by Rob Horning

25 February 2009


I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the point I was trying to make at the end of the previous post. My dissatisfaction ties in with my thinking about Ryan Avent’s point in this post responding to criticism of Richard Florida’s recent Atlantic article about the future of the “creative class.” Avent is puzzled by the objection to fashion-oriented innovation, regarding them as cultural goods, and concludes that “Cultural goods aren’t just a nice by-product of a modern economy. They’re the very justification for it.” In other words, the reason we care at all about economic growth is to expand the quality of life, which is expressed through the ability for we in the ordinary classes to afford the ever more innovative and creative commodities made by the creative class. Avent writes, “Efficient technologies are nice, in no small part, because they allow us to cheaply or sustainably use electronics, either to work more productively (in order to spend on those frou-frout consumption goods) or to directly consume entertainment (like television or video games, which contain disturbingly high levels of frou-frou design, music, and narrative).”

I don’t agree with this assessment of the effects of technology. In my view, technology seems to accelerate the rate at which we consume (while affecting the personality changes to facilitate this acceleration) so that the cycle of exchange can spin more rapidly, allowing producers to realize profit at a faster rate. Technology is like financial leverage, only on the variable of time. Without any malice, with nothing but the best intentions of bringing something new and captivating into the world, the “creative class” aids this acceleration by fueling the fashion cycle and shortening it to accommodate more trends, more memes, more retro recoveries, more design accoutrements, more obsolescence. The creative class are by definition artists who have bent their talents to commercial purposes; thus, the cultural goods they produce tend not to satisfy “real” wants in those who consume them; instead the consumption of these goods may be a defensive measure to preserve one’s place on the cool continuum, to signal one’s ability to keep up or keep ahead. Even if real pleasure is derived from these cultural goods, it often comes compromised—the pleasure is imbued with positionality; it is often the pleasure of knowing more than others, of social superiority, which can mask itself in aesthetics. The relation between the creative-class cultural good producer and the consumer is not analogous to the relation between artist and audience. The latter is gratuitous; the former serves an ineluctable socioeconomic purpose.

Another problem with the creative class is that they are making cultural goods that are designed to in part supplant the creativity of the people who consume them; they abet the idea that sheer ownership of tastefully curated goods is an expression of creativity, taking us off the hook for actually doing anything more, for actually realizing our own creativity through more elaborate activity, through meaningful work undertaken seriously and ultimately geared toward adding to society’s aesthetic wealth. But currently, the creative class monopolizes that process, and the ideology of cool, urban living being central to its productivity helps preserve that monopoly.

Now, to the point I was trying to make yesterday. The internet, originally, was heralded as a medium that could threaten the creative class’s monopoly, undermine the networks they thrive in and open up creative and rewarding social production to a much broader swathe of society. If you buy into a Marxian utopian vision, this is ultimately what socialism is about—overcoming the division of labor so that each person can realize their full potentialities in socially necessary and recognized work. The distinction between creative work and drudgery would be effaced. We all would have the opportunity for meaningful work and for society, in some way, to recognize our creative efforts—wages would in essence be replaced by this creative fulfillment and recognition. This is utopian, of course, but if a “progressive” movement means anything, the end of alienation is what it would be progressing toward.

Paradoxically, we all need a sympathetic community within which to realize our individuality. Isolated, we are ciphers, even to ourselves; only as a social being do we know ourselves and become aware of how we are fulfilling our capabilities. Consumerism functions primarily by isolating us, offering us products for our self-realization in lieu of that community. These ultimately fail, leaving us with a sense that our identities are unstable, tenuous. Our connection to the community that buoys us is obscured.

If we are all to be creative and be recognized for it, we need an audience attuned to our own idiosyncratic creative production, which would thrive in a more or less pure form since it wouldn’t need to be commercially viable or compete economically with other creations. The internet seems to be the technological development that could facilitate these microaudiences, and the proselytizers of the various forms of social media seem to have this in mind in their encomiums. Our social networks can potentially become the infrastructure for these the appreciative microaudiences, who will celebrate our pure expressions of our creative self (presuming these expressions can be transmitted digitally). We could be famous to fifteen people instead of for fifteen minutes. (Someone else must have used that line before.) 

But therein lies the problem—the very notion of fame. If we pursue fame as it is currently constituted in any way, our practice devolves into the familiar forms of reification, alienation, profit maximization. We replace the pleasure of the activity of work in itself with fantasies about the outcome, the rewards we imagine we’ll reap in measurable notoriety. Hence, social networks don’t make for microaudiences then; they seem to function like any other consumer product that caters to our fantasy life—in this case, the fantasy serviced is that of our being celebrities like the stars in whose lives we participate vicariously through gossip and well-attenuated entertainment product. Now we can emulate them in a subtler way, by trying to maximize our social reach by amassing friends or followers and imagining they are hanging on our every update.

Of course we disavow such fantasy overtly, but it’s there, fueling the drive to inform on ourselves in Twitter posts. The internet hasn’t only fostered microaudiences; alongside that possibility has sprung up its neutralizing antithesis, the impossible dream of a mass audience for everyone, for ourselves. Pursuing that dream nullifies the benefits that might come from a nurturing microaudience; it is a return to isolation, a retreat into vicarious fantasy rather than a shoring up of our presence in a community. To chase that mass audience, one must adopt the commercial and entrepreneurial strategies of honing in on the common denominator. With that we are back in the realm of the creative class, and its commercial yardsticks and its competitive prerogative, its defense of its fiefdom of cool, defined as the latest novelty others can be seen chasing. To dissolve the creative class into a universal creativity, the tyranny of “cool”—fashion as a mass-market business; trendspotting as an entrepreneurial vocation; friendship as a quantitative measure; influence as and end in itself—must be abolished.

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