b’Topic: The Culture of Digitality’
b”The first paragraph should be on what interested you the most in the chapter’s content. The second paragraph should be about the main argument the author . The last paragraph should raise your questionyzns about the chapter’s content”
The Culture of Digitality
The age of consumption, being the historical culmination of the whole process of accelerated productivity under the sign of capital, is also the age of
Jean Baudrillard, The Consumer Society, p.207.
In our time … algorithms are becoming decisive, and … companies like
Amazon, Google and Facebook are fast becoming, despite their populist
rhetoric, the new apostles of culture
Ted Striphas ‘Algorithmic Culture’ 2015, p.407.
The double-alienation from analogue technique and the analogue forces a reappreciation of the bases of culture-formation. What is often loosely termed
‘digital culture’ is considered here through the framework of digitality in order
to derive new perspectives. Through these new perspectives, new estimations
of what we ‘gain’ and ‘lose’ in the new processes of the formation of culture
will serve as a more solid basis of critique of the present condition. This in
turn will allow greater understanding and therefore greater possibility for a
reassertion of human need over computer-instrumentalised logic, such that
the current formations of culture by digitality may be re-shaped in ways more
dialectic with our human-technology origins within analogue technique and
I begin by considering two differing but illustrative examples—in Lev
Manovich and Bernard Stiegler—of what might be termed the failed ‘promise of the digital’ in respect of culture, cultural production and politics. I say
‘failed’, because their concept of the digital is one, like very many others since
the 1990s, that is underpinned by analogue-based assumptions. Then I move
to a more historically-informed consideration of the ‘problem of culture’ as
a more clearly defined term within the context of capitalism. In particular, I
How to cite this book chapter:
Hassan, R. 2020. The Condition of Digitality: A Post-Modern Marxism for the Practice of
Digital Life. Pp. 129–158. London: University of Westminster Press. DOI: https://doi.
org/10.16997/book44.f. License: CC‐BY‐NC‐ND 4.0
130 The Condition of Digitality
look at the major theorisations of culture within capitalism from Adorno and
Horkheimer, Guy Debord, Raymond Williams, Zygmunt Bauman and Jean Baudrillard, to show that these too no longer suffice as critique of the production
of culture today, because although there was significant analytical purchase in
these differing perspectives when they were written, they were conceived in a
pre-digital time, and with analogue-dependent theories guiding their logic. I
will end by arguing that digitality has brought consumerism—and by extension
much of what now constitutes culture—into a radically new realm, one that
requires a basic critique of the digital context before we can understand what is
happening to what it means to be human and social.
Lev Manovich is a relatively early and influential computer and cultural theorist who provides a useful illustration of how a ‘digital culture’ is produced in
a way that goes beyond the rather more diffused treatment that the literature
tends to give to the subject.1 Nonetheless, his work demonstrates how failure to
identify digital as a new category of technology leaves us ill-equipped to register the full significance of digital culture and what this new culture portends
in what is the most debilitating sphere of our time: digital consumerism. In his
2001 book The Language of New Media, Manovich titled his first chapter with
the now quaint-sounding question: ‘What is New Media?’ A primary objective
of not just the chapter, but the book, was to ‘understand the effects of computerisation on culture as a whole’. He went on to predict:
just as the printing press in the fourteenth century and photography in
the nineteenth century had a revolutionary impact on the development
of modern society and culture, today we are in the middle of a new
media revolution—the shift of all of our culture to computer-mediated
forms of production, distribution and communication. This new revolution is arguably more profound than the previous ones, and we are just
beginning to sense its initial effects.2
The emphasis on ‘all of our culture’ is mine. But the author could and should
have italicised it himself, just to make sure that the reader did not miss the
phrase and its import. Manovich sees ‘new media’ in precisely such epochchanging terms. He goes on to analyse some of the now-antiquated but thenprevalent ‘new media’ technologies, such as DVDs, CD-ROMs and ‘computer
multimedia’, that were spearheading the transformation ‘of all of our culture’ at
that time. 2001, we remind ourselves, is very recent history. It was the year of
the Twin Towers and Pentagon attacks by Al Qaeda, another form of revolution whose legacies continue to shape much of the geopolitics of today. However, the cultural legacies of the DVD or CD-ROM are rather more difficult
to discern. The CD-ROM simply became obsolete. These mirrored discs fell
victim to their limited data and speed capacities. For its part, the commerciallypackaged DVD, since 1995 the principal medium for TV series, box sets, etc,
The Culture of Digitality 131
now dwindles in those shrinking domains where streaming and wireless data
and ready access to cloud computing have not yet killed it off.
Notwithstanding the relatively brief shelf-life of these supposedly revolutionary technologies, Manovich does seek to account for ‘new media’ more broadly,
including how they shape culture-formation. He calls his theory ‘transcoding’,
an idea whereby computerisation ‘transcodes’ or recodes previous (analogue)
technologies, such as cinema and the printed page, so as to ‘interact together
in the interfaces of Web sites’.3 Transcoding from analogue to digital is seen
by Manovich as functioning in a kind of ongoing evolution where technology and human culture develop in mutual interaction. Digital technology, for
Manovich, constitutes a new accretive ‘layer’, a ‘computer layer’ that will ‘affect
the cultural layer’ in an ongoing interaction at the human-computer interface
(HCI)—a term he borrows from mid-twentieth-century computer science.4
This interface is a hybrid between a ‘computer interface’ and a ‘cultural interface’ that situates the user within ‘an immersive environment and a set of controls; between standardisation and originality.’5 The idea of HCI as the interface
is suggestive in Manovich’s work. It draws in spirit, if not directly, from J.C.R
Licklider’s influential 1960 essay ‘Man-Computer Symbiosis’, where Licklider
theorised that given computers do well in many things that humans do badly,
such as routine and predictable work-tasks, a ‘symbiotic partnership’ would be
a positive and productive collaboration for humankind.6 In this partnership
Licklider predicted that in the near future:
men will set the goals, formulate the hypotheses, determine the criteria
and perform the evaluations. Computing machines will do the routinizable work that must be done to prepare the way for insights and decisions in technical and scientific thinking. Preliminary analyses indicate
that the symbiotic partnership will perform intellectual operations
much more effectively than man alone can perform them.7
Symbiosis will not only lead to a higher technological form but will also constitute a new stage of human progress on the back of the computer. Manovich,
writing forty-one years later, and positioned deep within a milieu of postmodernity, hedges more than a little on the question of the future. He does
this because his logic concerning human-computer interaction is driven primarily by the technology side of the equation. He speaks mainly of discrete
computer, or computer-based, technologies, such as HTML code, Photoshop
digital images and so on; and when he speaks of ‘culture’ he speaks of cultural
artefacts (technologies) such as cinema, the printed text, the codex, and the
clay tablet.8 Culture as a human practice (as opposed to a technological artefact) is therefore a strangely inert component of Manovich’s interaction. This is
significant. In common with much other writing on culture—a word Raymond
Williams termed ‘the original difficult word’—Manovich does not define it for
132 The Condition of Digitality
his purposes, notwithstanding the fact that much of his theory depends upon
a clear understanding of it.9 I shall define it soon, but to close my critique of
Manovich’s approach, I will show how his downgrading of the culture-human
element at the ‘cultural interface’ limits the theory. His rendering of culture as
inert, or at least secondary to technology, means that the predictive value of
his theory in particular is also limited. After detailing the logic and interactions of the ‘technological layer’ and ‘cultural layer’ in his transcoding theory,
Manovich decides, rather feebly, that:
Today the language of cultural interfaces is in its early stage, as was the
language of cinema a hundred years ago. We do not know what the final
result will be, or even if it will ever completely stabilize. Both the printed
word and cinema eventually achieved stable forms which underwent
little change for long periods of time, in part because of the material
investments in their means of production and distribution. Given that
computer language is implemented in software, potentially it could keep
changing forever. But there is one thing we can be sure of. We are witnessing the emergence of a new cultural metalanguage, something that
will be at least as significant as the printed word and cinema before it.10
For Manovich the future is open, but unclear. His logic demands this vague lack
of direction; yet it need not be so. His logic demands vagueness because developments in digital technology are almost impossible to predict in any context.
His logic would be correct if one looked at technology only in isolation. However, a ‘transcoding’, or technology-cultural interaction, that contains a component of active human agency, one based upon human needs, could contribute
to a future and a culture that may be visible and predictable—at least in outline.
For all the nuance of his layering and recoding, what Manovich is suggesting,
still, is a straightforward and traditional process of technological evolution,
with ‘culture’ following in its wake, and it is this that renders his theory unable to say much beyond the obviousness of digital’s ‘significance’ vis-à-vis the
printed word and cinema. The failure to attribute culture with agency, assigning it inert artefactual (historical) value instead, means that Manovich’s theory
cannot engage with that most primary element of individual and collective
agency—prediction and planning that can allow a future to be envisaged and
created to at least a certain degree. Notwithstanding his above average attempt
at theorising the effects of digitality, when still in its relative infancy, Manovich
takes us no further forward, then or now, towards the new understanding that
this influential book claims.
