Microserfs, by Justin Clemens

November 2012 was yet another decisive month for digital revelations. The new CIA Director David Petraeus, a self-professed ‘scholar-monk’ and Obama’s Iraq hero, was caught out in an adultery scandal with—surprise!—his ‘embedded’ biographer Paula Broadwell. Alex Hern was right onto it in The New Statesman with the raunchy header ‘Two Generals, Agent Shirtless and 30,000 Pages of Sexts: The Scandal that Keeps Giving’. If the names themselves are almost Dickensian, and the seamy side of their activities thoroughly Biblical, the media conditions of the scandal are perfectly contemporary. The problem had started when Petraeus’ friend Jill Kelley complained about receiving anonymous threats in June 2011; the FBI traced these to Broadwell who, it appeared, suspected Kelley of nurturing affections for Petraeus. So far, it’s a classic three-way, between Petraeus, Broadwell and Kelley, two jealous rivals vying for the affections of their object of desire. As if by some mystic mathematical inevitability, however, it turned out that the triangle was really a square, adding General John Allen to the sexual geometry. Next thing you know, Kelley’s husband and twin sister also became implicated in the ever-widening scandal, this time for allegedly seamy business deals. Triangle, square, Pentagon, hexagon: the new angles kept on coming. Petraeus of all people should have known better. As Patrick Keefe detailed in a New Yorker article titled ‘The Surveillance State Takes Friendly Fire’ (13 November 2012), Petraeus had himself already been engaged in public musings on ‘the utter transparency of the digital world’.


Some people might think that ‘transparency’ is a nice-sounding word—indeed, it’s been deliberately redeployed by state functionaries and corporate marketing precisely because of its heart-warming polysyllabic ring—but the implications clearly aren’t that nice at all. As the Czech novelist Milan Kundera once acerbically proposed as an ‘Axiom’ about the term ‘transparency’:

The more opaque the affairs of the State, the more transparent an individual’s affairs must be; though it represents a public thing, bureaucracy is anonymous, secret, coded, inscrutable, whereas private man [sic.] is obliged to reveal his health, his finances, his family situation, and if the mass media so decree, he will never again have a single moment of privacy either in love or in sickness or in death.

Kundera was writing before the rise of the internet and the collapse of the Soviet Union, but the principle hasn’t changed. On the contrary, it has been extended and intensified. The alibi of transparency is public accountability, but they are by no means the same thing. On the contrary, transparency is consistently used to render accountability impossible. As is well known, the continuous feedback demanded by corporate management accountability mechanisms is directed, not at achieving excellence, but at destroying professional or community organisations by targeting individuals: the ‘Rate your Teacher’ (or doctor or whatever) programs at once separate the target from their expertise, invert the burden of proof, and turn unaccountable experiential preferences of the ‘clients’ into employability determinations. For Kundera, total transparency is therefore a totalitarian dream—not a democratic one.


Leaving aside everything that literature once taught us about desire—not least its propensity to turn toxic with the slightest provocation—there’s something peculiarly contemporary about the Petraeus Affair. As Wendy Chun puts it in Control and Freedom, our relationship to fibre-optics seems to be characteristically experienced in ‘terms of sexuality-paranoia’. In fact, pretty much every new media anxiety button is depressed by this scandal: online sexual harassment; ongoing secret governmental surveillance of dubious legality; alleged corruption of process; so-called mission creep, whereby every agency starts to overstep its legitimate zone of operations; confusion at every level of public and private, governmental and corporate; local politics and global terrorism; and so on. Certainly, what’s still amazing is how directly and intensively the sexual micro-politics of the situation are integrated with issues of truly geopolitical import; moreover, how this integration is a base-operating fact due to global media convergence through digitisation. You can’t just destroy or hide the offending CIA dossier anymore, as would still have been the case until surprisingly recently. On the contrary, digital technologies are remorseless in their recording and surveillance of information on distributed networks. You simply can’t burn 30,000 pages of sexts like that; nor, it seems, can you simply stop sending them.


