Pop Optimism and the Guerrilla Self

I don't think one can express individuality by consuming products or by broadcasting what one has consumed. I think individuality is always expressed through a specific social relation.

To sum up several hundred posts from this blog: I don't think one can express individuality by consuming products or by broadcasting what one has consumed. I think individuality is always expressed through a specific social relation. Your intimacy with another person lets you see how they recognize something otherwise inexpressible that is unique to you. This is the sort of unselfconscious individuality that I thought the photographs in this show captured. It is a fundamentally private thing.

In its efforts to exploit the power of that sort of individuality, capitalism has all but eradicated it, encouraging us to pursue individuality not as an intimate social relation but as a kind of absolute thing that can be broadcast to everyone, must be acknowledged by everyone, and that can be measured in terms of how widely it is recognized, through proxies like how much measurable influence we have on others. The tenacity of this process makes me deeply pessimistic and particularly wary of optimistic readings of the redemptive, liberatory possibilities of pop culture. It's so easy for me, despite all my skepticism, to be lulled by the promise that consuming the right things, in the right way, will allow me to feel good about myself, without all the messy intricacies of those specific social relations. Moreover, I still continually fall into the trap of thinking that "feeling good about myself" is mainly a matter of being recognized as an individual.

This passage, from Ellen Willis's 1977 essay "Tom Wolfe's Failed Optimism", offers an especially seductive way of conceiving that promise:

Pop sensibility -- loosely defined as the selective appreciation of whatever is vital and expressive in mass culture -- did more than simply suggest that life in a rich, capitalist consumption-obsessed society had its pleasures; the crucial claim was that those pleasures had some connection with genuine human feelings, needs, and values and were not -- as both conservative and radical modernists assumed -- mere alienated distraction.... Pop implied a more sanguine view of the self as a guerrilla, forever infiltrating territory officially controlled by the enemy, continually finding new ways to evade and even exploit the material and psychic obstacles that the social system continually erected.

I find that very alluring. I want to have a guerrilla self. I want to fight the cultural industry with the weapons it forged for my appropriation.

It's a very glamorous reconfiguration of what I am doing when I am, say, watching Game of Thrones. I am exploiting psychic obstacles and subverting the enemy on its terrain at the same time as I am watching two slave-whores make out.

But Willis's definition raises more questions than answers. The largest and most obvious problem, it seems to me, is the invocation of "genuine" needs and feelings. Consumerism produces needs, and "genuineness" is one of its most successful and desirable products. Alienated distractions are just as genuine as anything else. Embedded in the privileging of some mythical genuine need is the idea that we are all on a quest to find our "real self" through the right cosmic combination of goods that unlock our inner potentialities. It is assumed that pleasures are typically reducible to the pleasures of increasing self-knowledge, but isn't it more often the case that pleasure is a matter of forgetting? And that pop pleasures in particular are about surrendering the pursuit of authenticity in favor of merging with the palpable zeitgeist? The guerrilla self is still the individualistic hero of romanticism, amid the "masses" but never merging with them, instead redeeming their presumptive mediocrity, which offers the background against which the guerrilla self can stand out.

Other terms in Willis's distillation of poptimist ideology are just as ambiguous. On what basis is the "selective appreciation" conducted by pop connoisseurs? What makes this "exploitative" or subversive? What constitutes "vitality"? Is it simply an ineffable sensation of life itself? A measurable amount of energy amid the "masses"? A personal and private feeling of having been energized? A sense that one has been swallowed by mass enthusiasm? It seems like a mystification to me.

The same with "expressive" -- what isn't expressive in the pop-cultural milieu? The whole edifice is shot through with significations of status, information asymmetries that create and consolidate cultural and social capital. Social class can't be undone by democratizing tastes; the material bases for class distinctions always generate new ways of expressing cultural distinctions. A "liberated" taste for pop "trash" is inescapably an expression of habitus; one can't consume pop culture in some sort of politically populist way. Consumer society gives us ample access to its particular modes of pleasure that guarantee our consent and effort in reproducing it as a system. There is no subversive way of consuming its products; subversion would consist of ignoring them. I don't think these are particularly radical claims, post-postmodernism.

