Going through the archive of this blog, I came across this post, about negativity. There I confess to having a knee-jerk skepticism about things billed as optimistic or positive, particularly when those terms are being used as synonyms for “feel-good” in the midst of a recommendation. I haven’t changed much: My first instinct is still to read “optimistic” as actually meaning “short-sighted” or “blinkered,” and to see positive spin as ideologically motivated hoodwinking. The role that blithe confidence and animal spirits played in the economic crisis has probably only made me more skeptical—it’s no good if too many people are persuaded to ignore their natural human tendency toward risk aversion. And the incentives are all in place for the financial sector and the media to collude in puffing up confidence, which I am taking to be broader than a mere willingness to spend or invest. This is obviously speculation, but complacency with one’s culture would seem to reinforce a blind confidence in the general economic situation, and vice versa. And a habit of resistance and skepticism about culture seems good practice for a similar skepticism towards salespeople, investment schemes, and peddlers of financial products. After the events of the past few years, could one possibly err on the side of being too cynical? Haven’t the bailouts and the events leading up to them proven once and for all that most of us lack the imagination to be cynical enough?
Frederic Jameson’s gloss on Marcuse, which prompted my earlier post, seems worth quoting again: “Thus it is that the happier we are, the more surely we are given over, without even being aware of it, into the power of the socio-economic system itself.” But “happiness” must be understood in a particular way, as a specific kind of narcissism endemic to consumer culture. The kind of happiness Marcuse and Jameson are talking about—in my interpretation, anyway—is the special satisfaction of self-fashioning with the tools afforded us by consumerism. It is a matter of experiencing a moment of cool because one is doing the approved things, or doing new things in the approved way, or is generally adding new flourishes and wrinkles to the carnival of public consumption. It is the happiness of online “sharing,” of participation in pseudoevents, of what Marcuse called repressive desublimation—the removal of moral and intellectual engagement from pleasure, and its transformation into a kind of compulsion or addiction. Jameson: “It is only when individual happiness, subjective contentment, is not positive (in the sense of ultimate satiation by the consumer society), but rather negative, as a symbolic refusal of everything which that society has to offer, that happiness can recover its right to be thought of as a measure and an enlargement of human possibilities.”