Industrial Society and the Dialectics of Online Madness

by R. Artaud (Telos)

Let us examine, dear readers, the great Marxian dialectic: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Have you not wondered if the dialectical process is not stalled out in our day and time? Must not synthesis become indefinitely deferred, perhaps frozen out, with no movement possible, if we allow the existence of an anti-thesis which is a chimera, a mere specter haunting the empty industrial wastes? Is not this what we call an intractable problem? Must we not passively face the irresolvable dilemmas, both political and moral, which haunt the post-industrial stage of history? Yet how could there be a dialectic in a place where no real conflict occurs? No thesis and antithesis can form, because the anti-thesis, being a false and phony one, negates not some positive statement, but the very fact of negation itself, so that a synthesis which might develop out of the two is foreclosed beforehand.

Such, then, is the deadlock we face today, and the antithesis to this predicament is nothing but the negative of this problem, an overly-compressed synthetic form in which there is no real motion. Such deadlocked problems must be transcended, so as to find a path to dialectical movement again. The question, then, is, what is the thesis to this antithesis? What could dismantle, explode, vaporize this fake anti-thesis? What would allow the dialectic to flow again? What might be the positive element to bring this synthesis into being? The answer, of course, is the problematization of Online Madness, or more accurately the reification of Online Madness as problem. When this synthetic form — a specter that negates the very concept of negation — is placed within a broader field of human issues and crises, including but not limited to industrial society and the nature of capitalism and its spiritual symptoms, it ceases to be an abstraction and becomes part of the dialectical process. The thesis and antithesis of Online Madness, when embedded into a full-bodied set of real dilemmas, expand into an intricate network of motions and counter-motions, such that a dialectical motion across the board begins to be discernible, something we have not seen since the second world war.

This does not mean, needless to say, that we can use Online Madness — its concretization, the reification of online communication — to solve any particular problem we care to select. But the process of reifying the issue of Online Madness puts the matter into a realm in which problems can be placed and sorted out. We cannot think that problems disappear in any final way, as long as they are just abstract problem-symbols. Nor can they be handled, or get handled, one-by-one, or all-at-once. Problems have to be arranged within a living thematic matrix in which they move and countermove. For this to be possible, the dialectic — in one guise or another — must return, to do its work again. Let us say, then, that the process of reifying Online Madness places us upon a narrow path that could lead us toward new and potentially rich thematic terrains. Once on these terrains, once within the network of interlocking dialectical processes, many a deadlock can be overcome and a unified movement — historical and meaningful — resumed. And just as problems were treated by the rationalist philosophers of the 18th century as specters to be driven back into their haunted caves, so we see clearly today the vanity of trying to treat Online Madness, or its like, as a single abstract problem. Such approaches were at their best palliative. It is with the ghosts, the true spirits of madness, that we must enter into dialectical struggle if history is to emerge again.

Let us try, then, in all frankness and lucidity, to envision this conflict, and its background, in terms of today’s reality.

The Rise of Industrial-Technological Order

The 19th century witnessed the growth of an integrated industrial-technological order, first in England, and then throughout Western Europe, the Americas, and a certain portion of the so-called “underdeveloped” world. Capital was the social and rational core of this order. Invisible in its material embodiment, it expressed and controlled the dominant “form of life.” Market relationships spread everywhere. Production relations were transformed to allow for a staggering expansion of commodity production and trade. A factory system arose and developed into an organizational model for large-scale enterprises of various kinds. Credit and currency systems took shape and connected local areas into international monetary regions and structures. “Culture,” particularly in the sphere of art, came to be separated from social “function.” Concepts of free will and personal identity grew and gained theoretical and practical influence. Slavery was abolished. Peoples everywhere were educated to act as subjects of history and to understand their life as something made by their will, and as open to the free shaping of individual personalities. Reason was stripped of its “transcendent” character and demoted to the level of techniques. Neo-Darwinism entered into an uneasy but fundamental relationship with modern ideas of social organization.

This picture, too oversimplified for any legitimate purpose, did nevertheless have an empirical core. By 1900 a general form of social order and control had begun to establish itself in those countries and areas which constituted the nucleus of what we call “the West.” Its key principles were the rule of money and the rule of specialized knowledge, including not only professional expertise in various domains, but also particularized bodies of theory. Within this world, technological rationality gradually spread by converting old skills and arts into standardized techniques serving the growth of mass production and the power of centralized administrative systems. Human labor came to be cast increasingly in the mode of psychic-somatic alienation, separated from human decision making and directed toward predictable outcomes. Forms of community — whether what are called “kinship” groups or neighborhoods or localized power structures — that resisted assimilation into this expanding center found their survival options severely constrained. If they did not directly fall victim to extermination and annihilation, their cultures were systematically displaced by what were termed “advanced” civilizations. Though events since 1900 have modulated the implementation of these processes, it remains true that the underlying rationalities have maintained a kind of empirical continuity, so that the attempt to incorporate large sectors of the globe into the circuitry of modern technology may be considered, if not wholly completed, then at least “going according to plan” (even if other social aims and projects have been wildly diverted in their execution).

