Our collective unconscious of violence: on networks and discipline

This is the text of the talk I gave at the “Public Lives/Private Platform: The Politics of Twitter” Symposium at the University of Amsterdam on May 24th, 2017. I have slightly edited the text to include links to the sources and correct a couple of sentence structures that might have not been entirely clear. Below is the audio of the talk including the Q&A that followed.

This text will probably be old in less than five years. It will probably read as fresh as a Geocities hosted site feels to us now. We will have moved on to new things, new platforms, new forms of engagement. And yet, no matter where we move to, we will most likely continue being part of the systems of violence that have been inflicted on us for the past five or six centuries. Because, no matter where we go, there we are.

So, today I speak of this not so much in the hopes of articulating something that feels futile to articulate to begin with but because I still do hope that by identifying the patterns we can eventually learn to break them, to undo them, to stop this endless reproduction.

In Discipline and punishment, Michel Foucault lays out the mechanisms of control that are used to create docile bodies: “the technico-political register, which was constituted by a whole set of regulations and by empirical and calculated methods relating to the army, the school and the hospital, for controlling or correcting the operations of the body”.

He, at the time, of course didn’t anticipate the role of the network in both hosting and becoming part of the set of regulations for controlling these operations of the body.

The network as simultaneously the site of data collections and the meeting place of social interactions. The networks as not mere metaphors of our interpersonal relationships but as the overlay where the relationships take place, barely mediated by the virtual.

As a side note, the word “virtual” feels like such an old artifact. The network that hosts our identity, our money, our documents, books, works, instructions for home appliances, death certificates, health care records. These networks and data sets supposedly part of the “virtual” realm while, we, the flesh and blood bodies live in the physical. And yet, we could barely exist as subjects-within-this-society without these networks. The “virtual” as the warehouse of the “real”.

The network not merely as part of a system of control and discipline wherein the surveillance is hosted BY the network but also simultaneously coded WITHIN the network. We are observed; catalogued; placed within a taxonomy of bodies under census data; monitored in our purchasing habits and glycemic indexes, one doctor visit away from being declared too fat, too thin, too unstable, too hysterical or too indocile to fit the ever narrower categories of “normal”.

Some have already equated the network, or its contents under the umbrella term of Big Data, to the Panopticon. And to bring it back to Foucault, it might sound, in principle, like a fair comparison. The all seeing eye that keeps us under constant vigilance. However, as valuable as his work on biopower and discipline might be, it falls short in anticipating more contemporary developments. The network is not a Panopticon for there is no centralization to collate this data in order to recreate the totality of our lives from these data sets. Instead, the network as a rhizomatic assemblage.

The rhizome, “an underground mass of continuously growing horizontal stems or roots which extend lateral shoots at certain intervals in order to grow and establish connections with other shoots. There is no hierarchical structure to the growth of the rhizome. It doesn’t function in the same way as an arborescent ‘genealogy tree’ for example, where each point can only be connected along a strict, one directional, vertical line. A normal non-rhizomatic root grows down into the earth, dovetailing and forking from it’s initial base trunk; none of the points at the bottom will reconnect to the top other than through a one directional, vertical tracing”.

Deleuze and Guattari: “‘any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be. This is very different from the tree or root, which plots a point, fixes an order. … There are no points or positions in a rhizome, such as those found in a structure, tree, or root. There are only lines.’”

Each node of these networks exercising its own vigilance, surveillance and control. We are not just watched by the all seeing eye of the State but by multiple eyes on us, each zooming in on a piece of the puzzle we call “our individuality”. The nodes containing fragments of ourselves, our data and our affective connections, the bureaucracy of our lives and the love letters from our past friends, each in its own node, our selves the connecting medium to bring them together. “We”, as the physical embodiment of the network.

And it is within these pervasive networks that both contain and control our lives that Twitter operates as our collective unconscious of violence. If it is true that cultures share certain beliefs and archetypes across generations, ours is the collective unconscious of, to paraphrase bell hooks in “Understanding Patriarchy”, white supremacist, imperialist, patriarchal capitalist domination. Twitter, then, as the site where these ideologies are asserted to discipline dissidence and resistance.

