The alluring danger of dilettantism

by Rob Horning

9 January 2009


I’ve been puzzled by the popularity of the game Guitar Hero, for what seems to me like obvious reasons. It’s like karaoke minus the trouble of having to hear the sounds you make. If you want a more interactive way to enjoy music, why not dance, or play air guitar? Or better yet, if holding a guitar appeals to you, why not try actually learning how to play? For the cost of an Xbox and the Guitar Hero game, you can get yourself a pretty good guitar. I assume I am missing the point of it, the competitive thrill, but I can’t help but feel that Guitar Hero (much like Twitter) would have been utterly incomprehensible to earlier generations, that it is a symptom of some larger social refusal to embrace difficulty. (Sure TV shows may have become more “complex,” but these remain passive, albeit more absorbing.) A society that requires such short cuts and preemptive blows in the name of the short-attention span surely must be deeply broken, our progenitors probably would have thought.

Since, lamentably, what we do for a living tends to lack meaning for us personally, we rely more on our leisure and consumption time to supply our lives with meaning, to afford us opportunities for self-realization. But consumption and self-realization may be at odds. In his introductory book on Marx, philosopher Jon Elster (who I’d encountered before as a theorist of precommitment strategies) makes an interesting point about consumption versus self-realization:

Activities of self-realization are subject to increasing marginal utility: They become more enjoyable the more one has already engaged in them. Exactly the opposite is true of consumption. To derive sustained pleasure from consumption, diversity is essential. Diversity, on the other hand, is an obstacle to successful self-realization, as it prevents one from getting into the later and more rewarding stages.

Perhaps there is an optimal balance for these two impulses that, if Elster is right, are antithetical. But if living in a consumerist society subjects us to all sorts of marketing pressures (derived from the need to sell all the junk we make at our unmeaningful jobs), that balance tips precipitously toward consumption, and potentially destabilizes the economy and our own psychological well-being. (This is what Marx seems to be suggesting in his concern with alienation from “species being.”) Elster, paraphrasing Marx, writes, “In capitalism, the desire for consumption—as opposed to the desire for self-realization—takes on a compulsive character. Capitalism creates an incentive for producers to seduce consumers, by inducing in them new desires to which they then become enslaved.” (The word choice here suggests Elster’s skepticism.)

So, surprisingly, the way the loss of opportunities for self-realization plays out is not through a paucity of options but a surfeit of them, all of which we feel capable of pursuing only to a shallow degree before we get frustrated or bored. Consumerism and its infrastructure (meaning markets, market spaces like the internet, and the shopping-oriented personality type most readily developed within consumerism) keeps us well supplied with stuff and seems to enrich our identities by allowing us to become familiar with a wide range of phenomena—a process that the internet has accelerated immeasurably. (I encounter a stray idea, digest the relevant Wikipedia entry, and just like that, I’ve broadened my conceptual vocabulary! I get bored with the book I’m reading, Amazon suggests a new one! I am too distracted to read blog posts, I’ll check Twitter instead!) But this comes at the expense with developing any sense of mastery of anything, eroding over time the sense that mastery is possible, or worth pursuing.

With more “diversity” available, it’s becoming harder to evade boredom, which more and more seems to be engineered socially (by accelerating fashion cycles, by making us always aware of what we are missing, and by making every moment a purchasing opportunity) as opposed to developing from some idiosyncratic internal curiosity in an individual. Novelty trumps sustained focus, whose rewards are not immediately felt and may never come at all, as Elster points out, if our focus is mistakenly fixed on something ultimately worthless. (I’m thinking of my long investment in Cryptonomicon.) Rather than taking advantage of that “increasing marginal utility” that comes with practicing something difficult, our will to dilettantism develops momentum.

To take a trivial example, let’s say you decide you like psychedelic music and want to “master” it by having a deep familiarity with the genre. But then you stumble on the hardcore psych MP3 blogs, and you are probably at that point discouraged by the impossibility of ever catching up and listening to it all. There is simply too much that’s now available too readily. You might still download everything you can get your hands on—that costs nothing but disk space and a minimal amount of time—but you’ll never make significant use of the larger portion of what you acquire. Acquiring has supplanted inquisitive use as the self-realizing activity. You have become a collector of stuff as opposed to a master of psychedelic music.

This seems to happen generally, as what Elster calls “the marginal disutility of not consuming” grows stronger—i.e., we have a harder time giving up the thrill of novelty, of exposing ourselves to new things. We end up collecting things rather than knowing them, and we display our collections in the hopes that others will recognize us as though we actually do know them. Or perhaps we have already reached a point where we all figure we are all playing the same game and that that distinction between owning and mastering is unimportant. (If I own a cool guitar, maybe a replica of no-name Telecaster or the Jag-Stang that Kurt Cobain used, does it really matter if I can play it?)

Dilettantism is a perfectly rational response to the hyperaccessibility of stuff available to us in the market, all of which imposes on us time constraints where there was once material scarcity. These time constraints become more itchy the more we recognize how much we are missing out on (thanks to ever more invasive marketing efforts, often blended in to the substance of the material we are gathering for self-realization). We opt instead for “diversity,” and begin setting about to rationalize the preferability of novelty even further, abetted by the underlying message of much our culture of disposability. Concentration takes on more of the qualities of work—it becomes a disutility rather than an end vis-a-vis the stuff we acquire. If something requires us to concentrate, it costs us more and forces us to sacrifice more of the stuff we might otherwise consume. In other words, consumerism makes the will and ability to concentrate seem a detriment to ourselves. The next thing you know, everyone touts Guitar Hero as a reasonable substitute for guitar playing and mocks the fuddy-duddy nabobs of negativism who are still hung up on the difference.

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