I wanted to take some time to discuss elements of what I’d like to call the ecstasy of identity. This isn’t a wholly new thought, but an idea modeled off Baudrillard’s theory that our new reality, a hyperreality, is defined by an ecstasy of communication, whereby the objective world has been transformed into a postmodern carnival. Our new jobs: to manage our virtual selves on a global network, where, despite the abundance of information, confusion and illusion abound, rendering real communication impossible.
Now that we have become inured to our positions in a complex world overrun by a surfeit of information, a sequel to communication must unravel. If the accumulation of capital is anything like the accumulation of information, it will no longer be enough to get news from everywhere, to be on eighteen different apps at once. This surfeit has provided no greater access to even our false selves; it is just confusing. The problem of not knowing who we are has given way to not knowing who we think we should be. Did we ever? There was indeed a time where our faiths, our families, our vocations, and a collective vision of humanity could provide us with meaning. There were ideals that all members of a society strived toward. Today, those ideals have been totally perverted, and this has bled into every facet of our lives.
As society becomes more intolerable, so our distractions must become more illusory. Because we are distracted to death, because the technological object has become an end, and we are merely the tools to power it, there is an utter absence of meaning, a fractured narrative, a giant cloud over the social that more closely resembles a yawn in the shape of a zero. There is nothing for us, and so those who know this know we must do our best to reclaim what once was possible. But what forms of resistance are possible? The culture industry, with its brand- and nostalgia-managers, works tirelessly to beguile us, to dangle an ersatz carrot in front of our faces. We are treated daily to Democrats and doctors repackaged as saviors, revenge fantasies acted out on the big screen, positive psychology in the university, tourism porn, OnlyFans patronage as a replacement for the sexual act. The only way to counter this commodification, of course, is by consuming — spitting out and acting the part of even more products. Our salvation has arrived, but it has arrived in the form of t-shirts, protest songs, slogans, all flattened out, all signs with a signified detached.
Rick Roderick once quipped that his undergrads, having no sense of who they were, would try on a new identity each month, several times a term. My week as a beatnik, my semester as a hippie, my year as a leftist — identities and personalities as fads, all of it affected, none of it felt. Is the political the same? Neoliberalism has infiltrated the psyche and the social to such a degree that all we do, even in our downtime, is devoted to preserving bare life. What you do outside of work, if not directly for work itself, has work in mind. This is not by choice, but by design.
It is likely that we will see some sort of proletarian revolution in our lifetimes, but what will that revolution look like? What we saw with BLM this summer is perhaps a harbinger of what is to come: the simulation of a revolution, a corporatized catharsis, the exploitation of human suffering serving to legitimate an advanced form of austerity. This was, in effect, a bourgeois revolution, but it didn’t start that way. Out my window, a few days after that Minneapolis police station burned to the ground, a group of young people coalesced and chanted George Floyd’s name. Several bystanders cheered from windows. A young female protester slashed the tires of a cop car and was promptly arrested. The crowd dispersed; I closed my window.
The subsequent protests, the ones that got local and national headlines, were much different. In the neighboring city to mine, an organized protest drew a crowd of thousands; the event, strangely enough, more closely resembled a music festival, culminating in the protesters and police kneeling together, a sign of solidarity, a sign with the referent removed.
Summer 2020 saw a host of national and international protests similar to this one, each replete with university-friendly radical buzzwords. Instagram infographics highlighted dates and sites for various protests, which drew aesthetic parallels to reunion tour band t-shirts. At one such protest, a group of Black Panthers with guns drawn were found to have been actors from the greater Atlanta area. Technology and capitalism have advanced to the point where workers cannot organize. Power itself is soft, decentralized and obscured; thus, it is difficult to know who is pulling the strings. At home, we get upset when we learn how much celebrities are paid. For doing what? we ask, unaware that what they make is paltry compared to the captains of industry whose names go unmentioned in the popular media channels. The police for a long time have drawn ire from the public, and for good reason. But a certain question should be asked: Why was BLM not a class-based revolution? Why were the oligarchs not targeted? Is the violence that the police perpetuate violence for the sake of violence, or are they acting on behalf of the ruling class, whose violence is more institutional? Some class consciousness has seeped into the popular consciousness, but I am not sure if it is a radical one. Over the summer, a fake guillotine was rolled out near one of Jeff Bezos’ estates. Did those who built it have any intention of using it? Or was it yet another a sign, a photo to take, fodder for a headline?
Identity can now be obtained in the same way goods that were once affordable could be bought. It feels good, perhaps life-affirming, to buy a car, a house, a college degree. As these goods become less affordable to the masses, symbolic exchange increases — it has to. Twitter and TikTok kids with no avenues to wealth will literally “do anything for clout,” or Bourdieu’s social capital. Now, in place of products one can flaunt, all that exists are communicative signs. Today I am a Marxist-Leninist, yesterday I was a Hegelian, tomorrow I will be a Trotskyite. What does it mean? Online, it might seem to mean a lot, but to the average person tuning in to Left Twitter, all of this must resemble spectacle, a theatrical display, with costumed actors speaking in a minor language that only they can understand. But maybe the point of being online is to engage in a simulated catharsis: If revolution is no longer possible, at least I can do owns online. What will follow will be an era of radical careerism, applied nihilism. I used to eschew thinking like this, but I no longer think it’s cynical to engage with reality.