Friday, April 29, 2005

Against personal responsibilty

Who would be against personal responsibility? Everyone believes that they should be responsible for their own actions and sensitive to the effects of their deeds, right? It's the price we pay for all that autonomy we have in our free society as powerful and unique individuals jousting in the wide-open arena of the marketplace. As Margaret Thatcher pointed out, "There is no such thing as society," and everything that for every thing that happens to an individual, there is some other individual that's culpable.

Of course that's silly. That presumes all individuals are born equal, and that institutions are transparently functioning, entirely neutral entities with no ends of their own, and that the aims of corporations are no different than the aims of human beings, a myth nicely exploded by the recent documentary The Corporation, which details all the sociopathic things corporations can do that individuals wouldn't. The myth of personal responsibility is similar, in that it attempts to protect institutions from scutiny and force those individuals who suffer because of them blame themselves and feel guilty and helpless in the face of "reality," in the face of "the way things are." You'll notice that people who are well insultaed from the consequences of actions, people like George W. Bush, for instance, are especially fond of yammering on about how important personal responsibility is. It's because he knows it is a cudgel that only clubs the heads of the poor.

Zaretsky, in Capitalism, the Family, and Personal Life has an incisive chapter on "proletarianization and the rise of subjectivity," in which he argues that the consequence of capitalism's removing production from the family space and centralizing it (making it entirely exploitative and useless in affording the worker a sense of meaning) is the creation of a separate non-productive sphere, "personal life" where workers can find life's meaning and compensation for their empty work. The crux of this personal life is the feeling that one's individuality is important, and should be nurtured through intimate relationships, which are rewarding for their own sake, and for the sake of reminding you that you are special and not an interchangable pawn in the hugh profit-making machine. But of course, while capitalism is setting up the conditions for dignifying the individual in private life, it is also making him into precisely that pawn. The contradiction holds in the ethos of consumption, which, as Zaretsky explains, "the rise of 'mass consumption' has vastly extended the range of 'personal' experience available to men and women while retaining it within an abstract and passive mode: the purchase and consumption of commodities." (I love the scare quotes around personal in there). In other words, our vaunted individualism and our hallowed personal responsibility under capitalism amount to little more than shopping. And we dignify shopping, not autonomy. We replace spiritual identity with "lifestyles" which Zaretsky dubs "a word that is used to defend one's prerogatives regardless of the demands of 'society' " A lifestyle is what's left when individual choices are seen as divorced from social reality, or are made in opposition to it, as a reaction to it rather than a part of it. A lifestyle is a parody of what personal repsonsibility is presumed to mean. When capitalism fails to dignify our lives, and consumption proves an endless acquisitve tradmill with more desperation and fatigue than pleasure, we'll not blame the system that has empowered us to make such important and responsible choices (do I want a Ford or a Chevy?) but will instead wonder what is wrong with our lifestyle that makes us miserable (maybe I should go on a diet.)

Thursday, April 28, 2005


It seemed like harassment of some sort to be subjected to yet another harassment policy pow-wow with the HR people and the lawyers at my new job. And it seemes especially hypocritical since the men's magazine I work for could be considered a tangible piece of sexual harassment month after month, as its very existence could be considered a monument to chauvanism and a continual provocation to commit insensitive acts of sexism in order to feel like a "real" man. But I suppose that is what the harassment policy is all about, shifting responsibility for sexism to individuals and away from the institutions (like this magazine) in which it is entrenched. So we as individuals are perpetually feeling guilty and responsible for things that the institutions we serve adovocate in myriad ways. We focus on changing ourselves, and continually struggle with that, while we ignore the institutional problems that guarantee we will fail.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Birth of the bourgeois artist

The bourgeois novel, according to Lukacs (I think), has developed in order to stage the conflict between the individual and society, two abstractions that capitalism created and opposed to each other. The purpose of novels is to show how the individual confronts society (aka "the system," aka "reality," aka "the human condition") and learns that society is too large and entrenched and complicated to be affected by the efforts of any one person, and that in fact the mature thing for any individual to do is to accept the status quo and the small private pleasures it affords. The quintessential example may be Flaubert's Sentimental Education, which ends with its would-be revolutionary hero content to get some casual nookie in a brothel after abandoning all his aspirations.

The go-along get-along mentality advocated by such novels predominates in contemporary culture, and it has become the basic paradigm for maturation -- you "grow up" when you get a job that alienates you and get a spouse who seems to compensate for it. But there have always been those who have historically resisted this maturation process, ppeople who choose to live outside of the system, or in opposition to the rules it lays out (work 40 regular hours a week, be monogomous, procreate, collect material possessions, etc.). Zaretsky, in Capitalism, the Family, and Personal Life, runs down some of these conscientious objectors in his account of the creation of private life, or "intimacy." The earliest ones to reject this maturation process were the Romantics, who clung to a radical individualism for its own sake in the face of capitalist organization and the divsion of labor. The Romantics "argued that one's work should be an expression of oneself rather than just a means of survival." Hence art becomes a matter of expressing oneself as an individual as well -- the only message worth expressing, in a climate of bourgeois commercialism and depersonalization, is my work is unique, my work transcends value, I, as an artist, am unique and not interchangable like dollar bills or proletarians. "Real" art thus becomes self-referential, about itself, about the artist's sense of self. Art becomes a matter not of craft, discipline or social reality, but a matter of originality for its own sake. The artist becomes a role model for separating the private from the public, of "pitting oneself, one's inner feelings, private thoughts, and dreams against 'society.' " In this way then, in the process of critiquing them, art reinforces the divsions instilled by capitalism rather than healing them. It champions the private "inner life," which is the product of the alienation art simultaneously laments. And at the same time art surrenders any claim it might have had on effecting social change, since any changes it advocates can ultimately be dismissed as merely self-promoting. All bourgeois art is understood now as being an artist's attempt to claim special transcendent status; thus all art is held to be elitist unless it reproduces the formulas that justify the sacrifices we make to mature. Art will continue to be irrelevant until it surrenders "creativity" and "originality" as goals, as criteria.

Historical roots of "family values"

Eli Zaretsky's concise broad-stroke account of capitalism's effect on the family, Capitalism, the Family, and Personal Life, contains one of the most lucid explanations of emergence of private life as a kind of trap for workers in capitalist society and why "family values" are always embraced by the most repressive and reactionary forces in society. Zaretsky argues that the development of all vs. all capitalism, which eroded home production (the basis of the family in the pre-Industrial period), transformed the family into the haven where one could escape the alienation incipient upon the division of labor and production of profit supplanting the production of man (to paraphrase Marx). Women were expected to epitomize all the "humanizing" values that capitalism had eradicated from society at large, which had been reduced from a civic sphere to a merely commercial one. Woman became the guarantors that capitalism wasn't evil and alienating, that it was in fact producing a noble creature like the all-sacrificing, super-sympathetic, ultra-mothering woman, and the domestic sphere in all its pieties. These domestic values are often represented to be eternal, universal, but they develop as a response to capitalism's dehumanizing propensities. So in defending woman's place in the home, and all the suffocating "family values" and anti-abortion planks and the "defense of marriage" and so forth, reactionaries are trying to protect the haven that has for them lost its historicity and has become the only possible haven available in our world. Without women as domestic mavens, everyone will be in the midst of the dog eat dog competetion that capitalism promotes. As Zaretsky explains, "The emancipation of women threatened to degrade all society to a common level of cynical manipulation." This is helpful, I think, in trying to understand what animates the right in their cultural war, to see their actions as something other than a backward prudishness and prejudice.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

"Say hello to my little friend"

In recent years, I've noticed that while the garish framed photos of Eminem or Nelly or 50 Cent or The Sopranos -- the stuff you see on display in the closeout stores and in front of those mysterious luggage/electronics/who-knows-what storefronts in Chinatown or on commercial strips in outerborough neighborhoods -- tend to come and go with the rise and fall of entertainment trends, but images of a sweaty, heavily made-up Al Pacino toting a machine gun in DePalma's Scarface endure. Why this movie? Why these violent images of his defiant inability to yield to authorities in the midst of his coke-fueled, paranoiac rage? Who identifies with this so strongly that the image has become a staple, as commonplace on the stand of a sidewalk art vendor as images of the World Trade Center?

