Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Morbid self-fascination

I've been feeling sick lately, with symptoms that were unfamiliar to me, and ultimately I got so preoccupied with myself that I had to go to the doctor. It feels as though the main symptom of my illness has been a morbid self-fascination, a biofeedback gone haywire, which has be constantly monitoring myself to the exclusion of all external stimuli, so that the sheer act of communication feels like an unbeliveable nuisance -- do you mind? I'm trying to hear the blood coursing through the veins in my ears. Wait -- was that a palpitation?

This started me thinking that self-awareness itself is the very definition of illness, the core symptom that underlies all experiences of being sick. Whatever your ailment, you are thrown back upon yourself in a way you normally aren't, foecred to think of yourself and your body first, before you can agree to any course of action, before you can conduct any kind of social exchange. And the degree to which our society encourages self-awareness, self-monitoring (c.f. Weber's argument in The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism), is the degree to which ours is a sick society. There is no greater freedom than the freedom from thinking constantly about yourself, which is basically the definition of insecurity. Our culture, however, is an insecurity-generating machine, with the consumer economy based on selling things meant to assuage the insecurity carefully engineered not only by omnipresent ads, but by the very discourses that structure the way we conceive of ourselves (the law, medicine, education, etc.). Sickness is an awareness of a lack -- or at least we've come to see it that way, because so much of our life experience revolves around perceiving lacks in ourself and trying to rectify them. We are missing some right, some piece of clothing, some feeling of self-possession. Every moment of self-awareness seems like a moment of owning ourselves, but its really a furtive admission that we don't have self-possession, that are desperate self-inventories are just cataloging the ways in which we are dependent on the structures around us to feel an illusion of completion, of security.

When I went to the doctor, I was trying to shift the burden of my self-awareness onto her, make her be aware of me, instead of it being my sole responsibility. This is what people are constantly doing by trying to get on TV, or by making films of themselves, or by vicariously projecting themselves into reality shows. They are trying to share the burden of their self-regard by becoming aware of how much others are regarding them. This is why the temptation to hypochondria is strong. It's hard to be honest with the doctor, when she asks you to describe your symptoms. I always feel like I'm telling a story, and telling it wrong, badly, and I feel the urge to spruce it up with some more colorful symptoms, with more exciting details. To embellish it. I don't want to disappoint her. In some ways I was confessing, in other ways I was offering a defense for myself. But I was acutely aware that the me I was describing in laying out my symptoms was not the me I live with in my consciousness, day in, day out, especially the me that has been paranoid about my health. I was talking in this utterly phony voice, a voice I use when I'm talking to bank tellers or barbers. How could this inane chit-chat do anything to resolve my health concerns? Shouldn't they be sticking me into the CAT scan machine? Drawing blood or something?

But now, having had the doctor's benediction, I'm able to think about something else rather than my symptoms. Nothing has changed, but yet everything's diffferent. I'm aware of different appetites now then I was a few hours ago. All she needed to do was not seem especially alarmed by what I was telling her, and I was suddenly free to move on myself. Its amazing what a moment of attention can do for you.

Monday, November 29, 2004

Bound galleys

On my way home from work today I saw a man watching a bootleg copy of National Treasure on his portable DVD player. He seemed quite pleased with himself, showing off how up to the minute he could be, but not as pleased as I was to be noticing him, and drawing my little conclusions about how the movie's content itself was entirely insignificant to the viewer, what mattered was that we registered that he was somehow above the law, in having the pirate DVD and in cranking its sound up on the subway car. It was the allure of novelty, the essence of consumer capitalism, pushed to a new extreme, thanks to technology.

Of course, it would have been better for him to have an advance screener to play on the subway before the movie was even released publicly. Then he could advertise his special access to everyone, like I do when I occasionally read a book in bound galleys that comes to the office where I work. When I am reading such a book, its content is secondary to the message I'm using it to send, that I can get things before everybody else can. It's fun to take such books home on Thanksgiving vacation, say, and see how intrigued people are at the machinery of promotion. Of course, you can always go to the Housing Works bookstore on Crosbie Street (among other places) to get bound galleys to impress your own non-NYC friends. You don't need to be a magazine grunt.

Lately, though, that thrill has worn off, and I just feel entitled to seeing such books for free, ahead of time. At a certain point, it just comes with the territory, and you begin to pretend its fundamental to your being able to perform your job, to know what's happening a few steps ahead of the reading public who you're supposed to serve. At that point, you've been hopelessly co-opted, and you're another cog in the culture-industry machine, facillitating the unnecessary flow of commodities, keeping people preoccupied with trivia. Accepting promotional materials makes one complicit with the whole process; you don't beat the system because you are supposed to feel special for getting it for free. There is no scoreboard to be had here.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

On Easter island

I've always been freaked out by images of those large stone idols from Easter Island, and it's not just because the graced the cover of Styx's Pieces of Eight album. They seemed to be mammoth harbingers of doom, built to a scale indifferent to humans and seeming to portend a time when humans would be superfluous. (I feel this way about gigantic sculptures in general; at Storm King, a scultpure park in upstate New York, I had the same creepy feeling that these big monstrosities were out to eradicate society, partly in the way they claim so much of the space around them to themselves and thereby ruin it for anything other than standing there and feeling how insignificant we are as a species. Some people consider this feeling "sublime.")

