BLOG: There is no such thing as the social (Unlike Us #2, 2012)

[originally published on the UnlikeUs #2 conference blog]

Jodi DeanAfter Geert Lovink’s enthusiastic welcome speech, which also introduced Social What? Defining the Social, the first session of UnlikeUs #2, Jodi Dean (pictured right) took to the stage and launched into a passionate presentation – that made excellent comic use of Lego-inspired imagery – to explain how there is no such thing as society or the social. Dean began weaving her argument against centralisation critique by first introducing three understandings of ‘the social’ – or better said, the lack thereof – and how social media would look should it be constructed according to each of these three viewpoints.

First, there is the neo-liberal stance on society, which posits that there are individual men and women, as well as families, but that society as a collective does not exist. In this frame of thought, “every man for himself” is the motto and institutions such as the army, which are the products of volunteers making the individual choice of joining, is the epitome of a non-social institution.

Neo-liberal social media would be highly individualistic and competitive, quite similar to the feel and atmosphere of a modern corporation. In such a space, people would find not only ways to measure themselves and check out the competition, but they would also try to identify partners, either for personal relationships or professional ones. According to Dean, neo-liberal social media could be summarized in three words: competition, alliance, procreation.

The second view on the absence of the social comes from Bruno Latour and actor-network theory. Here, the non-existence of society or the social is not necessarily a problem since the social can be retraced with the proper technology. People can put things back together to recapture the assemblages of social moments and movements.

Actor-network social media would be more for its own sake, populated by fun apps and new ways to interact. Unlike neo-liberal social media, this space would be less profitable and goal-oriented as people would take more pleasure in a platform’s modulating and evolving software.

Last but not least, the third perspective, that of radical democracy, was articulated by theorists Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe in their Hegemony and Socialist Strategy book (Verso, 1985). Radical democracy embraces difference and antagonism,  disagreement and conflict, as key phenomena that condition the very existence of this type of democracy. While  actor-network theory makes sense of the world in terms of things, this understanding of “social” interaction pays more attention to dividing or unifying forces.

Radical democratic social media would be a terrain of struggle, perpetually changing and deconstructing itself. People would always  contest the uses of such social media and the software architectures of these platforms, which would find themselves in a permanent state of turbulence.

Dean maintains that all these views are somehow grounded in neo-liberalism, that none think in terms of a center of political power, of a myth of authority that gives structure to society. If society doesn’t exist, one would expect social media to match all these views. One might even expect social media not to exist.

But it does exist, Dean claims, and it conforms to all of the theoretical standpoints outlined above. Social media emerged from mutual constitution, disperses across competitors that people have been creating for years. If social media was the result of a mutual effort, then, Dean believes arguments against centralisation and for more individual control, privacy and autonomy, are completely unfounded.

She complained that media theorists are stuck in time, presenting the same solutions since technotopia and California theory: distributed, decentralized and contingent are better than their opposites. Dean also denounced our generalized mistrust of networks, the need for impossible guarantees and our endless paranoia: we can never be secure enough, we can never have enough privacy.

The core of her argument was that dispersion is in fact the problem, since decentralisation causes fragmentation and dilution of work, giving rise to hire-by-the-task freelancers or so-called “cloud workers”, as those hired by IBM. Solutions offered by media theorists only make things worse, amplifying noise and increasing dispersion.

Emergent centralised units are, to Dean, the products of free choice and natural consequences of distributed networks. Oddly enough, if more distribution is attempted, the more likely it becomes that centralisation will emerge. The bigger the network, the stronger its members, Dean says while asking to not weaken the collective power of people by dispersing it.

Dean emphasized the benefits of the hub and centralization as an expression of the personal desire to be part of something bigger than oneself. The pleasure of social media, she claimed, is that of connectivity as a a direct reaction to precarious labour. In social media, people produce for others all the time; whether those products are affect / emotions or all kinds of content, they powered by a productive force that arises of our combined efforts.

Finally, Dean encouraged media theorists to remove their veil of ideological illusion and to stop repeating the mantras of neo-liberalism as if they have any substance. Treating centralisation as the problem distracts attention from the real issues: property and ownership, the fact that Facebook and Twitter are not ours.

What can we do about that? Overthrow capitalism and move away from privacy concerns that keep people chained in individual units, Dean said. As the cliche goes, easier said than done, but enough food for thought to last media theorists and the UnlikeUs #2 audience for the rest of this first day.

Written by Catalina Iorga

Jodi Dean teaches political and media theory at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York. Her most recent books include Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies (Duke, 2009) and Blog Theory (Polity, 2010). Verso will publish her newest book, The Communist Horizon, in 2012. She is the co-editor of the international electronic journal of contemporary critical theory, Theory & Event.

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