Signaling intensities instead of feelings has become a built-in setting of social media that encourages socializing through rage. For platform owners, it is a good thing, the bread and butter of business. A chapter from “Postjournalism and the death of newspapers” (2020).
In his analysis of postmodernist conditions, Frederic Jameson noted that deep feelings of modernity were replaced by intensities, as Jameson called it, following Lyotard (Jameson, 2012 , p. 414). The ‘shared with others’ emotional intensities instead of personal deep feelings became one of the defining features of postmodernism.
Jameson stated that the “autonomous bourgeois monad or ego or individual” got fragmented. This fragmentation that leads to impersonal intensities instead of personal feelings plays well with Deleuze’s concept of dividual as opposed to individual (Deleuze, 1992). The modernist integrity of individuals became deconstructed by postmodernism and disintegrated into smaller features that represent the markers of identity, such as being black or white, native or migrant, straight or gay, a gun owner or a Mac owner, etc. Unlike individuality, identity markers are not personal. They always represent belonging with a group; they are selectively shared features. But, from the postmodernist point of view, they may constitute the core of personality.
Identity markers began to usurp the larger political identifiers of the past, which signified belonging with the social strata or class without signaling about a person’s identity. Identity markers identify and prescribe individual behavior in the same way as class affiliation defined and prescribed the role of the individual in society. Both class identifiers and identity markers oversimplify and maroon multifaceted human nature in order to tie individuals to a side in the class struggle or in the identity struggle within a structure of society, pre-ordained by an ideology.
Not only is dividual a new basis for identity formation, it also brings a new framework for both social unity and personal expression. But the expression of identity, paradoxically, is not individual. It is identic, shared on the basis of identity with others who overtly stress the fact of having the same identity. The disintegration of individuality into dividuals for the purpose of identification also aligns well with McLuhan’s idea of tribalization.
The Russian national-religious ethos incited capitalizing on collective suffering, which helped socialism to spread there particularly well. The Protestant religious ethos prescribed capitalizing on individual success, which underlay Western democracies with their focus on human rights grown out of the bourgeois struggle for individual freedoms. Postmodernism and affiliated progressive movements have fused the Marxist postulation of social struggle with the bourgeois dogma of human rights into a new ethical hybrid that urges capitalizing on individual suffering.
More precisely, postmodernist progressivism encouraged capitalizing on dividual suffering, or identity suffering. Reason being that what is displayed for identification and socialization (tribalization) in the conditions of late capitalism is a group-attested suffering identity, not the intrinsically controversial multifaceted individuality.
The valorization of collective suffering or individual success reflected modernist ethics of socialism and capitalism and underlay the homogenization of society, creating room for oppression or inequality as by-products of socialism and capitalism respectively. In contrast, the valorization of identity suffering reverses homogenization and disintegrates the modernist societal structures at the cost of polarization and rage.
When the complex and contradictory individuality becomes reduced to the identity-based dividuality, former feelings become intensities, whose function is signaling rather than expressing.
The individual used to have a self and connect with others through self-expression. The identity is just an emphasized facet of the self. The identity gets expressed in prioritized displaying – signaling. Identity signaling becomes a dominant emotional function for identity recognition and acknowledgment.
As occurs within any environment flooded with signals, the overcoming of noise is the crucial factor in signal efficiency. Signals have to compete with each other and the noise. In modernist emotionality, feelings can allow themselves to be quiet and even silent. They are able to stay powerful regardless of the volume they are able to produce. Postmodernist emotionality cannot afford silent or quiet emotional signaling – it must scream. Perhaps this is the way to tell feelings from intensities: feelings can be powerful without being loud, but intensities cannot. Intensities are destined for the signaling of expected features to others, not expressing the complexity of self.
Exaggerated emotional signaling – Jameson-Lyotard’s “intensities” – is one of the defining features of postmodernism.
The fragmentation of individuality down to identity markers caused a change in the kind of energy that fuels political activity. When the individual was at the center of the political sphere, rational ideas used to shape ideologies and ideologies were the foundation of political activity. In the postmodernist environment, ideologies are marginalized and emotions command the expression of the political.
It is becoming harder to define what ideology underlies the political stances of the left and the right in the postmodernist environment. But the stances of the left and the right can be sufficiently described through the senses of grievance and resentment respectively. Thus, intensities become a means of political struggle. Political activity has moved from debate towards rituals, the main form of which is signaling about opposing or endorsing a matter.
Fredric Jameson foresaw this move from rationality to emotionality and from feelings to intensities when he observed “a peculiar kind of euphoria”, “something like a camp or ‘hysterical’ sublime” (Ibid., p. 423) as essential manifestations of postmodernism.