An article in the November 19 2004 TLS confirmed my suspicions that these were emblems of great evil. As its author points out, the megaliths "defy common sense" and do it on such an extravagant scale that its terrifying. you realize how tenuous common sense is, how easily it can be replaced with something so obviously absurd to outsiders. The article offers a quick rundown of the history of Easter island, of how its society and ecology were utterly ruined by the insane potatch-gone-mad need to build ever larger idols than competing clans. The islanders killed all the trees to make scaffolding for their great idols' erection, and they blithely believed the gods they so honored would bring trees back to the island. They believed these same gods would see that their idols were stood up, when no more trees remained to build the necessary platforms. With no trees, nothing remained to build shelters or boats necessary for their seafood-based diet. The topsoil was carried into the sea by the wind. Warfare became endless, cannibalism rampant. The parallels to the disasterous ecological course we're on as a civilization are obvious -- we are so attached to our fetishes (our consumer goods) that we don't think twice about depleting unrenewable resources, and we won't hesitate to "fell the last tree" if it means another wooden doodad for someone to entertain themselves with. According to the article, anthropologists call this "ideological pathology," a kind of path dependence of the collective imagination that prevents individuals from meaningfully conceiving of alternate modes for society.

Now, social theorists -- the Theory of literary studies -- often are dumped on for the gnomic, inscrutable texts, and their hostile "nihilistic" attitudes toward the status quo. But they can't be accused of ideological pathology, despite claims that schools of thought like Marxism and Freudianism are moribund, disproven. The pathology is not a matter of clinging to a false ideology; it's a matter of refusing to question the prevailing one, and it might just be better to confront the existing hegemony with the blunted tools of discarded thinkers than to refuse to confront it all, or worse, to celebrate it.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Cross of gold

James Surowiecki has an interesting article in the latest New Yorker about gold investors, and about what cranks they are in a post-gold-standard world. "If you invest in gold, you're basically betting that someday a greater fool will come along, who thinks gold is worth more than you do." That pretty much sums up the fate of a "commodity" that has virtually no utility, whose historical function was to embody an entirely hypothetical value, to encapsulate the process of exchange itself. Like words to a post-structuralist, gold has no stable meaning, it only acquires one after the fact, it is always in the process of becoming what it is supposed to be worth. But investing in gold was a way to purchase the notion of exchange, entirely independent of use value, while thinking you are doing the precise opposite, getting something of ineffable worth that transcends market fluctuations. Gold investors want pure theoretical value, value so perfect it can't be exchanged for anything; it absorbs all possible exchanges within itself and negates them. Gold is literally god, the transcendental signifier, the touchstone on which all other values are based.

Of course, various efforts have been made to establish the source of gold's value. When classical economists hit upon labor as the source of value, they argued that the difficulty of mining gold, the amount of labor required, gave gold its value. Smith suggests metals made for effective currency because they weren't perishible, and they could be spilt up and rejoined as one pleased. The physiocrats at least had a kind of logic for fetishizing land: it turns one seed into much fruit. But gold, is presumably placed on Earth in finite supply by God, which creates a zero-sum game with the ultimate value of things. You need to acquire as much of it as you can, because then you have a greater percentage of the total possible wealth. Of course this is absurd, but it's easier to grasp than the drive for perpetual growth, which constantly undermines the value of what you've worked to acquire.

Gold allows for the fantasy of value without labor, of usefulness without effort, of a truly benificient God, a pre-fallen world where no labor was required to make things valuable. It allows us to indulge that dream that value inheres in things themselves, and not in what we think of them or do with them. It allows us to indulge a splendiferous passivity.

And let's not miss an opportunity to quote William Jennings Bryan's immortal words: "Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests, and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold."

Uniform nostalgia

American men once wore hats, and then they stopped rather abruptly somewhere around 1960. When Kennedy neglected to wear one to his inauguration, it's said, everyone knew it was all over for hats. I'm sure milliners everywhere mourn the death of the hat, and those invested in the men's fashion industry probably try to periodically instigate their return, but in truth, it is the fashion for public individuation, as expressed through statement making clothes that ended the hat. That and the rise of youth culture -- the hat seemed to mark entrence into adult culture, an adult way of life. Now everyone repudiates that, no matter how old they are. Out west, people even wear their short pants and their golf shirts to work. (Is that too elitist?)

The hat (and its corollaries, the overcoat and the suit) accomplishes one thing above all else, and that is anonymity. It makes men in general look the same in public. The prevelance of the hat enforced certain boundaries, it ensured that your personality was reserved for truly intimate moments and allowed one to adopt a kind of generic public persona suitable for conducted civic business. You weren't expected to look young, or anally fastidious. You were expected simply to look like everyone else, so that level of interaction could be swiftly set aside. Of course, in the sixties, as Thomas Frank documented in The Conquest of Cool, conformity was made anaethema by ad campaigns making it a personal duty to evade conformity and publicize how effective you are at "becoming who you are," which is, of course, absoutely unique in every possible way, from the cereal you eat to the car you drive to the slogans you choose to emblazon on your clothing. With conformity out, it was only a matter of time before the hat, which disguises identity, would be out as well, and the theatricalization of public space, in which everyone is perpetually acting themselves out, would be moving ahead full steam.

