Monday, January 30, 2012

Existential Liberalism As Ideological Fog (27 Jan 2012)

This, from "Reflections on the Call" by Leon de Mattis, in Communization and Its Discontents (pdf), is a good point:
It is certain that the division of society into classes would be infinitely more visible if inter-individual relations were the brute and unreserved translation of relations of production. The proletarian would doff his cap in passing to the capitalist with his top hat and cigar, and there would be nothing more to say. But unfortunately things are a little more complicated, and ‘existential liberalism’ is not the unique translation of the effect of relations of production in everyday life...

Class relations disguise themselves at the personal level, and dissolve into "existential liberalism." Capitalists in general are bad, but each individual capitalist seems like a nice enough person, doing their philanthropy and what not, recycling like a good citizen, etc. The same is true of middle class/creative class types, whose personal congeniality and sympathy for proles at the personal level hides from them (read: me) their systemic role in oppression.

This is how ideological mystification at the level of everyday life proceeds; inequality is out there, we know, but for those above a certain level of impoverishment and disenfranchisement, it is not experienced as such as a personal problem. No one wants to be proletarianized in their own subjectivity, in their own concept of themselves. So they explain the ways inequality affects them in terms of personal failings or bad luck -- not as: the system can and has declassed me despite my efforts to abide the rules of its game.

Part of our energy is thus spent reproducing in our everyday encounters the ideological fog in which we are all supposedly equal (the 99%). (Consumerist relations in "democratic" marketplaces where everybody's dollar spends are a big part of this, but not all of it.) We actually have to work to reproduce the illusion that "existential liberalism" coheres, that the deviations we experience are anomalies. It's shocking, then, when we experience something we can't resolve through this kind of work — say, when you get subjected to "unfair" police violence or are insulted through some bald piece of snobbery. But it may be that we prefer the ongoing work of sustaining our class-based sense of dignity to refusing the work and living in the full, intolerable glare of the naked relations of power. Who wants to unmask those nice people who mean so well? Who wants to look in that kind of mirror?

Everyone's a modernist (26 Jan 2012)

Irving Howe's 1967 Commentary essay "The Culture of Modernism" (here's a gated link for all you Commentary subscribers in the audience) is the sort of thing I usually don't have much time for: a lot of fretting about nomenclature (what is modernism?), a preoccupation with literature qua literature, some contempt for the contemporary generation's aesthetic shortcomings masquerading as concern for the future of humanism, and so on — the Great Critics doing Criticism. But I found it interesting that much of what Howe argues modernists were striving for is what internet culture, in the eyes of its boosters anyway, has achieved. Howe writes, "Modernism keeps approaching — sometimes even penetrating — the limits of solipsism, the view expressed by the German poet Gottfried Benn when he writes that 'there is no outer reality, there is only human consciousness, constantly building, modifying, rebuilding new worlds out of its own creativity.' " That sounds a lot like a paean to virtuality, to humans freed from biological constraints to exist as pure (digital) expression. When critics say online sociality is solipsistic, they don't recognize that we must "penetrate" solipsism to reach some sort of apotheosis of intersubjectivity. The modernists paved the way, responding to cultural sterility (their "end of history") with unremitting commitment to innovation for its own sake. Howe cites Lukács (though it may as well have been Schumpeter), claiming that modernists are "committed to ceaseless change, turmoil and re-creation." It actually sounds a bit like neoliberal economics.

Later, Howe declares that:
In modernist literature, one finds a bitter impatience with the whole apparatus of cognition and the limiting assumption of rationality. Mind comes to be seen as an enemy of vital human powers. Culture becomes disenchanted with itself, sick over its endless refinements. There is a hunger to break past the bourgeois proprieties and self-containment of culture, toward a form of absolute personal speech, a literature deprived of ceremony and stripped to revelation.
That sort of sounds like a status update or a tweet, or a Tumblr reblog — all of which espouse expediency as a kind of sincerity. The accelerated nature of online discourse, in social media especially, lays a privileged claim to the real. The participation in the group mind of social networks allows one to move beyond the limits of individual rationality (and the outdated depth psychology that depended on it); the abolishment of privacy online permits us to discard "bourgeois proprieties."

