- Platforms of Control:Social Media and the Limits of Theoretical Pluralism
Blasphemy protects one from the moral majority within, while still insisting on the need for community.—Donna Haraway (1987, 1)
A healthy democratic process calls for a vibrant clash of political opinions and an open conflict of interests. If such is missing, it can too easily be replaced by a confrontation between non-negotiable moral values and essentialist identities.—Chantal Mouffe (1993, 6)
It is not only that network science seemingly makes the modeling of conflict impossible, it does so while also hiding conflict as friendship.—Wendy Hui Kyong Chun (2018, 81)
Lexi Freiman begins her 2018 novel Inappropriation by introducing us to tenth-grader Ziggy Klein, a recent matriculant at the prestigious Kandara Girls School in Sydney, Australia. With their fall semester well under way, Ziggy's new Instagram-obsessed friends Tessa and Lex surprise her one day by testing out her knowledge of Theory: "Have you read Donna Haraway's 'A Cyborg Manifesto,?'" they ask Ziggy, who quickly shakes her head no (2018, 18). "I'll send you a link to the essay," Tessa offers before providing Ziggy with a quick summary: "It talks about how we're all transhuman because of our dependence on technology, which is good because it means you don't have to totally submit to the patriarchy" (18).1 While Ziggy is at first a reluctant reader of Haraway—mostly because, as the narrator tells [End Page 149] us, "she has only really read Anne Frank and the Brontës. Science fiction seems kind of babyish" (18)—she eventually comes to appreciate the essay's politically radical thrust. But not long after she follows Tessa's link and reads "A Cyborg Manifesto," something doesn't sit right with her. The problem, Ziggy figures out, is that Tessa and Lex have appropriated the essay for purposes that appear to be completely at odds with the arguments Haraway actually makes—an effect, one might argue, of their productive misreading. And what troubles Ziggy even more is the realization that her social-media-loving friends' idiosyncratic interpretation of "A Cyborg Manifesto" is "missing the Marxism" (28). To the best of Ziggy's understanding, the essay's key arguments in favor of feminist socialism appear to be completely at odds with Tessa and Lex's ingrained poptimism and their related belief in the dominant cultural logic which associates the use of social media technologies with celebrity status and political recognition.2 "America calls to Tessa and Lex from multiple media platforms," the narrator says, before clarifying, "Specifically, America wants Lex to be a famous rapper and Tessa a famous actress" (31). Ziggy becomes distraught when she realizes that "Haraway's ideas of collectivism have never appealed to her friends" (105-6), ideas which Ziggy herself finds compelling. Summing up Ziggy's disappointment with Tessa and Lex, the narrator interjects: "[A]ctual feminist socialism implies that nobody gets to be famous and special and morally superior to anybody else. Class privilege is what results from aspirations like theirs" (28).
While American popular culture might serenade "Tessa and Lex from multiple media platforms," the very same public platforms also provide a digital space and a technological means by which the tenth-graders appropriate Theory and deploy political rhetoric in order to accumulate specific forms of social capital that they use to coerce others into agreeing with their opinions, both online and off. Tessa and Lex even go so far as to believe that their idiosyncratic reading of Haraway gives them moral license to participate in what legal scholar Hadar Aviram has called "progressive punitivism" (2020, 202).3 Yet as Inappropriation's narrative unfolds, one is struck by how frequently Ziggy, Tessa, and Lex refer to, invoke, or send out digital links to work by other important figures from the Theory canon: "I'll send you [End Page 150] a link to the essay" becomes a common refrain (2018, 114, 183, 192, 193). In Freiman's novel the characters' repeated acts of linking and citing theorists or theoretical texts is what authorizes them to cash in on Theory's alleged moral value while remaining indifferent...