Willis notes that "the pop sensibility" doesn't "deny or defend the various forms of oppression that at once hedged our pleasures and made them possible" and points out that it "excluded painful or dangerous questions about systemic change." That's not to say that we don't long for pop culture to be a means for experiencing belonging or for experiencing a transformational change in an instant, going from isolated self to participant in a transcendent phenomenon. Through pop participation we hope to dissolve the agonies of isolated identity in a collective expression of enthusiasm even as we look to deploy these widely recognized cultural signifiers in a unique and distinctive way. Consumer goods serve as a medium through which collective ideas about social values can be expressed, but one of those values is possessive individualism. This is the fundamental tension in consumerism: Its mass-produced goods give us the leisure to develop a taste for individuation. The idea that we can purchase fulfillment rather than achieve it explodes what it means to be fulfilled, divorcing it from our capabilities, from our doing what it is that we are uniquely able to do. Instead there is a sense that no skill is unique, all is exchangeable, and every proposition of personal identity is constantly renegotiable. One's sense of self condenses to one's sense of status.

"Pop" seems an especially ironic label for the material culture of consumerism. It masquerades as a democratic forum for "pleasures" but arguably the chief pleasure of engaging in the milieu is finding vicarious satisfaction in status, or winning the zero-sum battles of uniqueness in expressions of personal identity. Pop culture may mimic forms of collectivity, but in a consumer society, consumption is always an arena of self-expression. The price of pop pleasures is the surrender of the ability to consume neutrally, to consume without sending a message about what sort of person you are or what sort of social and cultural capital you are putting in play. The "guerrilla self" Willis describes -- an idea that often underpins much of the enthusiasm for "prosumerism" -- always threatens to become the sort of hipster cultural capitalist that, for example, Rob Walker profiled in Buying In. The guerrilla self becomes the cultural entrepreneur.

Social media has made this evolution harder to resist, as it gives even casual participants in cultural production the necessary platform for distribution and reputational accounting. Social media is the "territory" that the guerrilla self now seeks to occupy, and the owners of that territory are more than happy to have us invade. The whole business model of social media depends on such invasions. The "psychic obstacles" presented by capitalism become necessary, cherished spurs for personal self-development -- they refigure planned obsolescence in fashion and style as renewed opportunities for us to become better selves. Novelty becomes our "genuine" value, not capital's -- we demand the new because choice among new options is what we experience most viscerally as "vital" and "expressive" freedom. Consuming the "new" is how we experience personal growth; novelty becomes the basis of identity.

Prosumerism is not an expression of evasion and subversion; instead it is a core principle of post-Fordist capitalism. The productivity of the pursuit of personal identity, as captured in digital networks, advances the subsumption of everyday life to its highest degree yet. The radical ontological insecurity -- the "gig economy" and precarity and so on -- is normalized and valorized as the opportunity to unlock inner troves of personal creativity. Yet this creativity can take on only a limited and arguably degraded form. It can only conceive capitalistic aims: So we have the facile manipulation of signs to grow quantified, reified measures of influence -- which is limited to the ability to influence others to "spend" their attention or money.

Of course, that may seem to posit some "genuine" form of creativity outside of capitalism. But I don't mean to imply it is more genuine, only that it is different, that it would anchor a different kind of society, with different ways of conceiving and organizing collective identity. Instead of proliferating hierarchies of taste and competitive feats of prosumerism, why not something else, something worthy of optimistic hopes? Rather than a mass of guerrilla selves fighting a phony war against one another for who can lay the most genuine claim to pop pleasures, why not accept that taste can't be democratic and worry instead about those aspects of social participation that can be. We could spend less time worrying about what we like -- and what we "Like" through social media -- and see what sort of social pleasure lies beyond that.

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