The Truth Is Accidental

In response to Nick Bilton’s resolution to schedule some “unplugged” time and program some “daydreaming” into his daily life, Nicholas Carr has coined the phrase “the industrialization of the ineffable.” I’m pretty sympathetic to Carr’s complaint here (and in his previous post) and to the idea that the technological capture of larger and larger swaths of everyday life is eradicating the space in which our experience can feel genuine to ourselves. What we process as “genuine” seems to depend on what is socially structured as “spontaneous,” which may be the currently most salient version of what defines the authentic.

“Industrialization” is a fitting word in this context, as the advent of mass-produced culture and consumer goods in the late 18th century seemed to spark the concerns with spontaneity and “true feelings” that cropped up with the sensibility cult and the Romantic movement that succeeded it. The fabric of everyday life was no longer woven by local relations and traditions; suddenly its constructed nature was foregrounded as it was being made at a distance, and the motives for it couldn’t be attributed to a desire to preserve the established way of things but were clearly connected to capitalist profit-seeking. (In other words, capital’s formal subsumption of the traditional local economy generated a specific form of nostalgic resistance; see Noys’s introduction to Communization and Its Discontents pdf.) It suddenly became important to posit a subjectivity that was not a residual effect of the schemes and scams of the industrialists who suddenly had a remarkable amount of control over how life would be lived and felt. A ideological counteroffensive sought to define a sphere that was truly disinterested, where the real self as opposed to the strategic one could be experienced — a space where one could know oneself as something other than a consumer, a mass man, despite the evident and irresistible satisfaction people were taking in participating in the new economy and amassing the new goods. Never mind that this spontaneous real self is always a retroactive fiction.

With the 18th century sensibility cult, this manifested in part in the paradoxical procedure of consuming novels (an early mass-produced, mass-distributed good) in such a way as to experience “spontaneous” emotional reactions. If the book made you cry, you proved to yourself that you had an emotional core that was untouched by the rising shopkeeperization of everyday life, while at the same time you got to partake in the novel experience of reified novelty, of keeping up to date through exposing oneself to material things (as opposed to, say, local gossip). Hence it was a kind of programmed spontaneity, a industrialized ineffability. But the novelty of vicarious participation in emotional life always contained within it a critique of itself, a hope that each specific instance of it was an exception to a general rule of how false the whole process was: My experience of A Sentimental Journey was real and integral and shows what a solid person I am, but all those other people crying over books? What is wrong with them? Shouldn’t they get a real life? Aren’t they robbing their loved ones of their emotional facilities?

Something similar seems to be happening with social media, which inspire a similar ambivalence. It is an exciting arena in which to perform for social recognition, but it bears with it a sense of self-alienation and phoniness, a surrender of the true self in the eagerness to share it. So there are efforts to participate in social media in ways that repudiate it (blogging about not blogging; tweeting about how we have to stop tweeting so much, etc.) or that seem to evince our spontaneity (the spurious Like; the fascination with being the first commenter on a thread; the narratives of serendipity that some social network appears to have fostered). Taking that a step further though, one might take a more aggressive posture toward withdrawing from social media and recommendation engines and the entire filtering ecosystem in order to pursue some lost truth about oneself. This sets up algorithmic deductions of what might be relevant to us as the enemy, and makes the truth only that which seems accidental, whimsical. The pretense is that there can be nothing deliberate about the emotional life, that it consists of pure reaction or else it is a sign that we are being manipulated, controlled by cultural industries or by the tech companies trying to subsume our identity and program it for their purposes. If we unplug from the internet, we will once again have real emotions, not convenient or marketable or marketed ones.

But a certain amount of our emotional life needs to be structured deliberately, I think. We need to be able to construct a plan for what we choose to invest our emotional energy into. In a certain sense, “programming our daydreams” is a fundamental step toward controlling how we spend our time and how we proceed toward the goals we set for ourselves. If goals are to have much meaning, if identity is to be more than a brand, we need to credibly assert to ourselves the belief of our own agency in determining the truth of any given situation and of ourselves, rather than surrendering it to chance. This may constitute a form of resistance to the “real subsumption” of everyday life — the remaking of the process of identity making along capitalistic lines — not serendipity. Serendipity is just mystified manipulation, a narrative overlay of superstition and imputed destiny over a mundane story of the cold grind of probabilities in action.