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Subaltern, Supraaltern, and the Digitally Grievable Life

This paper explores some of the contradictions within the paradigm of platform capitalism viewed through the lens of grief, mourning, and lament, bringing together Derrida, Butler, and Spivak, as well as the phenomena of content moderation, influencers, and crowdfunding. (Draft)

Published onApr 20, 2021
Subaltern, Supraaltern, and the Digitally Grievable Life
[Disclaimer: This is a draft, please find a diagram of its intented structure at the end]

1. Introduction: Mourning (on) the Platform

The main idea behind this paper is to view the paradigm of digitalization in its current stage through a lens which has itself come into focus due to the COVID-19 pandemic: the phenomena of grief and mourning.

I try to show how grief can be utilized as a hermeneutical device for analyzing some of the more fundamental contradictions of digitalization and social media. In order to do so, two different ideas of mourning - those of Jacques Derrida and Judith Butler - are being triangulated with Gayatri Spivak's theory of subalternity, which I am going to extend with the idea of supraalternity, using concepts from social psychology, Lacan and Baudrillard.

The core hypothesis of this paper is that the division of hidden labor and hypervisibilty between subalternity and supraalternity ultimately prevents socially and politically relevant forms of mourning from happening.

I will use a number of examples from digital platform infrastructure in order to conclude with the question whether lament is a useful starting point for necessary changes of platform capitalism and the discourse it enables and incentivizes.


This paper includes a number of terminological idiosyncracies for which I couldn't find a better place in the flow of the text, which is why I want to get them out of the way here.

First of all, I will refer to the whole of public discussion, social communication, hobby forums, or the sharing of cat pictures as "The Discourse". In fact, anything other than private peer-to-peer exchange, anything which could, potentially "go viral", or be the occasion of a "shitstorm", will be called The Discourse in capital letters within the confines of this paper. This special formatting shall not only indicate my divergent use of the term, but also that I have little use for a more differentiating definition of The Discourse, or what it actually is or wants to be, other than the "foam" connecting and separating all "bubbles". Instead, I am going to trust that anybody using the web and social media in particular, shares some overlap in his intuition with those of others.

Secondly, I am going to speak of "platform capitalism"1 as the current stage of digitalization, which is dominated by the oligopoly of the very visible GAFAM group (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft) plus their almost completely hidden army of subcontractors.2

Third, this paper will introduce semantic differences between the synonyms "work" and "labor", as well as between "grief" and "mourning", which will be introduced and explained later.

2. Mourning with Derrida

Throughout a number of his works, Jacques Derrida provides a fragmented and distributed theory of mourning, which he always views as originary, as something so fundamental it is always present, and not dependent on the actual experience of loss. Such mourning is, just to give one example, the unspoken implication of friendship since every friendship implies the possibility that one will survive the other. In his book about Paul de Man, Derrida deconstructs especially Freud's theory of the "work of mourning", a concept he takes up again in Specters of Marx, where he also adds the notion of traces and mediality. I want to bring these two aspects into focus here.

"Every trace is in essence testamentary - which has always haunted me."3 Gestures, inscriptions, texts, names, are for Derrida traces testifying to their authors or originators. But they do so neither accidentally, nor disambiguated. Traces, Derrida claims, are as per their ontological structure representations of survival. They survive their authors even if those are still biologically alive by bearing witness to them, but also by being independent and functioning autonomously from them. It would be a misunderstanding to view this as some kind of mysticism about life or death - or as dependent on either of them. Derrida calls it a "rigorously originary dimension" that is "not derived from either living or dying"4.

The concept of trace is instead closely related to that third category of the spectral. Derrida famously coins the term "hauntology"5 for this theory, in which traces are phenomena linking absence and presence, being and non-being without being supplements or effects of either. Connected to the idea of the testimentary, the ontological-hauntological structure of the trace is "originary mourning"6, a mourning that is always already there, present, even when no actual loss can be grieved yet.

I'd like to interject here the thought that the COVID-19 pandemic is perhaps the first event in which almost the whole globe constantly produces data - and, thus, traces - which are necessary for their tracking the pandemic in nearly realtime, for collaborating online from a chair in an home office, and so on. The negative side of this is that many of these traces remain without enough interpretative context, sparking conspiracy thinking and the "infodemic". And of course, the mass death the pandemic has caused also leaves us with myriads of traces which are not only structurally testamentary, but pertain to the deaths of actual individuals.

A large number of digital or media projects tries to somehow deal with this overwhelming mass not only of data, but of traces. Accounts on Instragram and Twitter try to turn mere names and data points into biographical stories, pages on Facebook and videos on youtube bear witness to the wish of sharing grief. Derrida writes

Mourning always follows a trauma. I have tried to show elsewhere that the work of mourning is not one kind of work among others. It is work itself, work in general, the trait by means of which one ought perhaps to reconsider the very concept of production - in what links it to trauma, to mourning, to the idealizing iterability of exappropriation, thus to the spectral spiritualization that is at work in any tekhne.

The relevant term here is tekhne. Mourning is work, but as "work itself", it is dependent on a reduction of other functions. This is the knowledge-how of mourning, its tekhne. Mourning takes time, energy, and ressources. It wastes these without delivering a "product" in the end. One infrastructural problem is that from their inception, computers themselves and the internet have been designed to be "universal machines", multitasking machines, who offer only a single function. Another infrastructural problem is that of location: where are those who mourn? Is it possible, during a global pandemic, to get together to a tekhne of mourning which does not result in just displaying episteme - "yes, we know who died, the names and number are right here"?

Would such a tekhne be globally available and would, therefore, mourning be "equally distributed" within a global community? I would like to ask: what happens if we look at it from another direction? Is there a global, equally shared, idea of "work in general"? Who experiences pure work and where?

