Interpassivity: Your pleasant alternative to believing in political participation

Slavoj Žižek, How to Read Lacan:

“…one should supplement the fashionable notion of interactivity with its uncanny double, interpassivity. It is commonplace to emphasize how, with new electronic media, the passive consumption of a text or a work of art is over…. Those who praise the democratic potential of the new media generally focus on precisely these features: on how cyberspace opens up the chance for a large majority of people to break out of the role of the passive observer following a spectacle staged by others, and to participate actively not only in the spectacle but more and more in establishing the rules of the spectacle.”

Here’s the dream we talk about, and Žižek drills in on an idea I’ve been wrestling with for years:

“The other side of interactivity is interpassivity. The obverse of interacting with the object (instead of just passively following the show) is the situation in which the object itself takes from me, deprives me of, my own passivity, so that its object itself that enjoys the show instead of me, relieving me of the duty to enjoy myself…. This brings us to the notion of false activity: people do not only act in order to change something, they can also act in order to prevent something from happening, so that nothing will change.”

Populism, as it shows itself on the Web, is a kind of false activity that relieves people from really participating in politics. Donating to a campaign, the primary form of interaction with political campaigns, is vastly accelerated, but engagement with issues is not. We donate thinking it will change things, but we go back to letting someone else run things—the same old order with a new mask. We find an inspiring leader and trust them, same as always. It is like joining a church and thinking that saves you. And we react defensively against criticisms of the candidates and the systems we use to “govern” interpassively.

“Is not this need to find another who ‘really believes’ also that which propels us in our need to stigmatize the other as a religious or ethnic fundamentalist…. Perhaps this is why ‘culture’ is emerging as the central life—world category. With regard to religion, we no longer ‘really believe’, we just follow (various) religious rituals and behaviours as part of a respect for the ‘lifestyle’ of the community we belong to…. ‘Culture’ is the name for all those things we practise without really believing in them, without taking them quite as seriously.”

We don’t really believe in politics, but we play at the rituals and even invent new ones, that reassure us we are in control of our society. What we really need is to do is become political, regardless of the tools we use, and take on the role of participant with all that effort means.

Author: Mitch Ratcliffe

Mitch Ratcliffe is a veteran entrepreneur, journalist and business model hacker. He operates this site, which is a collection of the blogs he's published over the years, as well as an archive of his professional publishing record. As always, this is a work in progress. Such is life.

5 thoughts on “Interpassivity: Your pleasant alternative to believing in political participation”

  1. With you almost till the end. What is ‘real’ participation? Doesn’t modern democratic politics demonstrate most people’s willingness to makes the Hobbesian trade of freedom for sovereignty? The only rationale is that security is now expressed in economic rather than purely military terms.

  2. “Real” participation would entail both the benefits you suggest and responsibilities and roles that translate into real power in the political process beyond simply voting, which is just a ritual in this formulation of the argument. I’m not saying that this is the only way to understand it, but that it exposes a key issue I’ve been trying to articulate—we need a broader theory of participation than before the barriers to communication were lowered.

    I wouldn’t say modern democratic politics demonstrates that people are willing to make the Hobbesian deal, only that it is one of the trades they are willing to make. You are correct about the importance of economics to that sense of security. It is no longer merely, “Keep me alive, sire, and I am yours.”

    So, for now, “real” participation remains not completely defined for me. A placeholder for a significance I am still trying to explain.

  3. Participation is a tough one.

    What do you make of the argument of Huntington that too much participation is unproductive, and places too much strain on govt which cannot meet participant expectations?

  4. I don’t think that one can argue that there would be “too much democracy” if everyone participated, from the perspective that it would strain government. The decline in communication costs and the rising efficiency of crowdsourcing of information and its organization suggest that the problem isn’t one of excess, rather the need for new approaches to expectations. We don’t have a realistic basis for expectations about what will happen when we send an email or sign an online petition as compared to the well-established (and still debatable) value of casting a vote in an election.

    Simply to say that government can’t handle the volume is to relieve the government of the responsibility it took on to be responsive to the people. There’s a lot of work to do, and we need to be aware that a new social contract is in the works. It has always been so since the Enlightenment, because society is a work in progress, never a completed accomplishment. At the same time, people shouldn’t fool themselves into thinking that simply clicking on a button or sending money to a campaign is the full range of their participation in government.

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