Possessed by Possessions

by Rob Horning

8 January 2010


Ever since I read Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces in 2004, I’ve wanted to read Raoul Vaneigem’s Situationist manifesto, The Revolution of Everyday Life. I even went to the trouble of cutting and pasting all the text into a Quark document and printing it out. But I am only now getting to it; the stuff I’ve reading about immaterial labor and Web 2.0 reminded me of the Situationists, who (in my unrefreshed understanding) seemed like precursors to the techno-optimists who believe the interactivity of the Web has radicalizing potential and may usher in an alternative to capitalism that revolves around ceaseless unexploited creativity and self-actualization. It is the realization of what detournement—reappropriating commercial cultural and subverting it—could bring, a radicalized subjectivity that is fluid and spontaneous, uncaptured.

I’m skeptical of all that, agreeing instead with the arguments that see Web 2.0 as the apotheosis of the “social factory,” in which our consumption is productive and subjectivity becomes the ultimate capitalist commodity. It has never been more bound up with capitalist production. We make our mediated identities out of the set of commercialized signs, and this becomes the bottom line and the horizon for any form of social activity.
Reading Vaneigem (which is not easy—he tends toward the manifesto style of making a string of prophetic assertions and often argues by way of epigram), I see that the Situationist critique of consumer society (the “society of the spectacle”—of role-playing displays of identity that are somehow not authentically lived) applies with equal force to 21st century commercial culture, but their Utopian prescriptions in many ways have been co-opted (which is what Marcus was arguing in his book, if I am remembering correctly—punk failed). Vaneigem expresses boundless faith in the transformative power of spontaneous creativity but did not anticipate the invention of Web 2.0 as a system for harvesting it, stripping it of its subversiveness and making it serve the circulation of commodities and specular identities. It has become much harder to disappear into everyday life; instead everyday life has been assimilated into the existing relations of production. Were I to update Twitter or Facebook, I’d be administering that integration, whether I realized it or not.

Since my last few posts have been about “having to like new music”—that is, whether there is a compulsion to pay attention to commercial culture that is now metastasizing, this passage from Vaneigem jumped out at me:

To consume is to be consumed by inauthenticity, nurturing appearance to the advantage of the spectacle and to the detriment of real life. The consumer is killed by the things he becomes attached to, because these things (commodities, roles) are dead.

Whatever you possess possesses you in return. Everything that makes you into an owner adapts you to the order of things makes you old. Time-which-slips-away is what fills the void created by the absence of the self. The harder you run after time, the faster time goes: this is the law of consumption. Try to stop it, and it will wear you out and age you all the more easily. Time has to be caught on the wing, in the present but the present has yet to be constructed.

This comes in a the midst of a chapter in which he seems to be arguing that we can live forever if we really wanted to, so take it with a grain of salt, I guess. The lesson in this for cultural consumption is to experience things without becoming attached to them, without collecting them, without forming an opinion about them that it then becomes urgent to convey to others and use as part of your own social identity. That calls for the rejection of “remix” culture, which involves appropriating what’s out there to better pin down personal identity so that it can be deployed strategically.

Ultimately, the implication of Vaneigem’s claim here is that “self-expression” is a false ideal, at least as we know it—that is, it has become a way of reifying the self as a manipulable object. What we need to do, he seems to be saying, is purify expression of the self; to end consumption as signification, as a form of production. A key to this, Vaneigem suggests, is to try to think outside the concept of time, which is the pivotal category for integrating the self. That way, we “construct the present” that has otherwise eluded us as we project ourselves into the future or ruminate over the past.

Interesting, but I don’t know how this prescription doesn’t end up turning radical subjectivity into perfect solipsism. (ADDENDUM: In other words it is hard for us to imagine sharing a world with others before imaging a self who does the sharing; we want sharing to consist of moments of self-expression exchanged rather than it being a constitutive moment, with the sharing bringing a collective spirit into being that precedes a self-consciousness.) The problem is that social recognition has become a product and we face increasing pressure to put it up for sale when we have some to offer. But that doesn’t mean we can live a fulfilling human life without it.


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