It would therefore be premature to celebrate the exposure-power of the new technologies as if they were a decisive blow struck against established powers. As one of ex-Director Petraeus’s own sparkling bon mots has it: ‘Every byte left behind reveals information’. But even this plain truth speaks more than it says. We are now all secret agents working happily against our own self-interests, providing, with every key-stroke, evidence of our enthusiasm for servitude. A simple description of what actually happens when you log on should suffice. Again in Chun’s words: ‘The moment you “jack in” … your Ethernet card participates in an incessant “dialogue” with other networked machines’. She continues: ‘you too are coded and circulated numerically, invisibly, nonvolitionally’. If Chun quite rightly wishes to quell some of the popular paranoid fantasies about the new devices—the dream of total surveillance, for example—she also, like so many others, considers this ramshackle empirical messiness as another twist in the dialectic between control and freedom.


The point, however, is not just whether or not individual privacy is being eroded, or whether all the information can or will ever be uncovered, or made public, or even have any political effects. The implications are more profound and disturbing: the inseparable combination of radically intrusive technologies and the accompanying knowledge that even these cannot be enough entails a vicious circle of ever-escalating struggles for control over networks. This drive to information acquisition affects every level of the social body, all of which of course turn out to be as filthy and base as every other. That’s not new, nor even particularly noteworthy. But one of the things that makes the new communication technologies special is that the alibi of ‘future-proofing’—the terror of loss of control of the flows of information—also supports the logic of pre-emptive strikes of all kinds. We hit them before they hit us; or, at least, offshore them before they come aboard. One could think immediately of the quite extraordinary measures taken by states to deal with figures like Julian Assange, Bradley Manning and the recently deceased young hacktivist Aaron Swartz pour encourager les autres.


This logic is certainly well attested, and its ongoing effects well documented. Aside from the ongoing debates in Arena Magazine about the status of the new media, mining and data-mining, the ongoing privatisation of traditional state functions, and the new interventional routines of government (particularly concerning Indigenous peoples, refugees and terrorists) which simultaneously engage in extra-territorial extra-judicial killings (drone attacks) or intra-territorial lockdowns, there is a thriving academic industry attempting to describe and explain the peculiarities of where we are today.


It’s noteworthy that so many of these books resort to barbarous neologisms in their attempts to do so. Hence A. Aneesh speaks of ‘algocracy’, the fact that virtual networks function algorithmically, whereas social networks function by negotiation. ‘Computer says no’, as the comedy routine has it. One of the results is ‘virtual migration’, ‘part of the common trend in contemporary capitalism to tap globally dispersed labor in a more flexible manner’. Zymunt Bauman speaks of ‘liquid modernity’ to summarise the now patently evanescent nature of all social institutions, the separation of politics and power, the motivated destruction of all community, the domination of short-term planning and the individualisation of all distress. Franco Beradi speaks of ‘the soul at work’, targeting the global production of mass depression through new workplace reorganisation by and through the new media. Neal Curtis speaks of ‘idiotism’, the neoliberal tyranny which encloses everything through privatisation. Bernard Stiegler speaks of the ‘teleologics of the snail’, the new kinds of individuation produced by ‘the delegation of decision-making processes to the automatism of remote control systems’. For his part, Guy Standing invokes the ‘Precariat’, the class-in-the-making that lacks market, employment, income, skill and representation security; Standing sees their antecedents in the banausoi of ancient Greece, that underclass which, with the slaves, did all the labour in the polis.


