Radical language intimidates us easily. Defined by bold characterizations and hyperboles, it echoes throughout Richard Seymour’s book The Twittering Machine. That “we are all addicts” is only one of the many controversial things claimed by the chapter titles. Late on the final day of the Radical Book Fair, the author himself appeared in a live interview. The Assembly Roxy provided a contrastingly harmonious backdrop to the “horror story” that was to be told, as Seymour himself described it.
Should I be afraid? That’s the question we should ask ourselves. Twitter, Facebook and Google, to name but a few, have an extraordinary power over our data, and as such, over the most valuable resource in the world. To be critical is to an extent necessary, if not absolutely mandatory. The next step is to argue for the sinister and to take Seymour’s stance: we are not writers so much as we are being written; we are lab rats, labourers without pay, feeding the machine. It is a style and a type of rhetoric one might hope to dismiss as conspiratorial or overly sensationalistic – if only. Social media has us stuck: “we’re finding other people disappointing,” Seymour exclaims.
In the middle of the 20th century, the philosopher Theodor Adorno lamented how popular culture numbed the people through repetition and distortion of desire. His is an argument that is easier to ignore, but as the commodification of culture has now expanded to include social behaviour, it becomes more difficult to do so. We see a new type of social order arising that stretches over national borders. It has upended journalism, politics, and historic authorities. Whether one takes on Seymour’s drastic agenda – reacting against the “colonization of our leisure time” – or not, this is a discussion that needs to be recognized.
The book’s title The Twittering Machine references a painting made by the artist Paul Klee in 1922. In it, three mischievous birds lure offer into a pit. One hundred years ago, it represented the daunting allure of a different machine. As I view the artwork on my computer screen, it grows increasingly eerie and I seek refuge. Luckily though, my phone saves me with a mischievous chirp.
Richard Seymour spoke on 17 November 2019 as part of Edinburgh’s Radical Book Fair.
Image: Paul Klee, The Twittering Machine