May 31, 2022
Andrea Righi (Miami University)
The other side of the digital: The sacrificial economy of new media
Italian Reactionary Thought and Critical Theory: An Inquiry into Savage Modernities and Biopolitics
Social Change in Italy: From Gramsci to Pasolini to Negri.
He coedited, with Cesare Casarino, Another Mother: Diotima and the Symbolic Order of Italian Feminism (Minnesota, 2018).
Table of contents
Introduction: The Sexed Truth of Neoliberal Digitality
1. Transcendence: Moses, or The Other of the Other
2. Knowledge: Online Fee-Ding as the Solution to Meno’s Paradox
3. Desire: The Ballistic Sexuality of Drones and Tinder
4. Writing: The Quantified Self and Digital Accountability
5. Temporality: Turks, Mammets, and Digital Crowdworking Platforms
6. Woman: Love and Automated Profi
7. Hysteria: The Moses of Bernardo Bertolucci
8. Passivity: The Other as Other
Interview by August Baker
Host: Welcome to Author Podcasts. Today, we're talking to Andrea
Righi. Andrea Righi is the author of Italian Reactionary Thought
and Critical Theory and Inquiry Into Savage Modernities and
Biopolitics and Social Change in Italy from Gramsci to Pasolini to
Negri. He's on the faculty of Miami University in Ohio.
Today, we're talking to Professor Righi about his book, "The Other Side of the Digital: The Sacrificial Economy of New Media." That's from the University of Minnesota Press 2021. Tatiana Terranova writes this book. Andrea Righi provides a challenging and original account of what he calls neoliberal digitality, bringing a unique psychoanalytic feminist approach to bear on the contemporary condition of compulsive, anxious, and incessant engagement with computational platforms.
Andrea Righi: Thank you and hello to everybody. A pleasure to be here. Thank you for the invitation.
Host: I like the way you started your book with something that a student described to you. Like, the idea of students teaching the teachers, could you explain what that student described to you?
Andrea: Yeah. It was right after the election when Trump won the presidential election in 2016 and there was a lot of anxiety among some students, not all but some students. One of them is a particularly brilliant one who was actually working with me. Then, he helps me with the research. He told me about this infinite loop he got into the night of the election when he was trying to find some information that would perhaps stop the inevitable. The interesting thing was that whenever he would find something that would support the possibility that perhaps, votes were not counted or something, of course, the next move was going to be to the next page or the next website that would somehow undercut it or expand it.
And so, the true meaning for something that was already impossible logically was precisely the movement, not the content that he was seeking, but the very motion that he had to go through in a way, becoming a sort of a digital machine himself that exists to continue, exist to produce movement independently, perhaps from specific aims. So I was very touched by his account, particularly because I think I went through some part of it as well with the [crosstalk] way and other events and other things but it really sounded very familiar, very fundamental, and crucial in a way for the world we live in.
Host: Yes. It resonated for me, too. Well, in a lot of ways but one is just this continual, you talk about what's the right word for this. Is it looking, searching, finding but this continual, the next click is going to get me what I'm looking for but I'm not really sure what I'm looking for? I know from experience, it's not going to end but I'm in it, anyway.
Andrea: Right. It is the template for what we do for the workers of knowledge. It's positive in that way. When it doesn't become obsessive. There is a push to expand, rebuild, reassess, and re-evaluate. But this template now has been used as the perfect economic engine to produce value, perhaps not exactly money or immediate capital but a value that then translates into some form of profit.
The book doesn't really investigate the surveillance part of it. I'm more interested in self-engagement. He doesn't even need anymore the big eye of the algorithm somehow because much of the job we're doing is exactly that. We do it one entirely. We have interiorized some logic that keeps us cooked up to the digital realities that we use.
Host: Right. And so, they interiorized. You have the term neoliberal digitality to the neoliberal, part of that is going to be that interiorization?
