Book of the Week: Publicity’s Secrets. By Jodi Dean (1)

Publicity’s Secret: How Technoculture Capitalizes on Democracy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002)

The book discusses subjectification (how we become human subjects) in terms of a drive toward celebrity and is a critique of the role of media in technoculture, warning for the ideological usage of the drive for transparency.

Today, we would like to introduce the above book with a meditation on how technoculture produce its subjects?

You can obtain the full text of this excerpt from the author at JDEAN at


“How does technoculture produce its subjects? My thesis is that individuals in mediated, capitalist technocultures subjectivize their conditions within an ideological matrix of publicity and secrecy. People’s experience of themselves as subjects is configured in terms of accessibility, visibility, being known. Without publicity, the subject of technoculture doesn’t know if it exists at all. It has no way of establishing that it has a place within the general socio-symbolic order of things, that it’s recognized. (The dot-com version of this might be something like, “without a website, you’re not even there.”) The technocultural mode of subjectivization, in other words, is celebrity. Celebrity is the form of subjectivity that posits–that presupposes and reproduces–the ideology of publicity. Publicity in technoculture functions through the production of a subject that makes itself into an object of public knowledge.

I raise this question of technocultural subjectivity as a counter to the more prominent emphasis on identity in cybercultural studies. In the early moments of the Internet, theorists emphasized sexual experimentation, role-playing, gender-bending, and multiplicity. Networked communications, it seemed, were the ideal laboratory for postmodern theories of fluid or fragmented selves. Regardless of whether a theorist celebrated cyberian identity play, condemned it, or even worried about the reinscription of old, unappealing identities, that cyberia should be theorized in terms of its impact on identity was generally taken for granted. With the emergence of the Web, however, this emphasis on identity seems quaint, a nostalgic evocation of a pre-political time of freedom and possibility that was never there. The fluid identities celebrated by early theorists now look more like consumers (being) driven to find the next new thing, to produce and reproduce themselves via images, technologies, entertainment, and commodities. Anonymous cybersex brings less a flourishing of desiring selves than does the ready availability of immediate satisfaction close off desire in a new circuit of entertainment and stimulation. Indeed, as the prevalence of conspiracy theory suggests, the very desire to know that characterizes the public of democracy now takes on a different form, configured through and as a never-ending process of searching, linking, and (re)producing information. We might say that these days, instead of really wanting to know, people are enjoined to know, to keep up to date. With permanent, easily accessible information, there is no excuse for not being up on the issues. (And, the injunction to know is of course accompanied by its obverse, the dismissal of news junkies and Net cruisers and couch potatoes who spend all their time consuming media and ignore “real life.”)

So what kind of subjectivity is installed when everyone is supposed to know and the technologies believe for us? I argue elsewhere that technologies encouraging us to search and link, databases, of information from which something always seems to be missing, and democracy as a system of distrust call subjects into being as conspiracy theorists. Here I consider another mode of subjectivization, celebrity. The same technologies that call on us to link also call on us as known, as sources of content that are of interest to cameras, websites, and credit-card companies. The knowing subject, in other words, is first interpellated as a known subject. Whereas the conspiring subject emerges as a subject of desire, the celebrity emerges as a subject of drive. I draw here from Slavoj Žižek . At its most basic level, Žižek explains, desire takes the form of nonsatisfaction; to remain as desire, it can only be a desire for desire. Drive, however, “stands for the paradoxical possibility that the subject, forever prevented from achieving his Goal . . . can nevertheless find satisfaction in the very circular movement of repeatedly missing its object, of circulating around it.” Drive is a loop, a cycle in which the subject is caught. Repeatedly trying, doing the same thing over and over and over again, even when, especially when, the actions are doomed to fail, is a pleasure in itself.

A lot of people worry today about their secrets spilling out and circulating all over the Net. True, the Internet poses major problems with respect to the accumulation, aggregation, and dissemination of personal data. But, the issue of secrecy is usually presented as a kind of “outing,” as a way that one’s personal life becomes a matter of mass, public interest. This is strange. Who really cares? As every promoter, advertiser, and public relations agent knows, it’s not like mass audiences of people are out there, waiting and ready for our revelations, completely interested in the mundane details of our individual lives–or even in our most personal fantasies. But this is precisely the anxiety that accompanies expansions and intensifications in networked technologies. A recent survey of over 2000 American households–with Internet users and non-users–showed extreme concern about personal privacy online.

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