Toxic women and “absolute subsumption”
This is cross-posted from Cyborgology.
This post is really a series of questions that arise when I tried to think about my earlier post on the production of WOC/black feminists as “toxic” in light of Jodi Dean’s new post “What comes after real subsumption?” I’m hoping maybe that we can think through these questions together.
First, though, let me summarize what I take to be Dean’s main argument. “Real subsumption” is the idea, in Marxist philosophy, that neoliberal capitalism has taken areas previously outside the formal economy–like women’s unwaged work in the home, or leisure time–and folded them into the official means of production (that is, they are explicit sources of profit and directly produce surplus value for others). Dean’s main interest is in the subsumption of speech, especially political speech, into the means of production:
Communicative capitalism encloses communication in capitalist networks. Political speech (discussion, opinion) is captured and made to serve capitalist ends (whether as content, traceable data, generator of the one, dispersed multiplicity).
So, for example, social media takes our (“free”) speech and (“free”) assembly and turns them into sources of revenue for large corporations.
Though it is possible to imagine real subsumption as an inescapable, totalizing force that engulfs everything with no remainder, turning even its waste into a resource, Dean wonders if it leaves a “really” un-subsumable byproduct (that is, a byproduct that could be subsumed only with a method different than the one offered by “real” subsumption).
For now, I’ll call this phase after real subsumption “absolute subsumption.” Capital goes through itself and turns into an execrable remainder, the non-capitalizable, that which is completely without use or value. It can’t be exchanged. In fact, it stains, corrupts, or damages whatever it touches — like nuclear waste. It is utterly bereft of potentiality. Rather than being completely after real subsumption, absolute subsumption emerges within it over time…These cycles have a limit point, a point where what’s been destroyed creates such waste that it’s no longer worth trying to do anything with it. Capital would just rather leave — abandoned buildings, towns, cities, regions, continents.
So the process of real subsumption actually does produce a toxic byproduct. It is toxic because the cost of flipping it is greater than any returns that could be made on its sale. In other words further recycling/subsumption would be a drain on profits.
Crucially Dean notes that though we cannot capitalize on the waste itself, we can capitalize on the images of toxic waste:
I think that this non-capitalizable remainder appears to us in images, the frequently circulating images of abandoned buildings, ecological devastation. The image is recuperated for exchange, while the real remains. Disaster porn hints at this real even as it mobilizes state and capital in dispossession projects.
Representations of toxic waste can be filtered back into the processes of communicative capitalism (e.g., in disaster porn, or in a million thinkpieces on “toxic” feminists and “vampires’ castles”), but the representatives of toxicity, the abandoned material itself, that stays unreconstructed. This might explain how white feminists can profit from their discussions of black feminists toxicity: the image of black feminist “toxicity” is disconnected from black feminists as embodied subjects and as people. Toxic blackness can be profitable for neoliberal feminism precisely because it is only an “image”; “absolute subsumption” allows white supremacist patriarchy to profit from black women’s toxicity while simultaneously abandoning black women.
One final point Dean makes is that this toxicity may be a feature of the social structure of social media. The relationships and networks we build both enable us and trap us (and in this way sound much like the mirror in Lacan’s mirror stage, which is both enabling and disabling):
Communicative capitalism involves voluntary cooperation — we build the networks that enclose us (no one forces us to use Facebook, Twitter, etc). This suggests a limit point to voluntary cooperation, the point where it becomes its opposite, a trap: when we all communicate, we get trapped in our communication. Communication becomes excessive, and this very excess makes it execrable.
I may be misunderstanding something here, but it seems that Dean is arguing that the point of diminishing returns–the point at which voluntary cooperation becomes a trap, the point at which recycling consumes more than it produces–is what separates out excrement from useable fuel. Deal also seems to be arguing that this type of waste-production is tied to the specific architecture of social media–the kinds of relationships it enables produce a very specific kind of waste/excrement.
So at this point I don’t really have any answers, just questions. Maybe we can think through them together? Here they are:
Is my read of toxicity as blackness in the penultimate paragraph right? Or not? Or partially?
What about human capital that’s “such a waste that it’s no longer worth trying to do anything with it”? How are people produced as “the non-capitalizable remainder that lacks potential”? Is this remainder not the proletariat, but blackness?
In the last paragraph, I suggest, via Dean, that the platforms and business models of specific social media projects produce “toxicity” in very particular ways. What are these ways? What are these toxins? Do different platforms produce different forms of toxicity? Different people as toxic?
- How is the model of waste production that Dean discusses similar to or different from something like a Kristevan concept of abjection or Butler’s idea of “constitutive exclusion”?