If the World Trade Center commemorates a unifying moment of national tragedy and signifies a resolve "never to forget" the terrorists' perfidy, then what core set of values does a tweaked-out Pacino mowing down cops represent? The most obvious theory that presents itself is that the film epitomizes the immigrant experience, and the bloody apotheosis of the imaged framed and sold on street corners represents some trenchant refusal to surrender the American dream in its crudest, most materialistic form. The script, which charts Tony Montana's rise from Cuban exile to Miami drug kingpin, caters to such an interpretation, emphasizing Montana's perverse attempts at legitimizing himself. But what seems to have been an obvious critique of American materialism and the complete corruption of the American dream now perhaps survives on as its representative emblem in the minds of those for whom the dream still applies, for those yet to be disillusioned in their quest for it. A case of an audience "producing" rather than consuming, using a cultural product for their own ends over and against the intent of its original makers? Maybe. It seems to suggest that immigrants today feel like they are at war with the culture they are at the same time trying to assimilate with, that violence is an inevitable part of the emigration experience that they may as well embrace rather than fear. Attuned to the xenophobic ravings and close-mindedness of the current administration, they understand that they must lay siege on America to be accepted within it, that brute force and raw, violent power are the only means to achieve respect in this country if you are in a minority group.

Monday, April 25, 2005


On the front page of the Marketplace section of today's Journal there are some fairly frightening photos of Asian teenaged girls dolled up like futuro Geishas, heavily made up, wearing these fur-trimmed lotus-collar robes, smiling and fawing in an enveloping and submissive relationship with their cell phones. The gist of the story is that Asian consumers allow their portable phones to be all-purpose marketing gadgets that keep them in the warm bath of advertising blather for all of their waking hours. American companies, naturally, want a piece of the action, hoping to make cell-phone users even more zombie-like and inconsiderate in their clueless self-absorbtion.

"Among the Chinese," an Intel flack (oh, excuse me, Intel's "staff anthropologist") is quoted as saying, "cellphones have become such important status symbols that relatives at funeral rites burn paper cellphone effegies, so the dead will have their mobiles in the afterlife." Naturally, from the Journal's standpoint, this is an altogether healthy development, because it seems to open the dead as a new marketing demographic. If only there were a way to measure how many ads the dead are seeing -- perhaps some ambitious market-research firm should hustle up some corpses and focus-group them.

The reason why these ads have taken off in Asia but not in America is that Americans have a stubborn habit of regarding cellphones as utilitarian tools rather than all-encompassing lifestyle managers; Americans even have the audacity to turn them off except for cases of emergency. You can feel the frustration of the anthropologists and the marketing strategy executives -- is there any difference anymore? -- wondering, How will people get their cultural marching orders then? Asians are not embarrassed to be "technosexual," an ad executive tells us, which helps them define themselves as "trend-setters" in their own personal "cyworlds." In other words, these people have surrndered more and more of their privacy, which puts them on the cutting edge of cuturally-mediated identity and which leaves them feeling a more and more devestating emptiness inside when cut off from the cultural ephemera that gives them a sense of who they are. This is why they can't imagine being without cellphones in the afterlife. The cores of their very souls are now defined by what media the cellphone can pipe into them to give them tangible character. I've already got a trend piece waiting to be hatched: Asian teens who commit suicide (seppuku style, perhaps) when they lose their cell phones. The loss of this technosexual repository of their souls will prove too dismaying to overcome, and they will fell there's no other choice but to complete the spiritual death that the cell-phone loss precipitates with physical death.

Once, for youth everywhere, taking things to the street meant agitating for revolutionary change. Now, thanks to cellphone technology, people can be "continuing to do branded activities in the street," acccording to another marketer. This is what technology has made of revolution. We want to storm out in the street doing our "branded activities" with our phones in the view of others, who we can't be bothered to ackowledge, in part because they are already far too involved with their phone to make it worth our while anyway. I can't wait for the future.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Consumerist cathedrals

Now that I work on Fifth Avenue, I see some very strange photos being staged by tourists on my walk to the Crown building. Aside from videotaping the Trump Tower, since its featured prominently in a television show (I thought videotaping buildings was an act of treason under the Patriot Act or something) they also pose in front of shop windows at Bergdorf Goodman and Tiffany's to have their photos taken with merchandise. It's very much like the old exhibit at Binion's Horseshoe in Las Vegas, where you could have your picture taken with a million dollars. You wold literally stand beside a glass case in which 100 ten-thousand-dollar bills were mounted, and a photogrpaher would snap your picture. Some people would even put their arms around th case, as if it were a cherished friend. Fetishized money seems to be the allure of Las Vegas, so this particular tourist trap seemed to me the quintessence of the city, its spiritual core, the essential transaction that made it function, a ritual that reenacted the town's fundamental promise -- we will taunt you with enormous sums of money, and let you breathe in the wealthy atmosphere, swim in money's natural ecosystem. Never mind that you will leave your own money behind.

Something similar is going on with these photos of people in front of expensive boutiques. These are the keepsakes the tourists are pursing, themselves in close proximity to the luxury goods whose ads they've been subjected to, whose totemistic "magic" has apparently infested and denatured their dreams. This seems to prove that commodities really in fact do have the fetishistic aura Marx and his Frankfurt school followers theorized: Their allure is so strong that just seeing yourself next to them, even though they are behind heavily alarmed plates of glass, is enough to fortify you, make you feel stonger, make your dreams that much more enriched. "I got this close to having what society has deemed the ultimate spiritual treasure" these photos must tell these tourists when they are back in their hometowns. The commodities are totally divorced from the means of production that created them or the social hierarchies encoded in the way such positional goods are valued. The commodity seems like the wellspring of value, power, potential, all the good things in life that have been expropriated from the people carefully positioning themselves next to the jewelry displays and smiling for the camera. This is their idea of a vacation: getting close to the things they never could afford.

I have the tendency to take these luxury shopping districts for granted and see them as poisonous blights, spiteful testimonials to the contempt the rich have for the poor in this country. But they are holy pilgrimage sites for those acolytes in the national religion of consumerism, they are glorioius, inspiring cathedrals of comfort and sensual delight to those very people on whose behalf I am so eager to be indignant. These places are significant, famous; these are the places where important celebrities have walked. Who wouldn't want to come and trace their footsteps? Tiffany's symbolizes our culture's aspirations so succinctly; photographing yourself there is in a way like having your photo taken shaking the president's hand. It doesn't matter if he doesn't know who you are. You have managed to put yourself in the proximity of power, or of a massively meaningful symbol (which may in the end be the same thing as power). And the connection by proximity allows you to forget for the time being the total lack of connection such places have with your actual life, that no amount of dreaming and hard work is likely to ever allow you to be a real customer at such stores, to give you the sense of entitlement and cultural competence to make you feel confident enough to walk in and feel like you belong. The photo of you at Tiffany's masks the fact that one's aspirations and one's actions are utterly divorced from each other; that one's actions will not achieve one's aspirations, because the aspirations have been so wildly distorted in part by advertising's pervasiveness, in part by oligarchical politics, in part by materialism's supplanting traditional spiritual pursuits.

I have always been suspicious of tourist photos: They seem to reify life as it's being lived, deferring the experience to the point when the film is developed. But these photos of shopping sites compound things, are exponentiallly worse. These are reifying photos that dignify and celebrate earlier reifications, objectifying the moment in which people are already delighting in the symbols of their objectifiction.

Thursday, April 21, 2005


Knowing my belief that actual person-to-person communication is in its death throes in American society, Scott McLatchy directed me to an article in last Thursday's The New York Times about "cellphonies," people who pretend to be talking to someone on their cell phones to escape social interaction in the physical space they actually inhabit -- to communicate their unwillingness to communicate, if that can be called communication. "Some do it to impress those within earshot, others so they don't look lonely. Men talk to their handsets while they're checking out women. Women converse with the air to avert unwanted approaches by men. Camera phone shutterbugs fake being on the phone so they can get a good angle without looking suspicious. And certain cellular vigilantes fake for the benefit of real callers who are oblivious to the rules of common decency."

