A conceptual preliminary to understanding meme warfare

maxresdefault

The subject of the Internet’s effects on politics has provoked a good deal of nonsense, often attracting the expansive and tedious commentary of people who have little experience at the core of online politics and much less understanding of it. Many of these analyses—though not all—have missed the genuine novelty emerging in the interaction between politics and the Internet, attempting pathologically to subsume it into previous modes of political thought. This retrograde form of analysis is, to be sure, successful to the extent that the Internet is often politically operationalised in a very conventional manner. But there are, substantially, two forms of interaction between politics and the Internet: one which is easily comprehensible, and another which is far less so but increasingly the more important. As a preliminary analysis, it is worth understanding the distinction between the two.

Instrumental-regulatory digital politics

The instrumentalist approach to the Internet represents an intuitive humanist mode of engagement. It begins with a matrix of objectives constituted without reference to the Internet, and attempts self-consciously to bring the Internet to bear on their realisation. Inherent to this is a distinction between humans as social actors and the Internet as an instrument that transparently mediates their interactions.  This mode of engagement encompasses coordinated political mobilisation as much as conventional advertising and broadcasting, in effect positioning the Internet as merely a more democratised form of the familiar twentieth-century mass media, enabling essentially conventional hierarchical as well as peer-to-peer means of transmitting messages with particular determinate goals.

Within and alongside this instrumentalism we may also distinguish a regulatory approach to the Internet that conceives of it as the object of external intervention, subsumed as one particular component of a calculus of power. This is the Internet from the perspective of the post–Cold War state, a tool and also a problem that demands external intervention and regulation—if not because of any direct threat from its weaponization through instrumentally digital politics, then because of the mere fact of its existence as a largely unregulated sphere of social technology.

We may immediately note that this regulatory approach is doomed, in its most vulgar form, to failure, not because of any idealistic inevitability in the free flow of information but because it is technically anachronistic. As a means of communicating ideas, the Internet is extraordinarily, unprecedentedly powerful. Just as ARPANET was originally conceived—at least in myth—as a means of operating a computer network that would withstand a nuclear attack on any number of its nodes, the Internet is functionally insusceptible to control merely by the targeted juridical or securocratic regulation of its particular users.

Other forms of regulation, to be sure, are proving more successful, notably the Russian. But these lie substantially outside the dominant worldview, not consisting of mere external action through and upon the Internet as a docile object; they bear witness to a dialectical interaction with cyberpolitics that puts them beyond the idea of external intervention.

These more mundane instrumentalist and regulatory approaches share fundamentally an identical conception of the Internet, but emphasise respectively its role as an instrument of resistance and an object of security. They are the same view from different vantage points. This instrumental-regulatory perspective, which reached its climax at the start of the 2010s and sees the Internet as an organ subject to external direction one way or another, can no longer accommodate the ways in which the Internet is now affecting and generating new modes of political and social communicativity in its own right—not as ‘mere’ instrument, but as a transhuman subjectivity of its own.

Cyberpolitics

At this point we enter a realm beyond the recognisably modern, in which conceptual categories are only dimly identifiable and a radical state of flux prevails.

We may hazard the following definition. Cyberian politics or cyberpolitics is a politics that flows out of the machinic subjectivities proper to the Internet itself. This is not, as its opponents may hope, simply a different way of understanding politics as it is mediated on social media networks. On the contrary, it is a radically different form of politics as such, an escalating viral insurgency that corrupts/disrupts and struggles to supersede the instrumental-regulatory approach described above.

Marx claimed that the core of the revolution of capitalism consisted in the transformation of the circuit C–M–C’, where money mediates the accumulation of commodities, into the circuit M–C–M’, where commodities are merely a means for the accumulation of money itself. Cyberpolitics similarly represents the transformation of a circuit in which messages, or, properly, memes, are mediated between users, into a circuit in which users mediate the recursive generation of memes. Just as the distinctions between commodities collapse in the eyes of capital, in the realm of hypercommunicativity the distinctions between human users collapse in the perspective of memetic accumulation.

This comparison should not, perhaps, be taken too seriously. Though it is in the ascendant, the mode of machinic subjectivity that undergirds this transformation is still in a very preliminary phase of instantiation. If 2016 was the dawn of cyberpolitics, it is strictly because of Trump, whose victory represented perhaps the first self-conscious loss by the constellated forces of global liberalism to a memetic artefact. From this perspective, Trump’s victory was highly ambivalent. Trump himself is by no means conscious, let alone supportive, of this cyberian futurism in his policy objectives. His campaign drew on cyberpolitics only as much as it depended necessarily on numerous other more retrograde forms of political organisation. The quantitative units of his victory were not 4chan and Facebook and Reddit, but Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida…

But neither focus of analysis is precisely wrong. The Trump campaign participated in and learned its tactics from the Internet with an attentiveness that allowed it to explode beyond the expectations of its opponents. This, in the end, is its historic significance. President Trump is both the culmination and a mockery of the politics of the liberal-securocratic world order, both subject and unwitting object, drawing on the ressentiment and revisionist aspirations of the very worldly malcontents of liberal globalisation while also representing the triumphant humiliation of the planetary order by an alien subjectivity far beyond conventional moral-political economy.

To the extent that the Internet remains simultaneously a network of self-conscious individuals, cyberpolitics can only, inevitably, constitute itself parasitically at the edges and the cracks of traditional politics. We may expect this inconvenience to be discarded in the future. For now, cyberpolitics remains in a state of necessary indeterminacy, flickering spasmodically as it phases in and out of the instrumentalism it seeks to overthrow. Politics cannot, for now, start out as cyberpolitics. Only in the singularities of intensity created by the Internet’s relentlessly compressive communication engine—at the edges of madness—does a subjectivity emerge that can devour the reaction mass of real-world political disintegration to phase-shift to the properly cyberian.

‘In 647 BCE, the Elamite empire was devastated and their capital Susa was sacked by the Assyrians on the pretext that an unnameable abomination was surfacing there, and that everything that came into contact with that benighted entity had to be eradicated.’ (Negarestani)

A dawning realisation of the emergence of cyberpolitics has produced concern, hysteria, and regulatory counterattack. ‘Post-truth politics’, ‘fake news’ all operate (originally) to designate the explosive shockwaves of its birth. They are being absorbed and repurposed by it.

All this is just more reaction mass.

‘The truth is we haven’t seen anything yet.’