Fashion and the Psychopolitics of Social Media

Social media are platforms for turning the subject into a project. As Byung-Chul Han (2017) posits, they are arenas where we turn our lives into transparent endeavors which are broadcast to turn friendships into quantifiable data-processes. By broadcasting my actions into a competitive arena, where I am nothing if I do not do things, “the I is now subjugating itself to internal limitations and self-constraints, which are taking the form of compulsive achievement and optimization.” (2017: 1) All actions are valued within the constraints of the attention and achievement market, in continuous rivalry between “friends” and “followers” and freedom itself becomes an arena for exploitation; “freedom itself is bringing forth compulsion and constraint.” (2017: 1) Whereas the disciplinary imperative (“should”) is limited to commands and control, the new free achievement imperative (“can“) is a compulsion without limits.

“Being free means being free from constraint. But now freedom itself, which is supposed to be the opposite of constraint, is producing coercion. Psychic maladies such as depression and burnout express a profound crisis of freedom. They represent pathological signs that freedom is now switching over into manifold forms of compulsion.” (2017: 2)

As compulsive productivity seeps into the very notion and actions of freedom, we see a “totalization of labour” as the neoliberal and entrepreneurial subject can have no relationships which are “free of purpose.” (2017: 2) Friendship and freedom are simply new relationships to extract value from; to gain “followers,”  and “likes” from.

“Originally, being free meant being among friends. […] A real feeling of freedom occurs only in a fruitful relationship – when being with others brings happiness. But today’s neoliberal regime leads to utter isolation; as such, it does not really free us at all.” (2017: 2f)

Under the free competition of social media friendship, every isolated participant becomes a brand, and every worker an auto-exploitative entrepreneur of the productive self, as “even class struggle has transformed into an inner struggle against oneself.” (2017: 5) Here, Foucault’s notion of the disciplining “dispositif” inverts freedom into an addictive and restraining quest for optimization of achieved and documented events of freedom.

“It means turning everything inside out by force and transforming it into information. Under the immaterial mode of production that now prevails, more information and more communication mean more productivity, acceleration and growth. Information represents a positive value; inasmuch as it lacks interiority, it can circulate independently, free from any and all context.” (2017: 9)

We broadcast ourselves on as many channels and platforms as possible, on CVs, sites and portfolios, on groups and chats and continuously fear of missing out on all the freedom we have. Han continues,

“Every dispositive – every technology or technique of domination – brings forth characteristic devotional objects that are employed in order to subjugate. Such objects materialize ans stabilize dominion. Devotion and related words mean ‘submission’, or ‘obedience’.” (2017: 12)

The psychopolitics of neoliberalism that Han points to is the turning of social media and the quantifiable self into gamification and big data (60), which in turn becomes a new frontier of biopower, of psychopower. Not only does thus tuning of our affects influence and predict our actions and desires, but it allows “making the id into an ego to be exploited psychopolitically.” (2017: 64) The collective unconscious, or “collective psychogram” (21), is a market for egos put into productive mode. (65)

We must thus see how fashion today is part of a large economy of competitive affects and achievements. In order to exist, to become updates and data, we keep producing alluring broadcasts of ourselves and our actions that not only build our own brands as popular (or at least somewhat “interesting”) individuals. H&M is the Home Depot of the identity producing entrepreneur, offering tools and materials for building, attuning, and broadcasting an identity; an identity we inhabit.

But whereas Han primarily points to the controlling power of Capital (producing competing individual entrepreneur, stripped of interiority), the use of “freedom” in fashion must also be seen within a relationships of envy and rivalry. The psychopolitics of fashion are played out between peers competing to be “liked” and have “friends,” Indeed, the CV of today’s identity entrepreneur is dependent on social medial followers and buzz ( it is a key component to mention for example in book proposals and job applications). The small, local, competitions in popularity are thus acting in tandem with much larger forces, as fashion an beauty on the school playground is mirrored in the larger economy and modes of immaterial production. The gamified rivalries and tensions in school are training grounds for a future life consisting of continuous identity rivalries.

Rivalries are not only enacted between peers and friends (like in a Shakespeare drama), but across the whole economy of achievement. The psychopolitics of the competing lovers is everywhere amplified into Big Data.



Han, Byung-Chul (2017) Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and new technologies of power. London: Verso

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