Never mind that this trend piece seems journalistically dubious, and the people interviewed as experts on the topic seem like a bunch of the writer's friends. I'm willing to believe this is really happening all over the place, because I'm convinced already that people prefer faking the act of communicating with someone to actual talking, listening and responding. Faking gives you all the benefits of communication -- seeming like you are concerned about others and have a rich and diverse crew of people hanging on your every word -- without any of the downside, i.e. actually listening to someone. Communication has become a prop, a status signifier, an end in itself to display your access to technology rather than a means of exchanging information. The fake cellphone conversation perfectly symbolizes this: You listen to yourself talk while other people watch you, spectators to your fine show of sophisticated urbanity.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Dictatorship of relativism

The selection of the new pope yesterday was high drama, as riveting and almost as important as the conference of Fed chairmen to decide the fate of interest rates. Perhaps the Motion Picture Acadamy could learn a thing or two from the Vatican to spruce up its award show: replace the comedians and the insipid celebrity presenters with robed septagenarians muttering in Latin, for instance. And more plumes of significantly colored smoke.

The choice of Ratzinger (aka "the Grand Inquisitor") can be taken as a nose thumbed at the southern hemisphere where the church is still actually growing and a signal that the Church's concern with third-world poverty and the injustices of the global economy will wane in favor of a more rigorous application to doctrinal niceties and upholding theological intransigence. But one should realize, as many have pointed out, that Benedict XVI's conservatism is not akin to free-market "conservatism" or neo-conservatism or any of the other Bush-republican heresies. He is a conservative of the old, old school, which finds capitalist dynamism to be the very enemy of spirituality and the priestly authority. Hence statements like this one to the convocation of cardinals before the vote, which may have earned him the papacy: "We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism, which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one's own ego and one's own desires." This mirrors Marx's famous statement in the Communist Manifesto, that capitalism makes "all that is solid melt into air," and reiterates a long-held anti-consumerist belief that capitalism exalts the individual and his deisres only to trivialize them and exploit them. Capitalism's cult of the individual, its exploitation of egocentricity to wrench profit from disintegrating communities, is one of the more powerful engines driving it. Making one's ego and desires the highest goal is basically the materialist motto of the American dream.

It's hard to understand how something that "does not recognize anything as for certain" can at the same time constitute a "dictatorship" -- dictators take the authority of their power as the essential, ineffable fact (or the "transcendental signified" to put it in the context of one of Benedict's targets, postmodern philosophy). I guess the idea is that individuals assert their own impulses as gods since no received authorities can be regarded as tenable or authentic or legitimate. So it will be interesting to see if the new pope takes the fight to the wellspring of relativism, which is not really the philosophers who most people find incomprehensible and thus inconsequential, but the atomization inherent to capitalism itself.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Purgative self-loathing

More on Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed, which chronicles the middle-class academic's sojourn as a unskilled ersatz welfare reformee, slumming in the jobs that those kicked off the welfare rolls could have expected to land to see how they will actually live, and how the poor in general actually survive. At one point, Ehrenreich works for a corporation that provides maid service to wealthy McMansion owners, people who have "outsourced" the domestic work necessary to maintain their bloated abodes. Viewing her own class from the perspective of the poor, she is enraged with a kind of self-contempt, despising all the traces of yuppie entitlement and all the empty, frivolous status markers such people collect: organic food, quasi-spritual management theory books, self-help manuals and encomiums to the status quo, the huge jacuzzis, the several bathrooms per occupant, the single-malt Scotches, the Martha Stewart-ish accoutrements. And she bristles at the petty signals of distrust and possessiveness and fear that the wealthy inevitably evince: videotaping their maids in action to make ure they don't steal, leaving carefully designed piles of dirt to see how thorough the maids are, to see if they are getting all they are paying for. Ehrenreich concludes that these people are in part paying for the spectacle of seeing poor people debase themselves, to see them on their hands and knees mopping, for instance. It's not about having a clean house -- Ehrenreich depicts how the maids actually spread around the filth in grim, disgusting detail. In this, it's not unlike paying to see women dance naked in a strip bar, where money is a proxy for power, and watching what other will do for what you take for granted (strip bars, like porn mags, have nothing to do with sex, really).

It's impossible not to feel self-righteously angry as you read this, despite the fact that these people she's denouncing likely resemble people in your own family, or yourself. What results is a curious purgative self-loathing which allows one to distance oneself from the crimes of his class, cleanse himself of all guilt for the inhumane treatment and exploitation that permits one to have the entitlements and privileges he takes for granted. This strikes me as the fundamental pleasure of reading Nickel and Dimed.

When I went to lunch today at The Pump, this "fitness restaurant" where a lot of morbidly health-conscious publishing types get take out from in New York, I became acutely conscious of the dynamic Ehrenreich describes, of the power dynamics between the classes, and how it plays out through things like fussiness in ordering service people around and making a big show of your preening self-maintenance, the sort of thing the poor who are serving you can't afford to dream of. I feel like a bit of a putz specifying my order, infantalizing the woman behind the counter, getting upset over little errors, as though it would be a absurd indignity if my chili wasn't poured over brown rice by the worker. Reading Ehrenreich's book assuages my conscience over these things, an appropriate penance, so I can feel like I am still on the right side of history.

Personal responsibility

I've been reading Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed, her account of life lived on terms and conditions of America's working poor. As you'd expect, the material conditions of existence are pretty grim for the poor, and Ehrenreich captures their tendencies to internalize the systemic inequities and assume responsibility for them. The poor are typically demonized for being lazy, shiftless, stupid, habitually irresponsible, and generally to blame for their class status. But Ehrenreich reveals the degree to which they too often personalize their fate and ignore the exploitation that is endemic to their lot in life. Part of their problem is assuming too much responsiblity, which may be why demogogues are always proclaiming they aren't taking enough of it -- personal responsibility, in addition to being the massive oversimplication of cause and effect that it typically is, is also a class weapon against the poor, a red herring to distract them from the organizational efforts necessary for their empowerment.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Social democracy in action

I'm sure there's lots of rotten things about Ikea that I don't know about. And it's annoying that when you buy things like comforters, they're sized Amway-style according to some Ikea-only standard that forces you to continue to buy only their products. But when I'm in an Ikea store I feel like I get a sense of the priority structure of a country like Sweden, and I have to admmit, it feels pretty good. Maybe other people are disturbed by the cultishness and the totalization at work, but I'm charmed by the apparent consideration for its customers the company appears to demonstrate -- not by flattering them backhandedly and pretending that "they are always right" or infantilizing them or insisting that they are more special than the other customers around them being told the same thing but by providing wide walkways and readily accessible bathrooms and access to child care and that sort of thing. It may be that the company's pitches insinate themselves more readily in this comfortable atmosphere, and I am just a sucker for what amounts to nothing more than perceptive design choices. There's definitely a different feeling you get as a shopper going in there as opposed to Seaman's. No high pressure sales, no distortion or artifical limitation on your information. There is no oppressive sense of being about to be exploited, no forboding sense of anxiety. Perhaps this is a taste of what Scandanavian social democracy is like, where the logic of profit taking is superceded by a larger sense of social justice and communal welfare, where some effort is made to allow you to maintain a sense of humanity even as you proceed through the economy, where the exchanges you make don't reify you.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Jackass and Subversion

The print ads for Jackass: The Movie feature a warning explaining that “the stunts in this movie were performed by professionals, so neither you nor your dumb buddies should attempt anything from this movie.” In light of the fact that children maimed and burned themselves imitating the MTV show’s stunts, it seems sensible enough that such a warning (maybe not such a glib one, perhaps) should preface the film. But what is it doing in the ads? Why have the producers of the film concluded that the warning embodies some integral part of the Jackass appeal?

The warning tells us the Jackasses in the film are “professionals”, but judging by what you see, you would think they were trying very hard to convince you that no “professionals” were involved in the making of it, either in front of or behind the camera. Because despite the warning, the performers in the film appear to encourage us to perceive them as ordinary people, with no apparent special talents at all. In fact their supposed lack of special talent structures many of the film’s gags: the apparent ineptitude of the jackasses is frequently contrasted with the competency of trained professionals. We see the chief Jackass, Johnny Knoxville, fight a world champion fighter, whose prowess is documented in clips where he is seen pummeling other pros (another one of the Jackasses fights a female kickboxing champion, as well). After we see skilled skateboarders perform a thirty foot rail grind down a huge concrete stairway, we watch them laugh as Knoxville, obviously unskilled and unpracticed, takes a header into the sidewalk attempting the same thing. We watch along with the alligator and shark experts as the Jackasses blunder foolishly with these animals. Throughout we are encouraged to celebrate and enjoy their willingness to proceed with their stunts despite an obvious lack of skill and understanding. They’re just some reckless regular guys, willing to sacrifice their bodies and their dignity for a few laughs from their friends.

