Newsletter theory

Communicative capitalism and the lucrative void

Substack, the startup that makes this and many other newsletters possible, recently announced a new round of fellows. They’re advancing $25,000 to nine applicants, and granting $100,000 to one established writer. That last staggering figure is approximately 1.5 Booker Prizes, or 6.67 Pulitzers — the tide of capital rushes to a few deserving voices even as it leaves entire mastheads beached behind.

A number of the 36,000 recently laid-off journalists have started their own Substacks. As have some prominent writers who didn’t lose their jobs, but are instead ditching magazine columns for the promise of independence paired with immediate remuneration. The Weekly Dish and Persuasion already cracked Substack’s top 10 by monthly revenue, and could conceivably surpass The Dispatch, the Never Trump publication atop the leaderboard, which makes, at minimum, $100,000 per month.

Substack is both platform and curator, service provider and product itself. There’s much to be said about how the company has positioned itself in the public eye, amplifying voices from both the left and right, and about what its updated privacy policy might portend. But here I’m focused on thinking through newsletters as a medium, and considering how Substacks, in particular, fit within the paradigm political theorist Jodi Dean calls communicative capitalism.

This paradigm explains why, if our way of organizing life really is so bad for so many, we haven’t managed to change it. While traditional capitalism exploits labor, capturing what surplus value we happen to produce, communicative capitalism exploits communication itself, capturing what meaning we happen to express — critique included.

The clearest point of contact between these capitalisms is the fact of capture. What we should care about is seized, taken from us. How that capture happens differentiates them. The name of the new game is reflexivity, a condition of our life online. “The contemporary setting of electronically mediated subjectivity is one of infinite doubt, ultimate reflexivization. There’s always another option, link, opinion, nuance, or contingency that we haven’t taken into account.” We react — we like, share, comment, and, sometimes, post — out of reflex. There’s rarely any reflection at all. The result is an endless loop of communication that sifts meaning and money out from the torrents of information we wade through.

We reached the paradigm’s logical conclusion with the messaging app Yo. The app freed its users from the need to say anything meaningful, because its only function was to send the word “Yo.” In its heyday, Yo was valued at $10 million, not least because it completed the “shift from message to contribution characteristic of communicative capitalism.”

Dean focuses on what it’s like to live this way. With communicative capitalism, she’s describing “reflexivity's emergence as a dynamic of control: that is, the ways that the extremes produced by the circulation of information themselves have effects on those of us captured.” These extremes, these excesses of emotion, are another reason we might feel powerless to live differently. In a single sentence, then, “communicative capitalism is that economic-ideological form wherein reflexivity captures creativity and resistance so as to enrich the few as it placates and diverts the many.”

I’m aware that this newsletter about newsletters deepens the rabbit hole of reflexivity. But I think Blog Theory, Dean’s 2010 book, from where I draw this issue’s unattributed quotes, provides a foothold sturdy enough to share. If we want to climb all the way back to the surface, we can try following the line she lays out — that’s why I’m paying critical attention to the “current conjuncture of media, subjectivity, and politics” that’s solidifying in Substacks.

Media

I don’t treat newsletters the way I’d want mine to be treated. Most I click, skim, and never think about again. A few I mark as read without having done even that. Those I mean to sit with I rarely read all at once. Instead I mark them back as unread, and leave them languishing between other emails I meant to answer, until I can muster the interest and energy to finally read with care. Why is that?

The simplest answer follows from the basic distinction between blogs and newsletters: only the latter appear in your inbox. Newsletters continue to dissolve the “boundary between work and play,” and claim more of our limited bandwidth. But this simplification passes over the fact that we do tend to click, or else we’d unsubscribe. Dean finds cursory consumption is native to blogs, too. So if it’s not just an inbox issue, perhaps the problem stems from how newsletters and blogs both appear: as language bounded by code — as content.

Can one easily glean or absorb or be impressed by a written word, be impressed so quickly that one hasn’t quite read it? Can one quickly identify a link? Quickly ascertain the presence or absence of something new? Can one immediately discern the structure of the visual field so that one knows what not to read, where to put one's time or effort? Color, space, images — all these establish the visual fields of blogs.