So maybe when you sign up for Facebook, you automatically become Samuel Beckett. Social media makes modernists of us all. They democratize the "genius" of modernism and make its "terrible freedom" and the smashing the humbug of bourgeois order everyone's prerogative. We can all document the self in a spirit of uncompromising full disclosure to deal with the "problem of belief" and the crisis of authenticity in the absence of transcendental truths and radically innovate with language and form. That is, we can build our personal brands on Facebook and tweet all day in LOLspeak.

Basically what aggrieved the modernists in Howe's view — the crisis of identity and truth; the ceaseless striving for real expression — is what we now tend to celebrate as fun and freedom. Much as management consultants represent precarious work conditions as liberating free agency, the modernist crises of the subject are fun opportunities for self-expression, like some of the postmoderninsts insisted. Howe seems to conclude that the modernists were a bunch of nihilists who end up tormented by their achievements: "The lean youth has grown heavy; he chokes with the approval of the world he had dismissed; he cannot find the pure air of neglect." That is, in their search for the genuine, modernists sought the "right to be forgotten" but failed. They ended up being liked too much. It will be different for us. We have forfeited that right in advance and tally the likes up to keep score in the grand game that selfhood has become. In our world, we celebrate the quantified self. To have measured out one's life with coffee spoons is an unmitigated triumph.

The Rise of the Data Self (25 Jan 2012)

This Smithsonian post (via 3QD) offers some more support for my fledgling thesis from Monday's post that "normal" identity is becoming explicitly data-based -- that it's natural to think about who we "really" are in terms of statistics-driven self-surveillance rather than depth psychology or self-actualization quests or anything like that. Freud is out, Facebook et al. is in. For example, we try things that seem self-expressive using media that can give us quantified feedback, and only when the results come back do we decide whether what was expressed was "true." We can convert ourselves in the same way into data, that can make us into a statistical profile and return to us what other people with similar data profiles are doing, and hence what we ourselves should be doing.

Recommendation engines are perhaps the most explicit form of this: "Customers Who Bought Items in Your Recent History Also Bought..." Data-driven micro-marketing approaches are another form. The Smithsonian piece offers other examples derived from "quantified self" initiatives that have people monitoring their vital statistics and uploading them for analysis and aggrgation.

Consider the possibilities in health care. In the past, anyone analyzing who gets ill and why had to rely on data skewed heavily toward sick people–statistics from hospitals, info from doctors. But now, with more and more healthy people collecting daily stats on everything from their blood pressure to their calorie consumption to how many hours of REM sleep they get a night, there’s potentially a trove of new health data that could reshape what experts analyze. As Shamus Husheer, CEO of the British firm Cambridge Temperature Concepts, told the Wall Street Journal, “You can compare sleep patterns from normal people with, say, pain sufferers. If you don’t know what normal sleep looks like, how do you tease out the data?”

What a dream come true! We can collect enough data to create the profile of the ultimate superbeing: the perfectly average human. And then we can use health-insurance protocols to force everyone to become this or else.

But my suspicion is that this runs deeper — that data collection is slowly becoming the ideological basis of the self — what we regard as the real self. Data is the authorized way to pursue self-knowledge in the networked society; the other means are suspicious, deluded or outmoded. This is not just a matter of the evergreen appeal of naive empiricism. (It has numbers; it can be graphed; ergo, it's true! Numbers don't lie! Who cares how they are contextualized?) Since interactions within social networks are now easily captured and standardized, the quantifiable data thereby produced have become far more constitutive of identity. Just read this article about the designers of Facebook's Timeline function. As the post explains, the user interface is what is supposed to dictate the self as you navigate through your own data heap. With Facebook's organizational help, you muck around in there looking to build the real you.

