Thursday, December 22, 2011

Thoughts on "Use Somebody," Simon Reynolds's Retromania, and Danny Kirwan (20 Dec 2011)

I've been bothered lately by this. Why do I know this song "Use Somebody" so well when I never ever have chosen to hear it and have never heard it straight through in its entirety? It has been out there in my everyday life, ambiently, and I have somehow absorbed enough of it from a myriad of sources to reconstruct the entire thing, like a cognitive Bit Torrent. For me it is part of a pop-culture background that I think I ignore but which actually forms an important backdrop, the ground against which the things I choose to care about can stand out. If I notice this backdrop at all, I usually find myself thinking, Who's this for? Who wants this? Not me. Sometimes I sit through entire movies -- most recently, Drive -- with this feeling, as if the whole point of the experience is to make me believe that I am uniquely superior to the implied audience of the thing.

What that induced sense of superiority hides from me is how this background made of "Use Somebody"s is imposed upon me and affects what I actually choose to hear, choose to value. That dumb song and others like it are shaping my reactionary aesthetics and defining the sort of self-definitional moves I can make to try to retain a sense of myself (albeit a degraged self, a subject limited to cultural consumption) as apart from that background, as someone special who has not yet been washed into the gutter of the mainstream. So "Use Somebody" has shaped me against my will; in its small way, it's an integral part of what it means for me to be a part of this time and place. The inescapable is what defines the cultural moment and to an extent, it defines us. But what I think my relationship to "Use Somebody" suggests is that we don't know what is inescapable directly. It's not what is obvious. It's not what springs immediately to our consciousness when we think of what we are into, or even what others are into. Instead it seeps in, bearing untold ideological poisons.

In an obscure way I haven't yet entirely clarified for myself, Simon Reynolds's recent book Retromania seems to be about this. On its face, the book is an open-ended examination of how digitization of pop's past is affecting its contemporary development. (Kurt Andersen adopted a similar theme in this Vanity Fair piece about the dearth of cultural innovation and how nothing becomes dated anymore. He also admits to mistaking Josh Ritter for Bob Dylan in the piece, which sort of invalidates his credentials for writing about culture.) But it's also about nostalgia as a mode of control, a way of trying to more thoroughly reject the backdrop of "Use Somebody" and exempt oneself from the zeitgeist. Of course, Reynolds's point is that collective rejection is the current zeitgeist. And what's more, I think, it makes repressed or disavowed material like "Use Somebody" even more insidious and potent.

Reynolds, who wrote the postpunk history Rip It Up, focuses mainly on music, detailing the various ramifications of consuming music as information rather than sound. The broad outlines of the argument are fairly familiar: digitization floods the world with MP3s and destroys the music market which once ordered and limited the pop sphere. Faced with the surfeit of music goods to experience and conditioned to appreciate novelty over immersive experience, consumers develop shortcuts for consuming it: collecting rather than listening being one of the main ones.
So many of the consumer-friendly advances of the digital era relate to time management: the freedom to be inattentive or interrupted during a television programme (pause, rewind ), to reschedule the viewing of programmes to when it's more convenient and to stockpile televisual time for a rainy day ( recordable DVDs, TiVo ).... The CD remote, essentially the same device as a TV remote, brought music under the sway of channel-surfing logic. This was the dawn of a new digital-era way of experiencing time, something we've since become totally familiar with. And every gain in consumer-empowering convenience has come at the cost of disempowering the power of art to dominate our attention, to induce a state of aesthetic surrender.
This is music to my ears, as it fits with my longstanding jihad against convenience as a value.

But the key issue is to think about why we choose novelty over immersion. Why do choose convenience -- the speed of consumption -- over the sensory qualities of a consumption experience? Occasionally I see arguments that claim we have some evolutionarily conditioned bias toward novelty, but these seem less convincing to me than analyses that link it to capitalism's need, in order to reproduce itself as a system, to secure steadily growing consumer demand. People must feel the impulse to always need more and to see shopping as fulfillment in its own right, as entirely natural. The prerogatives embedded in consumer capitalism have assured that technological innovation will focus chiefly on convenience, on increasing how much a consumer can consume given unalterable time constraints. Ideology has followed suit, and we end up thinking quantity is a better kind of quality rather than its antithesis.

What Reynolds dubs retromania seems a paradoxical way for capital to proceed to secure the ideological dominance of , but it makes a diabolical sort of sense: get novelty and innovation on the cheap by recycling the ready-at-hand past. This has the added bonus of fusing the new with the familiar, so consumers can appease two contradictory longings simultaneously. Nostalgia and novelty fuse in a new kind of cultural artifact, which Reynolds spends a lot of time cataloging: stuff like I Love the ___'s, reunion tours, bands playing their old albums in sequence, Web 2.0 music like Flying Lotus, Girt Talk, etc. This new artifact flatters us for previous cultural knowledge, which abets the need to approach culture as a kind of archivist and to view cultural consumption as a kind of inner encyclopedia-making process. And it also makes our compendium of sheer trivia about pop culture into genuine cultural capital, giving us incentive to protect the system that lends value to our memory hoard. And as a result, I end up reading things like this exhaustive post about Falco. (You don't know Falco? Well, I am glad you asked...)

Consequently, we start to feel cluttered in her heads with information that feels both useless and useful at the same time. It seems like a waste of brain space for me, for example, to be maintaining a list of black-metal bands in my head; I don't even like that music. But I've actually drawn on that list dozens of times in random conversations to make jokes or to surprise people with an incongruous reference or to unsettle their assumptions about my cultural range, etc.

How do we resist this? Should we bother? For me, that question has provoked another seemingly unrelated question: Why do Danny Kirwan solo albums exist?

Not to pick on Kirwan, one of the several guitarists who had a stint fronting Fleetwood Mac in the pre–Buckingham Nicks era -- Bare Trees was released during his watch and is a pretty great album -- but the fact he was given the opportunity to issue solo albums in the 1970s on a major label after getting himself kicked out of Fleetwood Mac seems indicative of how Big Culture once had an insatiable appetite for new cultural product from sources that they had come to trust as "professional." Before digitization and the internet upended models of cultural distribution, the flow of cultural product and the instigation of cultural demand could be much more carefully managed from the commanding heights. Consumers had some amount of money they were willing to spend to experience the novel, and the culture industry manufactured enough new product to fill the shelves accordingly, usually in a weekly rhythm.