Bernard Stiegler, eminent philosopher of media, whose theorising on the
character of digital has commonalities with this book’s arguments on the nature
of the analogue–digital ontologies, does move our understanding of digitality
forward, somewhat. Stiegler has written widely—and often abstrusely—on the
subject, but in his essay ‘Teleologics of the Snail’, he argues with some clarity
The Culture of Digitality 133
that the digital wave has already enveloped economy and society and that
culture-formation, especially political culture, is now subject to a specifically
digital logic that requires us to ‘radically rethink teleology, and open up the
question of new forms of teleologies and teleologics … made possible and necessary by digital technologies of communication.’11 In contrast to Manovich’s
accretion and evolution, the digital, according to Stiegler, has forced a radical technological break. Digitality has already asserted itself and has created a
new sensibility through a technological rupture that has caused the ‘process of
the grammatisation of flows, [to become] a process of discretization’.12 This binary of ‘flows’ and ‘discretization’ can be read as another way of describing the
analogue–digital breach that I have theorised throughout this book. Drawing
deeply from theorist of technics Gilbert Simondon who, like Jacques Ellul, saw
technological development as having its own autonomy, Stiegler introduces a
term from psychology, ‘dissociation’, meaning ‘a detachment from reality,’ to
describe the digital media-user effect, which:
form[s] dissociated milieus in which I am an addressee without being
an addressor, and therefore do not participate in collective individuation, that is, in transindividuation; I am thus short-circuited. Dissociated milieus are industrially disorganised symbolic milieus, that is,
milieus that are de-socialised, de-symbolised, de-sublimated, deprived
of consistence; they are to this extent organizations which tend to become asocial, that is, without philia, in other words, without these affective ties that are the condition of all political life.13
This is alienation from politics by digitality. It is an alienation that stems from
the needs of capitalism: its need for control, and its need for efficiency and instrumentalisation. The alienation that is digitality, or ‘discretization’ as Stiegler
terms it, was an unanticipated side-effect of capitalism’s technological striving
for automation. But in Stiegler’s analysis it has opened up a new space he calls
a ‘telecracy’, a version, it seems, of Postman’s ‘technocracy’, a space of political
and social power that is perpetually shifting and contingent. Unlike Postman’s
negative version, Stiegler’s is a space, at least, of political potential, a potential
that is undermined for now by the very power that digitality makes possible—
Telecracy is … that which opens up the possibility of democracy. But it
is also that which makes possible democracy’s destruction, since, to the
extent that it makes remote control possible, as the power of the distant,
it constantly threatens this democracy, of which it is the possibility.14
Politics needs to fill this space: ‘A new political struggle must take place’,15 he
writes. But based upon Stiegler’s own solution it’s not apparent how this might
be possible. And so it is here that Stiegler’s useful insight into the dissociative or
134 The Condition of Digitality
alienating tendency of digitality begins to break down. Writing in 2007, Stiegler
seems impressed by the potential of a newish device, the smartphone, whose
logic is based upon the very technology he critiques. He is not unusual here.
Nonetheless, at the beginning of the social media phase of digitality, Stiegler
imagines his personal smartphone, the Tréo 650—a kind of keyboard-equipped
BlackBerry of the period—to be a site of cultural and political potential: an incipient ‘telecracy’ that fits in the pocket. Of his Palm Inc.-manufactured device
he writes: ‘Between this Tréo 650 and myself a circuit is formed’.16 The completed circuit repairs the ‘short-circuit’ of dissociation and allows Stiegler to
be whole again, connecting with himself and with others similarly equipped
to form a collective and positive telecracy of networked and transindividuated
individuals. In this positive loop, Stiegler envisages the emergence of:
social networks which take shape by sharing in technologies of transindividuation, called cooperative technologies, and which constitute,
as the digital pharmaka of the technological associated milieu of the
Internet – where the addressees are always also senders – absolutely original processes of psychical and collective individuation. Here psychical,
symbolic and technical associated milieus have become indissociable.17
Unlike Manovich, Stiegler accepts the analogue-digital bifurcation, but he does
not fully appreciate how far-reaching the ‘dissociation’ has become. Instead he
argues that the rupture is one that may be united, through digital technology
itself, and that this may be achieved through what can only be inferred to be
a knowing subject, acting alone with a smartphone, to form a psychical and
technical space, a ‘hypersocial and hyperpsychical space’18 that connects the
individual with others to form the basis for a new political culture. For Stiegler,
a repairable breach must mean that digitality cannot signify a new category of
technology, nor even a new logic, but a relationship (currently) in flux which
can, in some vague and almost transcendent ‘psychical, symbolic and technical’
way, be made symbiotic and collectively political.
Stiegler speculated about the potential political power of his Tréo 650 in 2007.
But change was in the wind as he wrote. For example, on 29th June of that year
Steve Jobs launched the first-generation iPhone. Its innovative use of apps on
the touch-screen and the later hardwired link to the App Store meant that an
immediately enraptured public could immerse itself—as millions of dispersed
and dissociated individuals would—into the smartphone-Web 2.0 experience
that was occurring at that time. Moreover, a few months previously, and no
less consequentially, Facebook had changed its settings to allow its universityonly ‘community’ to be joined by ‘anyone with a registered email address.’19
The wave of social media popularity would grow into a tsunami that sucked
up the socio-cultural experience of billions—experience to be cut and diced
into quantisable data in order to do the anti-social, anti-democratic and procapital things with them that would make Facebook and related platforms the
The Culture of Digitality 135
hegemons they are today.20 Stiegler did not see this coming. Neither did he anticipate the forms and failures of attempted political ‘transindividuation’ such
as the Occupy movement of 2011, or the Arab Spring risings of the same year;
nor would he foresee the more successful attempts at the ‘short-circuiting’ of
the individual by Russian disinformation, or the Chinese Communist Party’s
super-surveillance of its people, or the Google ‘filter bubble’, or the NSA PRISM
program revealed in 2013 by Edward Snowden, or Cambridge Analytica in
2018, or government troll farms in many liberal and illiberal democracies—
and the ready application of cybercops wherever regimes feel the need to keep
up with the latest techniques of cyber-surveillance and cyber-oppression. All
this and more showed clearly how vulnerable was the ‘short-circuited’ postmodern individual to even deeper individuation and alienation as networks became more ubiquitous. In more general terms, Stiegler’s theory failed to see that
mass-individuated smartphone access would quickly revolutionise the web and
the economy in many socially-negative ways, and with many casualties—technological as well as social. One minor casualty was the large and cumbersome
Tréo 650 itself, with its obsolete icons and even more antediluvian keyboard. It
succumbed almost immediately to the blitzkrieg popularity of the iPhone and
was discontinued in 2008. Its maker was purchased by Hewlett Packard in 2010
and wound up a year later.
Stiegler wrote that the post-modern society of ‘dissociation’ was ‘not inevitable’ and that ‘political struggle’ would rescue it for the digitally oppressed.
But such a society was inevitable. It was inevitable because he and we did not
see digital technology in sufficiently thorough terms. It was inevitable because
digital technology that is unrestrictedly coded for privatised and instrumentalised ends can only have such consequences if allowed to become hegemonistic.
And so, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, progressive and collective ‘political struggle’ is almost everywhere facing defeat or is in retreat.
There are few real signs of political hope or of grassroots success. We therefore
need to understand such political developments not only from the perspective
of digital technology, but also in the context of history. Timothy Snyder, in his
short book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From The Twentieth Century, reminds
us that many of the main strands of culture from the previous century, especially its politics, are still with us; but we need to learn to identify how they
have acquired different surface manifestations in our digitality. For example, a
virulent strain of national populism is back. But this is a virtual populism that
exists in large part online and is empowered by the ways that the data companies are allowed to deploy their social media algorithms. It follows, then, that
the propaganda that sustains the new populism didn’t go away. Propaganda (as
political communication) was digitalised to form the basis for a ‘post-truth’
dimension of our post-modernity. The appellation makes it sound like something new, but as Snyder notes, the spreading of disinformation as widely as
possible through ‘new media’—in his case radio—was a Nazi first principle
of politics in the 1930s. Today, the discretised and quantised flux of digital
136 The Condition of Digitality
information that pulses around the web has been freed from democratic and
fourth estate oversight. And so, for Snyder, our ‘post-truth’ era needs to be seen
as a warning sign of an incipient digital ‘pre-fascism’.21 This is a disaster for
politics as well as for the democracy that depends upon its processes. We can
see pre-fascist articulations forming today in a rising authoritarianism in the
political process—and in business. This development is, to employ Stiegler’s
term, very much a ‘dissociative’ digital authoritarianism. It is expressed as a
new overlordship by Facebook- and Twitter-utilising elites in governments,
in corporations and in right-wing political movements who draw their power
from a cadre of the tech-savvy, whose specialist knowledge enables them to
manipulate networks in order to manipulate users. Well-positioned elites in
politics or business can thus ‘mobilise’ their base—be they politically motivated online followers of an ideology, or consumers of a commercial service—
so to control them, either through targeted propaganda or targeted advertising,
or a combination of both.
To get to the roots of digital culture we need to go deeper than Manovich
or Stiegler. Neither discusses culture very much in their critique of the digital.
