The Economics Of Repulsion

Since everyone is competing for the same fraction of our (limited) attention, sooner or later cognitive capitalism becomes a zero-sum game. For a brain already overloaded with information to pay attention to something new, it has to neglect something else. Every speck of information, every new idea, therefore, has an inherent ephemeral quality and carries a potential of becoming worthless. — Read more from NOTES FROM DISGRACELAND and follow on Twitter

7. XI 2021

In traditional capitalism, the supply of commodities is finite and their exploitation leads to depletion of the supply. By mining coal, diamonds or drilling oil, access to these commodities becomes increasingly more difficult, which requires deeper mines, oil drills and more sophisticated technology, all of which increases production costs. For a fixed demand, this reduction in supply results in a rise of perceived value and higher price.

In cognitive capitalism, where information is the main commodity, the imbalance resides on the opposite side. Its economics is governed by diminishing demand. Human attention is biologically limited – there is a finite amount of information our brains can absorb and store at any given time. Supply of information, on the other hand, is unlimited and comes practically at no cost – ideas can come out of nowhere (or as a result of the general intellect) and, in principle, cannot be exhausted.

Since everyone is competing for the same fraction of our (limited) attention, sooner or later cognitive capitalism becomes a zero-sum game. For a brain already overloaded with information to pay attention to something new, it has to neglect something else. Every speck of information, every new idea, therefore, has an inherent ephemeral quality and carries a potential of becoming worthless.

In order to insert itself into the tight space of the already saturated attention space, new information has to be able to shock. It does not necessarily have to be relevant or carry semiotic value; it only needs to be sufficiently loud to overpower other voices. And, in competitive markets, such loud information wins and gradually dominates. Cognitive capitalism, thus, inevitably leads to semiotic inflation — more information buys less meaning – and ultimately to hyperinflation when information carries no meaning whatsoever.

Metabolic disorder and addiction to shocks

As an ideology that disseminates market values to every segment of life, neoliberalism has naturally aligned with the new logic of social media and the diminishing demand of the attention economy. Once one allows the market to impose its values and criteria, society becomes subordinated to it and has to be managed as its auxiliary. As an adaptive system, neoliberalism has adjusted to the new chapter of cognitive capitalism by transforming society and conditioning political subjects to its new laws.

Neoliberalism makes citizens into consumers. As consumers, today’s voters have no real interest in politics or in actively shaping the community; they react only passively to it. Politicians and parties follow this logic of consumption too. They have to deliver. In that process, they become nothing more than suppliers; their task is to satisfy voters who are their customers.

Society of the spectacle and the attention economy, when put together, result in new politics defined by the explosion of affects, revenge and peddling in the highly improbable. Through interaction between technology and politics, society gradually becomes addicted to shocks — they need to be administered continuously and without interruption.

Immunoreaction and informational fatigue syndrome

Shock is a kind of immunoreaction. A strong immune system stifles communication – it impairs its fluidity – the lower the level of immunity, the faster information circulates. A high level of immunity slows down the information flow. Immune-suppression, on the other hand, allows massive quantities of information to penetrate our souls without immune defense. [1]

Political foreplay, in the initial stage, consists of preparing its constituents for the new landscape by weakening their cognitive immune system. Once political subjects are properly conditioned, politics is administered through barraging them with a constant flow of nonsense in order to wear down their immune system and create a metabolic disorder [2] (akin to an eating disorder). Their minds are constantly stimulated – the underlying information becomes a semiotic equivalent of junk food — the less meaningful the information and the more toxic and addictive its effects are, the more marketable it is.

According to Walter Benjamin, the primary mode of a spectator’s response to cinema was one of a shock: Shock replaced contemplation that came as cinema replaced painting. However, we are no longer shocked by images. Even the most disturbing images have been made consumable [3].