For my part, I want to pick up on the point, in Berardi’s words, that ‘in the sphere of digital technology and cyberculture, exploitation involves the mind, language, and emotions in order to generate value—while our bodies disappear in front of our computer screens’. Digital communication constitutes a new, unprecedented form of exploitation, literally as hard-wired as it gets. But the world of digital communication is not just another new form of exploitation among others, but the most innovative, intensive and intrusive form yet invented for securing expropriability of human symbolic interactions. That this is now done through the inculcation of essential species characteristics à la micro-control over individual behaviour rather than through societal disciplining is essential. There is no aspect of social life that is not digitised: Standing documents the secret monitoring of employees’ electronic exchanges; the attempt to create almost entirely automated models of education, from primary school on; the expansion of warrantless wiretapping, and so on and on. The thesis I propose is straightforward: the principles of transparency driving these novelties revivifies an ancient category of social non-person, that of the slave, and that new media technologies are therefore contributing significantly to the production and reproduction of a new kind of slavery.


In a series of extraordinary books and essays, Orlando Patterson has reconstructed the origins of the desire for freedom from the enslavement of populations. Freedom is a meaningless concept, he points out, before an entire class of people have been deprived of it; as such, ‘freedom’ literally emerges as a counter-idea from the establishment of the social category of slavery. Freedom’s dialectic is with power, simultaneously bound up with the desire for power over others and the desire to evade the power of others. Even more decisively, this means that the very concept of freedom is inherently double: if one can claim new rights in its name, one can also exclude people from its goods on the same basis and with precisely the same language. As Patterson notes, ‘slavery made possible something that had never existed before: the absolute, unprotected, unmediated power of life and death over another’. Hence the fact of real slavery also immediately rendered it a good, perhaps the highest good, not to be under the constraint of another. Slavery is therefore distinctive in a number of ways: it is not only the very paradigm of political oppression, but founds the origins of political struggle in the name of liberty.
While Patterson’s account is compelling in its general lineaments, I wish to concentrate on two interlinked and essential features of ancient Greek slavery that I believe neither Patterson nor other commentators have adequately integrated into their accounts. The first is that the slave is an ancient category of technology, and that Western thinking of technology has itself therefore been, from its ‘origins’, inextricably bound to the role of the slave. The second hinges on the symbolic powers of the slave, or, more precisely, the political status of slave-speech: in Athenian law, the speech of a slave could only have legal standing if it had been extracted through torture. This is then the story I am telling here: the reconvergence of these two features in the enforced extraction of discourses from the body by new media. This is not a total thesis about the world as such, but about the fundamental operating conditions of the post-convergent global media network.


As I have specified elsewhere, in a response to John Frow’s ‘On Personhood in Public Places’, privacy in ancient Greece was not a good, but an economic, familial and vital privation. The slave was, in Aristotle’s words, a ‘speaking tool’, with the strong emphasis on tool. As he puts it in the Metaphysics—and the very title should remind us that abstract philosophy is hardly a politically neutral undertaking—‘we think the manual workers are like certain lifeless things which act indeed, but act without knowing what they do, as fire burns’. The figure of the slave is therefore from the first the paradigm of privatised, naturalised techno-economics, a living automaton which labours by habituation, without asking or knowing the causes of its labour.


The slave was an individual, without a family of his or her own, with no social ties and nowhere to run. Even if the slave market itself could sell whole families as slaves, each member would be treated as a unit. A slave would be given a name, position and tasks by his or her master alone. The ‘unhappiness’ of the slave noted by all ancient documents was not due to any personal treatment, but to their structural position: at the complete mercy of another’s whim, without name or movement or time of their own. Of course, slavery had extraordinary economic benefits: it enabled the intensification and extension of labour specialisation, team work, extension of working hours, greater constancy of work, surveillance and policing and, above all, a significant reduction in the recruitment and replacement costs of labour.


Yet, as the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan has pointed out:


people who had slaves didn’t realise that one could establish equations for the price of their food and what they did in their latifundia [estates]. There are no examples of energy calculations in the use of slaves. There is not the hint of an equation as to their output. Cato never did it. It took machines for us to realise they had to be fed. And more—they had to be looked after. But why? Because they tend to wear out. Slaves do as well, but one doesn’t think about it, one thinks that it is natural for them to get old and croak.


