Wesley Metham (University of Sydney)
Obscenity, Seduction, and the Internet
In the academic marketplace of ideas, the Internet has attracted a flury of theory that in some ways resembles the frenzied financial speculation surrounding the net during the mid-90s. Many of these theoretical offerings have been hybrid theories that include elements of political theory, cultural studies, and structuralist philosophy. Common to many has been an assertion of the Internet’s anarchistic qualities. Whether through an application of theories of dispersed subjectivity, or interpretations of the slippery practise of the censorship and governmental control of cyberspace, commentators often conclude that the Internet will make a distinct and important contribution to a fundamental and permanent undermining of the state.
However, the philosophical grounds upon which such claims are made are not without their competitors. Two philosophers whose work can provide the basis for analogous and original critiques of the anarchistic dimensions of the information society, but whose work is rarely compared, are Jean Baudrillard and Giorgio Agamben. I will attempt a comparison of these two writers, particularly with regard to their respective accounts of the state, and of the possibilities of undermining the state's colonizing powers.
I will argue that the novelty of these two writers is that both posit a relationship between state and identity which eludes the notion that the state is limited by its capacity to recognize and incorporate a certain plurality of identities. I use Baudrillard's politics of seduction to interpret and expand Agamben's notion of “whatever identities”, and to develop an understanding of these in terms of the ICT as a metaphor for the end of the state.
Manuel Castells succinctly expresses one major tradition that extrapolates political possibilities from global information infrastructures. In his series of three volumes that go under the encompassing title The Information Age, Castells promotes the familiar argument that, through the unearthing of powerfully resistant identities, the Information Age introduces a legitimation crisis of extreme pluralism to the liberal-democratic state. In this tradition of interpretation, ICTs function as a metaphor for the socio-political challenges of a radically pluralistic social arena. ICTs are seen to operate as a means of unearthing identities that have otherwise been subjected to historical repression under other, dominant identities.
In Castells, a historical narrative is established which posits the 18th century founding of the liberal-democratic state as “built on the denial of the historical/cultural identities of its constituents to the benefit of that identity that better suited the interests of the dominant social groups at the origins of the state.” (Castells, 270) Taking identity and its socio-political operation as the leitmotif of his thinking, Castells characterises the constitutive liberal-democratic moment as that which establishes the dominant and dominating “legitimizing identity”, which is the bourgeois-liberal citizen.
Castells offers his notion of “the network society”, a globalized arena in which connected nodes of power operate on multiple levels of authority, as the historical counterpoint to the liberal-democratic era. Characteristic of the network society is the “resistance identity”, which often appropriates the tools of globalization and utilises them to challenge established modes of hegemony. Here the unique structures of new ICTs are introduced as of fundamental importance to the history of the liberal-democratic state. The Internet is posited as a site in which marginalized identities from both the left and right have the opportunity to form both direct networks of participation, and indirect networks of global communication.
However, where these questions of communicational infrastructures and networks are raised, the challenges of theories of subjectivity aren’t far away. Much of the work conducted by Jean Baudrillard during the 1980s and 90s, including his theory of seduction, is indicative of this.
In Seduction, Baudrillard’s project is to set the politics of seduction against psychoanalysis. Pyschoanalysis, and its talking cure, are deemed to belong to the order of production, which attempts to "force what belongs to another order (that of secrecy and seduction) to materialize." Only through seduction, through the cultivation of that which is hidden, can we find the place that "alone constitutes pure gratification (jouissance)." For Baudrillard, Freud’s obsession with the production of mental life, with the perpetual bringing forth of the unconscious mental material, leads him to a view of human subjectivity limited by the “axiomatics of sexuality.”
However, Baudrillard’s use of seduction is not limited to a critique of Freud. Rather, it is often an implicit and explicit feature of his commentary of mass communication and the mass media (and, along with the complimentary concept of symbolic exchange, might be posited as the most important normative basis of Baudrillard’s thought). It is the ubiquity and pervasiveness of mass communication which institutionalizes and socializes the opposite of mass communication, in the form of the “obscene society.” Through a synthetic reading of the psychological importance designated to seduction in Seduction, and his description of the contemporary condition of obscenity in texts such as The Ecstasy of Communication and In The Shadow of the Silent Majority, we can interpret Baudrillard’s paradoxical statement that “We are in universe where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning.”