With Substacks, the theme colors vary — I enjoy my fuchsia — but all body text appears in this font and size. Paragraphs are identically spaced, and cannot be indented. The margins are totally fixed. Additional formatting — headings, bullet points, numbered lists, block quotes, embedded media — interrupt the visual field only to further streamline the user experience, to arrange information into pre-sliced, digestible little bites.

All this sameness enables difference, or so the thinking goes with blogs. “The common format that makes blogs blogs is a condition for the unique productions of singular bloggers,” Dean recognizes. At the same time, “the standardization supplied by blog services — the basic page layouts, archival features, titles, banners, ads, and widgets — format blogs as ultimately interchangeable, the same, one virtually indistinguishable from another.” I have the same fear with Substacks: each newsletter says something else, but we treat them all in more or less the same way.

When I publish a post, Substack collects the following stats for me: total views, email open rate, link click rate, and new subscribers. Under a different tab, I’m shown how many new visitors came to Sintext on a given day, as well as the source that brought them here. Most disconcertingly, I’m able to see the last time each of my subscribers opened a post or clicked a link. These are just more of the “tools for counting” Dean associates with blogs.

The measuring and counting, the hits and rankings, remind bloggers that we are set in intensive, reflexive, communication and entertainment networks… Blog stats don’t track truth or meaning. They track blogging, the addition of posts, responses, and page views. Differently put, they track the fact of the spoken as they direct us away from what is said.

Communicative capitalism can be said to govern when “what is communicated” becomes “secondary or tertiary to the fact of communication” — when it actually doesn’t matter what you publish and read, only that you do publish and read. As a Substack publisher, reading is indistinguishable from clicking; as a Substack reader, I know I served my purpose the moment I clicked.

Substack first articulated its mission in a 2017 post tracing the histories of the earliest ad-supported journalism and subscription periodicals. The founders boiled down their goal to a single sentence: “Make it simple to start a publication that makes money from subscriptions.” Today, the first sentence in Substack’s About page says the company was founded “because we believe that what you read matters and that good writing is valuable.” These statements tacitly bridge monetary value and the intangible worth behind words like “matters” and “good.” The way I see it, a better business model guarantees not better products but products that will better suit that model. Like the clickbait it defines itself against, what Substack does is help writers translate quality into quantity.

The strong version of this argument has me compare Substack to Kleenex. Imagine the tissue company pivoting to handkerchiefs. It could produce templates — ensure reliable stitching and bold tints — then invite artists to decorate, promote, and sell subscriptions to their personal lines of Kustom Kleenex. Sure, writing isn’t a decorative art, but my point here rests with the mode of consumption. Isn’t this how all platforms work? They provide the cookie-cutter, we provide the batter. No matter the batter, no matter the sprinkles, the cookie gets eaten. The nose gets blown. The newsletter gets clicked. So it is that a brand can replace a generic term and itself become generic, replaceable, reduced to its uniform use.

My answer to why I so often violate the golden rule of newsletters, even with ones I pay for: I don’t expect newsletters to be meaningful, because newsletters come to me as content, and content seems like meaninglessness given capitalizable form.

Subjectivity

I don’t delude myself when I use the first-person plural, nor do I expect that last section to withstand close scrutiny. Our experiences will vary, and there are many kinds of newsletters. I don’t actually find any of the Substacks I read meaningless. But I’m convinced there’s a low ceiling to the intangible value we can derive from language treated as content, and that the prose editorless writers on tight schedules churn out will rarely be excellent. So I have a new question: why would we fork over money for content that is neither particularly valuable nor particularly good?

Communicative capitalism offers two responses: the first is that this content does indeed entertain us; the second is that subscribing to newsletters might seem to serve a social function. Dean borrows the keys to her theory from the psychoanalysis of Jacques Lacan as filtered through Slavoj Žižek. I’m on shaky footing here, but as I understand it, this is an apt toolkit for prying open the hood of complicated habits. Dean’s crowbar is the concept of drive.

Drive contrasts with desire. Desire involves wanting something we will always fail to attain, in turn replenishing that desire anew. Drive involves attaining that moment of failure itself. If desire is an arrow, ever missing its target, drive is a boomerang, ever circling some missed target, and, in this counterintuitive sense, succeeding.

