INTRO NOTES ON CULTURE AND SEMIOPOWER

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Franco Berardi bundles together communicative, cognitive and informatic capitalism into a superterm he calls “semiocapitalism.” This is a nice coinage but I prefer “semiopower” and prefer thinking broadly in terms of power rather than capitalism. Capitalism is usually too sublime an idol or too satanic a foe, while my feelings are so mixed. I break it into smaller pieces— into markets, marketing, finance, debt, greed, labor, property, money, modernity, excess— in order to unconfuse myself before moving to valuation or critique. Power is easier for me. It doesn’t come pre-valued, for one. Intrinsically neither good nor bad, neither just nor unjust, everything depends on how power is allotted or arranged. As I use the term, power can and should be broken down into smaller concrete pieces, into a plurality of powers that are always converging, counteracting, and operating under nameable circumstances. I read critiques of capitalism as parts of a more general critique of power, under which contemporary capitalism is but one generally economic mode that has assumed a nasty form of domination, control, and abuse. In lieu of semiocapitalism, I like to look at semiopower as it functions and relates in all spheres: economic, political, social, cultural, technical, and wherever else things like the internet have recently scrambled the math of previous orders. That is, everywhere.


When I think about power, it’s power with a lowercase p that covers both its everyday, efficacious forms as well as the overly-concentrated, overly-accreted, controlling, domineering, and abusive forms that are usually referred to as Power with an uppercase P. This includes all of the following: “absolute power,” “biopower,” “the power of persuasion,” “the power of love,” “the power of money,” “knowledge is power,” “girl power,” “powerplay,” “horse power,” and “power ballade.” These are all different modes of power— and even then only loose groupings or formulations, and not naturally distinct modes of power in the world. Power is not distinguishable from what it does or how it relates. It is both figure and configuration, agency and structure. Power is definitely not for me, as it is for De Jouvenel, primarily the State, or an independent figure diabolically imaginable as the Minotaur. Power is whatever actuates, possibilizes or impossibilizes; whatever either forces or influences or conditions, depending on its hardness or softness. Power isn’t the stuff or substratum underlying, say, political power and economic power. Maybe in some hard-nosed sense, power is “only” a scheme for seeing the interrelations between one array of forces and another. Instead of a metaphysics of power, instead of a politics, I’m really more interested in a power dynamics.


I distinguish between modes and configurations. Modes of power, as seen above, can be defined and then rattled off indefinitely: computing-power, eye-power, salt-power, height-power, opiate-power, fire-power, flower-power, street-magic-power … ad infinitum. Power configurations come in a world-historically-wide variety as well, some far juster and more equitable than others. We primarily comprehend justice, equity, democracy, oligarchy, tyranny, domination, oppression, or totalitarianism as configurations of power. While distinct or running perpendicular, configuration and mode can never be considered apart from the other; they require each other for articulation and judgment. The tyrant and tycoon are similar figures or configurations of power, but the way that power operates or leverages itself will differ greatly between juridico-adminstrative-military power (the tyrant) and economic power (the tycoon). Despite the countlessness of these powermodes, we usually only worry about their configurations once they noticeably affect, organize, or bully social being or world history. Street magic, for all we know, might be a complete racket or iron oligarchy. It’s never made or broken empires, though, so for now it’s on the backburner.



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Once certain powermodes do profoundly organize social being, or guide the course of human events, or become coherently commensurable through systems of interaction, equivalency, or exchange, we often speak of them in larger and more abstract clusters: political or “juridico-adminstrative” power, economic or financial power, physical power, military power, technical power, semiotic or semiopower, socio-normative power, and so on. Lawrence Lessig, in Free Culture and elsewhere, cuts the cake up into Norms, Law, Market, and “Architecture”— only calling them “modalities of regulation” due to the specificities of his copyright examples. I also shout-out Lessig here because of how aware and insistent he is that these abstractions are operative and overlapping, not distinct or essential— and that they are dynamic or hanging together interdynamically. Budge one and they all readjust.


Semiopower is itself only a vague cluster of what we could loosely split into communicative, cognitive, and informatic powers. Though as I said, these are being theorized today more in terms of communicative, cognitive, and informatic capitalism— particularly in how semiopower is being organized by and through NorCal behemoths of contemporary capitalism like Google and Apple. However, one of the major things I keep returning to over and over is the evergrowing inadequacy of theorizing solely in terms of capital or capitalism, or of judging new semiopower configurations by older economic modes, when thwarting new and unrecognizable forms of control, domination, and abuse. Berardi himself starts down this road in Precarious Rhapsody when he says that “the categories of the critique of political economy are now insufficient because processes of subjectivation traverse fields that are much more complex. A new disciplinary field is starting to be delineated in the encounter between the territories of economics, semiotics and psychochemistry.


