Thursday, December 30, 2004

The flexible personality and disposability

Some postulates:

The tendency of technology has been to make consumer goods more disposable; this in turn justifies the feasibility of machines that can produce so much. This will to disposability conspires with social imperatives, leading to rapid revolutions in the cycles of style and fashion. This disposability becomes the material basis for the "flexible personality" that Thomas Hine notes in Populuxe. Posited by every kind of lifestyle magazine and celebrated in management books like Who Moved My Cheese?, the flexible personality welcomes change in all aspects of life, and finds something stodgy and suspect in tradition, something inherently inefficient. The flexible personality is man fashioned by machines as seen from the perspective of consumption, just as the automaton is the man fashioned by machines as seen from the perspective of production.

The natural extension of the flexible personality is the disposable personality, one that is only as deep as the shifting array of fashionable consumer goods that constitute it. Personality has been detached fron the anchors of family and community and geography and profession that once gave it a permanent shape; now the contors of personality itself are open to the cycles of fashion, and you are expected to be a certain kind of guy to be in touch with the times. This is how humors, once seen to be as inborn as can be, tied literally to bodily fluids, have come to seem like trends: the insistence that irony was a trend of the nineties, replaced by a new earnestness after 9/11.

The kind of convenience enabled by technology is recognized as such because it facilitates the disposable personality. What is convenient is always divorces us from commitment to longer-term plans in favor of spontaneity. Spontaneity is fetishized as an adjunct to novelty, even though they have nothing to do with each other.

The disposable personality perceives himself to have an expansive personality, believing that the sheer quanity of variegated experience deepens him. He is like a collector, but of attitudes instead of things. He (or, more precisely, his culture) has made an attitude into a thing. Personality traits are separated from the scenarios and activities that evince them and become things one can own and display on demand like knick-knacks, through adopting proper postures. The continuous identity is refuted; there's no need to justify how you can get from one attitude to another. You can wear a Che Guevara shirt one day and a Brooks Brothers suit the next without cognitive dissonance. "Convenience" is another word for the systematic breakdown of identity continuity. We see convenience in those things that implicitly tell us not to worry about consistency or commitment to a self-concept. We think these things are convenient because they tell us we don't have to embody character in action, but can simply adopt by buying the right accessories whatever personality we want.

In having the freedom to become anybody, with the expectation to try to be anybody, we aspire toward being nobody, with no history, with no defining features but the pile of crap we own. Anything we can't purchase is jettisoned from the self-concept.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

The blissful nowhere

At airports, the security check is now a rite of passage, so elaborate as to assume metaphoric resonance. After shedding one's garments, after elaborate preparations, after difficult decisions regarding what must be left behind, after saying goodbye to the loved ones who cannot share the voyage, after much wailing and gnashing of teeth, one crosses over and sails beyond the horizon, passed the point of no return, and emerges reborn on the other side (where, if one is fortunate, one can put on one's belt before one's pants have fallen down). This powerful sense that there’s no going back might be one of traveling’s most exquisite thrills, and that feeling is strongest for me when I'm squatting on the tiles, putting my shoes back on, wondering what kind of magazines I'll look at in the newsstand, wondering how much will be extorted from me for a bagel and coffee. For me, there’s a sense that when I finally make it to the hermetic space beyond the X-rays and metal detectors, I've already arrived at my true destination, the blissful nowhere, that place where I'm definitively severed from all my ties and cares. I've escaped the quotidian of my life, and entered into the quintessential liminal space, where everything is provisional and where no one is truly home, that silly Tom Hanks movie notwithstanding. Because when we travel, the specific place seems to matter, but what we're really searching for may be that particular state of mind, that disorientation that comes from being separated from your known routines and conveniences and thrown upon your own wits to make do, to be free from the responsibility for choices -- what Schwartz goes on about in The Paradox of Choice -- and be free to enjoy limits, limits on what you know to do or eat, limits on where you can go. Traveling seems to be a way of going beyond one's limits, but it's actually a way of artificially imposing them on yourself, of making yourself ignorant again after all the accumulated knowledge and strategies of everyday life begin to clutter and stifle one's mind. These strategies -- where to find breakfast and lunch, where to park a car, what to read in the newspaper, etc. -- are ultimately imprisoning even as they enable us to function; they function by closing out the myriad possibilities that confront us at every turn. The whole point of the quotidian is to prevent things from happening.

Ideally, traveling opens all the possibilities while simultaneously lowering standards, making us tolerant and thus open to new experience. This expansive mood strikes me once I'm reborn beyond the security wall. (I suppose this happens to others as well, and this is what makes them talkative when they sit beside you on the plane or at the little airport bar.) This is why it makes no sense to me when people plan trips meticulously, and try to take the security of their everyday life with them on their journey. You surrender precisely that feeling of security the moment you pass through the security check point -- that's the meaning of that rite, which transforms the meaning of security to something quite different.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

No choice

Over the holidays I read Barry Schwartz's The Paradox of Choice, which aptly summarizes alot of decision science but wraps it in a weird therapeutical package, so that it reads like a self-help book (or worse, a management book), with lots of bullet-pointed advice. The upshot of it is that the amount of choices in contemporary American society make more of us into "maximizers" -- shopping perfectionists -- when we should be content to be "satisficers" or people content with something that adequately fulfills our perceived needs. Having more options in our lives leads us to believe that we should never be content with something that doesn't suit us perfectly, since it is so much more likely that the perfect thing is out there. We now have the means to be more discriminating, and this is leading only to more regret and dissatisfaction rather than more optimal satisfaction of our desires. A lot of it seemed common-sensical to me, but apparently many Americans are so brainwashed by the joys and alleged "freedoms" of consumer choice that they need to be reminded that the more time you spend shopping, the more likely you'll be full of unfullfillable desires and a chronic sense of dissatisfaction. The consumer marketplace functions by leaving you chronicallly wanting; if you could actually fulfill yourself you (and the rest of us) wouldn't be constantly buying more crap and the engine of economic growth would suddenly be stunted. The advertising industry thrives because we need to have our desires perpetually stoked -- we enjoy this; we're thankful for ads in giving us a purpose, now that sustanence needs are fulfilled. So we happily mount the so-called hedonic treadmill, as it gives us something to do. But the shallownesss and passivity of such a life purpose inevitably leads to depression, which Schwartz documents. It's not merely the overwhelming number of choices and the sense of crushing responsibility that attends them (and the inevitable failure of these choices to really satisfy that is cloaked from us, mainly by the consumer optimism that is drummed into us by every kind of ad, whether we pay attention to it or not) that makes us depressed; it's that we remain dimly aware that our energy might have been invested in more significant ways than picking between colas or between suburban tract homes. We crave meaningful work and tight-knit communities and friends (At least according to Robert Lane's throughly convincing The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies, which Schwartz cites) but we get sidetracked into collecting more goods that promise to attenuate our indviduality, extend our autonomy in the guise of convenience, or allow us to wield the mighty sword of modern technology in the form of an iPod. So we prioritize all wrong.