Shocks now have to contain another quality that relies on different kind of imagery and the target audience needs to be conditioned to receive them. Media outlets are increasingly playing on repulsion rather than on seduction — response to pleasure is too diverse while response to repulsion is the same. Anxiety gradually replaces excitement while persistent exposure to the semiotic excess of informational barrage leads to what B.C. Han calls informational fatigue syndrome (IFS), which progressively weakens our analytic capacities and monopolizes our attention.

In our reaction to ambiguously disturbing images emerges a new category representing the repulsion we cannot resist.

Repulsion as political leverage and emergence of the emotionalized electorate

In its essence, Right-wing populist politics in Europe is not dissimilar to its American counterpart – it revolves around conservative budget spending, pseudo-Christian values, certain types of cultural iconography and self-centered xenophobia. However, their mode of articulation cannot be more different. European right-wingers and their politics, as much as one finds them disagreeable, their delivery is coherent – they speak in meaningful sentences, their thoughts have a logically consistent flow and address the problems of shared reality, which one might agree with or contest and argue on rational premises.

In the USA, however, shared reality no longer supports the tenets of whatever the conservatism has become, which stand in trivial conflict with facts and is rendered demonstrably false and indefensible, invalidated by the long history of failure and bankruptcy. Defense of the right-wing narratives in the USA requires the creation of an alternative universe where not only are the shared reality and observable facts ignored, but the underlying laws of economics, sociology, biology, physics, probability and even mathematics have to be suspended.

The end effect of this environment is removal of all systems of reference where the mental instability of a single person in power easily mutates into a large-scale collective affliction with defenders and advocates of that politics turning into performance artists in a state of simulated self-induced mental illness.

In cognitive markets, where shocks amplify informational impact, the more repulsive the messengers, the easier their message penetrates the barriers erected by the compromised public immune system. Self-debasement becomes the statement of authenticity and repulsion a desirable quality.

Right-wing broadcasters and political consultants, which have elevated their appearances to the level of performance art, tend to wear their shirts one size smaller and buttoned up all the way to the top, so that it causes an authentic discomfort and irritation giving them a slightly deranged and agitated look, an emotion which gets transmitted to their emotionalized audience.

And speaking of undersized garments, this infamous image of Chris Christie represents a singular example. Once seen, never forgotten, the historic picture cannot be accidental, despite its spontaneous appearance. Such extreme deficit of self-awareness simply does not exist (not to mention the discomfort wearing those pants must have caused). It is not a fortuitously captured moment of leisure of the former New Jersey Governor, but a product of meticulous calculation of the teams of specialized PR consultants.

These, and other similar, images are carefully crafted so that they continue to shock, irritate, and disgust because these are addictive emotions; they provide a lifeline to the outrage conglomerate. In this way, any possible resistance of the opposition is automatically thwarted and their collaboration ensured from the outset. They have been taken hostage by this vortex of addictive repulsion. Opposition media outlets are placed in a conflicting position where their bottom-line disincentivizes resistance. As much as they would like to oppose the new ideology of repulsion, they cannot afford to wound, let alone deal a defeating blow to it – nobody would pay attention to them anymore, which would ultimately wipe out their revenues and put them out of business. This mechanism sustains otherwise lifeless and non-sustainable narratives.

The objective of politics is to never break the chain of emotions set in motion by a shock. Their synchronization has become the new way of governing and the community of emotions replaces the community of interests resulting in communism of affects [4].

[1] B. C. Han, In the Swarm: Digital Prospects, The MIT Press (2017)

[2] B. C. Han, ibid.

[3] B. C. Han, ibid.

[4] Paul Virilio, The Administration of Fear, Semiotext(e) intervention series (2012)


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8 thoughts on “The Economics Of Repulsion

  1. The reality of this observation is fairly simple. Watching the news provides less actual news content to the viewer than written media. Your mind must absorb images, sound, and process words. It’s overwhelming in its display of graphics, human appearances, modulating voices, videos that may or may not be relevant, and finally the underlying story which you probably will not even be able to consider after sifting through all of that. Written media on the other hand is mostly just words on paper (digital or tactile) with possibly some images thrown in. While focusing on the words requires effort, the mind is able to consider the authenticity of the author and the content’s value and validity. While reading H, we are not confronted with his appearance, voice, and any images or videos he might want to display. We are reading tone from toneless text, we are evaluating thought through written passages, we are enriched by the lack of everything but his words.

