Discharged from Communication? The Interpassivity Gap!

Guest-post by Hagen Schölzel

Strange things are going on. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri mentioned in a Swedish weblog about Strategic Communication. And as a relevant theoretical reference, too. A remarkable development. And my name in the same piece of writing. This is too much honour. In particular, because the concept of interpassivity, which this entry refers to, is not my invention. But as I worked on it for a while, and as I got the invitation to write an article, I feel free to jot down some remarks.

So, what reminds Howard of interpassivity when reading Hardt and Negri? Let’s return to the last bold quotation from ‘Declaration’: ‘The mediatized is thus a subjectivity that is paradoxically neither active nor passive but rather constantly absorbed in attention.’

As we are neither active nor passive, the thought occurs that we may be interpassive. Obviously, we’re no longer interactive, because we are constantly attending to something instead of doing something!

Hardt and Negri, however, seem to detect a kind of ‘false’ or ‘problematic interactivity’ here. Well, let’s admit it: I don’t know Hardt/Negri’s argument well enough to interpret it authoritatively. But for us who are working in the field of interpassivity, it is quite obvious that interpassivity is quite the opposite of what Hardt and Negri observe. Interpassivity means being discharged from attention. It means being rejected from participation rather than being absorbed in attention.

One stumbles upon this interpretation of interpassivity as a kind of ‘false interactivity’ sometimes. Well, it shows how the term stimulates imagination…

Videos never watched and books never read…

The term interpassivity goes back to Robert Pfaller and Slavoj Žižek. The two authors were observing strange cultural phenomena, and Pfaller developed the term in the midst of the 1990’s. Interpassivity describes, for example, the observation that a lot of people were recording movies on their VCRs without ever watching them. A lot of people were copying articles, or even whole books, from libraries – without ever reading them. Academics know this behaviour quite well, of course. Most importantly, however, there seemed to be no problem with this recording-without-watching or copying-without-reading. The cineastes enjoyed notwatching their movies. Academics enjoy hoarding books they do not intend to read. Pfaller and Žižek observed two shifts, thus. First shift: there seem to be pieces of art or technical apparatuses which enjoy themselves on their own, i.e. instead of us: VCRs watching TV, copiers reading books. Second shift: we, or at least an imagined ‘naïve observer’, believe that we are delegating our enjoyment to the thing that is enjoying in our place. And we enjoy this operation of being discharged from our own enjoyment. Interpassivity, then, in a first understanding, captures the cultural phenomenon of ‘delegated enjoyment’. That is somehow the other side of the coin which Hardt and Negri, and also Deleuze, refer to. Interpassivity constitutes ‘figures of relief’ for all those who no longer want to be interactive, well connected, well communicating subjects.

Interactive metal fatigue

Besides the ‘artistic branch’ of research on interpassivity, driven especially by Pfaller in Austria, a group at Erasmus University in the Netherlands is also working on the subject. And it was in the circles of the Rotterdam department of philosophy that the idea of ‘interactive metal fatigue’ emerged. It’s a variation of interpassivity, in a way, suggested and elaborated by Gijs van Oenen, Elke Müller and their group.

What the Erasmus group observed is an interactive society, which constantly overstrains modern subjects by forcing to participate. Communication, negotiation, discussion on everything, in every given situation. And what’s worse: without solution. From politics to love, from workplace to household, from childhood to retirement, and so on. The overstrain leads to what Van Oenen calls ‘interactive fallout’ – a collapsing subjectivity, no longer able to participate, constantly failing in being part of our interactive, communicative society. The consequence is the bouquet of ‘fashionable’ psychosocial diseases which have been discussed in the media lately. So here we have the negative side of our efforts of social integration via communication. And indeed, Hardt and Negri may touch upon the very same when they note that there is no longer a lack of communication. Quite the opposite: ‘today’s mediatized subjects suffer from the opposite problem, stifled by a surplus of information, communication, and expression’.

Things to think of

Well, what do you take away if you have been absorbed in attention so far?

First, it seems pretty obvious to me that there is much more humour in the theory of interpassivity, at least in the artistic variant, than in any conception of interactivity, of communication society etc. And that simply makes it a much more ‘liveable’ conception than many other theories.

Second, if you want to work with interpassivity you have to accept a little bit of psycho-analytic shifting. The way we analyse cultural phenomena is sometimes something you need to get your head around.

A third aspect it is quite obvious as well: yes, interpassivity is somehow related to communication. This is not the place to go deeper into detail, but let’s keep in mind that the theory of interpassivity points out something Hardt and Negri also seem to have in mind. Something that is very relevant in my opinion: That communication or, to be more coherent, participation via communication, has drawbacks of its own. Communication has been the thing in social theory during the second half of the 20th century. ‘Better’ communication or ‘more’ communication was supposed to solve most of the problems of modern societies. There are limits here, it seems.

Besides, the theory of interpassivity stimulates questions such as the following: What exactly do ‘active’ and ‘passive’ mean? Is the modern distinction of ‘active subjects’ and ‘passive objects’ a suitable conception to understand our culture and society, to act? Are there ‘neutral’, ‘technical’ media connecting communicators and audiences? Or are the technical apparatuses doing something by themselves, for example enjoying – in our place? Are there interpassive subjects that are neither active nor passive? How can we understand the relations of interpassive objects and interpassive subjects? And what does all this mean for communication, especially strategic communication? These questions seem valuable and worthwhile in the intersecting field of interpassivity and communication.

Reading recommendations

If you want to read more about Interpassivity (or just copy some pages), take a look at these books:

By Robert Pfaller (in German):

_ (2008): Ästhetik der Interpassivität, Hamburg: Philo Fine Arts.

_ (2002): Die Illusionen der anderen. Über das Lustprinzip in der Kultur, Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp. [This volume, it seems, soon appears as an English translation, too… So watch out for Robert Pfaller in English!]

By Gijs van Oenen (in Dutch):

_ (2011): Nu even niet! Over de interpassieve samenleving, Amsterdam: Van Gennep.

For those who really want to get down, there is a whole chapter on interpassivity in English in Slavoj Žižek’s introduction to Lacanian thinking:

_ (2006): How to read Lacan, London: Granta Books.

And for a collection of essays on interpassivity (most of them in German, but with three articles in English as well), there exists a co-edited volume by Robert Feustel, Nico Koppo and me:

_ (2011): Wir sind nie aktiv gewesen. Interpassivität zwischen Kunst- und Gesellschaftskritik, Berlin: Kadmos.

And, of course, you can find some articles on interpassivity on the web as well as in further publications. For example a short piece on The Interpassive Subject by Slavoj Žižek: http://www.egs.edu/faculty/slavoj-zizek/articles/the-interpassive-subject/

  1. Danny Gardner said:

    Hello. Can you send over a link to Hardt & Negri’s blog?

    • endofthelesson said:

      Which one do you mean? antonionegriinenglish?

      • Danny Gardner said:

        Yeah, in English!

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