The same misprioritizing may have happened to the working class in general in post-WWII America, when it accepted expanded consumer choice and "freedom of choice" in the marketplace instead of extending political reforms and preserving union power. Beguiled by commoditites, working class families bought in to the ideology implicit in most consumer goods, that is, they see isolation and interclass competition as "individualism" and "convenience." Consumer goods always imply the dignity of individual ownership over the satsifaction of sharing and cooperation. Not to sound like a utopian dreamer, but this anti-community ideology that's built in to the marketplace (with its need to individuate in order to sell the same thing to more people and keep growing profits) seems to lead to much unnecessary misery. Sold on consumer choice as freedom, the working class exchange dignified work for a choice of shoddy clothes at Conway or Wal-Mart or Old Navy, or among knockoff of luxury items, and they don't worry about whether it's a fair disitribution of society's wealth to see all the real luxuries they're not privy to. And embracing consumer choice as the core of what they've achieved as a class, they are forced to put even more weight on the kind of paralyzing, depression inducing decisions Schwartz talks about. And the enrgy that might have been revolutionary is frittered away as anxiety over shades of makeup and kitchen appliances. It's the kitchen debate, all over again, I guess: entree into consumerism and its world of fantasy saps any enthusiasm one might have for political organization. Snce much of the pleasure of consumerism is relative, comparative; it sets you in competition not with the consumers out of your league, but with the ones most like you and thus breeds division.

One of Schwartz's most interesting points was how difficult decision making becomes when each decision is held to be revealing of your true self, a phenomenon that sets in when the number of choices would seem to be able to accomodate it. You can't pick something to exemplify your true self, because it is the cumulative decisions over time that make yourself known to you; you know yourself through the act of deciding, over and over again, but consumerism leads us to expect to know ourselves beforehand, in order to decide. This creates anxiety because we suddenly feel like we don't know ourselves in some absolute ontologcal way that we ought to. But of course, identity is a process, not a reified thing; it's not like a commodity itself though we are encouraged to think of it that way, as something we passively possess and can flaunt rather than as something through which we live. The need to display one's authentic self through consumer choices seems related to the disappearance of public personae that Sennett charted in The Fall of Public Man -- we are expected to be impossibly, intimately, spontaneously authentic in public, because we've collectively rejected public role playing. Public and private sphere distinctions have eroded -- technology like cell phones have contributed mightliy to this -- so that there's no space in which to develop a "true" self not subject to the vagaries of public opinion. A continuity is expected between public and private selves that's impossible to maintain; we end up being too intimate with strangers, who listen to our conversations with doctors on the bus or in the grocery-store line; and strangers to our families, who can't identify the side of you that is reserved for them, that marks them as insiders. But I'm rambling here --

Increasingly, our social self is defined by these consumer choices, so we have no choice about choosing; our failure to choose will be as much of a choice we must take responsibility for as our actually deliberating long and hard. And the pain of these trivial choices gives the lie to the "active consumerism" strategy sometimes proferred by pop-culture enthusiasts who want to argue that consumers are "users of culture" rather than passive victims of it. Those who use the culture for self-definition find themselves assenting to the basic premise that consumerism (and not meaningful work) is the route to selfhood. They try to redefine consumer coice as meaningful work itself, but it fails beacuse the labor of choice produces the alienation and misery that Schwartz details. "Active" consumers still adhere to and replicate what Baudrillard calls the code, the matrix of associations that reify identity and make a moveable feast of the concept of utility. When we accept that we can purchase meaningfulness, real meaning is sucked into the vacuum of the marketplace and becomes subjecct to its arbitrary whims, its manufactured cycles.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Music reviews and reification

Occasionally, I review albums, and I knew this practice was slowly destroying my ability to appreciate music altogether but I wasn't sure why. (By the way, I think this is true of most reviewers; most cease to be music fans once they professionalize their responses to music -- the less professional the music writer, the more sincere and useful his response is likely to be. This is why generally is the best place to find music advice outide of your circle of friends.) I thought it may have been a product of the surfeit of mediocre music available that ordinarily I would have ignored, but that's not it -- that's not the only reason, at any rate. I think it has more to do with the fact that once I finish reviewing an album, I never feel like listening to it ever again, even when I've purported to really like it and insisted on how often readers will find themselves listening to it should they get it. I really think I mean those things when I write them; it's just that saying them suddenly invalidates the comments by standing in as a proxy for them. Once I announce I'll be listening to some record forever, I no longer feel the need to actually do it. Also, the act of articulating what I feel about a record ossifies it immediately; the summing up how it made me respond foreclosed the possibility of having further responses, of having those inital responses deepen or transmogrify. Fixed by my careful formulations, the record is no longer dynamic to me, andthus there's no more reason to listen to it. When I first began reviewing records, this felt like a blessing. Writing about a record seemed to complete the consumption experience, bringing to it a satisfying, productive sense of closure. Overwhelmed with music to play, it felt good to lay some options permanently to rest; it was like working through an accumulated pile of magazines, or the Sunday paper, and earning the sweet freedom of throwing sections away. But then I started to have a sense that music was becoming too disposible to me, and that the fault was not with the music itself (much as I was initially inclined to think so) but with my attitude. I was trying to use it up like it was bread going stale rather than accept it as some permanent contribution to the storehouse of human culture. Art is presumably timeless, capable of yielding new appreciative responses as the context in which one stumbles across it changes. But music-as-commodity, if the music companies have their way, is meant to be completely disposible, so you have to keep buying new product month after month after month. So here I was, thinking I was striking a blow against junk culture by decrying how ephemeral most music was and really I was just doing the record companies' bidding. (It may be that in reviewing any record you are inevitably doing their bidding; it really is true that no publicity is bad, when you think on an aggregate scale especially.)