The assumption is that by letting Facebook capture and process everything, a more reliable version of the self than our own memory can give us will be produced. As the post's title suggests, the UI has "soul"; you do not. Or, as a subheading in the piece claims, life should be seen as having a UI. There is no direct experience of life; it's entirely a data network that we need mediated for us. In one of the more disturbing hubristic-techie quotes I've read in a while, one of the designers tells us what Facebook Timeline lets us do: "You gently consume time.” Rage, rage against the dying of the light, etc.

And though Facebook wants "the Timeline to be a place for self-expression: A way for users to reveal who they are and what their lives are about," it has provided a tightly controlled and highly formatted medium for it that emphasizes standardization (echoing the old Facebook vs. MySpace distinction; Facebook was "clean" because it retained aesthetic control). It imposes the metaphor of life and memory as a stream, which, as Eric Harvey notes, is not some natural, neutral reflection of how we remember but a reshaping of life into narrative, which suits Facebook's ends. The more work we put into making a coherent story out of the data Facebook collects, the more useful, marketable information we give them.

It makes little sense to look within for the true self when we have available immediate (and processable) reactions from and comparisons with masses of other people to help sketch out our contours, when we have an enormous data trail we have created incidentally to be reprocessed by outside parties as self-revelation. Our filters are who we are; the "social graph" is not something on which we are merely one point, but it's instead a map of our identity (or at least what capital wants us to think of as our identity). We become more of a person the more we build out this graph, let the flows of information it facilitates constitute us.

As Nicholas Carr pointed out here, the "right to be forgotten" by tech companies that want to own our memories and even the process by which we remember, may be in danger, despite the E.U.'s effort to institutionalize it. The degree to which the data self is naturalized for us will determine how much such a right will seem beside the point.

Facebook's False Frame of Reference (24 Jan 2012)

At the Cyborgology blog, Jenny Davis raises good points about this recent study, titled " 'They Are Happier and Having Better Lives than I Am': The Impact of Using Facebook on Perceptions of Others' Lives." The media takeaway from this study, as Davis notes, is to report that Facebook makes us feel bad about ourselves because on the site we see other people mainly at their best and happiest, as people work to present themselves in the most flattering and enviable light. That fits with what my experience with Facebook was: It made me all too aware that people I knew had lives that went on without me. They had the temerity to seem perfectly happy without any reference to me. I thought we were friends!

In other words, using Facebook made me feel acutely narcissistic, not because it got me to boast about myself, but because it brought home to me just how much I expect other people's lives to revolve around me. And using Facebook more did nothing to acclimate me to this. I didn't get used to the invitations to be envious. Eventually I stopped using Facebook altogether. I didn't want the false frame of reference with my friends and am admittedly too self-centered to be bothered to be voyeuristic toward friended acquaintances.

The study's findings echo a complaint that has long been made about television: that it gives us a false intimacy with people from outside our accustomed sphere and habitus and makes us dissatisfied with ourselves and our lot. Davis wants to argue that this false-frame-of-reference problem "rests not in the platform itself, but in the potentially unhealthy ways that some people engage with it." As Davis explains, the study found that "feelings of relative inadequacy are amplified for those with large numbers of Facebook Friends who they do not personally know. These relationships are less about interactivity and more about surveillance. They are less about mutual growth, depth, and closeness, and more about looking, judging, and comparative self-evaluation." The less outside context we have for another person's Facebook page, the less able we are to read between the lines, take it for the heightened version of reality that it probably is.
If we rely on Facebook as primarily a surveillance device, unable to incorporate any information not put forth on the Facebook page, then the measuring stick against which we judge ourselves will represent an unattainably fulfilling existence—making us feel bad. This is an unhealthy way to use Facebook. And yes, the architecture of Facebook facilitates this kind of use.

