to isolate ‘Facebook’ in the discussions we are having, because, after all, ‘The Night Shift’ is itself an extension, a replication, a mimicry of the form of ‘virtual social networks’, which are at once, as some have noted above, the negative abstraction from what we think is ‘actual’ which consequently has produced a de-politicized consciousness which is actually manifested in the real world. I think ‘Facebook’ should be grasped generally as a metonymy for ‘mnemo-technique’. So, I don’t think the question is what the form or the consequences of a ‘socialist Facebook’ would look like (it would look like it does like now minus the adverts maybe); rather, our question should ask after the very production of the virtual space of the Internet itself: is the production of something like ‘Facebook’ itself democratic, or even further, what would constitute the democratic production of virtuality (which maybe is the ‘socialist’ injunction)? To go back to the question of the possibility of a system having intentionality, I think it is problematic to think that such systems do not have an intention (a ‘point’); I think the desire to de-politicize is an intended telos of the politics of institutions or apparatuses (it strikes me that ‘Facebook’ is more an apparatus and less a system). If the system can not be reduced to an intension, why is the apparatus of ‘Facebook’ regulated, changed, modified, subject to surveillance, etc.? And furthermore, who performs this surveillance? Of course, the intension can be exceeded, but that is not to say that there isn’t one and I don’t know why ‘system’ is somehow separated from the ‘fat capitalist’ whose strategic politics is to discipline a certain potential of thought (critical). One could argue that all mnemo-technic devices are involved in a peculiar dialectical paradox of non-teleological telos; this is why technology is such a strange thing; its essence (if one can even speak of an essence of technology, that is, the unity of a subject and substance) is the peculiarity of an endless end, or rather, the infinite production of ends.

    The ‘politics of systematicity’ or the ‘will to system’ is not something that occurs ex nihilo, it is the very social desire to determine totally the re-constitution of social relations. Also, what happens when the simulation of political activism (which, if we follow the idea that something like facebook produces nothing but effects of subjectivity, of collectivity, etc.) remains within the immanence of simulation itself? What is the logic that governs the distinction between a politically qualitative action governed by the possibilities of ‘Facebook’ and a passive action, which are also governed by the possibilities of ‘Facebook’? What constitutes the difference between ‘saying hello’ (‘leisure purpose’) and ‘storming the Bastille’ (‘political activism’) IN or FROM ‘Facebook’ (the fact that things happen IN ‘Facebook’ is a very strange thought; it strikes me that the practicality of ‘Facebook’ is precisely ‘saying hello’)? Why do we think here (in this particular discussion in ‘The Night Shift’) that there is a difference between purposeful politics and futile consumption? Why is the re-politicization of the ‘masses’ (which I think is by now an absolutely inappropriate word) necessary? I am not being funny, I am concerned with the question of in the name of who or in the name of what is the decision to ‘re-socialize’ made? I am worried with how quickly we come to ‘socialism’ here as if we even know what it means, or looks like, or could be or could look like without criticizing the metaphysics of the desire for socialism.

    On a slight digression (to be fair this whole contribution has been a big bloody digression, but of course, I do not apologize), I don’t think there is a life outside ‘Facebook’; is there a proper distinction between ‘real here’ and ‘ virtual there’? I think the performance of ‘I’ happens in language, regardless of ‘Facebook.’ Language is the virtual reality of the social precisely because it operates as the double movement of the abstract and the concrete. I think we experience daily ‘in the real world’ a certain virtuality of abstraction; for example, when we look at someone, we don’t simply or merely look, the looking itself is never neutral or innocent, it is already involved or locked in a process of abstraction. When we see someone we are perhaps firstly in a kind of sexualized standpoint, or rather, an erotic standpoint which of course does is not reduced to ‘do I want to have sex with this person’, rather, the desire to recognize them, which is also the desire of self-recognition, is a desire, the distinction from animality – but only as such in eroticism (which in a very general sense is the process of abstraction through the primordiality of desire). To put it simply, when we look at someone, we don’t experience them as a sweating, eating, shitting organism, rather, we experience them as a being in abstraction – that is, they think, they are someone (not something), they are an ‘I’ with a name, a history, etc. This experience – which is the experience of abstraction – is a ‘virtual’ experience or rather, a virtual experience. So something like ‘Facebook’ in this sense, does not produce these effects, it re-inscribes them, it re-articulates them; it is not beyond them in any way. Now, if it is problematic to think of another being solely in terms of abstractions, we would need the time to think otherwise.