They focus instead upon technology and politics, respectively. Culture, they
imply, is an expression of technological and political change, as opposed to being the source of such change. If Manovich and Stiegler (and others like them)
were sufficiently thorough-going in their analysis—that is to say, to see digital
itself as the central element—then their consideration of their chosen themes
of technology and politics would have been more radical, more penetrative and
more persuasive, instead of being partial and limited. Technology and politics
fall within the overarching human domain of culture. And everything is framed
by it and by the discourses that sustain it. And so, in that sense, to think about
the culture of digitality is not only to think about certain manifestations, but
to think about what it is that makes such manifestations virtual and real at the
Marxism and Consumer Culture: from Ground Zero
to the Ghetto
Since the beginnings of capitalist modernity, the commodification process has
colonised increasingly more of those realms of human activity expressed as
‘culture’. And as this colonisation has continued, the culture-capitalism conjunction has been identified as an important challenge in the critique of modern life. This is the case not only in the Marxist tradition, revealing a more
pervasive concern with the sociology of modernity as it pertains to culture.22
For example, in the early twentieth century, as ‘mass culture’ became an established reality, Georg Simmel, in his work Individuality and Social Forms, identified what he saw as a ‘problem’ with culture-formation, one which he chose to
analyse in terms of authenticity. He writes:
The Culture of Digitality 137
History … concerns itself with changes in the forms of culture… But we
can also see a deeper process at work. Life … can manifest itself only in
particular forms; yet owing to its essential restlessness, life constantly
struggles against its own products which have become fixed and do not
move along with it. This constant change in the content of culture, even
of whole cultural styles, is the sign of the infinite fruitfulness of life. At
the same time, it marks the deep contradiction between life’s eternal flux
and the objective validity and authenticity of the forms through which
Simmel is asking: culture rises up from the ‘fruitfulness’ of everyday life, but
to what extent does an objective reality, the ‘external forms’, impinge upon it
to stall or hinder its evolution? And what happens to ‘authenticity’? Though
no Marxist, Simmel’s ‘external forms’ may be seen as akin to objective capitalist society, with its forms impressing the commodity upon the individual and
wider society as an increasingly naturalised force that would in time—in the
time of modernity—become a dominant factor in the production of culture in
the sphere of human experience. Ours is a culture in which people are increasingly defined by commodities. We tend to accept them, often unreflectively,
as bearing the marks of who we see ourselves to be in our individuated social
contexts—in the varied and graded expansion of what Pierre Bourdieu would
later call the ‘cultural goods’ that are also the symbols of ‘distinction’ that he
wrote so penetratingly about in his 1984 book of that title.24
I will analyse here the particular mechanism of the objective ‘external forms’
that impress upon subjective lives the ‘cultural goods’ that become part of life
in terms of their symbolic meaning. I will pursue this, in the first instance,
through a core, but now somewhat discontinued, Marxist idea of ‘base and
superstructure’. This is an idea that stems from Marx himself, and which is encapsulated in another of his much-quoted lines: ‘the mode of production of
material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general’.25 This translates as: the socio-technical foundations of any society have a
substantial effect upon the consciousness of its population. After discussing
this process, and showing why it still matters as a model of analysis, and what it
tells us about capitalism as a technology-driven social relation, I will show how
the ‘base and superstructure’ model—in Marx and in interpretations of him—
has been transformed by digitality, and how this in turn has transformed the
nature of consumerism and politics in ways that principally reflect the needs
and the logic of digitality.
We have already touched upon the thought of Raymond Williams in regard
to both technology (television) and politics. His writings on culture, however,
have been much more influential, and so it is to Williams I will turn for a more
concrete definition of the term. In 1989 Verso published Resources of Hope, a
collection of Williams’s essays on political and cultural theory. An article he
wrote in 1958 titled ‘Culture is Ordinary’ appears in it. This is a foundational
138 The Condition of Digitality
text on how not only to understand and define culture, but also to see culture’s
lived experience as a way of understanding ourselves and our historical, social
and economic context. The clue to Williams’s idea is in the title. It is a point
he reiterates throughout the text, observing that: ‘Culture is ordinary, that is
where we must start’; ‘Culture is ordinary: that is the first fact’; and ‘Culture is
ordinary, in every society and in every mind’.26 So, what does it mean to argue
that ‘culture’, with its persistent connotations of both ‘high’ and ‘low’, is in fact
ordinary? Williams writes what is partly a semi-autobiographical analysis that
uses the context of his Welsh working class origins and his later life as a Cambridge academic to frame his hypothesis on culture. For example, Williams is a
Marxist, but of a 1950s ‘neo’ sort, that rejects any ‘prescriptive’ interpretation of
Marx’s base and superstructure theory and dismisses the idea that the productive base of society ‘is in some way a cultural directive’.27 His direct experience
of working-class culture taught him otherwise. However, knowledge, communication, travel, and learning play their parts, too, and they do so sometimes
in important ways. Williams continues, and with clear reference to how Cambridge culture is imbricated with that of his Welsh village:
A culture has two aspects: the known meanings and directions, which
its members are trained to; the new observations and meanings, which
are offered and tested. These are the ordinary processes of human societies and human minds, and we see through them the nature of a culture:
that it is always both traditional and creative; that it is both the most
ordinary common meanings and the finest individual meanings. We use
the word culture in these two senses: to mean a whole way of life – the
common meanings; to mean the arts and learning – the special processes of discovery and creative effort. Some writers reserve the word
for one or other of these senses; I insist on both, and on the significance
of their conjunction.28
In one sense, what Williams in his 1976 book Keywords called that ‘original
difficult word’ is actually rather simple—and rather ordinary. Culture is about
meaning. As pattern-seeking creatures, humans are all about attributing meaning to things. Broadened out from individual meaning-making, ‘the making of
a society is the finding of common meanings and direction’, as Williams puts it
in a beautifully minimal formulation.29 Moreover, there is a strong sense that
he views experience and meaning in culture-forming as experiences and meanings that can be creative and authentic expressions of individual self-realisation.
Whereas Simmel saw a difficult contradiction between ‘life’s eternal flux’ and
the sources of ‘validity and authenticity’, Williams sees no such problem, but
expresses, rather, a positive and somewhat romantic view of culture. And it is
one—as the title of the book in which the essay appears proclaims—that constitutes a ‘resource’ for understanding this thing called culture. His is a view, in
other words, that democratises culture, makes culture ‘ordinary’ and places it
The Culture of Digitality 139
in the minds and hands of everyone as a natural resource that all can be a part
of and share.
Williams had more to say, and in less autobiographical terms, about how ‘ordinary culture’ is affected by objective forces, such as technology and economy.
He did this in a 1973 essay in the New Left Review titled ‘Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory’. In the same manner as in his 1958 essay, Williams takes care to dissociate himself from what he terms the ‘unacceptable’
and ‘commonly held’ Marxist view expressed as a ‘determining base and a determined superstructure’—the idea of an almost mechanical process whereby
capitalism’s productive forces unsparingly define or govern the superstructure
of society and its forms of culture.30 Marx himself, Williams notes, did not subscribe to such a process, but instead emphasised the ‘conditioning’ effect of the
‘base’, its producing of a context or general environment that acclimatises the
‘superstructure’ towards predispositions. Williams thus gives the ‘commonly
held’ ‘determination’ effect of base to superstructure a rather different evaluation, writing that: ‘we have to revalue “determination” towards the setting of
limits and the exertion of pressure, and away from a predicted, prefigured and
controlled content’.31 Moreover, and this will become important later in the
context of digitality, Williams makes a characteristically Williams neo-Marxist
statement that acknowledges the complexity of it all:
crucially, we have to revalue ‘the base’ away from the notion of a fixed
economic or technological abstraction, and towards the specific activities of men (sic) in real social and economic relationships, containing
fundamental contradictions and variations and therefore always in a
state of dynamic process.32
In other words, there can be no room for rigidity when theorising the relationships between economic and technological forces and how they interact
with individuals in society and in the shaping of their cultural meanings. The
interaction is always in motion and the essence of the process is revealed in the
concrete activities of people in everyday life and in the patterns and institutions
that form and dissolve to shape and reshape meaning in cultural life.
And so for Williams there is more than just endless flux and interpenetration
between base and superstructure. In his 1973 essay, which coincided with an
Anglophone ‘discovery’ of Antonio Gramsci,33 Williams ingeniously introduces
Gramsci’s concept of hegemony, with which to give the base-superstructure
process greater analytic power. The power of hegemony, as Williams understands it from Gramsci, is that it is an almost subterraneanly powerful form of
ideology that is ‘deeply saturating of the consciousness of a society’.34 So deep
that it ‘even constitutes the limit of common sense for most people under its
sway [and] corresponds to the reality of social experience very much more
clearly than any notions derived from the formula of base and superstructure’.35
The power of hegemony, as compared to the relatively shallow and transient
140 The Condition of Digitality
power of ideology, is that not only does it lie deep within society, and its ideas
appear often as common sense, but that hegemonic ideas can also appear as
neutral or positive, when they may not necessarily be so. An example of such
deep hegemony is the concept of capitalism itself, which until recently, and in
the US at least, was widely equated with democracy, and functioned also as a
basic expression of human freedom.36 More pertinent for our purposes is the
supposed ‘neutral’ functioning of technology, and of computers in particular.