At the same time, he along with many others seem eager to circumscribe this wet, wild “new disciplinary field” within capitalism, expanded terminologies of capital, and— needless to say— the radical legacy of Marx. While I’d never discard or overlook the tremendous contribution of Marx, I’m not a Marxist in any meaningful sense and feel no imperative to retain his methodology, or brand. Semiopower cuts across the terms laid out by political economy, by Marx, and even units conceivable in the economic terms of capital and production. This is obvious in cases like the governmental overreaches of the PRISM program or the public relations department of the Islamic State; it may be less obvious within supposedly neutral institutions like hospitals or universities where a Foucauldian eye is needed for deciphering oblique power dynamics at work. And it might seem completely baffling in places where ostensibly beneficent or democratic ideals— like self-expression, human understanding, or global connectivity— soon flip into forms of systematic control or abstract domination in spite of the best intentions.




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It’s admittedly true: the transformation of society and culture by the ascendency of capitalism parallels in important ways the current transformations of culture and society by the rise of semiopower with the advent of the internet and its ensemble of networked technologies. The vocabulary of many culture critics reflects this: “image economies,” “affective labor,” “attention currencies,” “cultural capital”— borrowing and cobbling from the mode of market or economic power in order to get a better handle on upheavals in semiopower. But could these metaphors eventually run aground— or have they already in places? What happens when we insist on calling on political economy to grasp the immeasurable or the superabundant? Or when we speak of the costlessly reproducible in terms of production? Or implement dialectical materialism to understand the immaterial? Or use “labor” to describe lying on our bed eating Cheetos and clicking through Youtube videos? We could probably force it, but should we?— especially when these modes might so easily fall into direct contradiction. Without a doubt there are identifiable patterns at play, and the superclusters of semiopower are currently still embedded in corporate economic models that— we can hope— respond to 20th century forms of critique and limitation.


I’d suggest however that many of these patterns are recognizable in systematizations and accumulations of nearly all modes of power, not merely the economic modes of capitalism, and that semiopower has the potential to become abusive, domineering, and controlling in a form relatively autonomous from its contemporary economic seedbed (particularly as it relates to culture-making). Our suspicions of semiopower should not be limited to how it’s distorted by what Habermas calls the “steering media” of political or economic forces. Unbridled, unchecked semiopower is no less dangerous than unbridled, unchecked market power, and no more predisposed to truthfulness and democratic arrangement. Just as distortions and imperfect competition quickly arise out of the conditions of perfect markets, a regulatory ideal of “undistorted communication” has to account for the potential for communication to be distorted not only by external powermodes— the corruptions of money or office— but by overconsolidations or oversystemizations of communication itself. To borrow a phrase from Giorgio Agamben (by way of Jodi Dean), communication easily comes under the thrall of its own “communicativity.” Even if released from the interests of the Googles, the Apples, and the Facebooks of the world— from Silicon Valley as a capitalist entity— we should stay on the look out for other monopolies of voice and image, unjustified overconsolidations of attention and medialogical influence, erosions of ethics, personal integrity and social bonds, and sketch out the now-lacking forms of justification and limitation on semiopower if we want to keep the balance tilted toward the just and the good.




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Semiopower, like all modes of power, could be consolidated into tyrannical configurations— theoretically to the point where it exerts a frightening dominance over its current hosts and masters, just as international market-entities emerged from being instruments and handmaidens of the State in the mercantilist age to become relatively autonomous entities that subjugated “society with markets” into what Polanyi called a “market society.” If and when this happens, any of the modest safeguards we managed to erect against market overpower (taxation, anti-trust legislation, consumer protection laws, the Glass-Steagal Act, etc.) won’t be effectively formulated against semiotic overpower, the weird new boss. In fact, they won’t even be applicable.


I think this will be especially true since there won’t be wide public recognition of semiopower as a threat, or even as power at all. As of press time, most of the American public still conceptualizes power in squarely 18th century terms, as primarily political power, or “juridico-adminstrative-military” power, to be limited by the tools invented by Enlightenment lumières and implemented by the Founding Fathers. Have we even come to the point where economic power (or overpower) is itself recognized as power, in need of justification and limitation beyond bald acquisition? In the political arena, a gaunlet of measures faces any person trying to earn political power— experience, electorates, debates, institutions, checks and balances on the office itself— and even if this is all a farce, we still common-sensically ask what they did to earn or deserve this power or position. When it comes to big money or serious financial leverage, however, the meaning of “to earn” rarely goes beyond “to gain” or “to take” to signify anything like “to deserve” or “to merit.” There are still people— living economists, no less— that believe and claim with a straight face that all economic power is self-justified because, according to them, it was gained through a contribution to the social whole via voluntary and symmetrical conditions of exchange. If we’re still dealing with that kind of laughable ideology, do we stand any chance against the slippery and oncoming 21st-century modes and configurations of overpower? Do we have the vocabulary or the will to distinguish between the earning and not earning of semiopowers?


