Friday, January 18, 2013

For those who might be interested, moved this blog to

Thanks for reading!

data self ideas

so I don't forget:

boyd's paper sets the stage with basic ideas about constructed nature of the self, the way individuality emerges from social embeddedness and so on. I am speculating that this self is less likely to be read/experienced as inherent, as the revelation of one's true inner nature, as the ultimate expression of unique individuality — as "authentic. Instead it is postauthentic: the values of consumerist authenticity are being changed by "prosumerism" and the ease of broadcastability of consumer behavior and identity/status signifiers and so on. Social media feeding back an identity to users may prompt those users to eschew the idea of being true to a static inner self in favor of a more dynamic form of identity, as something we have reported to us and then try to live up to. The data self reported to us is kind of status update from ourselves that surprises us as novel, allows us to consume our own personality as novelty.

boyd notes that teens' "efforts to achieve privacy without relying on the control of information are still an important signal" that they have not given up on privacy altogether. In my "Hi Haters" essay, I try to get at something similar, what sort of practices of seeking control over identity and representations of self people turn to when networked society has taken it away or made it feel out of control. I argue that the subjective feeling of this condition is a kind of "cruel optimism" a la Lauren Berlant. We accommodate an immiserating condition rather than remove ourselves from the network.

I think that latching on to the post-hoc data self is another way of trying to evade the misery that can come from the loss of control over self-representation. It's not giving up on identity, but on the personal control and autonomy implicit in the individualistic ideal version of identity. (Maybe not the worst thing. As boyd writes, "In order to address networked privacy, we need to let go of our cultural fetishization with the individual as the unit of analysis.")

It's protective to embrace the data self, not the vulnerable inner-conjured self, which is conditioned/determined/interpreted inescapably anyway by all sorts of outside influences and always has been. We were just able to blind ourselves to that much more easily before. (This is why Simondon's idea of preindividuality — or at least what little I understand of it at this point — seems more relevant to me. Need to read something like this.) Looking to data is a defense mechanism, masquerading perhaps as a gesture of curiosity or discovery, or a kind of self-tracker yearning to know the real objective truth of the self. (Actually, looking to data self for "truth" prohibits or suspends the formation of a "true self" as we used to think of it, as the result of self-actualization, as an expression of emerging and uniquely personal will.)

Basically I'm trying to sketch out the subjective experience of having an alienated identity: When you know you can't control how you will be seen and that much of what you do is open to reinterpretation, how does one build narratives of identity, if at all? The contours of this subjectivity are not determined by some notion of inner "true self" or the search for it; instead it is dictated by the ongoing search for the represented self: now the true self is how others/machines see us and interpret our data, which we seek to have reported back to us.

We redefine the "true self" on the basis of ideological conditions and affective needs. We accept a true self that makes those conditions tolerable. But building walls around self with privacy no longer viable way of protecting ideology of individualism. Consumerism and capitalism seeking ways to move beyond individualism as ideological pillar, into subsumption of everyday life.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Marx's concept of the "general intellect"

The genealogy of the concept of immaterial labour is thus Marxist and is an innovative development of Marx’s notion of the ‘general intellect’ as described in the Grundrisse, in a section entitled ‘Fragment on Machines’ (1973). As summarized by Paolo Virno (1996), Marx identifies a future…
From here

That is a pretty good description. The point of using “general intellect” as a term is to indicate how the “real subsumption” of everyday life under capital generates this redemptive force, the general intellect, that might be brought to bear to end capitalism.

As I read it, the general intellect is only possible in a capitalist society that has developed means of production and associated modes of social organization to connect people in this hyperproductive way, so that social relations are always relations of production, and nothing more. Usually in the moments that this becomes clearer to me, I get filled with depair — the measure of the value of my relationships is always going to be referred in the end to the prerogatives of capital! I am measuring the value of my life on capital’s terms, even when I am focusing on the sorts of relationships that are supposed to transcend it — the kinds of “love” capitalist ideology elevates as a compensation for capitalism’s otherwise unmitigated immiseration.