In The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz sheds light on some of this in his discussion of the dorm-room-poster study. A group of students were offered a choice of posters (some fine art, some cartoons), and the students who were forced to justify their choice of poster in writing chose different posters than they would have had they simply chose on unreflecting instinct. Those who had to write chose the (theoretically) funny cartoon ones because it was easier to put in wards why they were funny; those going on instinct took the fine art posters. Schwartz concludes that the students who took the cartoons would have chosen the fine-art posters only they weren't confident about explaining their reasons why they preferred it -- they lacked the vocabulary to describe their appreciation of fine art, while it was easy to make a plausible justification of why a cartoon was funny. So if forced to articulate why we like something, we'll like more facile things; we'll like what we're already capable of articulating, rather than like that which forces us to come up with new explanations and new ways of thinking. Also, once we commit to one justification for a choice, we stick to it, and let it preclude our awareness of other reasons and factors, of criteria that might induce us to question our choice. People who chose the cartoons defended their choice but didn't actually hang them up. People who chose the art did.

Applied to record reviewing, this suggests that the most well-reviewed records will be the most easy to understand at a single listen, and that the criteria evinced, on the whole, in reviews will be the most shallow things about music. And once reviewers say these things, they'll feel locked-in to them, even though they reflect what's easy to put into words more than what they actually experience when they listen. Music that summons inchoate, contradictory, complex responses; this will either be dismissed or go unreviewed, or will be apprciated for simpler reasons. And once those simple reasons are put down, the record, for that reviewer, will be forever limited to those simple reasons, and will be far less interesting to her than the records she hasn't reviewed.

So if this is true, our conscious justifications for our tastes have more to do with our verbal skills, our critical vocabularies, than with anything in the objects we seem to prefer. This is one argument for reading sophisticated pop-music criticism (as if it exists) as opposed to the bite-sized nuggets of snappy prose in The Village Voice or Rolling Stone or Pitchfork, which sing with punchy dexterity but allow for very little sophistication of thought. (Try working in an intricate point in 150 words. The very best of them, the allusive poets of the medium, can only hint at such nuance.) But it also is an argument for never thinking about your taste, never becoming reflexive about your aesthetics, and thereby allowing them to continue to grow and to accommodate things beyond your current grasp. The suggestion is that reflexivity automatically leads to refication, that language captures something elusively alive and kills it. (I once used this argument to justify never telling a girlfriend that I loved her -- a strategy I wouldn't recommend, by the way).

But what of the notion that the unexamined life is not worth living? The road of the "inarticulate as truth" leads inevitably to dubious ideas like the innate moral sense and spontaneity being mistaken for authenticity. It leads to a Calvinistic sense of cool, that some people, the Elect, just have it, as demonstrated by their natural interest in sophisticated things, and some people don't. (Renaissance Italians such as Castiglione called this sprezzatura, the by-definition indefinable -- it's a bit of a paradox --suaveness of the effective courtier.) Those without aesthetics would be doomed never to learn them. Isn't it better to see aesthetics (and love) as not being inexpressible, as not being somehow too ineffable for words, and see it instead as something worth refining and expanding one's language for? Even if it is an unmaintainable illusion? I console myself with the thought that writing about all those records and ruining them permanently for me has made my overall responsiveness to music more sophisticated, more intricate, more articulate; they were the sacrificial lambs to the development of my music taste. I sharpened my skills on them to better treasure that which I won't speak of.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Traveling, with blooper reels

On a recent flight back to New York I sat across the aisle from a man in his early twenties who was watching a movie on DVD on his laptop. Nothing remarkable in that, in and of itself, but I was surprised that he felt no shame watching a film with so much full frontal nudity on his eighteen-inch monitor. He was sitting next to a woman in her later forties, and whenever I glanced up from my anacrostics to check in and saw topless girls, I looked at this woman for a reaction. Usually she wasn't looking at his screen, but sometimes she was, taking it in with an expressionless face that I interpreted as mutely disapproving. He never looked embarrassed, though; he was engrossed entirely by the film, whose plot seemed so entirely formulaic that I could deduce it from watching about forty-five silent seconds of it. It was a teen comedy in which a group of American friends travel to Europe together, offend some neanderthal old-world types with their ignorant exuberance, but ultimately triumph through the force of their good intentions, finding happiness and adventure and, for the main protagonist, true love. The appeal of such a film is obvious: It provides a vicarious travel experience in many ways superior to actual travel (no waiting in interminable lines with your shoes and belt off and your pants falling down to pass security checks; no annoying foreign languages you have to pretend don't exist; no irritating journeys outside the parameters of your apartment, etc.). Simulated experience is always going to be easier than actual experience, and the entertainment industry is always going to urge us to ignore the difference between simulated and real, even as tourist industries insist the opposite (all while strenusously working to make real experiences more controlled, more like carefully calibrated, altogether predictable simulations). The unfortunate thing about real experiences is that are unpredictable -- that's their essential, definitive quality. The marketable thing about entertainment is that it affords a largely predictable satisfaction -- which is why it is pointless to complain that a film in formulaic. Of course it is; that's its purpose. That's why it sells.

