The Economics of Repulsion

7. XI 2021

In traditional capitalism, the supply of commodities is finite and their exploitation leads to depletion of the supply. By mining coal, diamonds or drilling oil, access to these commodities becomes increasingly more difficult, which requires deeper mines, oil drills, and more sophisticated technology, all of which increases production costs. For a fixed demand, this reduction in supply results in a rise of perceived value and higher price.

In cognitive capitalism, where information is the main commodity, the imbalance resides on the opposite side. Its economics is governed by diminishing demand. Human attention is biologically limited – there is a finite amount of information our brains can absorb and store at any given time. Supply of information, on the other hand, is unlimited and comes practically at no cost – ideas can come out of nowhere (or as a result of the general intellect) and, in principle, cannot be exhausted.

Since everyone is competing for the same fraction of our (limited) attention, sooner or later cognitive capitalism becomes a zero-sum game. For a brain already overloaded with information to pay attention to something new, it has to neglect something else. Every spec of information, every new idea, therefore, has an inherent ephemeral quality and carries a potential of becoming worthless.

In order to insert itself into the tight space of the already saturated attention space, new information has to be able to shock. It does not necessarily have to be relevant or carry semiotic value; it only needs to be sufficiently loud to overpower other voices. And, in competitive markets, such loud information wins and gradually dominates. Cognitive capitalism, thus, inevitably leads to semiotic inflation — more information buys less meaning – and ultimately to hyperinflation when information carries no meaning whatsoever.

Metabolic disorder and addiction to shocks

As an ideology that disseminates market values to every segment of life, neoliberalism has naturally aligned with the new logic of social media and the diminishing demand of the attention economy. Once one allows the market to impose its values and criteria, society becomes subordinated to it and has to be managed as its auxiliary. As an adaptive system, neoliberalism has adjusted to the new chapter of cognitive capitalism by transforming society and conditioning political subjects to its new laws.

Neoliberalism makes citizens into consumers. As consumers, today’s voters have no real interest in politics or in actively shaping the community; they react only passively to it. Politicians and parties follow this logic of consumption too. They have to deliver. In that process, they become nothing more than suppliers; their task is to satisfy voters who are their customers.

Society of the spectacle and the attention economy, when put together, result in new politics defined by the explosion of affects, revenge, and peddling in highly improbable. Through interaction between technology and politics, society gradually becomes addicted to shocks — they need to be administered continuously and without interruption.

Immunoreaction and informational fatigue syndrome

Shock is a kind of immunoreaction. A strong immune system stifles communication – it impairs its fluidity – the lower the level of immunity, the faster information circulates. A high level of immunity slows down the information flow. Immune-suppression, on the other hand, allows massive quantities of information to penetrate our souls without immune defense.[1]

Political foreplay, in the initial stage, consists of preparing its constituents for the new landscape by weakening their cognitive immune system. Once political subjects are properly conditioned, politics is administered through barraging them with a constant flow of nonsense in order to wear down their immune system and create a metabolic disorder[2] (akin to an eating disorder). Their minds are constantly stimulated – the underlying information becomes a semiotic equivalent of junk food — the less meaningful the information and the more toxic and addictive its effects are, the more marketable it is.

According to Walter Benjamin, the primary mode of a spectator’s response to cinema was one of a shock: Shock replaced contemplation that came as cinema replaced painting. However, we are no longer shocked by images. Even the most disturbing images have been made consumable[3].

Shocks now have to contain another quality that relies on different kind of imagery and the target audience needs to be conditioned to receive them.Media outlets are increasingly playing on repulsion rather than on seduction — response to pleasure is too diverse while response to repulsion is the same. Anxiety gradually replaces excitement while persistent exposure to the semiotic excess of informational barrage leads to what B.C. Han calls informational fatigue syndrome (IFS), which progressively weakens our analytic capacities and monopolizes our attention. 

In our reaction to ambiguously disturbing images emerges a new category representing the repulsion we cannot resist.

Repulsion as political leverage and emergence of the emotionalized electorate

In its essence, Right-wing populist politics in Europe is not dissimilar to its American counterpart – it revolves around conservative budget spending, pseudo-Christian values, certain types of cultural iconography, and self-centered xenophobia. However, their mode of articulation cannot be more different. European right-wingers and their politics, as much as one finds them disagreeable, their delivery is coherent – they speak in meaningful sentences, their thoughts have a logically consistent flow, and address the problems of shared reality, which one might agree with or contest and argue on rational premises.

In the USA, however, shared reality no longer supports the tenets of whatever the conservatism has become, which stand in trivial conflict with facts and is rendered demonstrably false and indefensible, invalidated by the long history of failure and bankruptcy. Defense of the right-wing narratives in the USA requires the creation of an alternative universe where not only are the shared reality and observable facts ignored, but the underlying laws of economics, sociology, biology, physics, the probability, and even mathematics have to be suspended. The end effect of this environment is removal of all systems of reference where the mental instability of a single person in power easily mutates into a large-scale collective affliction with defenders and advocates of that politics turning into performance artists in a state of simulated self-induced mental illness.

In cognitive markets, where shocks amplify informational impact, the more repulsive the messengers, the easier their message penetrates the barriers erected by the compromised public immune system. Self-debasement becomes the statement of authenticity and repulsion a desirable quality.

Two examples of this mechanism at work:

Right-wing broadcasters and political consultants, which have elevated their appearances to the level of performance art, tend to wear their shirts one size smaller and buttoned up all the way to the top, so that it causes an authentic discomfort and irritation giving them a slightly deranged and agitated look, an emotion which gets transmitted to their emotionalized audience.

And speaking of undersized garments, the infamous sighting of Christy’s camel toe represents a singular example. Once seen, never forgotten, this historic picture — a visual equivalent of eating durian — cannot be accidental, despite its spontaneous appearance. Such extreme deficit of self-awareness simply does not exist (not to mention the discomfort wearing of these pants must have caused). It is not a fortuitously captured moment of leisure of the former New Jersey Governor, but a product of meticulous calculation of the teams of specialized PR consultants.

These, and other similar, images are carefully crafted so that they continue to shock, irritate, and disgust because these are addictive emotions; they provide a lifeline to the outrage conglomerate. In this way, any possible resistance of the opposition is automatically thwarted and their collaboration ensured from the outset. They have been taken hostage by this vortex of addictive repulsion. Opposition media outlets are placed in a conflicting position where their bottom-line disincentivizes resistance. As much as they would like to oppose the new ideology of repulsion, they cannot afford to wound, let alone deal a defeating blow to it – nobody would pay attention to them anymore, which would ultimately wipe out their revenues and put them out of business. This mechanism sustains otherwise lifeless and non-sustainable narratives.

The objective of politics is to never break the chain of emotions set in motion by a shock. Their synchronization has become the new way of governing and the community of emotions replaces the community of interests resulting in communism of affects[4].


[1] B. C. Han, In the Swarm: Digital Prospects, The MIT Press (2017)

[2] B. C. Han, ibid.

[3] B. C. Han, ibid.

[4] Paul Virilio, The Administration of Fear, Semiotext(e) intervention series (2012)

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