Living and Dying Together, Apart

july 2022

Of the many images that circulated widely in the early weeks of the pandemic, few were as affecting as those of ICU patients struggling to breathe their final breaths not beside loved ones, but beside screens that displayed live videos of them. Capturing overwhelmed hospitals’ efforts to ameliorate the solitude of medical quarantines with the assistance of digital streams, these scenes assumed their emotional gravity not only because of how concisely they depicted the somber reality of dying alone in a volatile pandemic, but because of what they exposed about our experience of living through it as well. As we each struggled to avoid spreading or catching the virus by living networked but lonely lives, how could we all not see something of ourselves in these networked but lonely deaths?

Scattered throughout the pandemic’s visual economy were also the appearance of the far less arresting heaps of cardboard boxes that were haphazardly piled on stoops and at doorsteps, jitteringly arriving here and there according to the algorithmic rhythm of global just-in-time logistics. As storefronts shuttered and Amazon stocks soared, online clicks sent avalanches of packages to be prepared and dispatched under the automated gaze of warehouse surveillance systems before they finally materialized in front of our eyes as delivery workers unloaded them from the backs of vans and trucks.1 A bulky box of surgical masks at the base, a package stuffed with a laptop and webcam standing in as a plinth, and a bag of groceries hastily balanced on top, these impromptu sculptures assembled at the thresholds of domestic life were the visual ephemera of a networked society that coordinated the movements of essential commodities and expendable workers so that those with the means could remain online, uninfected, and at home.2

There is an inconspicuous symmetry between these two pandemic scenes, between the moving images of hospital patients digitally streamed over fiber-optic networks and the moving packages digitally choreographed by corporate logistics systems. Not only are video streaming services and global package deliveries both dominated by the same corporation (Amazon), they also both rely upon the same communication protocols, database architectures, and telecommunications infrastructures that constitute the technical core of our increasingly digitized society. If we are able to sense a formal correspondence between content delivery and package delivery, it is only because of a far broader networked correspondence that is now reflected ubiquitously in each of our social, economic, and political lives.3

Networks have come to be so intimately and intricately integrated into the ways that we meet our needs and sustain ourselves—emotionally, socially, economically, intellectually, sexually, culturally—that at times they can feel nearly imperceptible, just as the extraordinary details of dreams can feel entirely intuitive and innate as we dream them. Whether scheduling online deliveries, logging onto remote therapy sessions, attending livestreamed funerals, taking online exams, or dressing up for virtual work meetings, the exchanges and encounters between many lives that cumulatively make it possible to sustain each particular life have progressively come to be translated into, managed by, and subsumed within the interoperable bits and bytes of the networks that facilitate them. From within the maw of this pixelated vertigo that only accelerated during the pandemic, it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish between the interdependencies and commonalities that are the foundation of all of our lives and the protocols and platforms that are the buzzing pulse of network life.

Through the swells and crests of the pandemic’s planetary waves, what we need from one another has largely come to be organized on the basis of our networked separation from one another. This contradiction is the consequence of a profound dispossession of the worlds and relations upon which all life depends, a digital and distributed partitioning of what is common into arrays of private enclaves where only a network connection is shared. Under these conditions of generalized and communicative separation, our individual incapacity to fulfill our needs on our own is formally balanced with the network’s promise to fulfill all of them, at an algorithmically set price. Like a surgeon who incises apart and stitches together in a single continuous gesture, networks intimately bind lives to what only further separates them, in which the domination of networked separation is underpinned by a corresponding liberation of networked communication. The cardinal promise of pandemic life, and consequently of social life far more generally, has been that we can all go on living and dying together, apart.

The panicked mapping of a networked digitality onto all forms of relationality in the anxious and exigent depths of the pandemic was not the expression of a technocratic authoritarianism or the imposition of a totalitarian matrix of control, but was rather simply another expansion and elaboration of a capitalist and colonial rationality that was already at work everywhere in society, totalizing in reach and isolating in practice. In this sense, even while marketing itself in the image of promethean creativity and glistening novelty, the networked separation of the pandemic is best understood as being only the most contemporary technical expression of the economic, social, and political partitions that have been steadily developing over centuries. These partitions share a uniform binary logic (this, not that) that is differentially expressed across complex matrices of distinct sexualized and racialized forms, resulting in a separation so total that separation itself has assumed its place as both the means and ends of our economy and society.4 In the pandemic and under capitalism, every technology is ultimately a technology of making separations.