The look of the movie reinforces this, reaffirming their amateur status with amateur film techniques. Jackass: The Movie bears no trace anywhere of Hollywood slickness. This seemed especially obvious after the preview we saw for the latest Steven Seagal film, which jams into two minutes nearly every conceptual and technical cliché of American action films (orchestrated fights, explosions, quick edits, scripted one-liners, exaggerated heroes and villains with contrived motives, etc.), and which, by the way, featured no warning despite containing lots of stunts, most of which looked dangerous and all of which were certainly performed by professionals. But nothing about Jackass: The Movie suggests you couldn’t have made it yourself with a digital video camera and an iMac. For much of the film, we see them in a host of humble, humdrum locations like suburban parental homes and shopping centers. Even the footage from Japan has a familiar quality, animated with a tourist’s sense of excitement at the novelty of the foreign. In its apparent lack of editing, its amateurish, ad hoc set-ups, its random structure, and its complete erosion of the boundary between cast and crew, the film seems designed to resemble a precocious home movie. The warning, finally, testifies to the fact that nothing stands in the way of you and your friends doing to yourselves the same preposterous things you have seen them doing. To be like Steven Seagal, you need training, a big budget, and the technical know-how of the Hollywood film industry. But to be like Johnny Knoxville, all you need is some Miller High Life, a high tolerance to pain, and some friends to goad you on. Indeed, the warning is necessary not because there is anything especially attractive about what they are doing, but because we might foolishly believe if we do those things someone might want to film us.

Jackass: The Movie plays a bit with this fantasy, in which we are heralded and celebrated for being humiliated and for being average. In this regard, Jackass is like the legion of reality shows on TV: the dating shows, the home movie shows, the physical challenge shows, and so on that populate syndicated television time slots. While its tempting to dismiss the appeal of these shows as schaudenfreude, or rubbernecking, that’s too reductive. It may be our profound identification with these people making fools of themselves that has viewers tuning in. After all, many Americans spend much of their working adult lives feeling humiliated and average, the consequence of a profit-driven economy that puts no priority on guaranteeing meaningful work. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that many Americans should be drawn to shows that suggests these traits qualify one for recognition, or at least America’s denatured and distorted version of recognition, celebrity. This is one of the culture industry’s most insidious myths about itself, that it’s enviable to be universally known, desirable to be known for contributing nothing in particular. In a society where we are under routine surveillance such an illusion might make the invasion of our privacy seem glamorous, even validating. But not everyone drawn to Jackass is a dupe of these myths. More significant things are missing from the lives of many Americans, things that Jackass , in its warning, promises implicitly to provide.

It’s strange that little of what goes on in these shows especially resembles “reality” – more often than not what is happening is preposterous and scarily unreal. What makes them “real” are the people, who, if they aren’t ordinary folks, are at least aspiring actors trying very hard to act ordinary. This makes them unlike The Real World, one of Jackass ’s MTV cousins, which relies heavily on manufactured narrative lines created through careful editing and manipulative musical cues to generate its appealing kind of fictitious reality. While this caters to and confirms some of the audience’s prejudices, it also subjects viewers to subtle ideological instruction. As these narratives give shape to amorphous raw experience, they also palpably falsify it, building into it prevailing assumptions of what constitutes conflict, and what resolves such conflicts satisfactorily. In this way, these shows are able to shore up the values of a consumer society. We learn from these shows that the important conflicts are all interpersonal and not political. And we get the comforting sense that our dissatisfaction could be cured through careful lifestyle choices, which manifest themselves as shopping decisions.

Jackass doesn’t play that game however. The film rejects all trace of narrative, and certainly conveys no comforting set of American values. Indeed, it assaults any kind of structure at every conceivable level. If the film can be said to have any organizing principle, it would be the repeated rejection of the concept of boundaries, which takes place in one form or another in nearly every single frame. One of the first sequences exemplifies their assault on the order of civic life. They rent a car and waive insurance, and then enter the car into a demolition derby. When they return the wreck, they deny responsibility for the damage, and refuse to pay. The producers probably settled with the renters off screen, but obviously we don’t see that. The film depicts only their refusal to accept the consequences of their actions, or acknowledge any of the rules that govern economic exchange. This same ploy surfaces in another sequence, where Knoxville, dressed as an old man, continues a shoplifting spree in the plain sight of an irate store owner, who keeps having to remove groceries from Knoxville’s sweatsuit. Generally the film targets for its pranks people like this, society’s low-level authority figures and stake holders: shop owners, security guards, parents, the very sort of authority mocked by the flippant warning. This is the sort of authority that blankets us in our everyday lives, never tyrannical enough to make us rebel, but constantly coercive enough to frustrate and stifle us. So while Jackass flatters us by suggesting that ordinary people like us deserve to be celebrities for degrading ourselves, it also voices our anger at the degradation, waging a kind of juvenile guerilla war on the system. That their attacks are clownish, harmless, and entirely impotent doesn’t matter; we still get the thrill of identifying with men who are refusing to cooperate, and who have trumped any kind of reprimand society could dish out.

But it’s not only the boundaries of social authority that are attacked. They transcend all the petty nuisances and conflicts of life (and allow us to fantasize about it) by plunging deeper, into more firmly rooted boundaries. The very physiological boundaries that govern our bodies’ limits are tested. Whether they are ingesting their own pee, or snorting wasabi, or inserting toy cars in their anus, or yoking ignited bottle rockets to their penises, they are always subverting the obvious function and integrity of the body’s orifices, challenging the notion of their limits, wallowing in their abjection. One need not be Bataille to recognize how these preoccupations recapitulate the challenge to social order without really threatening it. The warning lies right at the crux of this apparent contradiction: it acknowledges our temptation to reject the social order while it reinscribes that order in a genial, knowing fashion.

This paradox reveals its complete nature in what is the most characteristic of the Jackass strategies, their relentless testing of the human thresholds of pain in a variety of morbidly and masochistically ingenious ways. They inflict themselves with paper cuts, they get themselves shot, they get themselves beaten senseless, they mangle themselves in golf cart collisions, and on and on. That this makes for a visceral viewing experience is undeniable. Even as we cringe and start at what we reflexively know must hurt, and hurt badly, we can dream that the average man is indestructible. The very boundary between life and death, the boundary marked out by suffering, seems in these stray moments to be effaced, though the memory of the warning always serves to undercut this.

Finally, the urge to challenge any and all boundaries, no matter how unchangeable, finds its apotheosis in the repeated scenes of cast members hurtling themselves headlong into walls. Even though the sight of a man jumping off a trampoline directly into a ceiling fan and a wall initially prompts real involuntary laughter, it leaves a sad, lingering sense of desperation and futility. There’s a dimwitted heroism in how they choose to fight these losing battles with the imperviousness of walls, but there’s also the dismaying impression that all wars with society’s boundaries are meaningless, as well, doomed to failure. Because the war with walls and the war with petty authority have been conflated, they both seem absurd, good only for entertainment. The warning stands here to comfort us: it would be “dumb” of you and your buddies to challenge the social order, so let the “professional” Jackass es do it, so you can laugh at their hubris.

Although the boundaries which it contests only end up seeming more insurmountable, Jackass: The Movie services its audience’s sense of rebellion, while assuring them that real rebellion is both painful and useless. It allows us to entertain the idea of rebellion, diffusing that feeling without having to act upon it. In this it resembles periods of sanctioned lawlessness, like Mardi Gras or Halloween, where our anti-social energies are dispersed and cleansed. Perhaps this is why the film is best seen in a crowded theatre, where the infectiousness of cathartic emotion can have full play. But this also alerts us to the film’s most significant appeal, beyond its wish fulfillment or its catharsis. It is no accident that the warning is not only for you, but is for you and “your dumb buddies.” Because what Jackass : The Movie promises above all else is the feeling of camaraderie that is so clearly lacking in American life. One could argue that that enormous popularity of the film (as of this writing, it is the nation’s top grossing film, earning 22.7 million in its first weekend, the third-largest opening ever in the month of October) stems from this lack, and Jackass ’s ingenious attempts to fulfill it.