Now, hats likely connoted their own subtle shades of meaning, and people of those times likely could have read a man by his hat the way we might read a man by his hair cut. But the hat always functioned as an overt sign, it never pretended to be a mark of one's authentic being. I'm guessing it always projected a discrete role in the public sphere. Today, as Richard Sennett argues in The Fall of Public Man, (and to whom I owe much of this line of reasoning) one is obliged to seem authentic in public, to be one's most intimate self at all times, eroding the boundary that defines public and private space. The result is that privacy disappears, as surely as the hat did. We don't mind this, because we are conditioned to think that the more we are on display, the more our authentic being is getting validated -- which explains the mania for self-exposure (i.e. this blog). Privacy invasion becomes the most austere form of self-validation.

I'm probably not alone in my nostalgia for the uniform, but it's a phony nostalgia, because I've never been asked to wear one. I've tried to adopt the voluntary uniform, and wear essentially the same outfit to work everyday, but it's tough to do this without becoming even more self-conscious, and the beauty of the uniform was that it freed you from self-consciousness, it allowed you to reserve your "self" for home. You certainly can't go back to wearing hats. Hats now are always affectations unless they are explicitly keeping your ears warm.

Friday, November 19, 2004

A new toy

I'm still coping with having been furbished with a new work computer, one of those new Apple Imacs that rests its entirety on a wee gray easel. It's loaded with OS X, which is new to me as well, and it all feels overdesigned and vaguely emasculating. I'm not sure why I should experience subjection to sleek, hyperconscious design as humiliating or effeminating; I wonder if I'm alone in this. At any rate, I don't feel like I should work with this machine; I feel like I should pose with it, or simply marvel at it the way we are expected to marvel at the breakthroughs of industrial design at the Cooper Hewitt. I look around my cubicle for a placard explaining who the artists were and what innovations they are known for.

OS X is especially full of animations and features whose primary purpose seems to be to encourage the user to stop and think, Wow, neat. It's presumed performance enhancements are all cloaked behind these genie effects and Ken Burns-like pan-and-scan screen savers and icons with more animated effects than a anime film, so that rather than be more productive, I've spent most of my time trying to shut these features and effects off. Perhaps I'm perverse in finding no delight in these doodads, but I always feel faintly infantilized whenever an application icon begins to do a little dance, as if I'm in a crib, and my moniitor is a play-mobile.

The design calls so much attention to itself that it begins to impede utility, pre-empt it as the device's main purpose. It seems more important that I'm working on an Imac than that I'm doing whatever work I'm trying to do. Am I right in thinking that design usurps utility, that form and function have become antagonists in a zero-sum game rather than being happy helpmates, complementing each other?

One might defend these machines as bringing more of an atmosphere of play to office work, which is of course notoriously numbing and spirit crushing. But one might also argue that such playfulness strips office work of what little dignity remained in it. The rounded corners and smoothness of the machine are analogous to how its supposed to smoooth out the workday, offering booby-prize consolations for having to be chained to it all day, processing information rather than using it or generating it (or exiting that dataworld altogether for the realm of senses). The user-friendliness eases the way for you to integrate yourself with the machine, to meld with it. Is this what we want? Don't we want the machines to remain alien, a tool, not a part of us, but something that we apply? Is it a good thing to feel more at home in virtual space, which is ultimately a prison in your own head?

Having a new computer was extremely -- and surprisingly -- disorienting. It was unusually stressful, which caught me off guard a bit. So much work time is spent in the virtual space of the computer, that having a new one made me feel as if I had suddenly moved to a new country or bought a new house. Most troubling of all was having to face the fact of how important that virtual space was to me, becoming more important than the physical space I occupy all the time. It makes me feel more and more like a sentient machine already.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

The mediated personality

Thomas de Zengotita has an excellent essay in the December 2004 Harper's about the "mediated personality," his term for what happens to us from spending so much of our lives as the fawned over center of attention of so many elaborate media outlets. Television, radio, film, tourist accoutrements, museums, retail outlets -- all these pitch to us as individuals and offer us representations of reality that far surpass anything we could experience independent of them because they offer us reality as if it were designed for us, with us in mind, with us at the literal center of the universe. Writes de Zengotita: "The alchemy that fuses reality and representation gets carried into our psyches by the irresistible flattery that goes with being constantly addressed in such fabulous ways." He illustrates this by pointing how much effort it would require for you to place yourself in a scenario where you're not at the center of it all -- you'd have to make yourself essentially inaccessible, without cell phones and radios, in the midst of a wilderness without billboards or stores or paths or benches. Only then would you be somewhere where things aren't "designed to affect you."

Social theorists have discussed what he's talking about from different angles, of course: Foucault approached the ways we are situated in ourselves by the various discourses of our society, be it that of law and order (Discipline and Punish) or medicine (The Birth of the Clinic) or mental health (Madness and Civilization) or what have you. Perhaps his most famous metaphor for this, which de Zengotita almost off-handedly references, is the panopticon, adapted from Bentham's idea for a prison in which all the cells were able to maintain surveillance on all the isolated others. The isolation forces an illusion of individuality based on personal responsibility, the surveillance suggesting a significance to one's most inauspicious, inarticulate, and inconsequential acts. So we are impelled to self-consciousness, granted a self from outside ourselves which we nonetheless must maintain, which opens up a rich vein for commercial manipulation. And in this situation, no one is really to blame -- you can't pin it on the "man" because we are all the "man" in this scenario, executing the whims of a decentralized and dispersed power structure merely by observing others, by giving them their stage. We are oppressed by our very self-consciousness, by something we have been trained to see as so integral and essential to our humanity, our presupposed uniqueness as an individual. Foucault explains it this way: "He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he spontaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection" (Discipline and Punish, 202). It sort of sounds like the Freudian concept of superego externalized, its incubation occurring not merely within the family dynamic but within the larger arrangements of society. But instead of an internalized authority figure, we live haunted by the notion that others are literally seeing what we are doing, that we must live as if we are observable from every possible angle.

