The age of panspectric surveillance and its effects on dispersed subjectivity

Excerpts from an article by Karl Palmas in the Swedish magazine Arena:

In the emergent “panspectric” order, human society is seen in terms of “information traffic”. It is not the actions of individuals that are observed, as in the Foulcauldian panopticon, rather those of the mass. Degrees of corporate and state surveillance are unprecedented; yet panspectric subjectivity also brings new forms of resistance.


(you probably need a close reading of the full original article to understand the excerpts well)

“On 9 September 2008, the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter published an op-ed that marked a shift in the contemporary art of government. Defence minister Sten Tolgfors was commenting on the debate that arose around the National Defence Radio (Försvarets Radioanstalt – FRA), which had claimed the right to intercept all communications passing through Sweden’s fibre-optic cable network. This surveillance, he said, would “never target a specific actual person. No comprehensive mapping of Swedish citizens by means of signals intelligence is permitted.” No surveillance practices “based on an individual” would be allowed. The FRA would only search for “traffic patterns” in “traffic flows”, “regardless of who or what is communicating”.

Panspectric order-generation records the ecologies of thoughts, expressions and impressions circulating among people, based on the hypothesis that these ecologies produce certain behaviours. From the perspective of the pattern-searching computer, no coherent, autonomous entity is acting. On the contrary, it is the whole context that is acting; the individual is its context, no more, no less.

The panspectric paradox is that we can say more about individuals’ behaviour if we stop seeing them as individuals. This idea – that we are “configured” by our context – is hardly new. But what distinguishes the current era is our ability to record and analyse the impressions made on our minds: what we have read and consumed, where we have been, who we are communicating with. But is it really possible to predict behaviour based on an analysis of the “traffic” of impressions that passes through our minds? Here we can turn to large corporations, which stratify the economy and, along with the state, are society’s main centres of power.”

The new dispersed subjectivity

Karl Palmas continues:

“Social scientists’ interest in the dispersed individual, and the ability to understand a society of no-longer-individuals, coincides with renewed interest in Gabriel Tarde. Over a hundred years ago, the French lawyer and sociologist and argued that we should base our understanding of how social structures emerge as a result of “mental contagion” – notions and prejudices, perceptions and expressions, knowledge and desires that replicate throughout society.

According to this perspective, which deviates significantly from Durkheim’s sociology, there is no “social environment” within which individuals are immersed. The only thing that exists is a multitude of minds, which are interconnected through speech and other communications technologies. This makes them susceptible to mental contagion, which in turn generates social order. The structure does not explain anything; it is the structure itself that has to be explained. Ask not how the eternal patriarchy structures individuals; ask how the patriarchy is continuously generated as mental contagions radiate through our interconnected minds.

Tarde also paints a picture of the individual as dispersed. For him, the individual human brain is less interesting than the veritable “distributed network” of brains that emerged as soon as people became communicatively interconnected with each other. The opportunity for communication and mental contagion is rising steadily: Tarde was interested in how the modern telegraph and mass media linked minds together to a whole new extent; today we can see how the Internet and file-sharing networks are taking this trend further.

The human subject is a brain, which is part of the larger brain that emerges through communication technologies. According to Tarde, the mind is completely open to the world – there is no difference between what happens inside and outside the human skull. In other words, the intra-psychological reflects the inter-psychological. Seen thus, sociology and psychology are the same subject. Building on the work of theorists such as Isabelle Stengers and Lisa Blackman, social scientists are now trying to understand how suggestion contributes to the emergence of social structures.

States and corporations have already managed to examine these mysterious aspects of the human mind. Academics are forced to admit that the most interesting Tardean studies are currently being carried out by intelligence agencies and industry, not universities. It is not only the spontaneous creation of male slime that can be mapped and prevented; the same applies to the spontaneous formation of various configurations which the state finds unpleasant. It is not just Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri who have wondered about the “multitude”; security services and military strategists are also researching the human multitude’s immanent capacity to organize itself spontaneously into an “organism” that turns against the given order.

Social scientists therefore need to reflect on their own responsibility in the emergent modes of ordering the world, and the “microbiopolitics” (Nigel Thrift) they give rise to. Are today’s specialists on Deleuze and Tarde the social engineers of our time? Will they, like the social engineers of the twentieth century, be condemned by posterity?

A world in which the individual is dispersed, along with the theories about this world, also has the potential to disperse power structures. Indeed, this perspective on the human subject may be deployed for “destratifying” purposes: a world of interconnected minds is also a world in which a multitude can be formed more easily. The philosopher Maurizio Lazzarato belongs, along with Hardt and Negri, to a circle that has worked on the concept of the “multitude”, and he is also one of the thinkers who promoted Tarde in the 2000s. When it comes to analysing contemporary capitalism, Lazzarato sees Tarde as more relevant than Marx. He claims that Tarde is leading us towards a new, more hopeful vision of how a different economic order can emerge.

According to Lazzarato, society is characterized by interconnected minds that show an increasing capacity for collaboration – “the cooperation of minds”. In the contemporary economy, economic value is created by this cooperation; yet capitalism requires this interconnected brain to be broken up. Producers must be separated from consumers, and the products of the cooperating minds must be locked up in new forms of intellectual property. The role of the corporation is increasingly to reap the fruits of these cooperating minds. This process undermines the creative process, thus making capitalism increasingly anti-productive.

What militates against the continued progress of this arrangement is that the cooperating minds pre-date the corporation. Marx assumed that the workers need the factory in order to produce, but in the contemporary economy that is no longer the case. Capitalism is now forced constantly to chase after a frenetic creative process that occurs spontaneously, and that no longer needs the corporate hierarchy. In this process, new opportunities to escape the capitalist system are constantly opening up – what Deleuze calls “lines of flight”. The question, according to Lazzarato, is how long can capitalism keep pace with this increasingly intense creativity? It is here – in the sluggish hierarchy’s pursuit of the force of interconnected minds – that progressive no-longer-individuals can find new strategies.”

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