3. The Underbelly of the Paradigm: Effortlessness

Since its beginnings, the "age of the computer" or later the "information super highway" have invoked powerful metaphors of non-work - at least for the much courted audience of the "non-nerd" user.7

The central idea that "information" is "at your fingertips", just the push of a button, the click on a hashtag away - that it could be yours - is one of technological romanticism. The first stage in this romantic journey entails that you can benefit from "being connected" to a "higher intelligence" which means a reduction of workload for yourself.

Figure 1

CompuServe Advertisement in an early computer magazine.

But the journey doesn't stop here. The second step is that you don't have to look at the machine doing the work for you, you are relieved of the whole idea of work as such. And instead of transparent machinery, things "just work seamlessly"8


This pertains to what I believe is especially the Apple-ization of the digital era. Whereas other companies and vendors proudly presented their products as pragmatic, hardworking and as "doing the heavy lifting", Apple went to greater lengths than anybody else to hide the work that went into the perceived effortlessness on the end of the user.

Figure 2

Early Apple advertisement.

In fact, the brand actively distinguished itself from other machines designed for work as opposed to their products wich just work.

Complete 66 Mac vs PC ads + Mac & PC WWDC Intro + Siri Intro

Of course, Apple is just one example and stands for many companies following the same strategy. One could argue that the whole development of cloud computing and of SaaS is not only about reducing costs for running and maintaining own servers and software, but also to ease the minds of employees overwhelmed with running and maintaining the company's hardware on their own.

But of course, the aspect of work as a consumption of time, energy, resources, and "human capital" is not gone just because it has been veiled. One could argue that it is exactly because of this veiling that work in the context of digitalization has been moved to the unconsciousness of the collective and is consequently being put to work even more lavishly and excessively.9

In fact, the effortlessness of the "simultaneity of all functions"10 from accessing photos of relatives to watching a video to ordering food or a car ride produces expectations on the side of the consumer which are unrealistic if you account for the aspect of work. These expectations thus give rise to increasingly radical and radically alienating forms of labor wherein laborers are reduced to a subset of functions. The gig economy (Uber, Lyft, AirBnB, DoorDash, Deliveroo, and so on) is full of such examples, which become even more prominent in the gig and microtask economies11, in adult content subsciption services12, and in fraudulent click farms.13

Figure 3

Woman working in a click farm

With the hiddenness and intransparency of work in the digital realm, we might be witnessing a spillover effect where consumers are so used to instantaneous availability they are no longer comparing the virtual world to the real world, but rather physical space to cyberspace. (We should ask ourselves if we have more in common with the child standing at the window, trying to "zoom in" to the bird behind it, than we think.)

We've come to expect things to "just work seamlessly", which - in my view - is one central aspect of the unspoken justifications of the (otherwise ethically hard to defend) forms of gig economy. But it is the very absence of effort, if we follow Derrida, which marks the exact opposite of mourning. A system designed for avoiding effort and alleviating the need to toil for its users necessarily has to hide both, work and mourning.

This hidden work is in fact a massive part of the regular structures and dynamics of platform capitalism. This is even more true for the field of content moderation.14

4. Subaltern Labor Force

In 2005 Amazon started its "Mechanical Turk"15 program, the first platform for so-called mictrotasks, calling it "a global, on-demand, 24x7 workforce"16 and the idea behind it "artificial artificial intelligence"17: a term describing not only the fact that "there are still many things that human beings can do much more effectively, such as moderating content (…)"18, but also implying that the result should, in fact, "feel like" the work of a computer, of artificial intelligence, or an algorithm (although a highly evolved one with "collective intelligence, skills, and insights").

Figure 4

Screenshot of the landing page of

Derrida writes:

Work: that which makes for a work, for an oeuvre, indeed that which works-and works to open: opus and opening, oeuvre and overture: the work or labor of the oeuvre insofar as it engenders, produces, and brings to light, but also labor or travail as suffering, as the enduring of force (…).19

For an approach to the ramifications of content moderation, I want to introduce a terminological difference between productive work, which "brings to light", and labor as "suffering, as the enduring of force", but with an even more pronounced opposition to the idea of production as "opening". I want to understand labor as hidden, concealed, as too small to notice, or too volatile to take seriously: "mictrotasks" and "gig work/economy"20. Labor is instead ultimately alienating work, not only because there is a distance between the laborer and "their" work, their product. But rather because its inherent goal is that no product whatsoever should and can exist in the end, and that the whole process which is needed to produce "nothing" has to be necessarily occluded and concealed, because any trace of work happening would lead the observer to infer the presence of a result, a product. The microtask labor force, is, in the terminology of Derrida, a spectral phenomenon: "ghost workers"21. This intentional invisible is an observation also made in other studies22 independently of Derrida's concept: "Ghost work marks the irony of doing a form of labor that is at the same time increasingly prevalent, but hidden away from view. In today’s growing gig economy ghost workers sell their labor as tasks or services in platform-based marketplaces."23

The structure of labor as opposed to work is thus hauntologically charged as invisible and pure work, something it has in common with, again, Derrida's concept of mourning: "Mourning always follows a trauma. I have tried to show elsewhere that the work of mourning is not one kind of work among others. It is work itself, work in general, the trait by means of which one ought perhaps to reconsider the very concept of production"24 What makes labor here different from mourning is the aspect of intentionality and profit. Labor is not just invisible, it is intentionally concealed and occluded for the benefit of those running the platform.25

The spread of hateful, abusive, illegal or copyrighted content is as old as the web itself. But in recent years with live-streamed killing sprees and their imitators, with the spread of fake news and astroturfing, with conspiracy cults like QAnon quickly radicalizing people, the problem has long become important enough to hold social media corporations accountable. And with the COVID-19 pandemic, the secondary problem of an outright "infodemic" was apparent already from the beginning, and has already become official disease-related terminology26.

