Sunday 18 April 2021

Deleuze and Guattari Vs BuzzFeed

To all intents and purposes, the UK arm of the Huffington Post has come to an end. After buying it out, BuzzFeed announced significant redundancies to the news team in early March. Unsurprisingly, their editor Jess Brammar announced she was leaving following the cuts, and gave a good account of what HuffPo accomplished with her at the helm. Not perfect by any means, but much better than the rubbish churned out by the BBC's and ITV's chief political correspondents. Upon acquiring HuffPo, what has happened was pretty inevitable thanks to BuzzFeed's form. Readers might recall BuzzFeed's significant investment in journalism following the referendum and how they quickly became a major player returning balanced analytical copy and properly informed exclusives. The dreary editorial offices of the rest of Britain's political press must have raised a glass when the plug was pulled.

Businesses are, of course, businesses. They have to turn a profit or they go down the tubes. No investor, save a well-heeled hobbyist, is going to keep chucking money at something if there's no return to make good the capital advanced. And BuzzFeed are treading the beaten path of most media organisations these last 20 years: cut the staff, somehow do more with less, fill the publication or outlet with low cost content, and hope the money will flow. This isn't all BuzzFeed are doing, and in this interview from last year, founder Jonah Peretti was in the process of diversifying its income streams by muscling in on the digital middleman market dominated by Google. Also among the plans mooted were "paid social" (i.e. closed social network spaces), assisting streaming services (code for becoming a TV production company) and a better data-driven approach to audience capture. How's it going? Peretti forecast a modest profit last November, but its losses elsewhere are a significant drag.

Peculiar then how an internet business exhibiting very normal capitalist behaviour has acquired the supercool glamour from its association with the, um, radical anticapitalism of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. As part of the 2013 hype machine around BuzzFeed's emergence, some were making links between the viral content and listicles that were (and remain) BuzzFeed's stock-in-trade and the materialist metaphysics of their philosophy. Asked about Deleuze and Guattari's influence, Peretti was evasive, though for some the tantalising parallels were there. In a paper he wrote for college and subsequently unearthed, Peretti argues the circulation of images in late capitalism is so rapid it produces a world of discontinuous time. Using MTV as his model (when it used to run music videos), their flickering, speeding succession provokes an ego formation that establishes lines of identifications between what is seen, what is internalised, and, in all likelihood, what is subsequently purchased. This is well understood by marketing departments the world over, and has been the case for approximately a century. What is different about now is the rapidity with which this takes place, and the weakness of these identifications. They have become entirely fleeting.

This is all very well, but it doesn't have a great deal to do with Deleuze and Guattari. In the paper, Peretti sets up an encounter between Anti-Oedipus and Fredric Jameson's 1983 essay, Postmodernism and Consumer Society, noting - like the good fan of Adorno Jameson is - how emergent postmodern culture didn't lend itself to providing the critical resources for taking on capitalism. Deleuze and Guattari are far more hopeful. The social production of social relations, their ceaseless emergence, splitting, conjoining, connecting, surviving, and shiftings in and out of abeyance, is a complex fizzing mess at all times, always potentially and immanently productive of more social production. This productive character of the social is analogous to the shape and movement of all matter, all life - a point made a century earlier by an old friend of ours. In Anti-Oedipus, the object of their critique on this basis is how desire, which is Deleuze and Guattari's term for this will-to-produce, is stymied, broken, thwarted, and cajoled into Oedipalisation. Desire is reduced to the unconscious and its flows are dammed and redirected through the Oedipal triangle to produce the forms of authority-accepting individuation capitalist societies are founded on. There is nothing natural or inevitable about Oedipalisation, and other forms of human life are possible, hence why they valorise the schizophrenic who experiences life in defiance of Oedipal terms and prescription, but suffers because of it. As far as Deleuze and Guattari are concerned, Oedipus is an apparatus of capture. It catches and tries pacifying desire, and psychoanalysis reinforces this economy of desire by naturalising it. However, as totalising as Oedipus aspires to be it is not totalitarian. The production of desire is always on escape velocity, and this is aided by the incoherences of the apparatus itself. In other words, Oedipus, its institutional weight, the refinements of medicalisation, and its violence is a best effort at containment and capture, not a seamless one.