A key to understanding why we consent to this, which de Zengotita rightly points out, lies in the flattery of being so studied and observed, which we often experience as being catered to. Althusser writes of this in "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses," the experience of being "hailed" by the culture and thereby being brought to understand that we exist as "unique" individuals. We consent to subject ourselves to the ideology embodied in these hailing devices (ads, historical markers, salespeople, films, newspaper accounts, etc.) in exchange for the security of knowing we have a discrete existence as an individual, that we are irreplaceable, and thus can never die.

De Zengotita draws on this in his take on celebrities. Celebrities, according to de Zengotita, have "instilled and reinforced the values and conditioned people's life choices, especially style, the attitude that gets you through the day. These star types posit and reflect the selves their fans have chosen to be. . . . These performer-heroes are all about us. . . . That's big-time flattery -- and a pivot point in the dialectic of mediation. . . . Is it not ultimately the spectators, in their hiddenness, who hold sway? All the gratifications of voyeurism accrue to a judge nobody knows." Celebrities call attention to how they are surveilled to give us the pleasure of having the power of the transcendent observer, the man in the panopticon's tower, seeing all while remaining unseen.

But de Zengotita insists we are not content with that transcendence. He argues that the entitlement implicit in the media's attentions makes us yearn to have more overt attention lavished on us. "Celebrities held a monopoly on the most scarce and precious resource in a mediated society: attention," de Zengotita explains. Thus when technology (camcorders, video phones, cable TV, the Internet) permitted, people rushed to make celebrities of themselves: teenagers are suddenly desperate to become Real World cast members and people like me are suddenly blogging their most mundane thoughts. For de Zengotita, this proves that everyone lives with a level of self-consciousness that makes Method actors of everyone, living worked-up responses to life rather than actually experiencing life in some more straightforward, unmediated fashion. He suggests that we have come to hold the condition of anonymity as a kind of trauma, akin to those of people who appear on daytime TV talk shows, who recoup their losses for being betrayed by fate by earning a modicum of public recognition. Implicit in this is Richard Sennett's thesis in The Fall of Public Man, which was that the collapsing of public and private selves has brought on a "tyranny of intimacy," wherein since all experiences, no matter how trivial, are supposed to reveal your authentic self, we lose all control over our public self and lose all capacity for the civilized, impersonal public discourse necessary for civic duty. We can't take any activity seriously that's not in some way self-aggrandizing. (Perhaps why political discourse what it is now; positions are always taken personally, and politicians are always fixated on their image rather than the quality of their positions.)

So there's a dialectic between the joys of anonymity and public recognition that mirrors the ways in which mass-produced, standardized objects can seem so perfect for us specifically, after we've bought them. We want to be somebody and nobody all at once, and our chronic discontent with what we are makes it that much easier for us to ignore what's really there, if we're even capable of noticing it anymore.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Bahrainian arabica

This news item from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, nicely encapsulates the current American economic situation. Brewberry's, one of St Paul's last surviving locally owned coffeehouses was targeted for destruction by chain Caribou Coffee, which opened a branch across the street. This practice should be familiar to just about every suburban American: a national corporation systematically eradicates small businesses by leveraging their size, their economies of scale, and their name recognition against the little guys. An interview with a Caribou customer demonstrates the psychology behind this: " 'I'm used to Caribou, I know what I want and it's nice and convenient,' she said, ordering a large Caribou cappuccino before hurrying back to paint a child's dresser. 'I hope neither goes under and both survive and fill their own niches. And I'm not sure I consider Caribou the big guy, because it's still based in Minnesota.' "

While Caribou is technically "based" in Minnesota, the article points out that the company is in fact "owned by an Atlanta venture capital company, which in turn is controlled by a bank in the Middle Eastern nation of Bahrain." So though Caribou may have started long ago as a small business in Minnesota, it is now merely masquerading as a homegrown company while it actuallly funnels money overseas to a country known for its dubious royal family and its petrowealth.

The customer's response seems to me emblematic of the way Americans are quick to embrace what chain stores offer -- "niceness and efficiency" -- in favor of the community solidarity and local control and regionalized nuance that local businesses can provide. It reveals their readiness to make excuses for themselves in their eagerness to go to the chain over the allegedly less convenient local business, which suggests they know there is something shameful in it.

