Digital Excess: Community, Transgression, and Symbolic Exchange in Anonymous Online Spaces via B.R. Yeager’s Amygdalatropolis (MVU Press 2021)

This work originally appears in MVU PressPlutonics Journal Volume :(::) — I highly recommend you check it out there, not only because it’s more aesthetically pleasing but because so much other great work appears alongside it.

In his 1987 work The Ecstasy of Communication Jean Baudrillard surveys the rise of an increasingly information based culture in which emergent communication technologies drastically reshape our relationship to the world. Though written well before the mass proliferation of the internet, in this work he anticipates a digitized, networked culture in which “each individual sees himself promoted to the controls of a hypothetical machine, isolated in a position of perfect sovereignty, at an infinite distance from his original universe” (Baudrillard, 22). The personal computer would of course come to fulfill this role, with its increasingly miniaturized, integrated iterations becoming more and more determinant of both our personal and interpersonal lives. The gritty world of reality, in contrast to this digital landscape, he says,  “appears as a large, futile, body… whose very expanse is unnecessary” (ibid., 24). The computer, then, supersedes the car as our preferred vehicle with which we navigate unexplored terrain— a sterilized interface to functionally endless novelty.

Baudrillard characterizes emergent hyper-networked culture as “ecstatic,” defining ecstasy here as “all functions abolished into one dimension, the dimension of communication” (ibid., 23). He continues: “All events, all spaces, all memories are abolished in the sole dimension of information” (ibid., 28). Our modern conception of “content”—  the catch all term for the immaterial, consumable entertainment and media designed and marketed for consumption— comes to mind here. Content, in its most fundamental form, is organized, mediated information. In this deluge of information, Baudrillard anticipated our culture trending toward fascination with games of chance. All content is “new” because all content is unique, even identical reproductions (the meanings of which vary constantly in each new context). And because of the overwhelming diversity of information we’re exposed to, we’re attuned to the gambling mechanism of sifting, hoping for diamonds in the rough. A concentrated format of this— a string of spectacles, a “feed”— appears in various iterations throughout our culture. It’s the engine of social, news, and entertainment media, as well as the imageboard-style forum, the font of digital ecstasies to which the protagonist of B.R. Yeager’s Amygdalatropolis, a self-hating, alienated, desensitized and hypersexual young man, is bound. 

In Yeager’s Amygdalatropolis, /1404er/, the protagonist’s pseudonym and only revealed name, spends nearly every waking moment monitoring /1404/, the anonymous imageboard from which he and all other users get their name. The imageboard is a constantly refreshing string of posts— a recurring game of chance, a gamble of attention in search of satisfying content. /1404/ (and the real life 4chan-style counterparts it’s based on) is at its heart a stripped down social media platform— specifically a non-algorithmic proto-social media platform— with the critical distinction of total anonymity. Amygdalatropolis is a character study, but /1404er/’s identity is so inextricable from the hivemind of the imageboard that it’s simultaneously a study of the culture itself.

The computer, for Yeager’s “no-lifer” protagonist above all, functions as an extension of the self, but an idyllic one beyond the restraints of the cosmically unfair genetic lottery and behind the clean, safe slate of anonymity. Yet it also functions as a savior; savior from boredom, from loneliness, from alienation, from anxiety, from society, and from expectations. An effectively endless, constant feed cyclically creating and satiating the ever-evolving desires of the culture, which serves as a constant backdrop to the drama of /1404er/’s life. The social minus society. A portal to the taboo, the unknown thrills of that which, even in a society that champions liberty and freedom above all else, is spoken in hushed tones and relegated to the dregs and fringes. 

Analogous to our obsession with novelty is our fascination with current events, unfolding and developing in real time where anything might happen. The fascination with this aleatory mechanism was first made privately accessible in the form of live television, which has since been supplanted by livestreaming and other forms of higher speed communication. This level of accessible hyperconnectivity has resulted in an explosion of real-time content to the point of being functionally infinite, now primarily in the form of social media.

Yet imageboards like /1404/ are fundamentally different from mainstream social media due to a few core defining attributes: non-algorithmic sorting, high content impermanence (posts often being deleted within minutes of stagnation), an effective lack of moderation, anonymity (as opposed to pseudonymity where users retain a “sticky” identity), and the largely non-hierarchical organization of users that such anonymity entails. There is a more complex draw to this particular kind of digital space; one that, due to these idiosyncrasies, spawns a culture all its own that is hypersexual, ultra-violent, and distinctly deviant. Yet such a space simultaneously serves as a refuge from many of the oppressive notions of identity, utilitarianism and hierarchy that are part and parcel of rational capitalist society— the value of which can be best understood through the lens of Baudrillard’s Bataille-inspired concept of symbolic exchange.

Symbolic exchange is the expenditure of energies without regard for their relation to a greater utilitarian value system. They are activities of celebration, socialization, sexuality, worship, or destruction: all ends in and of themselves. Such activities derive their value from the intrinsic qualities of their exchange rather than an external value being assigned to them through a ubiquitous value signifier like money or their perceived material use value. 

This idea of symbolic exchange is Baudrillard’s extension of Georges Bataille’s conception of general economy, in which ecstatic expenditure— the expulsion of energy without regard for utilitarian notions of waste or conservation— plays a central role in a fulfilling human life. Through this lens, it is the primary end to which excess production should aspire to. Bataillean general economy rejects accumulation— whether social, cultural, financial or material— on the grounds that it’s anthropologically unnatural for humans to hoard excess goods and value to the extent normalized by Western modernity. Ultimately a radically anti-capitalist notion, it suggests the celebratory expenditure of excess, as opposed to its hoarding and repurposing toward some indeterminate future growth.

