Mark Murphy reviews Richard Seymour’s latest book, The Twittering Machine, which uses a psychoanalytical framework to understand the phenomenon of social media.
Richard Seymour, The Twittering Machine (London: The Indigo Press, 2019). 226 pp. £12.99
Many of us know Richard Seymour as the author of Lenin’s Tomb, a left-wing blog running since 2003, although it seems to have been inactive from 2017 since Seymour moved his writings to Patreon. He is also the author of The Liberal Justification of Murder, The Meaning of David Cameron and Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical politics. This new work represents his intervention into the effects social media has on human subjectivity and modern politics. It is an extended psychoanalytic reflection on social media and the ‘attention economy’, predicated on the birth of a new writing platform which, like the printing press before it, is in the process of upending our social order.
Seymour’s work starts with a reflection of Paul Klee’s 1922 painting, The Twittering Machine. In this painting, we see an array of mechanical birds that are poised over a flaming pit, enticing listeners to their doom. This painting serves as a metaphor for Seymour’s central thesis. The Twittering Machine represents a deformation of a utopian vision, insofar that it represents the tendency of modern digital platforms to harness our attention, to keep us writing and to harvest data from us. In the first chapter, he argues that there has been a transition from traditional print societies to what we can now call the digital platform society: a new way of writing. The central argument is that we now write more than ever; we produce more data than ever before, and this data is fundamental for modern-day capitalism. However, it has toxic effects. With this new era of endless writing, society itself mimics the volatility of the stock market, with its continuous fluctuations, trends, peaks and troughs. He speaks about the birth of the internet ‘troll’ and mass crucifixion on social media. He outlines how social media has resulted in the dissolution of old hierarchies of knowledge and their re-inscriptions into cyberspace. With the birth of the digital age, the enlightened fantasy of instantaneous communication and a general widening of democratic participation has been replaced with technocratic control through addiction.
Seymour’s materialist leanings are less defined by adhering to a classically Marxist framework in the book. Instead, he gives a post-Freudian psychoanalytic account of addiction – a form of psychoanalysis that takes language and desire as its starting point for investigation – which bypasses overtly medical pathologised models. Seymour demonstrates that addiction is not reducible to pure bodily, hedonic (sensation-based) cause and effect. He explains that it is not just about pleasure. Indeed, there is something more going on in the addicted subject. Addiction has something to do with writing (in the most general sense): how we are written as subjects, and how this form of writing always aims at something beyond the pleasure principle: Addiction is about writing and writing is always about desire.
The Twittering Machine exploits our innate ability to write – it monetises and amplifies it. The Twittering Machine treats us as addicts. We may not be addicts, but we are treated as if we are addicts. Seymour explains that the online ‘attention economy’ functions much like modern gambling. This new addictive paradigm demands our attention to keep us addicted through the gamification of all aspects of our online life. The Twittering Machine hits us with constant stimuli through ‘likes’ and similar mechanisms, to keep us attached to the machine, to keep continually scrolling. In later chapters, this model of addiction takes on new weight as he explains how we have become ‘image junkies.’ We cultivate ourselves as an image and, in turn, consume others as image. We create images of ourselves to share with others via the Twittering Machine. Through this participation we willingly buy into a surveillance state. We are beholden to idealised images we can never satisfy. He tells us that our focus should be on addressing these hard material structures which create this wanting-for-the-image in all of us.
Seymour speaks of the paradox of online celebrity, in that it creates a distracted form of identity as we are drawn further and further into the simulacrum (a replication of our world). The more we focus on the forced choice of online identitarianism, the more we exist beside ourselves as we invest in an avatar. The more we focus on ‘ourselves’, the less we live. We become cruel celebrities who contribute individually to a mass sadistic entity that hounds people. Seymour pulls no punches in identifying our inner troll. Trolling is not something that appeared just with the internet; the tendency in trolling has had deep currents in our culture for a long time. He gives an account of their inception and how our modern online world has ultimately generalised their existence to the extent that if we engage in the Twittering Machine, there is the possibility that we can all become trolls.