Andrea: Yes. So that's a little bit of a concept that I felt the need to put together, neoliberal digitality, particularly because I didn't want to collapse the fact that what happens online, what happens in the digital world is all bad. There's a capitalistic use which is predominant in the digitality of the digital world that goes in that direction. But there are examples which I won't go into detail, I can study much, but the rows of the potentialities, the possibilities for completely different uses would be in fact, much more beneficial for us and for the technology itself.
I think the goal will be to liberate technology from this. In a book, I call "Talk About the Sort of Self-Paralyzation," which is a mechanism that wants to produce only value for value's sake, not for any specific reason. Freeing technology from that agenda would unleash us into a different world, I think. A much better world. So yeah. So neoliberal is a specific determination of what happens online following some of these rules that I already talked about.
Host: So on the one hand, you talked about the pragmatic image of the self. You talked about, this would be, I guess, it can be a positive and out of the laser-sharp sense of interiority. The subject is fully committed to action, well-organized in all his multitasking activity, and driven toward growth.
On the other hand, you talk about, with our ever-growing array of technical devices, we are somehow systemically undermined or subjected to a form of symbolic dependence.
Andrea: So for instance, in the book, I talk about technology like the Fitbit or tracking devices which I think do serve a purpose for health reasons. Their medical applications are very important. Even the basic Fitbit, if used correctly, probably can help us live a better life and less sedentary life. But it also has the side effect of producing an idea of the self that follows specific rules, which are completely geared toward development and they're under indictment of the own logic of the technology itself. So you're not using the Fitbit to be in better shape, to get some fresh air. You're using Fitbit to score the points that the software wants you to score.
Andrea: Again, the same student was an incredible source of this. I did thank him in the [inaudible]. Every conversation I had with them was very illuminating. So he worked at a Home Depot for the summer. He had a Fitbit. He realized that doing longer routes to get the stuff that he needed to move things around just to make the space.
Andrea: Which again, it shows you how technology, the instrumentality of technology can be turned in a different direction. In this way, I was very happy. It was a form of indirect strike or slowdown of work because he was not complying with the very strict rhythm that the business was imposing on him.
Host: Very good point. Yeah.
Andrea: But he was actually slowing down that by simply following that Fitbit. But on the opposite side, commonly, people who just go out to do the steps, not to do anything else. At that point, what is the logic behind it, right? You become then, the self becomes that graphic on your phone or whatever you use with those statistics of yourself, as a sort of cartoonish representation of graphs and arrows, which are very dangerous.
We grow up thinking about these graphs that have a scientific foundation but they are representations, a very gross representation of very partial inputs.
Andrea: But they have the arrows of science, you know?
Host: All right.
Andrea: That's what you do today. You put up a PowerPoint with the graphs. And everybody is going to go and say, "Oh, yes, we are in trouble because the arrow goes in the wrong direction."
Andrea: But these are representations. That's where the humanist should step in and say, "This is a very partial representation of reality that is much messier than what you're talking about."
Andrea: When you do that, think about yourself and you become that engine for growth. Again, you are fully new liberalized. You're already in that cog into the new machine that makes you think you are freer in your growth, in your capital or responsibility, in your portfolio, all these words that they have. But at the end of the day, it's actually enslaving you into a logic that is completely alien.
Host: Right. Yeah. I thought it was interesting that you used the basic concept of human capital. How has that idea insinuated itself into our minds and our view of ourselves?
Andrea: Yeah. That was one of the things that I started to analyze in the first book, in Biopolitics and Social Change in Italy. It's who caused the idea that the big break in modernity is the moment in which from the definition of the working class, with all that comes with that, we moved to the idea that workers are now human capital. They are firm in themselves. If you are a firm, again, you need to grow. Whatever you do, you have to have a returning investment. Of course, you're freer. It seems like at least you're freer, you're more independent, and obviously, you're more engaged in what you do because you gain something out of it. You gain more out of it. But again, it interiorizes a form that is deeply troubling for me because it affects also human relationships.
