It is recent news (sort of, in the limited sense that the Internet reporting on something that has happened on the Internet is “news”) that Justine Tunney, a former Occupy leader who is now a Google employee, has occupied the @OccupyWallSt twitter account and is using it to advocate for anarcho-capitalism. She seems to be adopting the California ideology hook, line, and sinker, right up to its solutionist limits.
It might be sincere advocacy. It might be performance art. She might be trolling. Hard to tell the difference nowadays.
No, wait, she’s definitely trolling:
My theory is that this is designed to draw attention to the failure of political theater, including the political theater that happens on-line. She uses Yudkowsky’s anti-politics manifesto “Politics is the Mind-Killer,” not to recommend defection from politics, but rather to recommend material political action over merely rhetorical action on public opinion through ‘slacktivist’ Facebook memes.
Personally, I think this is a damn good point for 5:30am. It appears to have been missed by the press coverage of the event. This is not surprising because it is actually politically disruptive to the press rather than just pretending to be disruptive in a way that benefits the press financially by driving hits.
She’s been openly grappling with the problem of the relationship between automation and economic inequality that Peter Norvig and others have been talking up lately. Like Norvig, she doesn’t really address how intellectual property is a source of the economic contradictions that make resolving automation and equality impossible. I don’t know if that’s because this position is truly so esoteric that I’m the only person who thinks it or if it’s because of her professionalization as a Googler. Either way, a capitalist tech institution has indirectly coopted the dormant networking infrastructure of Occupy, which makes perfect sense because the networking infrastructure of Occupy was built by capitalist tech institutions in the first place, except for the open parts.
I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s inappropriate to consider either anarchist rhetoric or anarcho-capitalist rhetoric (or any other political rhetoric) as a totalizing political theory. Rather, every available political ideology is a dimensionality reduction of the actually existing complex sociopolitical system and expresses more than anything a subnetwork’s aspirations for power. Occupy was one expression of the powerless against the powerful. It “failed,” mainly because it wasn’t very powerful. But it did generate memes that could be coopted by other more powerful political agents. The 99% turned into the 47% and was deployed by the left-wing media and democratic party against the Republican party during the 2012 election. Now the 99% is something Googlers talk about addressing with engineering solutions.
The public frustration with Tunney over the weekend misses the point. Horkheimer and Adorno, in Dialectic of Enlightement, (1987) may shed light:
The view that the leveling and standardization of people in general, on the one hand, is matched, on the other, by a heightening of individuality in the so-called leader figures, in keeping with their power, is erroneous and itself a piece of ideology. The fascist masters of today are not so much supermen as functions of their own publicity apparatus, intersections of the identical reactions of countless people. If, in the psychology of the present-day masses, the leader no longer represents the father so much as the collective, monstrously enlarged projection of the impotent ego of each individual, then the leader figures do indeed correspond to what they represent. Not by accident do they resemble hairdressers, provincial actors, and gutter journalists. A part of their moral influence lies precisely in the fact that, while in themselves as powerless as all the rest, they embody on the latter’s behalf the whole abundance of power without being anything more than the blank spaces which power has happened to occupy. It is not so much that they are exempt from the decay of individuality as that decayed individuals triumph in them and are in some way rewarded for their decay. The leaders have become fully what they always were slightly throughout the bourgeois era, actors playing leaders.
To express a political view that is not based on the expression of impotent ego but rather on personal agency and praxis is to violate the internal logic of late capitalist political opinion control. So, duly, the institutions that perform this opinion control will skewer Tunney and discredit her based on alleged hypocrisy, instead of acknowledging that her hypocrisy–the internal contradictions between her rhetorical moves and actions in her career–is a necessity given the contradictions of the society she is in and the message she is trying to convey.
It’s instructive to contrast Tunney as a deliberate provocateur triggering an implosion of political discourse with the more sustained and powerful role of the on-line political micro-celebrity. “Micro-celebrity” was coined by Terri Senft in her 2001 study of camgirls–young women who deliberately strove for attention on-line by publishing their lives through video, still images, and blogs. Senft‘s contributions are for some reason uncited in more contemporary on-line musings on microcelebrity.
Perhaps ironically given the history of the term, many of today’s prominent micro-celebrities are feminists who have staked out a position on the Internet as spokespeople for critiques of more institutionally connected feminism. Michelle Goldman’s article in The Nation documents the developments of on-line feminism in much detail, describing how it has devolved into harsh and immature practices of language policing and ritualized indignation.