Some or even most of that stuff went the way of Danny Kirwan solo albums, but the logic of the business was still such that it was more lucrative to tolerate the flops of the Kirwans of the industry than to open the floodgates to unvetted or less polished talent. Because the product being sold was not the records themselves so much as novelty qua novelty, the rate of new material entering the pipeline was far more important than the quality of any particular album. So there was no special incentive to discover new geniuses. Danny Kirwan was fine. He had a foothold in the business, proved himself to be someone who could deliver a product on time, so he got hired to do more records. (In other media, it works the same way; professionalization trumps raw talent. The same magazine writers get assignments because they have proved to be serviceable and reliable; the same actors show up over and over again because they establish their bland acceptability; and so on.)

As Reynolds points out, digitization changed the equation for record companies. It offered them the temptation to reissue old product in new form rather than continue to cultivate new product from its stable of acceptable performers. The selling point was the convenience of CDs -- they were easier to care for, easier to store, and easier to play in a customized way. This marketing emphasis moves the process of music listening ahead of the music itself and ahead of managed novelty. The problem for the music business is that this same convenience became a weapon against them -- it allowed consumers to circumvent the system of managed novelty and expect more. It allowed to redistribute music themselves. And it it sanctified the idea that what was old wan't just old but classic, and broadened that view beyond the hard-core collectors and music nerds.

The internet completes the destruction of the old system by democratizing distribution and the A&R functions. You don't have to go to the record store and contemplate Danny Kirwan's album because it is one of the few new things on the new releases wall. Instead a blend of new and old things get circulated within a dynamic online ecosystem that is tailored to each individual user on the basis of their social networks and so on. So the music business can no longer extort value through their ability to control the flow of professionally produced novelty; the flow is now a surfeit coming at consumers from all sorts of directions. And anyone (including me) can pass themselves off as a culture producer and inject content into the internet, leveraging their networks to get it exposure.

Value now is captured by harnessing the filtering that consumers perform for one another, monitoring the lateral cultural chatter and trying to time the implied markets. This is another aspect of the retromania phenomenon. Amateur bricoleurs sort through the digitized detritus of the past (Danny Kirwan solo albums, Falco, etc.), trying to make cultural capital out of it.

How one feels about the question of resistance probably depends on how successful one is at that task.

Algorithmic cures for gift anxiety (1 Dec 2011)

With the "social graph" ramping up, it was only a matter of time before recommendation engines would stop suggesting to us merely what we might be interested in and start telling us what our friends want. It certainly seems to make more sense and is far less epistemologically threatening. Rather than implicitly suggesting that we don't really know ourselves and that we are machine parse-able despite all our deep interiority, the recommendation engine for friends merely lifts the burden of having to pay enough attention to them to get them a gift that's not completely inappropriate. The WSJ's All Things Digital blog has details about one of Walmart's algorithmic holiday solutions, called Shopycat:
Since gifting is a practice humans naturally struggle with, maybe algorithms can do a better job. After using Shopycat, Harinarayan learned his wife was a fan of “Game of Thrones,” the TV series on HBO. She has posted several times on Facebook about the show, but he hadn’t noticed. “Facebook is so transient and things flow by. Here’s a way to aggregate it all and put it in one place,” he said.
This seems to be the application that Facebook was made for. The "keeping in touch" and whatnot is all so much cover for the core functionality: allowing for the translation of the self into a shopping list.

I'm sure this should probably be hailed as an economistic victory against the deadweight loss of Christmas. More people will get what they want, and less time and money will be "wasted" figuring it out. But in an algorithmically airless world of perfect emotional efficiency, where every gift given is the right one and the risk of social faux pas are eliminated, I'm not sure what will be left of the holiday spirit, which seems to hinge ultimately on a generous amount of familial forgiveness. Bad gifts measure the distance we're trying to close with more important gestures than bequeathing gifts.

Microlabor and Pure Precarity (28 Nov 2011)

Today's WSJ has a story by Emily Glazer about p2p personal-servitude sites like TaskRabbit (slogan: "Get just about anything done by safe, reliable, awesome people") that allow people to post request for odd jobs and services. Need a latte but don't feel like waiting in line? Need someone to bring you In N Out? Need someone to inflate hundreds of balloons for a birthday party? These services can help you find the most desperate person out there (or the sort of servant who suits your prejudices best) for a one-off job. Watching the scrolling feed of new jobs at TaskRabbit is like getting to hear the tentative commands of emerging petty tyrants in real time, people taking the plunge and indulging the fantasy of ad hoc aristocracy.

But the request for someone to "Bring some In N Out" seem to capture the spirit of the enterprise -- a desire to find someone else to do something already designed to be expedient, but something that also has some inexplicable brand cachet. I want to eat a burger from In N Out, but it's cool to like In N Out, so I want other people to know I am getting it -- if I advertise on this site, then lots more people will get to know just how into In N Out I am! This is not so much about buying personal service -- the site's users almost certainly don't have the habitus of a person who inherently expects to be waited on and would not likely feel that comfortable casting people more or less like themselves into some inferior caste -- but rather about identity display. It's a means to make consumption of personal service more conspicuous, which is probably a chief reason for TaskRabbit's clients to be doing it.

Noted labor expert Ashton Kutcher, an investor in another online labor market, Zaarly, approves of these sites: " 'Companies like this are really tackling things like unemployment in an efficient, viable way,' Mr. Kutcher says." Yes, what could be more efficient than to hire labor on an as-needed basis without any having to take any sort of responsibility for workplace safety or worker well-being? It is the reductio ad absurdem of the points Doug Henwood raises here about small businesses.
people who presumably care about workers should also rethink their passion for tininess: the experience of actually existing small businesses show that they’re not great employers, with poor pay, cheesier benefits and more dangerous workplaces. Bigger firms are easier to regulate, more open to public scrutiny, friendlier to affirmative action programs and more vulnerable to union organizing.

