On Data Transgression & Technofetishism

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


May 17, 2012

On Data Transgression & Technofetishism

Saelan Twerdy at the Tower of Sleep tumblr blog has some brief and somewhat critical comments on my essay Data Transgression, and commenting on my use of Frederic Jameson’s quote about capitalist realism, says:

It is becoming easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine a critical article that doesn’t quote Jameson’s remark about how it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.

This is hilariously funny, and also true. Just over the period I was working on the essay, I read it 3 or 4 times. Writers have a tendency to present it as an earth-shattering revelation when they are really only taking it in fairly trivial sense, as a Marxist commonplace about cultural hegemony. The reason I mentioned it is because I think this is the wrong meaning, or at least not the most significant one. I think even Mark Fisher, who wrote a book about capitalist realism, gets this wrong when he says that it is “a kind of invisible barrier constraining thought and action.” A barrier, a constraint – this is the language of prohibition, and this leads to a tendency to represent capitalist realism as a law that must be overthrown so that the lack can be filled in. In other words, it is all to easy to render capitalist realism in the terms of the already predominant terms of perversion.

For me, the true meaning of capitalist realism is that social change is on the side of the neurotic, not the pervert, and people who have adopted the idea seem to have not seen it that way. Instead, they read a perverse meaning which for me only reproduces the conditions of capitalist realism.

The piece of writing on this topic that provoked me the most was Laurie Penny’s essay in the New Inquiry The Future, Probably, which includes this quote from Žižek:

in mid-April 2011, the Chinese government prohibited on TV, films, and novels all stories that contain alternate reality or time travel. These people still dream about alternatives, so you have to prohibit this dreaming. Here, we don’t need a prohibition because the ruling system has even oppressed our capacity to dream.

(Emphasis mine.) The difference between Žižek saying it is not a matter of prohibition (and we should not adopt the position of pervert with respect to a law) and Mark Fisher’s barrier and constraint is quite stark, and yet it goes unnoticed and unremarked in the essay. This is not just theoretical hairsplitting. Penny goes on to claim that William Gibson is the vital science fiction writer who allows us to imagine other possible worlds, but in my opinion this is exactly wrong. William Gibson is a science fiction author whose work profoundly inhibits imagining other possible worlds, a fact that we can easily detect in his most famous aphorism, “The future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

For the wealthy owner of high-tech gadgets, the meaning is clear: you are already living in a future that others can only dream about – a perverse statement about filling in the lack in the Other and foreclosing desire that Penny herself celebrates:

As I type, I’m picking up Twitter messages from journalists 2,000 miles away, looking at footage of buildings burning in Bahrain. If we spent much time actually thinking through how staggering the daily facts of our technological lives are right now, not just the phones in our pockets but the food on our plates, the clothes on our backs, the forging frontiers of our collective imagination — well, how could we carry on getting up and going to work every day? How could we avoid the delicious, discomfiting paralysis of future shock long enough to fix dinner and file those reports? If we looked too hard at the system, would it start to collapse?

For Penny, we don’t need to imagine other futures, we only need to look down at our gadgets and we’ll realize we are already in the future. Her comments on Gibson’s essays reflect a similar pleasure in the immediate benefits of technology: “It’s not really ever about colored hair or robot outfits, but about people and the breathtaking things they have a tendency to do when presented with technology that changes the way they live and communicate.” But “the future is now” is simply a restatement of capitalist realism. To me, it is a little bit shocking to see it framed as the opposite, and the link to perversion substantially clarifies things.

One final point: Penny opposes Gibson’s false vision of the future-in-the-present with the apocalyptic visions that are so prevalent. Penny chooses Gibson, saying approvingly, “None of his nine novels has been set in a world that requires the annihilation of our own to make narrative sense.” But this is precisely the problem with Gibson! From within the coordinates of the existing social universe, social change necessarily appears as a disaster, so social change is on the side of apocalypse.

Saelan raises a second issue with my essay. I claim that the dominant intellectual form of critique of puncturing fantasies and exposing myths is ultimately ideological in the sense that it militates against all fantasies, including those that dream about a better future. Saelan’s criticism is that I myself appear to be doing this, since (he claims) my essay is about exposing myths about the internet. This is a good observation, the essay doesn’t explain why this is not an inconsistency, so I will try to do that.

In this essay I am critiquing a fetish, not a fantasy. Im actually not claiming that people literally believe the internet is a deity, or some kind of living organism. Even Kevin Kelly, the most explicitly religious of technology promoters, does not go this far. Instead, belief is in the form “as if” – we act as if the internet is a deity.This difference is important, because it is a sign of disavowal, a characteristic of Lacan’s perverse structure. Another way of expressing disavowal is through the phrase “I know very well, but all the same…”

The neurotic represses the truth because it is too traumatic – she does not know it – so it reappears in a different form as a symptom. In contrast, the pervert fully accepts the truth, but holds on to a fetish object that allows him to disavow the full, traumatic impact of reality. What is ultimately traumatic for the pervert is lack, and the fetish object fills in this lack. The ultimate claim of my Data Transgressions essay (and many of my other writings) is that technology is a fetish object in the sense that it allows us, as perverse subjects, to cover up the lack in society and thus also the necessity of going beyond the limitations of the current social order. A fetish object does not allow for fantasy, because the gap that is required to have a fantasy is already filled in.

What I call cyberutopian is technically inaccurate – utopia is a fantasy, so it has a neurotic structure. The correct term is technofetishism, where fetishism has this precise Lacanian definition.

It seems to me that Saelan is thinking something along the lines of “We shouldn’t be so critical and negative all the time, we should also have some positive ideas instead of just finding the flaws.” In general I agree, but there is still a vital role for critique directed at fetish objects because this potentially opens up the space for fantasy.