Blog Theory: Feedback and Capture in the Circuits of Drive

October 28, 2010

Blog Theory brings the heavy guns of literary theory to bear on the purportedly trivial activity of blogging. The usual artillery is deployed - a bombardment of arguments from Slavoj Žižek and Jacques Lacan; covering fire from Giorgio Agamben, Guy Debord and Michel Foucault; a late outbreak of friendly fire against Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri - but it is supplemented by a rather unexpected two-page enfilade from Jürgen Habermas and Reinhart Koselleck. Not everything is pulverised. While Jodi Dean's broader argument is not convincing, she has many interesting things to say about the relationships between bloggers and their imagined audiences.

The book is clearly written for those with some grounding in literary theory, and non-initiates will find it hard going. Nonetheless, the argument is reasonably clear, once it emerges from the nice distinctions between different understandings of objet petit a. Blogs - and similar electronic forms of communication - are not a new kind of liberatory politics, but a specific form of communicative capitalism.

They rely on individual enjoyment to reproduce themselves. Unlike earlier forms of communication, they require that individuals actively engage and participate in them if they are to continue - and the fact that their failures survive active engagement points up the implicit romanticism of Debord's arguments about the spectacle.

This means that they become, in Dean's term, "circuits of drive". They capture us in patterns of repetitive actions, where we are always looking to read (and respond to) one more opinion.

This, she says, reinforces and extends "affective networks without encouraging - and indeed...displacing - their consolidation into organised political networks".

Unfortunately, this does not work well as a theory of the political consequences of blogs. Dean's book does offer a solid debunking of techno-libertarian and naive Leftist claims about the internet's inherent liberatory power, but it is far from the first such critique. Doug Henwood's excellent (and thoroughly materialist) After the New Economy punctured these arguments over half a decade ago.

Blog Theory's positive arguments about the consequences of blogs are much less convincing. As best as we know from research, both readers of political blogs and political bloggers themselves are significantly more likely than non-readers and non-bloggers to participate actively in practical politics. This is not what Dean's arguments would suggest.

It is true, as Dean briefly indicates in the conclusions, that far-Right movements can take advantage of the internet, too. But this points to a very different critique than the one she is making. If people are using the internet to engage in politics, whether left-wing or right-wing, this implies that they are not trapped in the circuits of drive in quite the ways that she suggests they are. At the very least, she would have to make an explicit case that these forms of more engaged and practical politics are themselves recursive traps.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the psychoanalytic theory that Dean employs is much better at explaining the micropolitics of blogging. Dean is a blogger herself, and her account of the relationship between the blogger and her or his audience is usually interesting, and sometimes fascinating. Her discussions of the problems of blogging to an imaginary audience, the construction of (perhaps multiple) fictional "selves", and the anxieties that are induced by the gaze of invisible outside readers are fruitful and engaging, especially when she leans on her own experience as a blogger (eg, her story of having her assumptions about her readers undermined by an email from a neo-Nazi).

Blogging - writing in a highly personal style for a largely impersonal audience - is a strikingly odd activity, when you look at it half-askance. Lurking within Dean's larger social argument is a more particular set of ideas about the complexities of mediated electronic communications from the individual's point of view. I hope that she draws them out further in subsequent work.

Blog Theory: Feedback and Capture in the Circuits of Drive

By Jodi Dean Polity Press. 140pp, £45.00 and £14.99. ISBN 9780745649696 and 49702. Published 16 July 2010

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