Host: Sure. Well, yeah. Also just introducing yourself to someone, they want to know about your human capital and you're kind of trapped in your human capital once you have it, right? It would be odd to not be using it to go off in a different direction for example.
Andrea: Yeah. Or if you're very brave, then you can try to do that but you're at risk and in peril and then, you know, that's another very neoliberal thing that all the ills of society are basically failed attempts by individuals, everybody's responsible for the failure of one's own failure. So again, a lack of solidarity that was already ingrained in the structure of society under Fordism. I am from a generation that saw the shift. My parents, my father was a factory worker. So this thing would tell me the discourses that atmosphere there will hear regarding the factory, the workers, the union, the society around it, the free time around it, the free time which was the free time when he was not working time. That, I saw it. I remember it. But then, as I grew up already in this new narrative of the human capital, I tested how he disappeared and liquidated into this new thing that we have to be. The disappearance of free time, of non-working time. Now, labor in space. And it's incredible, we don't think about it enough. It's a major transformation of our societies. West society.
Host: One of the things you mentioned was the neoliberal fatwa against inactivity must always be efficiently producing or there's a guilt that goes along with that.
Andrea: Yeah. Neoliberalism is fundamentalist. It's a fundamentalist cult in a way and so it has its dogma just like back in the Middle Ages. It will burn people if they go against it. So one thing that I, for instance, I was talking about teaching. One thing that I try to teach my students when I do summer programs is the understanding that part of this immersion in a different culture is the idea that you need to learn how to not do anything. In Italy, it has been pulling, modernizing, globalize but it is still a cultural idea of that there is good to be unproductive. The Latin word is otiosum[?]. To not do anything without feeling anxious. That's the most difficult thing. Without feeling anxious about the lack of activities. I remember coming to the United States in the 90s and I remember teenagers talking about being bored. Being bored, which maybe is right. It was true but we lost the capacity of being bored without feeling anxious. Those are essential moments because there are also moments where you have real human contact with people. The fact that you're just simply conversing and or just sitting next to each other or contemplating things. Silence, right? These things are forbidden. These things are scandalous for neoliberalism and they make it clear. Again, my students are very prime examples of this kind of attitude.
Host: Right. Somehow, when I was reading this, I kept thinking about the cons. I think the idea of successful psychoanalytic treatment would end up with someone who was able to enjoy their enjoyment.
Host: Which seems to be similar.
Host: The people who are not able to enjoy their enjoyment now or their passion.
Andrea: I'm part of it too. So there is a desperate need for enjoying and also this injunction to enjoy. That's the cause as you know, [inaudible] explain, we grow up with this injunction, we should enjoy. Once you have that injunction, it takes away a lot of the fluidity that perhaps a human body, human mind could have while enjoying because you are already performing under certain standards, which are never, they had a promise, these stances are never clear. So what does it mean? The sort of benchmarking mechanism where you're constantly comparing yourself with, okay, am I enjoying enough. Is it better than this? Should I do more? It does kick in and then we become desperate.
Host: I thought it's interesting that you talk about a sacrificial economy, in which we make ritualistic offerings. And then you pose the question. That's kind of the question of the book is beholden to the symbolic authority, who is the title holder of that symbolic force?
Andrea: Yeah, the problem is human culture is based on some form of other entity. There's always another. It doesn't have to be bad or something. There's always another races. And it's an imaginary entity that we construct. The problem is neoliberal digitality has kidnapped that other and now is pushing this other tool to make us do certain things. Look, before in pre-modern times, in a society like European societies under the grip of the church, this other was another punishment, possible redemption, it was another with the other of rules. Of rules, merits, and then, punishment, right? It established a criteria for how you have to behave. And so, in a way, it did provide some form of security, if you believe on that. The other of the digital is another one's continuous engagement and continuous growth. And without setting a criteria.
