publication (book review): pettman’s "infinite distraction"

I have just had a book review published in Theoria: A Journal of Social and Political Theory. I reviewed Dominic Pettman’s recently released interesting text, Infinite Distraction: Paying Attention to Social Media, published by Polity Press. The book is another attempt within contemporary social and cultural theory to consider what we might think and about what we might do in relation to our contemporary algorithmic entanglement with digital technologies.

The full reference is as-follows:

Heaney, Conor, ‘Pettman, Dominic, Infinite Distraction: Paying Attention to Social Media. Cambridge: Polity, 2016’, Theoria: A Journal of Social and Political Theory, 63, 1 (2016),  75-77

Click here to download the book review. 

the ‘happiness industry’ and hope

The Twitter campaign conducted by Verso that surrounded the publication of William Davies’s The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being earlier this year was unsurprising but nonetheless interesting. The campaign crowd-sourced the generation of publicity for the book by finding images which commodified happiness, by finding advertisements which reduced happiness to consumption. It was an ironic method for advertising a book whose central topic is how contemporary capitalism is a mode of (though Davies does not use this term) affective governance. How contemporary capitalism, this is to say, is just not a set of economic arrangements (if it ever were), but rather is a set of social mechanisms bound up with the pleasure and pain of its subjects. Davies targets, precisely, the ‘entangling of hope and joy within infrastructures of measurement, surveillance and government’ (p. 7).

The leaps of contemporary technology in developing mechanisms for measuring ‘happiness’ and the development of techniques designed in order to manage ‘unhappiness’ are read, by Davies, as part of a broader strategy of management and control, a broader strategy which effaces the question of structural conditions of such unhappiness, depression, anxiety, and so on:

‘If a certain physical context (such as work or poverty) is causing pain, one progressive route would involve changing that context. But another equivalent would be to focus on changing the way in which it is experienced.’ (p. 35).

Modern capitalism opts decisively for the latter: governing how the context is experienced rather than the context of experience, enabling a continuation and deepening of extant power relations. This, rightly, isn’t treated as a particularly novel method of governance by Davies, but is identified as altering in light of contemporary technologies.

What the reading Davies forwards is summed up most concretely by the example of the recent surge in mindfulness. Not only can capitalism, it seems, exploit and push bodies to their material limits, but a mindful capitalism ensures that we are happy with this condition. The point is, of course, cynical. It also runs the risk of trivialising those experiences of anxiety and depression and the way in which many have found those techniques (whether they be therapy, ‘mindfulness’, medication, and so on) beneficial or indeed essential. Davies assures us he doesn’t wish to commit such a trivialisation (p. 7), but wants instead to focus on the ways in which contemporary mental health conditions are part of the capitalist infrastructure, and how pathologising and individualising the expressions of these conditions serve to render invisible the structural conditions of contemporary experiences of anxiety, depression, and so forth. So, as well as governing our experiences of unhappiness, capitalism generates much of its apparent opposite both among the precariat, and among those who internalise those competitive-materialist values (p. 253).

The message of the book is a cynical one. Davies is not so much against happiness as against a social context which generates unhappiness and commodifies and exploits attempted escapes from this unhappiness. It ends, nonetheless, with a message of hope (p. 276) which reads more like a desperate, pessimistic plea than a rousing call. He wants us to turn our critique outward at those conditions, rather than inward, and appears in many ways to echo John Stuart Mill’s infamous elitist claim that ‘It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.’ Nonetheless, it is difficult to disagree with Davies’s basic diagnosis. (Though his historical genealogy of the entanglement of the ‘science of happiness’ with Enlightenment was perhaps too condensed, effacing, for no obvious reason, the rich resources available in a more detailed and longer history might have offered, looking at, for example, the history of Christianity.) However, the thesis of hope and outward critique remains as-yet undeveloped. To put this another way: the task of outward critique is only beginning, we can’t start with hope, we have to create it. Not easy.


Davies, William, The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being (London: Verso, 2015)