But that’s just the reason to be optimistic, perhaps; the general intellect concept makes social productivity more explicit, more tangible, and perhaps more subject to an alternative way of being coordinated rather than through the profit motive. Yet the ubiquity of the general intellect means we can’t return to sociality that is not underwritten by productivity (if ever there was one). No pure relations, if “pure” is defined as uncalculating, unproductive, for its own sake.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Notes about early commercial fiction

Character is given, not developed in premodern fiction. It is a destiny, not a responsibility, and can be detected only by mystical means – astrology, intuition, phrenology, physiognomy.

A new kind of reading (as documented by Chartier) leads to a new kind of pleasure (as documented by Colin Campbell, delineated by readings of 18th commercial fiction).

New pleasure leads to new social order, oriented around a consumption economy producing disposable goods, disposable pleasures for the profit of capitalists, and to pacify more successfully the otherwise restless  proles whose labor is exploited.

Ads, social emulation, novelistic production invent interiority and motivational schemes, the identity quest, inventing motivations necessary for mobilizing consumer revolution.

Early commercial novel as a miscellany, read like a shopping catalog by bourgeois in the market for new emotional experiences. This approach to reading may have been linear but consisted of skimming, searching for peaks and valleys, affective intensities tied to a narrative predictable enough to not require careful or sustained attention. Identification is not with a specific hero or heroine but instead multiple choices are offered for a variety of potential pleasures, many of which are contradictory. Sustained identification was not yet necessary for a plentiful yield of satisfactory emotional titillation. It may not be required now, though such identification is ideologically indicated, supporting capitalistic individualism. Readers can always partake of vicarious pleasure in unrelated moments through characters who are diametrically opposed. Sometimes, too, readers can identify with the storyteller as well as with the characters within the story, for the peculiar pleasure that comes from being the presumably unimplicated observer -- the joy of transcendence and noncontingent invention.

Bath was a perfect location for English novels in the late 18th century: a locus of gambling, nascent consumerism, medical quackery. The tropes of the early commercial novel are products of the same family, with the same strategies and pleasures offered. The novel is a kind of patent medicine that works on level of emotional fantasy, which is produced as the most basic consumer good, with no intrinsic value other than the faith one puts into believing in it, in exchanging money for it.

From Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture (1977):

Douglas argues that the marginalization of clergy along with women provided a whole sector of society interested in having a cultural influence because their real influence was negated. This cultural influence was inculcated through pop culture: novels and such that inculcated sentimental notions that ultimately provided the basis for a individual invested in formulating identity through consumerism. This social segment gains compensatory power for being masters of a discourse that ultimately strips them of “real” power – they can be masters of taste, while that taste is exercised in a field created by their marginalization, by their subordination to a social order that deprives them of “real” “meaningful” work.

A compensatory power was granted to the feminized (women and clergy) for their promotion of values (glamour, narcissism) that kept them marginalized from the true means of production. They could promote values that supported the existing relations of production while gaining only symbolic, cultural capital. This cultural capital is valorized through promoting “self-justification” instead of the “theological” concerns American religious writers began with.

Douglas describes the emergence of a new kind of reading: 
‘Reading’ in its new form was many things; among them it was an occupation for the unemployed, narcissistic self-education for those excluded from the harsh school of practical competition . . . .  Literature was functioning more and more as a form of leisure, a complicated mass dream life….  Literature was revealing and supporting a special class, a class defined less by what they produced than by what they consumed.  [Ministers and women] wrote not just to win adherents to their views, but to make converts to literature, to sustain and encourage the habit of reading itself.” (9).  
They were“ intent on claiming culture as their peculiar property, one conferring on them a special duty and prerogative” (10). 

Ultimately “sentimentalism provided the inevitable rationalization of the economic order” (12) – i.e. covered up the contradictions inherent to capitalism.  Sentimentalism is what is lost in the pursuit of masculine, expansionist goals – what is celebrated even as it's destroyed. These values come to seem to be lost "naturally," rather than as a cost of the implementation of an economic system. Nostalgia thus dismantles active protest, and critique. 