I'll say it does. There is no need to use Facebook to engage in actual communication with actual friends. If anything, Facebook can make such communication seem trivial or tactical by making it take place in front of an audience. Facebook seems premised on the idea that it makes friendship more convenient, which seems to run counter to the essence of strong ties: Facebook can start to make it seem that some people are communicating with you only because it is convenient; otherwise they couldn't be bothered. Friends shouldn't let friends Facebook-message them.

I think Facebook is in the business of making strong ties feel like weak ties, to turn friends into audiences, and to turn the conversation among friends into gossip. The company doesn't exist to help friends feel friendly. There is no money in that, no money in secure and stable relationships. As a cursory survey of advertisements should suffice to prove, insecurity is what sells products, and Facebook is in the business of selling communication as a product (and selling audiences to advertisers and data to marketers based on that intercepted communication). Thus, as Davis suggests, Facebook is engineered for gossip and invidious comparison, not friendship or intimacy. Its business model is about destroying intimacy in favor of the loneliness of spying and the desperation of sharing as quantified attention-seeking.

I agree with Davis that one could in theory subvert the site's architecture and use it in a way that is not corrosive to one's social life; it can help sustain ties across geographic distances. It helps you crowdsource various questions and allows you to reap the benefits of weak ties. It lets you find someone to play Scrabble with. And so on. If you really did limit Facebook use to such things, it might not be so deleterious, might not alter the way one frames friendship and self-esteem and what amount of recognition one should expect. But as Facebook is a social network, we don't get to determine how we use it in isolation. Our use is governed to a degree by how others expect we will use it. (This makes it an effective conductor of ideology -- an institution for interpellation, to get all Althusserian. It hails us.) Using Facebook comes with an entire set of social norms, and these norms (about who to friend, what to share, how to reciprocate, what privacy should consist of, what identity consists of, etc.) are precisely where the dangers with Facebook lie. It seems to me you can't have a Facebook profile without being drawn centripetally into these norms' orbit.

The new strategies of desire (23 Jan 2012)

The Economist's holiday double issue a few weeks ago had an article about 1950s motivational-research guru Ernest Dichter (author of The Strategy of Desire) that argued that newfangled behavioral economics marks a kind of return to his approach to consumer behavior -- that most of it is "irrational" and dictated by unconscious impulses and emotional needs, not by the perceived usefulness of a particular commodity. For a few decades, those assumptions were regarded as dubious -- rejected as being patronizing toward consumers, refusing to grant them agency or the sophistication to desire things for complicated yet still conscious reasons. Motivational research and hysteria about consumer manipulation at the hands of evil corporations were based on assumptions that consumers are passive saps who are brainwashed into wanting this and that, whereas it had become more politically expedient for the left and the right both to begin to argue that consumers exercised real power over and in their deliberate shopping choices. Consumerism was touted as a genuine forum for self-expression, an arena in which the identity-enriching fruits of capitalism could be harvested. Or it was a place where consumers could genuinely subvert the hegemonic order, repurposing consumer goods to suit their own "revolutionary" purposes and undermine systems of control.

In reality, both of those interpretations of consumer behavior reinforced one another: individualistic identity projects became hard to distinguish from subversive detournement of goods, and squabbling over fashion-derived hierarchies leeched energy away from the confronting institutionalized economic ones. That is part of what makes consumer capitalism so durable. It commodfies identity and thereby makes it seem more powerful, the key to solving all of capitalism's other inequities. It starts to seem plausible that the problems with capitalism are simply problems of self-expression.

So what then to make of the return of the irrational consumer? Here's how the Economist article synthesizes recent behavioral research:
Humans, it turns out, are impressionable, emotional and irrational. We buy things we don’t need, often at arbitrary prices and for silly reasons. Studies show that when a store plays soothing music, shoppers will linger for longer and often spend more. If customers are in a good mood, they are more susceptible to persuasion. We believe price tends to indicate the value of things, not the other way around. And many people will squander valuable time to get something free.
In Dichter's time, figuring out how to manipulate consumers beneath the level of consciousness was a matter of applying Freudian theory in what seemed to be intuitive, arbitrary ways ("To elevate typewriter sales, [Dichter] suggested the machines be modelled on the female body, 'making the keyboard more receptive, more concave,' " the article notes). Now it's more a matter of Paco Underhill-style applied surveillance, where retailers spy on their consumers, amass data on the ir aggregate behavior and draw conclusions that no individual consumer would have been able to explain -- what kind of music leads to more purchases, how wide the aisles should be, which products should be placed at eye level, and so on.