What these online microlabor sites posit is a kind of pure precarity, in which labor is entirely disembedded from ongoing social relations and is purely exploitative; it defines the relation between worker and boss as a kind of unbridgeable chasm. Though Glazer points out how longer-term working relationships sometimes evolve out of microlabor encounters, the premise is still anchored in hire and fire at will, at literally the first moment it is convenient.

It reminds me of something Angela Mitropoulos argues in this essay:
The regular work, or regular pay, or the 'normal working day' that is regarded as typical of Fordism is an exception in the history of capitalism.[1] Outside a small number of countries for a brief historical moment, and outside particular occupations in specific industries, the experience of work in capitalism has, for the most part, been intermittent, without guarantee of a future income, without punctual limit and, oftentimes, without any income at all. Indeed, regular, full-time and secure work, where it did exist, depended upon the organisation and maintenance of precarious conditions for the vast majority of the world's populations.

It may be that technology in thus instance is not allowing us to progress but is being implemented to strip capitalism to its essentials, to return it to its core principles. The exemption from precariousness may once have been a first-world prerogative, as Mitropoulos suggests, but now the technological elaboration of microlabor markets may mean that everyone around the world can look forward to being equally immiserated.

Dialectic of Horkheimer and Adorno (11 Nov 2011)

I'm not usually much of a fan of theater, but I would love to see this dialogue between Horkheimer and Adorno, which ran in the New Left Review last year, be made into a comedic play. Dork that I am, it made me laugh repeatedly as I was reading, especially when Horkheimer first refers to Adorno as "Teddie." I can't tell when they are making fun of each other, but I suspect, probably wrongly, that it is often. Consider this exchange:
Adorno: The Utopians were actually not very utopian at all. But we must not provide a picture of a positive utopia.
Horkheimer: Especially when one is so close to despair.

I always thought that the distinctively compressed, nonlinear rhetoric of Dialectic of Enlightenment was achieved through careful addition-through-subtraction-style editing that removed all the transitions between ideas, but apparently Horkheimer and Adorno actually spoke that way to one another, trading gnomic non sequiturs in a spirit of stubborn one-upmanship. (Or maybe Gretel Adorno, who transcribed the dialogue, did some editing on the fly.)

There are many highlights -- Adorno claiming he'd be happy to work as a lift operator in the post-revolutionary utopia; Horkheimer's defense of being "inflamed by desire to touch a woman's body;" Adorno's intuition that American voters "would refuse to tolerate Richard Nixon as Vice President;" Horkheimer denouncing consensus as "repellent"; their weird fixation with riding motorbikes; the importance of preserving American drug stores -- but much of it is about the necessity of work and whether people are simply deluded if they find any sort of work fulfilling under capitalism. They often seem to be debating what it is that freedom's supposed to make people free to do. It's not simply to consume more. Horkheimer mentions that "the opposite of work is regarded as nothing more than consumption," which I take to mean that these are opposites that define each other in consumer capitalism -- that the value of consumption (beyond subsistence) has no positive quality; it is only measurable in terms of the absence of work. And anyway, consumption has collapsed into production thanks to its ready transformation into circulatable signs. Adorno notes that "the enjoyment of speed is a proxy for the enjoyment of work," which I think is borne out by the irresistibility of accelerating consumption to the point of information overload

If consumption is only "regarded" as the opposite of work, what would actually constitute nonwork under the best of conditions? And is work fetishization actually impeding the possibility for solidarity? Do we want to universalize work or overcome it or pass through one to the other? There is a lot to unpack in this passage:
Horkheimer: It is not just a matter of ideology, but is also influenced by the fact that a shaft of light from the telos falls onto labour. Basically, people are too short-sighted. They misinterpret the light that falls on labour from ultimate goals. Instead, they take labour qua labour as the telos and hence see their personal work success as that purpose. That is the secret. If they did not do that, such a thing as solidarity would be possible. A shaft of light from the telos falls on the means to achieve it. It is just as if instead of worshipping their lover they worship the house in which she dwells. That, incidentally, is the source of all poetry.
I love that "incidentally". But is that the secret, that people get caught up in their personal pursuit of flow and neglect the possibilities, the necessity, of collectivity?

This is reminiscent of the passage in Marx's Economic Manuscripts where he mulls over species being.
For labor, life activity, productive life itself, appears to man in the first place merely as a means of satisfying a need – the need to maintain physical existence. Yet the productive life is the life of the species. It is life-engendering life. The whole character of a species, its species-character, is contained in the character of its life activity; and free, conscious activity is man’s species-character. Life itself appears only as a means to life.
The animal is immediately one with its life activity. It does not distinguish itself from it. It is its life activity. Man makes his life activity itself the object of his will and of his consciousness. He has conscious life activity. It is not a determination with which he directly merges. Conscious life activity distinguishes man immediately from animal life activity. It is just because of this that he is a species-being. Or it is only because he is a species-being that he is a conscious being, i.e., that his own life is an object for him. Only because of that is his activity free activity. Estranged labor reverses the relationship, so that it is just because man is a conscious being that he makes his life activity, his essential being, a mere means to his existence.
He is struggling with the same issue here, what to make of work's necessity, and to what degree "making one's life activity" means seizing upon oneself as a kind of property, an object for oneself. Alienated work means that our life activity has been turned into labor we sell for survival. But unalienated work still implies a kind of self-ownership. What is the ultimate goal that Horkheimer evokes, the telos? Obviously it's not poetry, that's for sure.

Loyalty Programs and Dystopia (7 Nov 2011)

As these articles from the latest Economist point out, retail loyalty programs -- where you give a name and address in exchange for a card you present to get point-of-sale discounts -- aren't about loyalty at all. Instead they are a convoluted way for retailers to purchase consumer data so that they can use it to discriminate among them, targeting specific groups with ads and deals. Customers basically give retailers the ammunition they need to manipulate them better; perhaps shoppers enjoy such manipulation in the end, the game of discounts and the phony sense of "beating the system" that is in fact the system itself. As Karl Smith suggests in this post about the sorting effects of Super Walmart on a retail ecology, we want our shopping experiences to affirm our sense of our status: When Super Wal-Mart attracts the poorer customers, the shopping experience for those customers of the stores the poor people used to go to becomes more distinctive and satisfying.