Although in certain domains modern science itself poses challenges to this rationality, most notably in the evolutionary developments of molecular biology and quantum mechanics, it is nonetheless true that science as an institution and social authority is one of the cornerstones of this system, its primary base of legitimacy. “Progress,” insofar as this has had any general meaning for anyone’s thoughts and actions during the last two centuries, has been defined primarily in terms of what can be conceived, ordered, and controlled by instrumental reason: namely, technological-industrial change. Human desire and anxiety are understood — if at all — in terms of how the masses must feel or behave, in order to facilitate the “adaptation” of large-scale enterprises and decision making to changing “consumer” tastes and needs.

Whatever may have been the vague impulses of various pioneering scientists, technical entrepreneurs, and other experimenters and mountebanks in past centuries, it was not until quite late in the game that the implementation of their efforts and those of their successors took on its present broad shape and direction. One clear indicator of this is the rapid growth, after the middle of the 19th century, of all forms of medicine — from vaccination to hospital care — under the assumption that all health problems are amenable to technical solutions and that personal medical “know-how” should be monopolized by a privileged and authoritative class of professionals. Other signs may be found in the increasing definition of childhood as a “period of vulnerability” subject to specialized protection, and in the tremendous bureaucratization and impersonalization of schooling.

This core of an order-world came up against serious obstacles and suffered what in retrospect seem like painful wounds in two great global catastrophes: the depression and chaos of the 1930s, and the total mobilization for war from 1939 to 1945. Although it seemed possible then that a general collapse of this world was in progress — not because it was intrinsically vulnerable but because it was based on an explosively dynamic interplay of many components which had so far developed more or less “according to plan” — in fact those events helped define a path which has proved less risky, and no less efficient, than anyone could have hoped for. In Western Europe and America, what was primarily at stake during this time was the transformation of a diffuse “capitalist” system, rooted in varying pre-industrial power structures, into one unified by the principles of the modern technological order: universal market relations and monopolized professional knowledge. Total war provided the necessary means of shattering those power structures. But, rather than leaving them permanently destroyed, war introduced state regulatory and ownership controls whose very emergency character predisposed them to being rechannelled and incorporated into peacetime needs. For this to occur it was necessary, above all, to strike a deal with organized labor which would transform class struggle into an integrated function of production and thereby reconcile different capital-labour power interests around a shared sense of economic responsibility and common submission to technocratic decision-making.

To some extent, as everyone knows, the “safety net” provided by these structures helped break up patterns of absolute deprivation which had persisted for some centuries in Western societies. Yet it is equally important to understand that this modern welfare state emerged precisely at the time when people, even under conditions of great suffering, ceased to consider starvation, begging, and infantile death as ineluctable necessities. This transition did not result from some timeless ethical progress or humanitarian sentiments, but was promoted by the rationalization and organization of need that was itself part of the core of modernity. And the welfare state made sure that people did not forget what constitutes their necessities. Just as important, these state structures fused with the interests of technical professionals: managers, designers, researchers, educators and the like, providing them with an iron-bound status that continues to restrict challenges to the prevalent rationalities. As it consolidated power in this way, the modern state underwent an absolute reversal of meaning: no longer the servant of a certain privileged class or religion, it now appeared as the very embodiment of impersonal “reason.” The overarching message conveyed was that human beings can learn to treat their life needs as objects of science. When such a body of expertise became available for most practical concerns, it could reasonably be expected that someday even “deviant” behaviors and attitudes would find their place under the shade of its trees. For, whatever might exist as of yet, the omnipotence of human intelligence was assumed to be unlimited, in principle, by anything in nature. Only a radical refusal of the system was conceived to be impossible to “cure” and hence to control.

The Emergence of Online Madness

Online madness — madness on the electronic highways, of and in cyberspace — seemed hardly worth mentioning until the last few years. Who had ever imagined that “neurosis” (a word whose origins of modern use lie in the 19th-century European ideology of industry, science, and bureaucracy) could take on such fantastic new meanings in this era of electronically enhanced “rationality”? Cyberspace was conceived of, and for a time it functioned, as an unprecedented medium for the extension of control: control of the individual psyche, but also, more importantly, of the social system itself. The information explosion could be integrated into the existing technical infrastructure, providing incalculably improved efficiency, while at the same time circumscribing human initiative, creating an aura of institutional decision-making which made every individual decision seem either an afterthought or part of a conspiracy.