A sympathetic viewing of the film generates the sense that we belong to a club, we have been accepted into a real group of friends, and have been invited to share their experiences with them. The apparent authenticity of their mutual bonds is forged through the pain and humiliation they undergo for each other’s amusement. As in the film Fight Club, ritualized, self-directed violence takes on an oppositional significance, promising something true in the increasingly synthetic American landscape. Only through these extreme, drastic measures can a person break through the veil of unreality draped over everything by an increasingly intrusive media culture to real experience of oneself and other people. The gut reaction we feel when we watch one of the Jackass es bleed connects us to their group, assures us we belong, that we, too, are real. We have become so accustomed to our responses resulting from contrived media manipulations, that to respond to something truly dangerous and painful feels like liberation. The warning assures us our liberation has been authentic. This stuff really did hurt. And we have been fortunate enough to sneak in to the club through the theatre door, as it were; we get the feeling of belonging to the fraternity without needing to be hazed.

The plethora of reaction shots reinforces our sense of belonging. These shots, which punctuate every single stunt in the film, are essential to its effectiveness, and may be more important than the footage of the stunts themselves. Like laugh tracks, they cue our emotional responses, but they also disguise their coerciveness by making us feel included. We are not laughing at someone, but laughing with them. We are made to feel like we are insiders, united with the jackasses in a community independent from square, regular society. Much lip service is paid to the value of community in America, but little in our culture fosters it, as actual communities tend to cooperate, and thereby constrain commerce. Real communities are able to fashion their own entertainment without the guidance and direction from the culture industry. They can produce their own standards of value that are actually relevant to their own needs and interests, rather than the interests of multi-national conglomerates.

Jackass: The Movie seems to offer us this, a democratization of entertainment wherein one is invited to entertain oneself, crack oneself up the way the Jackasses clearly do. It is tempting to thus celebrate the film and its popularity as some kind of counter-cultural triumph, the sign of a new generation’s arrival. But it doesn’t provide what it promises. There is nothing subversive about it. Despite the casual appearance, and the welcoming tenor of the film, their community is not ours. What is real has been successfully displaced to the screen, and our lives sink further into colorless unreality. The warning, again, clarifies our situation. The community we see in the film is reserved for professionals, and we should not try to imitate it. Not only are we still watching rather than participating in life, we are learning that the cost of having a real life, with authentic experience and true community, is pain and humiliation far beyond what we already know. And we already know too much.

Though the warning in the ad hints at the existence of a subversive community, and seems to promise danger not to us but to the social order which can no longer comprehend and manipulate us, it actually confirms and gilds our exclusion from this fantasy. The powers that be may very well have reason to be scared at the thought of people rejecting mass entertainment and finding localized, organic ways to assimilate their experience, resolve their tensions, and enjoy themselves. But from Jackass: The Movie they have nothing to fear.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Uneasy riders

When, in the midst of unpacking boxes and arranging my bookshelves at my new apartment, I pulled out and set aside Diana Trilling's essay collection We Must March My Darlings, a book I bought impulsively one night at the Housing Works Book Cafe on Crosbie Street, it was with every intention of throwing it away -- the awful title, the truly bizarre picture of the elderly Trilling curling up girlishly on a lawn in front of some administrative buidling, these had me wondering why I ever coughed up the buck for the book in the first place. But instead of throwing it away, I ended up getting drawn in to an essay about the critical reception of the film Easy Rider that seemed especially astute, and did much to conjure a sense of what it must have been like to be confronting the climate of social change at the end of the 60s.

But what especially struck me was her defense of criticism as a moral practice. Appalled by the go-along get-along nature of the critics in the popular press, who failed to question the bogus purity of the film's heroes and the dubious implications of their passive victimhood, Trilling is moved to present this definition of critical practice: "It is the critic who is supposed to warn us not to be seduced by art and who is delegated to ask questions about the worth of codes being offered us. It is always a first task of the critic to make the implicit explicit." --Not because, she might have added, its a tour de force of self-congratulating exegetical power, not because it makes the critic seem smarter than the artist, but because art often masks its ideological intent or inclinations in order to be more direct, more moving, more persuasive, more affecting. The critic resist affect while acknowledging it, in order to explain what ideological tendencies that affect utimately serves. There is a tendency in a sensual culture like the one created by consumer capitalism to accept one's being moved as inherently good, since feeling is held to be uncorruptible, natural and authentic, automatically a reflection of inner moral rectitude -- this is an inheritance from the moral sense philosophers of the 18th century: Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Adam Smith. But the degree to which one is made to feel is no indication of the moral quality of art, even if it is an indicator of its technical prowess. As Trilling explains, "It is a piety of our art-loving culture that between moral and social intelligence and artistic intelligence there is an inevitable congruence." But in fact artistic craft often "give authority to . . . a false view of the moral and social life." Critics, when they are eager to "bring themselves into the full current of strenuous contemporaneity" by lauding what is being marketed as transgressive and cutting edge, cooperate with this moral fleecing, and miss opportunities to articulate the meaningful distinctions that once defined liberalism/radicalism as something more than a belief in an individualistic free-for-all.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Automated recommendations

I have defended the volunteer customer reviews on Web sites like lately as being a useful way to get unprofessionalized opinions on things, a way to tap into genuine enthusiasm in a commercial culture predicated on a ceaseless flow of hype. But the personalized recommendations that Amazon and Netflix produce for you by tracking everything you view on the site and correlating it with bundles of similar things other people looked at strike me as extremely sinister. Especially when they are accurate, when they produce for me a list of things I am actually interested in.

Why should I be bothered by this? Shouldn't I be thankful that Amazon has expedited my shopping experience and turned me on to some things I'll appreciate? Shouldn't I be glad that it has stepped in to provide the word of mouth I no longer really get from friends, because I don't really have all that much time to spend with friends? Shouldn't I be excited by all this access? Well, no. Cultural goods like these in and of themselves are generally less important to a person than the social network which they embody, the actual word of mouth among friends that makes them meaningful. Sure, some films, some records are better than others, possibly even from some objective point of view that argument can be made, but really what makes certain films and records personally significant is the kind of community it allows one to feel an allegiance to, a participation in. If that "community" consists solely of a mammoth associational database, it kind of demystifies the whole process, the whole myth of community through consumption. It exposes word of mouth to be not a social process but a sheer mathematical one, a probablity game. Maybe the destruction of that myth is worth celebrating; maybe those are phony communities to begin with -- but it's not like other forms of community are springing up to take their place.

What these personalized recommendations actually accomplish is depersonalization. They encourage you down the same cattle chute that any other person who has stumbled on to the same general interests may have been rushed down. This upsets any kind of organic flow to the discoveries one can make, obviating whatever sense of selfhood one's discovery of interesting things might previously have offered. Internet tools that plug you into the mass cosolidation and aggregation of data reveal devestatingly just how homogenized you always already are, just how frail the illusion that you have conceived of something unique really is. Again, it may be ultimately beneficial to have the myth of individual uniqueness shattered, but in the transitional phase, when models of self-esteem through extreme individuation still rule, this experience painful.

With the thrill of discovery automated and the social aspects of consumption mechanized, all that's left is speed of consumption, volume, amassing a miser-like collection of "cool stuff" for it's own sake. What makes it "cool" eventually becomes simply a matter of its novelty, as the sensual qualities of things so quickly gets used up in the climate of imperative convenience. And this is the quintessential recipe for the hedonic treadmill, where the more you acquire, the more you need.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005


Today is apparently Starbucks day in the Wall Street Journal, with front-page articles in both the A and B sections dealing with the company's travails. (Also of note, a quote from the one guy who's unhappy that junk-food manufacturers are marketing as aggressively toward children, George Carey, CEO of Just Kid Inc. Where else but the Journal? And what is this guy thinking? How do you get into a career like that?). In the A section, a report on how Starbucks honchos are fretting over their recent lobbying victories in Washington, and their recent participation in the pay-for-play legislation-writing system that makes American democracy so great, so responsive. Starbucks garnered themselves a huge tax break by schmoozing the Bill Frists of the world, but they wonder if this in keeping with their reputation. What reputation? Who (outside of the Wall Street Journal, who grouses over how it makes them less competitive) gives Starbucks any credit for the genuinely good things they do, like give part-time employees benefits? At least among the people I know, Starbucks is just another colonizing, homogenizing force, akin to Wal-Mart in its propensity to drive small businesses out of business. Maybe the people who get drive-through lattes in the morning are thinking to themselves how they patronize a "blue-state" business that practices fair trade. But I kind of doubt it. They probably are comfortable in the fact they are patronizing a quasi-luxury business, the same feeling they get in Pottery Barn.