As we saw, the Cold War discourse around computing paved the way for digital
technology that would be seen as a wonder-technology, a ‘magical’ technology
based upon the ‘neutral’ concepts of logic and mathematics that would reproduce a multitude of ‘efficient’ and ‘smart’ applications throughout the economy
and society. However, even if functioning at a deep cultural level, hegemony is
able to succeed only through the maintenance of a power discourse that consists of, as Terry Eagleton observes, a wide variety of ‘practical strategies by
which a dominant power elicits consent to its rule from those it subjugates’.37 In
other words, as a deep-lying hegemonic idea, consent can function as a default
attitude until, for whatever reason, ‘power nakedly reveals its hand’ to become
‘an object of political contestation’.38
A discourse that carries a hegemonic idea, or set of ideas, is a form of communication. This much is clear. But if we think about the particular mode of
communication in the base-superstructure context, this enables consideration
of how and to what effect communication has been transformed through digitality. Régis Debray provides a useful framework for this consideration when
he writes that it is ‘Impossible to grasp the nature of conscious collective life
in any epoch without an understanding of the material forms and processes
through which its ideas were transmitted—the communication networks that
enable thought to have social existence.’39 For Debray, the material forms and
processes are the source for understanding the nature of the communication
itself. Much like McLuhan’s ‘medium is the message’, Debray claims that it is the
medium itself that constitutes the most important aspect of communication—
shaping the content and giving ‘social existence’ to it. The material aspect of
communication is something Christian Fuchs takes up in connection with a
base-superstructure interpretation of Raymond Williams to consider how these
function in relation to digital communication—and to the production of culture.
Fuchs’s theory thus constitutes a rare treatment of the concept in the transition
to digitality. Fuchs begins: ‘wherever there is culture, there is communication.
When we communicate, we constitute culture.’40 In the context of digital society, however, it is often claimed that digital’s immateriality constitutes a central
aspect of the transformed nature of communication, and as Fuchs phrases it,
digitality ‘tends to advance the ideology of the immaterial.’41 To counter this
tendency, and building directly upon Williams and his materialist conception
of communication in the base-superstructure process, Fuchs argues for what he
terms a ‘communicative materialism’ that would act as a corrective to the ideology of digital immateriality.42 Today, the ideology of immateriality has become
The Culture of Digitality 141
hegemonic. It has rendered the materialist conception of history, as well as the
materialist underpinning of the base-superstructure, as secondary—both as a
way to understand capitalism, and to understand its social expressions such as
class, class consciousness, and culture-formation. The ideology of digitality, especially in its communicative forms, Fuchs points out, has obscured the deeply
materialist character of its basic functioning. We must look at ‘the conditions
of production of the internet and digital media’ to assess its reality, he argues,
and if we do, we will see relations and forces of production that are not too different from those of the pre-digital era. For example, the internet is not a clean
and weightless assemblage of immaterial efficiency. It is an immense drain on
electricity and could consume 20 per cent of all the world’s power by 2025.43
Digital hardware contributes vast amounts of material waste in the form of
steel, plastics, glass, and heavy metals like cadmium, antimony, lead and mercury. Moreover, an international division of labour—humans involved in the
production, distribution and discarding of digital products—thrives today in
ways that would have been recognisable in 1950 or 1970. Fuchs makes the compelling case that this underlying material reality of the communicative basis
of our globalised society must be recognised and promoted as the basis for a
humanly-based form of resistance to the new depredations of digital capital. He
sums up Williams’s materialist communication with an approving restatement
of its irreducibly human core:
Whereas communication is a human social process and a practice, communications are systems, institutions and forms. There is a dialectic of
communication and communications: Humans communicate by means
of communications whereas communications are created and re-created
by human co-production and communication.44
According to Fuchs, it is only though a revelatory ‘communicative materialism’
that digital immateriality—as a pernicious ideology—may be properly understood and resisted by means of a grounded understanding of the continued
importance of the materiality of production and of culture, as much today as it
was in the 1950s or 1970s.
It will be clear from what I have written previously that whilst any
Enlightenment-based and Marxist-based future and present-day resistance to
capitalism can be built only upon a material-communicative basis, it is necessary to prioritise. Digitality is the first problem. Digital technology, acting as another category of technology, the first technology that we have to compare and
contrast with the analogue, must be seen for what it is. It must be seen for what
it compels us to realise—that we ourselves are analogue in our essence, in our
evolution, and in the institutions, cultures, societies and economies that have
been expressions of these. It must be seen also that, as currently constructed and
applied through market-based and capitalist-driven processes, digital technology is antithetical to the analogue-based legacies that are the basis of historical
142 The Condition of Digitality
materialism and much of our present-day historical conditioning in terms of
how we imagine the world to be. For example, liberal democracy and social democracy were conceived and spread using the ‘material forms and processes’ of
communication from the eighteenth and early twentieth century, respectively,
yet we assume they can function in the same way through digital means.
All this leads to the conclusion that, on the concept of base-superstructure
and hegemony in the context of culture-formation, Williams was prescient in his
identification of the materiality of communication. But Fuchs underestimates
the power of digitality, both as an ideology—which it is—and as an antithetical
techno-logic that deeply reaches into every register of society. Moreover, the
analogue-digital dualism, and the eclipsing of the former by the latter as the
hegemonic techno-logic, force us to acknowledge that the base-superstructure
analyses, from Marx through Williams to Fuchs, must be seen for what they
are—analogue constructions from an analogue era. Base and superstructure, as
articulated by Williams and Fuchs, albeit with nuance and suppleness, need to
be put to one side as a way to understand capitalism, until the nature of digitality is understood and prioritised as a central question of our time.
The Withering Roots of Analogue Culture
Within Digital Capitalism
Interpenetration between base and superstructure suggests a certain separation
of the spheres. Williams saw these spheres as functioning in a ‘totality’, but that
this concept only made sense in the context of hegemony, the crucial ideological and communicative force that could provide the tipping-point for the
success or otherwise of an ideological component within capitalism.45 Nonetheless, separation of the spheres, involving the effects of time and space, meant
that during the long analogue era of capitalism there were elements of cultureformation in the superstructure where the productive forces of the base could
colonise it completely, or lightly, or not at all. This was something that Williams
and his close contemporaries, E.P. Thomson and Eric Hobsbawm, understood
well. Thompson, for example, was a Marxist labour historian of the early New
Left who chronicled the working-class cultures of the eighteenth and nineteenth century in industrialising Britain. In Customs in Common, Thompson
makes the useful point that ‘custom’ was a term that ‘carried many of the meanings we now assign to “culture”’ and that ‘many of the classic struggles at the
entry to the industrial revolution turned as much on customs as upon wages
of conditions of work’.46 In other words, at the early phase of industrialisation,
the sphere of the base was seen as another, alien, sphere that could represent
an existential threat to pre-industrial culture. Thompson provides an example
of what may be seen as a ‘common’ protective response in many parts of Britain to the incursion by capitalism into culture through what he terms ‘rough
music’. This was a public display of popular sentiment in towns and villages by
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means of a ‘raucous, ear-shattering noise’ made by people parading through
the streets, banging pots and pans to create a ‘music’ that could be mocking,
or lewd, or obscene, or a form of ‘ritual hostility’ to some local issue or person
that was offensive to community norms.47 Thomson writes that this custom was
a part of a Europe-wide practice that went back at least to medieval times, but
was then expressing customs and meanings and memories against the incursions of capitalism in the early phase of industrialisation. Historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote of a later period of working-class culture, where capitalism and
industry were more centrally a part of individual and community lives. As part
of the rise and spear of industry, ‘authentic’ forms of culture that still existed
were, to employ Marx’s term, becoming ‘conditioned’ by capitalism. This was a
transition phase expressing what Hobsbawm called a ‘semi-industrial pattern
of culture’.48 We can still recognise forms of this today in their specificities, but
we can recognise also that they are dwindling or becoming quaint or archaic
in the age of digitality. Hobsbawm describes a transition phase from semi- to
fully-industrialised culture in the 1840s:
In the pre-industrial towns, communities of craftsmen and domestic
workers evolved a literate, intense culture in which Protestant sectarianism combined or competed with Jacobin radicalism as a stimulus to selfeducation, Bunyan and John Calvin with Tom Paine and Robert Owen.