Twitter occupies this singular space where resistance and opposition to the patriarchal order takes place but also, where the reactionary violence to this resistance is deployed in full force. Vigilance, in this double function acquires the form of active intervention. The network not merely storing our data but also our data becoming the signal required by the reactionary crowd that deploys violence as a response. Paradoxically, the so called “Twitter activists” are derided as not engaging in “real” activism (again the persistence of “the virtual” as a separate container) while the actively violent crowd is never defined as “activist” in the sense of performing a task that leads to an outcome.

As bell hooks also points out in Understanding Patriarchy, critique of this system is regarded as passé, sometimes even eliciting laughter from the audience. We are supposed to be post critique even though, as hooks further elaborates “patriarchal methods of organizing nations, especially the insistence on violence as a means of social control”, remain firmly in place. And it is in Twitter where this violence as a means of social control is systematically deployed daily.

Much has been said about the so called “Twitter problem”, a seemingly polite euphemism to discuss different forms of abuse, harassment and intimidation. Journalists, researchers and political analysts have written about the phenomenon. Twitter itself, as a business, has been accused of failing to successfully address the problem.

However, as I have said before elsewhere, harassment and violence on Twitter are not bugs. They are features in a system that demands docility and compliance to sustain policies of austerity and marginalization. As an overlay to the biopolitics of control, the necropolitics of capitalist evaluation of life’s worth and livability which necessitates this constant use of violence to exert compliance. It should have surprised nobody that the most extremist proponents of white supremacy and bigotry would find a way to spread misinformation using Twitter: the networks within the network, the rhizomatic assemblages of neo nazis, extremists and their political representatives operating within the supposedly virtual rhizome, each organizing in different nodes (4chan, Reddit, Stormfront, Breibart) to deploy their strategies on Twitter.

These war machine assemblages, descending on Twitter with a multipurpose strategy: silence, intimidate and harass until the target either gives up or can no longer speak freely for fear of repercussions.

And here, I must make another aside to briefly touch on these groups I call “war machine assemblages”. I came to this idea while thinking of the networks I mentioned above: the nodes connecting our selves, hosting our data and our affective connections. The war machine assemblage, in the sense of “lacking institutional organization, and drawing into its body any number of disparate elements”. Of course, when Deleuze and Guattari articulated the war machine assemblage, there was no network based “virtual” extremism but what else if not “the use of ritualized warfare” are these 4chan gatherings with code names, “operations”, strategies and endless discussions for further deployment on twitter?

In an interview with NPR this week, former white supremacist Tony McAleer, speaking about the phenomenon of neo nazis organizing in college campuses said

“It’s all virtual,” McAleer said. “It’s like an iceberg. You see a bit of it at the top, and I don’t think anybody has really measured how deep and how pervasive this group of disaffected kids is, and what exactly they’re doing online.”

You see a bit at the top”, the war machine assemblage like a rhizome, underground, hidden from plain view, buried unless you know what you are looking for.

The so called “alt right”, as the ultimate war machine and anyone perceived as an enemy of the alt right becomes a potential target. These assemblages operate on a constant reorganization of alliance and conflict, assembling and disassembling on a “per need basis”, celebrating political candidates, attacking figures they perceive to be against their interests, releasing personal data or intimate details of their target’s lives or merely inundating the target with abuse in the hopes of exhausting the victim.

Again, I have to go back to this distinction between “virtual” and “real” that has become pretty much obsolete. What is virtual when these war machine assemblages can win elections, drive people offline, dox, or intimidate into silence?

In an interesting case of mainstreaming of violence, Twitter has also allowed certain corporate media outlets to mimic the behaviors of these alt right war machine assemblages. In The Netherlands, to give one example, Telegraaf Media Groep, the biggest media corporation in the country (and quite possibly in the Benelux) has an entire unit devoted to the reproduction of these strategies of violence. There is no accountability for this profit making scheme, no instrument of social control to stop this corporation from making money from the violence they, themselves, simultaneously create and promote through their platforms. All the while they use Twitter to disseminate their content but, more importantly, to provoke reactions from their victims so that they can later on write about them, further inflicting violence for profit in an almost never ending cycle. Through targeted harassment on Twitter, the employees of this corporation have systematically attacked anyone they perceive to be “on the left” and they have been especially vicious towards minorities, using the most racist and misogynist language, inciting their tens of thousands of Twitter followers and millions of readers to participate in this violence and then writing about the victims reactions, completing the violence-to-content pipeline of corporate profits.

