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  • A Machine That Would Go of Itself: Interpassivity and Its Impact on Political Life
  • Gijs Van Oenen (bio)

Interpassivity is a concept coined by Robert Pfaller and Slavoj Zizek in order to explain how works of art and media sometimes seem to provide for their own reception.1 As opposed to interactive arrangements, in which the work of art ‘outsources’ part of its own realization to the spectator, interpassive arrangements take up a part normally played by the spectator or consumer, namely the enjoyment or ‘consummation’ of the work of art. The spectator or consumer is made redundant; or rather, his or her involvement in the realization of the work has become superfluous. Apparently, the artwork aims to consummate itself, actively dis-interesting the spectator in its realization.

Interpassivity is a surprising notion, as well as a seminal one. It appeals to a widespread intuition that there must be some counterpart, an obverse, of the wellknown, upbeat concept of interactivity. Moreover, the concept of interpassivity is suitably counterintuitive. How could passivity be an ‘inter’, that is to say, something fit for exchange, or transposition? And even if it can, why would we want to entrust our enjoyment, our passive mode of consumption, to someone or something else? The concept of interpassivity thus by its very nature suggests a transgressive mode of analysis. We expect it to reveal dimensions of reality, either subjective or intersubjective, that are normally considered unfit for public viewing because – among other reasons – their mere existence is considered unfit for public recognition.

Although interpassivity was first situated in the domain of the arts, the concept also seems well suited to describe and evaluate phenomena and developments outside the domain of aesthetics. My aim in this article is to set the concept to work in the domain of politics and citizenship. In particular, I want to show how interpassivity can shed light on the question why many citizens nowadays show strong signs of social discontentment, in societies that offer them unprecedented levels of democracy, well-being and security. It may help to explain the lack of interest in politics, in times when citizens are more closely being ‘monitored’ by politics than ever before. It may contribute to understanding why contemporary politics is the center of ‘interest’ of both elites and discontented masses, yet is bitterly criticized for being unreliable and impotent.

The observations by Pfaller and Zizek form the starting point for a discussion of some general features of the phenomenon of interpassivity (1). First, interpassivity seems to indicate a lack of interest in the aims and goals of our actions. Second, it is intimately related to the prominent role of ‘media’, especially their power to focus (and narrow) our attention to certain ‘superficialities’ involved in the process of either arts or politics. Third, it stands in the tradition of critique of ideology, as it originated in marxism and was continuated in the Frankfurter Schule. Building on these insights, I propose that interpassivity is a suitable diagnostic tool to explain and evaluate certain important socio-cultural developments that affect multiple spheres of social life. My thesis is that these spheres show a development towards ‘interpassivization’, and that this has negative consequences for the sense of well-being and the self-understanding of the people involved in the activities that constitute these domains.

Although my main analysis focuses on the sphere of politics, I will start off the second paragraph by discussing interpassive developments in the sphere of labor. This is useful, first, because labor constitutes one of the most important domains of social life, and the discovery of interpassive phenomena in this sphere thus testifies to their importance in general. Second, this discussion enables me to outline and develop some more general points concerning interpassivity in contemporary life.

One of the most important of these themes is alienation. I find that interpassivity enables us to speak in a new, more insightful way about modes of alienation in contemporary life, especially in the domains of labor and politics. Such alienation implies an increased attachment to a process of production accompanied by a loss of interest in the product of this process. This explains how interpassivity can imply an increase...