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by Rob Horning

26 Jan 2012

Irving Howe’s 1967 Commentary essay “The Culture of Modernism” (here’s a gated link for all you Commentary subscribers in the audience) is the sort of thing I usually don’t have much time for: a lot of fretting about nomenclature (what is modernism?), a preoccupation with literature qua literature, some contempt for the contemporary generation’s aesthetic shortcomings masquerading as concern for the future of humanism, and so on — the Great Critics doing Criticism. But I found it interesting that much of what Howe argues modernists were striving for is what internet culture, in the eyes of its boosters anyway, has achieved. Howe writes, “Modernism keeps approaching — sometimes even penetrating — the limits of solipsism, the view expressed by the German poet Gottfried Benn when he writes that ‘there is no outer reality, there is only human consciousness, constantly building, modifying, rebuilding new worlds out of its own creativity.’ ” That sounds a lot like a paean to virtuality, to humans freed from biological constraints to exist as pure (digital) expression. When critics say online sociality is solipsistic, they don’t recognize that we must “penetrate” solipsism to reach some sort of apotheosis of intersubjectivity. The modernists paved the way, responding to cultural sterility (their “end of history”) with unremitting commitment to innovation for its own sake. Howe cites Lukács (though it may as well have been Schumpeter), claiming that modernists are “committed to ceaseless change, turmoil and re-creation.” It actually sounds a bit like neoliberal economics.

Later, Howe declares that:

In modernist literature, one finds a bitter impatience with the whole apparatus of cognition and the limiting assumption of rationality. Mind comes to be seen as an enemy of vital human powers. Culture becomes disenchanted with itself, sick over its endless refinements. There is a hunger to break past the bourgeois proprieties and self-containment of culture, toward a form of absolute personal speech, a literature deprived of ceremony and stripped to revelation.

That sort of sounds like a status update or a tweet, or a Tumblr reblog — all of which espouse expediency as a kind of sincerity. The accelerated nature of online discourse, in social media especially, lays a privileged claim to the real. The participation in the group mind of social networks allows one to move beyond the limits of individual rationality (and the outdated depth psychology that depended on it); the abolishment of privacy online permits us to discard “bourgeois proprieties.”

So maybe when you sign up for Facebook, you automatically become Samuel Beckett. Social media makes modernists of us all. They democratize the “genius” of modernism and make its “terrible freedom” and the smashing the humbug of bourgeois order everyone’s prerogative. We can all document the self in a spirit of uncompromising full disclosure to deal with the “problem of belief” and the crisis of authenticity in the absence of transcendental truths and radically innovate with language and form. That is, we can build our personal brands on Facebook and tweet all day in LOLspeak.

Basically what aggrieved the modernists in Howe’s view — the crisis of identity and truth; the ceaseless striving for real expression — is what we now tend to celebrate as fun and freedom. Much as management consultants represent precarious work conditions as liberating free agency, the modernist crises of the subject are fun opportunities for self-expression, like some of the postmoderninsts insisted. Howe seems to conclude that the modernists were a bunch of nihilists who end up tormented by their achievements: “The lean youth has grown heavy; he chokes with the approval of the world he had dismissed; he cannot find the pure air of neglect.” That is, in their search for the genuine, modernists sought the “right to be forgotten” but failed. They ended up being liked too much. It will be different for us. We have forfeited that right in advance and tally the likes up to keep score in the grand game that selfhood has become. In our world, we celebrate the quantified self. To have measured out one’s life with coffee spoons is an unmitigated triumph.


by Rob Horning

25 Jan 2012

This Smithsonian post (via 3QD) offers some more support for my fledgling thesis from Monday’s post that “normal” identity is becoming explicitly data-based—that it’s natural to think about who we “really” are in terms of statistics-driven self-surveillance rather than depth psychology or self-actualization quests or anything like that. Freud is out, Facebook et al. is in. For example, we try things that seem self-expressive using media that can give us quantified feedback, and only when the results come back do we decide whether what was expressed was “true.” We can convert ourselves in the same way into data, that can make us into a statistical profile and return to us what other people with similar data profiles are doing, and hence what we ourselves should be doing.

by Rob Horning

24 Jan 2012

At the Cyborgology blog, Jenny Davis raises good points about this recent study, titled ” ‘They Are Happier and Having Better Lives than I Am’: The Impact of Using Facebook on Perceptions of Others’ Lives.” The media takeaway from this study, as Davis notes, is to report that Facebook makes us feel bad about ourselves because on the site we see other people mainly at their best and happiest, as people work to present themselves in the most flattering and enviable light.  That fits with what my experience with Facebook was: It made me all too aware that people I knew had lives that went on without me. They had the temerity to seem perfectly happy without any reference to me. I thought we were friends!