What I found strange about the man on the plane was that he was enjoying a vicarious experience of exotic travel in the midst of actually traveling. It seemed strange to me. Was he trying to learn what to expect from traveling, learn how to behave, what he should learn? Was he looking for boilerpaltes for how to reduce his own upcoming travel experience to safe formulas whose meanings resolve themselves for us instantaneously, so familiar are their implications from our repeatedly seeing them played out in TV shows and novels, and so comfortable are we with these culturally approved conclusions. Like late-eighteenth-century novels taught readers how to tread the path to companionate marriage, demonstrating why love marriages should be presumed to be superior than arranged ones -- an extremely new idea to Western culture at the time (just read Clarissa or any Jane Austen novel), perhaps contemporary films of this sort are teaching kids what to get out of their modern-day equivelant of the European Grand Tour, available now to large swaths of people who were once content with Disneyland. If the custom now demands a trip to Europe, these films, then, at least help make the continent of Europe as user-friendly, as accessible and comprehensible as Disneyland. This is how an omnipresent culture industry has cannibalized the real; how it has inverted the real/contrived dichotomy. Now, our primary experiences are entertainment, and we expect our actual experiences to conform to the expectation entertainment has conditioned us for. So we take a European vacation to try to live up to the film, rather than expecting the film to live up to the vacation experience we know. The entertainment is primary, the lived experience parasitical of it, rather than vice versa, which common sense would lead you to expect if you thought about it. In other words, as Thomas de Zengotita argues elaborately in his upcoming book, all our experience is always already mediated. We know what to expect alrady of what were heretofore unimaginable experiences. No wonder we're so often disappointed (but that's all to the good, because that keeps us trying). The consequence is that the since the real lives up to the contrived, the contrived can be constructed to whatever stipulations one would want. And then, more and more actual experience is derived from or copies experiences invented to serve certain designed purposes, to communicate ideological precepts, and in this way the designed ideologies are more and more deeply imbedded in actuality, seem more and more inherent, like common sense rather than propaganda imposed from without. Of course Americans are good-natured innocents, of course they are doing old world countries a favor by visiting them, and the people over there need to let go of their retrograde traditions and their finicky protectiveness of their heritage. Travel becomes an inevitable clash of innocence with corrupted experience, and we all no that innocence always eventually triumphs, sweeps that rooted way of life away. And incidentally, this is just what capitalism needs, as "all that is solid melts into air" and the traditional inhibitions to unbridled consumption are quietly obliterated in the name of innocence and spontaneity.

When the man on the plane was finished watching the movie -- I saw him watch the guy kiss the girl back safely on their home college campus -- he proceeded to the DVD's special features and started watching the blooper reel. I was astonished that anyone would want to linger a little longer with such a trite film, but it made a kind of sense to me after some unduly elaborate speculation. Blooper reels are presumably fun to watch because they purport to show us the making of something we had just taken to be real; and if we are in general supplanting reality with what we consume in movies, then blooper reels pull back the curtain to show us how reality itself is being assembled. That's a pretty attractive, God-like perspective (but one that hinges on having bought into the movie initially). But what it suggests is that one's one photos of one's own travel experience are essentially blooper reels, too, outtakes from the seamless simulation of what was already known from media representations. Or, more darkly, one's life experience is a kind of blooper reel, the moments you remember are the anomalies, the ones that give you pause and make you question whether in fact the representations are real. The media is out to replace our need for memory by permanently preserving and reiterating how everything is supposed to be and feel. In the perfectly mediated world, we wouldn't remember a thing.

Saturday, December 18, 2004


Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Stoic shopping

I've always been bothered by the concept of buyer's remorse, because it seems to suggest that to be anything other than delighted with a purchase is a pathological condition, a symptom of psychological imbalance. In The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz discusses the decision-theory personality type of "maximizers" who, because they are never content with anything but the absolute best, are always disappointed with their purchases, even after they have agonized over them for far too long. The implication is that these people are perfectionists with unrealistic expectations, and that's probably true; but isn't their attitude the consequence not of some personal weakness but of cultural propaganda that insists that a "best" option exists, and that the integrity of one's identity is at stake with every purchase? Buyer's remorse seems to me a part of the "scoreboard" phenomenon, in which shopping is a zero-sum competition: if you didn't get the best deal, you have lost and someone else has won, and that calibration of one's pride matters much more then the actual utility of whatever was purchased, which becomes nothing more than a trophy. This is why people get into useless buying, into collecting; it affords a competitive field on which to bolster ego. Buyer's remorse is the agony of defeat. It's also the necessary risk to taste the unambiguous joys of scoreboard. Shopping is a central ritual in a democracy to resolve status anxiety, then, and that might be behind the remorse: the sense that the purchase has done nothing to resolve the staus uncertainty. But then remorse is inevitable, because one's status always remains uncertain. It's always in play, and requires constant efforts to maintain its momentum in one direction or another -- advertising sees to it that one never loses a sense of anxiety. In order to shop stoically, one would have to remove oneself from the social hierarchy altogether, and that seems unlikely to bring happiness either: Commodities are always proxies for social relations, for connections to other people, for integration and belonging.

Is there any escape from this? Can commodities simply be commodities again, as they were before they were branded (and brands are simply the code of aristocracy remade for market democracy)? Say one spends freely not to construct identity and maintain status but simply to destroy one's attachment to such trifles, to transcend them: Stoic shopping as a matter of Bataille-style expenditure. But the potlatch destructiveness and waste is always competitve, is the essence of status consumption. A commitment to generic buying? Can one buy oneself into deindividuation, and thereby escape into the margins and become truly free? Can one find freedom in perfect conformity? the chameleon's freedom? I don't know.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Artificial-beauty contests

I was marvelling earlier at this piece of news that Salon had picked up, of the Miss Plastic Surgery beauty contest. Are the women even the competitors here? It seems like each plastic surgeon should have his or her own entry, someone who exemplifies their work. The woman is incidental to the surgery, after all. These contests can judge their artistry and their imagination; their craft and their artistic vision. Unless the patient had a serious hand in designing her future body, I don't see how she should be rewarded.

