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Cognitarian Subjectivation


Recent years have witnessed a new techno-social framework of contemporary subjectivation. And I would like to ask whether a process of autonomous, collective self-definition is possible in the present age. The concept of “general intellect” associated with Italian post-operaist thought in the 1990s (Paolo Virno, Maurizio Lazzarato, Christian Marazzi) emphasizes the interaction between labor and language: social labor is the endless recombination of myriad fragments producing, elaborating, distributing, and decoding signs and informational units of all kinds. Every semiotic segment produced by the information worker must meet and match innumerable other semiotic segments in order to form the combinatory frame of the info-commodity, semiocapital.

Semiocapital puts neuro-psychic energies to work, submitting them to mechanistic speed, compelling cognitive activity to follow the rhythm of networked productivity. As a result, the emotional sphere linked with cognition is stressed to its limit. Cyberspace overloads cybertime, because cyberspace is an unbounded sphere whose speed can accelerate without limits, while cybertime (the organic time of attention, memory, imagination) cannot be sped up beyond a certain point—or it cracks. And it actually is cracking, collapsing under the stress of hyper-productivity. An epidemic of panic and depression is now spreading throughout the circuits of the social brain. The current crisis in the global economy has much to do with this nervous breakdown. Marx spoke of overproduction, meaning the excess of available goods that could not be absorbed by the social market. But today it is the social brain that is assaulted by an overwhelming supply of attention-demanding goods. The social factory has become the factory of unhappiness: the assembly line of networked production is directly exploiting the emotional energy of the cognitive class.

I wish to pinpoint the problem of organic limits, which is often eclipsed by an emphasis on the limitless potential of technology. We should speak of technology in context, and the present context of technology is culturally oriented towards economic competition. Info-producers are neuro-workers. Their nervous systems act as active receiving terminals. They are sensitive to semiotic activation throughout the entire day. What emotional, psychic, existential price does the constant cognitive stress of permanent cognitive electrocution exact? The acceleration of network technologies, the general condition of precariousness, and the dependence on cognitive labor all induce pathological effects in the social mind, saturating attention time, compressing the sphere of emotion and sensitivity, as is shown by psychiatrists who have observed a steep increase in manic depression and suicide in the last generation of workers.

The colonization of time has been a fundamental issue in the modern history of capitalist development: the anthropological mutation that capitalism produced in the human mind and in daily life has, above all, transformed the perception of time. But we are now leaping into the unknown—digital technologies have enabled absolute acceleration, and the short-circuiting of attention time. As info-workers are exposed to a growing mass of stimuli that cannot be dealt with according to the intensive modalities of pleasure and knowledge, acceleration leads to an impoverishment of experience. More information, less meaning. More information, less pleasure.

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