Think for a moment how very different this vision is from, say, the medieval belief in the “logic” of destiny and fate, which allowed even the cruelty of the Crusades or the massacres of Black Death days to be accepted with relative equanimity. Even a world-view as barren as 18th-century Newtonianism posited an external nature which could not be completely known by man. Today, by contrast, we are meant to believe that we can make and remake the world to an ever greater degree in accordance with our own desires and projects, precisely because the medium we are now using to “express ourselves” is, as some people say, the final or “natural” extension of the brain. We have assumed that this extension would bring us new forms of certainty, just as others have imagined that, in an earlier time, telescopes and microscopes would allow us to see farther and deeper. The extension would only enlarge what had existed “inside,” only extend into cyberspace what had already been there — ideas, thoughts, projects.

We assumed wrongly. For what has spread across cyberspace is not certain thought or meaningful intention but a whole order of chaotic forces whose object is to disintegrate whatever might have seemed stable and “meaningful.” This disintegration of meaningful intention into inhuman psychic drift is precisely what we call Online Madness, a form of psychic destruction brought about through the perversion of information. It may seem paradoxical to claim that today’s communications media could be preventing us from communicating with each other. Yet this is so in several important respects.

The process has many sides: first, the existence of media itself turns each of us into an information consumer who must filter a torrent of dubious inputs and learn to suppress whatever cannot be processed for lack of meaningful content. Second, it follows that if something is to have value, it must be converted into informational content, which means, if nothing else, that it must be eroticized and commercialized: a cultural world that cannot function in terms of “hot” and “cold” (to use Nicos Prouskopos’ terms) — that cannot manipulate desires or produce nausea — is, for this reason alone, condemned to failure. This situation results in a proliferation of counterfeits designed to attract the attention of information consumers who cannot tell what is real and meaningful from what is mere empty propaganda, and who must spend a great deal of time and psychic energy rejecting and expelling the bad input in order to recover any good input, if such indeed exists.

A third side of this process is related to the second and has to do with the extreme regulation of our access to real events. Here the technology itself, whose express function is to pick up and transmit signs and symbols, actively prevents us from knowing or even suspecting what might happen unless and until the information bureaucracy deems it acceptable. To put it in Marxian terms, information technology functions today as the collective brain of the ruling class: as that “organized imagination,” whose fantasies are woven into what the ruling elite decides is objectively real, while those of its own imagination that are not translated into actual conditions or policies simply vanish — at worst resulting in pathology and confusion (as with Reagan, whose truly megalomaniac visions had little enough relation to his presidency, but whose extremely paranoid delusions did tremendous harm to all of us), but more often remaining, so to speak, under the skin, unrecognized but deeply determinant of psychic reality. In this connection, it is important to remember that psychoanalysis is built on the presupposition of an innate instinct for self-preservation, whose objects must remain repressed if they menace in any way the subject’s idea of its own reality. There is, we might say, an inverse law of self-preservation: that the more people come to depend for their survival on some form of representation, the more necessary it becomes for them to repress any representation that cannot be integrated into that system.

And so, because the very meaning of human life in technologically advanced societies has become more and more tied to information, it has also become more and more dependent on what cannot be assimilated, because such information, by definition, cannot contribute to our system of self-preservation.

Yet what prevents our “dreaming,” or what destroys our ability to dream, are not in the least restricted to our needs and relations as defined by our condition of technical subjection. These are the censors that protect our objectivity, or what passes for objectivity in today’s world — but there are others: repressors, you might say, whose purpose is to safeguard what can still be thought or fantasized in this environment, even as those same forces undermine any possibility of finding a place for it to dwell. For psychoanalytical theory tells us that even a person’s instinct to preserve himself does not automatically guarantee the integration of that person’s psychic life, since the impulse for self-preservation does not act alone, but always in conjunction with a fantasy that belongs to the system which must be preserved. This means that it is the totality of the fantasy which determines what can be permitted into the realm of “objective” thinking — in our case the totality of our cultural imaginary which today is that of capital, that is, that of modern science and technology, administered as the global property of those whose profits depend on information flows. This is not merely to say, as Marshall McLuhan did, that “the content of any medium is simply the old information carried by the new technology,” and hence that there is no “innovative content” beyond “the sheer fact of a new technical environment”: this misses the crucial point that content must be defined, for the purposes of understanding, not from the side of information and technology, but from the side of the subject who uses this technology.