This applies to all Man of Feeling-type works of sensibility, too – sensibility is a demonstration that manners are being refined but also that capitalism is accepted as inevitable and what will be destroyed can be celebrated, its loss lamented as the sad way of the world and not the result of choices. Heroes of sensibility are nostalgized and marginalized as unable to exist in the real world of capitalist exploitation, which is just a fact of life, which feminized hereos nobly but futilely ignore. (They disdain "interestedness.")

In discussing the marginalization of women, Douglas makes the standard point about their removal from productive processes as home industry declined. To compensate, women became domestic managers, and this meant more often than not managing the emotional climate of the household -- along the lines of Hochschild's concept of emotional labor. This new role also stressed woman’s role as procurer and consumer. In this way, as domestic workers responsible for producing affect, women become explicitly productive through their consumption, mainly by latching onto the fashion system. (They become early "prosumers.") But literacy was the bait for the trap, according to Douglas.
The supreme product of feminine fashion, the chief emblem of the emerging female consumer, was not found in the lady’s clothing, but rather, odd as it may initially sound, in her reading and writing. The feminine proclivity for novels, the young miss’s resort to the pen and the confidante, a standard theme for jest in 18th and 19th century fiction, had its serious side. A Marxist might argue persuasively that American girls were socialized to immerse themselves in novels and letters in order to make their powerlessness in a masculine and anti-humanist society more certain and less painful. (71)
The stories they read and wrote were themselves courses in the shopping mentality, exercises in euphemism essential to the system of flattery which served as the rationale for the American woman’s economic position (72-3).  
A matter of compensatory flattery: reading/writing supports the value of this flattery of detailed attention to the things that trivialize women, that rationalize her social insignificance, or rather her significance as mere consumer/trophy.

Shopping for luxuries is where one exhibits taste, which certifies its possessors' value. Taste/judgement are constructed as active skills, rather than passive choosing; as meaningful and productive activity rather than a consolation for exclusion from the real meaningful decisions. She does not do for herself, but persuades, through her tasteful displays, others to do for her – “influence” in Douglas’s sense. She exerts influence through taste, because she has no direct access for power – this exercise of vicarious power is, in Douglas’s analysis, celebrated in the sentimental texts of Victorian America. Women should live by proxy and feel like they have achieved privilege by being reduced to mere shoppers. This privilege of taste becomes their function, what makes them at least feel indispensable. 

Male sentimentalists, according to Douglas, find their vocation in depicting and glamorizing female suffering, examining and explaining it: “Sentimentalist self-absorption, a commercialization of the inner life” (308).  Sentimentalism promotes the idea that the inner life should be subjected to standards of taste, to consumerist decisions, that feelings exist only to be displayed, to establish an identity in the eyes of others, where it may be affirmed, legitimated, substantiated.

In The Political Unconscious, Jameson argues that there must be, in culture
a process of compensatory exchange … in which the henceforth manipulated viewer is offered specific gratifications in return for his or her consent to passivity. In other words, if the ideological function of mass culture is understood as a process whereby otherwise dangerous and protopolitical impulses are ‘managed’ and defused, rechanneled and offered spurious objects, then some preliminary step must also be theorized in which these same impulses – the raw material upon which the process works – are initially awakened within the very text that seeks to still them (287).  
So popular fiction must evoke the conflict it wants to defuse, it must inscribe it with some urgency, and offer, in Jameson’s view, a “Utopian” solution: “visions of external life, of the transfigured body, of preternatural sexual gratification” etc.  So these wishes are traces also, hints that a problem is being masked, resolved, when these sorts of fulfillment are offered.  “A complex strategy of rhetorical persuasion in which substantial incentives are offered for ideological adherence.” These substantial incentives being satisfying mental habits. 

Monday, November 05, 2012

Serious action

I have a long essay in the latest New Inquiry issue about the metaphor of "microfame" and what sort of ideological work it performs. (It's not online yet, but it will be sometime this month.) I think I let the ideas marinate too long and they ended up saturating my thinking so much that the essay became a stew that I  threw whatever I came across into. Every kind of visibility is microfame, everywhere, all the time!