Throughout this period of his work Baudrillard studies the modern suppression of symbolic exchange, which has been superseded by conceptions of value based in materialist, capitalist notions of productivity, utility, and accumulation. These values directly oppose the constant, cyclical expulsion of excess-value that Bataille and Baudrillard insist is a predilection of humanity. In the parts of the world where these modern ideas have come to dominate, accumulation of wealth is effectively synonymous with the accumulation of power. As capital growth (financial as well as cultural and social) is largely exponential, as well as fluid and interchangeable (financial capital can be leveraged for cultural capital and vice versa), a hierarchy of power naturally develops from this logic.

Just as comedy is entertaining and often therapeutic in its subversion of power, imageboards such as /1404/ serve a similarly subversive function, but do so preemptively in that they forgo mechanisms that allow hierarchies of power to develop. There is no intention of value accumulation among users because value accumulation is not possible— the board has no means to record or assign value to distinct users. Posts are transient, and the author’s death precedes the post’s birth. In a wholly anonymous forum, as soon as the post is submitted the author is stripped of ownership, it being attributed only to /1404er/: both everyone and no one. This transience, this lack of accumulation, insists on symbolic exchange as its only value metric— drawing only those interested in this purified form of socialization, the thrill of communication.

This inability to accumulate cultural capital frees the users from the baggage of identity. There are no pretensions. Nobody is preceded by their reputation, and thus there is no celebrity, no social hierarchy determined by any kind of reputation system, credentials, titles, or preceding notions of character. The social field is effectively levelled, and users are judged on the immediate relevance and immediately determined value of their content— value that is calculated democratically and only through actual responses, a much more satisfying metric than the comparatively meaningless “like” count that pervades dominant forms of social media.

This kind of digital social space fulfills a similar role previously relegated to concrete social institutions— precursors described and analyzed by Ray Oldenburg in his 1989 book The Great Good Place. In this book Oldenburg examines the cultural importance of public social places, which he refers to as “third places,” in fostering feelings of community and satisfying social life. The logic of this nomenclature is that your places— your first and second places being your home and job respectively— are ordered according to where the majority of your time is spent. The crucial distinction of the third place, however, is that it exists beyond the pretensions of the household familial dynamics of the first place as well as the job-status hierarchy and professionalism of the second place. As a result, the third place is a comparatively liberated environment with a more equitable social dynamic. 

Unsurprisingly, Oldenburg observes throughout the book that public social gathering has been on the decline as in-home entertainment took hold over the second half of the 20th century, a trend which has only continued to accelerate through the 21st century. And while the internet in many ways supplants this idea of the third place, it of course has its own distinct social limitations. While Oldenburg’s third place is community oriented and therefore localized, in-person and conducive to empathetic socialization, the internet forum spans the entirety of the networked world. While this has a vaguely utopian implication of global connectedness, the conditions and limitations of a purely electronic community forgo intimacies and social accountability that are arguably fundamental to building healthy interpersonal relationships and communities. 

The anonymous image-board takes this a step further as identity wholly ceases to be a factor, and mass communication happens at previously unthinkable speeds. Marshall McLuhan’s ‘the medium is the message’ is particularly applicable in such a space: Where all voices are equal and constantly vying for attention, the primary incentives are to impress or transgress: sexually, violently, intellectually— ideally a combination of the three. And as this atmosphere of transgression becomes the definitive feature of the board, the expectations of the users and what content is determined “valuable” through engagement effectively curates what content is visible (as each engagement re-asserts the posts position at the top of the feed) perpetuates the prevailing deviance.

As a result, only the most extreme ideas proliferate in the absence of otherwise-pervasive cultural norms: limitations imposed on the transgressive thinker dissolve, as do the taboos on sexual deviancy and violence. If the user’s goal is interaction (the only local currency), they are heavily incentivized here to appeal to extremes. The anonymous (again, as distinct from pseudonymous) forum fosters this strangely utopian sense of equality of identity through total anonymity, but this lack of social responsibility is haunted by our instincts toward violent animal impulse, which is exacerbated by the board’s singular implicit law of organization and visibility based on engagement. 

Thus the imageboard is many things. It’s a utopian third place divorced from the impositions of capitalist exchange in favor of an ecstatic form of symbolic exchange. It’s a Borgesian Aleph that fascinates and engrosses the user, as epitomized by Yeager’s /1404er/, whose mind is slowly consumed, warped and in the end effectively destroyed by an endless cycle of desensitization, transgression, and alienation from the reality that surrounds him. It’s a medium that drastically shapes its message, which is ultimately, for better or worse, one of liberation.But for all their sensational deviancy, these spaces can only be fully understood if we account for their seduction as highly dynamic sociocultural refuges. Complex digital spaces like the one central to Yeager’s Amygdalatropolis offer appealingly subversive ways of existing within a sociopolitical system and mitigate its more oppressive characteristics. Such spaces allow users to temporarily, perhaps even therapeutically, shed the self and all the baggage identity entails in order to communicate in a newfound state of relative equality. If we accept Baudrillard and Bataille’s theses that symbolic exchange is a definitive feature of meaningful human socialization, any space that insists upon it as these forums do must be acknowledged as having some crucial cultural value. And the culture speaks for itself: such places, in a variety of iterations, have only grown in popularity since their inception, continually proving that this medium is distinctly sought after as a form of alternative socialization and cultural production.

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Bibliography

Baudrillard, Jean. The Ecstasy of Communication. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), [1987] 2012. 

Oldenburg, Ray. The Great Good Place. Philadelphia: Da Capo Press, [1989] 1999.

Yeager, B.R. Amygdalatropolis. London: Schism2 Press, 2017.

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