Libraries, chapels and institutes, gardens and cages in which the artisan
‘fancier’ bred his artificially exaggerated flowers, pigeons and dogs, filled
these self-reliant and militant communities of skilled men…49
By the end of the century, however, there existed a ‘wholly industrial life’ in
which the ‘cultural needs’ of the workers and the poor were formed.50 By then
the spheres had merged into their ‘totality’, or ‘complex whole’ as Williams put
it, but with still the distinct and recognisable ‘class character of a particular
society’—which for Williams was those of South Wales and Cambridge that
shaped his own cultural life with their ‘ordinary’ meanings.51
Such culture-forming was based upon analogue capitalism. Its techno-logic
provided the forms of time and space that were based upon the concept of
‘recognition’, where the effects of the productive base showed a discernible link
between cause and effect, and where the individual and community were ‘conditioned’ to adapt or resist or evolve with its logic. This generated in humans
what Glenn Adamson terms a ‘material intelligence’, where ‘scale and distance’
were produced analogically and set at human scale and distance. 52 This was the
case at least until the dawn of the electronic age of the 1960s when McLuhan
told us that the new age of electronically augmented ‘extensions of man’ posed
new ontological questions concerning the human-technology relationship.
Intellectually and philosophically, as far as understanding media technology is concerned, we have never really gotten beyond the aphoristic skein
that McLuhan drew over media’s ontological consequences. And so we were
144 The Condition of Digitality
unprepared for the time when McLuhan’s ‘electronic’ age became the digital
age. We largely assumed that they were the same, an evolved and more sophisticated form of communication, when they were not. McLuhan’s electronic
‘global village’ was analogue technology at its furthermost point of recognition
for media technology users. And this was what made it (and McLuhan) so
fascinating. For example, although 1960s television appeared almost as a form
of magic in a box in front of our eyes, we could still recognise the process in
terms of its technological cause and effect. Satellite transmission of ‘real-time’
global events such as the 1968 Olympics, or the live unfolding of the hostage
crisis at the Munich Olympics four years later, stretched the imagination in
terms of the technical feat involved. The SYNCOM satellite that televised these
was analogue, but this was the time of analogue-digital crossover in satellite
communications.53 Such global spectacles could generate new cultural meanings so that we could begin to feel ourselves as being a part of the global village,
to someone in London or Sydney, Mexico and Munich could still feel
very distant when represented by grainy pictures and feeble analogue
signals. However, although the message of the media was still analogue,
it was a media technology in decline, and it was this message—the message of one category of technology being replaced by another—that we
collectively failed to register.
For those billions caught within the logic of digitality today, the experience
of space shrinks, and the experience of time accelerates. One effect is that our
ancient faculty for analogue and human-scale recognition does not function so
well. Nowhere feels distant any longer, and we don’t really understand or reflect
upon this, especially when the media seems to be for ‘free’ through Facebook
or Zoom or WhatsApp.
Digital culture is produced through different technological means than was
analogue culture. The base and superstructure of Williams and Fuchs tell us
how culture formed in the analogue industrial world, but their analogue-based
analysis cannot tell us much about culture formation in the digital context.
Within the techno-logic of digitality there are no spheres of base and superstructure that imbricate and mix and overlap to constitute a (modern) totality,
one that is subject to a recognisable power-discourse of hegemony. Production
and consumption (base and superstructure) function within a single sphere—
a digital sphere, a digital loop that has excluded and alienated the individual,
and society, from the material and analogue ‘circle of action’ that according
to Arnold Gehlen constituted our actual essence and our actual deep point
of authenticity—indeed, our only point of authenticity. Culture is still formed
by meanings, but such meanings are formed through a non-recognition of
the cause and effect of digital communication. This in turn means that we
do not fully understand or recognise the basis of our culture-formation. We
The Culture of Digitality 145
have entrusted it to the new ‘magic’ of networked computation, a growing
ecology of digital applications and devices that shrinks space and accelerates
time so as to make communication ‘efficient’ for us for ostensible reasons of
convenience. At the same time, however, these media obliterate the analogue
underpinnings of at least 500 years of print culture—a different medium with
a very different message.54
Digital culture is extra-‘ordinary’ culture but not in a way that Williams
would see as positive, where the ‘nature of a culture’ is ‘always both traditional
and creative’. As we will see, digital culture is subject to a logic that itself does
not—cannot—recognise or promote either tradition or creativity. This is ‘ordinary’ to use Williams’ term, in that it contains ‘meanings and directions’55 that
emerge from the ‘specific activities of men (sic) in real social and economic
relationships.’56 However, these new meanings and directions emerge from
our technological relationship with a new category of technology. Consumer
culture forms a vast domain of cultural practice within the logic of digitality.
But it is so pervasive and so transformed from its analogue origins in the late
nineteenth century that the term ‘consumer’ is now a misnomer. I will end this
part with some considerations on how we might think about this term in the
context of digitality. But firstly we need think about consumer culture historically and critically before reflecting upon its dénouement—to then reflect upon
what has replaced it.
Consumer Culture’s Academic Ghetto
‘Consumer culture’ has functioned as a critical concept at least since the 1940s
and the publication of ‘The Culture Industry’ by Adorno and Horkheimer.57
Their essay in many ways is the ‘ground zero’ of critical theory and political
economy in questions of culture within capitalism. With the most advanced
and developed mass culture of the US as the object of their analysis, the Frankfurt School authors describe an almost science-fictionally dystopic vista of
mass ‘obedience to the rhythm of [an] iron system’ of fiendish deception and
total control by a relentless commodification that impresses its uniform stamp
upon everything—material and consciousness, ‘body and soul’.58 It is a system
from which there is no escape, and no retreat into a pre-capitalist idyll untouched by accumulation’s insatiate appetite. There is no solace to be found
within ‘high’ culture, either, as this too is now a ‘species of commodity’ promoted more openly and brazenly than ever before.59 For many, Adorno and
Horkheimer’s grapeshot blast was ideologically and psychologically too much
to bear in terms of what it implied for prospects for working-class liberation,
especially in a post-war climate of working-class optimism, and with social
democracy broadly ascendant. It suggested that consumerism had almost a
death-grip upon the consciousness, not just of workers, but everybody, and
that this was something Marx and Marxism(s) had paid not nearly enough
146 The Condition of Digitality
attention to. Marxists, especially, found such a theory of ‘superstructural reality’ difficult to accept, and so on the left the culture industry thesis became
either a reality suppressed, or a theory channelled safely into the universities
for cloistered and ever-ongoing re-interpretation. Regarding the latter fate, as
Fredric Jameson put it:
Not only is this repression of the cultural moment determined by the
university structure and by the ideologies of the various disciplines—
thus, political science and sociology at best consign cultural issues to
that ghettoizing rubric and marginalized ‘field of specialization’ called
the ‘sociology of culture’—it is also and in a more general way the unwitting perpetuation of the most fundamental ideological stance of American business…60
Within the university is where the idea has remained—and so attenuated as
a way to understand the actual power of accumulation and the commodity
when applied to culture. This in retrospect was a fatal intellectual turn. It was
a problem compounded by the fact of the post-war ‘golden age’ of the 1950s
and 1960s, when the working-classes of the Western democracies embraced
consumerism and its culture with alacrity. Workers chasing after jobs and overtime to buy cars and homes and cinema tickets will rarely be militant and will
never be revolutionary. Thought leaders within and around the universities
were already re-interpreting the connection between capitalism and culture.
Vance Packard, for instance, an English graduate and then journalist, published
a huge best-seller in 1957 titled The Waste Makers. He sought to criticise and
negativise the term ‘consumer’ and the kind of society it produced. However,
Packard didn’t critique capitalism or capitalist consumption—such ideas had
been consigned to the universities—but instead targeted ‘the mass-marketers
and status-promoters [who] have moved into culture in a large way’ with their
use of new psychological insights with which to manipulate the hapless consumer who buys impulsively the commodity with built-in obsolescence after
being lured to it by a price-cut through ‘aggressive advertising and selling.’61
In popular books, Packard and others exposed a problem with the negative
logic of consumption within competitive capitalism, but they tended to look
at societal effects (such as over-consumption) as opposed to deeper causes—
philosophical, economic or technological.
Others in the 1960s’ new left felt energised to make some kind of critique
of the commodified ‘superstructural reality’ that permeated everyday life and
did see capitalism and its commodification logic as the problem. However,
they mostly refused to subscribe to the radical dystopia conjured up by the
Frankfurt School, and maintained that revolutionary ways to resist must be
found. One of these was Guy Debord. In the 1960s it was Debord who led the
semi-popular, semi-intellectual charge against consumer capitalism. He took
it for granted that industrial commodities now controlled and shaped culture.
The Culture of Digitality 147
In the new media age of the mass-consumed image, Debord saw ‘the image
[as] the last stage of commodity reification’ and therefore the site of the final
battle against capitalism’s commodifying assault upon the possibilities inherent in human culture-making.62 For Debord and the Situationist movement,
what he termed détournement, or the use of artistic cunning, of cleverness,
of knowingness, in order to subvert the commercial image, text, practices and
ways of seeing, was how resistance to ‘commodity reification’ must begin. Debord promoted détournement as a kind of ‘anti-art’ to use against a high and
low modern culture which he saw as ‘dead’ in terms of its capacity to represent
or express or practise culture that was in any way free or authentic.63 We see
détournement’s historical legacy today in the art of Banksy.64 However, Debord
and his movement were never able to transcend consumer culture through dé-
tournement. Indeed, as they themselves had identified—and this was something that Adorno and Horkheimer would have seen as anyway inevitable—the
recuperation of their strategies of resistance once ‘the shock had lost its punch’
was the ineluctable fate of détournement.65 Alongside the fate of the works of
Banksy today, the 1960s poster image of Che Guevara stands as a good example of the recuperation process: an image of the Argentinian revolutionary by
Alberto Korda that was stylised and commodified and consumed by millions
after Guevara’s death in 1967.66 The image circulates widely still, but as a sign
emptied of any trace of the Latin American struggles against imperialism and
capitalism in the 1950s and 1960s.
