by Rob Horning

23 December 2010


Need help. Which, if any, of the following ideas do you think would make a good book? Let me know @marginalutility on Twitter or at horning (at) Thanks.

1. Social media as mode of personal branding, personal branding as a rational response to risk, or to the dissolution of the state and its safety net. As a response to the pressure to be interesting, to justify one’s social necessity outside of a state that guarantees your worth as a citizen or a market that values your abstract, depersonalized labor. Suddenly we must justify ourselves specifically as the special individuals we have been groomed to believe that we are. Universal self-exploitation is the end result of a society in which all individuals are fully realized in their uniqueness—one is perpetually obliged to defend one’s self-concept, to prove one is an individual. The place where one sees this most currently—where this ideology has taken grip the most—is the obligation to consume in connoisseur-like, hipsterish ways. The compulsion to enjoy oneself in a self-productive way . Real consumption—Bataille-like destruction of resources in purely personal acts of non-relatable jouissance—is harder to achieve; every act of consumption can be turned to account, rebroadcast, turned into a symbol for something else.
2. Social media and self-creation as forms of immaterial labor; communications as a capitalist resource for exploitation, developing from the idea of “communicative capitalism”—the meanings we make in the process of being social are being captured as a resource and used to reinforce established relations of production. Incentives spring up to make us communicate in mediated ways, leading to the realization of the social factory in social networks, as friendship becomes a production process, a generation of meanings and memes and marketing data and enthusiasm that can be reified and rechanneled. Self-fashioning is also understood as an economically productive process, reconfigured as personal branding, as the manufacture of the self as a set of symbols that can be mobilized and redeployed by others. No sense “becoming who you are” if this self is not measurable, or susceptible to being leveraged.
3. Affective labor, or care work, becoming measurable, becoming wage work and thus subsumed by capital. Eroding places from where resistance to capitalism can be staged. Purging alternative ideologies of selfhood, of self-purpose, alternative value systems to profit and self-aggrandizement. A feedback loop is created where the lack of care work intensifies the interpersonal friction that prohibits collective identities from forming or from seeming satisfying. We get caught in cost-benefit methods of assessing relationships, as sociologist Eva Illouz argues. Emotions become measurable and reified, tradable currency, as is explicit in Facebook liking, and so on. This is precisely the paradox of sensibility, in the 18th century sense of the word. The cult of sensibility reified emotionality to dignify it, but ended up making it as instrumentalized as the economic rationality it was meant to repudiate. We get stuck in strategic attitudes about emotionality.
4. Modes of resistance to technologized subjectivation—to having that self that is only a brand or a profile page, or a trail of marketing data, or a node on a network map. Ineffability of love as resistance, as defining an autonomous zone. Will Davies’s notion of an ethics of inconvenience, which could be rooted in or patterned on the voluntarism, the “wasteful” potlatch-style giving of intimate friendship—the inherent inconvenience of personal interaction and co-presence—and expanded from there. This must be set against encroaching modes of pseudo-friendship which encourage asynchronous interaction—timeshifting social interaction as through it were TV, as though social life was something to be consumed in isolation on one’s own time rather than consisting in a necessary sacrifice or surrender to the real imposition of others. 
5. Personal branding as the dominant metaphor of self-actualization; as a hermeneutic for interpreting one’s place in the culture and quantifying one’s influence, which in turn points the way toward one’s purpose—growing one’s brand equity as measured in markets of attention and celebrity, in social media
6. Technology’s role in accelerating consumption, facilitating distraction, and allowing the illusion of the compression of space-time through our consuming more without investing the effort or time in experiencing it. Consumption deskilling yields consumerism. Collecting books and music and not reading or listening to them. The Guitar Hero phenomenon of simulating the acquisition of a skill—and inescapable dilettantism that results from the Guitar Heroization of all possible interests. At the same time we become dilettantes, we also become collectors of goods, because we conserve time by replacing experiencing and doing with acquiring and collecting. A preoccupation with metadata, with schemes of organization replacing direct experience, follows from this ideological imperative to speed consumption, which is arguably built into capitalist logic—that is, value is generated through the sheer circulation process, and more consumption means faster cycles and more valorization.