In a later chapter, he also speaks about the concept of post-truth and the consequences of postmodernism. Both are shorthand for the crises of knowing that comes with the transition from legacy media to the chaotic flux of digital platforms. The far right decries ‘fake news’, and centrist liberals speak of a kind of reverse enlightenment – the undoing of the hierarchies of knowledge upon which truth-claims were made. These, however, are simplifications. As Seymour points out, ‘when was this supposed era of unalloyed truth-telling?’ The criticism, at its heart, is something like, ‘they believe everything now is a social construct or something’. But as Seymour explains, this is a modernist perspective; an enlightenment principle, not a postmodern one. The enlightenment was born from writing, and writing is inherently conservative. It is predicated on exclusion and uniformity. Insofar that truth and objective reality are written just as much as it is read, the real must be repressed. The real is that which cannot and should not be written so reality can function. The digital revolution has, thus, resulted in the uneven distribution of writing, which has upended inscribed hierarchies and uniformities. He tells us that ‘we are, abruptly, writing more than we ever have before. Our ‘scripturient’ disease, the writing symptom, shows, in part, how much was waiting to be expressed before the digital upheaval incited a new revolution in mass literacy.’ The Twittering Machine is, therefore, not a break or blip in an otherwise correctly functioning society that once was concerned only with objective reality, truth and facts. It has merely amplified aspects that have hitherto existed – it is the return of the writing repressed.
It is important to note that the last major book ‘left-wing’ book that gave an account of the impact of social media on our politics was Angela Nagel’s Kill All Normies. The problem with her writing is that it is less a description of the material circumstances of our current digital predicament and more of a moralising screed against the current state of left-wing politics. Likewise, before Nagel, we had Exiting the Vampire Castle by Mark Fisher, who began tracing the jouissance (toxic pleasure) laden tendencies that social media brought out in the left. He tells us that the Vampire Castle – his metaphor for the horror story of social media – is driven by a ‘priest’s desire to excommunicate and condemn, an academic-pedant’s desire to be the first to be seen to spot a mistake, and a hipster’s desire to be one of the in-crowd.’ The problem with Fisher and Nagel’s work, in short, is that they have both become a resource for those who moralise against moralism rather than explain our addiction to moralism. Seymour’s work is vital because he refuses to be drawn into any form of moralising. The psychoanalytic insight, which underpins Seymour’s work, therefore resists externalising, moralising and fetishising the return of the writing repressed. Instead, he argues that it needs to be looked at honestly as we are a part of it whether we like it or not. Against the all too common ‘techlash’ theme, he argues that social media does indeed bring out fascistic and conspiratorial impulses, but it has also given a voice to the marginalised. Moreover, even if the Twittering Machine does give the marginalised more voice, it does so at the expense of handing power to huge corporate entities like Google that monetise our attention.
In the end, The Twittering Machine is an agnostic ‘Chronophage’ – a monster that eats and monetises time. The ‘Chronophage,’ in turn, transforms us into ‘Dramaphages’: attention driven creatures hooked to the simulacrum through endless emotional stimuli. It does not care about good or evil, left or right; it cares about your time on screen only. It works to literally take our life away and consume it second by second as we glue ourselves to the screen. Earlier in the book, he reflects on addiction as being a type of devotion, something which we commit our lives to. The tragedy of our predicament is that to be ‘scripturient’ – to be thinking, writing and speaking beings – it is impossible to escape addiction since all addiction is a result of diction: a result of our speech, written and spoken. However, if we can never stop writing and speaking, we can at least choose where, how, when, and to whom we write. He ends by asking us, ‘if cyber utopianism has collapsed what would a utopia of writing really be like?’ The promises of utopia have disintegrated into dystopias where we cannot free ourselves of writing. Yet, at the same time, the only option we have is to continue writing in new ways. Therefore, his work ends on an almost mystical note; he reflects that if the current digital dystopias are based on a linear form of writing that creates a superficial, flashy, loud and distracting life, then this is ultimately based on the need to be in the ‘know.’ His work seems to bring up the question, what if we can choose a writing form based on unknowing and uncertainty – relinquishing the need for a truncated certainty offered through a dreamscape of clicks and taps? This would be hard to imagine because our imagining has been captured by a paradigm that has ultimately infected all aspects of our life. What seems to be implicit, in the end, is setting out the question for the following work: How can we collectively refuse the digital without disavowing it? Or what would a collective practice of refusing the digital look like?
This is a timely and important book that I believe all should read. Most of us who are familiar with Seymour’s writing style will have no problem digesting the book. However, it will be difficult if you are expecting merely the reiteration of facts. This is an extended theoretical reflection on the advent, impact and power of social media in our daily lives – a serious and excellent read.