David Cameron’s use of the word ‘swarm’ to describe the migrants desperately creating an existence at Calais has been remarked upon a lot, but it was a word which instantly set thoughts rolling for me as I have been reading Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi on that exact term.
In Uprising: On Poetry and Finance, he uses it to identify how groups of people act in hyper networked info-capitalism (1). What could be revealed by the use of the word in both cases? The more I look into it, the more both uses prove mutually revealing and the more they say about how connectivity really operates in this intensely networked society and economy. What I mean to say is, the usage of the term seems more than coincidental – it is informed by a common context even if it bubbles to the surface of discourse for very different reasons and for very different objects. That common context can be understood as the market and its role in shaping our society.
This is what I will explain with this blog post, and I hope by the end of it, I can stir some creative ideas about how we get beyond the ‘swarm’.
I think it should be obvious that Cameron’s use of the word is inhumane, conjuring up a terrifying animal power that is set to overwhelm ‘civilisation’ (because hunting people with dogs at your borders is what the civilised world does); designed to stir up hatred. The word speaks to feeling and not to fact. The common connection between Bifo’s definition of the word and Cameron’s use of it is that it represents action without conscious thought. Cameron would like to propose that the migrants represent this run and grab mindlessness, throwing themselves onto the spikes of border fences once they glimpse our shining welfare system across the water like so many moths to a flame.
What he is actually structuring is another kind of swarm: a group of people who already feel threatened, encouraged into making the loud noise of fear, need and prejudice. Words have weight when they strike what already exists. How migrants at Calais can specifically threaten the livelihoods of poor people in the UK, is a different matter. As I said, we are in the world of feeling and not fact.
But there is a fine balance between feeling and fact and it connects to the kind of swarms we are making. In an effort to defend immigration, commentators reach for facts – surely admirable when so much misinformation is banded about – but this does not answer the feeling that is already present. This is, I think, especially true in a world overwhelmed with information.
Without an engagement with the feelings of fear that people in the UK produce in reaction to an (actually quite small) number of people at Calais who want to come to the UK, those who would defend immigration allow the emotional manipulation of Cameron, Philip Hammond et al. to stand as the emotional dialogue, which again and again seems to floor facts. Facts and feelings speak different languages.
I do not mean I agree with those who fill up the comment sections on web articles clamouring for the borders to be ‘closed’ and panicking about benefits recipients – and many more vicious and racist things. What I mean is, we can believe people when they say they feel a certain way, even if we do not agree with why they feel that way and what they think would solve their problems. To not believe these feelings creates a vacuum that allows inaccurate reasoning to frame the dialogue. Despite a wealth of information and the dominance of the network, a seizure in the connectedness of political and social populations renders information discrete and partial to different groups. Whilst emotive language proliferates in political rhetoric, tabloid headlines and comment sections, emotional community is absent.
It is not strange that empathy is missing from a society that deals in emotive terms as if they were weapons, it is precisely because of this deluge of emotive terms that we are missing empathy. Where is the empathy for those in Calais? More uncomfortably (from the perspective of the left), could it be connected to the missing empathy for those in comment sections?
The methods of marketing are enough to reveal the rarity and value of feeling despite the proliferation of emotive terms. In designing campaigns, marketeers seek to be authentic and to connect with consumers on an emotional level. Implicating a product into the functions of desire has always been an advertisers business, but this takes on certain qualities in the network: The relationship to the product, which more accurately in such a dynamic becomes a brand, is complex, multi-faceted and full of unconscious feeling, much like our relationship to another human being (2). Via social media, the brand will have a long, ongoing conversation with you. It will ‘speak’ to you and you will be able to answer back. You are free to say what you like, you are free to champion or challenge the brand, you are free to do anything…as long as you are relating to it in some way. The brand will work itself into the fabric of your life. If you stop relating to the brand, your voice disappears. The conversation that the brand creates effortlessly eclipses thoughts outside of its movement (3).
The capitalisation of emotion within marketing and entertainment (the most obvious example being reality TV) not only highlights its value, but also makes it all the more elusive. Our yearning for authentic emotion and engagement is both stimulated and left dissatisfied by capitalised forms of feeling which after all relate us to product or make us into the product, but do not connect us to a human way of knowing human beings. Indeed, for consumption to continue, it is necessary that the promise of connection is never fulfilled in order to stimulate the repeated production of desire.
Consequently, not only are we extensively versed in the language of feelings through politics, marketing and entertainment, a tense and volatile yearning for their fulfilment waits right next to the info-networks which can express that anxious desire if enough people do so at the same time. The effect of scale and speed are key to understanding how these networks shape our feelings. Bifo writes,
“In conditions of social hypercomplexity human beings tend to act as a swarm. When the infosphere is too dense and too fast for conscious elaboration of information, people tend to conform to shared behaviour.” (4)
By considering Cameron’s use of the term swarm and the gulf of communication between political and social groups, my emphasis has therefore fallen on what ‘information’ could mean in Bifo’s statement. It is not only factual information that becomes overwhelming and confused, it is the blow-out of emotions as currency which defeats both conscious reasoning and feeling in order to create the swarm.
The potency of Cameron’s use of the term is therefore invoked by a barely-realised anxiety about our own swarm like behaviour which we reproduce in the idea of the other in an attempt to remove it from the social body. The great emotional investment in keeping a few hundred people on the French end of the euro tunnel is in part unconsciously provoked by our fear that the swarm may already be amongst us, may already be us. It is a fear which itself produces swarm like behaviour, providing for an involuntary revelation of its presence within the society that is trying to keep the swarm out.