This suggests how our improved capacity for quantification and data processing has changed the way we think of the "true self": It's no longer about depth psychology or the formation of a unique unconscious on the basis of universalized childhood experiences or what have you. Instead, we are starting to think the truth about ourselves is hidden from us not by our defense mechanisms but by our lack of computing power. We only have so much data in our memory (mainly our own limited personal experience) to process with our minuscule capacity to determine what is going on around us or why we are acting in such a way. Whereas computers aggregating the behavior of thousands or millions can reveal the genuine, normal response. Computers are our best analysts, not Freudians. We understand our irrationality not in reference to childhood trauma but to some composite of normal behavior built from masses of collected "shared" data and fed back to us under the guise of automated recommendations, superior filtering technology, influencing power within networks, augmented reality, etc. The empirical sheen to the computated conclusions about "ordinary" human behavior in the contrived situations being measured make them seem all the more incontrovertible. We begin to believe for expediency's sake that the recommendation engines know the real us better than we could ever know ourselves. It makes it easy to fit into our world to accept that.

I wonder if capitalism's system of control is evolving in a similar way. The ways capitalism offers subjects the opportunity to elaborate a unique identity are perhaps becoming either insufficient or irrelevant. They are being supplanted by improved surveillance, autosurveillance, constant confessions of the self. The politically useful concept of the unique personal identity is giving way to the more productive networked self, a disseminated identity normed through exhaustive data aggregation. The exhortation to "be ourselves" and discover the authentic self is steadily giving way to the soft commands to always be measuring ourselves, and sharing more information as a means to take that measure.

UPDATE: this All Things Digital post says basically the same thing: "The 'Mad Men' Years Are Giving Way to the 'Math Men' Era," i.e. data is more important than creativity in intuiting what will manipulate people.

Assorted thoughts on social mobility (18 Jan 2012)

Economic mobility is a different thing from social mobility, as any number of nouveau-riche tales of ostracized woe can testify to. Measuring whether one goes from one arbitrarily determined income bracket to another doesn't tell us much about experiential changes; it doesn't tell us whether one's social circuit had changed, whether one's children now go to a more elite school, with greater opportunities for sycophancy. Social mobility is often about establishing opportunities to be taken seriously by people with more status — or with more cultural capital, if you prefer — rather than raw income levels. Judging mainly by Victorian novels, it takes a lot of income to buy your way out of seeming like a striver when you begin hobnobbing with your betters.

But the difference between economic and social mobility is easy to lose sight of in policy discussions. Once the charts and graphs are trotted out, it's easy to fixate on income differences that can be measured and varying rates of income change over time, with the idea that these comprehensively index the misery suffered through inequality. (More rumination, from Elias Isquith, about social mobility and whether it distracts us from inequality can be found here.)

Class and hierarchy and the ingrained sense of inferiority are not merely matters of money; they are more matters of power and assumed privilege. (That sentence felt a little tautological. I hope it makes some sense.) At Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen offered a few notes on why he thinks measures of economic mobility are "overrated." This is the one that started me thinking about this:
For a given level of income, if some are moving up others are moving down. Do you take theories of wage rigidity seriously? If so, you might favor less relative mobility, other things remaining equal. More upward — and thus downward — relative mobility probably means less aggregate happiness, due to habit formation and frame of reference effects.

