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Feeling Self-Consciousness

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With the traditional sources of identity uprooted, identity has become more fragile as it has become more open-ended. We crave “ontological security”—as Giddens defines it, “the confidence most human beings have in the continuity of their self-identity and in the constancy of the surrounding social and material environments of action.” (ibid) Once upon a time, that confidence came automatically for most people, who would live their entire lives in the same town and have little exposure to ways of life beyond it.


In the modern world, the integrity of local experience has been shredded, and that confidence must instead be sustained by our own effort, and by those virtual communities linked by shared knowledge of how modern life works —knowing about chain stores and brands, having a cell phone, being internet savvy, or more basically, knowing how to navigate the increasingly homogenous urban spaces of capitalism—as well as by shared tastes and affinities developed through personal choice rather than assigned by fate of locality.


Our identity becomes a manufactured product to be publicized and validated rather than simply lived in. It promotes an inward turn, assessing one’s tastes and values, while at the same time it requires exhibitionism—publicly displaying the fruits of the inner quest in hope for recognition from others.

As a result, we are required to develop our sense of identity through constant self-monitoring and constant invocation of these communities. Modern identity is thus born of acute self-consciousness; the alienation of watching ourselves be ourselves makes the self seem an actual, discrete, precious and malleable thing. It becomes a manufactured product to be publicized and validated rather than simply lived in, as in premodern experience. Modernity thus promotes an inward turn, assessing one’s tastes and values, while at the same time it requires exhibitionism—publicly displaying the fruits of the inner quest in hope for recognition from others. We need trusted accomplices to verify our identity for us, to confirm the worth of what we’ve made.


Widespread adoption of Facebook both reflects and exacerbates the rise of the manufactured self. Social-network usage is an expression of the greater reflexivity of self in modern life: it’s not something we choose to do solely for entertainment or out of narcissism. It’s become a valve for the bottled-up, pressurized self-awareness forced upon us by modern life. If we opt out of it, we run the risk of unintentionally issuing a challenge to the ontological security of everyone on our friend list, a threat that ripples across the so-called social graph.


Whereas if we opt in, we grant ourselves access to a new wellspring of social interaction and arena for establishing mutual trust, which as Giddens argues, is the essential basis for our own ontological security, beyond the comfort of the familiar systems of consumerism . “Trust in abstract systems is not psychologically rewarding in the way in which trust in persons is,” he notes in The Consequences of Modernity.


Identity requires interpersonal trust, not just faith in impersonal systems and infrasructure. An intimacy deficit opens up, and we demand more of personal relationships than was expected in premodern times to close the gap. Friendship becomes less pro forma, less a matter of tribal loyalty and proximity, and more intimate. Relationships, Giddens claims, become an ongoing project of manufacturing security-giving personal trust: “Trust on a personal level becomes a project, to be ‘worked at’ by the parties involved, and demands the opening out of the individual to the other” through “demonstrable warmth and openness… The work involved means a mutual process of self-disclosure.”


cover art

Cold Intimacies: Emotions in Late Capitalism

Eva Illouz

(Polity; US: Dec 2006)

In Cold Intimacies, sociologist Eva Illouz labels this work “emotional competency”—a set of quasi-therapeutic skills for self-revelation and articulation coupled with listening skills geared toward recognizing and clarifying the claims about the self others are trying to make. These skills are more important than ever as the trends that brought on modernity continue to accelerate and the self secured by traditions is supplanted by the isolated individual making free choices in a marketplace of lifestyles. One can never stop exercising them—the self is never complete but always in process, always requiring rearticulation.


In other words, now that the sense of community has been displaced from a our real location and made virtual, we have rendered identity a perpetual work in progress, a striving to reach a home that may have no fixed reality as a particular place but is instead a state of mind, a realization of some ideal self and ideal community that nurtures that self. It may be an unrealizable fiction. Social networks seem like a logical extension of the opportunities for such rearticulation of self in such conditions and have been seized upon as such. However, the networked society has not evolved merely to serve the needs of self-fashioning subjects; it also serves to extend a consumer capitalism that’s already genetically predisposed to colonize all aspects of life and turn them into commercial opportunities.


By relocating our search for trust and ontological security to social networks, we begin to develop our self-identity in the heart of one of the business world’s most treasured commercial frontiers, an archived, indexed, and cross-referenced matrix of connections that reveal a multiplicity of marketing opportunities as well as revealing who among us who have the most emotional competency, the most connections, the most influence. Then those skilled people can be persuaded to turn that emotional competency into emotional capital, an exploitable resource. Social networks thus mobilize our identity-making process as a production process—in making ourselves, we make meanings that can circulate, we make affect that can be detached from its origin and embedded in new contexts. Social networks prompt is to develop our self as a profitable, personal brand.


