Captured in the Image: Cynicism and Culture Jamming

We used to read the news like a Dadaist — piecing together the seemingly random series of signifiers to reveal an underlying or deeper truth. In this disarray and slanted piecing together of phrases, certain slips make themselves apparent like a series of cracks in the Real, bringing into relief the symptoms behind the news of the day. Prior to the advent of the internet, and eventually of social media becoming the basis of news consumption for most western citizens, we were largely impartial spectators of news. Our news was largely brought to us by a series of signifier relations.

Hegel insisted that the philosopher read the newspaper daily. This engagement with the world in our social media-driven lives is more challenging today, because today we are spectators that are always both curators and spectators. Social media platforms no longer provide a centralized narrative that is ‘out there’ taking place.

Zizek argues this phenomena is nothing less than a shift at the level of postmodern subjectivity. He claims that our relation to what Lacan called the big Other is no longer able to assure the balance of the symbolic order. In the context of the social media spectator/participant, the big Other is what assures a consistency to the transmission of a centralized narrative accounting for the world out there, one that of course is still riddled with propaganda and half truths, but it was stable, and importantly, we were able to decode it through the means of the signifier.

Today, our relation to the world privileges the image over and above the signifier. Our symptoms lie hidden in the signifying chain of signifier relations, and yet the subject is what represent a subject to another signifier. The subject disappears when it enters the chain of signifiers. But it is, after all, the realm of the signifier (symbolic) that heals the symptom because this is where symptoms can be massaged out, decoded. Our collective symptoms are today hibernating inside the spaces of the images we proliferate. The reign of the image disrupts our ability to break from the capture that it holds us in. This is the same capture as Lacan’s mirror stage, the capture in the imago.

As Richard Boothby observes in Freud as Philosopher: Metapsychology After Lacan, for an image to become a signifier, it must participate in the embracing synchrony of la langue. In other words, the image is stuck, much like the ego, in the imaginary where it is unable to bring about the hidden object behind the chain of signifiers that remains locked behind its facade.

The shift to the reign of the image, away from the reign of the signifier, has taken place in the manner in which news and information is now consumed as individualized curation. Social networks have moved us away from a centralized model of news dissemination. No longer do a finite set of corporate news stations saturate our understanding of the world and current events. The agent of news consumption is now very often the curator, making the very basis of authentic, trust worthy stories compromised at best. The flow of news that matters is now based on the often arbitrary whim of an unpredictable digital commons that is, importantly, controlled often by the dissemination of powerful aggregators.  This ‘attention seeking economy’ is still highly  supported by powerful capital i.e. look at the well- financed progressive news curators over at Upworthy.

The so-called attention economy is an illusion: it is asking for our attention knowing full well that we are presented with very little worthy of consuming, precisely because we lack the ability to break from our capture in the image. Our capture in the static confines of the image present a paradox in so far as the so called attention economy is about flow, about constant movement. Heidegger distinguished capture as a distinctive feature of the animal. The bee is captured in the act of latching onto the flower for pollen. The human, by contrast is able to break from the capture, and this is what distinguishes the human from the animal.

The Capture of the Image and the New Cynic

The image captures us in a state of fixity, not fascination, a fixity that blocks fascination precisely because we are deprived of a symbolic space that gives us access to the signifier. Since we are deprived of the flow of the symbolic in today’s public social media space, this gives new meaning to the maxim that the cynic is the one who lets what his eyes see determine the way things really are. The downfall of the cynics trust in the symbolic authority of things as they present themselves takes place when the symbolic fiction breaks down. The signifier lies in so far as it cancels out every other signifier in a relation of negation that presents us with a structural account for decoding what is hidden.

The cynic is often the most passionate, the most political, and often, the most prone to having an agenda, or he/she is dejected and removed from engaging at all. This polarity characterizes the cynic. The cynic, defined here as the one who holds symbolic authority with a heavy weight, who really believes what he sees in the image, is thus the one most prone to capture. From this premise, the cynic is the one who can’t seem to shrug off the in-existence of the big Other.  This is why conspiracy theories are either hotly supported, or hotly rejected, which are indicative of a similar position. The cynic inhabits both poles, the cynic is not passive but is a subject grounded in a form of ignorance that is passionate. I think here a fundamental teaching of Lacan rings true, that ignorance is not a lack (of knowledge or experience) but a passion.

Psychoanalysis helps us decode this situation, if we were to generalize the analytic session onto the field. In analysis, the analyst seeks to bring the patient (analysand) out of the imaginary and back into the flow of the symbolic, despite both registers (the symbolic and the imaginary). Lacan writes, “the real action of analysis consists rather in analyzing the symbolic character of the defenses, of bringing the subject to realize the dimension at stake on the plane of the symbol.” Today’s subject is deprived of this flow, locked in the prison of the image.

Culture Jamming the Capture of Social Media

In other work, I have written about how the culture jamming Yes Men present us with a strategy for altering subjectivity, for revealing certain alignments of authority that too often go ignored. What culture jamming seeks to do is reveal the basis by which the cynic has unconsciously relied upon intricately managed beliefs and ideologies in allegiance to the big Other.

The Yes Men name their activism “identity construction” and the net result of their culture jamming is the exposure of the ideological contours of our late capitalist life world.  When they impersonate a corporate CEO, or a senior government official, and are occupying the seat of symbolic authority, the symbolic efficiency of the actual leaders and consultants they are impersonating don’t raise one bit of suspicion from the listeners, and they thus reveal the symbolic efficiency for what it often is: full of cynical allegiance to a series of dead laws.

The overall result of the Yes Men’s identity construction interventions is that they show systemic failures at a macro scale and thus are able to turn the prevailing neoliberal critique of social inequalities. Their interventions show the extent to which “the system” is in need of serious transformation, and not that the individual, or “just a few bad apples” which cause the abuses and corruption. Here we find an effective form of activism that shows the failure of this moralizing discourse and turns it straight on its head. It shows that not only is there a system that perpetuates this logic of blind allegiance, but that most often when we think we are acting against something, a new office policy, or a change in management, we are operating on a level of conformity to a big Other that eludes our conscious grasp. This is precisely why the Yes Men open a space for new identifications with the Other. The Yes Men’s capacity to move the subject into a new identification with the big Other resembles Lacan’s passage a la act, or an act that addresses the big Other and makes solidarity with an identification of the object that reveals the disintegration of the big Other.

Can culture jamming take place in social media, at least in any effective way?

One scenario that might take place when we encounter an article in the flood of daily news stories, and based on its title and compact summary, we absorb it as telling something about the world, without any conscious analysis of it. This captured state of sharing, this robotic, repetitive state of sharing is what culture jamming may seek to disrupt, but yet is there not some truth to the exposure of the symbolic fiction inherent to social media? Perhaps this is where we might find culture jamming.

I am reminded of the fake article that claimed the Zimmerman verdict resulted in the largest de-friending on Facebook in the companies history. The story was reported by a number of journalists as true, when in fact it wasn’t. But of course it could have been. A similar example came in the speculative Monsanto buys Blackwater report. The fact that Monsanto purchasing Blackwater has no real bearing on the evil activities that they currently do, largely anonymously, yet the cynic could never handle this flaw, so we see that there is a level of culture jamming in speculative reporting.

Perhaps what we need most are a series of disruptions to our capture in the image, how else might we re-gain a sense of flow and attention on our own terms?


  1. Reblogged this on horstbellmer and commented:
    In this disarray and slanted piecing together of phrases, certain slips make themselves apparent like a series of cracks in the Real, bringing into relief the symptoms behind the news of the day

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