But then, the women in more conventional beauty contests are incidental to their own beauty, which is largely out of their control and is probably something they occasionally feel to be an alien force that tyrranizes them. The fake-beauty contest is a purification of the natural-beauty contest, revealing much more clearly the underlying premises, while making it a real competition, one in which will and determination are more obviously in play. Instead of God being the artist, a human is; this seems like an improvement, a leveling of the playing field, a removal of the arbitary quality of natural beauty. Natural-beauty contests are just glamorized lotteries.

Beauty has the tendency of making the woman who bears it irrelevant, objectifying her against her will, determining the course of her personality's development by so definitively shaping how people respond to her. The typical thinking on plastic surgery is that it makes beauty more tyrannical, as one has no real excuse (poverty, morality, dignity are not good enough) for not being beautiful once you can choose to be through elective surgeries. Staying beautiful along the (always repressive) lines dictated by current fashion becomes a cultural duty, an evolution of the traditional patriarchal strategies for keeping women subservient.

But plastic surgery demystifies beauty to a degree, reducing from an inexplicable quasi-holy blessing to a far less ambiguous signifier of wealth and privilege. Beauty's meaning, it's significance becomes simple, obvious. As beauty becomes a choice, it becomes measurable in dollar terms, becomes a commodity like any other, and thus just one fetish among many rather than culture's master fetish.

Just as automakers have their concept cars that they preview at auto shows to generate interst, surgeons can have their floor model women who exemplify the latest surgery techniques. The contest can drive the technological advances, while letting those advances shape new asthetics. What is beautiful can be separated from the natural all together, and we can start to appreciate as normal, as ideal, as beautiful, women with three breasts or with legs that are four feet long or with necks that are eight inches. What this might ultimately do is undermine any universal notion of beauty, and free everyone to feel beautiful in their own imagination. Somehow, I don't think this is how it will work out . . .

Friday, December 10, 2004

The Amway society

This piece from the NY Times magazine documents some truly creepy shit in the world of advertising, in which companies allegedly recruit volunteers to hype their products in casual conversations, becoming walking viral carriers of product placements. In he article Rob Walker describesthe "growing number of marketers organizing veritable armies of hired 'trendsetters' or 'influencers' or 'street teams' to execute 'seeding programs,' 'viral marketing,' 'guerrilla marketing.' What were once fringe tactics are now increasingly mainstream; there is even a Word of Mouth Marketing Association"

As Walker notes, there's an Invasion of the Body Snatchers overtone to this; your friends, your parents, they could all be in on it -- so that's why my Dad wouldn't stop talking about National Treasure at Thanksgiving! What makes it truly scary though is Walker's claim that these new trend-starters are doing it for no pay, are doing it merely to feel what it is like to wield influence in our culture (which shows you how low politics has sunk). This is narcisissm run amuck; it's like a commercialized version of Friendster, but instead of counting your total number of contacts ("friends"), you see how much of a niche product you can move off the shelves. You get "the upper hand" on people in a consumerized version of the information-is-power mantra. You get the gratification of that power, even though it's by proxy, power suited to a corporation's ends rather than your own. (But who minds being a proxy? Most people get their pleasure by proxy throiugh entertainment and spectatorship already.) "Word-of-mouth marketing leverages not simply the power of the trendsetter but also, as [ad exec] Balter puts it, 'the power of wanting to be a trendsetter.' "

Of course, journalists and editors do this sort of thing all the time; some reviewers seem to write for this reason alone, to fancy themselves broad taste-makers, hyping something obscure to see how far their reach is. It follows that people are evangelical about products not because they specifically care about them but because the power of being persuasive is addicting -- there's an immediate gratification in seeing yourself as the cause of some clearly recognizable, unmistakable event. If you want to be truly cynical, you might conclude that Evangelicals have the same attitude toward Jesus that these volunteer shills have toward pork sausage. There's an undeniable pleasure in proseltyzing, because you talk so much from the point of view of conviction and righteousness that you begin to absorb those qualities, inhabit them habitually. Walker ends just short of this note, suggesting that becoming a shill gives anomie casualties something to believe in, that most people are desperate to join anything (a new wrinkle on the Bowling Alone thesis perhaps -- the desire to belong to a group will be thoroughly commercialized and will revolve not around companionship but around salesmanship, the Amway society.)

Another explanation for why people might volunteer to do this is that it gives people a conversational purpose. It gives people a reason to talk to others, in a culture where we are subtly encouraged to be engaged always in a one-way conversation that we control with a TV, radio, or Internet connection. People want human contact, but the pretenses for it are endangered, always threatened with being technologically supplanted (i.e., I often e-mail people who sit ten feet from me rather than talk to them. This is office protocol). But this provides people with a mission that justifies their circumventing those barriers; it transforms conversation into the latest technology. Walker quotes an ad exec: ''I think this is a new kind of media.''

And in such a consumer-driven society, what else is there to talk about but shopping, commodities. If your friends started talking entirely of products, would you really notice a difference? (That might be going too far -- sorry). As an advertising plant, you'll have the scoop on new things (which makes you more interesting) and you'll have prepared talking points (which makes you more eloquent) and you'll have a clear-cut goal (which makes you more compelling). Indeed, Walker includes testimonials of how shy people are brought out of their shells by becoming volunteer marketers, walking advertisments. People are accustomed to paying attention to ads, people tolerate the invasiveness of ads far more than that of people. So if people behave more like ads, become ads, strangers are more likely to let them in. When strangers have a clear-cut sense of what others want -- to try to hawk something -- they are more likely to feel comfortable with the exchange. Walker tries to embrace all this under the idea of a "social market," where one labors not for money but for social rewards: prestige, favors, attention, etc. But this seems to me a stretch of the word market -- unless you're willing to grant that psychological needs can be charted on supply/demand graph, and friendship is subject to the law of diminishing marginal utility (each extra minute spent with a friend is marginally less satisfying).

