#Neoliberation: The Self in the Era of New Media
by Marina Elvira Ruiz, Christoph Herms, Erica Masserano, Luca Miotto, Kanar Patruss, Isabel Vegas Gómez, Patrick Wielowiejski
Is liberation passé? Or has liberation, in light of the potentialities offered by a spectrum of new media, gained new relevance as a concept and ideal—in other words, are we seeing the emergence of a ‘neoliberation’? This is what we asked the participants of the conference ‘#Neoliberation: The Self in the Era of New Media’ that took place at the Centre for Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London, on 9th and 10th June 2015. As the pun behind the word ‘neoliberation’ already indicates, a certain scepticism underlay the formulation of our call for proposals.
The tearing pace at which new media and technologies have developed in the last decades, accompanied by ever-increasing social inequalities and the ascendancy of neoliberal capitalism, renders a critique of this new globalised, networked and synchronised context necessary. ‘Liberation’, both as an individual and political goal, has seemed out-dated and naïve ever since Michel Foucault’s fierce criticism of what he called the ‘repressive hypothesis’ (Foucault, 1978). Because concepts like ‘liberation’ and ‘emancipation’—so important to both Marxist and Freudian genealogies of thought—presuppose a teleology of historical progress and the existence of a human essence waiting to be freed from repression and alienation, they have lost currency after postmodern critique. However, in the wake of Foucault’s impact on the humanities and social sciences, we have been left with the question of what a positive vision of sociality might be. There is a need to ask not only what these developments ‘do’ within contemporary culture, but also to ask normative questions again: are new media and new technologies just new forms of domination, both on the macro-level of governments and corporations and on the micro-level of ‘subjectivation’? Or are there, in fact, ways of thinking liberation from oppressive structures through these technological advancements? In other words: should we liberate ourselves from or through new media?
Communities of feeling and entrepreneurial individuals
We turn to new media for a variety of reasons, personal and professional, looking for a sense of community or trying to (re)present ourselves as individuals. The breaking down of the divisions between public and private, inside and outside, seems to be specific to this type of participative media, and as such a possible justification for the use of the term ‘new’. However, casting new media only as channels for unprecedented forms of communication can be ingenuous, starting from the fact that much of the social interaction that happens within new media platforms follows pre-existing patterns of exchange.
Drawing on Michel Maffesoli’s work, Luca Serafini pointed out that the aesthetic dimension of new media can serve an ethical purpose. He theorised communities emerging within social media as ‘neo-tribes’ that facilitate the formation of archaic forms of community based on ‘pre-rational’, ‘pre-capitalistic’ affective interactions. It is his contention that they open up a space for ‘feeling something together’ that represents an overcoming of some of the central categories of modernity, such as individualism and rationalism. However, while the community-building capacities of ‘neo-tribes’ are potentially liberating, they can also be exploited. The danger connected to the ‘re-enchantment of the world’ constituted within ‘neo-tribes’ lies in the transformation of power conditioned by de-rationalisation: power takes the form of seduction, giving rise to populism which appeals to sentiments rather than rational arguments. For instance, Steffen Krüger analysed the far-right populist movement PEGIDA (‘Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West’) that has recently emerged in Eastern Germany and showed how the social media usage of its followers further radicalises them. Evgeny Makarov’s photography project, presented on the conference’s arts night, on neo-Nazi ‘tribes’ in Moscow who share their pictures of beatings online, addressed similar issues. Moreover, Maitrayee Basu’s contribution on Indian journalistic legitimacy and public space on Twitter reminds us that we have to ask who the people, who have found relative power in new media, are. In her case, it is the English-speaking upper middle classes that are empowered through the relative ability to ‘control’ established journalists by using Twitter—which might, in turn, widen the gap between them and the underprivileged masses who have limited access to technology.
These contributions highlighted how different communities are being constituted through the use of new media and to some extent how these communities contain an affective aspect. However, the affective side of media as a theme did not, in general, play an extensive role and should be addressed more fully in future debates about new media viewed as machines for generating and dispersing affect that they in turn capitalise on. Along a similar line of thought, Angela McRobbie showed how contemporary labour in the culture industry relates to the emotional sphere, expressing a novel neoliberal approach to and concept of work.