I have two examples from the past weeks. A post many people found obnoxious, published in a newsletter avowedly about bad posts, goes semi-viral on Twitter, in turn pushing people back to that post; the publication is now the number two free Substack. A facile post claiming to debunk critical theory begets a long post by an intellectual historian in response. Content circulates, but nobody gets what they wanted, because nobody wanted anything specific to begin with.

This is blog behavior. “When blogs are situated in a logic of drive, they aren’t something we want but lack, aren’t something introduced into a lack that they can’t fill. They are objects difficult to avoid, elements of an inescapable circuit in which we are caught, compelled, driven.” We may not find meaning in newsletters, but we do find placation and diversion, again and again, repetition breeding intensity, intensity reinforcing repetition. We’re satisfied in our dissatisfaction.

People enjoy the circulation of affect that presents itself as contemporary communication. The system is intense; it draws us in. Even when we think we aren't enjoying, we enjoy… Blogs, social networks, Twitter, YouTube: they produce and circulate affect as a binding technique. Affect, or jouissance in Lacanian terms, is what accrues from reflexive communication, from communication for its own sake.

Many of the influential Substacks I read maintain and grow their subscriber base by circulating a similar set of negative emotions. HEATED and Welcome to Hell World very explicitly help people who are pissed off stay pissed off. Letters from an American puts each day’s news into broader context — it’s a great newsletter — but I read it to know just how upset I should be before going to bed. Substack’s paragon of independent accountability journalism, Popular Information, insinuates itself into the barrage of ever-breaking bad news as a “political newsletter for people who give a damn.” We’re furious, fearful, fed up: these emotions should propel us forward, but instead they freeze us in place — this is affect as binding technique.

Apart from providing us this perverse enjoyment, newsletters, as networks of affect, also “produce feelings of community, or what we might call ‘community without community.’” Persuasion publishes at persuasion.community, the special URL Substack provided. It bills itself as the “community for those who believe that a free society is worth fighting for.” As David Brooks astutely observes in his recent Times column on Substack, for too many, “the point of thinking changed. Thinking was no longer for understanding. Thinking was for belonging.” (Dean puts it this way: “What appears as an exchange of reasons is a vehicle for the circulation of affects.”)

Brooks lauds Persuasion as an “online community to celebrate viewpoint diversity,” and, of course, ignores that it’s just another silo, albeit one that’s especially self-unaware. Here, writers also “write as a representative of a group, in order to affirm the self-esteem of the group” — which they do by amplifying their shared grievance against cancel culture. (Cancel culture, for all its volatility, at least has the virtue of causing consequences beyond the internet.) Think the way they do — freely! — and you, too, can belong to their community. And once you belong, you should comment, like, share — contribute and circulate, rinse and repeat.

Is this what communities without community are? We’re separated into vortices of selective information, buoyed by bubbles of affect? Trapped in Willy Wonka’s fizzy lifting drink chamber, working ourselves up until we burp ourselves back down?

Remember the second meaning of “subscribe”: “express or feel agreement with (an idea or proposal).” We use newsletters to reinforce our emotions, not to think difficult thoughts, even if that’s what we tell ourselves we desire. This benefits nobody but those who own our communicative infrastructure. Dean distills Žižek for 2020, back in 2010: “Ideology is what we do, even when we know better.” If the economic renders Substacks content, the ideological — what shapes the beliefs underlying our practices — keeps us clicking, paying, and staying stuck in place.

Politics

I meant to reserve politics for this last section. I wasn’t able to. I know why.

In the book chapter that turned me on to communicative capitalism, McKenzie Wark praises Dean for deploying the political to “critique the seeming naturalness and inevitability of the technical.” That is its power. The political precedes technology, because it’s been embedded in the media that inform our subjectivity. The political precedes even fact and opinion, because fact and opinion surge from an already existing economic-ideological structure.

This structure has given us Substack, a company that still treats readers like consumers, and now turns writers into entrepreneurs — a word that, once upon a time, merely meant business manager.” If Substack really wanted to help writers follow their heart’s desire, it could, I don’t know, burn some of its cash lobbying for universal basic income and healthcare. Finding a direct way to monetize writing is one thing; working towards actual freedom is another.

Dean and I both care about that second thing. Unfortunately, “it’s easier to set up a new blog than it is to undertake the ground-level organizational work of building alternatives.”

