[18 April 2009]
In The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, Daniel Bell claims that “discretionary social behavior” rises discretionary income, with the result that “the more idiosyncratic aspects of personal experience and life history—personality attributes, or somatic body-type constitution, positive or negative experience with parents, experience with peers—become increasingly more important than patterned social attributes in shaping a person’s life-style. As the traditional social class structure dissolves, more and more individuals want to be identified not by their occupational base (in the Marxist sense), but by their cultural tastes and life-styles.” Ignoring the misuse of “base” (in the Marxist sense) for the moment, the underlying point that people want to be identified by their tastes seems suspect.
This may have been true when Bell was writing, in 1976, and it seemed sort of true when I was a teenager in the 1980s—people eagerly owned up to the personality stereotypes suggested by the music they advertised themselves as listening to. But my extensive reading in the work of Carles leads me to think that we wish now to affirm our uniqueness—that we yearn to be regarded and recognized by our society as being sui generis. The eclectic combination of our tastes is supposed to certify that.
But my first response to Bell’s claim was that I don’t want to be typecast at all, that in some ways I want not to be regarded in those terms at all, as belonging to any sort of “base.” Instead, I tend to seek anonymity—exacerbated by a constitutional shyness—to the point that it is probably detrimental. Considering the way identity gets indexed to taste, the result is a sort of contrived mercurialness, a perpetual shifting to new preferences, always with the hope that they will prove to have been utterly unpredictable. That way I can feel as though I am escaping being pigeon-holed and eluding the trap of becoming one of those shallow people Bell castigates. That mercurialness is, of course, just the same as the delusional uniqueness that the postmodern subject is enamored of, and is ubitquitous—itself the basis for marketing archetypes and appeals.