Concerned with the same issues as Debord, Adorno and Horkheimer,
though with different conclusions, was Herbert Marcuse, possibly the last
great voice of the 1960s who could appreciate the extent of the terrible damage that consumerism had inflicted upon prospects for human freedom. But
he, too, was ultimately pessimistic. Art—and ‘higher art’ especially—was the
only hope for possible salvation, according to Marcuse. The language of art,
he wrote, ‘creates another universe of thought against and within the existing one’.67 But he also saw that our cultural universe within commodifying
capitalism was an irreparably fragmented one, where feelings, impressions and
experiences are unable to connect. The irony is that art can create a fragment
or zone of culture wherein it becomes possible to recognise the empty and
degraded reality of the wider superstructure. However, to know this is also to
know that we, individually and collectively, are unable to do anything about
it—except to refuse (as much as is possible) to be a part of the machine that
capitalism creates. But even Marcuse could not sustain his optimism. As he put
it at the end of One-Dimensional Man, the 1960s book that would make him
famous for a time in the latter years of that decade: ‘totalitarian tendencies of
the one-dimensional society’ are of a force and power where ‘nothing indicates
that it will be a good end.’68
A new decade saw a new philosophical attitude towards the conjunctions
of capitalism and culture. It is perhaps no coincidence that the cultural studies discipline that Raymond Williams helped to create began to burgeon in
148 The Condition of Digitality
these intellectually more conservative decades of the 1970s and 1980s. Cultural studies by then had become an established ‘field of specialisation’, to use
Jameson’s term. And a post-1968 generation of scholars, many with an experimental neo-Marxist perspective on things, looked for hope, or alternatives,
or some kind of authenticity in the processes of culture formation. However,
many of those who would make names for themselves in the academy looked
for these not in a direct critique of the commodity logic as an expression of
capitalism and its technologies, as did Adorno, Horkheimer, Debord and Marcuse, but instead in an embrace of the commodity logic in the search to find
freedom within it.
Stuart Hall must be mentioned here because he was one of the most influential cultural theorists up until his death in 2018. From the 1970s on Hall combined a post-colonial theorising with a newly-popular Gramscian framework
to identify the power structures at work in cultural production. He sought to
de-construct these and lay open their capitalist and imperialist logics. Hall and
his numerous followers set the Anglophone culture studies departments abuzz
in these Thatcher and Reagan years. Cheap money fuelling consumer debt saw
commodity culture explode across a globalising capitalist sphere and provided
a vast cornucopian spectacle for theorists to work with. New generations of
academics in the field of cultural studies (and in social theory, politics and sociology) were employed to decode TV shows and films, as well as shopping
malls, youth fashion and music, sport, advertising, video, comics, and much
else. Resistance and counter-hegemonic strategies and sub-cultural symbolic
dress-codes became the currency of analysis in these decades.69 Nevertheless,
and to draw from Jameson once more, this perspective was born in the universities, and was never anything other than ghettoised theory and knowledge that
circulated largely in the heads of academics and students and in the specialist
books and journals that published it. But Hall was revolutionary enough to
agree with Raymond Williams that politics must still play a role in cultural
theory and practice. Accordingly, he saw the field of culture as a part of the
‘long revolution’ (Williams’s term) that aims for ‘popular control’ over culture
and its forms.70 For Hall this involved spreading the word beyond the ghetto.
The magazine Marxism Today in which Hall chose to publish ‘The Culture Gap’
in 1984 was a publication that could be picked up in any fairly large newsagent
or railway station in Britain at that time, and so was a potential vehicle for
popularising a critical awareness of consumerism. As a monthly it sold up to
15,000 copies, a circulation far above any academic book or journal. However,
Marxism Today’s politics were rather different from other socialist-left journals
such as the New Left Review or the Monthly Review. Its editor Martin Jacques
was quoted in the New York Times in 1988 as saying, apropos the magazine’s
political positioning, that ‘The left must be committed to economic modernisation and international competitiveness.’71 There is no little irony here that Hall,
a devotee of Gramsci, would publish in a journal whose editor displayed telling
Gramscian signs of being under the spell of the hegemony of 1980s neoliberal
The Culture of Digitality 149
ideology. This was a world of fragmentation that Marcuse had identified more
than twenty years before, but vastly more so. And as we can see, the ideas and
alternatives that Marcuse saw as impossible to connect in a 1960s world of ‘total
reification’ were, in Hall and his acolytes, critiques of resistance from within
these fragments. They were degraded ideas from an even more degraded era
in terms of the depth and scale of an insatiable consumer culture. And so,
Marxism Today’s ideas, and by extension the ideas of Hall too, had a negligible
constituency in terms of workers looking for counter-hegemonic strategies in
their consumer-culture lives. The magazine’s circulation inevitably dwindled as
neoliberal globalisation became increasingly ascendant. It ceased publication
in 1988, a time when in the popular imagination ‘Marxism’ meant Erich Honecker, or Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu, leaders who would soon feel the tide
of history turning against them, and where Martin Jacques’s eccentric views
about ‘international competitiveness’ in the realm of Marxist ideas mattered
little to a world thinking about other things.
Zygmunt Bauman was a significant writer who held a consistent line on
culture throughout these times—criticising the ghettoed theorisations of consumption and culture and of the ‘freedoms’ and ‘choice’ that consumer society purportedly brought. Viewed by Ali Rattansi as the ‘Adorno of our times’72
Bauman wrote that capitalism provided freedom and choice, but only within
the parameters of market-approved commodities—and this was to render the
consumer essentially ‘unfree’ or trapped within the boundaries of the capitalist
market itself. To have active agency in the marketplace, Bauman writes, is to
have hardly any kind of agency at all, and certainly not political agency:
All possible dissent is … depoliticized beforehand; it is dissolved into
yet more personal anxieties and concerns and thus deflected from the
centres of societal power to private suppliers of consumer goods. The
gap between the desired and the achieved states of happiness results in
the increased fascination with the allurements of the markets and the
appropriation of commodities.73
Bauman speaks here of the power of the commodity and its capacity to generate the social practice that—as an unintended consequence—establishes an
apolitical culture, or a culture that is ‘political’ only insofar as it is expressed as
a cultural politics of style or taste or distinction. Such culture is not a culture
of social change. It is, rather—in the context of digitality—a new and distinct
form of post-modern culture that is narrow in scope, inflexible regarding what
is acceptable, and regressive in respect of its capacity to grow into something
Bauman’s view that consumer culture is ‘depoliticized’ is in fact only a surface articulation of a deeper and more serious problem. Jameson moves closer
to identifying it when he writes of the ghettoisation of an idea by a dominant
ideology. The study of culture was kept safely within the universities, he saw,
150 The Condition of Digitality
there to be endlessly interpreted and to form an intellectual backdrop wherein
commodity culture is a given, a normative world within which meaning is
made. Judith Butler made a similar point about Marxism being relegated to
the universities to become ‘cultural studies’, or Marxist theory and practice
being mainly about the study of culture.74 But Jameson saw the ghettoisation
of the particular idea of mass culture under capitalism as being the effect of
reification. Mass consumer culture holds out the promise of a Utopia of material plenty and ontological fulfilment, but delivers only illusions—and does
so cynically, especially in its advertising. Mass culture and commercial culture, however reified and reifying they may be, still, according to Jameson,
have as their ‘underlying impulse’… ‘our deepest fantasies about the nature of
social life, both as we live it now, and as we feel in our bones it ought to be
lived.’75 And within this space of our deepest fantasy there exists hope for a
reawakening of the ‘ineradicable drive towards collectivity’ that may serve as
the ‘indispensable precondition for any meaningful Marxist intervention in
Where Jameson sees a glimmer of light, Adorno and Horkheimer perceive
only stupefying darkness. In between these two main poles of thought, poles
that are anyway not too far apart, there was (and still is) a much wider analytical space; a ghettoed space to be sure, but one from where Marxist and leftoriented critiques of culture and the consumer society are still developed today.
From within the ghetto’s ‘field of specialization’ they generate what is perhaps
the bulk of the mainstream understanding of the culture-commodity relationship, and so for that reason must be included in our narrative. During the 1980s
and 1990s, decades of energetic neoliberal globalisation, prominent theorists
such as Judith Williamson and Paul du Gay would half-critique and halfcelebrate consumer society, and so were able to avoid the dreaded ‘pessimist’
shadow that hangs over the Frankfurt School. Williamson, for example, in her
Consuming Passions from 1986 argues that advertisers channel our emotions
and turn them into passions in a perspective not far removed from Adorno
and Horkheimer’s ‘mass deception’ thesis. At the same time, however, she uses
Marx to suggest that consumer culture is a trap from which there is no escape,
so we might as well enjoy it, and use it to shape our identities. She begins her
book with a scene-setting side-swipe at Marx who, as she puts it, ‘talks of the
commodity as “congealed labour”, the frozen form of a past activity; [whereas]
to the consumer it is also a congealed longing’.77 For Williamson, this longing
or passion can be uncongealed and set free through the ‘power of purchase’.