It's also difficult to think through the ways our practices and activities are producing new subjectivities, subjectivities that may well be more accustomed to quick satisfaction and bits of enjoyment than to planning discipline, sacrifice, and delay, subjectivities that may well eschew equality as an end.

Following Dean’s lead, that’s what I’ve tried to do. It can’t have been very pleasant to read, though that’s partly the point. “In the reflexive networks of communicative capitalism,” Dean warns us, “a media theory that is critical has to foreswear the affective enterprise of contributing the feeling-impulses of hope and reassurance and offer thinking instead.” Thinking — not as a means of belonging, but as a means of understanding.

The other point of critical thought is to smuggle in the real optimism at its core. “We have been produced as subjects unlikely to coalesce, subjects resistant to solidarity and suspicious of collectivity. Central to this production is the cultivation and feeding of a sense of unique and special individuality.” That won’t change unless we ourselves change our habits of thought.

I do believe the medium of newsletters engenders sameness and stuckness, repetition and reaction, individuality and suspicion, just like blogs, just like social media. I also believe there are complementary practices we can incorporate on our own — the kinds of activities that generate intangible value, past the reach of any tool for counting — that might raise the meaning-ceiling inherent to newsletters.

Some small suggestions. If a Substack feels worth reading, open it on your web browser. Get out of your inbox. Record your thoughts as you read. Forward newsletters to friends and coworkers and other people you respect, with your impressions already included; insist on hearing theirs in return. Figure out where you agree, and also where you disagree. Get at first principles. Have conversations and arguments, but make sure they’re underpinned by this question: what are we really after?

And some speculative ideas. Could shared inboxes for newsletters take off? Where a newsletter can’t be marked read until everyone’s clicked it? Or, could there be newsletters accessible only when a certain number of unique users are on it at once? What if writers copied their newsletters onto a Google Doc, and gave anyone with the link commenting access, to let the pushback unfurl atop the body text itself? (This was my cousin Max’s very cool idea. Let’s see what happens.)

Lastly, care about language itself. Reading can be a deliberative practice — sentences can stay with you; metaphors can help you interpret life as it happens. It’s possible to distinguish signals from noise, and build “enchainments of meaning” from bits of information. That’s why good writing matters.

I’m still working on my positive program. But these “critical media competencies,” as Dean calls them, are what I care about most right now. With them, we will engender felicity conditions for meaning-making, both on- and offline. And meaning is what will open the door back to politics, letting us free our emotions from reflex, and march away from the lucrative void.


That thin line of gray pixels signifies a section break, enacts distance between this paragraph and the last. When I reread this, I’ll pause here to take a deep breath.

Sintext occupies a strange place in my life. I’m both proud of and shy about it. It’s hard to turn my impulses and intuitions into writing clear enough to deserve your close attention; it doesn’t always work. Please forgive my delays in publishing. I don’t plan on another issue (or, fine, post) before September. After that, I hope to get back to a new issue every two weeks.

I’m trying to be happier in my day-to-day existence. To worry less. If, for you, that requires thinking less — or at least reading less criticism along the lines I’m practicing here — I’ll understand. If you want to read more, I’ll sheepishly offer a subscribe button below. Click, but do so meaningfully, with intention, and a clear sense of what you want to get from the newsletters you read.

Finally, I want to introduce a segment where I’ll just share some straightforward appreciation.

At least there was this sentence

This issue, I’m sharing a sentence from Vinson Cunningham’s New Yorker piece on Frank B. Wilderson III’s Afropessimism. Cunningham writes of Wilderson’s style:

He writes from history’s humid basement, or from its even less accessible underground bunker, and the plants that bloom in his writing are less floral than fungal—his arguments and remembrances grow in tight groups, close to the ground and propped atop rotting anecdotal logs, all of them adding to the shroomy funk of the room.

Isn’t that fun? If you find a sentences that leapt out at you, please send it my way so I can include it in future issues. This seems like an easy way to give other voices and perspectives a little piece of Sintext. (Here’s my email and my Twitter.)

I also linked a PDF copy of Blog Theory (that Dean shared through her own blog) on my new Are.na page. I saw this site described as Pinterest for nerds? I’ll be developing it as the equivalent to my Bookshop page for relevant articles and other non-book sources of interest.

Thanks very much for reading.

Sintextually yours,

Marc