Much of that is econospeak for "knowing your place makes you feel better." It's long been a right-wing critique that increased socioeconomic mobility yields only chaos — that liberals are too quick to forget that mobility can approach a zero-sum game: when some go up, others must go down. (Cowen suggests this is why economic growth matters more than mobility qua mobility.) Conspicuous-consumption and hedonic-treadmill theories similarly assume that any symbolic gains in status will be offset when those with the power to determine which symbols have status change the rules. Once the "wrong" people are doing something, the "right" people move on to something else, propelling the wheel of fashions.

But what does that mean for the value of novelty? Novelty is sometimes regarded neutrally as simple innovation, an expansion of the possibilities offered to consumers and thus enhancing their sense of power (which some argue derives meaningfully from the exercise of choice in markets). But a lot of novelty is fashion change driven by status panic. It is meant to be exclusionary; it is meant to cause misery as much as pleasure, as the pleasure is rooted in some else's being rejected.

We adopt the habitus of a particular social status (which to a degree is based on our income) and evaluate our condition mainly with respect to others we see as sharing that status. When downward economic mobility means we can no longer afford to hang out with our class peers and buy appropriate status symbols and amenities, that upsets us, and Cowen suggests that this upset outweighs any gains others might experience from moving up and getting to experience new nice things. That is a sort of paleo-conservative attitude, one that runs counter to the "all novelty is experienced as good" assumption that often animates discussion of consumer behavior today. It turns out that some novelty is experienced as confusion (i.e., me holding an iPhone) and not enhanced utility or pleasure, and class is the index governing this. Given consumer society's hegemony, it may be that once novelty is felt to be threatening, we translate it into a class mobility issue -- we are uncomfortable not because the newness is alienating in itself but because we are now conscious of moving up or down, or testing the boundaries of class habitus.

Concern with mobility is of particular concern to Americans; it's an integral aspect of its founding myths: a country without an aristocracy, where merit is rewarded and no one is born to a caste. Of course, the U.S. falls ludicrously short of that ideal, but that remains a huge part of American exceptionalism. So often mobility statistics are ginned up to compare the U.S. with Europe, the ancestral bastion of inherited privilege. If the U.S. falls behind Europe, it suggests that we are failing at our national mission. Cowen has what struck me as an odd explanation of why Europeans have experienced more economic mobility: "Lots of smart Europeans decide to be not so ambitious, to enjoy their public goods, to work for the government, to avoid high marginal tax rates, to travel a lot, and so on." I wonder to what degree one can decide not to be ambitious, as if that aspect of the self is voluntaristic. "I thought about being ambitious, but the hell with it. PlayStation time."

Cowen claims that European parents don't inspire their children to achieve: " 'High intergenerational mobility' is sometimes a synonym for 'lots of parental underachievers.' " That seems to take a systemic social problem and individualize it: society has lots of opportunities if parents would just force their kids to pursue them more doggedly. This fits with an economistic line of thinking that views the habitus as the sum total of one's response to personal incentives rather than something produced by broader social conditions. If you are not ambitious, it's not because of what RIchard Sennett called the "hidden injuries of class" but because of a personal choice. You just didn't want to be ambitious badly enough. Maybe your parents or your schools failed to motivate you as much as they could have, but the failing is still yours.

The underlying assumption appears to be that mobility is mainly a matter of will, which is really the main idea at stake in arguments about it. Conservatives like to overlook inherited privilege to argue that those who stagnate in poverty do so out of choice; others see class boundaries as institutionalized and carefully policed, not a matter of choice at all.

Facebook as echo chamber (17 Jan 2012)

At All Things Digital, WSJ's tech blog, Peter Kafka notes that Facebook really doesn't want its users to think of it as an echo chamber. It is promoting this post by Eytan Bakshy to support its claim that users have their horizons broadened rather than narrowed by using Facebook as their portal for news and information. Bakshy draws on Mark Granovetter's idea of the "strength of weak ties" and argues that Facebook facilitates their formation and their usefulness. Perhaps it's more clarifying to say that Facebook has succeeded in commodifying the production of weak ties and extracting their tithe from our taking advantage of them.

This is how Kafka summarizes the post:
The big takeaway here is that while most people on Facebook spend most of their time sharing stuff with a small group of like-minded friends, Facebook is so big — 800 million users! — that Facebook users end up learning lots of stuff from people they barely know: “The information we consume and share on Facebook is actually much more diverse in nature than conventional wisdom might suggest.”

That claim is extremely important to Facebook's business strategy of being able to index its users' online activity and make it available to advertisers so that they can target their ads. (The ACLU has some chilling information about that here.) So naturally Facebook wants to stifle any arguments that using Facebook to do everything would be anything less than enlightening. Kafka urges us to keep in mind that "Facebook thinks you’re getting a whole lot of signal out of that noise" of proliferating updates and "frictionless sharing," but that's almost too generous. Facebook almost certainly knows that information overload is a danger to its prospects and seems desperate here to spin that problem away. The Bakshy post acknowledges that strong ties drive sharing on Facebook, but argues that content from weak ties has the most novelty value, and is more sharable within the cluster of strong ties. "In short, weak ties have the greatest potential to expose their friends to information that they would not have otherwise discovered." This is the basis of Facebook's usefulness as a marketing tool. As Bakshy concludes, in considerably more anodyne language, "online social networks can serve as an important medium for sharing new perspectives, products and world events."

Facebook would thus like to change what we recognize as "signal" and what we experience as "noise" to suit its purposes: getting us to stay logged on and using its apps, and prompting us to authorize more data provision and collection. Signal equals novelty, which equals an opportunity to improve status in the quantitative realm of online social networks. It hopes that we will make more of the random information that comes at us through frictionless sharing and the like go viral within our smaller networks. It would like us to think of sociality and friendship as the potlatch-like exchange of whimsical novelties in a public contest of who can spread more information the furthest. In other words, it hopes to become a more data-rich form of Twitter. Facebook would like us to feel obliged to perform for our close friends on its stage as a way of staying salient to them. It wants our response to information overload to be a fear that we will be forgotten, and that we will respond by distributing more information, worsening the problem for us while improving the metrics for Facebook. Facebook is not an echo chamber but a negative feedback loop.

Return of the managerial demiurge (11 Jan 2012)

It sort of veers in a different direction by the end, but Žižek's new LRB essay is actually a pretty lucid explanation of the terminology from autonomist Marxism, sewing the jargon together in a cohesive whole. Here's his quick summary of Hardt and Negri's Multitude argument:
Only with the rise of ‘immaterial labour’, that a revolutionary reversal has become ‘objectively possible’. This immaterial labour extends between two poles: from intellectual labour (production of ideas, texts, programs etc) to affective labour (carried out by doctors, babysitters and flight attendants). Today, immaterial labour is ‘hegemonic’ in the sense in which Marx proclaimed that, in 19th-century capitalism, large industrial production was hegemonic: it imposes itself not through force of numbers but by playing the key, emblematic structural role. What emerges is a vast new domain called the ‘commons’: shared knowledge and new forms of communication and co-operation. The products of immaterial production aren’t objects but new social or interpersonal relations; immaterial production is bio-political, the production of social life.
Žižek argues that profit in contemporary capitalism comes not from commodity production and circulation but from being able to privatize the commons by force and extract rents through regimes of intellectual property enforcement and that sort of thing. He offers Microsoft as an example, but for me the paradigmatic example is Facebook, which collects rents (indirectly, from advertisers and data collectors) for hosting our "social graph" and tries to embed itself into our everyday social practices.