Class societies have worked in a not dissimilar fashion. As social fields, they have worked as containers of social production through conquest, enslavement and enserfment to provide territories, or spaces for more or less regulated behaviours with sanctified punitive sanctions at their disposal. The famous opening passages of Foucault's Discipline and Punish where the hapless Robert-Fran├žois Damiens was utterly obliterated reminds us of how challenges to the ancien regime were dealt with: by opposing the power of the sovereign to the powerlessness of the individual. Capitalism, however, was built on the ruins of despotism. The collapse of feudalism, particularly in England, saw the dissolution of the feudal obligation and the expropriation of the peasantry. They were turned into a class of propertyless labourers increasingly dependent on the market for the means of life and wage labour for the money to acquire it. Hence for Deleuze and Guattari, as capitalism emerged from the debris it proceeded by connecting two different deterritorialised flows - free labour and money capital - from which the further accumulation of capital, the growth of markets, and the proletarianising assault on persisting communal and feudal relations of production has spread. Because accumulation is capital's raison d'etre, its history of expansion and colonial violence has been accompanied by its deterritorialisation of capitalism's outside (the liquidation of rival modes of production as per the observations in the Manifesto) to bring it inside, to bend the sociality of others to its own abstract logic.

This deterritorialisation is corrosive of social relations, even those capital has erected. The tendency of capital is to the subordination of all aspects of the social to itself, of transmuting the value of things to the quantification of the balance sheet. Yet, simultaneously, capital is a relationship that rides the potentials of social production only so far. As Oedipus distorts and diverts desire, capitalism generates its own territorial spaces. As Deleuze and Guattari observe, "Capitalism institutes or restores all sorts of residual and artificial, imaginary, or symbolic territorialities, thereby attempting, as best it can, to recode, to rechannel persons who have been defined in terms of abstract qualities" (Anti-Oedipus, p.34). Consider post-war history in this country, and the two broad varieties of capitalism we have experienced in that time, and how the passage from one to another redefined permitted politics by propaganda, police baton, and (awkwardly) mass consent. 40 years of neoliberalism has been a great exercise in deterritorialising the social fabric by tearing it up, and redirecting social production around the contours of a new territoriality of the atomised and acquisitive, which includes the direct involvement in and profiting from new axes of exploitation around the production of identities.

Where then does BuzzFeed sit into this critique of capitalism? Well, for one we can put the idea it's a Trojan horse, a business whose business is disassembling business out to pasture. It is neither an agent of capitalism's destruction nor a communist plot, but a banal company chugging along the circuits of capitalist banality. The illusio (Deleuzio?) of radical significance attached to it, particularly the relationship to Anti-Oedipus simply isn't there. Save BuzzFeed conforming to the diagrams of capitalistic capture sketched out in the book. Try as you might, there is nothing between Peretti's 1996 paper and 'Stuck On What To Wear Now We're Allowed Out? Here's 41 Suggestions'. Now, had he written on Deleuze's prescient 1990 Postcript on the Societies of Control, a much stronger claim could be made for a meaningful relationship. Among the many ideas packed into this short text is the notion of 'dividuals', a sub-individual category that states and business divide us into data points for their own purposes. A nice anticipation of the way social media platforms use big data to sell targeted advertising, which of course BuzzFeed is now trying to lever so they get a bigger slice of the marketing pie. But Peretti's paper sticks with the Freudian terms of ego formation in the relationship between consumerism and identity. Had he instead used the dividual as a jumping off point for thinking about the series of stunted, partial subjectivities capitalism generates to contain and capture, then we have something worth talking about. But he didn't.

It's time to put this claim to bed and stop giving this increasingly irrelevant peddler of clickbait the benefit of a sophisticated radical gloss. There is no correspondence, causation, or line of flight between Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-Oedipus and BuzzFeed any more than there is between major corporations and its cadres of managers who, in their previous lives as university students, might have studied and written essays on Marx. As revolutionary thinkers and activists, they deserve so much better than to be paired with this grasping, failing incubus.

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1 comment:

Jim Denham said...

Is it just me who couldn't understand any of that?