Again, so it pushes us to an amount of work that usually is detrimental. It also creates an enormous amount of anxiety. The other is always a source of anxiety, but this other who doesn't even, this is the famous Walter Benjamin idea that capitalism is a cult without salvation. Without redemption. It's a cult that does not allow for expiation. So the anxiety keeps piling up. I think, I don't have the data to prove that. But I think the amount of illness psychological in this that I can see among students as well, the percentage of students who are already medicated when they come in is constantly going. It's not just a cultural factor. It's not just related to the pandemic. It is connected to the widespread anxiety that the new other now is enforcing on us. We should instead think about a different version of the other. The other is the other people. The other in society is the other that you encounter who's not somebody you can control, who's not somebody you can possess, it's the other you encounter. It does produce anxiety but there's also the possibility of a relationship of respect. It would become much more humane than this digital other that we encountered online, which is the other that keeps telling you to click the next link. There's going to be information, a better information at the next level. So just keep doing what you're doing.
Host: Right. One of the things that you said is that neoliberal digitality not only nullifies idealization but also perverts sublimation. Could you touch on that? Because of course, I always think about sublimation as saving something we can look to or something that is good and healthy.
Andrea: Yeah, sure. Sublimation psychoanalysis is a basic function that helps society together by diverting. By sublimation then, it means that it's objectless. That you don't really find, you don't need that thing. You're simply diverting your way and that is a work form in mechanism that helps the group to be together. What does neoliberalism? It simply takes that objectless movement and promises you as I was saying before that, well, yes, it's not this new thing you're going to buy on Amazon that probably will satisfy you. It's not the next one, but the series will. The series, the infinite series of our interaction online is...
Andrea: Make you feel enjoyable and produces sort of [inaudible] of desire too. So, in the book, I talk about a drive that becomes a death drive because it's a repetition that eventually depleted the subject. It's very interesting. Like, Freud elaborated that the cause of the death drive after World War 1, when he was visiting soldiers coming back, traumatized soldiers coming back from the war that they were very sick. Psychologically sick. Didn't have any wounds, they didn't have any organic wounds but they would be involved in these repetitive acts like the goose march which could unpack only by thinking about the big trauma that they suffered and how they could not respond to the time. Because of course, they were overwhelmed with the shock, by the tragedy. And so the intent was to become active again later. They couldn't change the past, but they could impact the present by simply repeating an action that was somehow connected to that tragedy. But that action, of course, was threatening the body itself because it could not change the past and you had to be repeated endlessly. We are finite beings and that endless repetition, physical repetition, I think, produces eventually death in a way.
Host: I thought the one really fascinating part of your book was the discussion of the-, you said, there could not be a more playbook illustration of the hegemony of the death drive than the Second Amendment. The fury around 2nd Amendment. Could you touch on that, please?
Andrea: Yeah, that is quite striking and the discourse of the media is, I think it's misguided. It's completely misguided. I mean, Napoleon once said, you cannot sit on [inaudible]. Okay, so I've got an arm, it has a goal. And that's what it is to Earth. It's to kill, right? If you engage with it, you'll be subject to that logic. And it seems like because of the wide availability of weapons in this country, a lot of people are simply following into this death drive. That is to say, into the machine ecologic of the weapon itself. You can go back probably and look at psychological origins for what has been done, right? Today. And can you explain the acts? Perhaps you can have a diagnosis but I don't think you will have as in a mystery novel, you will have a cooper. You don't have a cause for what these people are doing because what they're doing is following the instrument, the apparatus. They're enacting the apparatus and that's right. There is no, if you had to write a novel about it, you will be a serialized novel where one thing leads to another without any reason behind it. Like the Last Vegas shooter. For me, it was the ultimate example of all the fake explanations that the right wings and second amendment people have regarding it. Oh, but you know, you need one good guy with a gun. That was the perfect example. A sniper shooting from above at night. And the chaos, there's no way you can defend yourself even if everybody was on there, right? And what was the reason behind it? We would never know what the reason is. The reason is you have these machine guns, you have your eye positioned, and you enact the logic of the apparatus. That's a test drive, I think.
