The Public Display of the Private Individual

by Ben Medeiros

9 July 2009

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Displaced Personal Improvement

Displaced Personal Improvement

In its invitation to routinized self-disclosure, the blog format itself seems to create a kind of template for this alleviation of the pressure to spontaneously have a really good time; it gives their pursuits a form.

The passages from the two scholars above indicated that the therapeutic imperative was in some ways fundamentally defensive. The issue, then, is not only identifying (or in more appropriate terms for this kind of piece, suggesting) the implicit root of this defensive posture, but also in unpacking why and how this particular nexus of technological and social practice may appear as a privileged site of negotiating whatever identity issues are put on display. The two developed blogs which seem like fertile entry points,
100 Bands in 100 Days and Art Every Day, both locate their recuperative therapeutic work in issues of fun and leisure-time enjoyment.

Specifically, “100 Bands in 100 Days” documents a New York City man’s self-imposed challenge to get back in touch with his love of live music through the apparently herculean undertaking of seeing 100 consecutive days’ worth, while the more collaborative “Art Every Day” (and its offshoot “Creative Every Day”) challenges participants to make and display (the definition of which is personally discretionary) something they consider “art” every day of the week. Both, then, rest on what Max Weber would have called the “rationalization” of something ordinarily spontaneous or otherwise located outside the realm of personal regulation; the stuff people do to kick back when they aren’t supposed to be doing anything.

The revealing aspect of this iteration of user-generated media comes into sharper focus with a little bit of help from Slavoj Zizek. Throughout his body of work, Zizek has formulated a distinction between two registers of “the law”. With Lacanian psychoanalysis as the obvious starting point, Zizek posits that there is the symbolic external law—the dictum that outwardly prohibits certain behaviors as a member of society—and the internal law of the superego. The primary superego imperative, according to Zizek’s reading of Lacan, is that of jouissance—or what he calls the “injunction to enjoy” (How to Read Lacan). In this sense, “enjoyment” is closer to the literal French meaning of the word jouissance, a kind of painful and incomplete pleasure. In other words, it is anxiety provoking: as he puts it, “to enjoy is not a matter of following one’s spontaneous tendencies; it is rather something we do as a kind of weird and twisted duty.” (see Zizek’s lecture, The Superego and the Act posted here on The European Graduate School website, and From Western Capitalism to Western Buddhism posted here on Cabinet magazine.)

What’s so interesting about these aforementioned blog strains, therefore, is that they formulate their ostensible goal as a kind of alleviation of the injunction to enjoy. In this way, they are essentially therapy for the internal demand that one have a good time when he/she is supposed to. Consider first the description of the idea on “100 Bands in 100 Days”: the project is designed as “a self-induced binge gigging marathon” that the proprietor, Nick Sonderup, has initiated because (among other reasons) “[he] wants to see if [he] can do it.” The goal is not simply the completion of the project, however—it goes further: ancillary goals include “to become more assertive” and “to work out a better work/life balance”.

Some of the reception from the “Art Every Day” blog echoes the kind of displaced personal improvement that comes from regimenting one’s otherwise spontaneous creative activity. Two posts in particular help to underscore this notion: one reads, “Your blog keeps my focus on being creative even on the days when I’m not ‘producing’ anything. That’s keeping my brain fertile and watered for the days when the sun breaks through. Another goes further, stating that “Some days I don’t think I am being very creative—until I stop and think—planting the strawberry plants today was a creative process—creating that coconut cream pie from scratch was a creative act—playing cards with my daughter and boyfriend was a creative act ... I want to thank you for opening my heart and mind to being more aware and thereby being more creative and more satisfied with things when I don’t think I am doing enough.” 

Instead of simply writing up their concert experiences or telling their friends about some cool new art projects, these writers appear to locate the satisfaction of having participated in such ordinarily pleasurable endeavors in precisely the degree to which they circumvent enjoyment in their execution altogether. They articulate the achievement of a new kind of “meaning” in their appreciation of certain leisure activities—or even lifestyle regulation itself—through the publicly displayed documentation of the struggle to stick with a routine of self-ordained, compulsory enjoyment.

They are thus therapeutic in the sense that they transform the material of leisure into a form of work, and thus (according to the logic) recuperate a kind of ownership of such activities and feelings. Since the importance of the mode of communication is our fundamental concern here, I think we can go one step further: in its invitation to routinized self-disclosure, the blog format itself seems to create a kind of template for this alleviation of the pressure to spontaneously have a really good time; it gives their pursuits a form.

Zizek is fond of pointing out a kind of “perverse core” of militarism that lies at the heart of the westernized Zen of new age spiritualism. I think that the kind of self-articulation that is at work in the aforementioned blog format could very well just appear par for the course concerning the “Western Buddhism” that a writer like Zizek adamantly (albeit eccentrically and sometimes incoherently) argues is the underlying ideology of Western consumer society.

The point, however, is not to indict such social- technological practices as bad or glorify them as good; it is simply to suggest that there appears to be a strong link between the architecture of the public platform and the kind of private affective participation that it affords. More specifically, it seems that the pressure or imperative to conceptualize one’s enjoyment through exhibitable or reproducible terms in a way produces its own backlash: the terror of the injunction to have a really great time is alleviated through the public display of how your “fun” is actually a form or struggle—or better, of work and productivity.

Ben Medeiros is a grad student in the Media, Culture, and Communication program at NYU. His work centers broadly on race, gender, and youth culture in media history, and he’s written on topics related to new media and contemporary social and cultural theory, as well.

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