To buy can be a form of ‘active power’ and this power and passion that are the
expression of latent consumerism are ‘what breathes new life into objects’.78 To
buy something is therefore not just to ‘own’ it, but also to ‘be’ it, such that it can
express who you are or who you wish to be.
Later on in the book she continues with a narrative on the work of the pioneer
postmodern photographer Cindy Sherman to illustrate the power of choice
that she (Williamson) wields as she faces a wardrobe full of things to wear:
The Culture of Digitality 151
When I rummage through my wardrobe in the morning I am not merely
faced with a choice of what to wear. I am faced with a choice of images:
the difference between a smart suit and a pair of overalls, a leather skirt
and a cotton skirt, is not one of fabric and style, but one of identity.
You know perfectly well that you will be seen differently for the whole
day, depending upon what you put on; you will appear as a particular
kind of woman with one particular identity which excludes others. The
black leather skirt rather rules out girlish innocence, oily overalls tend
to exclude sophistication, ditto smart suit and radical feminism. Often I
have wished I could put them all on together, or appear simultaneously
in every possible outfit, just to say ‘how dare you think any one of these
is me. But also, see, I can be all of them.79
Paul du Gay was a rising cultural studies thinker in the mid-1990s who edited
a book with Stuart Hall titled Doing Cultural Studies. Its second edition was
blurbed by the LSE Review of Books as ‘Arguably the most famous book in its
field …’80 He agreed with Williamson’s approach to the analysis of consumer
culture. He believed that there was an active agency in consumer culture, and
that the commodity provided the material means for positive ‘self-constitution’.81 However, Williamson’s own words in the above quote show clearly the
restrictions the commodity logic imposes. To begin with, the process of ‘selfconstitution’ is one of surface image, and not of any deep-reaching ontological transformation. The surface image can and does change at a whim. And
what du Gay celebrates in Williamson as bricolage,82 is in Williamson’s own
telling, especially when extolling the photography of Sherman, more like confusion, frustration or what Harvey calls ‘schizoid’.83 Consumption and culture
in the sense that Williamson conveys are of an early and accommodating
postmodern form. Shopping, she reasons, ‘makes you feel normal’. Williamson goes on to rebuke Marxism for no longer having any answers, and follows
up with: ‘the point about consumerism is that people are getting something
out of it’84 even if it consists of illusions. And in the prescribed postmodern
style of the time, Williamson refuses to engage in a direct critique of capitalism, only of its manifestations. And so consumption no longer means the
end-point of production, where ‘value’ has been realised and profit made and
then partly invested in further production of commodities for sale, etc. Consumerism is not even a recognisable element of the base and superstructure
process, because production as consumption’s ‘mirror’ or ‘conditioning’ has
disappeared from the analysis. The market—as bringer of choice—is implicitly, in Williamson’s scant reference to the term, akin to Milton Friedman’s
understanding of it: as the precondition for individual freedom.85 With the
eliding of the role of capitalism and the logic of commodity production as the
bases for the analysis of the consumer society, the consumer society necessarily becomes the cultural expression of a world with no relations of production
and no historicity. Culture is all bricolage, choice and mouldable identity. A
152 The Condition of Digitality
chief ‘victory’ for many such theorists is that culture has been freed from the
standardisation of Fordism and thus consumer society enables the individual
to freely ‘self-constitute’ in whatever way they please, albeit within a ‘depoliticised’ and marketised culture. With the disappearance of historical materialism from the cultural studies analytical frame—vanished along with the
function of technology in the process—what also disappears in Williamson
and du Gay is the possibility of an actually alternative way of thinking and
In the final sentences of ‘The Culture Industry’ Adorno and Horkheimer
deliver the last hammer-blow of the negative dialectic upon cultural production and consumption. In what reads as a stark and unsparing coda to a bleak
and relentless critique, they describe what they see as the victims’ own terrible
knowledge of the logic that is at the heart of the ‘mass deception’ that capitalism
perpetrates by means of commodification:
The most intimate reactions of human beings have been so thoroughly
reified that the idea of anything specific to themselves now persists only
as an utterly abstract notion: personality scarcely signifies anything
more than shining white teeth and freedom from body odour and emotions. The triumph of advertising in the culture industry is that consumers feel compelled to buy and use its products even though they see
Adorno and Horkheimer touch upon a deep-seated feeling of lack, specific to
each of us, that recognises the truth of the deception. But it is a truth repressed
and sublimated, because another truth is that we know (or feel) there is nothing
we can do about it. So ‘thoroughly reified’ are we that repression or sublimation
is replaced by a contingent and evanescent desire or craving that is generated
and given material or immaterial form by advertising, and which occupies our
consciousness as the subject and object of what stands for personal fulfilment
in life within capitalism. Adorno and Horkheimer’s essay does not belong in
the cultural studies canon. But it is there—to be dismissed as extreme, pessimistic, deterministic, or undermining of a form of Marxism that is unable to
accept what their essay shows: that through mass advertising and commercialism, the nature of the commodity (and therefore capitalism) has changed—and
has changed in a way that obviates, or makes impossible, the traditional ‘revolutionary’ road towards a socialist or communist society.
To close this part I will briefly consider the last major twentieth-century
philosopher of the commodity and culture conjunction, Jean Baudrillard. Like
Adorno and Horkheimer, he is recognised in the cultural studies canon, but
does not belong either to it or to its ghetto. He acknowledges the catastrophe that consumerism has wrought upon culture and politics, but refuses to
sublimate the knowledge, and so belongs with the Frankfurt School philosophers and also with Fredric Jameson somewhere outside the semi-celebratory
The Culture of Digitality 153
mainstream. His work is also an important crossover into digitality, a point I
will develop soon.
In his early works, and following McLuhan and Debord, Baudrillard acknowledges the profound power of the electronic image. His innovation on
this theme was to conceive of the shift from the power of production within
capitalism as reality’s materialist base in society, to the power of production
of simulation or simulacra.87 The image, or the sign, has become the primary
exchange value. As Doug Kellner explains, for Baudrillard, ‘commodities are
not merely to be characterised by use-value and exchange value … but signvalue—the expression and mark of style, prestige, luxury, power, and so on—
becomes an increasingly important part of the commodity and consumption.’88
Three major effects upon the production and nature of culture flow from this
idea. First is that the electronic image vastly increases the power and reach of
the commodity-sign. It can colonise time and space and the consciousness of
the individual (as consumer) far more readily than the material object. Second,
the commodity-sign as simulation or simulacrum is an illusion and therefore
constitutes a new level of disconnect from the material and objectively real.
And third, for Baudrillard, the growing importance of sign-value undermines
the analytical value of both political economy and the base and superstructure
theories that are based on historical-material assumptions of how capitalism
functions. In other words, sign-capitalism has replaced nineteenth-century
commodity-capitalism, and therefore immeasurably enhances the alienative
power of capitalism. In The Consumer Society, first written in French in 1970,
Baudrillard claims that:
We may … suggest that the age of consumption, being the historical
culmination of the whole process of accelerated productivity under the
sign of capital, is also the age of radical alienation. Commodity logic has
become generalised and today governs not only labour processes and
material products, but the whole of culture, sexuality, and human relations, including even fantasies and individual drives. Everything is taken
over by that logic, not only in the sense that all functions and needs are
objectivised and manipulated in terms of profit, but in the deeper sense
in which everything is spectacularized or, in other words, evoked, provoked and orchestrated into signs, consumables and models.89
In their related but differing ways, the searching and penetrative critiques of
Adorno and Horkheimer, Jameson and Baudrillard on the conjunctions between capital, consumption and culture teach us much about the process. Only
Jameson is hopeful, however, about the chances for ‘any meaningful Marxist
intervention in contemporary culture.’90 The Frankfurt scholars radically modified their Marxism and Baudrillard eventually abandoned his. What unites
them, however, is the lingering spectre of alienation—the human effect of
technology that has always been capitalism’s ace of spades. It is an effect that
154 The Condition of Digitality
Raymond Williams took insufficient cognisance of in his almost bucolic painting of the constitution of culture, where culture, as ‘ordinary’, could somehow
be made common and democratic through almost the innate integrity that he
believed exists inside ‘ordinary’ people ‘to know what is best and to do what
is good’91—and to take humanity to a better place. These views on consumer
culture, Williams’s included, are not the only writings on the conjuncture, of
course. But they are in my view the most original and perceptive. However,
they also leave us at an impasse. Their work is pre-digital and apart from
Baudrillard none of it provides solid analytical ground any longer, because the
ground has shifted so radically from analogue to digital. To find a way through
we need some constancy. And alienation is the constancy in the relationship
with capital from analogue to digital. In Marx, and underpinning the theories
just discussed, alienation is estrangement from the products of one’s labour.