Scott McLatchy, who tipped me off to this, explains it thus: "Ignore for a moment the fact that Caribou is actually owned by some offshore conglomerate. It is certainly an amusing twist, but she could be forgiven for not knowing that. What I think is really emblematic of a very American mindset is the bland wish that "neither goes under and both survive and fill their own niches." This is self-deception of the most studied and willful kind. Even absent any knowledge of the mountain of petrodollars underpinning the Caribou empire, does she really believe, as her statement seems to indicate, that the local coffee shop and Caribou have a roughly equal chance of survival? That if the Caribou franchise somehow failed, the little blotch of red ink that failure would leave on the corporate balance sheet would be the moral equivalent of the eradication of some poor local's life savings? "...fill their own niches" is also nice. How many niches are there to be filled in a corporate space based on running hot water over ground coffee beans? Or is she actually saying that there should be one coffee house for those arty, concerned-about-the-world, hippie types, and another for folks like me who drive a nice car, are left-leaning but not all nutty about it, and really, really like all that parking?"

I think she really is saying the latter: that concern for a local economy is a kind of lifestyle choice, catered to and embodied by a genre of stores whose significance run no more deeply than that for her: being owned locally is of mere cosmetic significane to this woman. It's a detail that just helps the shopper construct a certain kind of community-conscious identity, and that's all it means. If that's not your bag, you can go to Caribou, "which is nice and efficient."

And that in itself points out how bureaucratic, monolothic, transnational corporations have somehow managed to leverage their huge size into a monopoly on the very concept of convenience. Most Americans will almost instictively assume that something that is standardized and familiar will afford them a more convenient, efficient experience. It almost seems perverse to dispute it, it's such a hegemonic idea, but shouldn't the local business, with its vested interest in idiosyncratic relationships with specific people be able to provide a more efficent experience? Shouldn't we want an economy geared to make personalized experiences be the ones we experience as efficient and convenient? Has our notion of democracy become so perverted that we experience bureaucratic processing as a reaffirmation of our equality, to be given what everybody else gets everywhere? Or have we all become so conformed, growing up in the public space fashioned by corporate capitalism and having been shaped by it, that the standardized experience prescribed at some corporate office is perfectly adequate for all of us. Our identities are so detatched from any local dimension that these corporatized experiences feel more homey to us? Corporations are able to be efficient by treating human beings as interchangeable commodities; so does the universal triumph of the chain store mean that we have happily adopted the generic identity as our own (and so then must make local stores like Brewberry's fit into a genre, make it no different essentially than say, Alt.coffee in the East Village, in order to understand them, to see them as catering to us in our genericness)? Do we like being standardized, beccause it assures us a chance to fit in, which is a need no longer fulfilled by atomized bedroom communities?

A strange reversal. We are secretly threatened by places like Brewberry's, which no longer seem local and particular, but are really insidery and suspiciously exclusive. The small business is capable of knowing you personally, but doesn't, therefore it's willfully refusing to recognize you and therefore makes you feel like an outcast. And we are cheered by places like Caribou, which assure us of our anonymity, and makes no claim to ever know us personally, and therefore never is capable of affronting us. It reduces us to an abstract set of needs, which it fulfills in its limted, prescribed way.

And our experiences in these places convert us into these abstract needs predicted and/or concocted somewhere else in the name of expediency; and as we convert ourselves into this generic figure again and again and again, we become even more of a stranger to ourselves. And this discomfort makes it even less likely we'll feel comfortable in a local, real space that expects us to have some sense of who are, and to be somebody specific.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

The kitchen debate

That as one of Stalin's henchmen, Nikita Khruschev committed unforgivable atrocities is beyond question. And I mean not to apologize for him or for the Soviet Union, which has discredited socialism unduly, and perhaps permanently. But his exchange with Nixon in the so-called kitchen debate is priceless. The US had set up an exhibit in Moscow advertising the conveniences American industry was bringing to its workers, which found their quintessential expression in the modern kitchen. Nixon went to tour it with Khrushchev, and began to explain the kitchen as a wonderful way to make "life easier for women," whereupon Khrushchev interjects: "Your capitalistic attitude toward women does not occur under Communism." Am I the only one who misses this kind of discourse on the world stage?

The exhibit purported to be a cultural exchange, but it seems mainly geared toward Americans themselves, to help them understand that the consumption of convenience, and the ability to choose among a variety of maufactured goods, is the new national purpose, the new meaning of freedom. As Nixon put it: "Diversity, the right to choose, the fact that we have 1,000 builders building 1,000 different houses is the most important thing. We don’t have one decision made at the top by one government official. This is the difference." Here diversity is celebrated for its own sake, not for any additional usefulness it provides. A thousand different houses allows for nothing more than difference, the opportunity for a person to express himself through their consumer choice of house. Consumption becomes self-production, which adds to the size of an economy as much as any other kind. The essence of America, the point of being American, becomes the ability to express yourself in this arena, through the variations of style afforded by capitalist competition. This operation seems to grant Americans a right to selfhood, a chance Russians were deprived of, but actually it strips Americans of the self they are born with, and encourages/forces them to discover some new self in consumption, in fashion, which comes from without and changes according to some one else's design, not that of the individual discovering himself. One becomes obligated to be a shopper to be someone in America.

Khruschev becomes the implicit defender of a kind of essentialism, a sense that one is born with a certain identity and rights as a Soviet citizen (purely fictional, as it turns out), and a defender of utility in its most basic form. Russians build things to last, for posterity, he explains, not to suit the present day's whims. The implication? People find satisfaction in contributing to this future, and find a sense of purpose and identity in becoming a link in a meaningful chain of history in the development of a tradition and a heritage; they don't need fancy gizmos and individualized consummables to make their day-to-day life significant. The surface differences of fashion are nothing to base a society on: "Mikoyan likes very peppery soup. I do not. But this does not mean that we do not get along."