As she argued during her talk, ‘creativity is designated by current modes of biopolitical power, as the site for implementing job creation and, more significantly, ‘labour reform’, it is a matter of managing a key sector (…) by turning culture into an instrument of both competition and ‘labour discipline’’. The cultural sphere evolves then into the creative industry, where creativity starts being measured in terms of labour and therefore in terms of productivity. Furthermore, these shifts do not only concern the new kinds of work that emerge in the creative industries, but rather we are facing a ‘creativisation’ of all kinds of jobs, even jobs that were not considered creative before. A job such as the barista exemplifies this in that baristas do not only serve coffee but need extensive knowledge of coffee variants, its roasting and the aesthetics of ‘latte art’.
Adding to the demand for knowledge and cultural expertise is the demand for passion. McRobbie’s term ‘passionate work’ can be seen as an evolution and extension of ‘affective labour’. Feelings such as ‘passion’, ‘pleasure’, ‘affection’ or ‘creativity’ become fundamental in neo-liberal conception of work, where employees do not only have their duties, and are not only required to provide an experience, but also have an authentic emotional investment in their job.
This ‘creativity as a practice of self-romanticisation’ is a way in which capital establishes a more consensual relationship with labour, and thus regenerates itself.
Alessandro Gandini offered insights into the role played by self-branding in the knowledge economy, arguing that ‘social media have come to represent a working tool that serves the curation of a professional identity for purposes of professional success via the enactment of performative practices of sociality’. The practice of self-branding therefore reflects the logics of entrepreneurship enhanced by neoliberal governmentality in the last decades. James Hay emphasised how this ‘social entrepreneurialism’ integral to neoliberalism has been of relatively little interest in ‘critical’ accounts of media generally. He detects the ‘technologies of the (entrepreneurial) self’ in early 21st-century reality TV, or more specifically, ‘realty TV’, which emerged before, during and after the financial crisis. Metaphors of self-appraisal and representation were also featured in the video art by Olga Koroleva and Athanasios Anagnostopoulos), whose engagement with ways of perceiving the self through visual productions added conceptual nuance to the academic discussion. Analysing the curatorial and performative aspect the subject takes on in a neoliberal context opens up for reflection on self-representation and, therefore, the image.
Image, surveillance, vision
With new media being overwhelmingly visual, the realm of image represents a key angle for the interpretation of this context, and the eye takes centre stage. New ways of seeing emerge from the bio-political and mediatic conjunctures of the present which depart from former possibilities for perception. New media have challenged the ways we perceive reality and turned our lives into a public exhibit we are all invited to view, but whose content, as Alessandra Meloni and Clara Miranda Scherffig pointed out, we never truly own.
The dichotomy between the subject as producer of the image and object of it, protagonist and antagonist in this paradigm, can be understood through the lens of biopower, which is characterised by disciplinary mechanisms and regulatory controls (Foucault, 1978: 139). On the one hand, the subject is observed by the camera eye of governmental power, which may identify traits such as physical characteristics or behavioural patterns through algorithmic calculation as unsafe, categorising subjects between 0 and 1, self and other, and rationalising any power bias within the architecture of the algorithm. On the other, the subject may feel that it is liberating itself by offering up its image in social networks, while at the same time imposing on itself practices of self-branding and psychological judgements of self-worth that gain importance in times of neoliberal austerity.
The implications are manifold, whether we look at them through the state-based organisation of surveillance in the panoptic space created in cities by CCTV, as analysed by Yasemin Keskintepe and Ramon Amaro; our own participation in it through the willingly chosen virtual panopticon of social networks in the research of Jamie Hakim, and Begonya Enguix and Erick Gómez; the use of devices measuring the intimate and the vital to conform to standards of health and fitness, as pointed out by James Dyer; or the expression of identities through newly democratised digital media at the fore in the work of Clive James Nwonka and Nour El Safoury.
The question arises if any liberation is possible for the subject within this seemingly apocalyptic context. As Matthew Fuller pointed out, the sites of power are kept opaque; transparency is to be found only as a simulacrum in the glass architecture of Google’s modular campuses that remain heavily controlled through various levels of security both externally and internally. So while new media seem to open up for accountability and addressability, information flows become increasingly ‘black boxed’. But is there a possibility to own new media and not just rely on limited toolboxes, the functionings of which we do not understand and, following Friedrich Hayek, we are happy to be ignorant about?
New ways of engaging with the image, such as computational arts, may be opening up for new aesthetic canons. In the opinion of Joanna Zylinska, non-human vision can be reclaimed in a Harawayan fashion to lead us out of the anthropocentric web we have spun for ourselves and introduce the unexpected in the familiar, giving it a new zoetic dimension. When injected into the computational, then, aesthetics and ethics may create new visions and understandings.