The quickly growing market dealing with these issues is the area of "content moderation", which means the manual intervention of laborers into the flow of information on digital platforms, aided by algorithms and user reports.27 Content moderation has become an almost ubiquitous phenomenon of this stage of digitalization, which might be best described as "platform capitalism"28, a digital infrastructure providing "platforms", which can be anything from search engines to marketplaces, from media streaming to fitness apps, from dating sites to social media. These services are in turn also dependend on different other platforms for their functional infrastructure.29 It is estimated that in 2027, the market for content moderation will reach a volume of almost $12 billion.

Figure 5

Source: CNBC

For the purposes of this paper, I want to focus only on content moderation of social media platforms like Facebook, Instragram, Youtube, TikTok, Twitter, Reddit, or Snapchat.

Most of these platforms give little to no actual numbers on how many people they employ as moderators, nor any statistics on what kind of content they are mostly removing. However, it is public knowledge, that they all heavily rely on subcontractors primarily located in the Global South who do the majority of content moderation, and who paid significantly less that regular employees of the platform.

Figure 6

Source: CNBC

But what is more important: the psychological side-effects and long-term collateral damage30 of doing content moderation labor are not being compensated or even recognized and accounted for, which is the only reason this labor is - despite the large costs for the platforms themselves - comparably cheap. However, these costs are going to increase, because with better connectivity, content moderation will have to supervise audio and video live streams (on growing apps like Twitch or Clubhouse).31

There are a small number of documentaries on content moderation available, but The Cleaners32 from 2018 is perhaps the most significant.33 In this and other documentaries, the people interviewed are severely mentally affected by their job. They have to fulfill quotas of 20.000 pictures per day, giving them 8 seconds per image. These contain nudity and violence, but also deaths and executions, animal cruelty, child abuse and suicides.

Figure 7

The Cleaners (2018)

The moderators cannot have more than three classification mistakes per month, and they internalize the message that their work is indispensable, without any alternative, and of ultimate importance as literally the survival of a society or humanity as a whole depend on it.

"I find my work morally important. I'm filtering videos so others don't have to watch them"34

Figure 8

The Cleaners (2018)

It is this dialectic of utmost importance and complete invisibility which interests me, in combination with what Gayatri Spivak calls the "international division of labor": "The contemporary international division of labor is a displacement of the divided field of nineteenth-century territorial imperialism. Put simply, a group of countries, generally first-world, are in the position of investing capital; another group, generally third-world, provide the field for investment (…) through their ill-protected and shifting labor force."35

For Spivak, the colonial frame remains intact in postcolonial context through globalized capitalism and the lack of political will to intervene on both sides. Mary Gray and Siddharth Suri call the offshoring of content moderation a "New Global Underclass"36, but I believe that Spivak's concept of the subaltern comes closest to describing this level of disenfranchisement.

The globalized digital world certainly - and against the original intentions of the creators of the internet - produces hierarchies. These hierarchies are also paralleled and represented on social media platforms. But since all members of these hierarchies are, in fact, participants in The Discourse, even those less privileged are, in Spivak's terminology, not subaltern, but the opposition to the privileged hegemony. Subalternity is by contrast marked by a fundamental inability to "speak", or to "be heard" without ambiguity by The Discourse.37 I believe that it is the intentional, profitable concealment, enabled by nondisclosure agreements, offshoring, and the convenience of users in the Global North, which goes even beyond Spivak's view of subalternity.

The disenfranchisement of content moderators goes beyond what she renders as the condition of subalternity as outside the already asymmetrical exchange between hegemonial and oppositional powers within colonial and postcolonial societies. It is not only the case that the subaltern labor force has no means of "participating" in The Discourse without getting fired or into leagle trouble. No, the final irony here is that if you were to discuss the fate of content moderators within The Discourse - or if they were to raise their own voices and testify to their labor conditions - they themselves would have to moderate even this debate, thus only adding to their burden.

Any broader discussion or outrage would end up in a recursive loop, which is the possible maximum of subalternity. It is not just that content moderaters deal with traumatic, lamentable images and mental fallout every day, their labor is "algorithmic", reduced to seeing, judging, and clicking. The euphemism of "artificial artificial intelligence" leaves little doubt: not the computer is an extension of the human individual, but the other way round, implying highly monotonous yet indispensable, heroic labor: unbearably abstract and at the same time unbearably concrete.

But most importantly: the recursivity of The Discourse robs them structurally of their voice. There is no #hashtagstoo hashtag and there most likely cannot be one within platform capitalism. Their grievances remain fundamentally ungrievable.

But we would miss the point of this paper if we left it here. Mourning and work are intertwined, but so are images and grievability, as well as subalternity and supraalternity.

5. Grieving with Butler

In Simulacra and Simulation, Jean Baudrillard coins the expression "a hyperreality, a simultaneity of all the functions, without a past, without a future"38. Without diving deeper into Baudrillard's theory of mass media, I want to take the idea of the simultaneity of all functions as perhaps the central element of platform capitalism, or perhaps more precisely: as the central element of the frame in which platform capitalism operates.

Figure 9

CompuServe Advertisement in an early computer magazine.