Most people still struggle to understand why the products featured in their spam box— Vyvanse and Zzzquil, Russian police girls, prada diaper bag cheap— cannot actually be purchased through the links provided, but instead only send the clicker through a wormhole of infinite relay sites (i.e., the “infinet”)… “Excellent publish. I’m reviewing continuously this specific weblog for influenced! Very useful information and facts specifically the remaining section :) We handle such information a great deal. I’m trying to get this kind of specific info for the very extensive time period. Thank you and also involving chance.” They’re foggy on what they’re surrendering to the parties great and small that are extracting, systematizing, and leveraging their data: “I couldn’t sell it anyway and they provide free email.” They only imagine the abuses of semiopower in the way it’s instrumentalized as advertising or propaganda— after all, what would it look like for semiopower to become coercive, oppressive, monopolized, dangerous?



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Despite its recent strangeness or flashiness, semiopower is of course not new but as old or older than language itself. We’ve always exerted our communicative, cognitive, or informational power on each other, and on the social whole. Now, as far as affecting and shaping the social whole, it’s becoming less comprehensible and concentrated as a sector of society (that long included the Media and select, conspicuous makers of culture) and more an aspect of everyday social being. Our— that is, everyone’s— semiotic power can now go beyond local influence (and its social embeddedness) and is capable of systematization, accumulation, and redoubling— or for want of a better term, “capitalization.” Semiopower isn’t necessarily more equitably distributed or “free” for all that (though I still think it is a little, for the time being), only that its nodes have multiplied beyond counting and its modes of power are gaining leverage relative to others with each passing year.


Likewise, once upon a time, merchants were a sector or class within society. With the rise of mercantilism and capitalism however, beginning in the 15th and 16th century (and with the lifting of the restrictions on usury or interest and the expansion of commerce beyond geographical locality and embedded conditions of exchange), most every citizen became lesser or greater members of a mercantile class— and now we all participate to some degree in the systems of markets and capital, like it or not. For some, this historical shift was emancipatory, markedly improving material conditions, creating democratic opportunities through labor and investment, and upsetting old political arrangements with bourgeois revolutions and egalitarian movements. While others like Karl Polanyi, as mentioned, look upon this as leading to the transformation of our “society with markets” into a “market society”— the Great Transformation, as he dubbed it— with disastrous results (hint: World War II). In the boulder path of markets, customs and social bonds were shattered, people were displaced from local resources, and everything— and I mean everything— was reduced and subjugated to the logic of commodity and capital. In other words: good, bad, wonderful, terrible, in most cases deeply dilemmatic.


Semiopower, as power, is just as double-edged. It can be and often has been emancipatory (on the historical side of right and underdog emancipation, as I believe the burgeoning bourgeoisie once were) or exploitative and a form of domination (especially when it becomes dominant itself— fully systematic, fully consolidated, wholly irresistible). Mephistophelean, it gives and gets us what we want as it seduces and ensnares us. We think and produce and communicate more while, in the end, our thoughts and products and communications amount to less, or only serve certain systematized and heteronomous purposes. This caveat is of special concern to culture-makers (or to everybody really, to the extent that we’ve all become culture-makers or cultural contributors). Their talents and capacities gain privilege and relative advantage, and they may finally find themselves among the fêtedly semiopowerful, but this inherently comes with some pretty shitty conditions: controls, queasy self-compromises, and unforeseen servitude. And far worse is how it threatens to shit-ify the very culture that’s being made and seen. It threatens to turn public images into porn and “popular in your country,” discourse into glorified SEO, and music into the same Disney music that has dominated the decade so far. Henri Lefebvre was saying much the same when he described signs being reduced to signals rather than enriched into symbols.



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The 21st-century ascendancy of semiopower has been so enabled or possibilized by technics— by internets, phones, codes, encryptions, data, devices, chips, wires, signals, networks— that it would be just as correct or correcter to think in terms of semiotechnics or semiotechnical power. However, I’m more interested in the semio than in the techno, more interested in the humanist registers of power and culture, more interested in the social and cultural effects than the apparatus itself. This means, for me, foregrounding cultural and communicative semiopower in its conceivable and conspicuously molar forms— what Guattari and then Maurizio Lazzarato designate as “signifying semiotics”— and footnoting the technical, the informatic, the “machinic,” and all the molecular “languages of infrastructure” like machine code, non-linear systems, or financial indexes that few human eyes ever see or read.