One of the dubious claims I was trying to make was that people using social media in a "microfame" sort of way are (1) seeking intensity to make up for the disappointments of everyday social media use, which stokes a far more intense need for affirmation than ordinary people in one's community can generally fulfill and (2) seeking a pre-emptive defense against the fateful loss of privacy by turning that eventuality (the transformation into oneself into what Mary Anne Franks calls a "unwilling avatar") into a self-defined risk.

After I finished writing my piece, I read Erving Goffman's "Where the Action Is" (one of the essays in the collection Interaction Ritual), which gave me a much clearer way of thinking about online risk-taking and reputation wagers (what Goffman in the essay calls "character contests"). The fringes of social-media connectivity offer a field for taking calculated risks, for what gamblers have always called "action," an intensity over ventured stakes that makes the present moment seem like the only thing that matters in the world. Gamblers' wagers are monetary and wait for the roll of the dice to decide the outcome; the anxious and microfamous risk their reputation and the immediate deciding outcome is likes, reblogs, and so on. This immediacy screens the larger ramifications of the risk down the line (much like gamblers aren't worried in the moment about being destitute outside of the casino).

Goffman theorizes that we seek action to call forth otherwise inaccessible dimensions of  "character," and prove our poise and "composure," a term of art for Goffman that amounts to keeping one's cool and earning a reputation for it -- the ability to act natural. "Excitement and character display, the by-products of practical gambles, ... become in the case of action the tacit purpose of the whole show." Goffman suggests that we are fundamentally "ambivalent about safe and momentless living" and we gravitate away from the comforts of everyday life to the fringes to seek "serious action."

At the same time, this makes us believe we can assert control over the way our lives our contingent and at the mercy of fate. Through action, we seem to choose the momentous occasions for ourselves. Goffman: "It is as if the illusion of self-determinancy were a payment society gives to individuals in exchange for their willingness to perform jobs that expose them to risk." Self-construction has arguably become one of those jobs for all of us, given the real subsumption of subjectivity to capital -- no ontological security without routing your thoughts and feelings through communicative capitalism's circuits. In my New Inquiry essay, I frame that real subsumption in terms of "the threat of invisibility" -- the feeling that one will disappear from meaningful society if one stops participating in online social networks. This is complicated, of course, by the threats inherent in visibility -- surveillance, context collapse, harassment, etc. The tension between these simultaneous threats leaves us craving action as a way of re-establishing control.

Most people aren't courageous enough to seek action outright, Goffman argues, so they pursue vicarious substitutes in entertainment (they consume the extreme risky behavior of heroes in books, movies, TV) or in packaged thrills like amusement park rides and whatnot.

Here's how Goffman attenuates the division between action seekers and (to quote Bud from Repo Man) "ordinary fucking people":
Looking for where the action is, one arrives at a romantic division of the world. On one side are the safe and silent places, the home, the well-regulated role in business, industry, and the professions; on the other are all those activities that generate expression, requiring the individual to lay himself on the line and place himself in jeopardy during a passing moment. It is from this contrast that we fashion nearly all our commercial fantasies.
Social media, especially highly structured sites like Facebook, are partly akin to the amusement park in providing a structured way to take risks with identity and behave in risky ways (stalking, sharing "too much," etc.) and partly akin to old vicarious entertainments, only the risk-taking heroes are peers, not fictional characters or celebrities. They are instead the microfamous; they are ourselves. The commercial fantasies are about ourselves. Like the action at plush casinos where you get to play at high-rollerdom, this social media action is "at once vicarious and real." The different social media sites offer different ways to calibrate this balance, but it is easy to get wrong and they encourage that we lose sight of the more far-reaching consequences of impulsive behavior. The vicarious thrill of being able to broadcast, to seize a moment of self-definition (which must be risky, shameful if you buy into Sedgwick's gloss on Silvan Tomkins's affect theory, to feel true) is social media's product for users.

Social media supplies high-risk opportunities to definitively establish our presence in absence, in a way that feels like something under our control, something we sought out. Through our composure in the risky performance of self, we prove that the identity we are constructing is also natural, who we really are. It has gravity; we are not simply deletable, ephemeral.

To experience action, people need to go where "the chances that they will be obliged to take chances" increase, Goffman notes. It seems like people figure out where these places are online, whether Tumblr or OkCupid or Craigslist, etc. Goffman's final line in the essay still resonates: "These naked little spasms of the self occur at the end of the world, but there at the end is action and character."

