A review of Grafton Tanner’s newest work, “The Circle of the Snake”

We live in truly strange times: from the chronic instability of late capitalism, the aestheticized theatre production of politics, the pervasive nature of big tech consuming our lives, and the contradictory feelings of the world burning down around us, yet a sense that nothing has happened; a sense of being disconnected from the past and history.  In the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 western civilization has found itself haunted—haunted by ghosts. The ghosts of the pasts we never experienced and the future that never came haunt our everyday lives; from culture to politics, these ghosts reside all around us. In his sophomore book, The Circle of The Snake: Nostalgia, Utopia, In The Age of Big Tech, writer and musician Grafton Tanner explores the weird cultural situation Western society has found itself in. Dealing with 9/11, the Great Recession, Big Tech, impending ecological collapse, the rise of fascism (etc.), Western civilization has found itself yearning for a utopian past that never existed and looking for technology to try and solve all our problems.

The Circle of The Snake is a phenomenal book. Coming in at a relatively short 157 pages, Tanner does an excellent job analyzing the situation we are in today, combing analysis of relevant pop culture, utilizing theorists such as Fredric Jameson, Gilles Deleuze, Walter Benjamin, and Susan Sontag, as well as the admissions of Big Tech workers themselves, and the latest research in the field of psychology, sociology, and cognitive science. Tanner provides a powerful analysis free from the harsh prose and jargon of more academic works of cultural theory. Both The Circle of The Snake, as well as his first book, Babbling Corpse: Vaporwave And The Commodification of Ghosts, are very accessible texts for beginners in the field of cultural theory.  

Big Tech is brutal. Through more than just their seemingly total control over every aspect of our lives, Big Tech is full of horrors not obvious to the blind eye. What’s often overlooked is the brutal labor process necessary for the mass production of the technology we see all around us. From the horrendous developing world labor required to mine all the precious metals needed for hardware, to the abject working conditions of the sweatshops that mass produce our tech, just getting the technology we consume requires abhorrent atrocities. Workers’ suicides at companies like Foxconn are a common occurrence, as well as corporate thugs tracking down and beating workers they are suspicious of. Right off the bat, before even getting into their practices within the Western world, Tanner attempts to shine a light on some of Big Techs horrid practices.

Following the trend of neoliberalism’s attempting to commodify everything, Big Tech commodifies our own attention and sells it back to us. No more is selling microwaves and fridges enough for capitalism, it must sell our own interests back to us. By analyzing (and selling) our data, Big Tech tries its hardest to strip the human essence to nothing but data, and commodify it. Analyzing our interests and feeding it back to us, Big Tech creates an addicting feedback loop, trapping many in its horror show. Tech companies have actually used the latest in psychological and cognitive science research in an attempt to make their tech as addicting as possible, to keep people involved; something Tanner calls “the race to the bottom of the brain stem.” 

Social Media is an attempt to escape into Utopia, a so-called “Digital Sublime” as Tanner calls it. We can follow whatever accounts we want, set up our feeds so they only show us what we want, we can be friends with who we want, etc. We escape into a viewed reality in which everything is catered to us. Not only that, but social media is haunted by nostalgia just as much as the real world. Social media is a digital archive, where all of our posts sit there for the rest of time if we let them. Whenever we want, we can go to the posts of yesteryear and look at them almost as if we were there; we look at these posts with a nostalgic gaze. When the world burns around us, the addicting illusory utopia of social media seems like a great place to retreat to.

Social media has helped turn politics into a show, into a genre of entertainment. No longer do any sort of constructive dialogue or facts matter, now it is all about aesthetics. Who is the most tech savvy, the funniest, who has the best memes, etc. Politics has always been a theatre production, but now so even more. Donald J. Trump was known for his “legendary” Twitter presence until his untimely ban. Political cults like QAnon have spread thanks to the forums of 4chan and Reddit, while political followings have become known for their online presence such as “K-hive” or “The Bernie Bros.” Tanner draws greatly from Walter Benjamin’s conception of “the aestheticization of politics” here: politics is a show, and social media allows us to express ourselves as much as we want, without actually changing anything. 