These footnotes or resources come from two places. On the one side, I want to keep reading and ladling from all the social and philosophical critiques already aimed at technocracy and communication reduced to communicativity: people like Benjamin Bratton, Evgeny Morozov, Bernard Stiegler, Franco Berardi, Maurizio Lazzarato, among many others. There’s even this Foucauldian (and pragmatist!) named Colin Koopman who is writing a book on “infopower” that hasn’t come out yet but seems to be tracing out many of the same lines. On the other side, I want to dive into non-theoretical sources ranging across technical manuals, econ textbooks, pop-business stuff, stats, legalese, cultural and historical instances, social media output, clueless headlines, and non-philosophical works that help get the jargon and mood guiding the development of what Jonathan Beller, in the tradition of Guy Debord, calls the “medialogical paradigm.”


Downplaying the technical or technological also wards off fetishes for the gleamingly contemporary, or the cultural amnesia or “epochalism” (Morozov’s term) that sees everything as Wholly New— without precedent, parallel or need of historical perspective. If anything, I think we have the most to learn from history and the most to gain from historicizing. In the century around Constantine, all ultimate justifications for power and its exercise in the Roman Empire shifted very suddenly from Earth to Heaven. The frank material-mindedness of ancient Rome switched, basically in one lifetime, into a coded politics of biblical exegesis. From the sword to the Word. Who but the early Church could have seen that one coming? In the Athenian polis, where citizens enjoyed a relative political equality, it was semiopower and its rhetorical display that distinguished one from the rest and really got things done. However, from this very prominence and empowerment, debate and rhetoric turned bitter, embattled, and abused, and eventually gave birth to the Socratic discourse of truth. These profound historical shifts in semiopower did not arrive on the heels of any major technical innovation. They were largely social, cultural, and historical transformations, like the reorganization of Europe under capitalism, unleashing a roar of new ideas, values, customs, and worldviews.


Polanyi commended certain figures or measures for having mediated the social transformations of the market society just enough to have prevented complete social trauma and meltdown, slowing things just enough for some half-adequate norms to take hold. The mediators or slower-downers he had in mind were not just social thinkers or the downtrodden but also “the King and his Council, the Chancellors, and the Bishops” as well— defenders of the old way being overturned by such economic measures as enclosure movements and creations of “labor markets.” The question is now: who or what is currently mediating the anomy or normlessness that could allow power to accumulate and systematize without hindrance or scruples? Cultural velocity is exhilarating for people like me with a taste for upheaval— except that many of the new norms and worldviews aren’t always being created by particularly great or interesting valuators. Instead they’re often being made up on the fly by middle-schoolers or through meticulous design by Silicon Valley— and I can’t imagine either of these two perspectives caring much about curbing excesses, ideologies, absolutenesses, shittinesses, autocracies and technocracies. For the younger, just coming of age and subjectivated in these environments, these new modes and configurations of power may seem altogether natural. And then at the same time, Silicon Valley, either deliberately or deludedly, will be putting in the long hours to make sure it seems that way.




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In a worst case scenario, new overpowers could gain such an upperhand that public consent and making-nice would no longer be necessary. Already, after only a few years of pseudo-democratic jargon and Silicon gospel, I’m seeing places where overpower is beginning to dispense with rationalizations for franker, more Machiavellian language. If it really found its Archimedean point, all the empty TED-talk rhetoric of embetterment could be dropped for a new public strategy of “what are you going to do about it?” We saw this in the Social Darwinist defense of 19th century moguls like Carnegie, Rockefeller, and J.P. Morgan. This time around, we could end up enjoying a nice “dark Enlightenment” heralded by Bay Area technocrats, art rankers and flippers, accelerationists like Nick Land, futurists in love with their own voice, and a new crop of culture-makers whose primary talent lies in their own shrewdness. Whether the proclamations of these people are sincere, satirical, or cynical is beside the point. They’re symptomatic all the same— so much so that they can be seen as plot-points in the contours of a newly emergent power configuration. Consider onetime-Occupier now Google-über-alles proponent Justine Tunney. She tweets:


“Silicon Valley is firmly post-capitalist. There just
isn’t a name for it yet, nor an intellectual [assessment].”


Though I distance myself from anything else that Tunney says or believes, on this we happen to agree— although coming from diametrically opposite angles. I don’t think that something like Silicon Valley (or its wanna-bes the world round) can be circumscribed in what Jonathan Beller has called the “heliotropism of capital” and I don’t think that our intellectual assessment can be just an update of our critiques of capital, commodification, or ideology (especially where ideology and its sign-systems have become, so to speak, concrete). As numerous thinkers have already described, these shifts in semiopower are penetrating the most intimate layers of how we think and act, make and express, and even how we become subjects at all. Accordingly the central arenas in question are not places like Washington, New York, and Silicon Valley but the grounds of selfhood, social bonds and culture-creation that may uncritically and voluntarily surrender to the most abstract forms of abstract domination. Right now, semiopower is still closer to a Golden age than a Gilded age, and I’m generally optimistic, but isn’t it easiest and wisest to counter overpower and domination before rather than after it’s too late?



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