The affective politics of keeping it real

Why real nobodies are more powerful than repressed somebodies (the internet epoch has hardly begun).

It once made sense for professional intellectuals to bite their tongue in exchange for the influence they could gain by conforming to the dominant language. For a while, this was arguably rational and defensible—perhaps even a game-theoretic necessity for anyone sincerely interested in cultivating a genuinely public and political intellectual project. While it’s obvious the internet has changed the game, old stereotypes die hard and continue to constrain human potential well after their objective basis has disappeared. In particular, the contemporary stereotype of the public intellectual as a self-possessed professional who regularly appears in “the media” to speak on public affairs in the royal language, is a contingent product of the postwar rise of mass broadcasting (one-to-many) media. In much of the postwar period, the classic “mass media”—newspapers, radio, television—had extremely large, mass audiences and where characterized by high costs of entry. This technical and economic environment offered huge rewards for speaking the dominant language within the paramaters of respectable opinion. It was probably with cable television that a centrifugal tendency began the processes of fragmentation, polarization, and decentralization that would eventually bring us to where we are today.

Today, there is no longer any mass audience to speak to through dominant channels, overwhelming majorities do not trust mass media, and even the cognitively fragmented semi-mass audiences that remain will only listen to what they already think. Not to mention the masses probably have less power today than anytime in the twentieth century, so why bother even trying to speak to the masses? As a young academic, if I play by the rules for the next 10 years so that I might be respected by influential academics or gain access to regularly speaking on BBC or something like that, I would have sacrificed all of my creative energy for quite nearly nothing. As far as I can tell, today, the idea of biding your time as a young and respectable intellectual, to one day earn a platform of political significance, appears finally and fully obsolete. In one sense, this is already obvious to the millions who long ago stopped following mainstream media and long ago lost all respect for academic credentials; but in another sense, an overwhelming number of human beings continue to think, speak, and behave as if we are still operating in this old world, as if there is some reason to not say everything one feels like saying, as if there is some social or political or economic reward that will come toward the end of a respectable career of professional self-restraint. It’s easy for autodidacts and natural outsiders to say, “Duh, we told you so,” but this in no way comprehends or solves the really striking and politically significant puzzle that an extraordinary degree of human power remains voluntarily repressed for rewards and punishments that no longer exist.

Just as the self-restrained professional intellectual is shaped by the rewards of a media environment long dead, so too are they shaped by punishments which are little more than paranoid fears. Many academics and professionals believe that for the sake of their careers they must exercise the utmost discretion in what they put online, and they confidently tell young people to exercise the same discretion for the sake of their own futures. But the reality is almost the exact opposite. First of all, with some important exceptions of course, nobody gives a shit about what you put on the internet. Nobody with any power over you has the time to follow, and the few that do won’t care enough about you to follow or dig very much. In my now slightly above-average history of recklessly posting to the internet, before and after getting a competitive professional job, the worst that has ever happened is that nobody cares (and that’s most of the time). But the best that has happened, here and there, is that a lot of people care and appreciate it and new friends are made and all kinds of new paths appear, individually and collectively.

The self-restraining, strategic professional intellectual is not only operating on incorrect beliefs but beliefs which are almost exactly inverse to the truth: today, playing by rules of respectability is perhaps the straightest path to unemployment and impotent resentment, while simply cultivating the capacity to say or do something real (by definition prohibited by respectability), is a necessary (and sometimes even sufficient) condition for being genuinely valued by anyone, anywhere. Obviously if you have certain dimensions of poor character (i.e. you’re a racist or something) then reckless posting to the internet will likely, and perhaps rightly, lead to many negative consequences. But if you’re a basically decent person who just wants to push a little harder on what you really think, what you really feel, your experiences or your interests, or even just fuck around, the conventional wisdom still drastically overestimates the punishments and underestimates the rewards of doing so.

If these comments feel to you outdated because you think all of this already happened years ago with the initial rise of the internet, I would say you underestimate the quantity of human beings (and the qualitative intensities they could produce), who have yet to fully update their beliefs and behaviors around these matters. In some sense, the United States only just now, in 2016, elected its first President of the internet age. The fact that millions of people are genuinely perplexed and horrified by what is happening in this regard, is an index of how little the internet’s rewiring of power circuits has actually been integrated in the perceptions, beliefs, and behaviors of most people.

If political theory will ever be a world-historical causal factor in the radically fragmented and decentralized age of information, I believe it will at least partially have to consist in living, interpersonal transmissions of what works to produce power within concrete, available situations. I suppose it is on that belief that I am reflecting on matters such as the micro-politics of self-expression, with some personal context as anecdotal data. I believe there exist objective, micro-political mechanisms whereby being real generates real power; that many people under-estimate or mistrust the objective reality of this mechanism; that many people live under compliant resentment because of incorrect beliefs about how the macro-social institutional environment will respond to their idiosyncratic deviations.

If I speak about myself at all, it’s not because I’m special or great but precisely because I am nothing, nobody, yet it has always been in learning how to become nobody that I seem to unlock whatever few real powers now possess me. I’m a young nobody academic or writer or whatever, I’m not famous or influential in academia or even on the internet, but I have been able to cultivate and maintain an energetic, autonomous, creative intellectual life that feels to me on the right track intellectually and politically, by what I think is a more accurate but still uncommon map of our immediate strategic environment, combined with periodically forcing myself to push outward on what feels to be in some way not allowed.

I have almost come to see this as a methodological principle—wherever you genuinely think or observe or desire to do something that you would be vaguely punished socially for saying/doing at a dinner party, then saying/doing that on the internet almost always produces immanent power and its by-product joy; it almost always clears debilitating noise and advances one of the threads that make-up the continiuty of one’s life. The entire life orientation that believes facing toward power is the image of intellectual and political sophistication—this, in my view, is the spitting image of mystified contemporary complicity. If I am trying to share how I think all of this works, and how I have experienced it, it is because I dream of what would happen if thousands of highly capable intellects currently toiling under institutional respectability suddenly realized they have no reason to self-censor and everything to gain from simply disarming their objectively miscalibrated expression calculators.

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Murphy, Justin. 2017. "The affective politics of keeping it real," http://jmrphy.net/blog/2017/06/20/the-affective-politics-of-keeping-it-real/ (June 20, 2017).