Baudrillard is not inclined to speak of information networks, and their accompanying nodes of power, in the manner in which Castells does. Rather, in Baudrillard, television figures more prominently as the emblem of the obscene society. However, in Baudrillardrian terms, Castells' model of the network society can be understood as one characterized by the globalizing scope of production. Again, production here does not only stand in for the modes of production characteristic of a Marxian interpretation of the capitalist arena. Nor does the emphasis on production allude to the constructive or manipulative dimensions of the production of identity, in the fashion of an ideology critique. Rather, what becomes important is the overarching opposition between production and seduction. Here the information network does not figure as a challenge to the legitimating identity of the liberal-democratic state, but is a colonization of seduction itself.
Thus Baudrillard’s projection of his seduction-production opposition onto the contemporary, mass-mediated arena seems to have particular relevance to the Internet, and the political aspirations often ascribed to it. In further establishing a theoretical basis for understanding the political implications of globalizing ICTs, I attempt to draw an analogy between Baudrillard’s theory of seduction and Agamben’s theory of the “whatever identity.” Unlike Baudrillard, Agamben is not overtly involved in a theory of mass culture, or mass communication. However, Buadrillard's theory of the obscene society, of the society that produces information, which is the institutional obfuscation and degradation of seduction, can be adapted to Agamben.
The whatever identity is one of the most important features of Agamben’s work, and his conception of “the coming community.” For Agamben, these identities do not rely on “the claims of society against the state.” Rather, whatever identities “cannot form a societas within a society of the spectacle because they do not possess any identity or vindicate or any social bond whereby to seek recognition.” (Agamben, 87)
This notion of a political agency, or absence of agency, closely resembles Baudrillard’s politics of seduction. In both, withdrawal, rather than the assertion or institutional recognition of identity, is the salient strategy. In both, the order of the real is submitted to a politics of hiding and covering that which the state can colonize and appropriate. However, Agamben utilises a language more allied with an anarchistic political-philosophy, in contrast with the implosive methodology of Baudrillard's "fatal theory." Thus Agamben poses the distinct qualities of the whatever identity against the potential of a confrontation with the state:
“In the final analysis, the state can recognize any claim for identity – even that of a state identity within itself.... But what the state cannot tolerate in any way is that singularities form a community without claiming an identity, that human beings co-belong without a representable condition of belonging.” (Agamben, 85)
Thus, for Agamben, a seductive politics provides the only means of introducing a crisis to the liberal-democratic state. The politics of these whatever identities, these actors in a politics of means without ends, provide an immediate point of contrast with Castells’ resistance identities. Whereas resistance identities are formulated as introducing a crisis to liberal-democracy through their contribution of a radical plurality, Agamben’s whatever identities seem to be empty shells of resistance, seducing the state by their very unwillingness to assert their claims.
At the same time, they have an equally different place in Castells’ network society. If, when taken from a Baudrillardrian point of view, the distinct sociological character of the Internet is its propensity to produce identity, then in Agamben’s politics of means without ends the Inernet would seem to have an ambivalent relevance at most. More than this, if in Agamben the state would seem to have the capacity to continually appropriate identities that possess and assert content, then the Internet’s expansive scope for the production of identity would seem to contribute to a nightmarish potential for the state’s continuation.
However, can we so readily dismiss ICTs, such as the Internet, as a metaphor for political change driven by plurality? Might we speculate on some means of reconciling Baudrillard and Agamben’s seductive politics with the modernizing narrative implicit in Castells’ work?
For example, we might suggest that if the action of the net is to uproot hybrid and plural identity, we can postulate that its action makes us, those who use it and those who consider it, aware of changing relationships of division. This is not division in the terms of class struggle. Rather, the notion of division is useful in that it evokes both the terms of fluid relationships between particularized identities, and the necessity of absences constructed through the creation of such identities. That is, through the lens of division, we might understand the net as an infrastructure of identity that makes us aware of the necessity of both the most immediate presence of particularized identity, and the most immediate absence that such identities also entail. In this sense, we become aware of a politics in which seduction and production communicate and coexist.
I wish to propose a model of the Internet that understands it in terms of networks of seduction. These are networks in which particular identities not only strengthen their own networks in the context of the liberal-democratic state, but also through their presence on the same global ICT infrastructure, continually seduce each other. Through such a reading we might move toward an understanding of ICTs which extrapolates political possibilities from them, but which does so in a manner which takes account of the new basis for a critique of the state which Baudrillard and Agamben’s work offers.
Agamben, Giorgio. Means Without End: Notes on Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. C2000.
Baudrillard, Jean. In The Shadow of the Silent Majority. New York City: Semiotext(e). c1983.
Baudrillard, Jean. The Ecstasy of Communication. Brooklyn, N.Y. : Autonomedia. C1988.
Baudrillard, Jean. Seduction. Basingstoke: Macmillan Education. 1990.
Castells, Manuel. The Rise of the Network Society. Malden, Mass: Blackwell. 1997.