Despite their acolytes’ promises of an imminent decentralization and deverticalization of society, digital networks haven’t undermined but rather have only formally restructured the economic division of classes, the sexualized division of (re)productive labor, and the racialized division of policing and legal status in networked forms, where network addresses that are assigned to users and their devices serve as the modality through which subjects can be addressed as such.5 Within these distributed modes of address and subjectification, networks can both provide and restrict—and thus modulate, calibrate, and control—access to work, visas, intimacy, housing, food, credit, education, and healthcare in radically unequal and differentiated fashions according to the digitized hierarchies and distributions of networked subjects. The network is above all else an apparatus that captures only to partition, that subsumes only to separate. Everything is digitally brought together in a networked unity only so it can be better identified and differentiated, and then dominated on that basis.

Imposed through a technical marriage of connection and alienation, networks dominate life and—as a consequence of being dominated—lives come to depend upon, invest in, and attach themselves to networks. This contradiction runs like a fault line through each of our lives, in which every new networked division that is established between us is ultimately expressed again as a subjective division within us. When what we need from one another can only be realized through the forms of separation that have been erected between one another—whether by national borders, economic markets, or digital networks—our common interdependencies come to be experienced principally as personal vulnerabilities and private responsibilities. From within the networked relation, the good life is technically reimagined as the connected but solitary life, struggling to survive by flexibly adapting to every new difficulty, adeptly planning for every new contingency, ruggedly weathering every new tragedy, manically working to crawl out of every new poverty, and calmly swallowing every new anxiety online and on its own.

Networks are thus not addendums to otherwise already coherent, defined, and realized lives, but rather facilitate networked forms of dispossession that steer lives towards networked forms of life. Following the networked forms of displacement, exploitation, and deprivation that dispossess life of its commonality and leave it fundamentally solitary, separated, and precarious, life necessarily comes to rely upon networked forms of relationality that both sustain life and sustain life’s precariousness. In this sense, networks become a matter of life and death not because they make some live and let others die, nor because they let some live and make others die, but because they produce a networked vulnerability to death before inviting all to connect, work, and live online.

The disintegration of our commonality into a turbulent sea of personal plights, and the reintegration of those plights into the informatic flows and exchanges of networks, cause us to experience and perceive the world (as well as our dependence upon it) as the cause of all of our vulnerability, and thus as a threat that must be kept at maximal distance. In this way, the reality of our interdependence is translated into the anxiety of a networked loneliness, pushing lives everywhere to retreat from their commonality into the nodes of networks. Everything becomes more communicative and less communal, more informatic and less intimate, more programmed and less poetic, more fragmented and less free. This networked capture of our commonality and impoverishment of our lived experience thus transforms the reality of our interdependence into a dense field of power where life is subordinated. As a result, practices of revolt and resistance find themselves necessarily enacted within and against this network paradigm, struggling to contest and transform the modalities through which our interdependence is lived.

In a society so enveloped within this networked totality, all social activity necessarily emerges and formalizes itself first online. This does not mean, however, that life obediently remains there. During the pandemic, there were moments in which lives broke away from their networked form and found one another within something that we could call common. Consider for example the way in which buildings coordinated during the pandemic to deliver groceries and medicine to vulnerable neighbors and organized eviction defense and rent strike actions against landlords. Many of these activities undoubtedly emerged online in social media groups, or at the very least took shape in conversation with online guides and campaigns which circulated widely in the early weeks of the pandemic. But these actions’ online genesis didn’t stop them from quickly abandoning the network, bringing people into common situations and struggles that could not be so easily subsumed by communicative technologies that aspire to capture and neutralize them. A knock on a neighbor’s door, a building meeting in the garden, a conspiracy planned between friends on a rooftop, these are all practices that require transgressing the networked separations at the heart of contemporary society and remind us of other ways of living.