In other words, using Facebook made me feel acutely narcissistic, not because it got me to boast about myself, but because it brought home to me just how much I expect other people’s lives to revolve around me. And using Facebook more did nothing to acclimate me to this. I didn’t get used to the invitations to be envious. Eventually I stopped using Facebook altogether. I didn’t want the false frame of reference with my friends and am admittedly too self-centered to be bothered to be voyeuristic toward friended acquaintances.

by Rob Horning

23 Jan 2012

The Economist‘s holiday double issue a few weeks ago had an article about 1950s motivational-research guru Ernest Dichter (author of The Strategy of Desire) that argued that newfangled behavioral economics marks a kind of return to his approach to consumer behavior—that most of it is “irrational” and dictated by unconscious impulses and emotional needs, not by the perceived usefulness of a particular commodity. For a few decades, those assumptions were regarded as dubious—rejected as being patronizing toward consumers, refusing to grant them agency or the sophistication to desire things for complicated yet still conscious reasons. Motivational research and hysteria about consumer manipulation at the hands of evil corporations were based on assumptions that consumers are passive saps who are brainwashed into wanting this and that, whereas it had become more politically expedient for the left and the right both to begin to argue that consumers exercised real power over and in their deliberate shopping choices. Consumerism was touted as a genuine forum for self-expression, an arena in which the identity-enriching fruits of capitalism could be harvested. Or it was a place where consumers could genuinely subvert the hegemonic order, repurposing consumer goods to suit their own “revolutionary” purposes and undermine systems of control.

In reality, both of those interpretations of consumer behavior reinforced one another: individualistic identity projects became hard to distinguish from subversive detournement of goods, and squabbling over fashion-derived hierarchies leeched energy away from the confronting institutionalized economic ones. That is part of what makes consumer capitalism so durable. It commodfies identity and thereby makes it seem more powerful, the key to solving all of capitalism’s other inequities. It starts to seem plausible that the problems with capitalism are simply problems of self-expression.

So what then to make of the return of the irrational consumer? Here’s how the Economist article synthesizes recent behavioral research:

Humans, it turns out, are impressionable, emotional and irrational. We buy things we don’t need, often at arbitrary prices and for silly reasons. Studies show that when a store plays soothing music, shoppers will linger for longer and often spend more. If customers are in a good mood, they are more susceptible to persuasion. We believe price tends to indicate the value of things, not the other way around. And many people will squander valuable time to get something free.

In Dichter’s time, figuring out how to manipulate consumers beneath the level of consciousness was a matter of applying Freudian theory in what seemed to be intuitive, arbitrary ways (“To elevate typewriter sales, [Dichter] suggested the machines be modelled on the female body, ‘making the keyboard more receptive, more concave,’ ” the article notes). Now it’s more a matter of Paco Underhill-style applied surveillance, where retailers spy on their consumers, amass data on the ir aggregate behavior and draw conclusions that no individual consumer would have been able to explain—what kind of music leads to more purchases, how wide the aisles should be, which products should be placed at eye level, and so on.

This suggests how our improved capacity for quantification and data processing has changed the way we think of the “true self”: It’s no longer about depth psychology or the formation of a unique unconscious on the basis of universalized childhood experiences or what have you. Instead, we are starting to think the truth about ourselves is hidden from us not by our defense mechanisms but by our lack of computing power. We only have so much data in our memory (mainly our own limited personal experience) to process with our minuscule capacity to determine what is going on around us or why we are acting in such a way. Whereas computers aggregating the behavior of thousands or millions can reveal the genuine, normal response. Computers are our best analysts, not Freudians. We understand our irrationality not in reference to childhood trauma but to some composite of normal behavior built from masses of collected “shared” data and fed back to us under the guise of automated recommendations, superior filtering technology, influencing power within networks, augmented reality, etc. The empirical sheen to the computated conclusions about “ordinary” human behavior in the contrived situations being measured make them seem all the more incontrovertible. We begin to believe for expediency’s sake that the recommendation engines know the real us better than we could ever know ourselves. It makes it easy to fit into our world to accept that.

I wonder if capitalism’s system of control is evolving in a similar way. The ways capitalism offers subjects the opportunity to elaborate a unique identity are perhaps becoming either insufficient or irrelevant. They are being supplanted by improved surveillance, autosurveillance, constant confessions of the self. The politically useful concept of the unique personal identity is giving way to the more productive networked self, a disseminated identity normed through exhaustive data aggregation. The exhortation to “be ourselves” and discover the authentic self is steadily giving way to the soft commands to always be measuring ourselves, and sharing more information as a means to take that measure.

UPDATE: this All Things Digital post says basically the same thing: “The ‘Mad Men’ Years Are Giving Way to the ‘Math Men’ Era,” i.e. data is more important than creativity in intuiting what will manipulate people.

by Rob Horning

18 Jan 2012

Economic mobility is a different thing from social mobility, as any number of nouveau-riche tales of ostracized woe can testify to. Measuring whether one goes from one arbitrarily determined income bracket to another doesn’t tell us much about experiential changes; it doesn’t tell us whether one’s social circuit had changed, whether one’s children now go to a more elite school, with greater opportunities for sycophancy. Social mobility is often about establishing opportunities to be taken seriously by people with more status — or with more cultural capital, if you prefer — rather than raw income levels. Judging mainly by Victorian novels, it takes a lot of income to buy your way out of seeming like a striver when you begin hobnobbing with your betters.