The more familiar Starbucks image is burnished by the story in the B section, which details how Starbucks is trying to streamline its employees' movements ala the heyday of Taylorism and ergonomics, in order that they may produce blended frappacinos with more alacrity. In this story, employees are not the coddled health-benefited workforce of the 21st century, but are instead the automatons of generic labor straight out of the Victorian workhouse. Industrial engineers prefer to call this mechanization and coordination of anonymous labor "a balllet, a well-choreographed play" and I'm sure that makes the person whose sole job it is to make sure customers get thier lattes 20 seconds faster feel very important, indeed.

Sexualizing curiosity

It will be interesting to see if Andrea Dworkin's ideas about pornography and patriarchy will get fair play in the coverage of her death, or if they will be subject to the usual histrionic distortions. The misrepresentation of her thought as being anti-sex merely because it is anti-prostitution and anti-pornography seems to indicate the vested interest people, male and female, have in exploiting sexual power dynamics, and it shows how deeply entrenched is the tendency to want to commodify experience, even intimate sexual experience. The Internet changed everything about the consumption of pornography, it seems to me, making it a low-overhead international business that can generate profit marketing to most minute niches imaginable, encouraging in porn consumers a connoisseur's approach to viewing different ethnicities, different perversions, different permutations of sexual behavior simply because it is available. Viewing all these behavioral extremities has the potential to make Internet porn quests into a proxy for experience, sexualizing curiosity in general while simultaneously instrumentalizing sexuality, making into an expression of acquisitive power. This was Dworkin's essential insight, one that seems absolutely indisputable, no matter how "liberating" you might think it is to be a stripper: Pornography is always about power relations, usually about gender, but never about sexual pleasure. The "pleasure" men get from launching crumpled-up dollar billls at a naked woman's vagina in places like Al's Diamond Cabaret has nothing to do with sex. But it has a lot to do with feeling power, with feeling superiority to the person you can commission to degrade herself onstage for you, with feeling superior to a gender who may often seem to hold all the emotional cards. Male sexual desire tends to make them feel a bit powerless, out of control, subject to woman's whim, and pornography is a kind of political theater that restores their sense of mastery over women to them, establishing at the same time the homosocial truth that real emotional connections and intimacy occur between men, sanctified over the body of a degraded woman. (Read Eve Sedgwick's Between Men for the classic expression of that theory.)

Having had several friends who have worked in the sex industry, I developed a sense that the majority of women in it were deeply emotionally damaged in some way; typically they had bee either abused or raped and had come to understand sexuality as mere power in an especially raw and pitiless way. If you believe that is the core truth underlying all the nicey-nice coverup cant about "love" and "intimacy" and "sharing," then you are likely to see pornography as inevitable, and possibly believe that you should try to leverage your stake in it as a woman for as much as you can get -- you will be a "pro-porn" feminist, looking for ways to exploit your own body as a means to express social power. You will believe you are in control when you can induce the man to throw a crumpled up dollar at your vagina. You will see that expression of sexual behavior as "truer" than the kind where you try to share pleasure with a mate, whose trust will always threaten you because it will always seem like a lie and a facade. Sex that is not controlling will be uncomfortable, confusing, disturbing. Where as sex rationalized by the porn industry will seem logical, safe, explicable, managable.

Porn is streamlined sexuality, is sex made convenient. But as I was claiming about the family, sexuality may be authenticated by its difficulty, by the happy struggle it requires in order for it to sanctify deep human relationships. If you make sex convenient, you strip it of its essential quality, and it becomes something else. It becomes shopping, a way of demonstrating power that's ultimately measured in dollars. Sexual love has no measurement (measurement, as the NYT Magazine article I mentioned yesterday about media measurement and ratings seemed to suggest, is a way of controlling and pre-determining an experience), and that is what many people in a consumer society find so threateneing about it, and why they react so negatively to women like Dworkin who point that out.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Existential despair?

Are you troubled by this thing known as "existence"? Then this blog by my friend Utah Jack can help.

Wal-Mart's "union project"

The Friday Wall Street Journal had a front page article detailing the alleged shady dealings of former Wal-Mart vice chairman Thomas Coughlin, who forged invoices to have the company reimburse him for his $1,359 alligator boots and his $2,589 doghouse, among other things. Coughlin claims these phony receipts were cooked up not so that he could buy himself absurd luxury goods (he was making several million dollars a year as a Wal-Mart board member after all) but so that he could get secret reimbursement for the money he was spending out of his own pocket for Wal-Mart's "union project." In practice, this meant that Coughlin paid spies (either current union members, a felony action, or former union members, a civil infraction punishable by half million dollar fine) to attend union organization meetings so that information could be gathered and the right employees could be leaned on. Wal-Mart of course denies any such antiunion activity paid for off the books, asserting instead that Coughlin, a 25-year employee of the company who was a personal friend of Sam Walton and got his start in loss prevention, was a petty pathological thief.

E-meters and Purple People Eaters

Still reeling from the revelation in last week's New York Times Magazine that Beck is a scientologist and presumably believes in operating Thetans and consents to have his "e-meter" readings charted, I read this week's Magazine and discovered that thousands of people in Houston have agreed to attach a "portable people meter" (not to be confused with a purple people eater) to themselves to track their exposure to various forms of media throughout the course of their daily lives (which will all have an inaudible code embedded in them that the meter detects). This creepy form of total surveillance (for our own sake; to serve us consumers better, of course) is being introduced courtesy of Arbitron and Nielsen, the companies that tally media ratings, at the behest of advertisers, who are demanding better information about who sees what, and what this makes them do. Potentially, these total information awareness systems of complete monitoring will help the culture industry extend its reach, identifying those few moments of the day where one is unexposed to commercial messages, ferreting out those few nooks and crannies that have evaded the media's reach and obliterating them with ever more precisely targeted ads. Soon we will be allowed no time unmolested; every single waking moment will be mediated. And then they will go to work on insinuating ads into our dreams. For our own benefit of course. Because the customer is always king.

Perhaps these systems will finally end the idea that advertising is some beneficient industry that only wants to help people get what they want and people will finally accept that ads are an invasive force that attempts to shift the ideological atmosphere people think in before they even realize their intellectual atmosphere has been poisoned. These measurement tools are not out to allow media to be more responsive to some pre-existing desires of the consumer, but to detect more moments of vulnerablility in that consumer to implant desires, to reshape what previously existed as that person's "authentic wants," if such things even exist. The measurements are out to reproduce the individual as digital code, as data, so as to make him more easily manipulatable. And society at large conspires to reproduce that experience of being manipulated as pleasurable, as the very basis of pleasure (e.g. our responsiveness to sentimental films, our ability to be "moved"). We become the code and as we are decoded in the form of personally tailored ads -- we will see our mirror image in the ads aimed at us, a reflection of ourselves at our worst, with all our vulnerabilities and weaknesses highlighted, all our vanities inflamed, all our basest desires stoked.

As measurement systems become more total, it becomes more true that we only exist as citizens when we are being measured, only when we are exposing ourselves to media, when we are shopping, when we are creating data. To the extent that we withdraw from these measurable systems, we don't matter. We don't exist. And people prefer to exist, to be a part of society, even if that society seems flawed, as the alternative is to be antisocial, and to subject yourself to the intense negative scrutiny of the rest of your peers (to be thought of as a Unibomber or a utopian daydreamer or a hippie freak, et cetera). Hence people prefer invasive marketing, as it appears to integrate them into the hegemonic culture of shopping much more efficiently. People know they are supposed to be buying things to be happy, to fit in. But people quickly run out of things to buy. They need direction. Hence, the more invasive measuring and tracking devices allows to make personalized recommendations, will allow your TV to eventually display ads tailored especially for you -- doesn't that make you feel important? All that effort to get you to choose one car over another. The ads making personalized pitches help remedy the problem of needing to shop but having no clue what to buy.

These personalized ads also help destroy the last remnants of community, the demographic. With the focus on indviduating and personalizing, fewer people will have any shared cultural experiences to draw on, and this undermines the formation of communities that have any kind of local context. You might share a tightly bound bundle of interests with a few hundred people around the country, but you'll be dispersed throughout the landscape, and connected only via a niche cable channel. The idea that one should try to foster a shared identity with the people who are one's actual neighbors will become more and more alien. Geography will be overcome, and one's isolation and insecurity and vulnerability to ad culture will be complete. We will have to rely on the media to let us know what others think about us, because the actual social fabric will have been so disrutped, there will be no other means of accessing the data. As we become more and more indivuated, more and more catered to in all of our idiosyncracies, the cultural choices we make, our tastes, matter less and less even as they seem to become all important, hieroglyphic symbols sent out to all the other individuated people out there in an effort to share something.