"Someday, in the comfort of your home, you'll be able to…". (Notice how in this advertisement not only any notion of work is absent, but also also the future is "bright" to the point of being contourless and sterile.) This utopian promise, which is now an everyday expectation, or rather mundane givenness of "simultaneity" is a tacit, implicit framing somewhere between convenience and consumerism, but also between carelessness - regarding our own privacy and data autonomy, as well as carelessness about "how it all works". We seem to simply assume that the effortlessness we experience is somehow a universal feature of digitalization. This frame is the whole modus operandi of the current stage of digitalization, of platform capitalism, and it is due to and within this frame (which we all support) that subalternity is not only accepted, but the subaltern labor force of ghost workers is summoned, conjured. The offers of absolute simultaneity are only accessible thanks to artificial artificial intelligence.

Social media platforms have this inherent tendency to be not just one offer among many, but to become themselves manifestations of this very simultaneity, delivering "everything but the kitchen sink".39 Over time, almost all major platforms acquire new features for creating, connecting, presenting, and sharing content. However, all of them seem to converge on similar sets of functions. For the last decade or so, this has been pictures and videos, whereas the next decade might be dominated by video live streams. In any case, the paradigm of visuality is not going to disappear.

In her book Frames of War, Judith Butler discusses the implications of a media heavily reliant on and uncritically trusting of images (and therefore also their frames). Butler quotes Susan Sontag's statement "Photographs state the innocence, the vulnerability of lives heading toward their own destruction, and this link between photography and death haunts all photographs of people."40 Even though neither Sontag nor Butler refer to him, this thought is very similar to Derrida's notion of the testamentarity of the trace.

In fact, if we combine our thoughts on the testamentarity of the trace and the enormous amounts of data generated by and with the resources of digitalization, which have again been much more concentrated during the Corona pandemic, we are looking at an incomprehensible amount of traces - most of them of a visual nature - all containing trace amounts of mourning. We have already discussed how subaltern and quasi-colonial content moderation is tasked with the aspect of Derrida's "work in general". But the other aspect of grief - the question of grievability - the implications of these quantities of visual traces have not yet been brought into focus.

I believe that Butler's discussion of frames and framing, especially regarding photography, can provide a good approach to these issues. I think it is justified to state that with still fast growing amounts of pictures taken each year, what really is being established apart from visual fashions such as grammars, styles, color palettes, filter effects and so on, are "fields of perceptible reality"41, which, in turn, inform all framings.

Butler writes: "whether and how we respond to the suffering of others, how we formulate moral criticisms, how we articulate political analyses, depends upon a certain field of perceptible reality having already been established."42

The pictures from Abu Ghraib, taken seven years before the widespread of smartphones, but during a point in time where digital cameras were already cheap and ubiquitous, have a selfie-like quality to them. The smiling faces and thumbs-up gestures next to tortured or dead bodies establish a frame containing clear statements and judgments on the (un)grievability of them. But even more is going on - back then and even more so today.

If we accept that (theory-informing) visuality increasingly cannot but look at the "big picture", which means: at no single one picture, but at pictures as a statistical factor, we might arrive at the conclusion that this meta picture still comes with a frame.

This frame is not only defined by fashions or the fact that there are selfie sticks or emoji filters in the picture, but also by the absence of the millions of moderated pictures, as well as the gravity of the supraaltern as regular objects within the frame. They define the lower and upper bounds of what can be shown or shared. This shared frame is the result of billions of decisions about grievability, made both within The Discourse and outside of it, and it tacitly reiterates these decisions.

And another aspect is part of this shared frame. The "innocence of lives heading toward their own destruction" present in photos of people has become mainly ungrievable due to the sheer quantity of pictures taken each second. And, ironically, even in cases of actual, pictured destruction, any grievability is inverted by a twisted version of the "work of mourning". The split-second decisions of content moderators are indeed "work in general". But beyond that, they have nothing to do with mourning. Their labor aims at causing absences, it is without a "work", without any product or archive. In the documentaries mentioned earlier, most moderators said they don't remember anything besides those few images they cannot stop to remember, which is an almost clinical description of trauma. In this sense, the myriad visual traces of platform capitalism, have traded their testimentary for a traumatic dimension.

Figure 10

The Cleaners (2018)

Judith Butler, who doesn't talk about trillions of photographs but maybe dozens, remains cautiously optimistic:

"to call the frame into question is to show that the frame never quite contained the scene it was meant to limn, that something was already outside, which made the very sense of the inside possible, recognizable. The frame never quite determined precisely what it is we see, think, recognize, and apprehend. Something exceeds the frame that troubles our sense of reality; in other words, something occurs that does not conform to our established understanding of things."43

It is, at least for me, how this "self-subversive" or "self-regulating" excess of the frame can continue to function in a world where deepfakes and increasingly better artificial artificial artificial intelligence exist. For Butler, the idea of social recognition and public grievability is linked to the idea of an image as an interruption44, as something which can break out of its framing. I'd like to add that in order to do that, any image first has to break out of the shared frame as the tacit framing determining how large parts of the globe actually look at, take, and share pictures.

6. Supraaltern Enjoyment

The societal framings of which life is grievable and which is not do not only depend on censorship or guidelines for content moderators, but also beyond the other side of The Discourse: the supraaltern. But before we can give a definition of supraalternity, I want to recapitulate one important point.

Grief or mourning cannot exist within the simultaneity of all functions, it is not an option to choose from, or an offer you "have access to". In fact, grief is not only not part of this simultaneity, it is intolerant of them. Grief demands exclusivity and functionless. Yet, within the context of digitalization, a (temporary) reduction of simultaneity and the reestablishing of something like grief might be desirable for the individual. Such an reestablishing of mourning has, however and more importantly, social functions and effects. Contrary to both, the popular panopticon metaphor where everybody watches and performs for everybody else, and to Butler, who believes that basic forms of solidarity depend on the common experience of loss, my hypothesis is that a community45 actually needs centers of gravity that reduce the simultaneity of all functions for everybody (at the same time and in similar ways). In the digital realm it is less relevant that everybody has lost somebody, grieves someone, but that everybody mourns the same person. In other words, it is not so much that the communal discourse on what is grievable informs levels of recognition communities afford individuals. Rather, the actual practice of grieving is what establishes a comunity in the first place - and questions of grievability are only later reflections. This actual grieving has to fulfill some requirements on the identity of time, reference, and even place. This function is performed by the supraaltern.