Retailers can also potentially resell it to other clients or even start some new lines of business themselves. From the Economist article:
If only insurers could stealthily gather a few titbits about their potential policyholders’ consumption habits. Such hints might help them more accurately target those customers least likely to make claims, and attract them with better rates. As it happens, Tesco routinely collects such information from holders of its Clubcard loyalty card. As it bulks up in financial services, that may give Britain’s largest supermarket chain an edge over traditional insurers.
At risk of seeming paranoid, I think that this seems only a few steps away from the dystopian scenario wherein everyone must consciously manage their various credit ratings by weighing the impact of virtually every action, online or off. This would be a society in which you would have to hire someone to purchase booze and cigarettes for you, lest you price yourself out of affordable insurance rates. You would want to increase the density of your connections to wealthy or well-placed friends for access to better deals, and disavow those who are dangerous to your purchasing power. YOu would need to build Potemkin identities, perhaps, to qualify for various bargains or to prevent being excluded.

The distinction between public and private would complete its evolution, with private meaning "worthless data" rather than something withheld from public life, which will be a space of competing personal brands intermingling and networking with corporate ones. You would generate a steady stream of advertorial enthusiasm on various social media to secure various discounts, but live with the sense that you can't express a social self outside of that, because it would threaten the economic benefits that being a sellout has brought.

Eventually every behavior would come with an actuarial sense of its risk, determined through the mesh of surveillance networks, both voluntary and involuntary, lateral and vertical. Then we will all get to live like the caricature of Soviet-era citizens, always mouthing official platitudes while reporting on one another for political deviance out of a desperate need for self-protection. Only the platitudes we will mouth will be marketing slogans and the deviance we will report will be our own, recast as attempts at stylistic innovation.

What Is a Middle-Class Job? (4 Nov 2011)

I started reading this essay, "What If Middle-Class Jobs Disappear?" by economist Arnold Kling, in which he argues his case for structural unemployment and the jobless recovery as a reflection of the economy's need to "recalculate" how best to use its resources. He writes, "The economy is in a state of transition, in which the middle-class jobs that emerged after World War II have begun to decline."

But what constitutes a "middle-class job"? How you frame the answer to that will dictate whether or not you would bother to care whether they disappear. (I suspect Peter Frase probably wouldn't mind.) The question becomes more pertinent when you consider how much political rhetoric and policy revolves around helping the "struggling middle class" and when, as Kling suggests, the sorts of skills associated with the established middle classes are being increasingly automated. Some pundits argue that if certain "middle-class" skills are automated, new ones will become valuable, or at least valued in the market. Someone recently -- I can't find the link; damn you, new Google Reader! -- was imagining we will in the future hire plumbers on the basis of how well they know philosophy. Matt Yglesias often makes this point too that increased productivity should lead to people developing ever more recondite and self-actualizing marketable skills: fewer cashiers, more cognitarians; that sort of thing.

But is a middle-class job one whose work marks the employee with a certain class status, or is it one whose income affords the employee a certain lifestyle?

Is a middle-class job one which guarantees one an income that places one in the middle class statistically? Do we expect everyone to belong to the middle class (at which point it would no longer be in the "middle" of anything -- "class" would disappear for real into something like the 99 percent vs. 1 percent construct)? Or do we expect middle-class jobs to serve as a marker of class distinction that preserves the status hierarchy, and the sense that some workers, some people, are more significant to society than others. That is, should middle-class job betoken the professional class, or the creative class, or some other euphemism?

Another way of framing this question is: What are jobs for? The obvious answer from the point of view of the worker is to get money, but there is obviously a lot more bound up with employment status and who is allowed to do what sort of work and what sort of credentials are required and how one qualifies to be credentialed. Sorting jobs into low and middle and high-class is not simply about pay, but about habitus. So are jobs a system that justifies the unequal distribution of shares of the social surplus? Are they a way to allow society to be sorted into winners and losers while still seeming fair and/or just? There is obviously often a discrepancy between skills and wages, between working hard and earning a lot. Middle-class job is often another way of saying, white collar, which was a semipolite way of saying "not working class," for whom the arduousness of the labor has nothing to do with the expected rewards and work discipline (the threat of firing, of being yelled out, etc.) is the chief incentive.

"Middle-class job," it seems to me, implies certain prerogatives more than a certain wage. You will be spared the drudge work; your work will be socially respected such that you will be granted some autonomy in performing it. You will not be bullied because you have been vetted and proved a reliable self-starter. You will discipline yourself and will feel sufficiently guilty about stealing time, or your stealing time will actually constitute productive work, virtuosic in Virno's sense. Are these jobs disappearing? That is, is capital increasingly having to eschew its neoliberal "you're a creative free agent entrepreneur" shtick and bully and threaten workers to continue to make its profits?

The Evisceration of Google Reader (2 Nov 2011)

I know that for some unfathomable reason, many people don't take advantage of RSS capabilities -- presumably such people don't read blogs with any regularity, because I don't know how you would do it without an RSS reader. And I know also that some ridiculously small percentage of Google's customers use Google Reader, and an even smaller percentage used the sharing functions that were embedded within it up until a few days ago. So it's completely fruitless to complain about the elimination of those functions. Google could care less, and most people probably won't even know what I am talking about.

Nevertheless I will proceed undeterred, because Google Reader's model of sharing was one I could get behind, unlike the ideal of "frictionless sharing" Facebook is trying to push on its users. In Reader, all you could share was other blog posts, glossed with a comment if you chose. And if you followed someone's shared items, they appeared seamlessly among the content you are already using Reader to gather and access. This sort of sharing didn't exactly make reading social, and it didn't make me feel like reading blog posts was supposed to be a performative social activity -- where I felt obliged to share cool things to try to impress anyone who was following me. It didn't turn the space of Google Reader into something I imagined as crowded with other people, the way I visualize entering the Twittersphere; instead I felt sequestered with the stuff I was trying to read (or, too often, simply process), only there would be these additional items that wouldn't have ordinarily been there that I'd generally appreciate. I got to read the best of many blogs I don't follow, and I learned about many new blogs to start following. It suited my idea of the contemporary public sphere: an exchange of the best pieces of writing about the issues and current events worth deliberating over.

It felt peculiarly tactful that links and only links could be shared. I liked that the full text of these links would generally be immediately available, so it would encourage me to start reading things that I wouldn't have clicked through to on Twitter. Links are pretty much all I care about when I am online; I don't want to be "ambiently aware" of other people, or feel the constant pressure of the presence of a potential audience. I just want to read good posts. The limits on sharing in Reader seemed to institutionalize a respectful divide between the public and private; it helped delineate a sphere of intimacy by banishing it, and opened a space for me to connect to people online in a way that made sense, not necessarily as friends or contacts but as interested peers and fellow citizens.

By killing Reader's sharing functions, Google is endorsing a vision of sharing as an amalgam of the full range of narcissistic impulses, as well as the idea that oversharing "friendship" should be allowed to trivialize the prerogatives of public-sphere discourse. (I am at this point making a ham-fisted attempt to transpose half-remembered bits of Richard Sennett's The Fall of Public Man into this argument.) With the services Google seems to want to emulate -- Facebook, Twitter -- you can't just get links; you have to sort through the full garbage dump of what people put online, which makes sense for those companies because that sorting work creates valuable data for them. There is nothing for those companies in a public sphere that is cordoned off from the private self, as the dreams and insecurities and interpersonal connections of the private self is usually where the marketing action is.

Google, like the rest of the online companies, would like to destroy the idea that you would separate any of your online behaviors from any of the others. Such separation is no way to create a rich data set. So we are increasingly having this ideology foisted on us: You aren't supposed to read online; you are supposed to live there.

UPDATE: Brian Shih, who was at one time a Google Reader project manager, offers a critique of the new Reader (via MR).

NGDP Targeting (2 Nov 2011)

The continuing economic slump has brought some heretofore heterodox economic ideas about how to manage central banks and the money supply increasing attention. One of those gaining increasingly high-profile endorsement is NGDP targeting: the idea that the Federal Reserve should use nominal GDP as the benchmark in making monetary policy rather than targeting the rate of inflation. Steve Waldman has many links here to economists championing the idea; I found this National Affairs article by Scott Sumner, a longtime apostle for NGDP targeting, to be the best exposition of the pro argument.

Sumner presents NGDP targeting as an approach that might appease Fed critics on the left, who want central bankers to do more to curb unemployment, and the right, who want to protect their rentier-class patrons from inflation, which reduces the value of their wealth. Sumner notes that has become politically unfeasible for the Fed to deliberately stoke a rise in inflation, which can stimulate growth and generate jobs: "Americans view inflation as a process that reduces their living standards, because they take their own nominal incomes as a given when thinking about the impact of higher prices." (This raises the question of what has led Americans to have this view, which well suits the interests of the creditor classes but often masquerades as a matter of common sense or human instinct.)

NGDP targeting, Sumner argues, "offers a single target that effectively combines both facets of the Fed's dual mandate, and so should be attractive to those on both the left and the right who argue that the requirement to simultaneously address inflation and unemployment makes it impossible for the Fed to tackle either very well." This unified metric also would sideline the argument between those who think unemployment is mainly structural (people have the wrong skills for the available jobs in a transforming economy) and those who think is cyclical (economic shocks have created a downward spiral in effective demand): "Advocates of the structural view sometimes lose sight of the fact that we do not have enough nominal spending to launch a real recovery even if the economy had no structural problems at all. Whatever our long-term problem, our immediate problem is poor NGDP growth."

Sumner covers some of the wonkish ins and outs of the debate over monetary policy, but arguably the most controversial thing he writes is something anyone can understand: "When real shocks occur, it is only fair that debtors and creditors share the loss." That sounds eminently reasonable: Insofar as these shocks are no one's fault, society should bear their burden collectively, ideally in ways that distribute the suffering to those that can most bear it. But our society's bankruptcy law, as Mike Konczal suggests in this post, tend to be a "creditors' bargain":
In this idea, the rules should only exist to the extent that they benefit the creditor’s ability to collect money. It’s simple: if a law, custom, norm, or rule helps creditors collect when things go wrong, it is a good one. If it takes into account concerns other than creditors’ return — say, destroyed neighborhoods, whether banks follow the rules, etc. — they are worthless.... The law is just there to protect creditors against the difficulty of collecting on debtors, not to provide a level playing field for those with debt.
The underlying moral idea is that creditors are not responsible for misallocations of capital -- they are not required to be diligent about lending or be perspicacious in managing risk. The creditors' bargain takes care of all that. Debtors are held to be de facto criminals, and creditors can hope for the state's cooperation in enforcing their ill-conceived contracts, regardless of the realities of economic circumstances. Running the Fed so as to prevent inflation is a kind of creditors' bargain of monetary policy: preserve the value of the creditors' claims at all costs, regardless the ramifications for economic growth or the labor market.

But as Waldman argues, NGDP targeting conveys a different set of morals:
It is creditors, not debtors, whom we must hold accountable for patterns of aggregate investment. There always have been and always will be foolish or predatory borrowers willing to accept loans that they will not repay. We rely upon discriminating creditors to ensure that funds and resources will be placed in hands that will use them well. Creditors allocate capital by selecting the worthy from innumerable unworthy petitioners. An economic downturn reflects a failure of selection by creditors as a group. It is essential, if we want the high-quality real investment in good times, that creditors bear losses when they allocate funds poorly. When creditors in aggregate have misjudged, we must have some means of imposing losses without the logistical hell of endless bankruptcies. Our least disruptive means of doing so is via inflation.... NGDP targeting, despite the stench of sugar-high money games that Austrians perceive in it, might actually increase our ability to impose losses on foolish creditors via default and bankruptcy. This would pay a huge moral dividend, in terms of our ability to avoid the unfairness of arbitrary bail-outs.
Banks would not be too big to fail while the little people are driven to fail like crazy.