7.  The problem with ideologically encouraged reflexivity. The instilled urge to self-monitor and how the resulting data is alienated and exploited. How this is a mode of self-exploitation. Destructive forms of self-awareness incited by gadgetry, social media, that inhibit spontaneity or flow and engender alienation. The increasing difficulty of remaining silent yet soulful—of having an awareness of interiority that is not an aftereffect of ceaseless projection and public babble.
8. Dangers of sharing. The possibility that isolation can be redemptive, a respite from oversold, inescapable, mandatory connectivity. Related to the incentives to communicate, to generate mediatized content in order to seem to exist socially. Is my deep-seated resistance to sharing in the current corporatized methods anything other than narcissism; that is, is it the germ of a useful form of resistance or an impediment to joining with others to subvert those methods? Why does every gesture of communication tend to feel like an act of self-promotion, an act of egomania? Why is so much disavowal of the potential for gain in speaking—so much effort to forget reflexivity for the possibility of reciprocity—suddenly required to speak? I suspect that social media, like the advertising and marketing discourse of which it is a species, can comfortably absorb subversion and turn it to its own account. But opting out seems an altogether futile response, precluding the possibility of spurring a dialectical movement, of going through social media (and, say, trying to turn it inside-out) since one can’t go around it.
9. The attention economy and whether it can be resisted by refusing attention, seeking anonymity, by pursuing the “fatal strategy” of disappearance. This is another way of stating the personal-branding question. Can one resist personal branding when that demands that one efface oneself from society. When the only way to appear in public space is as a brand, how does one enter public space to organize efforts to change that situation.
10. Is there such a thing as the new narcissism? Or have we left the culture of narcissism behind and entered a new cultural pathology, the borderline personality society, driven by inconsolable fear of abandonment, fathomless insecurity, a need for constant contact, wild swings between attraction and repulsion, approach and avoidance, and a difficulty in maintaining boundaries and commitments. Social media becomes the mechanism by which an intense sense of inner worthlessness is made productive of an endless stream of communicative efforts to overcome it or project it on others. We may be nostalgic for the old narcissism, which in its earnest pursuit of self-actualization was still capable of imagining autonomy and cherishing it. The subjects in the digital age may be too self-aware of their connectedness, their interpenetration by other subjects, their virtual intertextuality, to put any stock in self-actualization as something that is not an endless process of repositioning. Today’s subjects have given up entirely on the idea of a soul, an inner truth of the self that is not always already a work in process. 
11. Perhaps narcissism was always a red herring, and the social pathology that has been characterizing more and more of western society is depression, as sociologist Alain Ehrenberg has argued. Depression, in his interpretation, is when one becomes “tired of having to become himself”—in other words, what happens when the burdens of sharing, etc., the incentives to self-actualize through communication, become overwhelming. That burden, arguably, has been progressively made heavier by “communicative capitalism” and its incentives and ideological cajoling it offers for us to develop our personal brand. We must further attenuate our uniqueness and justify our precious sense of specialness, since it is no longer rooted in a traditional identity, in our social contribution to sustaining a particular community’s way of life. With self-fashioning subsumed by capital, capitalist logic now governs it, meaning it must be commodifed (as data) and exchangeable and then turn some sort of profit in being circulated. It needs to continually valorize itself. Thus the self we must become is not a “steady-state” self but a self always on the verge of “creative destruction”—a self that must continue to grow or die. We end up with an ideology that celebrates an entrepreneurial sort of self that is putatively free to fail, but a lived self that is ravaged or emptied by the perpetual insecurity.  Depression is a different way of conceptualizing a refusal to reiterate the requisite process of ceaseless self-destruction. It is a way of expressing a refusal of the freedom to fail by making a particular failure permanent. Depression is a kind of resistance that manifests as self-destruction, since the self has become caught up in the thing we long to resist in our souls.
12. The vicissitudes of identity-formation. The command that we become ourselves is always an existential threat—it implies that we don’t yet actually exist—and capital has developed a vested interest in issuing this command repeatedly, as it prompts us to scramble and make communicative gestures that can be captured and exploited.  We can’t opt out of modernity, withdraw into a kind of internal exile of localness. Traditions are phased out, and lifestyles have taken over. Yet we regard becoming ourselves as a primary goal, an orienting purpose in life. What forces sustain this ideology in the wake of the therapy movements of the late 20th century and how has the evolution of media technology served to reinforce it? Is there a self that isn’t at once a reified lifestyle—can we maintain a blindness to ourselves that lets us escape the reflexivity that drives us to pigeonhole ourselves, see ourselves as a brand in the marketplace of attention?