What's fascinating to me is that the advertisers are now looking to bypass traditional media outlets and the cadre of editors and producers and go straight to consumers to be their water-carriers. Editors are used to being innundated with promotional materials (the bound galleys and reader copies are the tip of that iceberg) and perhaps not so impressed with the flood of free swag, but regular people are probably extremely flattered when they are given free junk, and probably then feel a responsibility to promote it -- like that shopworn tactic of sending people address labels unsolicited and incurring a debt of honor toward your charity organization. Walker discusses the "endowment effect," through which people attach more value to something given to them, or which they are allowed to own.

Some companies search for the people most likely to be effeectively viral: Walker describes the painstaking process companies go through to find what he calls "Magic People," those pathologically gregarious early-adopters whose self-esteem is more closely bound to being influential than the average person's. In other words, they are trying to find would be editors who aren't in the publishing business. But other word-of-mouth-advertising organizers are finally giving regular people the chance to feel like editors. This would seem to discount the notion that editors have any special insight at all, that anyone can start talking about anything, and people will be interested and persuaded -- provided its face to face, and that's the catch: people will tolerate nonsense in conversation, for the pleasure of human interaction, that they would never tolerate in a magazine or on TV, morning shows notwithstanding.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Movie-trailer jouissance

I don't go to the movies very often, but when I do, I'm always stunned by the previews. I'm also stunned that people quietly tolerate the commercials that are typically foisted upon you, but I've come to accept that most Americans view commercials as a legitimate form of entertainment and nothing to be skeptical or resentful over. Wasn't part of the attraction of the theater the freedom from such messages? Didn't you pay your toll to enter a commercial-free space? I guess not. (By the way, this may be the future, I think, where freedom from exposure to commercials will be seen as a privelege worth paying for, and commercial free zones will become new enclaves for the elite).

Coming-attractions trailers are more tolerable because custom justifies their presence to a degree, but what stuns me about them is how efficiently they make all movies seem equally repugnant -- trailers flatten all films out to predictable moments of sitcom cleverness intersperced with rapidly edited scenes of sex (if its a romance), explosions (if its action) or landscapes (if its an art film). If there's a voiceover, it drips with condescending pretension, soaringly confident in the film's ability to manipulate you as planned, assuming it can predict your emotional reaction to every one of the film's carefully choreographed moments. Who wants to consent to this kind of social engineering? Doesn't everyone recoil from this? Obviously not, since these previews keep getting made. My stubbornness to resist manipulation likely blinds me to the obvious, that for most normal people, being manipulated is entertaining, it's the essence of why they go to see movies. They want their emotions predictably exercised, the way you might work your abs and pecs at the gym. These trailers are likely carefully focus-group-tested (I imagine test audiences strapped in with electrocardiograms) to establish their efficiency as emotional stimuli, thus they are ideal occasions for moviegoers to calibrate their own responsiveness. If they don't react as the preview seems to anticipate, they aren't filled with superiority and disgust (as I, shameless elitist, am) but with a sense of foreboding, that they are culturally out of step, that their chance to remain easily entertained is fading. I've always felt (to my detriment) that it's shameful to be easily entertained, when it's really a great accomplishment, a suspension of ego, a surrender to a collective norm, an assent given to one's culture, a vote cast with one's deepest nature, with one's ability to feel pleasure; if one is capable of being stirred by previews and by ads and by all of culture's various ruses and pitches, one might convert the drudgery of the status quo into a perpetual buzz of jouissance. Conformity isn't weakness, nor is it easy, as cultural critics typically suggest in their fulminations (I know I have). It may be the supreme act of rationalized pleasure calculation, directing effort where it will be rewarded with the most happiness. And that makes it even scarier.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Traveling: the pursuit of mediocrity

In this travel piece in Slate about Andalusia, Elisabeth Eaves rightly complains about the wiser-than-thou tone of those travel guides that encourage you to stay away from the things that tourists do. Often these are the very things one has traveled for, often we want to experience the cliches, if only to be able to authentically dismiss them later. It's no good being better than something you've never even experienced.

It's fruitless to oppose authentic experience to cliched, touristic experiences: Since the many places that survive on tourism are earnestly and overwhelmingly engaged in the manufacture of prefab touristic experiences, these experiences are the authentic ones; their fundamental to the nature of the place you've come. Everything else is everyday life, which you'll be unable to penetrate adequately without adopting the place as your new home. You might take away impressions of this everyday life, but these differences you note will serve only to highlight the everyday life in wherever you're from and make you understand the contours of that better -- a worthy endeavor for sure, but providing you with nothing more authentic about where you're visiting. As a tourist you always taint the data you're collecting about wherever you are, so there's no point hoping for some anthropologically pure experience.

What traveling does, and what Eaves hints at in her insistence on "having fun" instead of pursuing the "Real" Andalusian life, is enable you to enjoy the mediocre with a clear conscience, with your ignorance about the place allowing you to be tolerant of second-rate experiences. You don't mind hearing a crappy band play in a crappy club, or eating crappy food in a crapppy restaurant because you don't know any better, and you are happy to trust your instincts and then not judge yourself. The brevity of your visit makes you see the fruitlessness in weighing your decisions too carefully, and this helps you to lower your standards without fretting about it. In a sense, this is what "fun" is: suspending judgment for sensual immersion. Eaves puts it this way: "I cling to the hope that visiting a new place can be about more than what's hot and what's not; that I can still do a few things without mediation. After all, I travel partly to escape the sort of place where knowing the names of obscure bands has become a substitute for enjoying music, and getting into the newest restaurant a stand-in for appreciating food." That sounds very noble, but the upshot of it is that people with discriminating tastes are shallow, and people who immerse themselves sensually in whatever presents itself to them are "real" and authentic, unmediated. Is every aesthetic choice, then, mediated; every application of criteria the importation of some shallow bias smuggled in from some media item one was exposed to? I hope not, though that's the kind of doomsday scenario Baudrillardian macroanalysis of media culture tends to imply, that all the criteria we hold as essential to defining our real being (reduced to the tastes we hold, in a culture that puts so much emphasis on consumption and defines freedom as the freedom of choice between plasma or LCD flat-panel televisions) are really things we've adopted from somewhere else, are really the dogma of someone or something else, some institution, that we have absorbed and have come to feel a deeply personal stake in. A grim thought.