The putative binary between human and algorithmic ways of watching—as several speakers reminded us, algorithms still rely on human agency, and non-human vision is still humanist vision—can be translated into artistic practices. The artworks of Juan Pablo de la Vega and Oliver Spall are concerned with the aestheticisation of formal practices of surveillance (hacking of mobile phones and face detection). By transforming the utilitarian aspects of technological tools into moments of aesthetic revelation, we can also challenge and transform our viewpoint to allow a “‘neoliberation’ of the eye/I” (title of Zylinska’s talk) to occur and lead us into new conceptual situations and new assemblages.
As expected when posing our starting question, there seems to be an ambivalence running through the contributions which, on the one hand, point to dangers of domination associated with technological developments and, on the other hand, attempt to shed light on potentialities for liberation.
But pointing to the existence of those potentialities necessarily opens up the question of whether it is possible to bring them into being, and how to promote and realise them. While the possibilities for critical analysis were many, scenarios of resistance were harder to come by.
Luca Serafini pointed out that politics could use the aesthetic dimension of new media to foster feelings of interest and care which could constitute authentic ethical spaces; Joanna Zylinska’s anti-anthropocentric aesthetics and glitch art pointed a way towards an aesthetics of disruption exploiting the loopholes in new technologies and media. On these points, however, it should be noted that the channels through which the aesthetic experience is occurring, social media, the internet, the technological objects themselves, come pre-designed, carrying limited possibilities. As Matthew Fuller reminded us, it is all too easy to be taken in by the illusion of transparency.
Yasemin Keskintepe offered a rare concrete proposal for disrupting dominant structures facilitated by new media. In relation to mass surveillance carried out by ‘intelligent machines’ she suggested thinking about broadening legal responsibility to incorporate algorithms and account for the fact that they are being invested with more and more agency. On the other hand, it is hard to imagine institutions that would be interested in doing so, or a civil society that could exert the necessary pressure on them.
Along with the more theoretical approaches, it would have interesting to see more efforts such as these that tried offering specific strategies for liberation.
One point on which the conference has shown the importance of research into the ‘neoliberating’ aspects of new media and opened up a space for formulating a positive vision of the political as a concrete practice and not only as a theoretical opportunity is in its critique of the neoliberal subject. If in the last decades the neoliberal governmentality has contributed to the radical responsibilisation of the individual then the starting point for a sharp critique must be the entrepreneurial subject. The extreme heterogeneity of the interventions has confirmed the necessity of a re-centering of the subject in the current political reflection. If we have to emancipate ourselves from anything, this is our very constructed neoliberal ‘subjectivity’.
Thinking the era of new media dialectically as both the neoliberal fragmentation of the social and the promise of new potentialities for ethical spaces and voice-giving to the marginalised is crucial for understanding our present historical conjuncture. However, in order to turn potentialities into lived reality the conversation needs to address the question of how to transform neoliberal domination into neoliberation.
Foucault, M. (1978) The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction. New York: Pantheon.
 The conference was organized by the authors of this paper, all MA students at Goldsmiths, University of London, Centre for Cultural Studies, which kindly funded the conference.
 In German “Patriotische Europäer Gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes”
Readers may also be interested in:
More Open Access material on the TCS Website on the subject of neoliberalism:
In Theory, Culture & Society:
The TCS Special Issue on ‘Michel Foucault’, edited by Couze Venn & Tiziana Terranova: http://tcs.sagepub.com/content/26/6
Nicholas Gane’s ‘The Emergence of Neoliberalism: Thinking Through and Beyond Michel Foucault’s Lectures on Biopolitics’:
Nicholas Gane’s ‘Review Article: Trajectories of Liberalism and Neoliberalism’:
Neoliberalism: A Bibliographic Review
Theory, Culture & Society, December 2014; vol. 31, 7-8: pp. 309–317., first published on September 16, 2014
A Response to Nicholas Gane’s ‘The Emergence of Neoliberalism’
Theory, Culture & Society, December 2014; vol. 31, 7-8: pp. 299–302., first published on September 16, 2014
Thinking Historically about Neoliberalism: A Response to William Davies
Theory, Culture & Society, December 2014; vol. 31, 7-8: pp. 303–307., first published on September 16, 2014
In the TCS Book Series:
You may also be interested in reading more about William Davies’s forthcoming TCS Book The Limits of Neoliberalism: Authority, Sovereignty and the Logic of Competition: