Monday, January 31, 2005

Jewels from The Wall Street Journal

I can't remember the last time I flew US Airways, but I recently received notification from them out of the blue urging me to spend my frequent-flyer miles before they expire on magazine subscriptions. Now, I have to marvel at US Airways business plan: They can't manage to compete with those yucksters at Greyhou -- I mean Southwest, but they're quick to make sure a marginal customer like me is able to get a free year of The Wall Street Journal home-delivered. To my delighted surprise, my first issue came today, and I eagerly devoured it on my train ride to work, thinking I had suddenly become ten-to-twelve times more substantial in the minds of those around me then I was when I was reading the daily Metro over unsuspecting shoulders.

The sharper of you faithful readers of Marginal Utility will have probably noticed a bit of an ideological slant to my entries, and you won't be surprised to hear that I think, shockingly enough, that corporations profit by taking advantage of consumers rather than by catering to them. To judge by their behavior (see, for example, the film The Corporation), they seem to despise their customers, despite the fact that they are generally made up of them. And they aren't making a secret of it. They announce their scorn in myriad ways, I suspect, in every single edition of The Wall Street Journal. In what I hope will be a regular feature of Marginal Utility, I will occasionally share quotes from the paper illustrating the casual contempt of the business world.

Today's jewel: From "Deal Brings 'Proctoids' to 'Plywood Ranch,'" (B1) an article about the Gillette/P&G merger:
Gillette's longtime focus has been on developing better and better products to make mundane activities, such as shaving, require high-tech tools -- a complex operation focused largely on high-tech research and development that P&G cannot afford to disrupt.

This is the glorious engine of capitalism at work: take something simple and easily dispatched and make it high-tech problem over which we can all become anxious. Thank you, Gillette, for helping me to relearn shaving, over and over again.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Hal Hartley's The Girl from Monday

Hal Hartley makes no secret of his fondness for Godard, and this is what makes his films so interesting (and so out of step with virtually everything else going on in American film). Eschewing mainstream story-arcing and conventional characters, Harley has always tried to take elements of Godard's approach in the 60s and translate them into an American idiom. The obvious formal debts -- the guerrilla-theater location shooting, the choppy editing, and so on -- bleed naturally into conceptual debts. There are voiceovers with overlapping voices; we have characters who read to each other from books or who speak only in quotations. The dialogue is typically stylized to a deadpan, haiku fineness. There's much toying with what is and isn't diagetical, with genre expecations, and with what sort of verisimilitude is expected in an actor's performance. Hartley, as well, invites a kind of capriciousness into his film's structures, a breathing spontaneity which works well against the pruned, stilted diaogue. He restores the shock and cruelty to violence, while mining pathos from otherwise ludicrous moments. He attempts socio-political critique that dares to be both oblique and ham-fisted. And like his idol, he tends to fetishize beautiful short-haired women. In Simple Men he appropriated a lot of Godard's A Band of Outsiders -- particularly the amazing dance sequence -- without slavishly imitating it; The Girl from Monday, a science-fiction dystoipia shot in contemporary New York, does the same in coopting Alphaville without being simply derivative, finding new meanings and possibilities in the course of translating it. (Hartley owes a lot as well to Chris Marker's brilliant short film La Jetée -- its plot and particularly its use of evocative still frames and first person voiceover.)

In Monday Hartley posits an America in which the government has been replaced by an advertising firm, and the perpetual stoking of insatiable desire, consumer or counterrevolutionary or otherwise, is the primary order of business. Like Gary Becker's notion of the indvidual consumer as a kind of business firm "producing" satisfaction for himself, Hartley imagines a society where individuals self-consciously see themselves as firms, where their acquisitive individualism is pushed to its absurd endpoint, wherein all behavior has become as self-interested as neoclassical economists imagine it to be -- sexuality becomes directly linked to credit rating, becomes an income generating act, which thereby depletes it of its sharing, loving aspects. One of Hartley's early films, Surviving Desire seemed to be about this at the level of the personal relationship -- the inexplicable force of desire imposed from outside, albeit by women with short dark hair as opposed to advertisers. In a sense, the uneasy feeling evoked by the inaccessible short-haired woman in the Surviving Desire is extended in the new film to an entire society, which revolves around desirable inaccessibility, how much of it can you embody without being compromised by your own desires. Another common Hartley trope, the idea of trust revolving around whether or not you'd turn someone in, or whether or not you'd exploit them, given the chance, crops up in this film as well, but the disquieting message seems to be that it doesn't make much difference whether you do or not -- there is no "right" side to be fighting on, to be loyal to, since it all contributes to the manufacture of alienating desire.

Opposed to the society of ultraindividualists is an alien race of ultra-communitarians, who all share one body and all feelings and can no know desire. The film then works out the various trade-offs involved in obtaining a concept of self, a sense of identity, even if this means submitting to market forces. There are hints at the ways in which the desire to have, to have a self and many things and so on, can become indistinguishable from the desire to merge, to be at one with society, to move beyond one's own limits, to discover the unlimitedness that would obliterate all ego. Humans are all trapped in this paradox, but corporations, made up of no particular humans, transcend this and can thereby perpetually profit from it. Institutions, immune to desire, can always position themselves to exploit it, and forever. In the film this is made explcit by the ad boss realizing both revolution and counterrevolution are good for the ad business. All desire, understood as discontent and instability, is good for business, even if desire's paradoxicality and ambivalence is bad for the specific humans who make up the businesses. So humans end up carrying out the business of the institutions that traps them in their quixotic desires, that exacerbates their need while offering the tentative and incoherent soultions of selfhood and selfishness.

Friday, January 28, 2005

The demonstration effect

Lately I've been puzzling over consumer-behavior theory, and James Duesenberry's notion of the "demonstration effect" in particular. I'm just trying to consolidate some of what I've learned here. Duesenberry was a vociferous critic of the utilitarian/"man is an insatiably acquisitive hyperrational hedonist"/"we take wants as given" school of neo-classical economic thought. Assuming man to be an unerring calculator of how to maximize his consumption (and thus maximize his happiness) is a useful theoretical construct, as it makes a convenient parallel to corporations and their attitudes toward profit -- this in turn lets marginal-utility theory function -- one will allegedly consume where the additional increment yields the most marginal, that is additional, satisfaction. It allows one to assume that supply creates its own demand -- Say's law. It presumes people, like prices, strive for an optimal equilibrium point, a kind of stasis in which ends are met most efficiently. And it allows one to remove from economics the ethical question of what should be produced, and how much is enough. (Theories of social/relative scarcity (Cf. Fred Hirsch's The LImits to Growth) show that more economic growth, more goods, cannot lead to more individual satisfaction. So why the vehement commitment to growth? It produces jobs, yes, but unfulfilling ones for a larger and larger cohort of the working population.) It also makes man inherently greedy and ruthless and only begrudgingly social, all would be Robinson Crusoes who'd prefer to be alone on an island with their lucre. It also perpetuates misguided notions of what the good life consists of (Galbraith is eloquent on this) -- consuming more material goods instead of undertaking meaningful work and enhancing social connections. We enter the dream life of commodities instead, consigning ourselves to the "hedonic treadmill," chasing satisfactions that always ultimately elude us, since we quickly adapt to whatever level of material comfort we achieve and since the true human connection and validation we seek in consumption isn't really present, or is diluted over the course of the commodity's circulation. And as Galbraith notes, "One cannot defend production as satisfying wants if that production creates the wants." Wants are not really externalities; they are generated by the economic system, they don't preexist it.

The main problem with the utilitarian approach is that it doesn't at all correspond with actual human behavior, which is rarely rational and is often dictated by social considerations hard to quantify as utility. People don't maximize their utility, they often choose poorly or by other standards than personal satisfaction. Veblen, of course, highlighted social emulation as a spur to consume. Rather than seeking static equilibrium, one's wants are always dynamic, responsive to shifts in social position. Independent of their specific usefulness (their instrumentality) goods have a display function, a symbolic function that establishes an individual's social identity and mandates certain levels and types of consumption beyond what one needs for sustanence. Related to this is the "demonstration effect," whereby exposure to new goods destroys one's complacency with what one has. Why does this matter? Because it allows consumption to increase while income levels stay the same. This in turn afffects levels of saving. Greater income inequality leads to less saving, which leads to the lower classes never achieving sufficient capital to change their status -- they can't really work hard and succeed, on the aggregate. What Duesenberry claims is that this theory proves that the satisfaction of every consumer is negatively affected by the consumption of those with higher incomes but unaffected by those with lower incomes, which in turn means that a progressive income tax should make everyone more satisfied. Of course, we are moving in the opposite direction. Robert Frank suggests that the demonstration effect tells us that things like forced-savings requirements (i.e. Social Security), luxury taxes on positional goods, and working-hour limits would also help aggregate satisfaction. The point is that a higher standard of living for a few leads to a exponential ripple of dissatisfaction for many -- mass media only multiples this effect, allowing the demonstration effect to function through people we don't know, allowing it to be distorted by advertising and lifestyle magazines that purport to be a reflection of how others live. On a personal level, can we evade the demonstration effect by tuning out media saturation? Can we create consumer biospeheres that function independently of mainstream norms without surrendering the symbolic function of goods that we need as much as their instrumentality?

Thursday, January 27, 2005

In praise of the architecture of shopping centers

Mark Kingwell's article on architecture in Shanghai in the most recent Harper's started me thinking about how commercial imperatives under capitalism suppress individual creativity even as individualism is promoted everywhere as the central value, the ultimate good, the essence of freedom in the power to choose for yourself and no one else. In reality, people don't consume to be unique, they consume to conform, but they like to think they are somehow unique in the process. And conformity is perhaps more essential in "free" societies because there are no explicit laws requiring it. Without a caste system manifest in the law or in dress or what have you, one has to be much more alert to signifying social position, if only to be sure one hasn't somehow lost it while not paying attention. Anyway, a conforming populace want conformist goods, and commercial suppliers, if they want to make money, need to amke things that are not only bland enough to appeal (or not repulse) the greatest number of paying customers but that also appeal to their desire to fit in and not really stand out in any unsanctioned way. They have to negotiate these social tensions by making things generic enough to avoid evoking conflict between social groups. Products are subject to a kind of metaphysical zoning.

I say that becase Shanghai architecture is not. And as a consequence, anything goes. Kingwell remarks, "Ironically, the utopian visions of the West, the soaring towers and radiant cities of the high-modern imagination, are rarely possible in the grand cities of the free world. They are realized instead in the authoritarian and dictatorial regimes of Asia, where life and steel are cheap. Europe's dream of heroic architecture has found its material realization in the People's Republic." Unconstrained by the need to earn assent via the marketplace, the products of Chinese economy can take any shape, can be the whim of a single person, as long as he or she wields enough clout.

With no responsibility to embody the social order, such as it is, Shanghai architecture becomes unruly and disorienting: "At the asymptotic edge of design freedom lies a sparkling, overgrown, hyperscaled city of bright nightmares, sometimes beautiful, often strange, always oppressive. Shanghai is modern urbanization on a speed high, rambling and incoherent, with a lump of shopaholic empitness at its center." Individualism, discouraged the individual level, is pushed up the scale to be expressed at the level of buidlings, as if to reinforce at the level of public space the disregard for personal individuality, personal comfort. Bland generic public space affords the space for individuals to appear in society and imagine themselves individuals -- their uniqueness is not upstaged by the buildings, and their tastes are not affronted on a mammoth scale, showing the insignificance of their personal preferences. They need not reckon with a vision they reject or fail to comprehend. This is the beauty of the shopping mall; it keeps the indvidual psyche of the shopper center stage, it flatters that with its architectural drabness. People are oppressed by architecture presumably intended to exalt them (Kingwell writes, "Architecture will not set us free, no matter how hard -- how high and fast -- it tries"), because they are more exalted by not being distracted from the drama of their own identity, the self they are proceeding to construct on their own imagined design. This might seem to contradict what I said above about conformity, and perhaps it does -- I think the resolution of the contradiction lies in the fact that the identity construction plays out in fantasy simultaneously with the acquisition of conformist camoflauge, rewriting that mundane bit of everyday life as its happening.

Kingwell's description of Shanghai, its "shopholic emptiness," sounds a lot like Las Vegas to me, dezoned and insane and bizarrely shallow despite the manifold layers of stimuli. Is there then something authoritarian and dictatorial lurking in the heart of Las Vegas?

Gangster rap catharsis

I edit music features for a Web site called and this morning I got a query e-mail for a piece inspired by the recent arrest of Irv "Gotti," head honcho of the record label Murder, Inc., for laundering money allegedly earned through heroin and cocaine trafficking. In responding to the pitch, I was struck by a few things, things that have probably been said better before, and elsewhere, and probably in a less patronizing manner. Anyway, here goes: 1) If there was no market for vicarious violence, gangster rap wouldn't continue to be made. Why is rap the preferred musical vehicle for getting violent fantasy to the marketplace -- and what happens when the fantasy becomes reality? Is there an authentication in that that makes it more sellable? Is gangster rap akin to violent video games, or is it something else? Heavy metal used to be the suburban American teenaged male's preferred escapist vehicle into the realm of unlimited power, manifested generally as the power to intimidate. You could crank up Armored Saint, or Venom, or what have you, and be assured that you were alienating people, a dubious but distinct power. Rap music channels some of this power today. In some ways its an aggressive musical encapsulation of the feeling of being alienated (i.e. being black) in American society. Disgruntled white teens might not articulate it this way, but when their pubescent urges and their sullen moods make them feel misrecognized by society, when they want to lash out because of their suddenly understanding the ways in which they are circumscribed and the different ways their desires will be perpetually thwarted and how powerless they are in the face of the "system" or the face of a pretty girl who won't talk to them, then they are maybe experiencing a watered-down form of what it feels like to experience racial prejudice. (Rock and roll is born when teenagers recognize the parallel, and attempt to express their angst in black-music form.) If someone crosses the street to avoid you, you've exerted a kind of power over them. Rather than see this as rejection, perhaps it's better to see it as a kind of affirmation of the threat you render, of the power embodied in you. The problem comes from adaptation -- if you get used to that as a kind of validation, eventually you'll have to up the ante, and start exerting more agggressive and overt forms of menace. The vicarious violence and criminality and misogyny in gangster rap plays to this feeling, ups the ante so perhaps you don't have to. The age-old catharsis question then comes up: Does the music serve as impetus to do what it describes, or does it serve as a safety valve, blowing off the steam so that you don't have to do such things.

2) Racism in America has generally made the very fact of being black a kind of crime -- is this what's being reflected in gangster rap? Is racism such that it makes black entrepreneurship into a criminal enterprise, through such systemic interference as loan denials, etc.? Organized crime is arguably a shadow of legitimate business, conducted by those in society (immigrants, typically) who are for whatever reason shut out of that straight-world hierarchy. So does the seed money for independent gangster-rap record labels come from drug lords because of this? Or is it more that it's a ripe territory to launder money (like pizza parlors).

3) Is the real-world criminality associated with gangster rap overreported to perpetuate racist stereotypes? And/or to market its "realness" and reinforce the idea that you can buy a sense of being an outlaw through it? Perhaps there's always money to be made perpetuating stereotypes, and there's not a lot of finacial incentive to undermine them. So there would seem to be strong financial incentives for ganster rap impressarios to perpetuate racist stereotypes about black criminality: they can collect good money from packaging white people's fear and selling it back to them. What is so tragic about gangster rap is that it involves so many white kids in a parody of black culture, a complete distortion -- so they never learn empathy for it, never understand it and an opportunity is lost. This does preserve the privacy of that culture though, protects it from isolating corrosion that afflicts white middle-class culture and that might come with assimilation -- but at the cost of having a culture that is separate and unequal.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

In Times Square

I was walking through Time Square, which is far from pleasant and makes me wonder why tourists flock there. It's the least characteristic place in New York City, a place where there are three different Friday's restauarants to choose from. It exemplifies the conundrum of modern convenience in travel: the very presence of tourists makes it unpleasant for tourists, proving that easier travel for all makes it less appealing for all. (Does that make me an elitist?) Negotiating the streets is tricky, too, not only because they are overcrowded but because no one abides the communication system of nods and leans that I referred to yesterday. People may be too mystified by the flashing lights and TV screens; they don't watch where they're going, which is less a matter of noticing obstacles than it is signalling to fellow pedestrians your intentions.
The lights there, too, exemplify the adaptation phenomenon researchers of hedonic psychology often talk about, and the all important factor of context. Humans adapt to the levels of display and expectation exhibited by those around them (which is why ornate Christmas-light tours de force are so often resented), and the same is true of retailers. Neon becomes mandatory in an environment like Times Square, where the bar has been raised by all the other storefront signs. WHat would be ostentatious and gaudy anywhere else is necessary there for survival. Though it seems like a deperate attempt for attention, the neon and the lights become a kind of camoflauge, allowing business to conform and seem acceptable and normal for their environment. The same can be said for the way many people dress -- the tourists seemed to stick out to me, because they were wearing camoflauge for the wrong environment.

Across the MTV building was this slogan: There is one thing all people understand regardless of language: Music." Or something like that, trite and untrue, or at least inapplicable to MTV, which obviously is not a music station. But if the last word was "youth," then it would fit perfectly. MTV should be called Youth TV. It's job is to market youthfulness and novelty, to confer the aura of youthfulness to a variety of goods. Music, because its so ephemeral, often stands in for youth, which needs to be continually refreshed, replenished with brand new signifiers.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Odds and ends

The unfathomable problems created by a subway-control-room fire (allegedly it will take five years to fix the damage -- five years?) has lots of New Yorkers contemplating transport problems. In my way I think about them all the time when walking down the street. I always assume the cars will stop if they catch me in the middle of their turn, I assume they can always see me. In fact, there's a sense of recognition you sense when cars do stop for you; it's one of the rare city moments where you feel unequivocably noticed, in the simple purity of your being, as something that is alive and significant for no other reason. Then there's the negotiations necessary for making your way down the sidewalk, the intricate system of switches and signals (dispersed throughout all pedestrians and thus immune to control-room fires started by freezing homeless people) that facilitate the flow. I've become a connoiseur of the moments when someone walking towards you signals which way she's going to go; a little nod, a faint to the left, a step not quite on her natural axis, a slight hesitation, a lean this way or that -- I relish these near invisible communications, humanizing my rush down the sidewalk.

A deleted passage from my most recent PopMatters column: Nostalgia may just be the impulse to resist mass production’s built-in disposability, to elevate junk culture to art and claim larger significance for time spent on it. The nostalgist sees plentitude where the culture wants you to detect emptiness after a brief blast of excitement. Like those "positive" approaches to consumption and consumerism, which configure the consumer as not a passive sponge but an active re-producer, the nostalgist subverts society's intention to pacify us with serial, spiraling instants of shallow pleasure by making disposable items into rich artifacts with lasting personal significance. Think of the mix-tape: On the surface, it seems another way to edit life into a greater level of disposability, streamlining your music collection for quicker consumption. But really it’s the opposite of editing; it prolongs the relevance of ephemeral pop songs, combining them in a constellation that’s intricately personal, that defines a unique life moment. It’s our struggle, then, to find a mix-tape approach to the whole of life, a way to edit existence down to meaningful moments without making them disposable in the process.

I've been listening to those new albums by Bright Eyes, and trying really hard to like them and not dismiss them out of hand as adenoidal pretentiousness. All the songs seem to be about being a fresh-faced hipster in New York; it's like the songs add up to the Ballad of Williamsburg. But that should be okay, that shouldn't make it de facto awful, should it? He's describing a typical, semi-universal experience (with its analogues across America in moves out of the suburbs to the nearby city) and rendering it with earnest emotion, with some well-turned phrases . . . maybe it just sucks. Anyone from Nebraska who feigns an accent and who takes his vocal cues from Robert Smith of the Cure is surely someone to be skeptical of. All the eighties-revival music makes me feel old, reminds me of how predictable my own tastes were when I was a teenager. Some people my age remember those years with pride and nostalgia and perhaps enjoy the music that casts them back to their glory years. Not me. I hated myself then, and I feel like my taste in music at that time showed how little respect I had for myself. How else could I have owned a Frankie Goes to Hollywood album?

A lingering lesson from those years was to never want to try to dress cool and fail. I lean instead toward bland clothes, items no one would ever assume were worn to attract attention: button-down shirts in drab colors like light-blue and cream, shapeless sweaters without patterns. Ideally I would have a uniform, but something so bland that it would defy being recognized as a uniform, it would prompt no questions. Dress to be ignored has been my somewhat self-defeating my motto. But perhaps there's something to be said for it. You escape privacy-invasion, the all-penetrating force of the subjugating gaze, when you make your appearance a mask.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Beauty capital

In Dushko Petrovich's "Art Journal" in n+1 he remarks about Elizabeth Peyton's soft paintings of pretty young hipsters that looking at them, "we start to feel that it's unimportant to paint beautiful people, and that's an awful feeling." His point may be that beauty, in Peyton's hands, is trivialized, but I think the point could be extended. Peyton's treatment of beauty is symptomatic of how our culture generally handles beauty, transforming it into useful capital, making it an object of envy, jealousy, and contempt.

Full disclosure: I'm not one of the "beautiful people." No one would ever think to take my picture and use it to sell some products or capture the spirit of the times or connect it to something else to make that thing seem glamorous and exclusive and acutely desirable. What Petrovich's comment brought to my mind was that the beauty of those hipsters Peyton records so well, insoucient and self-absorbed, isn't unimportant, it's just important for lurid, dismal reasons, important for the jealousy it can inspire. What's so terrible about Peyton's work is that it make me feel like I hate beauty, because of the competitive advantage it gives to those who have it. It obviates the kind of sublime beauty that is open to all, that inspires wonder at its munificence, its uselessness. But the ubiquity of capitalist comeptition leaves no spaces for unexploited beauty, no place for something to be simply beautiful. The smugness projected in Peyton's paintings shows a concentrated awareness of that kind of beauty, allowing the people she paints to serve as its epitome. These are the people who will populate ads, who will stoke envious desire, who will supplant natural beauty with glamor. Beauty is always transformed into desire, which spawns jealousy, which fuels the systems of emulative consumption and compensatory consumption that keep our economy growing. But even things like the Grand Canyon have their beauty commodified. Beauty must always be capitalized upon, measured for what it can afford, given a value in dollars. We don't respect beauty as an ineffable, nearly unfathomable, indescribable gift because money has convinced us we can simply purchase it if not graced with it -- through plastic surgery, pretty prostitutes, art collecting, porn catologuing, etc. It's something we own and treasure rather than appreciate in ite ephemeral moment.

No wonder twentieth-century art assailed beauty, burning the village in a desperate attempt to save it.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Buying tragedy

In the most recent New Yorker Peter Schjeldahl concludes his review of an exhibition of New York art from the eighties with this anecdote:

"For me, the single most shocking idea to emerge from the East Village is not recalled in this show. It was a proposal by Walter Robinson to create a lucrative market in a new species of folk art: the crudely lettered, pleading cardboard signs wielded by the homeless who then teemed the city’s streets. The signs had everything: funky elegance, patent authenticity, social content, convenient scale, and reliable supply. I tried, and failed, to contemplate those tissues of misery as found art. The gesture of selling them seemed at once grossly ingenuous and vilely cynical, disgracing both art and the market. But suddenly the project (which went nowhere) strikes me as the supremely honest exposure of an anxiety that most of the artists in “East Village USA” squirm to deny or finesse: a double bind of élitism and populism. Drives to be at once aesthetically impeccable and socially justified generated alternating currents of bad art and bad faith, which only lordly money could be counted on to adjudicate. Some such quandary afflicts all ambitious art in American democracy."

Taken together with reports of "disaster tourism" in areas of Southeast Asia, where Westerners have traveled to take photos of themselves in the midst of ruins, a picture of a morbid tendency in consumerism comes into clearer focus: the desire to consume misery by proxy, to experience suffering vicariously -- and the question of how cynical are those who cater to this urge. Similar questions were evoked by the September 11 terrorist attacks, when people felt compelled to express their grief through consumption, to commemorate by visiting "Ground Zero" and buying knicknacks memorializing their pilgrimage. Were the people selling those knickknacks moral monsters? Were they exploiting events or expediting a greiving nation's wish to connect to a historic national event in the way they are best adapted to, through shopping. (After all, the president famously comforted the nation with instrurctions to go back to normal life and keep shopping.) People want to buy their way into a relationship with well-reported tragedies -- we are led to believe that money can buy so many things, that all of human life is made exchangeable through its medium, that it makes once impossible experience routinely possible for us, so why wouldn't we think it can buy this? Capitalism commodifies experience and makes it available as an objectified thing to people who might not otherwise be able to experience it -- in other words it passes off things as actual experiences and doesn't distinguish between actual experiences and their commodity derivatives. There's nothing malicious or inappropriate in people drawing the conclusion that they can buy a piece of tragedy; if we find it so, then we should find the entire organization of social relations inappropriate.

Suffering by proxy has a long history; its first flowering may have been the "cult of sensibility" of the late 18th century, epitomized by Sterne's A Sentimental Journey (which in typical Sternean fashion mocks the trend it epitomizes). People in this period would pay to tour mental asylums and empathize with the suffering of the deranged, as they felt this proved the strength of their innate moral sense, which in turn proved how inherently noble they are. It allowed the middle class to feel a claim to an enotional aristocracy. Sensibility commodified emotion in the form of the early novel, which presented tableau after tableau of agony, encouraging readers to weep openly and prove the generosity and strength of their feeling heart. Buying a novel routinized the idea of buying an emotional experience. Now the idea is so prevelant as to be invisible, unquestioned, common-sensical. It's the essence of entertainment, the core of the culture industry.

Does suffering by proxy invalidate the original suffering, the "authentic" suffering, or does it dignify it through social recognition. Schjeldahl's point seems to be that it's doing both simultaneously, crystallizing one of capitalism's many contradictions. Social recognition is granted by commodification, which is at the same time exploitation.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Ads on Gmail

I recently got a Gmail account. For some reason, you have to be invited to get one, so I should take a moment and thank Victor Ozols for getting me in the club. The "By Invitation Only" aspect adds an air of faux exclusivity to it, and I have to confess that it encouraged me to usse the account more than I would have otherwise. I also like that it adopts the best features of Instant Messaging into its interface, making back and forth conversations of short emails easier to manage.

But what's truly creepy about it is the column of targeted ads that accompany your emails. Automated programs comb through the text of your emails looking for key word matches, and then they generate a list of ads suggested by the conversations you are having. It's extremely unsettling how pertinent these can be, at times they are like a shadow commentary on the substance of your life. At times, these ads seem to cut right through to the essence of your conversation, offering you a direct way to take action on the things you are otherwise merely blathering about. YOu might be talking about seeing movies, and in the column will be an ad inviting you to buy the tickets. You might be talking about the status of your relationship, and there in the margin are a list of self-help books and seminars on how to improve your love life. The talk you are having with your email correspondant is probably nice and all, but the real substance of what's being said is in those ads, which allow you to vote with your dollar and exercise your chief American right, to express preferences through purchases. The ads are a commentary on your conversation, a kind of Occam's razor analysis drawing a direct link from your personal issues to the way society would like to see them addressed -- these ads allow for instant transformation of the personal into the socially relevant. They show you immediately how our consumer society understands your deepest personal desires and dilemmas.

Perhaps future email exchanges might be conducted entirely through the medium of those ads -- just copy and paste them in to show how the world of commerce has parsed your thoughts into what purchases are appropriate, the only meaningful actions to whatever you are discussing.

But already its altered the way I write emails. I find myself throwing in arbitrary references to Chairman Mao or venereal disease or chess openings to try to affect the ad content my correspondants will receive on the other side. I can imagine this could be quite a fun game for those in the Gmail club to play.

Monday, January 17, 2005

The Rosenbach museum

This weekend I was in Philadelphia, and I went to the Rosenbach museum to see a small exhibit of outsider art, which, by the way, was very small and without any curatorial insight to orient viewers -- no little bios of the artists, for example, which would seem important in appreciating outsider art, where half the fun is piercing the obscurity from which such works come. But the Rosenbach museum is primarily a repositiory for the rare book collection of the Rosenbach brothers, two obsessive collectors from the early twentieth century. The museum is really a monument to the taste and ingenuity of these brothers, and surveying the museum's holdings is like taking a tour of their accrued personality.

The vanity and ego behind such collecting once was strictly the province of the wealthy, but modern consumerism has made it the imperative of everyone, which makes the Rosenbach museum a specific tribute to our heritage, and a place where one can learn more august strategies of selfhood. We are all in a position to be assembling our legacy identity through what objects we accumulate. It only makes sense that museums should begin to celebrate the collectors rather than the artists.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Consumption unlimited

I'm trying to sum up the boredom and convenience question. If the modus operandi of capitalism is to reify every possible thing so that profit may be made from its exchange, then surely its no accident that time is increasingly reified under the guise of efficiency and convenience. And once we are aware of time's value, of time needing to yield something measurable, we become acutely aware of boredom as failure, as inefficiency, as squandering. Steffan Linder, positing a supply/demand curve for time, culturally produced as a scarce commodity, suggests we want equal productivity from our leisure time as we give in our work time. (But why must this be?). Paradoxically, time becomes scarcer in a world full of time-saving efficiencies because of crowding in the world of consumption possibilities. With so much more that we theoretically want to consume, and with that pile growing daily (with every reissue of entire TV series on DVD, for instance), we run out of time to consume it, and we want to be able to expedite our consumption of everything -- hence everything tends toward the immediate, the disposable (cultural goods have less meaning, less staying power). Like the phenomenon of more road-building leading to worse, more congested traffic, so does the increase of time-saving devices lead to consumption congestion, to an ever-greater sense of being crunched for time.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Relative scarcity

In a culture where the Duane Reade drug store on my corner is selling The Great Santini DVD, you have to wonder whether the tortuous paths commodities take to get to market are even capable of being analyzed. Clearly the whole system has become so huge and unwieldy, the distribution of goods follows its own Byzantine logic, seeking out sites for profit making, or colonizing new spaces for the market, with Borg-like efficiency. It seems to make no sense to talk about scarcity in such a culture, but if "stone-age economist" Marshall Sahlins and economist William Leiss are right, it may be that there is the most scarcity in a society that is surfeited with goods. There is a bit of semantic, epistemological jujitsu in this: rather than economics as a discipline growing up to deal with real scarcity, economics may have posited scarcity to develop itself, thereby creating it in the society it purported to describe, or at least emphasizing it as the defining principle of social organization -- with the consequence of rationalizing individualistic dog-eat-dog competition rather than cooperation.

Scarcity, they argue, is not some absolute, ontological condition whose meaning is universall applicable to any context. Scarcity is, in fact, relative, defined, in Sahlins's words by "a relationship between means and ends." What one feels he is lacking is determined by what others in society are capable of getting. Social emulation and the process of adaptation work to make us perpetually discontented -- as mass production offers the chance for the zero-sum society in which some must have while others have not to finally be defeated, humans stubbornly seek out ways to make the playing field unlevel again, finding ways to create a symbolic scarcity (at the level of social or cultural capital, to use Bourdieu's terminology) when no material scarcity exists. Is this because the need for distinction runs as deep in the human species as the need to eat? Is class hierarchy then engrained in the human species. What a dismal thought, but one seemingly implied by all Veblenite modes of theorizing.

The alternative is to attribute the quest for distinction to the superstructure capitalism cultivates. This is implicit in Sahlins's conjuring of a pretopian stone-age society in which there was no quest for individual distinctiveness and thus no sense of scarcity, even in the midst of what seems like material deprivation. Sahlins argues that nomadic societies enjoyed greater leisure time and an adequate diet procured with the least amount of labor. (The cost: perpetual mobility and a callousness to those less mobile members of society -- the elderly, infants.) Such societies didn't manufacture scarcity in order to create class hierarchy.

In The Limits to Satisfaction Leiss picks up this point, stressing scarcity is experiential, a state of mind. We feel scarcity, and not because we're vain and capricious, but because social validation is fundamental to our well-being, and it is that commodity that continues to be rationed even amidst a superfluity of Great Santini DVDs and 6 oz bags of Ranch-flavored Doritos and the like. Scarcity is always going to exist when goods are used for social distinction, and producing more goods will obviously not solve this. In fact, producing more goods may be necessary to lend others their comparative scarcity -- overproduction of a sort may be a precondition for scarcity. And that's a really dismal thought.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Notes on the origins of convenience

Is it any surprise that America, a country whose core consumer value is convenience, should also be a fat, lazy country? When we prize efficiency, we are celebrating the time-saving component of convenience, but inevitably, this leads us to champion the effort-saving aspects of it as well. And we are well-trained to seek to avoid effort, since it's beaten in to us that work is a disutility, and there's no meaning for life to be found in work. Because capitalist economies generate so few meaningful jobs, it's essential that we look for life's meaning in consumption, but in order to consume as much as we are convinced we need to in order to feel fulfilled (we never feel fulfilled, no matter how much we consume) we must maximize our consumption time, consuming as much as possible as quickly as possible. Convenience plays its role here, beceomes a value insofar as it permits greater consumption/greater selfhood. In this, it mirrors efficiency on the production side -- as workers are driven to be efficient in the workplace, as the value of time increases, so must the value of leisure time, in order for it to be a meaningful counterbalance. If we work to enjoy leisure, then leisure time needs to be concentrated to the same degree as work time (this according to economist Steffan Linder). This is the origin of convenience as a valuable quality in what we consume, convenience is our means to maximizing our time spent consuming -- gives us more throughput in our lives.

In this mad rush to consume, other people are distracting, hinder consumption by encouraging social interaction instead, which might give pleasure but won't build social esteem in the hierarchy established by what Fred Hirsch calls "positional goods," those commodities that primarily confer status. In the process, in making consumption efficient for ourselves, in making it more convenient, we inevitably spend less time with each thing consumed, an attitude that becomes mutually reinforcing with the increasing disposability of all cultural product, perhaps. So shallow superficial music corresponds to a taste geared for quick digestion of cultural items as discrete disposable items. What we consume becomes far less important than how fast we can consume it (quantity trumps quality). We start to consume our own sense of ourselves consuming, we consume the expediency of our experience rather than the experience itself -- this is why convenience cannibalizes experience and its original utility.

The value of convenience then is disposability; convenience always tends toward disposability, until the experience being consumed is instantaneous. Disposability is not an unfortunate effect; it's an accomplished goal of consumerist economies. We begin to value convenience when the drive for efficiency makes the workplace feel emptier and emptier. We need to make leisure time fuller and fuller, and convenience becomes essential for that. At some point, it becomes an end in itself, itself a positional good (hence the gadget culture). The consumption/convenience ethos ultimately drives us to consume other people as disposable things (the one-night-stand culture). People become address cards in an organizer (the cultures merge).

Monday, January 10, 2005

Jonathan Richman's "My Jeans"

It may seem strange to view Jonathan Richman's innocuous, almost half-assed ditty about his deep appreciation for Wrangler jeans as an anti-consumerist manifesto, but that's precisely what I am about to do. The song, which appears on the shamefully out-of-print Rockin' and Romance album, takes on the dominant attitudes and assumptions of consumerism from many different angles, through its form (its lo-fi simplified music) and its content (its deceptively simple lyrics).

First, the music: The song sounds as though it were committed to tape with hardly a second thought to whether his guitar was tuned or not. There is nothing "produced" about it: it's just Jonathan in a room singing and playing into a mike, backed up by a quartet of doo-wop singers. There was nothing especiallly fashionable in 1985 about this au natural approach; it in fact flew in the face of all the mainstream record industry assumptions about what music product should consist of -- mechanized drum beats, synthesized background music, processed vocals, massive reverberation, et cetera. All that technical appartus is part and parcel with the time-honored management strategy of taking the mastery of the tools away from the worker (singer, in this case) to make him interchangable while lodging the know-how with the managers -- this is why producers are more important than singers in today's pop-music market, and why you can have a TV contest to yield just about anyone to stand in the pre-formatted shoes of the pop-star. And by making music seem necessarily high-tech (you need an expensive machine to simulate real drumming rather than a drummer), it takes the ability to make music recognized as legitimate by the masses away from the average musican and places it firmly in control of the big corporations that can afford the equipment. And these same corporations use payola to ensure that fans are adapted to their expensive sound by assuring that there are no alternatives, until they naturally "prefer" what has been the only choice offered them on radio. And the music industry assumes it can leverage the bias toward technology -- the bias that assume that which flaunts its technological "advances" is auytomatically better -- and ensure fans for its ever more "sophisticated," that is computerized and mechanized, productions. Richman rejects all of this by making campfire music which require next to no technology to record. Just harmonizing voices and an acoustic guitar. He removes it from the cycles of fashion and trends generated by technological developments (think of how engineering evolution of synths, sampling, sequencers, etc. have shaped the contours of pop music at each stage) and makes it basic and freely accessible to anyone who wants to sing. And his untrained voice and his simple, functional guitar work serves as an inviting example for anyone who wants to create their own songs. All you need to do, Richman's song suggests, is to start doing it.

The lyrics mirror this functional aesthetic. The song is about his fruitless quest to buy a new pair of Wranglers (why he didn't just go to any truck stop on I-40 and get them is not addressed). Why does he want a new pair? Not because he has whim or thinks it'll be cool or because he feels like having more but because his old pair is "fraying, really bad." So already he's staked out an anti-consumerist position: he's shopping only because he has to and for purely functional reasons. Why does he want Wranglers? Not because they are cool or because they're not cool or because they are the Pabst Blue Ribbon of jeans or any of that: but because he's learned through experience that they fit him best, another purely functional criterion. Consumerism is able to generate unending demand for mass produced stuff by encouraging consumers to need to consume what goods symbolize rather than what they actually do. In terms of function, you need one pair of jeans, to cover your ass from showing. But the act of buying jeans can be made to seem to satisfy wants -- for status, for self-esteem, to assuage boredom, and so on -- that are unending, ultimately unfulfillable. Richman sings about rejecting the symolism in favor of more basic, unambiguous utility. Lastly, he sings with unabashed, earnest enthusiasm for Wranglers, which may seem like a kind of naive brand loyalty, a classic consumerist ploy to have you fetishize the brand name, which creates a competitive advantage out of thin air for its owners. And perhaps this song does that. But the expression of unreserved enthusiasm is a refutation of the insidious ways brands are often built up, through inference and misdirection and proscription. Advertisments never work to encourage you to feel a genuine straightforward enthusiasm for a product, instead it tries to make you feel insecure in general, and thus more generally vulnerable and manipulatable -- you associate the brand with the sense of security that comes with conforming. But Richman co-opts the function of ads and turns it inside out -- he's offering an endorsement that does no one but himself any good -- I like them because they fit me -- and he's undermining the premises of regular ads' endorsements, showing that a product should not make you feel superior to others, that a product should make you gloat about it, not about yourself for buying it.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Children's movies are evil

More proof that boredom is learned: young children can entertain themselves with a Lincoln log and a lego piece and a pretzel stick for hours until they learned to be bored, passive, staring at screens, waiting to be mesmerized. I'm no child psychologist (I'm not even a parent) but my limited observations lead me to think that a kid's instinctual impulse is to entertain herself by creating, by engaging with things, by interacting with the environment and with others in order to discover the limits of her understanding and possibly expand that limit while demonstrating a greater mastery over reality and her ability to manipulate materials -- demonstrating more autonomy and efficacy, all the things that seem to have a strong corelation with individual happiness. But such childhood growth requires supervision, which means time spent by parents wataching their children rather than working to make a wage consistent with middle-class expectations and producing ever more surplus for voracious capital. Parents and capitalists can't abide such wasted time as playing with children anymore, hence children are adapted to TV entertainment, which zombifies them, making them docile and undemanding (except for their sudden demands for advertised crap they've seen on TV).

The kids movie, for this reason, is pure evil. Critics seem inexplicably tolerant of their insipidity, but even if movies like Shrek were brilliant rather than excruciatingly awful, children's movies would still be horrible for children. The discipline kids learn in the theater, their anxious parents shushing them and demanding them to be quiet, and still, and non-vocal, purely interior and self-involved in their repsonses; all this makes them passive, complacent, reliant on the culture industry for their ability to be distracted from themselves, "entertained." There they are surrounded by other kids for the sole purpose of insisting that they pay attention not to eeach other but to these retarded cartoon animals flickering on the screen in front of them. The underlying message? Pleasure comes from product, not from peers. The ability to engage themselves in the world gets routed through entertainment, and the idea that you would make your own entertainment fades from their world of possibilities.

Friday, January 07, 2005

More boredom

In mulling over boredom some more -- perhaps I've been bored, and making the meta-move is the grad-school thinking strategy I absorbed for coping with things -- I've started to wonder about the plannned obsolescence built into popular culture. This feature is what distinguishes it as popular culture, its obvious disposability and the low threshold of commitment it takes to consume it, or just as important, to be seen consuming it. This is what makes it popular -- there are no educational boundaries to one's being able to enjoy it, no cultural capital you need to bring to it. And its effervescence means you stake none of your identity, none of your social capital on it. You don't build an identity on it, unless you are a pop-culture obsessive, and then your identity is really founded on a methodology, on the archivist's taxomizing approach to culture -- such people are not defined by fandom of some specific piece of pop culture but by one's all-encompassing passion for all of it and one's ability to use that amassed knowledge to make analytical (if not discriminatory) distinctions.

Anyway, popular culture becomes popular because it's accessible to a maximum amount of people for a minimal amount of time. Being aware of its brief window of time, its short moment of relevance, may increase the bandwagon effect, may encourage more people to buy into a fad. The point is that popular culture's shallowness is not an unfortunate effect, it's not something that could be fixed with better artists making it (this fallacy is often implicit in would-be culture-critic fulminations -- especially my own). It's made that way on purpose, and it takes great skill, armies of talented editors and producrers, to make it that way. Editors are not out to keep you perpetually fascinated by any one thing they've crafted -- this would make them quickly extinct. Editors are actually out to teach you to be quickly bored, to expect bursts of fascination that quickly burn out your attention. The writing style of Village Voice critics seems to me an especially apt example of this -- every review has some stunning metaphorical fireworks, something that just amazes me with the writer's ingenuity and makes me think, wow, what a turn of phrase, and yet as eagerly as I devour that sort of writing, I forget it instantly. (This was my gripe with Kipnis's style in Against Love-- she was taking these ideas I find memorable, integral, and putting them into the intentionally vapid style of magazines, which is intended to make ideas fascinating and then forgettable. So perhaps serious thought must be boring? A defense for acadmic writing?)

So an editor's unique trailblaziing skill may be that she is more quickly bored than the average person whose leading light she hopes to be. She probably has the best intentions for this, and certainly culture teaches her that this is the proper operation of taste, recognizing what can grab attention amid the myriad things fighting for it. This is the debasement of discriminatory taste that is brought on by capitalist culture, or at the very least, the imperatives of the publishing marketplace, which of course celebrates disposable books much more than good (i.e. lasting and rereadable) ones. This is equally true of music and the music industry, which explains why the Grammy winners are almost always universally awful. The industry rewards what is disposable and sellable, not what is enduringly and transcendently great.

Editors can't presume attention in their readers. They have to presume a kind of indifference; so that the ideal reader that their work is shaping, the one that ends up being posited by the text, is one who is without much enthusiasm, one who is tepid, uninterested, easily bored, shallow. In reading this material, which is omnipresent in America -- reading in ads, in clothing, in radio and TV as well as in newspapers and magazines -- we are becoming this shallow person, and we are happy to, because this shallow person is everywhere being validated by the culture created for him, he is the one who everyone (ad culture especially) wants to pay attention to.

Nostalgia may just be the impulse to resist this built-in disposability, to elevate junk culture to art and reclaim the moments you end up spending on it for some larger significance. You want to define yourself through culture, but you don't want to be a junk person, so you craft arguments to make the culture available to you into something other than the non-user-specific, disposable junk it's made to be. The nostalgist insists that what seemed like kitsch crap was in fact significant, important. He sees plentitude where the culture wants you to immediately detect emptiness (after a brief blast of excitement). This theme underlies the "positive" approaches to consumption and consumerism, which configure the consumer as not a passive sponge but an active re-producer, someone who subverts the society's intention to make us content with small moments of shallow pleasure consumed with spiralling rapidity by making disposable cultural items into deep, rich artifacts with lasting personal significance. Think of the mixtape (or mix CD, I guess, now), for instance -- this takes silly pop songs and combines them in a constellation that defines a moment in your life, or communicates a personal, intricate message to someone else. (This makes those portals where you pay to make your own mix CDs at Starbucks sort of sinister -- they are trying to squeeze profit out of that recombinatory, resucing, impulse; trying to make a profit from that time and energy you spend trying to personalize generic, disposable culture).

Thursday, January 06, 2005

The etiology of boredom

Boredom strikes me as a highly unnatural state, one virtually synonomous with depression (aren't the depressed simply those who are too easily bored? Those who lack the inspiration to become invested in anything?). It's widespread prevelance in contemporary American society is a sure sign that there's something deeply wrong with the world we've wrought. And that most advances in entertainment technology imply a consumer who is ever more easily bored (which thereby conjures that nitwit with a short attention span into pervasive being -- hence the AAD epidemic) proves that entertainment companies are pure evil.

It's no accident that mass entertainments, with their disposable stories and high-speed editing and their thin solipsism and their rejection of complexity, carefully cultivate the short-attention span. Thinking, the unfortunate result of concentrated periods of attention, is counterproductive in a shopper, whereas boredom suits the consumer economy: No one develops deep attachments to anything and every one is ever restless for novelty for its own sake. Inevitable discontent leads to serial purchases, which are made with spiralling frequency until boredom makes new purchases instantaneously empty upon possession. At that point the act of acquisition becomes the only moment of pleasure, and one must plotting a perpetual buying spree. We may have already reached this stage.

It may be that boredom really first came into being in the 19th century, with the advent of consumer capitalism and urban centers of hyperstimulation (to which boredom may be the only defense mechanism). Baudelaire is usually considered the first poet of jaded, cynical boredom, of ennui, that state of spent superiority that comes from thinking you've already consumed everything and expect to consume something better. Ennui is a state of having accepted passivity as natural, of assuming its not your prerogative but the culture's to entertain you, to inspire you. It's an unwillingness to risk enthusiasm about anything not marketed, an unwillingness to see work as an end in itself, that's so prevelant now it almost seems like human nature.

The work/leisure dichotomy that underwrites that passive attitude toward pleasure is a commonplace economic assumption about human motivation -- that work is a disutility. And scientific managment schemes worked industriously to make that assumption true by rationalizing and de-skilling most jobs in the workplace and timing all aspects of work so that we all became clockwatchers, covetous of reified time as a kind of precious possession. With workers encouraged constantly to work at optimal efficiency, and with the ideology of convenience and time-saving chiming in and reinforcing it at the sociocultural level, one is likely to feel surprised if left with any time to think. We interpret this freedom to think as a species of underutilization, and we almost resent it, as though our bosses have underestimated us. Boredom is the sullen response, since all initiative to think for ourselves, all cultural validation for autodidacticism, has been effaced from our world. We're trained not to value the luxury of free thought early on, and all craft knowledge that derives from it is now dispersed throughout coroporate management bureaucracies, and educational bureaucracies. (Braverman, in Labor and Monoply Capital, explains a lot of this.)

Hence the suspicion and condescension the business world heaps on those who seek higher degrees in the liberal-arts fields -- this sad hopeless lot which refuses to see reason, and treat knowledge as solely instrumental. Their motives are unfathomable, since they cannot be measured in money.

The primary function of the culture industry is to habituate workers to their fate (to routinely expect boredom, and to see the oscillation out in and out of states of boredom as the only kind of joy) under capitalism as capitalism removes all alternatives, ends the possibility of work that is meaningful to the worker and allows her any craft knowledge, and hence a meaningful class-specific culture of which to be proud, from which to derive a satisfying self-concept.

Kipnis, at the end of Against Love, actually broaches this same issue, arguing that marital boredom mirrors workplace boredom, and both are assuaged by easy, routinized consumption. Kipnis points out that love for commodities can ease your inability to love your job or your spouse, and love itself becomes a commodity, malleable and manufactured, a disposable serial substitute to meaningful work and a nurturing social order. One might add that love is now necessarily a commodity in our current climate, as our ability to respond emotionally to anything that's more dynamic than a static object has atrophied. We prefer it as a commodity, which seems more convenient to us than its messier organic forms.

Another interesting corollary: married workers, with their stake in a bad system, will more likely go along with it without complaint. Married people are proven to be meek and compliant by their very assent to such a flawed contract. (And just today on's insipid home page I saw a report of a study claiming married people are more productive than unmarrieds.)

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

The love culture

Laura Kipnis's Against Love is full of interesting insights, but it's written in the most irritating way. She's always winking at the reader, making strained jokes and dopey analogies, trying to makes her subversiveness commercial. But this also defangs it; writing about how romantic love constitutes an ideology in the snarky prose of a woman's magazine leads to a muddle, as the medium cancels out the message to a degree. As willing as she is to question romantic love's role in stabilizing our current array of social relations under capitalism, she's not willing to take on the ideology embedded in what makes writing commericially viable, and the way that serves the same social relations. She is reinforcing with her tone what she's trying to tear down with the content.

Perhaps it could be defended as a kind of trojan horse, inducing readers to think in the counter-intuitive manner of Frankfurt-school theorists without burdening them with jargon or jarring them with unprepared assaults on their common sense. No, Kipnis is tirelessly reminding us about how contrarian she's being, and how she's writing a "polemic" with no pretense to objectivity. But she's not nearly as uncompromising as she seems to think she's being; instead the whole thing feels compromised in its conception, ashamed of its theoretical roots and ever fearful of a dismissive reading public. It seems like a real polemic would be much more apolegetic in telling its astringent truths. (Read Minima Moralia, for example.) Maybe I'm wrong, but when I imagine a popular yet theoretically informed kind of discourse, I imagine something looser than this, something less locked into magazine-y prose considerations.

Kipnis begins with the crucial point that societies, in order to reproduce themselves, must organize themselves so that certain personality types are reproduced, and that the notion of love is a way through which a person volunteers to mold himself to the appropriate type. Love is a nexus where society's agenda becomes inseparable from an individual's perception of his own. It allows us to feel ideology, what society needs us to think to replicate itself, at the deepest levels of our being, blending it in with our most primal, natural impulses, so that we'll more readily agree that love as we know it (i.e. the social code) is totally, obviously natural, and that alternatives are unthinkable, monsterous. So the stable relationship is a model for one's stable relation to the social order, you maintain peace with one by making accomodations with the other. This is sort of self-evident, when you think of how the family is the basic unit of any society -- of course the logic of what constitutes a family will be dictated by (or at least inbricated with) the logic that orders society. Shifts in love are always mirrored (if not determined) by shifts in social relations. And of course love is not some sort of universal eternal constant. Do we forget this because it's inconvenient to remember it in the face of all the pleasure going along with love, going along with society and being affirmed and validated by it, because this forgetting is necessary to fall in love and believe in it sufficiently to get the joys out of it? Can one be in love and know what love's social function is at the same time? Can one love a person sincerely without loving at the same time the society in which you both live?

For Kipnis (strange to say "for Kipnis" because she seems so uncommmitted to her own argument -- perhaps a deliberate strategy to match her substantive argument against commitment), the refusal to commit to a monogamous relationship is a way of maintaining utopian possibilities, of refusing to be obediant to an exploitative culture, and a way to assure the person you care for doesn't become your inadvertent jailer. In most relationships, Kipnis suggests, we are true to some abstract notion of relationship, which is how ideology has been passed down and internalized by us, rather than to the actual other person, whose own needs are not served by our fidelity, and who is likely as trapped by ideology himself.

The dilemma likely began in the 18th century, when companionate marriage becomes compensatory for the more juridiccal forms of society coming into being, or alternatively, when bourgeois indvidualism requires romantic love as a way of proving to oneself one's autonomy. Rather than having arranged marriages, individuals internalize the criteria that once guided their parents, and they mistake economic rationality and class prerogatives for "chemistry" and "soul mate"-hood. It becomes a protocol for self-examination and self-revelation, a confessional forum in which one takes responsibility for one's deviations and accepts society's dictates (in the form of love's considerations) as one's own best interests. In general, people begin to experience the structures of social order as their deepest, most intimate feelings, and they assent to them the way they assent to their own identity. The discovery of love, of what is a truly limiting set of emotions, in ourselves, we generally interpret as being set free, of opening ourselves up. This is essentially Foucault's argument, that institutions (and their way of describing us) lead us to discover our own subjectivity in order to become personally responsible for our own imprisonment in the cells society prepared for us, and to see those cells as a kind of inevitability, if not a paradise. Thus, intimacy is a velvet-lined cage, an ideology constructed (as Kipnis laboriously points out) of can'ts, an unrealizable ever receding goal, all at once. One's lover is a policeman in disguise. Kipnis sums up the reasons that domesticity is so configured: "Note that the conditions of lovability are remarkably convergent with those of a cowed workforce and a docile electorate." Love replicates the personality type needed for our capitalist oligarchy. Love "comes spouting the deadening language of the factory, enfolded in household regimes and quashed desires—an efficient way of organizing acquiesence to shrunken expectations and renunciation and status quo." So much for jouissance.

Notes on Labor and Monopoly Capital

I committed the last month or so to reading Harry Braverman's Labor and Monopoly Capital, a Marxist assessment on the constitution of the modern working class, and I want turn it to account somehow. The first half of the book provides a trenchant account of Taylor's principles of scientific management, arguing that under the guise of "rationalizing" the work place, management merely deprives workers of their craft knowledge and turns them into (ultimately) reserve armies of generalized labor, capable of only the simplest, most repetitive tasks for the smallest wage. In fact, I don't think I've ever read a book where "rational" was more of a dirty word. You can almost hear Braverman's contempt everytime he writes it, it seems to call down phantom quotes of derision around it, such a mockery it is of what is actually human. Rationality, rather than being a supreme quality of human thought, is, under capitalism, basically humanity's antithesis, it's a weapon that undermines social cooperation, a synonym for exploitation, a tool one class uses to dehumanize another and turn them into robots, whose every move in the work place is prescribed. The point may be that capitalism always inverts the nature of things, so that what is supremely irrational comes to seem perfectly rational. At stake for Braverman is preserving Marx's law proposing that the more capital accumulates, the more generalized social misery there is. Post WWII, when the consumer society kicked in to full gear, cheap goods expanded the working class's access to what were once class-inflected luxuries, (see America's alleged triumph in Nixon's "kitchen debate" with Khrushchev) and though their spending power was not proportional to that of the upper classes, there was a pervasive sense that all boats were being raised by prosperity. But Braverman points out that the fallacy about prosperity, which has nothing to do with happiness and everything to do with profits, which are, of course, distributed unequally.

In the second half, Braverman tries to refute the notion that the working class is somehow shrinking with alleged prosperity, arguing that clerical workers are glorified proles, no different than assembly-line workers. This seems beyond dispute now, with whatever specialized skill an office worker might once have possessed displaced to computers. We might be tempted then to blame computers for widespread anomie, the way machines were blamed for the misery their introduction induced.
But Braverman insists that technology is neutral util it's placed into social relations that use it to enable broader exploitation. (Alternative social relations would use machines not for profit but for social welfare. The Internet, when it first went mainstream, made such promise more palpable; some claimed that it would restructure social relations in and of itself, which goes against Braverman's argument, by leading to open-source research and information sharing, by leading to universal distribution of the fruits of cultural production, ie, free downloads for all.)

The sci-fi in which the machines are out to get humanity (The Terminator, The Matrix, etc.) reflect this mistake that the machines are out to get us, and perpetuate it. This is one of culture's functions, masking the true identity of the exploiters, so that the exploited blame machines (or, more typically, themselves) and not their owners. This masks also that lost potential of machines to liberate workers rather than stupefy them, that road not taken. The malevolence of machines comes to seem inevitable --"it was only a matter of time before the machines became sentient...."

Also of note: Capitalism's need to replace autonomous demand with induced demand, so that it suits production schedules. It's not enough for ads to get you to want certain things -- the timing is as important, if not moreso. Ads aren't simply about creating demand; it's about conforming existing demand to production schedules; to get you to want things at the right times, when surpluses exist, when styles are most likely to shift, etc. This is the logic behing the timing of sales, as well.

And this seemed to me a pretty concise way of summing up the market's antagonism to human relations, the way society pits men against each other, so that their exchanges take on the rationalized, exploitative character of the market, the every-man-for-himself ethos it predicates: "The social structure, built upon the market, is such that relations between individuals and social groups do not take place directly, as cooperative human encounters, but through the market as relations of purchase and sale. Thus the more social life becomes a dense and close network of interlocked activities in which people are totally interdependent, the more atomized they become and the more their contacts with one another separate them instead of bringing them closer." Because every encounter is experienced as zero-sum, as having a winner and a loser, the more we interact, the more friction we feel, the more resentful we become. Thus the ability to avoid interaction with other people comes to seem like a benefit, a utility, a convenience. Thus all conveniences are generally aimed at minimizing the face-to-face contact you must make with others while by and large making you more available to be used by your employers (cell phones, et cetera). I like this because it lessens the mindtwisting I was willing to ascribe to ideology in turning people to convenience and away from social interactions that are the empirically proven bases for happiness. This explanation shows how personal interactions can come to be objectively unpleasant.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Henry Darger, culture hero

Jessica Yu's documentary In the Realms of the Unreal does a convincing job doing something I was taught in graduate school not to do, trace connections between an artist's life and his work and fill in biographical holes with analysis of his art. I don't mean to assess the so-called biographical fallacy here; I mention this only because it was quite disconcerting for a film about Henry Darger, outsider artist extraordinaire, a man about which virtually nothing is known to spend so much time elucidating that virtual void while doing nothing to put his work in any kind of art-historical context. But the results were surprisingly poignant: I was left with a palpable sense of extreme isolation and the quiet dignity that, oddly enough, comes from absurd over-the-top obssession.

In obvious ways, Darger was clearly a lunatic. He saved bits of string. In private he talked to himself incessantly, in different voices for different characters in his private world. If his drawings are any guide, he seemed to believe little girls have penises. And he wrote an endless, unreadable fantasy novel detailing the endless child slavery wars in his "realms of the unreal" that he invented for himself. Yu tries to illustrate how the "realms of the unreal" are a distorted mirror of the reality of Darger's alienation. So his art becomes a case study in the function of ideology in its most hard-line pessimisstic formulation, as a species of false consciousness that compensates for a life of deprivation. And if that is so, then it also demonstrates how productive the illusions of ideology can be; in order to realize its comforts, Darger was driven to type out fifteen thousand pages of his novel and make hundreds of enormous paintings (often radically reconfiguring sentimental images cut from magazines and advertisements, making him the ultimate "productive consumer," reusing culture for his own ends) to illustrate it, and he did this not out of artistic vanity or ambition or even out of a reflexive need to express himself, but simply because his ideological framework required it. Ideology is often understood as a limitation, as something that prevents one from seeing truth. But it's really constituitive, creative, productive; it supplies the structures that make artistic production possible, it supplies the desire to create that transcend market imperatives (even if it is concealing those imperatives from the artist in order to induce him to create).

It's because outsider artists are so external to the marketplace that they are so fascinating. Market motives seem so inherent, especially to us now, having entirely naturalized capitalism and declared it to be the end of history and all, that those capable of operating outside of them seem like true aliens, utterly unfathomable. Often, we are reassured by deeming such people mentally ill, seeing their preternatural creativity as pathology, a tainted kind of achievement. But there is probably a hint of jealousy in our attraction to people like Darger; we sense our own stunted creative potential in the monumental accomplishments of such ordinary, "unskilled" artists; we see that anyone could be as wildly creative and productive, and we see how much of our imagination we surrender to get along in the world.

In fact, capitalist ideology prepares us to be jealous of Darger, because of the value it places on uncompromised individualism. No one is more uncompromisingly individualistic that Darger; he is perfectly self-contained, unhindered by any communal ties. But since whatever jealousy we feel of Darger's productiveness is effaced by a revulsion at his anti-social behavior and his puerile narcissism, we see the real limits on individualism, how individualism is a phony ideal itself. Typically, what we understand as individualism is really an ideologically distorted drive to conformity (this is the hinge on which much advertising turns). But Darger shows us what real individualism looks like, and it's completely unapproachable, overwhelming.

Darger also gives the lie to the capitalist fetish of innocence; capitalism celebrates innocence because it's a nice name for the impulsiveness and gullibility necessary for consumerism to soak up all the surplus production generated in search of more and more profit. But real innocence is innocence of the marketplace, it is innocence beyond gullibility, it is a kind of self-contained womb state in which one has trouble distinguishing one's own limits, one's separation from the world around one. Darger created a world in whcih he could be present everywhere as both subject and object, preserving innocence by not allowing his desire to seep into the marketplace, to go there for (partial, always unsatisfying) fulfillment.