Event Horizon: Sexuality, Politics, Online Culture, and the Limits of Capitalism
In this blog post, Bonni Rambatan and Jacob Johanssen present some of the key themes from their recently published book.
“Event Horizon is a unique and most compellingly written book, composed—not unlike a piece of music—of a radical dystopia and an equally radical utopia.”
—Professor Alenka Zupancic, author of What Is Sex?
“This bristling little book embarks on nothing less than a total diagnosis of our sick capitalist present. Rambatan and Johanssen cut right into the chase in their incisive reading of forms of contemporary enjoyment online, disclosing a mutation in Lacan’s four discourses.”
—Professor Sianne Ngai, author of Theory of the Gimmick: Aesthetic Judgment and Capitalist Form
When we first started writing this book, the world had not yet entered the Covid-19 pandemic. When we finished it, we had no idea when the pandemic would end. And throughout said pandemic, we’ve witnessed multiple technologies being touted as the future: the surge of blockchain technology with a new wave of technological objects: NFTs, the metaverse, and web3.
Suffice it to say that any book on technological trends will most likely be unable to keep up with the pace of those trends—or, in fact, the tech world at large. But this is not a book about technological trends. Rather, it’s a book that aims to investigate the material and desiring forces that animate those trends in order to map out where we are heading. And in that respect, we believe the ideas in this book are even more pertinent.
Conspiracy theories that gave rise to Trump found a new host in anti-vax and 5G truthers. The misogyny that animated incels is revitalized and normalized in an onslaught of anti-trans legislations worldwide, masking itself as, somehow, feminist. And throughout all of this, the people with power and capital never cease to believe one thing: that programmers, technologists, and tech CEOs are specifically positioned to solve the world’s problems.
So here’s the picture: The world consists of people who no longer believe in experts plus a bunch of “experts” primarily concerned with how they could best utilize this tension for more money. This is what we call “the valorization of antagonism”. This is why, at its core, the progress of capitalism entails the constant shift and restructuring of the ways we desire.
A key argument of Event Horizon is the connection—via a study of Lacan’s mathemes of the various discourses—that conspiracy thinking is inherent to the development of capitalism. It is its mirror image. The thrill of a global, cataclysmic danger and the narcissism of being the few who have woken up to the truth is most pronounced in conspiracy circles, and yet its logic is inherent to capitalism itself. After all, one of capitalism’s goals is to know everything there is to know about human desire—and yet at the same time, the system needs to produce an excess to keep going.
This excess knowledge, this surplus-data, is capitalism’s object-cause of desire par excellence. Conspiracy thinking has close ties to racism, transphobia, and misogyny, because excess is always already etched into bodies, intertwined in sexual fantasies. In the end, the reduction of people—and ourselves—into data and images is inseparable from the structural harm of bigotry. We write:
Social media with their image-based, playful display of everyday narcissism, rage, and drama can be seen as symptoms of general crises which are of a social, economic, and sexual nature. The mass uptake of social media by users in the last 15 years and the simultaneous growth in online subcultures and fandoms, such as otaku, 4chan, and incels, has led to a particular atmosphere which we examine in this book. This atmosphere is set against a volatile political climate in many parts of the world that shows capitalism coming dangerously close to fascism, marked by a radical annihilation of difference in epistemology as well as the physical termination of bodies. (Rambatan & Johanssen 2021, 8)
This source of anguish is, of course, the Lacanian lack—the void at the core of the subject. This is how sexuality is produced in the first place, hence the so-called “sexual non-relation”. Our work maps this non-relation onto the digital, manifesting as the gap between the digital and the actual, between my profile and my online friend. It is a gap which the online subject seeks to cover through particular fantasies, images, or practices—and a gap where capitalism thrives by constantly promising that its complete fulfillment is just around the corner with the next update of technology, the next piece of data.
