You go cheep cheep cheep between bulleyes and bluster
Stiff as your poker face
Keener than mustard
From your own back yard to the land of exotica
From the truth society to neurotic erotica
-Elvis Costello, Pidgin English
The separation of the screen reproduces itself in numerous fashions; at its root it’s a reflection of the one-sided relations we’d like to have with strangers. In the United States, it’s the checkout counter, or at least starts as the checkout counter.
So, obvious question, what is the social relation recreated by the medium of the checkout counter?
Well, it’s a miniature Stanford Prison Experiment. Step on either side and become the all powerful consumer whose complaints can be heard and are taken seriously (or there will be consequences, the customer is always right after all) and the lowly employee, who must frequently apologize for the infraction of existing wrong. The customer, of course, is only given this power so as to deflect from view the actually powerful lords of capital, who give the illusion of power in order to deflect from the actuality and misuse of their own power.
The internet is the illusion of power, or rather the purposeful scaling back of power so as to make the person sufficiently frustrated with the failure of the people around them to eat each other. The roles must be reversed regularly so that you don’t get a clean binary through which to revolt. The lesson of driving a car, the windshield being the most powerful screen before the advent of the internet, is simultaneously to socialize the limitless desire for power in the form of speed and to abstract the person from their entire environs while simultaneously confining them within the limited bounds of what’s accessible by roads. Road rage is the neurotic condition of the reactionary consumer, driven mad by what amounts to very little actual power.
And so the screen, like the car and to a larger extent the checkout counter, desires to reduce one’s relation to the world to a binary relation of desires met or not met. The self is positioned at a remove and can only read another person’s actions by the slightest reductive quality of the simplified wanted experience and its inevitable disappointment.
This creates the panopticon of the desiring machine, the means by which internet discourse, especially that of a political nature, works.
The Desiring Machine’s Panopticon
As the principle driving mechanism of capitalism is the perpetual desire that can’t be sated, the thing that needs to continually grow fatter or collapse. This is embedded mythologically in the striver archetype, in the “upward mobility” story, etc. The striver story is inverted in the purity narratives of victimhood of the left that are now being broken down and/or (andor?) expanded. They’re stretching out so to speak.
The social media network is the truly postmodern device of control; it works on a seeming contradiction; a panopticon that runs on the inability of the other people in the box to see each other. Anything that can be convincingly stated as being “coded language”, coming from any direction of power, can train the people in a given tunnel of communications to completely block out careful reading or discussion. We all become guard and prisoner simultaneously; otherwise how else do you filter the onslaught of information coming at you, all of it taking defensive stances of being of the utmost importance and confidently knowing. The troll’s mark is the proclamation of utmost certainty that betrays itself as being otherwise.
The traditional panopticon of course works on similar mechanisms-the all seeing eye of the jailer and its repressive potential is outsourced to the prisoner and distributed. The major difference in the panopticon of the Twitter or Facebook feed versus that of the more traditional surveillance state is its exclusive existence in the internet. The internet is an imperialistic attempt to gain hegemony over the visible world by the mediums of the written word and the still or moving picture.
This sudden aggressive shift in hegemony creates two primary assaults, barely perceived on the conscious level by the user, that can be framed in dialectics but not totally contained by them. As such I’m going to present them as two sided things of presence/lack divided by a slash that shouldn’t be taken as a strict separation: —The overwhelming influx of information of all sorts/the need to rapidly be able to sort this information into streams of legitimacy/coherence—and—The disinhibition in the face of a lack of standard social mechanisms of compromise (body language etc.) on the poster’s end/the assaultive fallout from this on the reader’s end.
But of course on the internet we’re all both poster and reader, producer and consumer, in varying proportions. We end up with a market glut of things to consume, and to flip Marx’s concept, what could be called a “crisis of overconsumption”. The problem becomes not the production of content-there’s more content on the internet now than could ever be consumed by a single person even if reincarnation was an option that included free refills. The valued commodity becomes more severely the production of feelings of desire for product. The early romantic thrill is gone from the act of consumption; the current craze for vinyl records, the first nostalgia craze driven by a demographic that can’t reasonably be presumed to have any dominant childhood desire for the product, .
Q: What do you get the man who has everything?
A: The ability to want any of it.
We drift toward the feeding frenzy of the Twitter trend as it ascends not because of wanting to discuss what it is but because we want to experience the excitement of the feeding frenzy itself. The viral as viagra. If we consume in order to assemble identity, the ultimate product in terms of built in obsolescence is the fleeting closed sufficiency of the identity statement, the A=A. A ghost to be chased, a thing that can only be held as tightly as can water.
Part of why Ayn Rand resonates so much with a portion of the population, beyond and directly within her reactionary politics, might be her steadfast assertion of the A=A in the face of its non-existence even within and surrounding her own work; it gives the comfort of basking in the inertia of a present that doesn’t exist.
2 thoughts on “The Desiring Machine’s Panopticon”
Excellent post with some killer sentences. Also love the Gass shout out.