Optimistic ways to be negative

by Rob Horning

26 January 2010


Going through the archive of this blog, I came across this post, about negativity. There I confess to having a knee-jerk skepticism about things billed as optimistic or positive, particularly when those terms are being used as synonyms for “feel-good” in the midst of a recommendation. I haven’t changed much: My first instinct is still to read “optimistic” as actually meaning “short-sighted” or “blinkered,” and to see positive spin as ideologically motivated hoodwinking. The role that blithe confidence and animal spirits played in the economic crisis has probably only made me more skeptical—it’s no good if too many people are persuaded to ignore their natural human tendency toward risk aversion. And the incentives are all in place for the financial sector and the media to collude in puffing up confidence, which I am taking to be broader than a mere willingness to spend or invest. This is obviously speculation, but complacency with one’s culture would seem to reinforce a blind confidence in the general economic situation, and vice versa. And a habit of resistance and skepticism about culture seems good practice for a similar skepticism towards salespeople, investment schemes, and peddlers of financial products. After the events of the past few years, could one possibly err on the side of being too cynical? Haven’t the bailouts and the events leading up to them proven once and for all that most of us lack the imagination to be cynical enough?

Frederic Jameson’s gloss on Marcuse, which prompted my earlier post, seems worth quoting again: “Thus it is that the happier we are, the more surely we are given over, without even being aware of it, into the power of the socio-economic system itself.” But “happiness” must be understood in a particular way, as a specific kind of narcissism endemic to consumer culture. The kind of happiness Marcuse and Jameson are talking about—in my interpretation, anyway—is the special satisfaction of self-fashioning with the tools afforded us by consumerism. It is a matter of experiencing a moment of cool because one is doing the approved things, or doing new things in the approved way, or is generally adding new flourishes and wrinkles to the carnival of public consumption. It is the happiness of online “sharing,” of participation in pseudoevents, of what Marcuse called repressive desublimation—the removal of moral and intellectual engagement from pleasure, and its transformation into a kind of compulsion or addiction. Jameson: “It is only when individual happiness, subjective contentment, is not positive (in the sense of ultimate satiation by the consumer society), but rather negative, as a symbolic refusal of everything which that society has to offer, that happiness can recover its right to be thought of as a measure and an enlargement of human possibilities.”

Back in 2005, I endorsed the idea of resistance for its own sake.

What matters are acts of resistance, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant—not laughing when the laugh track cues you, not saying “have a nice day” when you don’t mean it, adopting a stubborn literalism in the face of “witty” ads trying to win you to their snarky side, etc. One can help but be implicated in the consumerist system—one can’t simply stop shopping unless one has survival resources that extend beyond what the typical American habitus equips one for. But one can begin to seek out the sorts of tactics Michel de Certeau writes about in The Practice of Everyday Life, the subversive moves wherein the producer’s intentions are subverted by the consumers in an effort to manifest a sense of life outside of the market hegemony. Debord advocated cultural detournement, taking cultural artifacts and parodying them, using them in ways opposite to how they are intended. Sontag called it camp, approaching culture with an incisive irony that turned the consumer society’s soporifics and stupefiers against it. All of these are semi-idealistic, optimistic ways to be negative.

I’m less salient about those approaches now; cultural resistance seems to have been absorbed into what it attempts to resist. The problem with consumer culture is not its content but its form; when we express our resistance with the tools supplied to us to publicize it, our acts of local refusal become general endorsements of the larger system of cultural mediation. (Whatever we complain about on Twitter may be bad; Twitter itself is okay.) It is imperative to resist when we can, but what we end up having to resist the most is the petty vanities of celebrating our own resistance.

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