    Finally, this is my main problem with mnemo-technical devices such as ‘Facebook’ and even ‘The Night Shift’: things happen all too quickly. It strikes me that the most potent form of ‘political subversion’ would be to momentarily inverse the tempo-dynamics that govern our ideas of ‘internationalism’, ‘community’, ‘exchange’, etc. Does ‘Facebook’ really have ‘international political potential’ before we even start to criticize what is meant by ‘international’ (Terry: “revolutionary aspects of this international communication we have at our fingertips”) and does it belong to us, is it at our fingertips? Is ‘socialism’, ‘internationality’ or ‘community’, something organic to which the technology of ‘Facebook’ operates as a supplement? The privilege of a certain tempo-dynamics (speed or acceleration here) comes directly to Terry’s question of whether we should say ‘No to ‘Facebook’’; I think you have already done it in a way. In order to think about what it is, one has already somehow suspended the object of relfection. This conceptual suspension constitutes praxis. Of course, I don’t want to disavow absolutely necessary work that is done in the realm of human rights, animal rights, environmentalism, etc. Somethings just take a long time to think about! That does not mean we should somehow speed the process up even when faced with the most urgent decisions. However, part of this process is to question the notion of the decision itself; for example, why does the received notion of the ‘decision’ reduced to ‘a choice between alternatives’ (often to two or three, but mainly two – which is the ontological question of ‘to be or not to be’, which Capitalist modes of production and forms of exchange have exploited and constantly re-inscribed)?

  9. i have just seen how long the comment is…so long in fact that it is maybe no longer a comment; apologies for the sloppyness; will re-read it and try and expand on some of the points, which of course means i do not apologize for the length! This is after all one consequence of the idea of the infinite space of the Internet; it is also one consequence of the implicit Narcissism at the heart of the social which is something i have been trying to write up to post here; the main question is ostensibly simple: why do we wish to appear? More anon hopefully. ta.

  10. Hammam, brilliant, brilliant contribution! I’ll reply to it fully when I can take the appropriate time [affix here ten lines of Derridean puns on time and the proper]

    It strikes me, even from the little that I know of him, that what you just wrote owes a great deal to Derrida – especially his ‘later’ works. Maybe you could suggest a few titles to which people could turn in order to explore these ideas further? (Including not only works by Derrida himself, but also introductions to his work for those who’ve never heard of or read him).

    For my own part, I recognised implicit references to The Spectres of Marx, and possibly also the interview on the concept of ‘actuality’ in Negotitations.

  11. Hammam:

    Can you explain what you mean by ‘mnemo-technique’? Do you mean it simply in the sense of ‘a technique or machine which enables one to remember, which fulfils the role of remembrance’? Or do you mean it in a more complex Derridean sense, linked to concepts of self-forgetting, Erinnerung (interiorising memory) and writing (Of Grammatology?)?

    I think one of the most important points you make is the following one: ‘our question should ask after the very production of the virtual space of the Internet itself: is the production of something like ‘Facebook’ itself democratic, or even further, what would constitute the democratic production of virtuality (which maybe is the ’socialist’ injunction)?’

    We should dedicate a post to this point. How could the production of virtuality – assuming for the moment that we limit ‘virtuality’ to its current sense of the cyberworld/ internet – be organized? More to the point, how is it organized at the moment? Who owns it? Where are they? Who are they? Is ‘ownership’ even an appropriate term in this context?

    I think you’d have to expand on your idea of systematic intentionality. The reason I challenged Terry on this is not because I don’t think that a system has a certain range of effectivities (effects it realises) – it clearly does, and de-politicization is one of them. I challenged him so that we avoid the trap of liberal individualism – blaming the evil intentions of a handful of people for the woes of an entire system. So if we’re still going to talk of ‘intention’ we might have to find a middle way between the intention of an individual (a Facebook software engineer, for example) and the effects wrought by an entire system (i.e. the totality of individual intentions which exceed any single individual’s intention).

    ‘The ‘politics of systematicity’ or the ‘will to system’ is not something that occurs ex nihilo, it is the very social desire to determine totally the re-constitution of social relations.’ – wonderful sentence.