Friday, April 08, 2005

The New Frontier

In an essay in The Commercialization of Intimate Life, Arlie Hochschild proposes that with the closing of the American West and the difficulty in sustaining the myth of being able to "light out for the territories" literally, a la Huck Finn, a new frontier in consumption opened to supplant the lost geographic one. "Instead of 'going somewhere' the individual 'buys something.' And buying something becomes a way of going somewhere." In some ways, this is another way of configuring the argument Sociologist Colin Campbell makes about the essential appeal of consumerism, its promise of a private, autonomous fantasy world of ever-replenishing desire to launch oneself into through a revolving cycle of daydreams about various branded lifestyle goods. The frontier myth was one of perpetual reinvention, of always being able to eschew your past and start fresh in unbounded territory -- the fantasy space of commodity-induced daydreams is this kind of territory; goods don't care who you are, or where you've been, or what you did in the last town. Goods allow you to imagine a new you, and ads supply fantasies in which no questions are asked, where donning the Che T-shirt invites no unpleasant questions about what kind of revolutionary consciousness you have, where the present is all that there is. Rather than go somewhere, you consume something to make yourself new; and remaking yourself daily is offered as a worthy goal, as a way of "finding yourself" via a perpetual search.

Hochschild combines it though with some other points about the family, about new frontiers in advertising and marketing that promise to provide the intimacy of family life that has been systemaically eroded by capitalism, and its expectations about work and its tendency to commodify everything. She suggests that we consume to try to get to some idealized notion of a perfect family life, with perfect relationships with spouses or children. The promises is that of a "life free from ambivalence" -- which is what Huck Finn is after, after all -- a life where compromise (in the form of being civilized, in Huck's case) is totally unnecessary. But in pursuing commercial solutions to intimate problems, one admits a new form of ambivalence, a willingness to accept only those solutions one can afford in exchange for their being streamlined into simple economic exchanges. This in turn demystifies the intimate life, removes its aura, destroys its power to be a "haven in a heartless world," a refuge from capitalism's time pressures, vulgarization, exploitation, and reification. In looking for "new places to go" in shopping, we have pushed the frontier of what can be commodified has pushed deep into our intimate lives, leaving no place where a core of emotions unmanipulated by the market can exist, can serve as the comparison point for authenticity or for "true happiness" or "true identity."

Capitalism creates teh need for a haven from exploitation, but it also encourages an individualism that undermines such havens -- Initially it was community-based, then it was family-based, now it seems to based in a dyad, either with a parent, a child or a spouse. It shrinks as we try to make the haven more efficient, more conducive to our needs with less demand of sacrifice, as market ideology has taught us is the clearest expression of what's best -- maximum utility at the margin. But in the drive to make intimate life efficient, we destroy what makes it imtimate, the inefficiencies that represent what it means to be intimate -- the tolerance, the love of mistakes, the patience required to understand and respect other people, the "wasteful" sacrifices of time and energy.

Intimacy is defined by ineffiency -- is that a consequence of capitalism, or has it always been so?

Thursday, April 07, 2005

An etiology of the hipster

The instinctive revulsion kids feel towards suburbia--its materialism, its intellectual poverty, its cabin-fever cloisteredness, its reactionary politics, its complacency and xenophobia--is inevitably coopted by the same capitalist value system that produced these dreary phenomena to produce hipsterism, a homogenized and codified form of superficial reaction to a stultifying life of empty entitlement. This entitlement derives not merely from economic privilege but from the insistent right to be entertained that suburban kids instictively feel, a product of having watched too much flattering media that announces constantly that it is made just for them and sycophantically pleads for their appproval. They will usually develop apolitical aesthetics (politics is "beneath them" because it will ultimately come around to the source of their entitlement, and their ultimate guilt) preoccupied with surface charms and "universal" themes of self-realization, as though that can occur in a socio-political vacuum. When it does, the hipster is what is produced.

Hipsterism is a quaint, neutered form of rebellion that allows post-teens to fret endlessly about how they come across, worry constantly about their indviduality quotient, preparing them for a successful life as a middle manager or a functionary in one of the glamor industries, where such self-involvement is de rigeur. Hipsters are a plague of locusts on any scene in which young people are trying to figure out new approaches to life; they swarm in when word gets out and obliterate those new approaches, turning neighborhood sidewalks into catwalk preening contests, ushering in trendy bars and restaurants, encouraging the sense that one is perpetually a tourist within the hallowed aura of one's own lifestyle. They imagine themselves fellow travelers but they are more like a bomb squad, defusing revolutionary potential and reestablishing the status quo motives of the pursuit of fashionable positional goods, status in the form of cultural knowledge, and a vaunted sense of one's uniqueness that always needs blostering from serially acquired identity goods, the T-shirts and DVDs and such that remind you who you are. Hipsters, though frequently sneered at as ironic, are never actually ironic. Ironic is not synonymous with hyper self-awareness. Irony requires a detatchment, a negative capability, a lofty persepctive. The Wall Street Journal exhibits far more irony than does The Village Voice.

Hipsters are typically nostalgic for childhood, which is thee idyllic time when total self-involvement is not marred by the more pernicious aspects of intense self-consciousness, when no critical consciousness yet exists to question or resist the way the media flatters and seduces. So they pursue the tchotchkes and retro junk of their youth, from the time when they were already consumers against their will but not savvy enough to have an opinion about it. The trauma of discovering you're already a consumer, that your consciousness was limned by consumerism, is such that it muust be obsessively repeated, and the hipsters bray for those same things they cried for when they were six.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Philistine digression about Cy Twombly

I know I'm not alone in thinking that Cy Twombly's infantile crayon doodles are a puerile fraud the art world perpetrates on itself and culture at large. They are at once imbecile and impossibly pretentious, with their labored allusions to Ancient Greece and Rome and Don Quixote and so on, rendered in his eminently imitable spastic misbehaving child style. I suppose his defenders praise him for being able to reach pre-symbolic modes of creation, and to capture some sort of primal artistic urge, but these are probably the same sort of critics who praise Pollock's "transgressive" use of his own piss and shit in paintings, as though that was some sort of brilliant message.

Lee Siegal is usually an interesting critic to read, but this piece on Slate seems pretty half-hearted. The best Siegel can do is muster a claim that doodling is some pure form of countercultural expression that Victorian aesthete Walter Pater would endorse (he wouldn't) and to assert that Twombly can only be understood as a gay artist, which seems both patronizing and false. Twombly seems inspired by the unself-conscious creations of children and the insane and wants to parasiticallly co-opt such innocuous forms of expression for profit, making such thoughtless bursts of non-artistic creativity occasions for ponderous art-critic pontification. In Siegal's hands, Twombly becomes one of those artists we are supposed to celebrate for his hard-earned meaninglessness, his transcending ideas altogether. I've never understood why this is supposed to be a good thing, or how this makes Twombly any more artistically significant than other vacant productions like a Mariah Carey album or an Adam Sandler movie, both of which are laborious efforts that yield no ideas. About Twombly's painting called "Malevich," after the Russian artist, Siegal writes, "Malevich the theoretician, imprisoned in his ideas about art and freedom, is reborn as a gesture liberated from ideas." I suppose having your legacy become a gesture rather than a body of ideas is supposed to be a good thing, more "true" because more spontaneous. But really, one's memory is obliterated if reduced to a gesture, it becomes an instinct, a habit, something denied moments of reflection. We think and remember in terms of ideas, not in terms of gestures, which are reserved for action in the present moment. Abstract Expressionist painting, in wanting to celebrate thoughtless action, carries water for consumer culture which also champions (preys on) unreflective impulseiveness and anti-intellectualism. In their desperate attempts to convey vitality, they reify the traces of life itself and seem to snuff it out completely, leaving no motions of the human spirit outside the grip of commodities.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Efficient families

Family is the enemy of efficiency. There is nothing particularly convenient about child care or housework. And to foster a sense of family takes patience, open-ended committment to doing nothing in particular, being mindful and respectful of each member's different rhythms. It takes a lot of time to build a core sense of family identity; this can't be rushed, and no commodities offer a legitimate shortcut to this. The processes of intimacy are simply inefficient. There's no way around it; in fact, we may understand and recognize intimacy through noticing our sudden willingness to be inefficient.