Supraalternity is the late capitalist/platform capitalist mode of celebrity, which is defined by thee characteristics. 1) Similar to the subaltern, the supraaltern cannot "participate" in The Discourse. 2) The parasocial interactions of the audience with the supraaltern revolve around grievability. 3) The justification for the status of supraalternity are largely tautological and best explained by Lacan's notion of jouissance/enjoyment.

Before the advent of platform capitalism celebrity was linked to talent and gift46. Celebrity figures would perform as actors, musicians, athletes, TV hosts, and so on, and once they had reached a certain level of popularity and recognition, they - as a less glamorous and honorable by-product of their fame - would advertise something or appear in magazines and talk shows.

These by-products seem excessive and like they would be detrimental to fame and status of a celebrity. But with Lacan's notion of enjoyment, we can argue that these excesses are vital for the experience and image of celebrity as celebrity. A "pure Artist" might, in contrast, be respected or venerated, but they probably won't be counted as a "celebrity".

Within platform capitalism, the requirements for a "celebrity" have become more complicated, which is why I won't offer a complete typology of streamers, Youtubers, or absurdist accounts on twitter. Rather, I want to focus only on the figure of the influencer47. The phenomenon of influencer is a reversal of the classic hierarchy of "claim to fame" plus capitalist enjoyment in the form of promotional work. In the case of influencers, the justification for their fame is the enjoyment of advertising.

At this point in the argument, the temptation to turn this into a general critique of digitalization and online culture ahas to be resisted. This division of labor between the subaltern and the supraaltern, as well as the resulting framing of The Discourse is ultimately not something exclusive to the digital world, even if it becomes pronounced and visible in ways it wasn't elsewhere. These developments have very little to do with the unsophisticated tastes of teenagers and other "digital natives", and a lot with capitalist structures put in place and exploited by people older and more powerful than them.

The glaring excesses of enjoyment and the tautologies of fame which make the influencer are dependent on more intensive forms of parasocial interaction. Contrary to traditional celebrity culture, parasocial interactions of and with the supraaltern are not only establishing a simulated intimacy (sharing pictures of their vegan, organic breakfast), but also occluding their extradiscoursive status by asking mundane but non-rhetorical questions and prompting their followers to comment ("where are you going for summer vacation? Tell me in the comments!"48).

We might object that all of celebrity culture depends on parasocial interaction, on the simulation of intimacy and friendship. And what home stories in magazines or advertisements where you can watch a celebrity working in their kitchen used to perform is now being done - perhaps much more effectively - by social media. And such and assessment would not be wrong at all. But I believe it would still not fully capture the shift from celebrity culture and default parasocial interaction to the implicit and explicit negotiation of grief and mourning within supraaltern imagery. Supraalternity works as a gravitational point of attention because it much more often spurs debate and discussion about them than communication with them.

They do not only "share" details about their glamorous lives, but also finely tuned incidents of negative emotions and reasons for mourning. From minor mundane inconveniences or personal "drama", to social issues and large public grievances - from disappointment to consternation, shock and outrage: the parasocial interactions of successful influencers keep up a dialectic of "grievability negotiation" between the "ostentatiously (thus obviously) good life" and parasocial expressions of grief. Especially popular is the dynamic of causing a (minor) "scandal", only to post tearful apologies afterwards.49 Another token in this currency of mourning is, for instance, the format of "helping the homeless", which consist of more than just distasteful performances of empathy. They are enacted framings of the (un)grievable life. The gravitational pull of the supraaltern, thus, lies in their mastery of parasocial mourning as the enjoyment to their originary enjoyment.

Followers and Non-Followers alike are pulled into this dynamic of mourning. They are encouraged to share and pledge loyalty via hashtags, to take sides and position themselves, and so on. We could go through a list of all forms of parasocial interaction and map them onto the different types of supraaltern persona, but this might not be the right place for it. I just want to pick out one important example which does not fall into the categories of verbality or imagery: crowdfunding. The world of (personal) crowdfunding or donation platforms is an entire microcosm of mourning on its own.

7. Unshared Frames of Lamentability

What I called The Discourse is at best a vague term, and at worst an inconsistent one. But if we focus on the aspect of exchange, we happen across a huge domain of social and parasocial exchange which is usually not associated with discursivity because it is neither verbal nor visual. I am referring to crowdfunding, especially the crowdsourcing of donations for personal issues. Personal crowdfunding platforms like, which have started out with campaigns for funding hobbies, concert tickets, or vacations, are full of pleas for donations for funeral costs, cancer treatment, morgage payments, or school pens.

The predominant negotiations of grievability are either hyper-visible in outrage, or invisible in silently grieving acceptance of the sociopolitical status quo. It is, ironically, in this realm of monetary exchange, where neither language nor speech nor images are the "key difference"50 of communication, where Derrida's extrapolation of the concept of hauntology from the constant blurring and displacement of the border between the private and the public becomes ever more relevant:

…where this frontier between the public and the private is constantly being displaced, remaining less assured than ever, as the limit that would permit one to identify the political. And if this important frontier is being displaced, it is because the medium in which it is instituted, namely, the medium of the media themselves (news, the press, telecommunications, techno-tele-discursivity, techno-tele-iconicity, that which in general assures and determines the spacing of public space, the very possibility of the res publica and the phenomenality of the political), this element itself is neither living nor dead, present nor absent: it spectralizes. It does not belong to ontology, to the discourse on the Being of beings, or to the essence of life or death. It requires, then, what we call, to save time and space rather than just to make up a word, hauntology.