Host: Yeah. I also thought about mass incarceration as a similar example. You had a discussion on page 55. The great man, the new hero must embody the bottom-most dimension of life. Evil could be the added value to make someone he is. Somebody who takes destiny in his hands no matter the consequences of his conduct is, his willingness to go above and beyond accepted norms.
Andrea: Again, it's not a disturbing principle of our society. If you think about it, doing the right thing, it's not as heroic as doing something wrong knowing that it's wrong for the higher purpose. Here, you connect also the dimension of American imperialism abroad. We know we're doing something, but we're doing it for the higher purpose. It takes really some hero to do that, right? So think about the others anymore. You simply put yourself in the position of a big other, who needs to be greater than life and do a horrible action. The divide is throwing societies and it is connected with the US[?] so that the military-industrial complex, the use of weapons, and more of that are behind our society. The individualism that is behind our society, right? It's a wicked, truly a wicked paradox that I think is predominant.
Host: Tell us about the digital accountability and the quantified self or a little bit about your discussion here.
Andrea: Yeah. So once you transform that moral apparatus of pre-modern society where as I was saying before, you have a model for redemption. You have punishment but you also have the possibility of salvation. You enter into a sacrificial logic because what you do is in a way responding to a dictum so you behave in hope that the judgment would be positive. Nobody would assure you that you'll be safe but at least you are trying to do that. Now again, that is not I would say, the authentic also Creed of Christianity. The great theologians, for instance, Saint Catherine of Siena, she clearly laid out the idea that you should do good things not because in hope of a recompense. You should do good because God is our neighbor. So you have to help the other, right? At a certain point, I don't know how-, The dialogue is called that, it's incredible philosophical reflection on God. I don't know how that book didn't get blacklisted or anything, but at a certain point, she even says, "God doesn't care about what we do." Okay, what we have to do is for the other. Not because God is watching us, right? So in any case, you have a system, a pre-modern system, where you have a more of bookkeeping in a way and you can follow it. The more of tip was limited and quantifiable. You move to a new conception of the other that does not, that tells you that their salvation is in your perpetual growth. Then the sacrificial logic becomes infinite and you are accountable to the end of the days. And so the only response I argue that you can have towards an entity, it says that you are accountable for everything you do. For every second in your life that you're not productive, you are accountable. One of the only solution I imagine is like your pay is more than [inaudible]. Okay, you just do a little thing. Okay, well I did this, and then, ten minutes I'll do something else and you keep doing it. That's the refreshing mechanism that pushes us to refresh the page all the time. Push something. Just do something. At least, do something. Otherwise, you're not doing anything, then, you're completely accountable. At least, you can pay back little by little. It's like paying back your credit card. You don't pay the full card. [inaudible] debt, right?
Andrea: But you pay part of it. Now, that is a logic that does not apply to everybody. I think there is an elite in the country who's always saying, they are never responsible and they're always in the grace. And that's what was the, you know, or signees. I could go on who would that be.
Host: Yeah. I think you talked about sort of directions to go in chapter 8 and we talked about passivity as not being inert. You say passivity implies a surplus that keeps sociality regenerating itself. Breaking ground for a non-masculine topology that produces a new symbolic economy. This was nice to have at the end of the book. Just tell readers what they might expect to see there.
