Thursday, June 20, 2013

Prism, Surplus Sociality, and the Crisis of Semio-Capital

The recent revelations regarding the intensity and extension of state surveillance are scandalous, but I’ve been consoling myself with one fact: the state isn’t exactly a brain trust. A cursory look at the texts produced by the FBI and DHS in their surveillance of Occupy, for instance, reveals that intelligence gatherers so frequently have no fucking clue what they are looking at. Of course, the state needn’t be smart to make its sense of reality right. Indeed, the scandal of sovereignty isn’t that the state might know too much (or, in yesteryear, too little), but that the power of sovereignty is realized in the capacity of the state to absolve itself from epistemological or normative bindings. States do not need to be right to do shit, and states of stupidity are frequently weaponized. So, in stressing the stupidity of the state, I’m not at all suggesting that an augmentation of state power like Prism is somehow irrelevant. I do want to stress, though, that in our critiques of Prism we would do well to avoid conflating the state’s gathering of intelligence with the state’s becoming intelligent, of conflating its aggregating big data with its becoming an attuned and sovereign close reader. Such a conflation, I’m going to suggest, abets a neoliberal reconstitution of the modality by which citizens appear before the state (and helps explains the detestable contortions over Prism by people like David Brooks and David Simon). To get there, I want to trace out the incredibly fragile structure of state and capitalist power that organizes contemporary logics of governance.

States emerge, grow, and maintain themselves by capturing flows of capital, and this means that the material and formal constitutions of states to some degree derive from the modalities of capitalist production that they encounter. As many have argued (from autonomist oriented people like Marazzi, Bifo, Hardt & Negri, to vanguardists like Dean), today the production of information, affects, and social communicability is the paradigmatic form of capitalist production. Capital has become semio-capital (Bifo’s term), and the semiotization of capital means that producing or capturing value entails the production or capture of information.  This production is not localized to individual firms; rather, it takes place across the broad fabric of the social. As you’re doing cheeky things on Twitter or Facebook or YouTube, you’re also producing value for capitalists. (“Remember when we used to make things?” laments the television character of one cop-loving Prism apologist.) One effect of the transformation in the value-form marked by semio-capital is that value is increasingly and directly functional for the enhancement of state power. Capitalist and statist modalities of securitizing the social blur together: each needs to produce or capture the information produced by social subjects. The predominance of for-profit, private security firms in the current fabric of Yankee intelligence gathering in part indexes the fact that the contemporary form of semiotic value has created the possibility of a tendential identity between capitalist and state power. There is little substantive difference between, say, Google’s data collection and the NSA’s (meta)data (meta)collection. The former intends profit, the latter security, but the modality of achieving both is roughly identical.

But one hiccup: semio-capital has been in crisis since day one. The eyes of info-capitalists are bigger than their stomachs. They know that the sociality unleashed—or simply re-presented—by the semiotization of capital possesses a value of nearly unlimited extent. Every capitalist knows that the information contained on the Internet has value. And it does. But semio-capital is just godawful at monetizing and profiting from this value.  This disparity becomes legible in the disproportion between stock values for semio-capitalist firms and their actual revenues. Such disproportions are not simply the effect of a mistaken valuation. Rather, the disproportion indexes, in a language that capital understands, the exorbitancy of sociality to the value-codings of capital. The potential value that Facebook or Google commands will always exceed its capacity to realize that profit. Capitalism’s attempt to monetize sociality as such had as a consequence the uneasy recognition that the social possesses an infinite value—or, functionally, no value. Through semio-capitalism, capital confronts a surplus of sociality that it cannot contort into realizable surplus value. Semio-capital inhabits a perpetual realization crisis, routinely confronting the impossibility of transforming product into profit.

The rise of private semio-intelligence firms, then, should be understood as an attempt of collective semio-capital to manage the realization crises that it cannot not encounter. It’s not an accidental scandal that private intelligence firms are so bound up with the state; it is an effect of the immanent logic of capital. I don’t have the data (or the competencies required to produce it), but I’m willing to bet that the rate of profit for private intelligence firms generally exceeds that of other firms invested in semio-capitalist production. The value-form of semio-capital will always shatter against the infinite surplus of sociality it attempts to capture; collective semio-capital thus looks to the state to cohere and realize this value. Infinitely valuable and so entirely worthless, sociality as such becomes capitalist value through its functionality for statist command. Because it wants to rule the social directly but cannot achieve this aim through the value-form of capital, semio-capital necessarily becomes state-capital.

Let’s be clear about what all of this means: to the extent that the state fosters the growth of semio-capital, the state immediately enhances its own power. This is the dialectical flipside of the apparent waning of the presence of the state—the dismantling of social protections, the increasing privatization of state functions, the diminishing capacity of citizens to interact meaningfully or effectively with apparatuses of power… By fostering the growth of immaterial and infomatic modes of production, neoliberal policy becomes a tool for the augmentation (not dismantling) of the state. Indeed, the very modality by which the state approaches the social has transformed. The state and civil society no longer engage in a virtuous dialogue mediated by a public sphere. The state doesn’t locate the truth of the social in missives that are addressed to it—a petition, a newspaper article, even a vote. Semio-capital has created a condition in which mediated forms of state/social engagement have been absorbed by the immediate presence of the social to the state. The state can listen in on civil-social auto-representations that in no way intend acceding to the rationality of the public or political sphere. Once (according to bourgeois ideals) an interlocutor, the state has become a silent reader, a mere listener, one frustratingly proximate and distant, one intimate but terribly remote.

Neoliberal semio-capital has thus produced a new phenomenology of being a phenomenon: the citizen will never know if her words have gained power’s ear, if she has in fact achieved political phenomenality.  The state listens, listens to everything, but we will never know what it hears, if it has heard, if it can hear.

The scandal of Prism consists, then, not simply in what the state might know about its citizens, but that becoming (meta)data is all that remains of citizenship. A journalistic cohort of White Liberal Dudes have intuited this fact, and I think this accounts for the contortions they’ve undertaken to defend Prism (and engage in absolutely horrid, shitty, stupid psych profiles of Snowden). In scrutinizing the politico-ethical propriety or technological means of intelligence gatherings, liberals have always assumed that the state is (or could be) intelligent—that, at the end of the day, the data that they are will have been an object of state intentionality, that they will have appeared before the sovereign’s caring (albeit suspicious) gaze. The “Obama’s Reading Your Email” tumblr communicates a white liberal fantasy of immediate appearance before the font of power. The state’s current kind of caring is creepy, but hey, at least it’s care. Obama might be reading my email! As neoliberalism destroys the state’s accountability for social upkeep, the best liberals can hope for is that the state will continue to take account of the social, in however slim and de-semanticized a fashion. The fear that the state might overreach, that it might come to know you all too intimately, becomes an apology for neoliberalism insofar as it maintains the bygone fantasy of citizenship: that power intends to capture one in its firm embrace, that one can enter into a positive relation with instituted power—even if you don’t know it has happened.

We need to recognize that there is no guiding intellect gathering the social together, no intelligence that donates sense to metadata, no intentionality that coheres the the sociality we semiotize through communicative media. We aren’t achieving political phenomenality before a Dad in Chief or a Big Brother. The value-form of capital cannot even adequately realize the sociality we live. It can at best pass us off as a mass of data for the intellectual mediocrities staffing the NSA and Booz Allen to work over. But that’s it. That’s what remains of the connection between the state and its citizens. The connection between the transcendence of the state and the immanent plane of the social has never been slimmer.

Liberalism begins with the fear (which will always imply the desire) that Obama is reading our emails. Anarchism begins with the knowledge that he isn’t, even when he tries.  

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