Languages

Under Attack (or Expression in the Age of Selfie-Control)

British Prime Minister David Cameron, US President Barack Obama and Denmark’s Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt pose for a selfie during the memorial service for Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, South Africa. December 10th, 2013. Courtesy Vantage News.

The description of one of the basic principles through which fascism implements and sanctions violence was given point blank by one of its most astute observers, Walter Benjamin. Writing in 1939, he observed how fascism grants "expression to the masses – but on no account granting them rights". It is not too farfetched to say that this is a situation we are perhaps heading towards in our Western democracies where one is constantly encouraged (not to say coerced!) to endlessly express. The difference between fascist formations of expression now and in 1939 is simply this: it is no longer the masses that are pushed by power to express themselves in pogroms, book burnings, lynchings even when they are denied rights of free expression; but rather it is that monstrous apparatus of subjectivity known as the Self that is constantly pressed to express. Or, more accurately and contemporarily, the selfie is granted endless opportunities, but not necessarily the rights, of expression.

Why is it that the self is being reified and pushed from all sides of power (governmental and corporate) to constantly be in a state of expression? And why is this self-expression at the core of the entire corporate-governmental machine of screenal 'social-networking' – where the entire Internet is turned either into a 24/7 mall of everything imaginable, or into a platform for an apparently unstoppable expressive proliferation of selfie-images?

Might it be that this double movement is the necessary slow infusion of a multitudinal fascism, a fascism for our current times where the people or the masses no longer hold as expressive political categories? A fascism in which the main concern is to ensure that life and subjectivity does not find freedom of expression but gets mesmerised in and by a weak image of freedom understood as the corporate offering of screenal occasions for ventilating to the world so many self-centred expressions? Might this corporate-governmental offering of opportunities for self-expression as expression of nothing other than selfies, be the necessary operation that power finds to mask the otherwise blatant corrosion of rights in our Western democracies (human rights, civil rights, worker's rights, rights on freedom of expression) – a corrosion that has been implemented as badly and barely justifiable 'exceptional measures', or 'temporary emergency measures' by our democratically elected governments and that remain in effect not for weeks, not for months, not for years, but for decades? Indeed, the vast majority of contemporary Western democracies confirm Giorgio Agamben's diagnosis made already twenty years ago: they exist by implementing a regime of permanent exceptionality, of permanent executive and legislative lawlessness. This is how the implementation of torture and target assassinations, secret surveillance and extraordinary renditions, the starting of wars without legally declaring war, and the defrauding of public treasuries in order to exceptionally secure corporate private profits also express a self-centred logic where above all politics must be a politics of little selves and their self-centred violences.

In the highly policed zones of corporate- and governmentally encouraged self-expression (YouTube, Facebook, Google+, Instagram, Twitter, whatever), where control and disciplined technologies of subjectification fuse with such extraordinary efficiency in a new theatrics of the self, an image of freedom (of expression) gives itself to view as an endless stream of more or less grotesque, more or less innocent, selfies expressing nothing other than individualistic self-expression. Brian Massumi reminded us a few years ago, that when we "ask an individual to express him or herself, what comes out is a cliché". In this case, the maximal cliché of our contemporaneity is the individualisation of maximal violence. In this sense, I see no difference in nature between so-called 'Middle Eastern' violence and 'Western' violence; European neo-liberal violence and South American governmental violence; Muslim fundamentalist violence and European nationalist violence; police violence and gang violence; violence against representation and violence against participation. All of these violences produce and promote, express and reproduce the conditions under which the proliferation of the fascist multitude – fragmented, aestheticised, individualised – appears as a generalised political-aesthetic project for exercising not freedom of expression, but above all, the multitude's selfies. Between them, only degrees and modes of suffering change.

Ours is then the age of proliferating little freedoms, so necessary for the permanent securitisation of life typical of the "control societies" identified by Michel Foucault and theorised further by Gilles Deleuze. What neither one of them could have anticipated in the late 1970s or in the late 1980s, is that those many little freedoms that societies of control implement to insert ever more control at the very heart of subjectivity, turning control into self-control, would find a new expressivity thanks to the transformation of the old 'Self' – that discipline had both to build and to supervise – into a proliferation of individualised selfies – that above all must permanently produce images of themselves. Just as Deleuze commented to Antonio Negri on how, "compared with the approaching forms of ceaseless control in open societies, we may come to see the harshest confinement as part of a wonderful happy past", it may very well be that one day we will regard the Self as a structuring component of an order of sociability and subjectivity more resistant to fascism than its little insidious-expressive version, the multitudinal selfie. Thus, compared to what Benjamin had witnessed in the 1930s, it is no longer the masses, but the multitude that becomes the vehicle for a contemporary reinsertion of fascism's fundamental mechanism: to grant the opportunity for expression (of the personified self), but not the right of expression (of articulated, impersonal, and critical-political alterities).