    I totally agree that we would have to think long and hard about the logic governing the distinction between a politically qualitative action and a passive action – not just within Facebook (though for me, here, Facebook is allegorical of our general situation in what Jameson calls ‘late capitalism’, but which you might prefer to call ‘actuvirtuality’, following Derrida), but more broadly in politics in general. What would constitute a genuinely political act today? But this takes so much time…I’ll come back to this.

    ‘I am worried with how quickly we come to ‘socialism’ here…’ – so am I. I’ve been using it as a synonym of ‘utopia’ – a space on which to project the warped desires of present thought.

    As for the performance of the ‘I’, you make exactly the point I was trying to get at. In fact, I’d been intending to respond to Terry’s earlier comments that Facebook ‘worried’ him in temrs of its effect on identity by pointing out that, for me, all Facebook does is exaggerate what happens anyway on a day-to-ay basis without people being conscious of the fact. Any ‘I’ is a virtual ‘I’. (Which again would require rethinking the logic governing a virtual ‘x’ from an actual ‘x’).

    ‘the most potent form of ‘political subversion’ would be to momentarily inverse the tempo-dynamics that govern our ideas of ‘internationalism’, ‘community’, ‘exchange’, etc’ This opens up a whole can of worms and hits right at the heart of everything.

    To respond to this, instead of making an argument (precisely because I cannot make an argument), I’m gonna write a stream-of-consciousness:

    I must take time…CHILDREN ARE DYING…I must take time, time there’s always time, just give me time…DAMIEN RICE…capital structures time, my time, its time, our time, but I need more time, time to think, time to act…ACT, STOP THINKING, THERE’S NO TIME…how can I act, I’m wavering, is it moral to waver, is it moral to act unthinkingly…Hamlet…DO IT! DO SOMETHING! DO ANYTHING!!…but if I do without time, without thought unfolding through time, lining action with time and thought have I done right? Have I let die?…YOU’RE LETTING DIE RIGHT NOW! THEY NEEED YOU!…who are they?…THEY! THE ONES DYING!…I need time, I need time to think. ..STOP THINKING!

  12. Well well, I have lots of other Night Shift things to read before my particular shift is over, so I’ll only say that I definitely agree that facebook is merely an extension of what is already occuring (this itself is a worry), but that it is the extension in exactly the manner in which it takes things a step further.

    Also, yes, we jump to ‘socialism’ too easily, but also we appropriate the term in an attempt to avoid the ‘if we can say that, within our language structure, there is even the horizon of a socialism with our current ideology and that we can assume to understand the term in its varied forms then…’ (il n y’as pas hors texte)…etc etc. We need Hammam to keep us jumping, it seems.

  13. For anyone who might like to read a brief introduction to Derrida’s work, this is not bad (if not ideal either):

  14. This is a great discussion to have. The possibility of political activism via the Internet is definitely one of the most fertile grounds for theory and practice that I can think of. Certainly, it obliges us to rethink the notion of practice itself: whether participation by proxy (i.e. from in front of a terminal, alone, in one’s office or bedroom) can constitute action or whether, like so much contemporary liberal democratic “activism,” it amounts to nothing more than an “easy entry, easy exit,” convenience activism (think buying “green” from Starbucks).

    I think that it is crucial in this discussion not to lose sight of FB’s primary purpose, which is to generate surplus value from users’ connections. A simple dataveillance model does not suffice here: FB’s focus is not so much on the information that we voluntarily submit on sign up (our “statistics” like DOB, location, likes/dislikes in entertainment, job histories, etc.) or that we continuously tend to (via new photos, “notes,” status updates, etc.) – though this is certainly a goldmine of information. Rather, FB’s real focus is on the relations between and among the various users. It matters a great deal more what type(s) of other users (“friends”) that my data-set (the “I” or “me”) connects with, and the types of communications within and among these other data-sets (“friends”). FB is primarily concerned with the interstices, not my hard date per se, and not yours, but rather the relation(s) between these data. In this way, FB is a perfect exemplar of today’s capital, a flexible, “always on,” and information-hungry response to and creation of opportunities for profit.

