r/wallstreetbets as a Case Study in Détournement

The last week of January saw a captivating intrigue unfold online and on Wall Street as countless anonymous stock and securities traders engineered a spike in the price of several low-valued stocks—the most notable of which was the video game retailer GameStop (GME)—that forced many professional and well-compensated hedge fund managers to sustain heavy losses in their firm’s capitalization and clout. Media outlets that specialize in financial reporting as well as the more standard news operations kicked around many different ways of conceptualizing the populist maneuver. One approach was to invoke “tantalizing metaphorical comparisons to an even bigger story, the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol by supporters of now-former President Donald Trump.”[1] The legions of day-traders were akin to the unruly mob that stormed the US Capitol and, like the rioters, their stupidity and anarchism would do major damage to the US financial markets. This narrative did not prove too popular, however.[2] A more popular reference was to the Occupy Wall Street protests from ten years ago.[3] The virtue of this comparison was that the target of both the protestors of OWS and the speculators of WSB was the same—the corrupt and destructive nature of global financial capitalism in the twenty-first century.

But there may be a still better comparison. It should be recalled that before Occupy Wall Street took off, the online “hacktivist group” Anonymous was already wreaking havoc around the world using the tools of the still developing digital universe. Beginning with their first major operation against the Church of Scientology in 2008 and extending through their support of protestors in the Middle East during the Arab Spring, Anonymous was the original “global cyber-insurgency” that heralded the arrival of a populist but cryptic rebellion against the dominant institutions of the still prevailing neoliberal assemblage of power.[4] Deploying the newly minted digital communications platforms and applications whose power was still poorly understood, Anonymous was able to successfully wage a campaign of virtual pranks and cybernetic sit-ins that had the most potent security agencies of the most powerful states on the back foot for the first years of the 2010s. Only the betrayal of Anonymous’ most effective cells by informants to law enforcement along with the strategic turn made by agencies like the FBI and NSA toward data surveillance and harvesting (as revealed by Edward Snowden in 2013) did the power and effectiveness of Anonymous begin to fade.

The success of Anonymous stemmed in large part from their early adoption and familiarization with the social and political potential of digital media platforms. 4chan and Internet Relay Chat were lightly-treaded corners of the Internet where the young introverts of society could find each other and bond through the making and sharing of outrageous pictures and memes. This was the soil out of which a more activist community of “electronic Jacobins” emerged that managed to convert online discussion and speculation into real-world action resulting in concrete change. Their comfort and familiarity with the tools and capabilities with digital meant they were always one step ahead of the forces of the status quo who sought to disrupt them. A particularly vivid example of this took place when a private cybersecurity firm, HBGary, which billed itself as a “sharper, meaner, and leaner replacement for law enforcement and intelligence agencies” and claimed to have infiltrated the group, saw Anonymous breech its computer networks, download its private e-mails, erase its private files, and had the memory of the iPad and iPhone of the firm’s president, Aaron Barr, deleted.[5]

This kind of activity where the tools, infrastructure and institutions erected by the status quo to control the masses being deployed against these same masters was dubbed détournement by Guy Debord and other situationists in the 1960s. As explained by Debord in The Society of the Spectacle, détournement is an “insurrectional style” that “reradicalizes previous critical conclusions that have been petrified into respectable truths and this transformed into lies.”[6] Though speaking mostly in terms of linguistics and art, Debord nevertheless argued détournement was “a violent subversion that disrupts and overthrows every existing order.”[7] Debord’s fellow situationist, Raoul Vaneigem goes further still and describes détournement in the following way:

The spontaneous acts we see everywhere forming (in the 1960s) against power and its spectacle must be warned of all the obstacles in their path and must find a tactic taking into account the strength of the enemy and its means of cooptation. This tactic, which we are going to popularize, is détournement.[8]

Détournement is an action that takes the tools of legitimacy that make the current assemblage of power palatable and hijacks them in order to demonstrate the contingency of the status quo. Texts like novels and films and other works of art that are presented as having a firm and fixed meaning are subverted by reformulating them in a way that they communicate the opposite of their original intention. Images and words that put forth an air of the sacred in items like advertisements or government communiques are profaned through unauthorized alteration. 

Debord practiced détournement most famously through some of his filmmaking, where he would take already existing films and cut and spice them together so that the new film would convey a completely different message then the originals.[9] Veneigem’s notion of détournement, however envisions more than mere acts of plagiarism and vandalism but a more systemic undermining of the power’s of dominant institutions to sustain their power and legitimacy.

