Détournement and social media

I was struck when reading this description of Donna Haraway’s work in Razmig Keucheyan’s Left Hemisphere of how useful the notion of détournement could be in navigating the contemporary politics of social media. As he writes on loc 4454:

Like a number of contemporary critical thinkers, Haraway subscribes to the strategic paradigm of détournement. Its origins go back to the artistic avant-gardes of the twentieth century, especially situationism. It consists in diverting an object or discourse from its original function in order to subvert its content and endow it with a politically or artistically new connotation. Thus, although cyborgs initially went hand in glove with capital, it cannot be excluded that they will make it possible to transcend certain aporiae in which advocates of a radical ecology and socialism are currently trapped.

What was once a position of untrammelled utopianism, in which the founding ideology of social media was uncritically reproduced in a fit of enthusiasm, increasingly heads towards its opposite. As the media sociologist John Thompson cautioned at an excellent event in Cambridge last week, it is dangerous to read back the characteristics of media by looking at their effects. If I understood his point correctly, the risk is that we end up ascribing causality to the media themselves which overlooks the many social and cultural factors operative beyond the platforms and the firms running then. Bad things are happening which involve social media therefore those bad things must originate with social media.

To be overly attentive to the media system in and of itself inadvertently reproduces precisely the utopian assumptions which we seek to overturn. I wonder if détournement in the sense of unweaving the participatory promise of social media (what I call the founding ideology above) from its embedding in a particular account of platforms could be a useful strategy for getting beyond this impasse? Rather than see domination as built into the structure of the platform itself, could the platform’s own ideology be usefully leverage in critique of the promised outcomes which its business model suppresses? Does the mood of cultural pessimism inadvertently exclude conversations about democratic governance and collective action orientated towards reform? Can these platforms be diverted from their original function?

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