Addictive Visibility: Some Thoughts on New Media Uses

I’ve been invited to deliver a lecture on Addictive Visibility at MAGIS – International Film Studies Spring School, Gorizia, 12-21 March 2013. More info at : http://www.filmforumfestival.it/?page_id=365

Here is my abstract:

What does visibility mean? How does it affect our life? What happens when visibility becomes addictive? These are the puzzles I would like to discuss with you. Over the last few decades, social theorists have interpreted the importance of visibility mainly in the light of the Hegelian notion of recognition. From this perspective, visibility has been regarded as a condition for the empowerment of social subjects through their reciprocal positioning on an equal standing. Since the 1970s, the struggles of various types of sexual, religious and racial minorities have certainly passed through a discourse of becoming visible in the public space and the public sphere, that is, more widely, the public domain.
However, it has also become increasingly clear that there is no possible straightforward equation between visibility and recognition. Twentieth-century mass media research has provided abundant evidence that visibility is patterned, formatted and organized into regimes which determine to a large extent the outcome of single acts of visibilizations. The Situationist critique of the spectacle consisted in denouncing a type of visibility in which supervisibilized spectacular images are severed from real life and transport viewers into a regime of experience expropriation. Both propaganda (the political, pervasive fabrication of truth, which may attain totalitarian levels) and advertisement (the capitalist economic fabrication of myths of consumption and enjoyment) can be allocated to this type of visibility. In a different domain, Foucault’s research into disciplinary rationality finely revealed the existence of a whole set of practices of control, such as the famous “inspection”, or examination, in which subjection to power is obtained through self-conscious (or reflexive) visibilization of one’s body and one’s conduct (subjection through “compulsory visibility”). By absorbing both spectacular and governmental machines, the twentieth-century state has configured itself as both a propagandist and a guardian-voyeur.
Now, new media place us before a further transformation of visibility. On the one hand, at first sight at least, in the new media age visibility-as-recognition seems to gain a new green season over visibility-as-propaganda and visibility-as-surveillance. New media are ‘interactive’ and ‘participatory’ almost by definition: a discourse of openness and empowerment, pivoting around the notions of connectivity and access, has surrounded them. But there is of course a more somber side of the coin, which is the one I am interested in exploring. Foucault had already clearly understood that discipline is participatory, since it works by transforming the subject into ‘the principle of [its] own subjection’. However, he did not think that that process could be fun or playful. On the contrary, the new forms of control, whose possibility is for the most part inscribed in the new media technologies themselves, are made possible by the fact that people engage voluntarily in them. So, why do we do so? Why is visibility so alluring? So seductive? Understanding our relation to new media visibilities and its consequences might help us clarify what is at stake in social transformation, which, at bottom, is a transformation of subjects, technologies, scales and power.

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