Music and metrics (28 Oct 2011)

It's been obvious for years now that digital media has forced the music industry to restructure. Some, like Toure in this Salon essay, believe this is sad, depriving us of the pleasures of monoculture, such as they were. I naively hoped that a crippled culture industry might diminish the significance of music as an identity signifier. At one point I thought a decentralized music business might lead to local scenes thriving again and perhaps more people making music instead of consuming it. I'm less optimistic about that now. It appears that success in pop music is still structured by the same forces -- the labels, the press, radio stations, concert promoters; with the dynamics of power among them always shifting. And social media seem to have made the use of music as an identity token more ubiquitous. In some instances, such appropriation leads to proximate acts of creativity by consumers -- ingenious playlists or remixes, homemade videos, etc. The possibility that anyone can commandeer an audience raises the stakes on cultural consumption, at once breeding both innovation and alienation from the act of listening itself.

The existence of social media has also made online self-promotion a more or less fundamental aspect of forming a band, no matter how modest its ambitions may be. This initially played out as bands becoming weirdly continuous with their MySpace pages. The site Hipster Runoff has served as a more or less continuous commentary on how indie bands are obliged to play online media as one of their instruments, suggesting that their music is basically by-product, subordinate to the real performance: the band's orchestration of online image and hype. The subversive implication of HRO, I think, is that most bands are better enjoyed as Barnumesque image mongers. The multimedia identity spectacle they manage is a newer, more comprehensive kind of art. In fact, this is the sort of art that the logic of social media would inspire us all to enjoy and to make ourselves -- the managing of different audiences and leaks of information to project a fluid yet coherent self as a masterwork. Any of us can be just as much of a microcelebrity as a band is. (This Rhizome essay about camgirls is suggestive on that front, how monitoring the flux of online attention can become a medium, an art.)

Anyway, even in the traditional music industry, the need for bands to self-promote and build a "platform" has become institutionalized, which has to a degree crowdsourced the A&R function. This article from last week's Economist gets at the dialectics of this shift:
A&R men used to be alchemists, discovering base talent and turning it into gold.... These days they are venture capitalists. Particularly at big labels such as Universal, A&R executives increasingly expect acts to have built a self-sustaining, if modest, business before they offer them a recording contract. Large numbers of Facebook friends and Twitter followers help show that a band has traction. But record labels have become wary of social-media indicators. They know that desperate bands may chatter about themselves or hire marketing firms to inflate their online metrics.
Bands are less artists than entrepreneurial startups, manipulating online social networks to gain leverage with potential investors. The product they sell doesn't need to be good if the market for it can be posited, and the structure of the industry encourages musicians to focus their talents on that sort of market making. As certain social media metrics get corrupted, new ones will be established, because they serve as an essential proxy for the one metric that will never be perfected, the one that quantifies talent in the abstract.

Quantifying Responsibility (27 Oct 2011)

Today's WSJ has a story by Scott Thurm about how Fair Isaac and the other surveillance companies that track people's financial activity and collects data to create credit scores are hoping to expand its line and generate scores that can codify other behaviors. They want to posit scores that, for example, let doctors know a patient's likelihood to obey prescriptions or let marketers know how likely one is to spend rather than save.
Many scores are built on the premise that people who pay their bills on time are likely to be accountable in other ways. "There's a 'responsibility' thought lurking inside" many measures, said [Fair Isaac CEO] Mr. Greene.... Scoring-company executives say their products are fairer and more consistent than the subjective judgments they often replace. Though they concede their formulas aren't perfect, they say credit-based scores increase economic efficiency, improving people's access to loans and cheaper insurance.
The "premise" behind these scores need not be proved if it is economically efficient enough -- such efficiency serves as a kind of proof of its own. If something generates more commerce, circulates ands valorizes more capital, then it works; it is true. And the market outcomes are presumably superior because they are not "subjective." Whether the scores accurately depict people's actual behavior isn't really the point. It's not even relevant as long as profit margins are sustained.

Also, fairness in this context is apparently a mere matter of objectivity -- it appears more "fair" when a bank denies credit on the basis of one of these mystified scores rather than on the basis of the judgment of one of its employees empowered to make such decisions. Though the scores bear only a probabilistic relation at best to people's actual character, they seem like neutral renderings of social facts. They reify social relations into a number that can be hung around an individual's neck as if he earned it all by himself. That is what the Fair Isaac CEO is talking about when he says responsibility "lurks" inside his numbers. The numbers permit a transfer of responsibility in the shady attempt to quantify it in the abstract. The whole point of these scores is to allow companies to exercise various price-discrimination schemes and figure out how to extract the most profit from customers by adjusting how they are treated. This discrimination becomes the consumer's responsibility. It's one of many subtle ways capitalism has developed to make class seem like your own fault.

Intimacy and the Informateur (25 Oct 2011)

One section in Roland Barthes's remarkable book A Lover's Discourse, a fragment called "The Informer," may as well be a parable for the fate of intimacy in the age of social media. In fact, I like the original French title, informateur, better because it suggests a saboteur who works specifically through information. The fragment describes how well-meaning friends give information that destroys the lover's image of the beloved, and how ambient information about a beloved can unintentionally wound the lover.

The first part of this fragment describes what we would all now recognize as a social network.
Gustave, Leon, and Richard form a group; Urbain, Claudius, Etienne, and Ursule, another; Abel, Gontran, Angele, and Hubert, still another... However, Leon happens to meet Urbain, who gets to know Angele, who knew Leon slightly anyway, etc. Thus is formed a constellation; each subject is called upon to enter into relations, one day or another, with the star remotest from him and to become involved with that particular star out of all the rest: everything ends by coinciding (this is the precise impulse of A la recherche du temps perdu which is, among other things, a tremendous intrigue, a farce network). Worldly friendship is epidemic: everyone catches it, like a disease.