Nixon asks, "Would it not be better to compete in the relative merits of washing machines than in the strength of rockets? Is this the kind of competition you want?" But f course, this is a false reduction of the conflict: the merits of a social order can't be pinned to its military strength or its consumer products. It needs to be evaluated in terms of justice and equal opportunity. What happened in America was that equal opportunity to buy things was made to compensate for the lack of equal opportunity to do things, until now we have to think very carefully to even distinguish the two.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

The flexible personality

In Populuxe, Thomas Hine suggests that the emphasis on disposability and portability and convenience was designed to call into being to a new "flexible personality" coming into being -- this would be the kind of person who would cheerfully adopt a new wardrobe, if fashion suggested it was necessary, or a new city if moved by his bosses at whatever transnational company he worked for. These goods, the push-button, portable, streamlined goods of the era provided material basis for this new personality, the personality didn't precede it -- a classic case of ideology functioning as a material, concrete thing, embodying an approach to life that is not organic but comes to seem that way by sheer ubiquity, by a conspiracy of related institutions: the government, industry, art, advertising, R & D firms, etc.

The climate of instability created by a world where trends were constantly changing, and jobs were becoming ever more insecure, was thus given a positive spin by this new material culture, which implied that such transience and the decimation of established, comforting traditions was actually an openness to spontaneity, which was everywhere billed as more authentic, more real, more self-fulfilling. In this way the disorienting sense that "all is solid melts into air" -- Marx's classic description of life under capitalism -- is turned into something to celebrate -- the wonderful joy of everything novel. Novelty becomes an end to celebrate in and of itself, to provide an alibi for capitalism's relentlessly churning economic engine and the upheaval it inevitably wreaks.

The cult of spontaneity has its roots in 18th century fascination with "sensibility," or the ability to cry spontaneously at others' misfortune, thereby proving the soundness of your feeling heart. This was immediatly capitalied upon to sell goods, as a spontaneous reaction is an unreflecive one, and an unreflective response, an impulse, is easy to manipulate into impulsive consumption. Sensibility also encouraged a kind of individualism, since your concern typically stopped at the expression of your own feelings and didn't concern itself with social root causes. Sensibility, in some ways, has been replaced in America by evangelical Christianity, with its emphasis on instant conversions, the truth of the heart (as well as the Bible) and that sort of thing. That evangelicals are uninterested in root causes is evident in their voting patterns, which shows that they are not especially concerned with causes for moral turpitude (poverty) and are more interested in punishing it at the expense of their own chances for greater economic security.

All the innovations of the 50s -- disposibility, portabililty, convenience, stylishness -- all assailed the basis of utility for purchasing things. It was no longer even required of people to think to themselves that usefulness was a criteria. And in the absence of uniform religious tradition, the basis of utility may have been what anchored the national tradition, an understanding that a Benthamite rationality undergirded our collective morality. That is gone, lost to fashion cycles. Perhaps it's the loss of that, and not of some other religious tradition that has led to evangelicalism growing so much.

Vice fund

With Bush re-elected and an overhaul of the tax code shifting the tax burden entirely on to the shoulders of workers expected, I figured I should become a small-time capitalist and should look to derive as much of my income from dividends and interest (destined to be entirely untaxed, if the plutocrats have their way). Why the poor people in the religious states vote against their economic interests is continuing mystery in American politics, but one that foretells coming catastrophe when these people, inpoverished past their breaking point and no longer willing to live on the hatred their beloved demogogues inspire in them, finally feel betrayed by the Repbulican party and look for an instrument even more extreme to express their frustrations (they certainly aren't going to turn to the Democrats) -- this would likely be some kind of reactionary pseudo-religious nationalist party. Were this force to seize control of the world's largest military, we'll all really be in trouble then.

In the mean time, I'm exploring my investment options. According to Marx, the greater the misery the working class lives in, the greater the interest to be had in speculating on the "vices of ruined proletarians (Prostitution, drunkenness, the pawnbroker)." So it seems like the vice fund would be a safe bet. The fund touts its industries as "recession-proof," which accords with Marx's view, as a recession is sure to increase misery. The fund breaks its investments down into alcohol, tobacco, gambling, and weaponry. And the fund's Web site mounts defenses for cynically investing in these industries, spurious arguments that seem to be tongue-in-cheek: "We think it's obvious that through good economy or bad, fears of terrorism, corporate scandal, and even health fears, many people keep smoking. It's not going away. Many of this country's founding fathers were tobacco farmers. People have been smoking for centuries. While cigarette market in the United States may be limited, the worldwide cigarette market is much different." "Did you look at your retirement plan or brokerage account statements in year 2000, 2001, or 2002 and think, "I need a drink"? Apparently a lot of people did. In years 2000 through 2002 the overall stock market was poor, but alcohol stocks as a whole continued to perform." 'So called "Socially Responsible Investors" would claim that you shouldn't own stocks that have anything to do with defense or weapons. That means that all of the Aerospace and Defense Industries are to be avoided. Maybe in a perfect world these industries wouldn't need to exist, but until that perfect world does exist, we want to own these stocks."