Consider also the George Floyd revolts, in which the video of his brutal murder by police propagated across various social media platforms and initiated a profound chain of protests and rebellions. What began online in the circulation of a cell phone video uncontrollably exploded into contagious street actions across several continents that overcame the communicative logic of the networks that catalyzed them. This collective escape from the network, in which people did not allow themselves to be simply captured within the cycles of performative rage and posturing debates that so densely populate online life, allowed for people to build something common in the streets that had a fundamentally different form than the connections and protocols that they had fled from. In this sense, the revolts that began to formulate themselves online in event postings and group chats quickly realized that the first limit they must overcome was the network itself, and thus put into motion collective practices that essentially left networks defunct and inoperative. Marches, occupations, encampments, and solidarity projects are all forms which depart from networks while revealing our lack of need for them. All revolt, whether taking form in insurrectionary bursts of activity or patient practices of resistance, should aspire to leave networked and capitalist relations plainly obsolete in this way.6

While the historical violence of capitalism and colonialism that is now facilitated by network technologies should be recognized as nothing less than a desolation of our lives and of the common, it nonetheless remains constituent in nature, constructing and sustaining the networked forms that render our exploitation, alienation, and dispossession possible just as they possibilize novel forms accumulation, partition, and extraction. The desolation of the commons is simply the product of a networked and capitalist world being historically constituted again and again, a recursive constitution that drives history itself. The progress of contemporary society, and the desolation of this progress, can be measured in the number of separations it produces and sustains, in which each new division serves as a new means of managing its accumulating disaster. Network technologies should thus be approached as nothing other than the distributed automation of the partitions that have historically sustained the capitalist and colonial world, those separations whose constitution has represented nothing less than a catastrophe for life. Each expansion and intensification of the networked world is only a further eradication of our common one.

Emancipation thus cannot arise from parallel constituent measures that aim to replace the partitions of the network form with other sets of more favorable or comparatively just partitions, as the partition itself is the binary technology through which the violence of capitalist domination has been and continues to be realized historically. Destituent measures on the other hand, those practices and gestures that aim to dismantle the logic of partition as such, offer a path towards the common that cannot be so easily rerouted and reprogrammed within the cycles of dispossession-accumulation and alienation-subjectification that circulate all around.7 In network society, we can think of the destituent as whatever renders life less compatible with, less dependent upon, and less capturable by the networked world of capitalist separation, as a way of life which tactically retreats from and opportunistically dismantles networked forms of life.

No one is in the position to definitively say what life would be like without networks or without capitalism, simply because our lives have been so formally subsumed by them. The ways we sustain ourselves, care for one another, struggle against domination, and even dream of better lives together are all intimately integrated into and contoured by the networked and capitalist world they take place within, and thus can’t help but reflect their technical forms and partitions. As our lives are only possible today due to the sets of possibilities offered to us by the world in its present structure and form, it is simply not possible to rewind the clock to a time before the network or before capitalism. Everything depends instead upon our collective willingness to dispossess ourselves of what has historically dispossessed each of us, dismantling and destituting the capitalist and colonial world node by node, partition by partition, piece by piece. The connectivity and commensurability of the network form must ultimately be confronted by what has not yet been entirely subsumed by them, by those fragments of our lives that still struggle to live in common with, rather than apart from, one another.

 

Notes


1. While Louis Lumière’s 1895 silent film La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon (Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory in Lyon) is considered to be paradigmatic of the many entanglements between visual and economic production in industrial societies, today a video of an Amazon delivery worker leaving their van with a box, recorded and then uploaded to the internet by an Amazon Ring doorbell camera, would speak most clearly to the harmony between our digitally surveilled society and logistically driven global economy. An appropriate title might simply be: Workers Arriving with Packages from Bezos’ Warehouses.