I like the idea of applying that description to Facebook -- which is both the vector and the epidemiology of "the disease of worldly friendship" in that it reduces friendship to a mere connection and nothing more, just a point of contact through which a piece of information, a viral piece of code,can spread. Social media works as a kind of social disease; once all your friends are using it, you have to use it too. And the logic of connection, as Barthes suggests, becomes assimilative. The presence of friends in the network who are outlying nodes with few threads of connection to others becomes increasingly intolerable. There is a drive instead to raise the density of interconnection throughout the network to the same level. The "farce network" -- the network that eschews any practical purpose beyond connection and innocuous "sharing" -- embraces the world.

This idea of friendship has become "worldly" in the sense of "sophisticated" as well. Locating friendship in a space in which all the gestures that might constitute and validate it can be captured and rebroadcast makes friendship work as a mode of information production; augmented technologically this way, such friendships moves to society's cutting edge, where value is being created for the economy in unprecedented, or at least heretofore uncaptured, ways.

The possibility of maintaining different contexts for different people collapses, no matter how diligently we try to fence them off with privacy settings and "circles" and so on because the other participants can always release information themselves, can always gossip, and inform, for their own purposes. "Everything ends by coinciding," as Barthes writes. And the practice of gossiping no longer carries such a negative valence in the farce network, because the rhetoric surrounding the redistribution of data is that it is sharing, it is liberating information, it is forcing people for their own good to be free and radically honest. And since all of friendship gestures must be mediated to register, they always already exist as data to disseminate; they already are public domain upon their conception.

In the next section of the fragment, Barthes considers the effect this has on a lover, who requires the possibility of a private, personal relationship with a particular beloved:
Now suppose that I release into this network a suffering subject eager to maintain with his other a pure, sealed space (consecrated, untouched); the network's activities, its exchange of information, its interests and initiatives will be received as so many dangers. And in the center of this little society, at once an ethnological village and a boulevard comedy, parental structure and comic imbroglio, stands the Informer, who busies himself and tells everyone every thing. Ingenuous or perverse, the Informer has a negative role. However anodyne the message he gives me (like a disease), he reduces my other to being merely another. I am of course obliged to listen to him (I cannot in worldly terms allow my vexation to be seen), but I strive to make my listening flat, indifferent. impervious.
With social media, the informateur is no one person, but the networks we have built to extend our own influence, reflecting back on ourselves, exacting their revenge for our presumption that our lives find their significance in broadcast, that our broadcasts could, in our own minds, take precedence over everyone else's. The information we receive through social media about others, others we love in particular is often "anodyne" enough -- the oft-noted mundanity of status updates and tweets -- but it compels our attention not through its substance but through its sheer existence. We can read into the fact that the beloved appears in other's discourse proof of our own insignificance to that beloved. The beloved's life goes on; the illusion that it is only through the lover's love that the beloved lives is completely shattered.

Social media gives a lover endless grist for jealousy in all the compiled proof of the attention other people are permitted to pay to the beloved -- what Barthes calls "dangers". And the networks' design tends to make it hard for the lover to escape these dangers without absenting himself completely, cutting himself off from the beloved. The lover must become "flat, indifferent, impervious" -- rather than compete in public for the special right to attention he has hoped to claim, he must pay no attention at all, and seek the unmediated opportunities to connect with the lover, the sorts of opportunities that are vanishing.

Barthes's fragment concludes:
What I want is a little cosmos (with its own time, its own logic) inhabited only by "the two of us." Everything from outside is a threat; either in the form of boredom (if I must live in a world from which the other is absent), or in the form of injury (if that world supplies me with an indiscreet discourse concerning the other). By furnishing me insignificant information about the one I love, the Informer discovers a secret for me. This secret is not a deep one, but comes from outside: it is the other's "outside" which was hidden from me. The curtain rises the wrong way round -- not on an intimate stage, but on the crowded theater. Whatever it tells me, the information is painful: a dull, ungrateful fragment of reality lands on me. For the lover's delicacy, every fact has something aggressive about it: a bit of "science," however commonplace, invades·the Image-repertoire.
I am trying to think of a way to map Barthes's theater curtain metaphor onto social media, because it intuitively feels right to me. I am waiting for a performance to begin that involves everyone in the world, and I don't realize that I have been set up onstage myself, and that their performance out there as audience is an elaborate distraction to try to make me forget that someone is actually watching. Social media offers an audience of performers that blinds us to the real performance of an audience. (That is way too cute and convenient a reversal to even be useful, I know, but couldn't resist.) Friends are inescapably informateurs in social media. Arguably social media structures friendship as informing.

We have always performed intimacy; intimacy has always been constructed in opposition to some tenuous, negotiable and contingent notions of publicity. But it seems to me that social media has made it harder for us to create the "stage of intimacy" Barthes mentions. It is easy to assume a god-like position of the solitary observer, but harder to create a shared space that isn't shared automatically with everyone. Social media invites us to manufactures secrets to confess, to posit how deep we are psychologically to the network, to show how rich and varied the signification of our identity can be. But the secrets that can be constitutive of intimacy rather than identity become harder to articulate. Then we have no secrets, and no love.

Debating Occupy Wall Street (19 Oct 2011)

I went to this Jacobin magazine panel debate Friday night on Occupy Wall Street and the umbrella of associated "Occupy" protests. It was pretty dispiriting. In the process of trying to address a shared concern that the protests would dissipate, the participants seemed to be instantiating the dissipation. People talked past one another and seemed to be trying to cast suspicion on the good faith of other leftists rather than articulating their differing sense of how to defeat common enemies. It made me wonder if there is enough of a shared sense of what the problems are for there to be coherent demands. But the various possible diagnoses of what is wrong with politics, the economy, rampant financialization and inequality and so forth, did not get discussed much. The word "precarity," somewhat surprisingly, was not mentioned.