In the UK, mainstream media personalities regularly taunt or provoke those they perceive to be worthy of mockery or disdain, in a breathtaking display of willful ignorance of the power differential involved in these interactions. This week, The Daily Mail, ever the willing participant in the pedagogy of violence, outed the IT professional who solved the biggest malware crisis of this year (so far). The person in question, a Twitter user who had wished to remain anonymous succinctly explained the newspaper’s modus operandi:

The intention of this harassment, no matter who’s behind it, is always the same: silence dissent and discipline those who are perceived as in opposition to the abusers’ ideology.

The so called “left” is not entirely without blame in this culture of violence either. Hilary Clinton’s supporters regularly bear the brunt of their ire with racist and misogynist language that is practically identical to that deployed by the neo nazis. Ultimately, the goal is to try to impose a forcefully homogenous identity on anyone that deviates from the supposed class struggles that this reactionary left considers a top priority.

It is quite telling that the worst abuse is reserved for those who most deviate from the normative dominant culture: Black women, Women of color, trans people, genderqueer, Muslims, immigrants and anyone who is perceived to be a supporter of these groups. Elsewhere, I’ve elaborated on the biopolitics of desire and how the ultimate goal of these groups is to ban interracial relationships to fulfill the political ambition of an all white ethno-state where women would return to their traditional role of bearing children. In these political goals, existing outside the cisgender, heterosexual, white norm, is seen as existing in dissidence. Sometimes, the mere act of existing as a dissident body is enough to trigger abuse.

In turn, these war machine assemblages with their deployment of violence on Twitter create a sort of “theatre of cruelty”. Twitter users who fancy themselves as “neutral” or “not taking sides”, acting like spectators of what is usually referred to as “drama”. This spectacle of abuse and violence reduced to entertainment for idle readers that have become desensitized to the effects of sadism. The devastation on the victims reduced to sarcastic quips, veiled and not so veiled victim blaming, sometimes including instigations in order to further fan the flames for a more intense form of entertainment.

Back in the 30s, Mussolini, understood the value of theater and performance for his fascist agenda. He promoted the teatro di populo, or “theatre of the people” in an attempt to, as Kimberly Jannarone reminds us, redefine the role of the audience and present, “theatre performances [that] were conceived of as “real” events that affected the spectator not as art but as truth, an essential step toward the necessary revolution”. Hitler himself allocated large budgets to the Thingspiel theater movement which sought to remove the individuality of single audience members so that they would instead, identify with the collective of thousands. Twitter’s “theater of cruelty”, with audiences consuming what is practically a form of ritualized abuse in the hands of these assemblages for entertainment, perhaps unintentionally fulfills both goals: the abusive attacks both dehumanize the individual target and the “audience” can identify with a collective larger than themselves. In turn, the reasons behind the violence are presented as “truths”, making the abuse an inevitable consequence of “being or existing in disagreement”.

This contemporary theater of cruelty is networked, happening in real time and hosted by the nodes that warehouse our reality. Twitter, merely the medium to deliver the spectacle, a fever dream of endless racist slurs, misogynist rape threats, leaked private data, violent imagery of battered or dead bodies, Nazi memorabilia, eugenics apologia, Trump threats, genocide advocacy, decapitation gifs and the never ending anti Muslim hatred. This endless stream of “entertaining violence”, serves a multipurpose: it silences the direct targets either by flooding them with a large volume of violence or by directly forcing them offline and it also serves as a cautionary tale, a warning of sorts for anyone who might feel tempted to speak up or express the kind of opinions that make someone a target.

So, going back to my initial comment about “the Twitter problem”, how does one fix this supposed Twitter problem? How does one fix the violence and the abuse, the harassment and the stream of cruelty consumed as entertainment? The reality is that this is neither fixable nor is it a Twitter problem. This is the very foundation of the system we live in. To fix the twitter problem is to fix every underlying issue we are forced to endure as a result of this system of violence that spans centuries. Software solutions might temporarily tamper the problem, maybe reduce some of the intensity or quiet some of the more vocal abusers. However, addressing these minor tweaks on Twitter would merely address the symptom of the rot in our midst. It will make our lives as twitter users more pleasant but our collective unconscious of violence will just move elsewhere or patiently lurk until the next opportunity to strike presents itself.

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