  2. Certainly a bravely reasoned piece, but still flawed. Your notion of cognitive capitalism being a zero-sum phenomenon puts me in mind of Gresham’s Law in Economics, “Bad money drives out good.” In your systems bad ideas drive out good. While interesting, many of your assertions are really untested hypotheses that beg for some proof of their validity. Not just political systems are adaptive, so are humans. Perhaps legions aimless, lazy people never learn much and can be easily led around, but many will adapt and learn to cope positively in the new environment. The people selling the brand of junk you feel is being so easily swallowed have, in may be argued, have figured out how to feather their nests preaching misery and without conscience are profiting mightily from the stupidity of at least half the population. Frankly, your dystopian view of the world as expressed here is almost too scary to contemplate, and you didn’t even talk about the fact that too many of the victims of this transformation own and carry guns. Makes me glad I’m old and alone.

    1. I made a similar comment on a piece posted by H this weekend. I think (hope?) we are going through an adjustment phase as a society. The people buying this “information” are addicts at this point, but most people will eventually come to the conclusion that this addiction makes them worse off either by witnessing what it does to their parents or seeing themselves increasingly isolated from friends and family who don’t want deal with the toxicity of it. Much like smoking, it’ll be common place for a while until people eventually wonder what the hell we were thinking. Really, who among the younger generations watches the news? The whole concept of watching the news will seem crazy to younger people.

      Then again, maybe I’m just optimistic because I have young kids and have to be optimistic, and while I hope the world is a better place for them than it is today, humanity is nothing if not adaptable.

  3. There is this thing called a plug. Grasp the head of the plug firmly and pull. Do not pull on the wire that terminates in the plug! Pull on the plug body. Hope that helps. Enjoy the serenity.

    Maybe I’m being to down to earth to be in keeping with the spirit of the piece, but, I’m a worm. Sorry, but even the littlest wriggler understands the import of negative and positive taxis. If something is killing you, stop consuming it, and move away from that something. Simple but amazingly effective. If something is nourishing, consume it, and move towards it next time you encounter it, but, always remember everything in moderation, including moderation, or Jack will be a dull boy.

    Perhaps worms have an advantage in that they view time not as a limited linear resource with a beginning and end that must be crammed with ever more busyness if one is to ever ‘finish’, but rather see time as part of an infinite cycle of turnings each in their own time. Hungry worms know they will never be able to finish their tasks because they know their tasks are unending. Like the seasons. So why bother worrying about chasing after deadlines, and such, that recede into the distance faster the faster you chase after them? The humble worm lets the ‘Season’ dictate what task is most important at the moment. Just do what you can focusing on the most important first and cast aside the rest. Your choices are limitless and most of those choices are off point. So the key is not to do more, but, learn how to ignore more. Do that and you will have the free time and mind space to read even more thought provoking screeds. How might this relate to a ‘modern’ information society consumer/worker? Take email (of course, you should do the opposite). What is your reward for getting better at answering your email? Simple, more email! If anyone happens to see how good you are at plowing through your email you soon find yourself being asked to handle their email as well. That pretty much sums up the entire digital-capitalism productivity pitch in a nutshell. You are suckered into buying the product for the ‘efficiency’ gains thinking that it will free up your time and mental resources to focus on more important things only to find the very thing you expected to see less of only swells in volume to fill your inbox’s new capacity. The way of the worm recognizes that choosing to do the few truly important tasks in an ‘inefficient’ manner crowds out the meaningless busywork that even if completed amounts to nothing.

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