Online, however, intersectionality is overwhelmingly about chastisement and rooting out individual sin. Partly, says Cooper, this comes from academic feminism, steeped as it is in a postmodern culture of critique that emphasizes the power relations embedded in language. “We actually have come to believe that how we talk about things is the best indicator of our politics,” she notes. An elaborate series of norms and rules has evolved out of that belief, generally unknown to the uninitiated, who are nevertheless hammered if they unwittingly violate them. Often, these rules began as useful insights into the way rhetorical power works but, says Cross, “have metamorphosed into something much more rigid and inflexible.” One such rule is a prohibition on what’s called “tone policing.” An insight into the way marginalized people are punished for their anger has turned into an imperative “that you can never question the efficacy of anger, especially when voiced by a person from a marginalized background.”
Similarly, there’s a norm that intention doesn’t matter—indeed, if you offend someone and then try to explain that you were misunderstood, this is seen as compounding the original injury. Again, there’s a significant insight here: people often behave in bigoted ways without meaning to, and their benign intention doesn’t make the prejudice less painful for those subjected to it. However, “that became a rule where you say intentions never matter; there is no added value to understanding the intentions of the speaker,” Cross says.
I’d argue that this behavior, which less sympathetic or politically correct observers might describe as carefucking, is the result of political identity and psychological issues being calcified by microcelebrity practice into a career move. A totalizing political ideology (in this case a vulgarized version of academic feminism) becomes a collective expression for libidinous utopianism. The collective raise a few spokespeople to the level of “decayed individuals.” As the self-branding practices of micro-celebrity transform these people from citizens to corporations, they become unable to engage authentically or credibly in public discourse, because the personal growth that comes inevitably from true discourse would destroy their brand.
Tragically, it is those that succeed at this gamified version of public discourse that eventually dominate it, which explains why in the face of racially motivated and populist anger, better situated feminist intellectuals are retreating from grassroots platforms into traditional venues of media power that are more regulated. Discussing Mikki Kendall, one of the people who started the hashtag #Solidarityisforwhitewomen, and Anna Holmes, founder of Jezebel, Goldberg writes:
The problem, as [Kendall] sees it, lies in mainstream white feminists’ expectations of how they deserve to be treated. “Feminism has a mammy problem, and mammy doesn’t live here anymore,” Kendall says. “I know The Help told you you was smart, you was important, you was special. The Help lied. You’re going to have to deal with anger, you’re going to have to deal with hurt.” And if it all gets to be too much? “Self-care comes into this. Sometimes you have to close the Internet.”
Few people are doing that, but they are disengaging from online feminism. Holmes, who left Jezebel in 2010 and is now a columnist for The New York Times Book Review, says she would never start a women’s website today. “Hell, no,” she says. The women’s blogosphere “feels like a much more insular, protective, brittle environment than it did before. It’s really depressing,” she adds. “It makes me think I got out at the right time.”
Sarah Kendzior has critiqued Goldberg, saying her article is an attack on Twitter as an activist platform by a more powerful feminist establishment that controls who gets a voice.
Social media is viewed by gatekeepers as simultaneously worthless and a serious threat. Balancing these opposing views requires a hypocrisy that can be facilitated only by the assurance of power.
Gatekeepers to mainstream feminist venues, like Jezebel founder Anna Holmes, proclaim that tweeting is not really activism. In contrast, the women behind hashtag activism argue that Twitter is one of the few outlets they have in a world that denies them opportunities.
Kendzior is right on about how dismissing your opposition as powerless while expressing anxiety about them as a threat is typical of powerful threatened people, and especially those whose power depends on their control of communication networks, brands, and audiences. In the culture industry, this is a matter of the bottom line. Competition for market share among, say, women on the Internet requires defining a kind of feminism that is both empowering and sale-able as a commodity. This in turn relies on the commodification of female identity available as a collection of literature and talking points. There are of course different market segments and products. Lean In targets a particular demographic–upper middle class women in large tech corporations. Naturally, the feminist writers in the culture industry hate Lean In because it is a competing product that ultimately exposes their own vulnerability to the vicissitudes of the technology companies they depend on for distribution. By preventing women from achieving technical efficacy over their own lives through career success, they maintain their market of women who need vocalization of the unfairness that their immaterial affective labor is unrewarded by the market. By cultivating and promoting only those mico-celebrities who can be reliably counted on to attack their political and economic enemies, this “feminist” establishment reproduces itself as a cultural force.
Truly radical voices like Justine Tunney’s which critique the cultural control of the media establishment without with dogged and unreflective monotony of micro-celebrity practice will fail at being actors playing leaders in the political theater. That is because they are the kind of leaders that don’t want to be leaders but rather are making a call to action.