But the difference between economic and social mobility is easy to lose sight of in policy discussions. Once the charts and graphs are trotted out, it’s easy to fixate on income differences that can be measured and varying rates of income change over time, with the idea that these comprehensively index the misery suffered through inequality. (More rumination, from Elias Isquith, about social mobility and whether it distracts us from inequality can be found here.)

Class and hierarchy and the ingrained sense of inferiority are not merely matters of money; they are more matters of power and assumed privilege. (That sentence felt a little tautological. I hope it makes some sense.) At Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen offered a few notes on why he thinks measures of economic mobility are “overrated.” This is the one that started me thinking about this:

For a given level of income, if some are moving up others are moving down.  Do you take theories of wage rigidity seriously?  If so, you might favor less relative mobility, other things remaining equal.  More upward — and thus downward — relative mobility probably means less aggregate happiness, due to habit formation and frame of reference effects.

Much of that is econospeak for “knowing your place makes you feel better.” It’s long been a right-wing critique that increased socioeconomic mobility yields only chaos — that liberals are too quick to forget that mobility can approach a zero-sum game: when some go up, others must go down. (Cowen suggests this is why economic growth matters more than mobility qua mobility.) Conspicuous-consumption and hedonic-treadmill theories similarly assume that any symbolic gains in status will be offset when those with the power to determine which symbols have status change the rules. Once the “wrong” people are doing something, the “right” people move on to something else, propelling the wheel of fashions.

But what does that mean for the value of novelty? Novelty is sometimes regarded neutrally as simple innovation, an expansion of the possibilities offered to consumers and thus enhancing their sense of power (which some argue derives meaningfully from the exercise of choice in markets). But a lot of novelty is fashion change driven by status panic. It is meant to be exclusionary; it is meant to cause misery as much as pleasure, as the pleasure is rooted in some else’s being rejected.

We adopt the habitus of a particular social status (which to a degree is based on our income) and evaluate our condition mainly with respect to others we see as sharing that status. When downward economic mobility means we can no longer afford to hang out with our class peers and buy appropriate status symbols and amenities, that upsets us, and Cowen suggests that this upset outweighs any gains others might experience from moving up and getting to experience new nice things. That is a sort of paleo-conservative attitude, one that runs counter to the “all novelty is experienced as good” assumption that often animates discussion of consumer behavior today. It turns out that some novelty is experienced as confusion (i.e., me holding an iPhone) and not enhanced utility or pleasure, and class is the index governing this. Given consumer society’s hegemony, it may be that once novelty is felt to be threatening, we translate it into a class mobility issue—we are uncomfortable not because the newness is alienating in itself but because we are now conscious of moving up or down, or testing the boundaries of class habitus.

Concern with mobility is of particular concern to Americans; it’s an integral aspect of its founding myths: a country without an aristocracy, where merit is rewarded and no one is born to a caste. Of course, the U.S. falls ludicrously short of that ideal, but that remains a huge part of American exceptionalism. So often mobility statistics are ginned up to compare the U.S. with Europe, the ancestral bastion of inherited privilege. If the U.S. falls behind Europe, it suggests that we are failing at our national mission. Cowen has what struck me as an odd explanation of why Europeans have experienced more economic mobility: “Lots of smart Europeans decide to be not so ambitious, to enjoy their public goods, to work for the government, to avoid high marginal tax rates, to travel a lot, and so on.” I wonder to what degree one can decide not to be ambitious, as if that aspect of the self is voluntaristic. “I thought about being ambitious, but the hell with it. PlayStation time.”

Cowen claims that European parents don’t inspire their children to achieve: ” ‘High intergenerational mobility’ is sometimes a synonym for ‘lots of parental underachievers.’ ” That seems to take a systemic social problem and individualize it: society has lots of opportunities if parents would just force their kids to pursue them more doggedly. This fits with an economistic line of thinking that views the habitus as the sum total of one’s response to personal incentives rather than something produced by broader social conditions. If you are not ambitious, it’s not because of what RIchard Sennett called the “hidden injuries of class” but because of a personal choice. You just didn’t want to be ambitious badly enough. Maybe your parents or your schools failed to motivate you as much as they could have, but the failing is still yours.

The underlying assumption appears to be that mobility is mainly a matter of will, which is really the main idea at stake in arguments about it. Conservatives like to overlook inherited privilege to argue that those who stagnate in poverty do so out of choice; others see class boundaries as institutionalized and carefully policed, not a matter of choice at all.


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