2. For a theorization of the relations between the domesticated/connected consumer and the disposable/mobile delivery worker, see my earlier text The Corona Reboot: “It appears that at least two new kinds of subjectivity have already begun to take shape, both of which are mutually constitutive, intimately dependent upon, and shaped by the informatic infrastructures and apparatuses that now run through and organize much of our planetary society. On the one hand, we have the domesticated/connected subject, who in being confined to their home is pushed to invent new ways to reconnect to and participate in a virtualized economy. On the other hand, we have the mobile/disposable subject that serves as the circulatory system of the pandemic, a subject that becomes increasingly vulnerable and precarious as it is compelled to move at ever greater velocities.” ( https://www.ianalanpaul.com/the-corona-reboot/ )

3. Networks aim to establish an abstract commensurability between anything that can be stored, processed, and circulated numerically as data, just as price establishes an abstract equivalency between all commodities in markets. This equivalency/commensurability is the computational basis for the automated forms of exchange, analysis, and control that define networks, whose tendency is always to multiply their connections and realize themselves as systems that oversee, mediate, and manage all other systems.

4. The partition is a paradigmatic technology of capitalism through which various forms of dispossession and accumulation (dis/reintegration and de/reterritorialization) are made possible. Ariella Azoulay concisely theorizes the ways apparatuses of all kinds divide and conquer as part of capitalist/imperial history in this way, writing in Potential History: “The matrix of history operates in two registers: it literally organizes the shared world into processable slices of papers—with the help of borders, weapons, property certificates, treaties, and so on—and is in charge of accounting for this world, already partitioned and shredded.” (287)

5. For more on the subject of life’s addressability, see my earlier text Notes on Ungovernable Life: “Governance is the form of power that takes life’s multiplicity as its object, imposing fields of difference upon which its capture is effectuated, partitioning the difference of life into different classes of lives. This manifold classification of life, the definitive formal structuring of selves and their worlds, is the means through which all governance is instantiated and enacted … Imbricating regimes of identification, calculation, organization, stratification, algorithmization, inspection, and administration all aspire to render life immanently addressable in these ways, producing variously classed lives that are both subjected to and subjects of the address of governance.” ( https://www.ianalanpaul.com/notes-on-ungovernable-life/ )

6. In both the case of building organizing and the George Floyd revolts, we can glimpse an ethics that directs us beyond the separation of networks, an ethics premised upon two complementary poles. On one end, we have the value of a life, which is not reducible to an individual life, even if it continues to become exceedingly difficult to think of life beyond the individual. Rather, a life is recognized in its indispensable creativity, potentiality, and autonomy, or in other words, in its singularity. In his essay Immanence: A Life, Gilles Deleuze reflects on a life that exceeds any individual life, a life that is virtual and only actualized as singularities (an expression, a thought, a gesture) that is irreducible to the subjectivities and predicated forms of life that society produces in the form of individuals. On the other end, we have the interdependencies which radically shape all life, the commonality upon which networks effectuate their capture and upon which all life depends. When considered together, life’s singularity and interdependency points us towards ways of living that arrive not in the terminus of a rugged individuality nor in the administrative state—both of which presuppose the separation of life—but in a commonality that understands autonomy and solidarity as being necessarily tied to and dependent on one another.

7. It’s worth emphasizing that the vast majority of the popular revolts that have occurred at the beginning of the 21st century (Occupy Wall Street, 15M, the Arab Spring, Standing Rock, the George Floyd Rebellion, the Hong Kong student movement, and many more) have been destituent in nature, aiming to depose power and leave nothing in its place. This turn from revolution to insurrection is reflective of a historical development of power that has successfully dismantled the global workers’ movement and other subjectively-driven forms of struggle, transforming revolt from something that arises from within the emancipatory potential of this or that subjectivity into something that arises against the apparatuses and structures that produce capitalist/colonial subjectivity in the first place. Walter Benjamin’s Critique of Violence is perhaps the most helpful text in making the distinction between constitutive and destitutive violence, where he writes: “If mythical violence is lawmaking, divine violence is law-destroying; if the former sets boundaries, the latter boundlessly destroys them.” (296) For an overview that examines the development of destituent power as a concept, see “Destituent Power: An Incomplete Timeline” ( https://destituencies.com/2020/destituent-power-an-incomplete-timeline/ )