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

"Symbolic efficiency," "liquid modernity" and identity-capacity

I am mainly concerned lately with how "becoming oneself" has turned into a crappy job — a compulsory low-paying, low-skill job. Rather than work within the accepted constraints of an inherited identity and embrace the pleasures that that identity defines as possible and sufficient, we are sentenced to continually develop our identity in an unlimited field, finding only fleeting pleasure in the midst of perpetual structural dissatisfaction.

Somehow our capacity to have an identity has become someone else's capital stock; we are driven to add labor to that raw material to make profits for the owners of our digitized identity containers -- the social media sites and device makers and so on. Interiority has become a factory; social media the showroom floor.

But what turned our identity-capacity into alienable capital? Do we just blame modernity and technological change for eroding the traditions and limitations on which stable identity was once based? Or to invert that, is technology to be credited for expanding our identity capacity, for removing the time-space limits that once constrained it and made "working" on who we are a possibility no one thought to consider?

Related question: Is capital concentrating on the technology that opens up the field of identity making because it satisfies individuals' demands for "freedom" to be who they want to be, or is that how capital is selling an intrusive, invasive technology that aggressively dissolves personal integrity in order to make more malleable raw material? Technology makes workers more "abstract" in the sense that they are more amenable to doing "whatever" and even embrace the pursuit of novelty for its own sake as an expansion of their personal capabilities. (Oh, I know, evolution programmed us to love novelty, and various regions of the brain light up on MRIs when we are distracted by something new, and capitalism is a perfect expression of our evolutionary destiny as a species. Criticism is meaningless, etc.)

Jodi Dean's use of "symbolic efficiency" (borrowed from Žižek, who adapted it from Lacan) offers one way of theorizing this condition. For Dean and Žižek, the loss of symbolic efficiency means we have a hard time believing in the sort of expert systems and ideological constructs we are supposed to believe in to fix our identity within socially sanctioned limits. The problem of course is that society now sanctions chiefly limitlessness for personal identity; family, religion, etc. are mostly outmoded by the technologically enhanced pursuit of experience that we can record and recirculate to enrich the media circuits of "communicative capitalism."

Dean writes in Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies, "we never really know whether what we say registers with the other as what we mean as well as our sense that we are never quite sure what 'everybody knows:' There is no ultimate guarantor of meaning, no recognized authority that stops our questioning or assuages our doubts." No big Other to believe in or to do the believing for us.

In the absence of guarantees that the rightness or wrongness of our life choices is stable — a loss of faith in the language in circulation to talk about such things as duty, honor, virtue, etc. — we fall into the trap of pursuing quantity of experience instead. The given identity from society tends to be that of an insatiable consumer, the residual identity left after other identity groups are destabilized. "As a result of the critical work of these [social] movements, as well as the accompanying decline of the welfare state and empowering of neoliberalism, racial, sexual, and ethnic identities are less fixed, less stable, less available as determinate subject positions." The result, Dean argues, is a shift from a "Keynesian to a neoliberal ideological formation" in which identity is open-ended, not fixed by ISAs.

Neoliberal ideology does not produce its subjects by interpellating them into symbolically anchored identities (structured according to conventions of gender, race, work, and national citizenship). Instead, it enjoins subjects to develop our creative potential and cultivate our individuality. Communicative capitalism's circuits of entertainment and consumption supply the ever new experiences and accessories we use to perform this self-fashioning-I must be fit! I must be stylish! I must realize my dreams. I must because I can— everyone wins. If I don't, not only am I a loser but I am not a person at all. I am not part of everyone. Neoliberal subjects are expected to, enjoined to, have a good time, have it all, be happy, fit, and fulfilled.

The end of the welfare state and decline of symbolic efficiency may appear to usher in a new era of freedom from rigid norms and expectations. But the fluidity and adaptability of imaginary identities is accompanied by a certain fragility and insecurity. Imaginary identities are incapable of establishing a firm place to stand, a position from which one can make sense of one's world. Moreover, their very mutability and normative indeterminacy, configure imaginary identities as key loci for operations of control (rather than internalized discipline), particularly those operations affiliated with desire and fear as they promise and provide enjoyment.