And what can a little self, a selfie in the age of epideictic paroxysms, do once it finds spaces for little expressive freedoms even if these spaces exist in the hyper-supervised, highly policed, corporate electronic-panopticum? Most often, it affirms to the maximal degree, it imposes with shameless fundamentalism, its utter self(ie)-convictions. "Come and express yourselfies to the World!" – this is the call that almost no one seems to be able to resist. We are confronted with a very odd situation: thrown into the vortex of total individualism under the name of self-determination, self-righteousness, or self-justice, the proliferation of actions where personal convictions are opportunistically set into motion in a simulacrum of sociability known as 'social networks' result in the organisation of individual acts of extreme violence emerging as another side of the multitude, its electro-photo-micro-fascism. No longer organised guerrilla groups, no longer terrorist cells, but more and more lone or solitary, self-centred agents of revenge, more and more selfies corporealised in non-screenal life in order to affirm through their individual violent acts, against life and against art, that the selfie is not impotent, that it is not just an image, that it has the capacity to impose total violence – in the name of fundamentalist religiosity (Charlie Hebdo) or in the name of extreme-right national politics (Anders Breivik in Norway).

The brutality of the politically expressive selfie (whether in Islamist or neo-Nazi militancy, whether in racist police brutality in the United States or European neo-colonialist racisms) is not unprecedented in its choreographies and imaginations. Decades of Hollywood movies and TV series have not only conceived and rehearsed its scenarios of utter violence and violations (whether by governments or by solitary wolves taking justice in their hands), but most importantly, such monomaniacal repetition of the same has constructed acquiescent subjectivities, a kind of somnambular subject for whom absolute violence taken by an individual has been reified as pertaining to the very condition of being human. Here, once again, images and imaginations function in tandem with our particular formations of selfie-expressions of violence. Indeed, from the most innocent of animated movies for children to the most explicit Hollywood thrillers, there has only been one plot over the past three decades. It goes like this: regardless of who you are and where you live, how polite, educated, sensible, ethical, innocent, fragile, coward you are, one day – delicate princess in some castle or scarred war veteran isolated in some cabin in the woods, white middle class housewife in New York City or black successful doctor leading a happy bourgeois life in Los Angeles –, one day you will find yourself in a situation in which you will have to take matters in your hands and perform an act of unthinkable violence that you had never thought you would be capable of – an act against the law, but in the name of justice. It matters little if this action is the little girl pushing some wicked witch into a bottomless fall, or the good doctor stabbing to death his foe in a bloodbath of close combat. Violence is for all to take, to partake in, and in partaking, to enact, one day, given the right opportunity. Deadly violence is the avatar of the selfie, it's potential energy. This is how the state of exception becomes a personal politics of the selfie.

It may be too pessimistic a view. But, it may also be that "The organization of pessimism is the only order word which prevents us from perishing," as Pierre Naville wrote already in the 1920s in La Révolution et les intellectuels. Indeed, before the recent obscene usurpation of "hope" and "yes we can" and against the corporate-governmental impulse to "connect the world via the Internet" as a way to more policing, and against the demands to "express oneself" as the normative aesthetics of the individual, it may be useful to critically activate the word "pessimism". Here, we return to Walter Benjamin, cartographer of fascisms. Already in 1929, in his essay on Surrealism, Benjamin sees pessimism as an urgent project: political, theoretical, critical and aesthetic. "Pessimism at all levels. Yes, certainly and totally. Suspicion about the destiny of literature, suspicion about the destiny of freedom, suspicion about the destiny of European man, but above all triple suspicion before all accommodation: between classes, between peoples, between individuals. And unlimited confidence on IG Farben and in the pacific development of the Luftwaffe..." In a horrific twist that further reminds us how pessimism is never radical enough, Michael Löwy makes this devastating comment regarding Benjamin's only two glimpses of "confidence" or optimism in 1929: that not even Benjamin – "the most lucid of pessimists" – would foresee that IG Farben would develop the infamous Zyklon B component, used in the gas chambers of Nazi death camps, and that the Luftwaffe would start raining hell over most of Europe just a few years later.

Before the world wide web of extreme and deadly attacks on art and freedom, on art as expression of freedom, on art as practice of freedom, a grounded, methodical and radical pessimism might offer a way out of the fascism of expressing selfies. As Löwy writes: "Benjamin's revolutionary pessimism (...) has nothing to do with fatalist resignation. It is evidently not a contemplative sentiment, but of an active pessimism, 'organized', practical, turned completely towards the objective of impeding, by all means possible, the advent of the worst." Radical pessimism as a joyful force affirming a new assemblage between art and thought, art and politics, politics and freedom, art and freedom – an assemblage that nevertheless must not be confounded with a new, if negative, disguise for optimism, particularly the optimistic selfie expressing its little freedoms of extreme violence 24/7.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Agamben, G. 1998, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, San Francisco, Stanford University Press.

Benjamin, W. 2003, « The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility (Third Version)», in : Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Vol. 4 (1938-40). New York and London, Belknap Press, originally published in 1939.

Löwy, M. 2005, Fire Alarm. Reading Walter Benjamin's 'On the Concept of History', London and New York, Verso Books.

Massumi, B. 2010, « Action Fragments for the City. Interview with Jean-François Prost », in: The Swedish Dance History, Stockholm, DOCH.

Naville, P. 1975, La Révolution et les intellectuels, Paris, Gallimard/Idées, originally published in 1926.

« Gilles Deleuze in conversation with Antonio Negri », in:* Futur Anterieur 1* (Spring 1990), published as « Control and Becoming » in Deleuze, G. 1995, Negotiations. New York, Columbia University Press, translated by Martin Roughen.

Posted 25 Apr 2015
comments powered by Disqus