    Hardt and Negri, in their recent book Commonwealth, point out that socialism, much like neoliberalism, is a means for distribution of resources and wealth (wealth broadly understood), not a means for its generation. Following David Harvey, who notes that neoliberalism is a about redistributing wealth from the poor to the rich (or from the state to the corporate), they suggest that socialism’s affinity to neoliberalism is that while it is primarily concerned with a different type of resource and wealth management, it does not significantly undermine the notion that resources are a) scarce enough to require such management and (b) that an explicit hierarchical system is needed to manage them. This is one reason why a “socialist Facebook” is somewhat of matter of tweaking (or removing) the adverts as Amman noted – let us imagine instead a FB that exploited the our connections and communicative habits by targeting advertising based on the proper productive use our labour might have for the effective management of wealth by the state!! Creativity, and the drive toward a common, Hardt and Negri argue, is stifled by any attempts to impose a hierarchical system. A utopian Facebook would thus need to avoide any such systematisation. The problem, as Amman also noted, is that the technical framework of the Internet as such is a significant hurdle: the possibility for the type or randomness and serendipity that would characterise a productive commons simply cannot exist in a techno-poltiical framework in which every move, expression, etc. must first be anticipated by those who create and manipulate the “code” of the Internet! (In the “real world” I can jump out a window or self-immolate to prove my point; try doing something radical like that in the pre-encoded world of Facebook, let alone the Internet itself.)

    As far as contemporary political activism on the Facebook platform is concerned, its value is at best ambiguous. On the one hand, tools like FB and other “social networks” are invaluable for their speed and efficiency at getting a message out. On the other, because FB’s chances for profit are increased every time it is demonstrated that a communicative pattern exists between discrete groups of users, it matters little to them what is being said or plotted by the group. To be cynical, the advertising system will simply direct you toward more Che Guevara T-Shirts (and to be even more cynical, that may just prove profitable). Like today’s capital, which has responded to dissent by opening up spaces for its commodification, appropriating techniques and aesthetics from counter cultures and rebranding them, selling them back, so FB is able to find profit opportunities in the flows between people. In this sense, to paraphrase Bartelby by way of Zizek, the most polticial thing one could do on Facebook is, literally, nothing at all!

    (Also, for communication nerds out there: there is a great opportunity here to revisit Dallas Smythe’s audience commodity thesis, in which television audiences pay for the right “to be advertised to.” What has happened in the Web 2.0 era?)

    Loving the Night Shift, BTW, good thing you’ve got going on here 🙂


  15. Christ, I noted that the spelling of Ammam’s name has been taking a bashing here, and I went and misspelled it in my comment too! My apologies Ammam. Pual 😉

  16. Paul, great contribution. I need time to re-read it before responding properly. But two points you made struck me as linking to two of our other posts:

    1. On hierarchy and its arguable inevitability even in an alternative society: (plus the comment i wrote to it) Maybe you could outline what Hardt and Negri would reply to the necessity for basic hierarchy in practical terms of energy supplies and maintenance etc.?

    2. On defining the distinction between theory and practice:

    If you have the time, I’d welcome your comments on these topics.

  17. Sorry for the slightly late replies.

    On ‘mnemo-technique’: i think Dan’s definition works well.

    On Derrida: For those who do not have any formal education in philosophy or critical theory I would recommend Penelope Deutscher’s book ‘How to Read Derrida’ (Granta Books). This short introduction should be widely available and is in fact, at least in my opinion, more successful than the Routledge Guide written by Nicholas Royle (which is not at all bad of course, I just think Deutscher is more helpful insofar as she maintains more distance to Derrida which subsequently allows her to provide good short overviews to some of Derrida’s concepts).

    For those who are perhaps more familiar with Derrida’s context and more wider philosophical debates then Geoffrey Bennington’s introduction ‘Derridabase’ (which also includes Derrida’s essay ‘Circonfession’; the book is actually called ‘Jacques Derrida’, Chicago Uni Press) is very good. Better in my opinion (if I am still obliged to give ‘basic introductions’) is Rodolphe Gasche’s ‘The Tain of the Mirror’, Harvard Uni Press and more recently, Leonrad Lawlor’s ‘Husserl and Derrida: The Basic Problem of Phenomenology’, Indiana Uni Press. For the record, Gasche is perhaps the most difficult as he situates Derrida’s work very specifically within one particular thought in modern European philosophy.


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