[24 July 2014]
This “Iconographies” is about The International Comic Convention, affectionately termed ComicCon, held each year in San Diego. It is about the unlikely, some would say impossible, story of Phil Seuling and other founding figures from comics culture who bucked the system and more or less singlehandedly invented the direct marketing system that allowed fans coordinated access. This Iconographies is about Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Connor, co-writers on the runaway hit series Harley Quinn, and now, the one-shot Harley Quinn Invades ComicCon International San Diego. It’s the improbable story of how success can come pretty much just from clowning around. And why Harley Quinn is a culturally relevant concept that knows no limits.
Except that it’s not. This Ico is about none of those things. It’s about why those things are important, necessary, in fact, to ensure that the kind of endless summer of stuff and progress we’ve been experiencing more or less since the invention of the printing press is always going to be more than mere demon days. And, because it’s summer, and because it’s technically still July, this Ico really is about Jefferson’s words, “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” I’m a little lighthearted with the iconic phrase in the title, but what else is there? The alternative is a kind of zealot’s unthinking defense. And that would be the opposite of both the idea behind those words, and Thomas Jefferson.
And ultimately this is about TED.com. It’s about too many late nights, and early mornings and cold pizza for me, and me surfing TED.com when I have no idea what to do with my time. It’s about two TED talks, just about 10 years apart, and how things grow and morph and twist through human history and human thought. And about how ideas can become othered from their own origins, become “unrecognizable to myself,” as The Boss croons out in “Philadelphia.”
But really, deep down, this Ico is about what the Declaration of Independence is about—not a defense against Tyranny, not a buffer or a bastion or a bulwark, but an alternative to Tyranny. And y’know about ComicCon. Because sometimes, just sometimes, the opposite of Tyranny is ComicCon.
It’s a little more than month back when Renata Salecl’s talk is released. “Our Unhealthy Obsession with Choice.” The talk opens on a kind of whimsical note, with Salecl framing the presentation she’s about to make with dual quotes by Samuel Johnson (the guy who invented the dictionary), and Groucho Marx and a third (who I forget). Just that framing seems to have something to it— the same core idea pursued by Greil Marcus at his most intoxicating (Mystery Train, if you’re keeping score at home), the same core idea that we’ve always pursued in “The Iconographies,” that something old and classical and “meaningful” and erudite can be more successfully handled through popcultural analysis. But whatever hope I have as a kind of first instinct, quickly fades. Salecl cites research done by herself and others (presumably Barry Schwartz, although she doesn’t mention him—but more on that later) to speak about the paralytic effects of the inundation of choice.
The theory goes something like: some choice maximizes our happiness, but maximizing choice sends us into a terrifying spiral of anxiety. Nine years ago, sometime in July 2005, psychologist Barry Schwartz made a similarly themed contribution to TED with his talk entitled “The Paradox of Choice.” As was an evolution of his Scientific American article from the year before, Schwartz drills down more deeply into the mechanics of the theory. As The Financial Fraud Research Center summarizes Schwartz’s article: “We presume that more choices allows us to get exactly what we want, making us happier. While there is no doubt that some choice is better than none, more may quickly become too much.” Schwartz’s gets into talking about a number of drawbacks to maximizing choice, among them: downward spirals of satisfaction, unconsciously adapting to what we’ve already chosen, the architecting-in of and unrealistic and unattainable expectations, and of course overwhelming paralysis at even the prospect of choice.
What Schwartz offers back in 2005, and a year earlier in that Scientific American article is the psychological mechanics of inundation of choice. It’s the presentation of an academic paper, in what could be argued to be populist forums (both Scientific American and TED.com). Salecl offers something else entirely—a political dissertation. When she argues that “…this ideology of individual choice has pacified us. It really prevented us to think about social change. We spend so much time choosing things for ourselves and barely reflect on communal choices we can make,” after framing her talk with, “In today’s times of post-industrial capitalism, choice, together with individual freedom and the idea of self-making, has been elevated to an ideal,” and later observes “…a question often is why we still embrace this idea of a self-made man on which capitalism relied from its beginning,” she implicitly argues for us to choose against choosing.
Is it that the anxiety of choice is so overwhelming, so frightening, that embracing the “ideology of individual choice,” somehow indicates something deep and broken inside ourselves? The idea of being forced into a choice of either the “ideology of individual choice” or choosing to think about the ideology of “social change,” is wildly at odds with more deeply-held values around the pursuit of happiness. But persuading individuals to choose against “the ideology of individual choice” so to be already throwing in the towel at the very beginning of the fight. Forsaking the mechanism of choice, by getting you to choose to forsake it.
But still, something deeper.
For one, “the pursuit of happiness,” in being a culmination, of sorts, of the two previous “goods,” is constructed very much as a kind of exercise of the former. It stands as a radical alternative to the classical Greek ideal of participation in every aspect of the running of a metropolis (think of the taxing of your personal resources if you had to weigh in on every decision made by the NYC Port Authority), or the equally monstrous Roman ideal of being able to leverage participation in civil structures for increased political and economic power over women and children and slaves, and if you’re really good at it, “sub-humans” like, in what would no doubt have been the popular classical Roman view, north Europeans, Africans and Asians.
Jefferson’s take on all of this? “Do what makes you happy,” no need to participate if you don’t want to.
For another, the pursuit of happiness, and the promotion of individuation is really the basis for interaction with broader society. No sense in choosing social change if there’s no you in the game to help make your choices happen. It’s easy enough to get behind Schwartz’s lamenting of the ill-effects of super sizing choice. But the act of leveraging personal choice against the “ravages” of a social system (Salecl and I disagree on the point that capitalism has “ravaged” humanity, my word not hers) seems like classical overreaching, the kind you’d find in Faustus and other plays by Marlowe.
But honestly, I’d rather not think about these things. Pretty much because I don’t really need to. Because I can safely choose to opt out of a paranoid social conformist structure where I need to self-restrict in order to establish a homogenized ideal of monoculture that would come to replace a pluralistic society. Honestly, I’d rather spend my time figuring ways I can pressure Jimmy and Amanda into release more than just the first three pages of “Hurl Girl.” Honestly, I’d rather luxuriate in the weird, wonderful, picaresque journey that Harley Quinn has through ComicCon. Honestly I’d rather listen to Tom Waits one more time, because he’s got something there with “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up,” and because I too, “don’t wanna live in a tomb on Grand Street.”
And because honestly, choice matters. Choosing to throw out the entire “ideology” of individual choice simply because of increased anxiety at the prospect of needing to choose, just seems a little too much like forfeiting essential liberty for a little temporary safety.