Despite conservatives’ praise of capitalism and lambasting of the “Orwellian” nature of Big Tech, the two are inseparable. There can be no capitalism without Big Tech. Big Tech cannot simply disappear; should Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Amazon, Google, etc. just disappear, as the the global economy would crash. Tech companies have colonized most aspects of education: almost everyone uses some sort of Google, Apple, Microsoft, Huawei, Samsung, Dell, etc product; almost all businesses and organizations rely on the software of Microsoft or Oracle; almost all small businesses rely on the shipping and distribution of Amazon, or Amazon Web Services. Conservatives complain about how Big Tech is oppressive, or they are destroying small businesses, but this is the very capitalism they advocate for, working the way it always intended to.

“We live in an objectified world. Aestheticised under capitalism, politics has become a genre of entertainment, starring celebrities, watched by us.” –Grafton Tanner

Our culture is haunted by the ghosts of the pasts. The inability to imagine a better future has left us yearning for the past. To Tanner, nothing encapsulates this more than the “Make America Great Again” slogan of Donald J. Trump. Trump sells a rosy version of the past, a past with all the things we love and nothing we dislike. It’s not the real past, but a ghost, a ghost molded by the elites to encapsulate the average citizen. Fascism inherently obsesses over a mythic past; this is not different from the rise of the far right within the United States. The alt-right, incels, fringe fashwave creators, white nationalists and nativists eat up this rosy past as they are filled with nostalgia. Tanner sees societies obsessed with the manufactured past as weak and collapsing. Cultures hide in the fake past to avoid the horrid present. They yearn for the past to ignore the collapse happening all around them.

Not only has attention been commodified, but so has nostalgia. The culture industry has shifted its focus around nostalgia in an attempt to make massive profits selling people molded ideas of a better past that they yearn for. Tanner analyzes how shows like Stranger Things or Everything Sucks sell us a slice of what life used to be like in the 80s and 90s. In the world of music Tanner talks about how vaporwave is a genre composed entirely of the commodified corpse of capitalisms past, or bands like M83 or artists like Taylor Swift tap into a sense of “retromania” to capitalize on cultural nostalgia. Movies like Drive utilize a soundtrack of Hi-Fi Analog Synths and use similar fonts to popular teen movies of the 80s to tap into this nostalgia. The film industry is filled with cheap mass-produced garbage like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or filled with remake after remake after remake. The nostalgia industry has no care for artistic merit, just commodified nostalgia, and mass produced cash grabs that the nostalgic consumer eats up.

“Nostalgic media in the early 2010s dipped deeply into the past, but not so deep as to alienate present consumers.” –Grafton Tanner

One of the most powerful parts of the text is Tanners usage of Deleuze, analyzing the role that Big Tech plays in the transition from Foucault’s disciplinary society to Deleuze’s societies of control. Unlike the disciplinary society in which members move rigidly and occupy places like the school, the factory, the prison, etc., societies of control are fluid. Members of these control societies have the illusion of freedom as they move from place to place. As everything is commodified, Big Tech colonizes education and the home life: people are working from home more often, etc. We feel as if we are free, but this freedom is an illusion. We are still being controlled, conditioned, and molded by capital and its all pervasive power. The old institutions are bleeding into one another, but one thing remains constant, we are under the surveillance of the panopticon of Big Tech. 

“If a control society is a serpent, then a nostalgic one is an ouroboros.” –Grafton Tanner

Unfortunately for us, there is no easy solution. The problems of Big Tech are fundamental to capitalism itself. The same way workers cannot just find another job, or live on their own, we cannot simply disconnect ourselves from technology. Escaping the circle of the snake is not easy—it might not even be possible—but it’s undoubtedly something the left needs to be able to analyze and overcome. In order to challenge capitalist realism, we need to find a way to challenge the Big Tech that is ingrained in capital itself. But Tanner has a hint of optimism; after all, he says himself: “For now, we live in the mall, but I think it’s closing soon”.

By Ajay Chakraborty, Contributor