There's truth to this, for sure. In fact, the appeal of the Vice fund is the perverse honesty that underlies it. All investment seems like exploitation at some level, so why not embrace it? Bet on human depravity and your fellow human's unhappiness and desperation. Why not stop pretending that you care about anyone other than yourself when you invest in stocks. You are not investing in the human race, you are investing in your own personal future, and to hell with the rest of society. And so what if you have to live in a maximum-security housing oasis in the midst of a poverty-stricken world filled with whorehouses, gambling dens, strip joints, rundown bars, liquor stores, and gun dealers, overrum by cheap weaponry that makes every trip outside life-endangering. You'll have yours, and that's what matters in the zero-sum society.

Of course, this kind of selfishness undergirds most suburban thinking already: hence the SUV, the vehicle that declares a willingness to kill others rather than take a chance of injury yourself. Of course, as they proliferate, everyone becomes less safe, particularly the SUV drivers. Visibility is reduced for everyone, the mass tonnage involved in accidents increases, and the likelihood of rollover becomes omnipresent.

One of the earliest cases for vice-driven capitalism came from Mandeville's Fable of the Bees, which seems especially prescient now. "Private vices, public virtues" was his basic premise, and it's nearly impossible to tell if he was being ironic about it. But his analysis does seem to hold; prosperity is a product of widespread personal misery and/or selfishness.

Monday, November 08, 2004

McQueen chic

Over the weekend I watched The Thomas Crown Affair, the original with Steve McQueen, not the irrelevant remake. A more self-consciously stylized film could scarcely be imagined; watching this film feels like you're flipping through Vogue magazine, circa 1967. The story line, such as it is, is patently ludicrous: McQueen plays a successful businessman (how do we know he's successful? Because he makes snap decisions that confound his hapless, decidedly unstylish associates, negotiates ruthlessly, and is always glowering powerfully behind an executive desk when he's not leading a pack of underlings out of some high-pressure, high-stakes meeting. For all that, it's not too clear what he does -- he's the generic businessman as superhero) who, having conquered everything legitimate business has to offer, turns to executing sophisticated heists to extend his feelings of complete mastery. He directs a bunch of henchmen stationed at payphones to execue his plan, and it's the perfect image of the successful division of labor -- these criminals who have never met are able to work in concert to pull off bank jobs without a hitch.

That is, until the film introduces Faye Dunaway, as one the most implausible insurance-company supersleuths in film history. She's supposed to help a police detective (played by Paul Burke) solve the crime, but her main function seems to wear a series of different candy-colored outfits and try to look as much as possible as Catherine Denueve in a Jacques Demy musical. In fact, this whole film is a strange attempt to make a heist movie in the manner of a Jacques Demy musical, or Un Homme et une Femme, right down to the blasting Michel Legrand soundtrack, which telegraphs every emotional cue with over-the-top orchestrations that make every human interaction and dialogue in this film into lush camp. This is especially true of the chess playing scene, where Dunaway and McQueen first hook up, in one of the most feral and aggressive make-out sequences I've ever seen -- it looks like McQueen is trying to chew her face.

McQueen was probably cast in the image of Jean-Louis Trintignant in Un Homme et une Femme, to be a brooding race-car driver type, short on words, but rich in masuline posing. McQueen poses everywhere: in elevators, behind desks, at the chessboard, in airplanes -- every shot makes him static, puts him in a pose, flattens the film to a stack of photographs. And he's perfect for the role, despite his slightly schlumpy, twerpy profile. And you can see why there's been a resurgence in McQueen worship recently -- he crops up in fashion magazines hawking watches and things like that and on hipster T-shirts -- it's because he is one of the few film stars to make posing seem masculine, making him an icon in an era where little more than posturing can be accommodated in public society, in a civic sphere where posing is the primary mode of discourse. And McQueen, who always has to have his masculine totems -- his race car or his cigar or cigarette and so on -- makes a perfect shill for the lifestyle products that dominate the landscape even more today, the products one is expected to require to bolster one's sense of gender. The new ads with McQueen basically treat him as a symbol of this mentality -- the cool guy who likes his macho gadgets. (If you want to see McQueen act, you have to see him in Peckinpah's The Getaway, where, predictably, his hypermasculinity is made brooding and violent.)

The film is self-aware enough to have Burke chastize Dunaway for conducting her investigation like a prostitute all while obviously lusting for her himself. And it emphasizes her disposability by making her indistinguishable, for the most part, from McQueen's other lover. The point is that she is an especially stylish accoutrement to McQueen's lifestyle, the perfect woman to tool around with in your dune buggy. Her thorough objectification assures that we won't take her investigation seriously, and that McQueen will outsmart her in the end. Indeed, he sets up and executes another elaborate heist, not for the money at all, but simply to extricate himself from the relationship when it gets emotionally complicated. It's a pefect byzantine exit strategy, a great indication of how great a length a man will go to avoid emotional directness and confrontation, and how far society will go to make his evasiveness seem stylish, au courant, a marker of having attained the height of social power and prestige.