However, digitality and its logic of automation have alienated humans not only
from commodities for exchange, but also from the analogue technology that
made humans who and what they are. It alienates us from a natural environment and a physical world that disappears as we enter the virtual.
In the final part I will describe in outline the cultural condition of this doublealienation through digitality. In doing so, I don’t presume to offer any solutions
to this condition, still less to have furnished any of the most vital questions. It is,
rather, to state where we are in relation to this unique technology. It is to position my overall theory as nothing more than a point of insight (from a place of
alienation) into a technology we currently do not recognise because the orientation toward automation at the centre of digital logic purposively prevents us
from engaging with it in a way that we can understand and which has proportionality and equivalence to our human-scaled capacities.
1 Examples of a capacious approach to the subject of ‘digital culture’ we find
in Mark Deuze (2006) ‘Participation, Remediation, Bricolage: Considering Principal Components of a Digital Culture’, in: The Information Society
22(2), 63–75; Rob Wilkie (2011) The Digital Condition: Class and Culture in
the Information Network. New York: Fordham University Press; and John
Gorham-Palfrey and Urs Gasser (2008) Born Digital: Understanding the
First Generation of Digital Natives. New York: Basic Books.
2 Lev Manovich (2001) The Language of New Media. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT
3 Ibid., p.64.
5 Ibid. pp.64 & 96.
6 J. C. R. Licklider (1960) ‘Man–computer symbiosis’, IRE Transactions on
Human Factors in Electronics 1 (March), 4–11.
The Culture of Digitality 155
7 Ibid., p.4
8 Manovich, The Language of New Media, pp.83–84.
9 Raymond Williams (1976) Keywords. Oxford: Oxford University Press,
10 Manovich, The Language of New Media, pp.97–98.
11 Bernard Stiegler (2009) ‘Teleologics of the Snail: The Errant Self Wired to a
WiMax Network’, Theory, Culture & Society 26(2–3) (March/May), 33–45,
12 Ibid., p.40.
13 Ibid., p.38.
14 Ibid., p.36.
16 Ibid., p.41.
17 Ibid., p.42.
19 Sarah Phillips (2007) ‘A Brief History of Facebook’ The Guardian Online,
25 July. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2007/jul/25/media.
20 See Jaron Lanier (2018) Ten Arguments for Deleting your Social Media
Accounts Right Now. London: The Bodley Head.
21 Timothy Snyder (2017) On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from The Twentieth
Century. London: The Bodley Head, p.71.
22 See, for example, David Frisby’s (1985) ‘Georg Simmel: First Sociologist of
Modernity’, Theory, Culture and Society 2(3), 49–67.
23 Georg Simmel (1971) Individuality and Social Forms. Chicago: University
of Chicago Press, p.376.
24 Pierre Bourdieu (1984) Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of
Taste. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, p.2 and passim.
25 Karl Marx (1994) ‘A Preface to the Critique of Political Economy’, Selected
Writings. Lawrence H. Simon (ed.). Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, p.211.
26 Raymond Williams (1989/1958) ‘Culture is Ordinary’ in Resources of Hope:
Culture, Democracy, Socialism, Robin Gable (ed.). London: Verso, pp. 92, 93
27 Ibid., p.96.
28 Ibid., p.93.
30 Raymond Williams (1973) ‘Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural
Theory’, New Left Review 82, November-December, p.3.
31 Ibid., p.6.
33 Perry Anderson (1976) ‘The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci’, New Left
Review 1/100 October-December, 5–77.
34 Williams, ‘Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory’, p.6.
156 The Condition of Digitality
35 Ibid., p.8
36 The 2008 financial crisis has dented this particular common-sense idea. A
2016 Harvard University survey found that a majority of millennials were
sceptical of capitalism. However, the Washington Post article which printed
the results also said that ‘A subsequent survey that included people of all ages
found that somewhat older Americans also are sceptical of capitalism. Only
among respondents at least 50 years old was the majority in support of capitalism.’ See Max Ehrenfreud (2016) ‘A majority of millennials now reject capitalism, poll shows’, Washington Post, April 26th. https://www.washingtonpost.
37 Terry Eagleton (1991) Ideology: An Introduction. London: Verso, p.116.
39 Régis Debray (2007) ‘Socialism: A Life-Cycle’, New Left Review 46 (July–
August), 5–17, p.5.
40 Christian Fuchs (2017) ‘Raymond Williams’ communicative materialism’,
European Journal of Cultural Studies 20(6), 744–762.
41 Ibid., p.754.
42 Ibid., p.750.
43 Climate Home News (2017) ‘“Tsunami of data” could consume one fifth
of global electricity by 2025’ The Guardian Online, 11th December: https://
44 Fuchs, ‘Raymond Williams’, p.745.
45 Williams, ‘Culture is Ordinary’, pp.7–8.
46 E. P. Thompson (1993) Customs in Common. London: Penguin Books,
47 Ibid., p.469.
48 Eric Hobsbawm (1992) The Age of Revolution. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, p.273.
49 Ibid., p.275.
51 Williams, ‘Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory’, p.7.
52 Glenn Adamson (2018) ‘Material Intelligence’, Aeon https://aeon.co/essays/
53 Ian Glover and Peter Grant (2000) Digital Communications. London: Prentice Hall, p.2.
54 Walter Ong (1983) Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word.
55 Williams, ‘Culture is Ordinary’, p.93.
56 Williams, ‘Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory’, p.6.
57 Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer (1986) ‘The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception’ in Dialectic of Enlightenment. John Cumming (trans.). London: Verso.
The Culture of Digitality 157
58 Ibid., p.120 and 133.
59 Ibid., p.158.
60 Jameson, ‘Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture’ Op. Cit., p. 139.
61 Vance Packard (1968) The Waste Makers. Philadelphia: David McKay Publications, pp.109 & 33.
62 Jean-François Lyotard (1979) The Postmodern Condition: A Report on
Knowledge. Manchester: Manchester University Press, p.xvi.
63 Guy Debord (1988) Comments on the Society of the Spectacle. London:
64 See Banksy (2005) Wall and Piece. London: Century.
65 Cited in Claire Gilman (1997) ‘Asger Jorn’s Avant-Garde Archives’, October
(79) (Winter), 32–48, p.41.
66 Adam Weishaupt (2011) The Revolt of the Spectacular Society. Hyperreality
67 Herbert Marcuse (1991) One-Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon Press, p.238.
68 Ibid., pp.256–257. Interestingly, some recent revision of Marcuse’s OneDimensional Man argues that his focus on art, as the quintessentially subjective intellectual practice, was in fact a form of bourgeois individualism
and was, as Oliver Nachtwey argues, ‘an important source of neoliberal collusion’. See his (2018) Germany’s Hidden Crisis: Social Decline in the Heart of
Europe, Loren Balhorn and David Fernbach (trans.). London: Verso., p.70.
69 A good example is Simon During (ed.) (1993) The Cultural Studies Reader.
New York: Routledge, 1993. This has essays from the cultural studies heavyweights, such as Stuart Hall and Dick Hebdige—but also, rather ironically,
Adorno and Horkheimer’s ‘The Culture Industry’. I know from experience
as a 1990s PhD student in cultural studies that this collection was one that
no student could be without—and would not cite liberally.
70 Stuart Hall (1984) ‘The Culture Gap’, Marxism Today, January, 18–22, p.21
71 Steve Lohr (1988) ‘A Magazine Reflects a Shift in the British Left’, New York
Times, April 25 p.22.
72 Ali Rattansi (2014) ‘Zygmunt Bauman: an Adorno for ‘liquid modern’
times?’, The Sociological Review 62(4), November.
73 Zygmunt Bauman (1991) Modernity and Ambivalence. Cambridge: Polity,
74 Judith Butler (1998) ‘Merely Cultural’, New Left Review, 1/227, JanuaryFebruary, 33–44, p.33.
75 Jameson, ‘Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture’, p.147.
76 Ibid., p.148.
77 Judith Williamson Consuming Passions: The Dynamics of Popular Culture.
London: Marion Boyars.
78 Ibid., p.12.
79 Ibid., p.91.
80 Paul du Gay et al. (1997) Doing Cultural Studies: The Story of the Sony Walkman. London: Sage.
158 The Condition of Digitality
81 Paul du Gay (1996) Consumption and Identity at Work. New York: Sage,
p.87. du Gay would later decamp to the Copenhagen Business School.
82 Ibid., p.87.
83 ‘schizoid’ is how David Harvey (through Terry Eagleton) terms Sherman’s
work in (1990) The Condition of Postmodernity. Oxford: Blackwell, p.7.
84 Ibid., pp.230–231.
85 Milton Friedman (1962) Capitalism and Freedom. Chicago: University of
86 Adorno and Horkheimer, ‘The Culture Industry’, p.167.
87 Jean Baudrillard (1981) For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign.
St. Louis: Telos Press.
88 Doug Kellner (2015) ‘Jean Baudrillard’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of
Philosophy (Winter Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.
89 Jean Baudrillard (2017) The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures.
London: Sage, p.206.
90 Jameson, ‘Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture’, p. 148.
91 Williams, ‘Culture is Ordinary’, p.95.
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