The compulsive search for signs

I’ve just finished reading Robert Fine’s Being Stalked: A Memoir. It’s a thoughtful and self-therapeutic reflection by the late political theorist on his experience of being stalked by a former student in the 1990s. Throughout the book, I’ve felt an eery sense there are aspects of his diagnosis which touch upon the psychodynamics of platform capitalism and the epistemic chaos which it generates. I was particularly struck by what he describes as the ‘excess of meaning’ which the stalker experiences, as even the most trivial actions become carriers of a deeper significance, available to those who are sufficiently attuned. Towards the end of the book he describes the ‘compulsive search for signs’ (pg 136) which animates the stalker, in its ambiguous relationship to the search for meaning in the everyday. They’re driven to find this meaning, to extract it, to reveal the deeper pattern which confirms their stance towards the world and solidifies it from the intrusion of doubt. The signs are always there, if we’re sufficiently radical in our hermeneutics, with disconfirming evidence instead being evidence of confirmation.

Fine observes that the Latin root of persecution means ‘to pursue justice until the end’. There is a radicalism to the stalker, a commitment to ensuring what they see as justice through any means necessary, even as these run against the normative sanction of friends or family and the legal sanction of the police and the courts. In a disturbing sense, their question is an instance of what Charles Taylor describes as a ‘hypergood’: an animating commitment which gives shape and meaning to their life. In coming to terms with his experience, Fine drew on psychoanalytical thought to try and understand how this headlong rush into ever more extreme behaviours works to foreclose a traumatic moment of confrontation with an empty self. The object of attachment becomes the focal point of a reality hyper-saturated with meaning, withdrawal from which only heightens the sense of emptiness in a life neglected as they pursue their obsession. In turn it can generate a search for signs in the stalked, as reality becomes saturated with threat amidst a constant awareness of their stalkers potential presence.

What I found so unsettling about reading this book was Fine’s suggestions of the continuities between staking and the mundane anxieties of late modern life. Firstly, in many cases there is in inability to come to terms with the contingency of what Giddens called the ‘pure relationship’, the fact that intimate bonds are carried by their own internal commitments with little to no external anchoring. They emerge and they fall apart, giving shape to lives in a ways which neither party would necessarily expect nor welcome. If I understand correctly, Fine is suggesting that stalking is the ‘negative index’ of the pure relationship (pg 132) in the sense of an individualistic contingent relationship, which was perhaps once shared or has simply been entered into purely as an expression of the stalker’s will and agency. Secondly, he identifies how the stalker undermines what Goffman called the ‘civil inattention’ which mediates our experience of sharing public space, revealing the fragile lattice of shared trust on which everyday social life depends and without which threats can be seen to lurk everywhere. As he describes it on pg 132:

When the stalker looks into our windows, he reminds us of the fragility of the day-to-day conventions by which our experience of social reality and of ourselves is ordered and forces us to wonder why we do not see malevolence in any glance from another or any encounter on the street.

This was a chilling and thought-provoking book. I keep reflecting on the fact it was written at the height of the roaring 1990s, before the securitisation of social life, the war on terror, the financial crisis, social media and COVID-19. In fact I found it hard not to see echoes of the experience he describes in those early days of lockdown, when civil inattention had widely broken down and we had to relearn our comportment in relation to each other in public space.

The rise of social media could surely be the most significance change though, at least in terms of the compulsive search for meaning. We now life in a world even more hyper-saturated with signs, mediated through an opaque machinery serving distant interests, constantly accessible to us from the palm of our hand. What does this mean for the kind of damaged agency which Fine needed to understand in order to move past the damage this experience had inflicted on his own agency?

The hunch this book left me with is that we’re seeing the emergence of damaged collective agency, in the sense of people coalescing around a compulsive search for signs, together avoiding a moment of confrontation with the void at the heart of a cold world. This isn’t a new thought. Fine cites Adorno’s analysis of persecution rooted in powerlessness, emerging when “blinded men robbed of their subjectivity are set loose as subjects”. However what happens when these collectives can coalesce in aggregative and non-linear ways, composing themselves through the affordances and incentives of what Seymour calls the Twittering Machine, rather than relying on the traditional machinery of mobilisation? My suggestion is that Fine’s experience and analysis has something to tell us of what Richard Seymour describes here on loc 2670-2776 of The Twittering Machine:

What is more, hasty denunciations risk leaving us with the misapprehension of knowing what we’ve got ourselves into, while injecting an unhelpful nastiness, condescension and paranoia into the conversation. There has been a bonfire of digital vanities, bromides stacked upon platitudes, ‘digital democracy’, ‘the networked citizen’, ‘Twitter revolutionaries’ all going up in smoke. We, who stand in its glare, should be sceptical of provisional analyses being offered with too much certainty. We should nonetheless take seriously the fascist potential of the social industry, or its potential to intensify and accelerate proto-fascist tendencies already at work. The forms of fascism that we see in the twenty-first century may not resemble those of the past. The fascist movements of the interwar period were rooted in imperialist ideologies, popular militarism, paramilitary organizations and a world system run by colonial empires and menaced by socialist revolution. These circumstances will not return. The colonies are dead, most armies are professional and there isn’t an abundance of popular organization of any kind, let alone paramilitary organization. Nonetheless, liberal capitalism shows itself to be vulnerable, crisis-ridden and open to challenge by the racist, nationalist far right. And what, in such circumstances, are the cultural valences of the social industry that produces so much of our social life now? Which tendencies would it select for, and which would it mute? There is something about the way in which we interact on the platforms which, whatever else it does, magnifies our mobbishness, our demand for conformity, our sadism, our crankish preoccupation with being right on all subjects. Ironically, this despotic rectitude is allied with exactly the kind of ‘swarm’ propensities that were once idealized as the basis for a new kind of grass-roots power. The ‘swarm’, which began as a metaphor for conscientious citizens holding power to account, might well become a metaphor for the twenty-first century version of fascist street gangs.

4 responses to “The compulsive search for signs”

  1. Besides the much-maligned <> it also reminded me of <>, where the author cites the same ‘excess of meaning’ and ‘compulsive search for signs’ in the works of non-professional art historians (like a nephrologist-art historian sees kidney shapes hidden in various compositions in Sistine Chapel).

  2. …much-maligned Freud, Sigmund. “Certain neurotic mechanisms in jealousy, paranoia and homosexuality.” International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 4 (1923): 1-10….reminded me of Gotlieb, Marc. “Our monstrous double: the dream of research in “Outsider Art History”.” (2008)…

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