What is haunted here in the example of crowdfunding, is its shared frame. GoFundMe has over the course of a few years shifted from a platform for leisure and non-essential "fun" projects to a form of privately run social security system or welfare regime. Which is probably the maximum of blending of the private and the public a platform can achieve. GoFundMe not only functions as a public utility, it is also politics in quite a pure form.

At this point it is necessary to introduce a late terminological shift. Although Butler mostly speaks of "grief" - and Derrida (in translation) only of "mourning" - for my own concept, I want to understand grief as personal sorrow, as an emotional state of individuals. Mourning, however, is supposed to pertain to the social dimension, the shared grief, which in turn forms a community of mourners. As the attentive reader will recognize: this usage is pretty much the opposite of how Butler and Derrida use them. But this distinction between grief and mourning now becomes more salient due to the addition of lament. Whereas grief pertains to the individual dimension, and mourning to the social dynamics of a community of mourners, lament is the public, interventionist, and solidarity-demanding form of grief. In contrast to outrage as the supraaltern mode of directing grief, lament insists on both, on the singularity of function (of grieving), as well as the public addressability of mourning. Lament forcefully co-opts people into a community of mourners, exactly by reaffirming the perichoresis of the private and the public.

The tragedy of platform capitalism is now that neither The Discourse in its verbal-visual form, nor in its tacit-monetary form seem to be able to formulate addressable and inclusive lament instead of mere outrage or acceptance of the status quo.

Lament in action is irritating, unsettling, but mostly: embarrassing. And it might be this readiness to lament which is needed in order to leave not only individual framings, but the shared frame.

Grieving, Mourning, Lamenting: A Topology.