Later in the article Žižek sounds less like Negri and more like Wright Mills when he starts describing the disappearance of the 19th century entrepreneurs and the emergence of the white collar classes, the salarymen, the managerial demiurge. Since immaterial production is a collective thing, different salaries for different people can't be justified by their differing levels of productivity or the relative rarity of their skills, as neoclassical economists would have it. Instead, wage levels are determined by preexisting status, which tends to be arbitrary.
The evaluative procedure that qualifies some workers to receive a surplus wage is an arbitrary mechanism of power and ideology, with no serious link to actual competence; the surplus wage exists not for economic but for political reasons: to maintain a ‘middle class’ for the purpose of social stability. The arbitrariness of social hierarchy is not a mistake, but the whole point, with the arbitrariness of evaluation playing an analogous role to the arbitrariness of market success. Violence threatens to explode not when there is too much contingency in the social space, but when one tries to eliminate contingency.
So much for meritocracy. The middle class, then, consists not of a bunch of hard-working burghers but of people who inherited their political privilege (winners of the family lottery) and learned how to leverage it or learned how to adapt themselves so they could serve as ideologically useful token success stories. They pull in "surplus wage" -- a term that doesn't seem very useful to me, but which is supposed to mean the amount over the sustenance wage that capitalism presumably would drive everyone's wages to, ceteris paribus. The "surplus" idea seems to muddy the water; the point is that pre-existing class status determines pay in corporate structures, which try to calibrate the size of the middle class relative to the potential for mass unrest. Make as few middle managers as necessary to forestall revolt, and pay them enough to feel special and indebted to the status quo system.

What's more, Žižek, drawing on Jean-Pierre Dupuy, claims that success has to seem arbitrary to us, basically to make us to depressed to rebel. If success could be deserved, earned, we would have reason to be outraged when hard work doesn't beat status. As it is, we can always mistake privilege for luck. Žižek interprets the rise in protests recently as partly attributable to would-be meritocrats discovering there is no meritocracy and their modicum of inherited privilege no longer makes the grade. They won't get their "surplus wage" but will be precarious like everyone else.

Wages Versus Progress (10 Jan 2012)

In what is ostensibly a news article on the Wall Street Journal front page today ("Revitalized Detroit Makes Bold Bets on New Models") this sentence jumped out at me as being a clear example of ideology in action:
Instead of having to spend a lot on labor costs and retiree benefits, they are pouring money into engineering and designing cars that can go head-to-head with the best in the industry.

This proposition is not so much a fact as a story about how auto companies compete and innovate; it represents as factual the either-or choice that management supposedly faces: either the companies pay these (obviously extortionate) labor costs -- never mind that they are the result of contract negotiations -- or they contribute to technological progress that benefits us all. When money is capital -- allegedly reinvested in the company rather than distributed to shareholders -- it works magic; when money is wages, it forces society to stagnate. It doesn't say, feed families or obviate want or improve lives and opportunities for wage earners. The idea that fair wages should be a normal part of the calculation for capitalist enterprise is written out of the equation, instead represented as an anomaly, an ingratitude, a covert economic crime being perpetrated by labor in their covetousness and greed. The companies aren't greedy, nor are their shareholders; they just want to make new, cool cars. But labor, as ever, wants to spoil the party. Of course the idea that investment in labor could also lead to innovation is out of the question. It's a zero-sum situation.

The degree to which that sentence is true -- and I think you can find many like it even if you limited yourself to the rest of the WSJ -- is also the degree to which capitalism is riven with contradiction. Labor is fundamental to transforming capital into profit, wages for the efficient circulation of commodities. You can't do without labor, yet capitalist ideology also relies on an unremitting rhetoric of labor's parasitism on capital, hampering entrepreneurs and the imagination and creation of new and better products. It seems unsustainable to drive for the elimination of labor costs and the expansion of markets for commodities. It seems impossible to produce value without workers. But articles like these work to make it equally impossible to imagine an alternative way to organize production so that honoring labor's right to bargain and receive higher wages is not seen as fundamentally incompatible with the possibility of innovation and competitiveness. Creative destruction may wreak havoc on some firms but it relegates all workers to a kind of economic afterthought, an obstacle on the playing field of entrepreneurs.

The Truth Is Accidental (3 Jan 2012)

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

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

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

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

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