In general, the new forms of mediated communication tend to undermine the trust that communication is otherwise supposed to build, compromising it with commercial interests. Despite “connecting” us more securely with others online, social networking has made our real-life, non-online identities more insecure than ever. With a new tool to investigate what we don’t immediately disclose up front, there is less reason for anyone to take us at face value, to practice emotional competency in a face-to-face encounter. People may just nod along at what we tell them and just Google us to discover the “truth”. This, after all, is how we are used to getting our information these days—as indexable, searchable data. The online identity supplants the real-life presence. We find ourselves more comfortable dealing with one another’s profiles than with one another, as it is certainly more convenient and requires less of our precious attention, the scarce resource of the digital age.


Social networks increase our sense of isolation while seeming to remedy it, much as consumerism exacerbates our yearnings while seeming to cater to them. With social networking on the rise, the trusting friendships that ideally compensate for our having to draw our ontological security from modern life’s abstract systems are themselves being assimilated into a system. They undermine the trust we turn to them to help sustain, meanwhile sizing us up in terms of our productive potential and harvesting it from us, as we make ever more “selfhood” online to be harvested. Even as we fashion our identity out of globalized brands and practices determined by institutions out of our control, the one thing that had seemed within our total control was the intimacy and intensity of our relationships. Facebook, however, wants to co-opt that reciprocity and make it into another publicly oriented, self-aggrandizing commercial project that we volunteer for, lured by the promises of convenience, notoriety, influence, and eventually money.


This has long seemed the thrust of social networking as a business. The social-networking companies want to be the intermediaries of friendship and ultimately stand in the middle of as many interactions between people as they can. In other words, they intend to make friendship more convenient, to automate it and make it so that we seem to conduct it on our own terms rather than on reciprocal ones—undermining its capacity to build trust. Meanwhile, those who want to put the data about our social relations to various commercial or juridical uses have huge new data sets to potentially mine.


At that point, we have also withdrawn ourselves as a resource for building our ontological security. We are losing the sources of personal “authentic” (i.e., noncommercial) trust that have made modern life tolerable. One of the most serious consequences of commercialized emotional competence, Illouz suggests, is that “actors seem to be stuck, often against their will, in the strategic” approach to emotionality. The Internet exacerbates this, making rationalized interpersonal relations possible on a much larger scale and to a much greater degree, but wiping out the face-to-face aspects that mitigate the commercial impulses that have been grafted onto them.


Illouz cites Jorge Arditi, who suggests that people may now have things in common that are too common, i.e., too many people citing the same interests in social networking profiles,  which makes relations somewhat generic, formulaic. As Illouz argues, “closeness results from the specificity and exclusivity shared between two entities. In this sense, nearness implies the sharing of ‘existentially generated meanings’”—inside jokes, lived reciprocity, common experiences that wouldn’t be elicited by surveys or self-help questionnaires or relationship counselors, not the stuff that would be shared in advance as interests on a social-networking profile. Closeness, trust, ontological security rests precisely the stuff that moves us that we don’t predict in advance. Internet sociality, however, tends to expect us to be adapt self-analysts and enforces the supposition that we can know what will move us predictably in advance.


Despite the efforts of the Facebook defectors, social networking continues to grow, feeding on its own momentum, even as it hollows out the ideals of friendship it pretends to serve. If social networks succeed on their current path, we will end up completely isolated from one another, cocooned in data, altogether indifferent to any forms of reciprocity that can’t be measured and adjudicated and put to work in networks. Instead we will only know attention-oriented quid pro quos. We may not even mind all that much—the incoming stream of data will make us feel more “connected” than ever.


Perhaps “connection” can replace “warmth” and “trust” in the future of intimacy.In the near term, though, we are endangering the relationships that we need to substantiate our sense of who we are, to save ourselves from a kind of socialized schizophrenia in which who we are fluctuates from moment to moment in a contemporary world that respects no traditions, a capitalism bent on creative destruction. To try to stabilize the self, we are thrown back on institutions, the abstract, globalized systems: An N+1 essay from its The Intellectual Situation section made the claim that “today we Google ourselves to see what the world knows about us; tomorrow we’ll just watch the ads.” (28 April 2010> To take the idea to its logical conclusion: we may have to eventually Google ourselves to find out who we are.


Robert Horning has developed a substantial body of work in PopMatters' music reviews, concerts, film, and TV sections. His writing has also appeared in Time Out New York and Skyscraper. In his PopMatters column, "Marginal Utility", Rob bridges the abstract and concrete aspects of consumerism. His writing is as grounded and approachable as an everyday trip to the grocery store. Rob has a BA and MA in English Literature; his interests in social theory, economics, and sociology generates his solid background knowledge for "Marginal Utility" and informs his music reviews. For more Rob Horning, be sure to read the Marginal Utility blog.


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