The core disagreement of the panelists seemed to be about whether the movement needs clear demands in order to grow, or whether the lack of demands allowed the movement to be flexible enough to assimilate more people and ideas, and attract more attention. One side argued that people won't make sacrifices without knowing why they are doing it, and the necessity for real sacrifice was going to become more and more palpable as the state experiences more and more pressure to shut the occupations down. The other side seems to argue that the occupations give the generalized feeling of discontent in society a practical ontology, a concrete, recognizable being that materializes a specific something to fight for and make sacrifices for. From that point of view, the demand is the protest's existence: As long as the protests continue, they open a space for dissent and disseminate the possibility of an inclusive collective identity. But to the older, more traditional leftists, the OWS movement threatened to become merely an expression of protester narcissism, an opportunity to live a fantasy of political potency that didn't move beyond individuals having meaningful personal experiences. From that perspective, the idea that the "occupation is the demand" is silly. What's important is that the energy that has been summoned be put to specific political use before it loses its urgency.

This is a reiteration of the inevitable debate over whether one should try work within the system to reform it or build a movement strong enough to dismantle the system and replace it. Making any sort of precise demands would arguably commit OWS to the reform position. And I suspect most of the 54% of people who support OWS (according to this Time poll) have something like this in mind -- they hear "protest against Wall Street" and can get on board with that. They don't like Wall Street's power and wealth, and they think protests could get the existing government to change the system to take some of it away.

But of course that doesn't address the underlying problems with capitalism, neoliberalism specifically, and corruption in the political system in which policy can be bought with campaign contributions. It doesn't address the problem capitalism faces in providing full employment, broader opportunity, and a sufficient sense of security to give people a sense that they are thriving, that their children's lives will be better than their own. And at the far end of dire portents, it doesn't address the possibility that the unfettered pursuit of profit may well lead to apocalyptic environmental disaster. I thought Justin E.H. Smith explained the stakes of OWS well: "Anyone who wishes that life could be based on the proposition that there are things of value that nonetheless lie outside of the scope of this nebulous thing called 'the Market' ought to be pushing back now, if there is to be any hope for future thriving." A reformist set of practical demands doesn't seem to touch this question of how society addresses collective notions of what is valued.

In trying to explain the experience of participating in the protests. Natasha Lennerd, one of the panelists, introduced the idea of "governmentality," which derives from Foucault and has to do with the ways in which we police ourselves to play by society's rules, accept incentives which reinforce the status quo, frame our personal goals in ways which presume the society continuing as it already exists, with its flaws taken as unalterable givens. Taken further, the critique suggests that our ability to experience pleasure is structured by cooperation with a social system which makes such pleasure possible -- a given system, no matter how corrupt, will find a way to allow its subjects to experience enough pleasure (including pleasures of security, or sense of self, or sense of recognition, etc.) to invest themselves in reproducing it. In other words, we are socialized into a certain kind of highly individualistic subjectivity (always a work in progress, always being reconstituted ideologically) that suits the perpetuation of capitalism and the hegemonic assumptions that allow it to perpetuate itself. Neoliberal capitalism offers the pleasures of "freedom" and "free agency" and "convenience" and "choice". It exerts what Marcuse called repressive tolerance, leveraging what Martha Wolfenstein called fun morality.

You can see from the jargon I've already introduced that this critique is hard to put across without some buzzwords that have come to crystallize some often complex poststructuralist arguments and assumptions, and that leaves it open to being dismissed as so much outdated, impractical academic bullshit. Lennerd was suggesting that the protests were meant to disrupt the kind of subjectivity that supports neoliberalism, manifest an alternative, posit different ideas of what value is and how it is produced and shared, open up the possibility for more durable experiences of collective identity in resistance. But other panelists wondered how collectivity could form in the absence of a unifying goal; without the unifying goal, the new subjectivity would just reiterate the old one's individualistic narcissism. And alas, once you open up the possibility that one can't trust one's own feelings or subjectivity, it's hard to argue from experience that what you are doing is politically effective. Your feelings can always be interpreted as another illusion of the same dubious self-consciousness. We can't know we have radicalized our own subjectivity. That seems especially the case considering the way neoliberal subjectivity privileges novelty, flexibility, the potential for radical changeability.

So basically the debate seemed to go in circles for me. I think the governmentality critique needs to be taken seriously. I think that the protests do form a material basis for the articulation of a different kind of subjectivity, and the longer the protests persist, the more plausibility and ideological heft that subjectivity has. But I also think that inability to measure the degree to which that emerging alternative is actually changing people's sensibilities and changing how they live and conceive what is possible makes the protests hard to sustain, especially in the face of empiricist critiques and the practical demand for tangible accomplishments.

It seems like the powers that be don't feel especially threatened by the protests and have decided not to crack down on them. Presumably the consensus among elites is that the winter will chill the exuberance of the protesters and cause everyone to gradually disperse uneventfully. But it seems to me nonetheless a tactical achievement for OWS that it has managed to seem powerless enough to politicians and powerful interests to be left alone while seeming powerful enough to continue to attract media and popular interest. Perhaps that nebulous, self-denying space is the only one in which new social possibilities have any real chance to incubate. Aa long as the protesters can maintain that space, the possibility remains alive, which itself is more than I would have thought possible in August.

UPDATE: In this excellent post, Jason Read gets at some of the things I was trying to get at here, namely that the protests have the potential to kick off a much larger ideological project, though one which is hard to quantify and which is necessarily riddled with contradictions as it proceeds.
Many Americans identify with the 1%, or the 10%, or whatever, the entire media, entertainment, and political establishment is practically dedicated to such an idea. The entire Ideological State Apparatus, is caught up in one chorus, singing a song that tells everyone that they too can and will get rich. For the 99% to become the 99%, for it to become at the very least a broad popular basis for change it must confront the entire ideological underpinning of our society, the underpinnings which make it possible for the poor to identify with the wealthy. As one recent blog post points out, this underpinning is not just ideological but affective as well. Anyone who has lost a job, who has been downsized, understands the shame that this carries in our society.
The question then is whether a consolidation behind specific demands upends this underlying ideological project, the fantasies about social mobility and the vicariousness we all use to get by.

Pop Optimism and the Guerrilla Self (14 Oct 2011)

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.