Anyway traveling allows you to flip things so that you delight in mediocrity rather than discrimination, and enjoy ignorance rather then the delight of flexing what things you've learned about the business of life (which Eaves hastilty dismisses as "a vast, shallow pool of knowledge." At home, it's pleasant to know things. Away, it's pleasant to feel no shame in knowing nothing. So from this perspective, you don't travel to discover anything except your own ignorance, and to see what kind of half-assed encounters you can Mr. Magoo your way into.

Monday, December 06, 2004

The rich inner life

In an essay in the most recent New Republic, Lee Siegal makes the case that the culture industry's depiction of gangsters influences American's perceptions of themselves as "consumers, as beings driven by appetite and enticed by America's promise of absolute gratification on just about every front," and that The Sopranos dramatizes psychological interiority gone amuck: "The show is a semi-comic playing out to the absurd and bitter end of the endless contemporary revelations of inner life and private life that neutralize our attempts to make sense of right and wrong." This latter point smacks almost of fundamentalism: the endless dramatization of the casuistry of mitigating circumstances has eroded all faith in moral certainties, to the point where obvious evil can come to seem justified and excused on its own terms without need for forgiveness. Reality TV, from this point of view, is an endless rehearsal of how one plumbs interior depths to rationalize behavior, TV becomes a training course in how to rationalize inappropriate behavior.

This seems right to me, but only in its consumerist aspects. What commercial TV does, is raison d'etre, is to provide the viewer with arguments that justify his or her purchase of unnecessary goods, to eradicate the resistance that might come from common sense, or abstract logic, or conservative traditions. Psychological interiority is a means to that end. Typically, enamored of our own alleged depth, we invert things; we presume our depth preexists the ads, the programs that cater to it, that dignify it, that enshrine it as the storehouse of our essence. The space of our rich inner life constitutes our real self, we think, and the larger that space is, the better. But it may be that that inner-life space is carved out by the very pitches that presume its existence, that the rich inner life is in fact a retreat from life (which consists primarily in social engagement, not withdrawal) and a collapse to a far more vulnerable state where the lack of social connection makes one prone to all sorts of insecurities about oneself and one's place. The glamorization of the rich inner life is the primary achievement of the culture industry, since what it sells is the kind of ripe fantasy that only one with a rich inner life would prefer to actual living. The rich iner life is the space where passive entertainment happens. It is compensatory for a stifled life; liberating the interior life, encouraging the imagination to be more free -- these aren't increases in freedom but the signs of one's being deprived of it, of having one's real scope limited. The "deeper" we are, the stronger are our chains.

We believe this interiority is necessary to understand ourselves, our deeper motives. But we don't understand ourselves only when we are isolated from social involvement, as we are to an increasing degree. Interiority makes that alienation worse while it masquerades as its cure. Siegel points out how The Sopranos dramatizes that inwardness is no protection from the vagaries of "real life." It becomes "absurd" when confronted with the more powerful explanatory logics of exploitation and greed. This is exactly right, and highlights the function of interiority: to mask exploitation and encourage individuals (newly minted by capitalism's enormous emphasis on the atomized consciousness) to assume personal responsibility for how they have been shaped by systemic forces much larger than them; this nicely protects that system from scrutiny and protest while ensuring for that system a more insecure, pliable and compliant populace.

The richness of our inner lives is an illusion, an effect rather than a cause of the way commodities are perceived. It is in fact that commodities that have the rich inner life, which they transfer to us, which we imagine we access and assimilate to ourselves by acquiring them. Goods replace the social contacts, the interpersonal interactions that create one's character, and thereby seem to embody the result of those interactions, they seem to possess the characteristics of the social exchange they have supplanted. We buy the goods thinking we are expressing an inner life through them, but really we are trying to stock the fictitious, nebulous inner life with the qualities we see in these goods. Anthropological accounts of consumerism, like that of Mary Douglas, stresses that commmodities serve as a communicative language -- this seems right, but under capitalism, this discourse of goods becomes the master discourse, becomes the essentially authentic way to express oneself, to express and thereby discover truths about oneself, about one's inner life.

So, in the absence of social life, we develop an inner life, which seems feeble, barren even as the advertising and entertainment cultures insist that it is always integral, boundless, the core of our being, the purpose of our consciousness. To stock this inner life, our new responsibility, we participate with new fervidness in consumerism, as this provides us the tools with which to articulate that inner life in the way recognized as authentic, to write a history of our interiority, to ground that interiority in material things. Unlike our actual real lives, which are limited by mortality, our inner lives are entirely unlimited, can grow and grow perpetually, just like the capitalist economy. Th labor of building our inner self, of forging our identity, such ceaseless and tireless work but of unique and lasting interest to ourselves (if no one else) is the best possible compensation for the lack of meaningful work in the society at large. Who cares if you spend your day processing medical bills. The real work you're doing in life is getting to know the real you, buying the products that will help you discover whether you, say, like classical music or have an aptitude for speaking Russian.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