Figure 11
Torsten Meireis: May I suggest that you include your highly helpful flow-chart-like graphic into the article?
Thomas Renkert: Thank you for your suggestion!
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Clifford Anderson: On a practical level, running applications in the cloud comes with other worries, like leaving S3 buckets unsecured, etc.
Thomas Renkert: Very true! But most of the time, it is not even IT departments making these decisions, but management - for whom the reduced costs on paper are often more important.
Frederike van Oorschot: I was thinking about your use of “frame” while reading and wondering how to relate it to the understanding of reality and/or mediality. Or is it not related at all?
Thomas Renkert: Yes, in my view, it is related to both. The shared frame, for me, is the always already shared frame, the meta-frame you cannot not share. It is mediatized reality we have grown to accept as reality while ignoring the mediality-aspect of it. The reason for this is that the mediality of the shared frame is more stochastic and statistical than visibly intentional.
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Frederike van Oorschot: Very interesting point for our discussions on “reality”!
Frederike van Oorschot: I am curious, if one can re-interpret the notion of traces in terms of media-theory - maybe regarding the understanding of media/lity itself? As I am not an expert in Derrida, I am pretty interested in your interpretation.
Thomas Renkert: I am not sure if I understand what you mean, but in this quote, Derrida links traces to the hauntological gestalt of media.
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Kate Ott: Here again I see the notion of movement from individual to collective forms of power, affect, or simply response. I do wonder how the subaltern figure back into the paper. Since they can’t grieve, can they lament? Or did I miss interpret claims above. Do they once again need others to “speak” or grieve on their behalf?
Thomas Renkert: In this concept, the subaltern are, do to the multiple invisibility of their role, locked into an isolating, solipsistic grief without the dimension of (interpersonal, communal, social) mourning. Such mourning would, however, be the prerequisite for (public, addressable) lament.
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Kate Ott: Definitely, and I wonder how this connects with an attachment to history and memory as collective and fractal when it comes to experiences of coloniality.
Thomas Renkert: Yes. Frantz Fanon deals with this in The Wretched of the Earth.
Kate Ott: This makes me think of environmental non-profits that create the videos of how a smartphone is made. They try to bring into the visible frame the workers and the land that go into creating a phone so that every time a user pics it up they see the connection to those elements.
Thomas Renkert: Yes, I own such a Fairphone myself. But here the supraaltern kicks in: instragram pictures are not only always taken with the latest iPhone - it is also the only phone ever shown in frame.
Michael Hemenway: Sorry to be a broken record here, but Kate Crawford’s new book Atlas of AI - - has some great examples of this intentional invisible labor in the AI industry.
Thomas Renkert: Great, thank you!
Kate Ott: And those ghost workers are brown and black and often women. There’s a whole other discourse on global racism, workers, and care ethics that could come into this conversation. Of course, there is no room for it. Just connecting the dots with other conversations.
Thomas Renkert: You’re absolutely right. I had to leave out a longer discussion on the statistics of microtaskers and content moderators, but there is also very little reliable data availabe.
Michael Hemenway: Alienation is another term I see popping up a lot as we discuss technologies and our relationships with them. Here, is this form of labor alienating because the laborer is disconnected from the final product of the labor and/or from the ensemble of functions that make up the system?
Michael Hemenway: Ah, you clarify this below. Thanks Thomas!
Michael Hemenway: I love this! I have been working with an AI company called Mojo Vision who is developing a smart contact lens and their marketing was initially all about “invisible computing” . Realizing the demands of the Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency movement in AI, they have moved more away from this, but the invisible idea is still compelling for users. I wonder if the FaaCT or FATE movements will help challenge this tendency in helpful ways?
Kate Ott: This aligns a bit with the idea of the worker being the “dirty computer” at the same time as dominant culture/companies want to pretend that computing is “clean” - not relying on the subaltern, black and brown, queer bodies (queered in this case through the consumption of social media users desires). I wonder if the ghost worker would also be fetish in Althaus-Ried’s terminology.
Thomas Renkert: I asked myself the same thing after I read your paper, Kate. I have no idea but I will look into it.
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Michael Hemenway: This connection of craft or knowledge-how and episteme/knowledge reminds me a bit of Hanna’s discussion of power and knowledge. I wonder if an emerging theme for our conversations is new paradigms of knowledge/knowing in the digital/information scape?
Thomas Renkert: Yes, especially knowledge-how (at least in my case).
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Michael Hemenway: I would love to talk more about this idea of work. I see it in other digital philosophy like Simondon and Yuk Hui, but I’m not sure what “work” work is doing for them, ha!
Kate Ott: Maybe not directly relevant to your concepts of mourning, rather to the deception of computing, Gunkle and Hawhee argue that computing (software and hardware) has an ontology of deception and we cannot theorize any ethical response to it on our terms of authenticity or integrity when that is not it’s “nature”.
Thomas Renkert: Oh wow. Sounds great, thank you!
Michael Hemenway: what work is originary doing here for Derrida and for you Thomas? Is this suggesting that mourning is a ground of some sort or simply that it isn’t bound by the typical causal chain we often connect it to?
Thomas Renkert: As I read Derrida, he wants to think of mourning as independent not only of concrete loss, but also of concepts like life and death. I don’t do much with this thought here, yet this is kind of the opposite of Butler’s approach. In a longer verion, I would argue for an alternative that avoids the less useful implications of both ideas, originary mourning and grievability.
Michael Hemenway: Here, mourning is present due to the possibility of loss? Not loss itself?
Thomas Renkert: Yes, exactly. Not the possibility, though, but the certainty - even though it is only anticipated.
Michael Hemenway: Is this similar in a way to similar articulations in this tradition of desire that is not reducible to need?
Thomas Renkert: You know what: it might be, I haven’t thought about it more.
Florian Höhne: Great point!
Florian Höhne: True: very good point. That is indeed zynical.
Florian Höhne: Is it labor that is concealed of the laborer?
Kate Ott: I would suggest it is both.
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Florian Höhne: or: pure labor?
Thomas Renkert: yes.
Florian Höhne: i see: that clarifies my point form abov partly.
Thomas Renkert: Yes, you are on point with your questions. I am not sure if Derrida, whom I quote here, actually relies on Arendt for his idea. And until now I didn’t know that Arendt makes this distinction. I will have to look into this. Thank you!
Florian Höhne: This conclusion makes sense to me. i am still unsure and curious what exactly work is in this subchapter and thesis. The commercial quoted could still be seen as being about work, because “just work seamlessly” describes a kind of work that just entails less of an effort than coal mining, but it is still work. So: How would you relate the terms work, labor and effort?
Florian Höhne: Just a brief terminological question: is tekhne and “work” the same here? i am asking because i associated Arendt’s disctinction between labor, work and action: If mourning is labor then, of course it doesn’t have a product, because it keeps us in the circle of live. If it were work, it needs to have a lasting product. Or is mourning action and hence the political beginning of something new?
Kate Ott: I agree @Thomas on the nuances of their political and economic powers. This has fascinating overlaps with @Hanna’s paper on political theology and sovereignty.
Florian Höhne: Working with the term “platform capitalism” makes a lot of sense to me. Givien this, do GAFAM really form an oligopoly? I found Philipp Staab’s thesis in “Digitaler Kapitalismus” very convincing, that these companies are not agents in a market-sphere anymore (who could form oligopols) but have come to be markets themselves. Does that relate to your terminology?
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Florian Höhne: That is a promising and very interesting idea!