To put that another way, we are hailed not as somebody specific, but as someone with crucial potential and we must not disappoint. We are hailed as someone who should be happy and we must fulfill that expectation on alien terms. We are constrained to be strive for happiness; happiness is never allowed to be understood as complacency. It's personality kaizen: a requirement to constantly improve our capacity for pleasure and our efficiency in pursuing it and our flexibility in experiencing it. "The consumer today is imagined as excessive,
extreme, and unregulated. She is imagined, in other words, as a composite of the neoliberal market itself."

Zygmunt Bauman, in Liquid Modernity, offers a similar analysis of our anchorlessness, and how this leaves us vulnerable:
It is such patterns, codes and rules to which one could conform, which one could select as stable orientation points and by which one could subsequently let oneself be guided, that are nowadays in increasingly short supply. It does not mean that our contemporaries are guided solely by their own imagination and resolve and are free to construct their mode of life from scratch and at will, or that they are no longer dependent on society for the building materials and design blueprints. But it does mean that we are presently moving from the era of pre allocated 'reference groups' into the epoch of 'universal comparison', in which the destination of individual self-constructing labours is endemically and incurably underdetermined, is not given in advance, and tends to undergo numerous and profound changes before such labours reach their only genuine end: that is, the end of the individual's life.

There is no respite from self-construction; it's a cathedral that can't be completed. And the inevitable failures and shortcomings of our identity in progress, our inevitable disappointment with what we have and what we see being promised, what others seem to be allowed to enjoy, becomes our fault. Politics seems not to be a viable avenue to addressing our disgruntlement; instead soul-searching and more and more elaborate consumption, and just as important, mediated declarations of who we think we are by virtue of that consumption.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Networked individualism and oxymoronic "personalized communities"

From this paper by Barry Wellman, et al.

The technological development of computer networks and the societal flourishing of social networks are affording the rise of networked individualism in a positive feedback loop. Just as the flexibility of less-bounded, spatially dispersed, social networks creates demand for collaborative communication and information sharing, the rapid development of computer-communications networks nourishes societal transitions from group-based societies to network-based societies (Castells, 1996, 2000; Wellman, 2002).

Networked societies are themselves changing in character. Until quite recently, transportation and communication have fostered place-to-place community, with expressways and airplanes speeding people from one location to another (without much regard to what is in between). Telephone and postal communication have been delivered to specific, fixed locations. At present, communication is taking over many of the functions of transportation for the exchange of messages. Communication itself is becoming more mobile, with mobile phones and wireless computers proliferating.

Each person is a switchboard, between ties and networks. People remain connected, but as individuals, rather than being rooted in the home bases of work unit and household. Each person operates a separate personal community network, and switches rapidly among multiple sub-networks. Even in more localistic Catalonia, people appear to meet their friends as individuals and not in family groups. In effect, the Internet and other new communication technology are helping each individual to personalize his or her own community. This is neither a prima facie loss nor gain in community, but rather a complex, fundamental transformation in the nature of community.
That seems like an accurate description of the transformation that we are in the midst of, but I'm puzzled by the implicit positive spin. My read of this transformation, folllowing people like Jodi Dean and postautonomist types like Virno, is that networked individualism is a boon for the communicative capitalism on which it depends, much in the same way that possessive individualism was a boon for consumerist capitalism. (Consumerism, conspicuous consumption, identity through shopping-based lifestyles, etc. -- the sort of stuff in Adam Curtis's The Century of the Self.) Community as defined by volume of communication persists, but community as a kind of collective subjectivity that prioritizes the group over the individual atoms is lost. The network formations emphasize this atomization, breaking the link to the pre-individual basis for subjectivity (a la Gilbert Simondon, described here).

A "personalized community" is an oxymoron; community is that which can't be personalized. That phrase is just a nice way of describing a network fromthe point of view of an individual node, which may be near or far from the center, rich or poor in connections. Once you've taken steps to personalize community, you are making it convenient, editing out or time-shifting the responsibilities it otherwise requires to suit the community of one.