Today—especially with the surge of crypto—this next corner is one in which every facet of life becomes a financial speculation: Make money while you play! Sell your JPGs for ten thousand bucks! And we are already halfway there: existence is already a data mine—it’s just that you are mostly left out of the speculation. Whether we like it or not, we have kind of accepted that data is a kind of spiritual substance very close to the money-form in Marx’s writings. Marx mentioned that the relationship between people takes the form of the relationship between objects. Today, we have come full circle and most of the remaining relationships between people have been replaced by the relationship between images of people.
Gian Cescon, Unsplash (2018)
In our age of the attention economy, there have been various scandals about influencers and if they are fake or real, for instance. Many influencers, as well as ordinary online users, commonly receive death threats, or abusive messages. This is a fundamental experience in navigating the warped landscape of online desires and uncovers just how much of our society is motivated by fear, hatred, and resentment. This kind of vitriol is characteristic of contemporary neoliberalism and has become an integral part of the functioning of social media today.
As much as it is characterised by vitriol, online fame is also driven by cuteness. Sianne Ngai (2012) equated the aesthetics of cuteness to that of “mutilation”. Indeed, it is a mutilation of sorts where room for nuance and complexity, for the creepy and the cringe, is eradicated in order to create images of people that are appealing, playful, and ultimately harmless. As such, it is both a form of violence and a benign form of representation which shows itself in very different phenomena online today, like memes on 4chan, Tinder hook-ups, social media hearts, and other examples we discuss in the book. We desire a cute self and a cute other. And, as Hiroki Azuma (2009) has theorised, cuteness functions on a database logic where images are endlessly taken apart, categorised, and collected.
What is to be done? Avoiding any pretense to a concrete solution, in the book’s conclusion we emphasize the danger of over-reliance on the Symbolic while maintaining a critical distance from the collective hysteria and paranoia sweeping today’s digital communities. The answer, we believe, lies in a reflexive move to acknowledge our vulnerability, facing the anguish head-on with a playful, exploratory approach.
Although primarily Lacanian in nature, Event Horizon draws on a number of perhaps unusual bedfellows in Hiroki Azuma, Byung-Chul Han, Audrey Lorde, Mari Matsuda, and other thinkers to examine capitalist ideology functions in our current moment—and where it breaks down. While we are no techno-pessimists, we believe that we need to start thinking seriously about alternative forms to organize technology and desire—its production, its access, its utilization, etc. The path forward may or may not be that of a traditional revolution where everyone takes to the streets—we make no claims for this kind of political event. Rather, we strive to delineate its seeds, the titular Event Horizon: that moment where we gaze into our subjective void and move forward not with an unflinching determination towards a solution, but rather a vulnerable march of relentless compassion and an intolerance to suffering.
Bonni Rambatan is an independent scholar and researcher based in Jakarta, Indonesia, as well as a writer and artist for various comics, novels, films, installations, and other media. She co-founded and currently runs a comic book company, NaoBun, focusing on making progressive thoughts available to young readers. She started and edited the anthology Cyborg Subjects: Discourses on Digital Culture with Jacob Johanssen (CreateSpace, 2013).
Their research interests include Lacanian psychoanalysis, media studies, literary and art criticism, Japanese studies, philosophy, and critical theory. For research and artistic projects, their affiliations include The Japan Foundation, the Vienna-based art-technology-philosophy group monochrom, as well as various art and literary institutions in Indonesia.
Jacob Johanssen is Senior Lecturer in Communications at St. Mary’s University (London, UK). He is the author of Psychoanalysis and Digital Culture: Audiences, Social Media, and Big Data (Routledge, 2019); Fantasy, Online Misogyny and the Manosphere (Routledge, 2022); and Cyborg Subjects: Discourses on Digital Culture , edited with Bonni Rambatan (CreateSpace, 2013).
His research interests include psychoanalysis and digital media, sexuality and digital media, affect theories, psychosocial studies, and critical theory. He is Co-Editor of the Counterspace section of the journal Psychoanalysis, Culture & Society. He sits on the executive committee of the Association for Psychosocial Studies (APS). He is a Founder Scholar of the British Psychoanalytic Council (BPC).
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