Andrea: Yeah. So we talked a little bit about this symbolic dependency that is negative because it's full accountability. It never ends. I'm not saying that you shouldn't miss that. Know the debt that you have from other people. That is the positive. That's the good debt. The good passivity. What does it mean? We go back to the template for the subject that I explained earlier. If you are a human capital, you're looking for a return of investment. Everything, every time you do something and also in return you meet somebody or you deal with somebody else, right? So you intrumentalized every relationship which has big impact on sexuality as well. Now, this other instead idea of dependency is the frame of mind in which you think about the debt that you have to other people. Favors you can ask but not in order to gain something, but simply in order to enjoy the presence of the other. This is a point that the great David Graeber, late great David Graeber, great anthropologist, made in a couple of books like that the first 5,000 years. Much of our interactions are pointless. Do not point to any specific thing that we need to do. But it's just a pleasure that human, you know, that the animal pleasure of being in together. Human pleasure. So we as good neighbors, sometimes, we invent pretests to just deal with each other. So I can come and ask you for, I don't know, the lawn mower. "Hey, can I use it?" And then, I feel that I should somehow reciprocate and I can come back and say thank you for that. I'll bring a bottle of wine. At that point, you are caught up in the same. But again, this does not have, the goal is only pleasure. The pleasure of conversing being together, the presence of each other. And the fact that we are indebted to each other, we're constantly in debt to each other. But you know, that goes back to our ontology. We are an animal that was able to survive only as a group. That's the [inaudible]. That's the other. It's the sociality that has always been there since we became human. Which probably is there too. In the animal kingdom as well, maybe it takes different shapes but that's the enjoyment. The enjoyment is in the presence of others and in expanding this presence, in prolonging it, and reaching it, that's what digitally should do, should help us do. But the majority of [inaudible] is not.
Host: Right. And I guess the trick there is that people tend to form groups, affiliative groups, and then there are in-groups and out-groups, and digitally should be able to help there since in theory, it could be anyone is able to connect with people, regardless of one's ability to widen one's group indefinitely.
Andrea: Yeah, although the [inaudible] instead, they're trying to do the opposite. They work with cluster systems and so the groups of affinities because those groups will keep you online for longer, so that's not a problem. There's also a sacrificial mechanism in place in groups where when there's a problem, then you'll find the culprit. And then you have to sacrifice that to accomplish. So anyone needs to have other mechanisms that will disable that marking, that exclusionary logic that reduces the other. It's not easy. At the end, the last chapters were a way to point towards theoretically to something different by introducing authors that are not translated in English as well.
Host: I understand. We're almost out of time but I wanted to ask you about something. This isn't really in the book. I just wanted to add that I saw but I just wanted to hear your thoughts on it. You talk about human corporality as a form of coding that produces gestures and rituals but also material incisions on the flesh and subsequently, volitions. This kind of bodily writing captures and creates emotional intensities. Later, language written in blood is a memory of the spoken word. I just kept thinking about adolescents today who cut themselves as a form. Which I haven't really been able to understand and I just, also, tattooing and piercing and everything but especially that kind of cutting oneself as a kind of bodily writing. I don't know if you've ever connected those two.
Andrea: Yeah that was a part passage from Watari and Delirious[?]. I think the harmful practices, when they are harmful, there are instances where these practice has become a form of expression, of artistic expression, which when they are harmful in style, I think they denote a lack of possibility of language. So it's like that need to express something gets blocked into something that produces only the spilling of blood which in itself, it is a form of expression but it doesn't reach that symbolic level of articulation. Look, literature is full of cases of wounds that speak. There are, for instance, in the Divine Comedy. As in self, talk to a tree that he breaks a branch, and then it bleeds out. And then the words pour out. You need that expression after the cutting. You need that. Otherwise, it simply becomes a self-inflicted process that does not heal, right? We talked about psychoanalysis. [crosstalk] Language is a cure. It doesn't resolve the cause, but it is in the articulation of that language that you find perhaps the possibility of enjoying.
Host: The book is "The Other Side of the Digital: The Sacrificial Economy of New Media" by Andrea Righi. Thank you so much, Professor Righi, for joining me today. I appreciate your time.
Andrea: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure.
Interviewing leading philosophers about their recent work