Hanna Reichel: If I understand you correctly, I think you can make this point even stronger: it’s not just a quantitative difference (“level of disenfranchisement”) that marks subalternity (in comparison to categories like underclass, repressed or marginalized groups etc) but a particular epistemic impossibility of being-represented in the discourse -> PRECISELY what you are arguing with regard to your notions of ghostworker/frameworker suba/supraalternity
Thomas Renkert: Yes, exactly.
Hanna Reichel: I am stricken by your insights here. I still wonder whether *sometimes* the discourse however also produces real lament? Again thinking of BlackLivesMatter. Where would such a movement fall in your typology?
Thomas Renkert: I am not delusional enough to suggest that my armchair speculations actually are true in all or even the majority of cases. I am only trying to describe (strong) tendencies, which should be analyzed empirically. But for the time being I would at least say that a “movement” which only exists within The Discourse probably does not form a community - but not because of it is “virtual”, but because it runs on outrage rather than lament, which would include constitutive mourning.
Hanna Reichel: I want to hear more about what you mean by politics here. The war of all against all in the competition for attention=monetary support? Or the substitute for responsibilities that in most nations are those of the state? Or something else?
Thomas Renkert: GoFundMe incorporates functions the state should provide. It also negotiates attention, recognition, and grievability. The same platform allows you to donate to BLM and to funds for people like Kyle Rittenhouse. This is “pure”, directionless, agendaless, hypernormalized politics. (Similar to Amazon selling leftist, LGBTQ+, BLM and Antifa shirts, AND rightwing merchanides all at the same time).
Hanna Reichel: in the time of covid this trend has even become worse. the majority of gofundmes are now for personal medical expenses, and regular living expenses have become a prominent thing
Thomas Renkert: Exactly.
Hanna Reichel: this is what you mean by “they don’t participate in the discourse, either”, yes? They generate discourse about them, rather than interact with the other users within the discourse?
Thomas Renkert: Yes! And everytime they actually try to participate in The Discourse, they engagement gets dismissed. E.g.
Hanna Reichel: do you mean something like performativity here?
Thomas Renkert: No, I mean the fact that they are famous and promote products because they promoted products which made them famous.
Hanna Reichel: I see what you did there :)
Thomas Renkert: Next paper “The Theology of Dril”.
Hanna Reichel: Do you mean by that something like that “Black Lives Matter” MAKES Black lives grievable BY MOURNING THEM in a discourse which otherwise likes to obliterate them and erase their traces and mournability?
Thomas Renkert: Yes, precicesly. Not grievable in a normative, universal sense, of course, but within the context of a specific society.
Hanna Reichel: but would you say that this can still happen in The Discourse? For example in the formation of a movement mourning George Floyd? Where people who have never met share their grief and mourn together, and a community of a political movement is born of this public mourning that TODAY in fact led to the conviction of his murderer?
Thomas Renkert: I should have said more about The Discourse. It is not the whole of digital platforms, and not different online context (bubbles) we participate in, but rather “the sum of all algorithmically generated recommendations, trending hashtags, and viral sensations“ - the artificially generated “public”. In this sense, I believe that BLM and the outcry about Georgy Floyd’s murder were only partly The Discourse. It has/had physical rallies, meetings, texts, art, and so on. If those exist, social media can serve as a connector, or interface between groups of mourners.
Hanna Reichel: !
Hanna Reichel: to put this also in conversation with the folx in media/lity: maybe the question is not so much presence/absence, synchronous/asynchronous, real/virtual but about simultaneity/reduction of functions?
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Hanna Reichel: So does this mean that even that potential of subversion is in fact deleted by the work of the content moderators? The Discourse regulating that nothing that interrupts the functioning of The Discourse can appear in The Discourse?
Thomas Renkert: Yes, but maybe not totally intentionally. I think the shared frame communicates a fixed set of rules and norms - knowledge-how - about what constitutes a picture nowadays. Single, isolated framings might have been easier to break in the past, but something that adheres to the tacit knowledge of the shared frame might have already lost most of its subversive or disruptive potential.
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Hanna Reichel: their product indeed is the invisibility of their work in The Discourse, yes?
Thomas Renkert: Yes, but this is “invisibility squared” - they not only delete material, where the “product” would be at least a “negative product”: this cleaning-up. No, they make sure their work isn’t even recognized - or recognizable - in the first place. The platform never looks “in need of cleaning”. It’s only the glitches in this image which hint at this labor - but never as “work”.
Hanna Reichel: goosebumps
Hanna Reichel: I am reminded of Walter Benjamin’s project here, too, for whom the retrieval of all the refuse of history was such an urgent postulate for his weak messianic force.
Hanna Reichel: But I assume you do NOT want to go in the direction of the internet as this universal archive where nothing is ever lost and therefore some kind of redemptive eschatology in fact is reached. ;) Indeed, if I read you correctly, you acutely call out that the trace is not enough, it has to be mourned as well.
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Hanna Reichel: and impossibly white with the exception of the black screen
Florian Höhne: …also my first association seeing that commercial and having read Kate Ott’s paper: white, cis and heterosexual.
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Hanna Reichel: I look forward to connecting this to Kate’s discussion of the cyborg as the ultimate other(ed)!
Kate Ott: Yes, this also opens up the questions of what means one uses outside the systems of platform capitalism. What and who exposes the racial, gendered, and colonial infrastructure of platform capitalism in a way that can lead to change?
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Hanna Reichel: wow. just wow.
Thomas Renkert: Apparently, the quote itself comes from Jeff Bezos himself.
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Hanna Reichel: here not even a field for investment, though! A field for further exploitation of cheap “clean-up” work so that the shiny surface of the “virtual” world, which indeed is subject to enjoyment to a particular global class, can move effortlessly and without interruption…
Thomas Renkert: Well, I believe that Spivak means mostly exploitation when she means investment, but it is also important not to conflate these phenomena too easily with actual colonialism or slavery.
Hanna Reichel: Connecting this to Bonhoeffer’s understanding of Stellvertretung in my head… or simply to 2Cor5:21 “made them who knew no sin to be sin for us”
Thomas Renkert: The directors of The Cleaners seem to have a similar association as the next gif shows. Personally, I am wondering whether this has more to do with the category of the Katechon.
Hanna Reichel: This!
Hanna Reichel: I am curious about the conceptual connection you are making between data and traces - it is done very quickly here, but may be worth of a bit more explication?
Thomas Renkert: This is an important point and I had a few sentences in a longer version of this paper. In short: data in the digital realm comes with functions about its provenance, its identity (identifiers), its addressability (how does on get there) and so on. Even anonymous comments on a site might get “traced back” to the author if they pose legal problems. But to paint a broader picture: in relatively short time, big platforms like Facebook or Google will have more dead accounts than living ones. The digital realm is quickly becoming more and more cemetristic, storing trillions of traces - mundane and extraordinary - of lives lived. I believe we think about this too little.
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Hanna Reichel: Very interesting that pushback against the absence/presence binary seems to be one of the red threads across several contributions here…
Hanna Reichel: Is the originary mourning that which from the get-go pries open the binary of absence and presence?
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Hanna Reichel: I wonder how this may interface with Kate Ott’s “living dead”?
Hanna Reichel: you also mentioned “lament” already as a third term in the same semantic field?
Thomas Renkert: yes, in my view, grief-mourning-lament are part of the same spectrum. But other than in the case of “lament”, “grief” and “mourning” are usually used interchangeably in English. Which is why I wanted to make this artificial differentiation transparent here at the beginning.