Doomed to Dilettantism

by Rob Horning

4 February 2009

Image (partial) found at 

Try Concentrating

Image (partial) by Izima Kaoru, Koike Eiko wears Gianni Versace, 423 ( 2006) from Excess Exhibit, Graham Dolphin, Izima Kaoru, Hetain Patel, Tom Gallant, Hancock & Kelly Live, 11 November 2006 – 13 January 2007, at Angel Row Gallery

Impelled by a sense that we must streamline our consumption and absorption of information and experiential opportunity (a need fomented by media technology, which both extends marketing’s reach and expands the amount of information we can readily acquire), we end up going for quantity over quality, the superficial over the complex, and regard convenience as an abstract good rather than being defined in relation to some other activity. Convenience only accelerates our pursuit of more convenience.

This imperative may be inherent in capitalism, which imposes a similarly irrational mandate on capitalists with regard to profit for its own sake. In the first volume of Capital, Marx describes how certain behavior becomes mandatory if capitalists are to reproduce themselves as capitalists:

It is only in so far as the appropriation of ever more and more wealth in the abstract becomes the sole motive of his operations, that he functions as a capitalist, that is, as capital personified and endowed with consciousness and a will. Use-values must therefore never be looked upon as the real aim of the capitalist; neither must the profit on any single transaction. The restless never-ending process of profit-making alone is what he aims at.

In Marx’s view, the economic roles we fulfill shape the horizon of our subjective aims while serving the underlying function of reproducing the existing system. For most of us, that economic role boils down to “consumer”, which means we must embody the restless pursuit of novelty, at least to the degree to which we want to be at harmony with the culture we live in. We become consumerism “personified and endowed with a consciousness and a will.” As a result, it’s hard to avoid the feeling of missing out on something, no matter how into whatever it is we actually are doing. Alternatives are always filtering in to taunt and tempt us, and we hold our ability to become absorbed, to achieve “flow”, in abeyance, waiting for the diversion.

We are kept always aware of what we are missing, and reminded that every moment is a purchasing opportunity. By the same token, information has never been easier to come by, yet it’s never been harder to turn information into knowledge. Instead the volume of information is an incentive to dabble in things rather than delve into them in pursuit of some sort of mastery, no matter how slight. I encounter a stray idea, digest the relevant Wikipedia entry, and just like that, I’ve broadened my conceptual vocabulary! I get bored with the book I’m reading, Amazon suggests a new one! I am too distracted to read blog posts, I’ll check Twitter instead!

Novelty trumps sustained focus, whose rewards are not immediately felt and may never come at all, as Elster points out, if our focus is mistakenly fixed on something ultimately worthless. (I’m thinking of my long investment in Cryptonomicon.) Rather than taking advantage of that “increasing marginal utility” that comes with practicing something difficult, our will to dilettantism develops momentum. Eventually, all the diversity and information-gathering convenience available to us comes at the expense of developing any sense of mastery over anything, eroding over time the sense that mastery is possible, or even worth pursuing.

To take a trivial example, let’s say I’ve decide I really like psychedelic music and want to cultivate a deep familiarity with the genre. This seems plausible enough until I stumble on the hardcore psych MP3 blogs; at that point I become discouraged by the impossibility of ever catching up and listening to it all. There is simply too much, available too readily. I could still download everything I can get my hands on—that costs me nothing but disk space and a nominal amount of time—but I’ll never listen to most of it more than once. Acquiring has supplanted inquisitive use as my self-realizing activity. I have become a collector of stuff as opposed to a master of psychedelic music.

This process will happen with more of our endeavors as what Elster calls “the marginal disutility of not consuming” grows stronger: We will have a harder time giving up the thrill of novelty, of exposing ourselves to new things, particularly when confronted with the superior mastery of those the internet exposes us to. We end up collecting things rather than knowing them, and we display our collections in the hopes that others will recognize us as though we actually have some sort of mastery.

Perhaps we have already reached a point where everyone knows the game, rendering the distinction between owning and mastering insignificant. (If I own a cool guitar, maybe a Nocaster replica or the Jag-Stang that Kurt Cobain used, does it really matter if I can play it?)