13. How consumer capitalism works by manufacturing insecurity in the guise of Giddens-esque “fateful moments”—moments of self-defining decision. Purchases masquerade as self-actualizing deeds but really just precipitate further identity crises as the fashions that govern the meaning of purchases change beyond the self’s control. Our self-development thereby synchronizes with the ever-accelerating fashion clock. Trends expire and with them our stable sense of self.
14. The financialization of everyday life—ontological insecurity and the demands placed on us that we be maximally flexible and open to new commitments means we assess our moment-to-moment life chances with the tools of risk management and hedging, with obvious consequences to “disinterested” pure relationships. Personal branding can be seen as a response to this condition, a mode of making the self amenable to risk-assessment techniques.
15. Look at how consumers are compensated for their ongoing ignorance in affect and pleasure, which in turn sustains information asymmetries necessary to capitalism. This allows us to consumer and enjoy brands that are stamped on goods that are inferior or useless. “Consumer confidence” is a gauge of the production of ignorance; are the means by which its measured a means of reproducing it, and its importance?  Reproducing the blind spots about lack of self-fulfillment? Massive efforts are made to manipulate people emotionally into a state of “confidence” (or desperation) that allows them to spend freely. A main product of consumer capitalism is this affect—a tolerant view of debt; an eagerness for novelty; an overweening need to consume conspicuously; an optimistic vision of future prospects; an eagerness to substitute ownership for experience; and so on. Systemic, manufactured ignorance also fits with the capitalism’s having to rely on “animal spirits” to sustain itself—the resources needed to reproduce that sort of entrepreneurial zeal in successive generations are worth considering. The ideology of the competitive spirit needs to be produced that it such ambitious striving is its own reward, even in the face of repeated business failure and the corrosive emotional effects of a constant war of all against all. “Animal spirits” are a kind of willed ignorance (encouraged institutionally) of capitalism’s detrimental consequences.
16. Want friction. Another version of the ethics of inconvenience. The ready availability for impulse satisfaction keeps our desires from ripening. If we can readily access too much of what we want, we become acutely aware of a time shortage, pressuring us to move through the atomized wants rapidly. This habituates us to shallow satisfactions and a wariness (or weariness) toward depth, toward the obscure of difficult, toward the recondite satisfactions only theoretically available to us. Deeper desires are stifled in the rampant satisfaction of superficial yearnings. (Example: listening to a new album everyday instead of develop a deeper relation to a single one. consuming media in a compulsive serial fashion rather than permitting time for reflection. Choosing consumption over other kids of activity, that don’t help clear the overhang of what’s available. The seed of our desire is wasted when it can’t ripen into a complex longing. The sun of desire is killed by petty gratifications, ersatz satisfactions. But can satisfaction be false, or should we take what we can get?
17. Strategies for dealing with information surplus. How filtering technologies and recommendation engines are syncing with an ideology of consumer choice as self-constituitive to produce an automated identity. Filtering is the prerequisite for consumerdom—the economic surfeit/surplus is winnowed down in an ongoing process to make for a given self at a given moment, which is then evaluated in terms of how popular it proves in the social networking domain, etc., and then adjusted by consuming more information/having different information filtered in. Less important to be informed than to know the ways to gain admission into chosen hierarchies structured in networks online. Hence we use social media as a control panel to fine-tune the self. The goal is not to become informed so much as to signal a tentative, tactical self in the attention marketplace that is the field for contemporary identity. This identity, since it is documented online, can serve as a rolling target for marketing, which in turn shapes how it will evolve—how the subject’s self-knowledge will develop. The seemingly autonomous choices will actually be contained by the field of possibilities intrusively presented, by the various filters the subject’s prior consumer behavior has shaped. A feedback mechanism develops the self, but one that has little to do with interiority, which appears after the fact.
18. How the cult of sensibility developed in response to the development of the commercial market for novels, how that yielded a consumerist subjectivity, interiority hinging on vicariousness, how that ideal collapsed on itself, and how something similar may be happening with the efflorescence of social media.
19. Advertising discourse as hegemonic, dictating the terms of social recognition and the language of selfhood, such that the self as personal brand emerges.
20. The “fun morality.” How leisure and work have become difficult to differentiate.


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