The belief that better or more information can combat the ways in which people in the UK locate their problems within foreign groups, refugees and migrants is limited when we are dealing with embedded fear and massive networks. I want to explain a little more about why I don’t feel that facts alone can provide an answer, or even provide a discussion that involves opposing camps. A belief in the power of facts is a result of a painful history, and this is especially apparent within colonial contexts like migration.
We are unable to deal fluidly in feeling and fact when we operate within a language that inherits the idea that emotions are secondary. The feminisation of feeling as things which are weak and unreliable, is exactly the kind of repressed and ruthless logic which sends little boys to boarding school at the age of five so that they can be deconditioned of their emotional and humane responses in order to go out and build the British Empire. The purely rational empire builder doesn’t have to worry about such things as his gut turning at the sight of fresh blood on a dirt path, or the nightmares that come from the long and hopeless cries of hundreds of people dying below deck.
This ‘rising’ above the horror of human suffering is still at play when we are more concerned with the economics of lorries stuck on a motorway than the desperation of people living in crumbling camps with no future. Colonisers have been being better than feelings for as long as they’ve colonised, and rationality is defined by the market. Perhaps this also contributes to the colonisers-come-consumers cracked and ravenous hunger for feeling now… if only we could dance like them, if only we could feel the world like they do… a half-memory of something privileged classes and populations lost when they started treating human beings like commodities and sold out on their own humanity. When Cameron says ‘swarm’, when journalists write about the tailbacks in Kent, they continue to hollow out this emotional centre.
In short, facts as king has structured patriarchy and colonialism. Facts and their prioritisation, have always been subjective and that subject has in the first place been a wealthy white male. Turning to them in the face of the swarm’s emotion is not only ineffective, it implicates problematic systems that have conditioned the market based ideology that produces a fear of immigrants and an eclipsing of our common humanity.
What forms of resistance can we then seek? The unconscious emotions of the swarm are not only damaging for those outside of the swarm, but painful for the individuals within the swarm, who suffer a collapse of the self. A lack of insight into the self leads to a lack of insight into others, which means that we talk about suffering human beings in terms which degrade and animalise them, further removing them from the realm of humanity and deepening the absence of empathy.
In such a case a lack of insight into the self and other is a collapse which happens around and within language: The emotive language of capitalised networked discourse which marketises emotion leads to an inability to identify and reclaim our own emotions away from the market; and therefore to an inability to identify emotions within others. The hunger for the production of authenticity within political and branding campaigns and within entertainment is revealing of its painful absence.
Bifo argues that a sensualisation of language through poetry is a necessary resistance to this state of atomising connectivity. He writes,
“Deixis acts against the reduction of language to indexicalisation and abstract individuation, and the voice acts against the recombinant desensualisation of language.”(5)
Perhaps more simply, Jeanette Winterson writes:
“A tough life needs a tough language – and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers – a language powerful enough to say how it is.”(6)
The realness (not realism) of the lyric and the narrative is founded in a depth of word use which totally defies the hollow emotive quality of marketing speak and the mono-layered and haphazard indexicalisation of hashtags. Poetic language plays between fact and feeling, producing truths which reflect on truth itself. When versed in it, we address empathy because we address the ambiguity of another and the ambiguity of the self.
Ambiguous, complex information is not useful as currency in networks based on SEO, nor within financial markets, which have overwhelmingly become the blueprint for systems of value and communication. Which is as much to say, human language and its connection to a human body is not useful. The exercising of emotive language without a connection to human ambiguity and complexity in some fields of discourse (marketing, entertainment, politics), allows for the exorcising of emotion from the language that operates these systems (the computational and the financial). A society apparently fluent in emotional talk cannot be taken as a society that is more comfortable or more insightful concerning emotions when all this emotion-speak goes to distract from the unemotional, unequivocal systems that structure that society.
The suffering people in the camps at Calais therefore become the bodily presence of the invoked swarm which provides the counterpoint to the absent bodies of the UK’s digital swarms. The human body is missing and will not be allowed to cross the border. ‘Swarm’ is a word which furthers our alienation, debases emotional language and destroys empathy. Its power is not just figurative. Its power lies in its implication within dominant information systems which seek to do the same within our society. To save ourselves, we must refuse to accept the term, and in doing so we must accept the refugees. Only in recognising their humanity and their voices can we restore our own. We need them.
(1) “When the social body is wired by techno-linguistic automatisms, it acts as a swarm: a collective organism whose behaviour is automatically directed by connective interfaces.”, Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, Uprising: On Poetry and Finance, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2012.
(2) See Cæmeron Cain for more ideas on branding, desire and an explanation of Deleuze’s theories about the joys of marketing, http://www.mantlethought.org/philosophy/how-does-one-resist-joys-marketing-and-why, from which I draw some of my analysis here.
(3) I would relate this idea of ‘free choice as long as your are choosing’ to Deleuze’s concept of a Society of Control. Again, see Cæmeron Cain for a great blog post on this: http://www.mantlethought.org/philosophy/living-society-control
(4) Uprising: On Poetry and Finance, p.15
(5) Ibid., p.22.
(6) Jeanette Winterson, “Shafts of Sunlight”, The Guardian, 2008: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/nov/15/ts-eliot-festival-donmar-jeanette-winterson