Dilettantism is a perfectly rational response to the hyperaccessibility of stuff available to us in the market, all of which imposes on us time constraints where there was once material scarcity. These time constraints become more itchy the more we recognize how much we are missing out on. We opt instead for “diversity”, and begin setting about to rationalize that preference, abetted by the way we celebrate disposability in our culture.

Mere concentration takes on more of the qualities of work—it becomes a disutility with regard to the things we acquire rather the purpose of getting them in the first place. If something requires us to concentrate, it seems to cost us more, forcing us to sacrifice opportunities to consume other available distractions. In other words, consumerism makes the will and ability to concentrate seem detrimental. The next thing you know, we’re buying soapmaking kits at Michael’s, and everyone touts Guitar Hero as a reasonable substitute for guitar playing and mocks the fuddy-duddy nabobs of negativism who are still hung up on the difference.

Generally, when the tools and processes for making art are simplified to make them accessible to casual, semi-invested would-be creators, those things then become signifiers of second-rate amateurism, and if they are used at all, they yield Mr. Beer-like detritus that no one can possibly take seriously. No one who was serious about making something would stock up for supplies at Michael’s. In most cases, shoppers are probably at Michael’s because they need to get a gift for someone or because they are indulging a vague impulse to launch into a hobby without doing much research first. That the chain is successful enough to proliferate stands as testimony to the collective crippling of our imagination.

I feel a little guilty in bashing Michael’s, because my intent isn’t to dump on the people who shop there in favor of an overclass of artistic professionals. But a process of professionalization seems necessary to bringing about a meaningful exchange between maker and user—a social relation must be brought into being in which the exchange itself matters more than the personal relation.

Often artistic professionalism is the cue to audiences that they are allowed to engage seriously with a work, to have an opinion regarding what it was about, to devote the resources to analyzing it, or even to allow themselves to enter into it vicariously. Often with homemade productions, I feel myself holding back, because I have this dread that I won’t be able to share the (frequently critical) insights that I would thereby derive.

Amateur productions don’t rise to the level where they can be seriously criticized, because their primary purpose seems to be securing recognition for their makers. So questioning what they’ve done can come across as tantamount to calling them personally worthless. I end up copping out with a line an old band mate of mine liked to use whenever he was trying to schmooze the other bands we played with: “Hey, it’s really great that you are doing that.”

Of course, in capitalist society, professionalization is a matter of getting paid. Making money—transforming a production into a commodity for sale and finding success in vending it—is the unmistakable mark of professionalism. Get to that point and you show that you’re not just dabbling; you are making customers of others and living up to their expectations. That discipline elevates your production efforts beyond hobby—you’re not just dilettanting around.

But professionalism needn’t automatically be defined by money—by selling out to The Man. It could instead be seen as a matter of creating something that isn’t merely an extension of one’s ego, giving a social life to an idea or thing that then takes on a life of its own. A noncapitalist understanding of professionalization might resemble flow, losing oneself in a process, wherein the end product is secondary to the creative experience itself but not a matter of total indifference either. Instead, it would have a ready path to becoming socially useful, to finding an appreciative audience without having to be explicitly marketed and having its meaning permanently altered by that discourse.

People who wax utopian about the internet often seem to be intimating this sort of post-industrial society, in which the internet becomes a low-barrier-of-entry distribution channel permitting our work to become socially useful without having to be filtered up through capitalist means of production first. Unfortunately, capitalist media companies and various internet startups (often under the guise of enhancing the “read-write Web”) have by this time managed to embed themselves online between most home producers and would-be consumers, and in much in the same way as Michael’s kits, the use of these intermediaries’ services tend to taint our productions automatically with amateurism. Thanks to the corporate-owned, easy-to-use services (think: Rupert Murdoch’s MySpace and the like), the space that had been opened on the internet for a different kind of professionalism is now being flooded with look-at-me productions.

If we are all narcissists, we’ll all remain amateurs, which offers an interesting, albeit functionalist, way to look at the modern efflorescence of narcissism—it seems as though there is an incentive to try to make us that way, insecure in who we are and preoccupied with gaining recognition. But sadly, a MySpace page will never make us web designers any more than a paint-by-numbers kit will make us artists.

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