A fish in a barrel

For a laugh, I decided to take the most recent book by self-proclaimed "comic sociologist" David Brooks (On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (and always have) in the Future Tense -- and please let me know if you understand what that subtitle's supposed to mean) out of the office free pile and give it a read. I had some idea it would be awful, but not as awful as it actually is, painfully unfunny, like watching an endless rerun of Home Improvement, and filled with outrageous generalizations and spiteful barbs directed at anyone who won't march to the beat of the status quo. In the world of Brooks, if you refuse to acknowledge the inherent superiority of that which is popular, you are some kind of smug elitist who is ignorant to the ways in which he himself is an even worse conformist. If you disagree in any way with the prevailing ideological consensus (unless its to believe in something even more retrograde), you are a pretentious egghead enamored of your own phony creativity. Now, creativity is certainly an overapplied term, and it is often a cloak for some kind of frivolous consumerism when it's not serving as a prod to make one feel insecure about how "self-actualized" one is. But the creative impulse, the impulse to imagine other possibilities than that which exists is an important one, and as "American" as all the other things Brooks celebrates, such as the urge to be mediocre (in his celebration of "tranquil" suburban life lived at "par") and the refusal to confront responsibility (in the form of frequent relocation). To him, as to his successor in waiting, the marginally less nauseating Chuck Klosterman, the status quo is unassailable due to its sheer existence. What is, is inevitable, and the choices you pretend to make are fruitless, though they never come right out and say this and typically celebrate freedom of choice -- that's because they think these choices are meaningless, and that once you believe they are significant, that judgement matters in culture, you become an out-of-touch elitist. Brooks is relentless in his hip-to-be-square inversions which make decidedly, simplistically sensual things like pro-wrestling matches and stock-car races and dignified, and make challenging things like independant film seem like empty pretension. The lie is in opposing these to one another. One is pointedly devoid of intellectual content and the other isn't; Brooks wants to equate them because they both require the expenditure of time. But that doesn't make them comparable in any way, any more than meaningful and meaningless work can be compared in terms of their wages. He hates artists most of all, and sees anyone forced into a life of poverty by refusing to cooperate with corporate America and its standardization and imposing of empty work as borgeois-bohemian fakers too self-obsessed to see the joys of a really good BBQ and a great game of golf -- you know, the things that matter in life.

This kind of error defines his style: bogus equivelances (knowing NASCAR drivers is equal to knowing foreign languages or political events or history), mistaking causes for effects, thinking description constitutes analysis, the nominalistic fallacy of thinking a label defines a phenomenon, etc. -- in Marx's words, forgetting that the point is to change the world, not simply explain it. But that sort of efficacy on humankind's part is exactly what he wishes to deny. You can't change what exists, you should simply accept it and stop complaining, and make some jokes about it if that helps you, too. In true Panglossian fashion, he doesn't care about how things came to be how they are (since it doesn't matter, since it was inevitable anyway, and therefore unquestionable, as good as it can be) so he has no basis upon which to evaluate their justice, and when he wants to evaluate, he simply falls back on his prejudices that preceded his "fieldwork," such as it is -- so Blue State behavior, in his terminology, is inherently bad, false, contrived; and Red State behavior is inherently misunderstood, pure, sincere, etc. With no historical analysis, his judgments are wholly arbitrary (and extremely intrusive, unless you already agree with him, and are in the target audience, I suppose, for this book -- that is, you are a Everybody Loves Raymond-watching lawn-care obsessive living in prefab house built in last two or three years (to stereotype in his fashion).

Brooks can be summed up with an anecdote: I once was watching a TV interview with Robert Loggia, who was promoting the film Independence Day. The host had the timerity to question the film's merits, and Loggia angrily replied that the millions of people who have gone to see the movie prove that it's good. No one forced them to see it. They chose it, and millions of people can't be wrong. Then he said that therefore, "if you don't like Independence Day you're an idiot." That's basically Brooks attitude, and no amount of pointing the "smug" accusation at liberals will change the fundamental self-contented hubris of his stance.

Brooks wants to argue that to be American is to be a hopeful idealist, on a holy mission for improvement to fulfill the land's holy destiny, only to make that broad stereotype cohere, he has to remove those Americans who don't fit, namely the poor, who make a mockery of American self-righteousness and highlight the selfish greed of the exceptional Americans Brooks wants to cheerlead for. To simply delete the poor from his analysis of America, as Brooks openly admits he is doing (he says he doesn't find them very interesting), is to suggest they aren't Americans at all, they're instead a resident alien workforce, slaves in all but name, who have no prospects, whose dreams don't figure into the national drama? They suffer? So what. No one who matters pays attention to them or notices how they live anyway. Anyone critical of anything American is coyly dismissed in his wide-eyed tone, which communicates how silly he thinks such thinkers like Marx, de Toqueville, Baudrillard, Whyte, Reisman, etc., are without openly rejecting them and without his having to produce any actual arguments against their points. His tone is supposed to have done the work for him. He refuses to register the decline in happiness and satisfaction most Americans have felt, either in the rich body of (non-comic) sociology that attests to it or in the anecodotal evidence that's out there. He refuses to see relentless striving as irrefutable evidence of perpetual dissatisfaction and insecurity. He just asserts that it is a holy mission, citing a specious body of nationalist propaganda, and leaves it at that.

The only positive remark I have about the book is that he cites a work that seems truly neglected to me, Colin Campbell's The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Capitalism. This is an actual argument about the development of capitalism, and it's brilliant.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Narrative sickness

My continued illness has me ruminating still about the story we constuct to explain our symptoms. Once we decide to enter into the medical-discourse game by going to a doctor, it becomes important that all the symptoms we think to mention fit the etiology of some disease. The details of self we share must conform to the story of some sickness, otherwise we will not experience the closure we're looking for, we won't be liberated from the panic that is the random ebb and flow that really is our life by having a formulaic plot to conform to; we won't have a future for ourselves that we can recognize, envision, elaborate, and accomodate.

That is where the heightened self-awareness that stems from (or constitutes in some epistemological way) sickness becomes a real problem -- the self-awareness makes us dredge up more and more symptoms, which become more and more difficult to fit into the narrative; we want to scrutinize ourselves into becoming a special case, transcending the formula that we yearned for -- the contradiction that binds us is thus revealed: we want a predictable, conforming life to save us from the terrors of uncertainty, the chance that we might be somewhere unpredictably awful tomorrow; and at the same time we want to be more important as individuals than any formulaic story that could be told about us, that is, we want to believe we are capable of anything, even of inventing a wholly personal illness for themselves. Hence, hypochondria as a social norm, and the secret fantasy of having a syndrome named after you.