In the case of Anonymous, their détournement featured the taking of established digital media platforms and programs and redirecting them to a completely different and subversive purpose. Some examples of this were more prankish and absurd in nature, but in the case of the HBGary hack, Anonymous demonstrated in a vivid way how the institutions and agents that have created and benefited from the current assemblage of power are the opposite of what they appear—mostly symbolic performances and appearances of power, authority and competence that dissolve when the veneer of their legitimacy is penetrated.

And this is perhaps the best way to understand the drama with r/wallstreetbets. The day traders on this subreddit, many of whom had vivid memories of personal and family hardship due to the financial collapse in 2008[10] identified a vulnerability in the prevailing assemblage of power and sought to exploit it using the same tools that hedge fund managers and their technocratic fixers use to profit off the misfortune of others. Recognizing that established traders working for elite wealth management firms had overplayed their hand in betting on the decline of a handful of stocks, this subversive herd quickly bought up the stock and forced the short-sellers to answer collateral calls and purchase new shares at a price that was several hundred percentage points higher than where it started. The system of financial manipulation that had wreaked such havoc on the global economy and ruined the livelihoods of millions of people was hijacked and turned against its masters in a grand act of subversion. The spectacle of financial capitalism—a spectacle that has become the primary source of wealth generation in the world today—was revealed to be a mixture of algorithms and sleights of hand. The value of assets was arbitrary and contingent and not rooted in any way in any kind of objective determination of value in an ostensibly free market.

When the spectacle is revealed for what it really is—a sophisticated series of performances and facades—the response by those with the most to lose is to deploy hard power and harsh discipline. These measures are not the preferred way to maintain order, but they are nevertheless deployed with vigor when they are necessary. One need only look at the enormous expenditure to put down the social unrest that permeated US cities over the summer after the killing of George Floyd. In the case of r/wallstreetbets, the play of physical power wasn’t so much the spectacle of violence but the spectacle of silence–the unannounced locking down of countless trading accounts on digital apps like Robinhood that many of the insurgent traders used. In taking this bold step, powerful financial interests were not merely protecting their own capital, but demonstrating to the world that when necessary, the diffuse spectacle can be replaced with the concentrated spectacle—i.e. the deliberate and visceral display of totalitarian power.[11] In this case, one of the key myths of western capitalism—the free market—was unceremoniously suspended as thousands of individuals were unable to buy more stock or securities related to the listings in question. The only thing the insurgent traders could do was sell it because that is what the prevailing financial interests needed to happen to maintain their power.[12]    

And this is the danger of a successful détournement. Debord and Vaneigem believed acts of detournement would subvert conventional thinking in a way that would open-up new ways of being and “forms of life.” These experiments in alternative living would allow for the construction of counter-hegemonic orders and slowly push out the prevailing ruling institutions when they were no longer legitimate or necessary. Today, however, this loss of legitimacy has already taken place, yet the new alternatives have yet to fully form. Antonio Gramsci described this situation in the following way: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear;” though it often gets translated into the more sensationalist “The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.”[13] Successful acts of detournement seem to reveal these monsters for what they are—the rampaging acts of the dominant assemblages of power stomping on those who have the audacity to point out the illusory legitimacy of those that brought them to life. Bereft of their power to entice and seduce, all that is left is to coerce and crush. 

     [1]   https://news.yahoo.com/column-no-gamestop-frenzy-not-202200969.html

     [2]   https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2021/01/leon-cooperman-gamestop-rant

     [3]   https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/technology/how-occupy-wall-street-explains-the-gamestop-fiasco/ar-BB1douy8?li=BBnbcA1

     [4]  Good book-length studies and recounting of Anonymous actions include Parmy Olson, We Are Anonymous: Inside the Hacker World of LulzSec, Anonymous, and the Global Cyberinsurgency (New York: Little Brown and Company, 2012) and Gabriella Coleman, Hacker Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous (London: Verso, 2014). 

     [5] See Coleman, 215.

     [6] Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2014), 109-110. 

     [7] Ibid., 111. 

     [8] Raoul Vaneigem, “Basic Banalities,” in Ken Kabb, ed. The Situationist International Anthology (Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006), 162.

     [9]  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mjF6I6SYjgA

[10] https://www.zerohedge.com/personal-finance/you-dad-redditor-shares-heartbreaking-reason-destroying-short-sellers-wsb-raids

[11] For more on diffuse and concentrated spectacles, see Debord, 26-27.

[12] https://www.vice.com/en/article/m7ak7y/robinhood-stops-users-from-trading-gamestop-stocks-other-reddit-yolo-picks

     [13] For the first translation see Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (New York: International Publishers, 1971), 275-276. For the second translation, see  Slavoj Žižek, “Living in a Time of Monsters,” Counterpoints 422 (2012), 32-44.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s