There is a kind of nervous blackmail exercised by technologies over users: one either adapts oneself to the structure dictated by the technology, or one forgoes the opportunity to benefit from the technologies, remaining on the sidelines of social life. Technologies present themselves as a series of indissoluble black-or-white alternatives. Their design does not envision any margin for negotiation; neither do they admit any reciprocal penetration of functions. There is no mixing, no blending of two different technologies to obtain a new third one halfway between the two. If a given technology has developed, that means it excludes any other technology which might have been imaginable along similar lines.

This means that modern information technology and its commodities not only derive all their meaning from the uses they can be put to within capitalist society; it also means that this technology’s whole constellation of potential use-values determines, a priori, which subjective fantasies will be permitted expression. Among the various ways that capital has historically appropriated human thought to its purposes, none can be as immediate and efficient as its use of media. Here human psychic energies are drained off and redirected into preestablished channels; new desires and anxieties are propagated through the entire system and back, forming a seamless whole whose various parts are in a constant state of self-referential communication; in short, we find ourselves plunged into a complex nervous field of self-exciting commodities.

Guy Debord showed us that the very act of communication becomes an alienated one; we no longer communicate, but only deliver and receive messages, whose content, furthermore, is of no interest to either side. Communication has been short-circuited: each user projects himself, at the speed of light, into all the others, and retracts; hence the reflexive shockwave through which all pass. Caught in the mutual flash of this zero encounter, these alienated individuals become incapable of communication with anyone other than a media reflector (even direct confrontation with one’s audience is no longer possible without TV coverage). They are entirely hemmed in by their own messages.

I would only add to this that what cannot be integrated into the flow of these messages simply does not exist. Or rather, that it does exist — but as something to which one cannot adapt, and which the individual subject, floating freely in this universe of commodity-signs, simply does not “preserve himself”: it repels him as something outside, foreign. Our virtual environment, this information-intensive zone in which we believe ourselves to be moving more and more of our everyday lives, thus turns out to be one that cannot, in fact, be inhabited — that it excludes precisely that subjective freedom whose technological perfection it displays so convincingly to our eyes, offering us at the same time a continuous prospect of all that is beyond it (beyond our world of virtual environments, supposedly a little above, behind or beside: what matters is that it cannot be incorporated into our technological horizon, and thus exists for us only as “outside”).

This is a very abstract way of stating that today’s world cannot integrate into its conceptual and technological frame either death or madness — unless they are converted into the language of information. The second of these, as I have suggested, is beginning to find a place in this frame; but the first remains utterly outside, which is to say it has lost all meaning for us. Our society no longer believes in death — at most it still has a few superstitions about it, left over from pretechnological times, but these are being eroded quickly enough by the progress of our virtual environments, which, with every passing day, come closer to our ideal of a “life without death.” We have made a great effort to learn how to die; we are in the process of forgetting how to live. And so it is not surprising that the very techniques which we have invented to cope with death (techniques such as psychotherapy, which in their essence aim to neutralize the foreign body of madness and death by translating it into information) have turned out to be the perfect means for erasing all traces of meaningfulness from our lives, leaving us nothing but our neuroses — or, worse, the bureaucratic version of these: Online Madness.

Online Madness is an illness specific to cyberspace, just as blindness is to the camera. Its symptoms are an inability to distinguish between what is real and what is virtual, between what is information and what is manipulation, between what is life and what is death. The problem is that the distinctions themselves are part of the information which the human brain (even when equipped with the most up-to-date technology) cannot process without getting confused. It is no longer possible for us to distinguish, in our own minds, between what is going on inside us and what is taking place outside; between the living body and its data doubles, between the brain’s neural tissue and its electrochemical patterns. In fact, even the word “inside” has become ambiguous: is the information that is transmitted by my heart, my lungs, my nervous system “inside” me, or has it long since been “outside,” spread across the networks of cyberspace? The same ambiguity infects the word “outside.” Where, in all this, does anything real begin or end? Where is the human subject?

Online Madness is a disorder that grows out of this pervasive confusion. Its victims cannot tell what is happening to them. They are caught between two deaths, both real and both virtual: they feel the irreversible passage of time, even as they know it to be an illusion. They are stuck in the present, between the past that has vanished and the future that never arrives, caught in an endless moment whose only motion is the cycling of data through the nodes of cyberspace. Online Madness is the delirium of this infinite present: its sufferers are driven mad by the feeling that, although everything is always changing, nothing will ever happen.