Monday, December 06, 2004

The rich inner life

In an essay in the most recent New Republic, Lee Siegal makes the case that the culture industry's depiction of gangsters influences American's perceptions of themselves as "consumers, as beings driven by appetite and enticed by America's promise of absolute gratification on just about every front," and that The Sopranos dramatizes psychological interiority gone amuck: "The show is a semi-comic playing out to the absurd and bitter end of the endless contemporary revelations of inner life and private life that neutralize our attempts to make sense of right and wrong." This latter point smacks almost of fundamentalism: the endless dramatization of the casuistry of mitigating circumstances has eroded all faith in moral certainties, to the point where obvious evil can come to seem justified and excused on its own terms without need for forgiveness. Reality TV, from this point of view, is an endless rehearsal of how one plumbs interior depths to rationalize behavior, TV becomes a training course in how to rationalize inappropriate behavior.

This seems right to me, but only in its consumerist aspects. What commercial TV does, is raison d'etre, is to provide the viewer with arguments that justify his or her purchase of unnecessary goods, to eradicate the resistance that might come from common sense, or abstract logic, or conservative traditions. Psychological interiority is a means to that end. Typically, enamored of our own alleged depth, we invert things; we presume our depth preexists the ads, the programs that cater to it, that dignify it, that enshrine it as the storehouse of our essence. The space of our rich inner life constitutes our real self, we think, and the larger that space is, the better. But it may be that that inner-life space is carved out by the very pitches that presume its existence, that the rich inner life is in fact a retreat from life (which consists primarily in social engagement, not withdrawal) and a collapse to a far more vulnerable state where the lack of social connection makes one prone to all sorts of insecurities about oneself and one's place. The glamorization of the rich inner life is the primary achievement of the culture industry, since what it sells is the kind of ripe fantasy that only one with a rich inner life would prefer to actual living. The rich iner life is the space where passive entertainment happens. It is compensatory for a stifled life; liberating the interior life, encouraging the imagination to be more free -- these aren't increases in freedom but the signs of one's being deprived of it, of having one's real scope limited. The "deeper" we are, the stronger are our chains.

We believe this interiority is necessary to understand ourselves, our deeper motives. But we don't understand ourselves only when we are isolated from social involvement, as we are to an increasing degree. Interiority makes that alienation worse while it masquerades as its cure. Siegel points out how The Sopranos dramatizes that inwardness is no protection from the vagaries of "real life." It becomes "absurd" when confronted with the more powerful explanatory logics of exploitation and greed. This is exactly right, and highlights the function of interiority: to mask exploitation and encourage individuals (newly minted by capitalism's enormous emphasis on the atomized consciousness) to assume personal responsibility for how they have been shaped by systemic forces much larger than them; this nicely protects that system from scrutiny and protest while ensuring for that system a more insecure, pliable and compliant populace.

The richness of our inner lives is an illusion, an effect rather than a cause of the way commodities are perceived. It is in fact that commodities that have the rich inner life, which they transfer to us, which we imagine we access and assimilate to ourselves by acquiring them. Goods replace the social contacts, the interpersonal interactions that create one's character, and thereby seem to embody the result of those interactions, they seem to possess the characteristics of the social exchange they have supplanted. We buy the goods thinking we are expressing an inner life through them, but really we are trying to stock the fictitious, nebulous inner life with the qualities we see in these goods. Anthropological accounts of consumerism, like that of Mary Douglas, stresses that commmodities serve as a communicative language -- this seems right, but under capitalism, this discourse of goods becomes the master discourse, becomes the essentially authentic way to express oneself, to express and thereby discover truths about oneself, about one's inner life.

So, in the absence of social life, we develop an inner life, which seems feeble, barren even as the advertising and entertainment cultures insist that it is always integral, boundless, the core of our being, the purpose of our consciousness. To stock this inner life, our new responsibility, we participate with new fervidness in consumerism, as this provides us the tools with which to articulate that inner life in the way recognized as authentic, to write a history of our interiority, to ground that interiority in material things. Unlike our actual real lives, which are limited by mortality, our inner lives are entirely unlimited, can grow and grow perpetually, just like the capitalist economy. Th labor of building our inner self, of forging our identity, such ceaseless and tireless work but of unique and lasting interest to ourselves (if no one else) is the best possible compensation for the lack of meaningful work in the society at large. Who cares if you spend your day processing medical bills. The real work you're doing in life is getting to know the real you, buying the products that will help you discover whether you, say, like classical music or have an aptitude for speaking Russian.

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