If productivity increases in antiquity due to slavery were therefore not due to explicit computational operations, this oversight has long been rectified. Lacan’s point indicates how slavery was finally practically, and not just theoretically, integrated with technological innovation at the most fundamental level. Nicolas Hausdorf provides an excellent summary of some of the consequences of this integration in ‘Min(e)d Control’ (Arena Magazine, no. 116), in which he details the individuation, precision and massive expansion of the data-mining industry since the 1980s, in which the private and public sectors act in concert.


But it is another aspect of the situation that particularly interests me here. A slave may have been a speaking tool, but its speech could only have legal standing if extracted by torture. Not simply because pain was determining per se, and not simply because such pain was inflicted in the service of justice—but because the essential expropriability of slave labour had to be publicly staged as part of the self-structuring of public life itself. A slave could not give testimony on oath, which was reserved for citizens. In fact, enforced information extraction was an essential aspect of the ‘torturability’ of the slave; that, reciprocally, anyone from whom such information is extracted must be a slave.


As I argue in a forthcoming book, Psychoanalysis is an Antiphilosophy, torture may even function as the repressed paradigm of the modern thinking of technology itself, given that torture is the very model of the effective transformation of bodies into information under extreme time pressure. It is such an unthought solidarity of this technico-legal consideration of torture with a generalised technocratic ethos of risk management that supports the recurrent contemporary fantasy of its proponents that torturing suspects can constitute a ‘realism’ at all, let alone a democratic realism. The ‘ticking-bomb’ scenarios that now populate popular culture and debate are directed against free speech at the most fundamental level.


Yet today the forced extraction of discourse already takes place almost universally, through our enthusiastic cooperation (‘interactivity’) with new media technology, and not through the application of hot irons. That information is now involuntarily extracted through incitation to pleasure and not through the imposition of pain, unfortunately does not affect the argument. As Patterson has shown, world history is replete with figures ‘who were at once slaves and figures of high political and administrative importance’. He lists, among others, the grand viziers of the Ottoman Empire and the palatine eunuchs of Byzantium and imperial China—a list to which we could surely add David Petraeus, his entourage … and ourselves.


As Aneesh underlines, contemporary debates about electronic surveillance almost invariably continue to take place in the terms of ‘privacy versus security, while ignoring the larger dimension of a social setup that continuously reduces spaces for negotiation’. If you want money from an ATM, you must do exactly as the code requires; if you’re complaining to your mobile provider, expect an interminable circulation through an automated system; if you want to protect your children, have them electronically tagged. We have already become, to advert to another of Patterson’s phrases, ‘the ultimate slaves’.



A. Aneesh, Virtual Migration: The Programming of Globalization, Durham, Duke University Press, 2006.

Z. Bauman, Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty, Cambridge, Polity, 2007.

F. Beradi, The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy, Los Angeles, Semiotext(e), 2009.

W. Chun, Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics, Massachusetts, MIT, 2005.

N. Curtis, Idiotism: Capitalism and the Privatisation of Life, London, Pluto Press, 2013.

O. Patterson, Freedom in the Making of Western Culture, New York, Basic Books, 1991; ‘Freedom, Slavery and the Modern Construction of Rights’ in H. Joas and K. Wiegandt (eds), The Cultural Values of Europe, Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, 2008; and Slavery and Social Death, Harvard, 1982.

G. Standing, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, London, Bloomsbury Academic, 2011.

B. Stiegler, ‘The Teleologics of the Snail: The Errant Self Wired to a WiMax Network’, Theory Culture & Society, vol. 26, nos. 2–3, 2009.

About the author

Justin Clemens

Justin Clemens writes in a number of genres. His forthcoming books include the poetry collection A Foul Wind (Hunter 2022) and, with Thomas H. Ford, a monograph titled Barron Field in NSW (Melbourne UP 2023).

More articles by Justin Clemens

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