The Pseudo-Catharsis of Social Media

From Rethinking Social Exclusion, by Simon Winlow and Steve Hall, pg 73:

Political protests these days are taken not as an indication that something is going wrong and that a significant number of the population are dissatisfied with the nation’s political leadership. Rather, they seem to indicate that a healthy and vibrant democracy is in place, one that welcomes political contestation and vigorous public debate about government policy. ‘Look at the wonderful world liberalism has created!’, our politicians proclaim. ‘Political protests like this would never be tolerated in a non-democratic totalitarian regime!’ Of course, when the demonstration is complete, nothing has changed. The political protest ends up continuing only for a short time as an online blog or a Twitter post, offering nothing more than a cathartic opportunity to vent one’s spleen accompanied by the sad recognition that in all likelihood no one is listening, and no one really cares. It is also worth considering whether the peaceful protest now offers nothing more than an opportunity for the protestor to relinquish their subjective sense of duty to battle injustice. Once the protest is complete, and the world continues unchanged, the subject is allowed the comfort of having registered her dissatisfaction; whatever happens, it does so ‘not in my name’.

It’s this line I’ve put in bold which I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. How much of what is seen to be ‘trolling’ online represents a frustrated, even mutulated, impulse towards collective action?

In a way Winlow and Hall are too rosey in their framing here, positioning the pseudo-catharsis of social media as something that follows from the frustrations of contemporary public protest. What about when there is no prior collectivity, however frustrating and frustrated? What does the individualised rage we see seeking satisfaction through social media mean for the possibility of collectivity in the future? 

What about the experience of mediated collectivity: how does a symbolic sense of ‘us’, others like oneself seeking outlets for ‘our’ rage, leave what might otherwise possibly become a solidaristic impulse locked into this destructive register?

They make a similar point with other co-authors in Riots and Political Protest. From pg 164:

If the remaining logic is simply that the protest enables pissed-off individuals to cathartically release their pent-up frustration and momentarily draw strength from being around others who feel the same way, before returning to their lives to again be subject to the same objective causes of their frustration, then we can begin to see the limitations that have been imposed upon democratic political protest.

2 Comments

  1. Could you say that Jeremy Corbyn is acting as a ‘mediator of collectivity’. Channeling the growing ‘rage’ of online collectivity, politically, anti-austerity, anti-capitalist, and therefore anti-government, Corbyn’s new ‘Labour Movement’ is succeeding where Occupy has failed in the past to translate an online community of protest into a physically ‘active’ and material force. The ‘symbolic sense of ‘self’ which social media, and especially Twitter has allowed to form is, or certainly could be, just a first step towards a material collectivity and not simply the ‘comfortable’ echo chamber which provides those of us who are politically frustrated, a voice amongst others which resonates only within that non-material online space.

    1. I think so, unsure if it would be overly-optimistic though – they/we have a diffuse sense of wanting to ‘do’ something and at least my own experience has been of a struggle to translate that into meaningful action.

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