Intensities and intensities’ signaling are important features of a connected and polarized environment with users’ permanent response-seeking. Social media fits this postmodernist setting the most readily. Jameson explored the phenomenon of intensities instead of feelings mostly in the field of the arts. Social media emerged just at the right historical moment. They create a perfect environment for the usualization of postmodernist features, including intensities and intensities’ signaling. Connected and polarized people display their identity markers as a form of currency for earning social capital; and since many compete in signaling, the overt noise makes them signal louder.
Another factor in intensities’ intensification on social media is the fact that social media allow people to freely express what is suppressed in the mainstream media intensities. Suppressed intensity is released with additional force into the rarified atmosphere of social media. The pressure difference amplifies agenda-setting polarization between old media and new media.
Polarized agendas make their way onto social media for further circulation and additionally increase rage and political polarization. For the majority on social media, as Martin Gurri noticed, “rage really is a rhetorical convention, like sonnet-writing for Elizabethan gentlemen.” He wrote:
Does the digital environment incentivize the rant? It would appear to do so. Amid the infernal howl of hundreds of millions of voices, you need to scream just to be heard. If you can also arouse a primal emotion like anger, you will attract more attention and so rise above other screamers.
Yes, in a crowded information environment, potent emotions are needed to give traction to any message. But why is rage the default? Ranters in their virtual war-bands are nothing like factory workers in Victorian England or black civil rights militants in the 1960s. They aren’t oppressed or marginalized. On the contrary, as a class they tend to be affluent, hyper-educated, and savvy in the ways of the web. They have few obvious reasons to be angry and can exploit different emotive techniques for their purposes.
Gurri’s search for the motives behind rage on social media was not without reason. These motives are obviously not social or economic. They are predefined by the postmodernist fragmentation of individuality right down to the identity markers and then by the necessity to communicate identity markers through intensities’ signaling for the sake of better socializing. Paradoxically, the social media environment has built-in settings that encourage socializing through rage. This is something normally unacceptable and strategically disadvantageous in offline social communication. Offline, rage would result, among other things, in physical consequences that correct behavior through the sensorium. But on social media, particularly those with a short form of literacy, like Twitter, rage is not risky and can be beneficial.
These social networks’ settings pose a bigger danger than social media’s usual suspects, such as trolls, bots, disinformation or fake news, to which people are either hardly susceptible or able to eventually develop immunity. The environmental demand for the amplification of intensities’ signaling is not received as a negative factor on social media. It entails neither repelling nor immunity; on the contrary, it stimulates engagement. For platform owners, it is a good thing, the bread and butter of business. The amplification of intensities’ signaling can only be condemned at the level of rational analysis. This is as if the air was both needed for breathing and toxic at the same time. The social media settings of signal intensification are both virally productive and socially toxic, as they enhance engagement but amplify rage and polarization.
Postjournalism has its own reason to join the shift from rationality to emotionality and peddling intensities’ signaling up to the hysterical sublime. If the media solicit for donation, they need to promote a donatable cause. Not only do they seek engagement and loyalty from the audience, they themselves also need to demonstrate loyalty and engagement. Impartiality will not succeed in soliciting for donations. The media have to proactively and intensively signal their endorsing or opposing stances. Emotional signaling becomes an important feature of the business plan, gradually suppressing the rational substantiations of why the cause endorsed is noble. Soliciting should be persuasive and provable.
Technically, the rationale behind the cause is no longer needed if the media is savvy enough to merely find the right donatable cause and the right donating audience. Rationality is not in the compulsory program of journalism – intensities’ signaling is.
Another intensifier of intensities’ signaling in the media is competition, which, again, creates noise and the necessity for this noise to be overcome. The news media have joined the same noise race that social media are in.
Intensities’ signaling is maintained even more so by the fear of negative feedback from the donating audience. Herman and Chomsky identified flak also as an emotional regulator of their Propaganda model. “Flak will tend to press the media to greater hysteria in the face of enemy evil,” they wrote (2002 , p. 34).
Indeed, the flak of the donating audience does not bother as much with fact-checking as it does with purity-testing. Orwell’s Two Minutes Hate was a daily rite not so much for informing about the enemy, but for checking the fidelity of followers through observing whether they express their hate loudly enough.
Postjournalism, therefore, makes its own specific contribution to hyping postmodernist intensities and the hysterical sublime. Different aspects of postjournalism reinforce each other: the commodification of intensities aligns its ‘efforts’ with the work of negativity bias, flak, polarization, and activism of the media.
More on the state of the arts:
 Gurri, Martin. (2020, May 26). “The way out of post-truth.” The Bridge. Merkatus Center at George Mason University. https://www.mercatus.org/bridge/commentary/way-out-post-truth