The film plays like a commercial now, an ad for a kind of jet-set lifestyle that we can no longer dream of emulating without being perversely anachronistic. Thus we can enjoy the film much more, as an expose of that lifestyle relic, as amusing encyclopaedia of its tropes and of the methods the filmmaker tries to use to make it seductive. We can comfortably feel like we transcend such marketing ploys, and can observe them from some safe place, insulated from their pull while still capable of luxuriating in their sensualism. The unfolding of style replaces the film's plot, which is largely formulaic to begin with and requires little of our attention anyway. But while the fulfillment of formula is usually the attraction in most popular entertainments, what The Thomas Crown Affair suggests is that we can be more entertained by explicitly ad-like content even in a preserve where such motives are supposed to banished or suspended. The formulaic story is a pretense for selling a style, as in ads themselves. So saturated by commercials, we may now import the criteria we apply to ads to all entertainments. This film proves that an ad can hold your attention for an hour and a half, and there's something troubling in that.-

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Hold the door

Small courtesies seem to mean more in the city than elsewhere, maybe because so many opportunities for them are missed and because they are so little expected. In cities there is a sense one must aggressively pursue one's own interest as there seems a scarcity of time and space, or at least a frustration at having to share so much of it with people who are much less like you than they would be in small towns. But this frustration is also the source of the city's sublimity: this ability to connect, however ephemerally, with total strangers, with people whose lives you can't imagine, is a chance to enlarge youself, to be without a social horizon. (Of course some prefer social horizons, some like the idea that they'll never meet a person who can teach them anything).

The courtesies I am thinking of hinge upon a moment of hesitation, the extra moment someone waits to hold the iron gate open when leaving the subway stop, or the moment one waits to let you off the elevator. It takes much less time for the hesitation to register and surprise others, and usually they let you know its been recognized with a note of sincerity in their thanks that is impossible to miss. It takes just the slightest pause to make someone else think, oh, you didn't have to do that, thanks. This moment of waiting becomes a leisurely moment snatched from a day of compulsory hurriedness. Its a moment where you assert the priorities of social interaction above those of business, and perhaps because that itself is so rare that these moments feel more precious.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Marketplace of revolution revisited

John Brewer's recent review of T.H. Breen's book about consumerism and early America has helped crystallize for me some thoughts I had about it when I read it a few months ago and suspected it was slightly bogus. Breen wants to import Lizbeth Cohen's correct assertion that a consensus for increased democracy in the marketplace emerged in the 1950s (which, incidentally, sidelined questions people might have had about decreased democracy in the voting booth -- the loss of meaningful choice there as well as a civic sphere of action) to the 1770s. Consumerism according to Breen made colonial Americans politically conscious in way that allowed them to transcend geographic and religious differences and unite under the banner of shared experiences (shopping for imported goods), shared language (that of the commodity), and shared desires (for more unfettered, untaxed access to those commodities, and more of them).

The only problem with this thesis is, as Brewer points out, that the opposite seems to have been true -- colonial Americans rejected consumerism in favor of moral restraint (the luxury debate of the era) and economic self-sufficiency (mercantilism still reigned, and The Wealth of Nations had yet to be published). Brewer sees this as a classic example of themischief that comes from anachronistically applying terminology to a historical period. It's impossible to understand aperiod without understanding the debates that animated them and the language these debates lent to the society to stabilize its meanings. Thus I'll start with A.O. Hirschman's The Passion and the Interests, which offers the original arguments for capitalism in the terms that seventeenth and eighteenth century thinkers tried to understand it.

Play dumb

It seems to me that the appropriate response to ads that wink at you with knowingness, expecting you to applaud yourself for being either smarter than the ad itself, or in on the joke the ad' s positing as a semi-secret, or for being more priveleged than some other part of the population is to play dumb. On the BQE there's a billboard I simply don't understand. It reads: HUMMER. THE NEW SUT. If I started to think about it, I could probably figure it out; but then I've wasted valuable time thinking about Hummers, and not thinking about how every moron who drives one should be forced to spend a few months working on an oil rig. The seduction method of this ad is to encourage you to figure it out, and then applaud yourself for being so smart, and then associate that self-satisfied feeling with the product itself, that hulking gas-guzzling metaphor for personal superiority. So I try to play dumb with ads. And I feel I've mounted a successful resistance every time an ad forces its way in to my conciousness and I am able to say "I don't get it" to myself and seal it out my mind again.

The same thing goes for ironic ads. When I take these with a stubborn literalness, I feel as though I have warded them off. Those ads that narrate the mundane achievements of someone as though they are heroic accomplishments, I try to think to myself, these aren't achevements. This praise is absurd, and the people praising him should be ashamed. When an ad is absurd, the reponse shouldn't be knowing laughter -- oh, haha, we all know ads are silly; they're fun! -- it should be uncomprehending disgust: the people in this ad are acting idiotically, in a way that would make me ashamed if they were friends of mine. That car can't be on that mountain, there's no road there, and not enough clearance under the vehicle. These ad makers are liars.

A letter from one of the readers of the magazine I work at captures the spirit perfectly. He complains that the editors can't possibly know "the best new restaurants in America," because they haven't been to every single new restaurant. So their claim is meaningless, possibly fatuous. So maybe he doesn't understand superlatives, hyperbole -- but maybe he understands it perfectly, and is holding the magazine accountable for its use of language. He's taking a fundamentalist view of language; people should mean what they say and should be expected to have what they say taken literally. This is a foolproof way to be resistant to ad copy, which is where all poetic devices have gone to die.

This kind of stubborn literalism is forced upon us by ads that want to use our intelligence against us. The problem is we may then carry this kind of willed ignorance into other spheres, like our responsibliites as a citizen in a democracy. Then catastrophes like the 2004 US presidential election can occur.