But as workers absorb the values of their workplace, begin to cherish efficiency and convenience as ends in and of themsevels, they start to hate their families and their home as a source of ceaselesss hassle and whining, and see the workplace as a relative haven. Sociologist Arlie Russel Hochschild discusses this at length in The Commercialization of Intimate Life. The workplace suddenly seems to have room for joking and reassuring and praising that the home, squeezed for time like never before by two-job households and whatnot, has no room for. Thus they work longer hours, to avoid having to be at home, which, of course, only exacerbates the time squeeze on the family. And they look for shortcuts, ways to replace the time needed for intimacy with goods. This too perpetuates the sense that the family is harder work than work is. Writes Hochschild:
"Consumerism acts to maintain the emotional reversal of work and family. Exposed to a continual bombardment of advertisments though a daily average of three hours of television (half of all their leisure time), workers are persuaded to 'need' more things. To buy hat they now need, they need money. To earn money, they work longer hours. Being away from home so many hours, they make up for their absence at home with gifts that cost money. They materialize love. And so the cycle continues."

Consumerism thus exacerbates the problem it is supposed to cure: Goods cannot provide the happiness that comes from relationships, they can only serve to replace those relationships, or mediate them so as to reduce them to merely instrumental exchanges -- to make them efficient. And capitalism, voraciously sucking up all prodcutive energy in to its profit machine, leaves no energy behind for the production of family space, family life. No one has the time to make real families, so they end rapidly in divorce. Hence, as Hochschild points out, many people have more spouses then they ahve jobs over their lives, amking family the source of upheaval and insecurity while the workplace remains stable and comforting. Never mind that the workplace initiates the pressures that ultimately blow apart families.

The reactionary traditionalism of American family-valuies advocates stems from a wish to reverse this by freezing time at the point before which women were sucked in to capitalism and their labor became doubly exploited. But by allying themselves with the plutoratic right, they have assured themselves of continual failure and more outrage as families will continue to split apart, exploded by economic pressures unameliorated by any kind of pro-family national labor policy.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Bourdieu's "Forms of Capital"

Though his prose (in translation anyway) is turgid, jargon-laden and very nearly unreadable, Bourdieu is worth reading for his analysis of the different forms capital takes in a capitalist society beyond cold hard cash -- namely, social capital, the network of connections a person has, and cultural capital, the various status goods one either possesses or knows how to use and the number of academic degrees one has. Bourdieu's goal is not to economize everything, but to emphasize how different forms of social leverage are convertible into each other -- into money if the final analysis demands it, but into status or power or automony or class or whatever particular form of distinction you're interested in. His analysis reminds us the various subtle ways discrimination is reproduced without recourse to explicit economic injustices, which are very obvious and can be eaily documented. Systemic inequality is more insidious than that largely because it plays out in these non-monetary forms of capital, forms that are difficult to translate into money without the background to know how the translation works (having the old-boy's network and knowing how to conduct yourself within it, having the ability to appreciate contemporary art to even feel comfortable enough to buy it, and thereby impress people with it; knowing who to contact to get your articles published with a complete sense of entitlement -- with social and cultural capital it would never occur to you that your every thought wasn't publishable). These are the cues that preserve the perogatives of the already powerful while barring opportunity to the lower classes. These non-monetary forms of capital keep society's invisible walls up while shielding them from undue attention.

This relates to Bourdieu's concept of the habitus, the virtually unconscious ways we betray our class, the way we carry ourselves that ultimately circumscribes our social experience unless we work hard to change it. Of course, most people don't find it in their best interests to change it -- the habitus is what allows one to see one's own prejudicial view of the world as perfectly natural and superior, what allows the Gammas to enjoy being Gammas as much as Alphas enjoy being Alphas, to put it in Brave New World terms, and preserve social harmony. The habitus is what allows some people to recognize cultural capital as a kind of social leverage, and others to simply be in awe of it. It is what allows artists and intellectuals to have no real income to speak of yet have an enormous sense of self-confidence and social power. The habitus is what allows some people to use their education to get good meaningful jobs, while others never really figure out what college was for.

One of Bourdieu's more devestating points seems to me his view of educational systems in general, which exist not to level the playing field and promote meritocracy, but to provide a phoney meritocratic veneer to a patently unfair society that continues to reproduce itself through its old-boy networks and inarticulable cultural know-how. Skeptical about this? Just check the resume of the current American president.

The Hawthorne effect

One of the more interesting events in the annals of management psychology involves a serious of studies performed in the late 1920s and early 1930s in a GE plant in Chicago. The workers were polled on various preferences, and working conditions were altered systematically to see what effects there would be on productivity. It turns out that with every variable studied -- pay, shop-floor temperature, length of coffee breaks, etc. -- productivity went up no matter the direction the variable was altered. The only thing that seemed to matter for productivity was the fact that the workers knew they were being studied.

One way to interpret thisis that workers just want to be cared about, that they are like infant children flattered by any kind of attention, and unable, ultimately, to tell the difference between good and bad attention. This seems to be how management theorists have interpreted it, and it leads to all sorts of inadvertant worker punishments like meetings where guys in suits explain to workers how they've tinkered with the corporate mission statement, or special breakfasts with management, where workers are forced to come in early and eat stale bagelettes and be told how much they are appreciated. Management loves this because it makes their self-interested gestures of largesse seem meaningful, signs that they really care, instead of being simply the short-sighted tokens that they really are. Management would love it if they could make up for deficits in fair wage with a surfeit of niddling attention; then they could feel there was something generous about their surveillance. Because that seems the more likely significance of the Hawthorne effect -- when workers know they are being "studied" -- that is, watched -- they are likely to be more productive. Nicey-nice meetings and such are displays of the corporation's soft power, allowing them to monitor without seeming to threaten.

The same results also prove, at Braverman pointed out in Labor and Monopoly Capital, that work performance and pre-existing worker skills aren't necessarily correlated -- workers will adjust their performance in response to the class antagonisms at work in the factory. That is, workers should always regard the demands of management with skepticism, and management's demands are only carried through when there is a palpable threat behind them. This should be remembered anytime Wal-Mart workers "vote" to not form a union.

Friday, April 01, 2005

The Two Totalitarianisms

Where I grew up, there's this bunch of guys we've always called the Freddies. One of them is named Fred, and the others all seem to do what Fred does, so they're just the Freddies. For a long time, the main claim to notoriety for the Freddies was an incident that took place in a Pizza Hut parking lot, where one of the Freddies intimidated someone who had insulted his car or something by pulling a gun on him. But recently, word is that the Freddies have gone Commie. Apparently the Freddies have taken to listening to the Internationale on the stereo in their trucks, to spouting Marxist slogans, and wearing T-shirts that read CCCP or are emblazoned with the sickle and hammer. But unfortunately they aren't doing anything useful with their communism; they're not unionizing Wal-Marts or exposing media bias or even protesting Bush or Santorum's idiotic shenanigans with Social Security. Apparently, they are into Soviet kitsch because it is the current cutting edge in oppositional chic, the emblems to brandish to show a nihilistic contempt for the society in which you live, the token of your own anti-social outrageousness, much what Nazi paraphenalia used to be.

This is symptomatic of the widespread fallacy that equates Nazism with Bolshevism, in an apparent attempt to disccredit all Marxist aims. An article from today's Journal plays on this when it gratuitously mentions in an article about the National Bolshevik party in Russia the similarities betweeen its flag and the Nazi flag. In this article from the LRB Zizek does a good job explaining why Stalinism and Nazism must be considered as distinct without apologizing for the barbarism of the Soviet regime. His key point is this: "Class antagonism, unlike racial difference and conflict, is absolutely inherent to and constitutive of the social field; fascism displaces this essential antagonism." In other words, Nazism tries to nullify real class conflict by trumping up phoney racial differences and using these to explain society's inequities. Bolshevism correctly identified the source of social problems but pursued a tragically wrong course in trying to remedy it. Nazism maufactured power out of racism and xenophobia.


As the pressure to individuate and isolate oneself has intensfied over the centuries of capitalism's hegemony in the West, as individualism (and the supposed convenience of eschewing social interaction) has taken its place as the consumer society's chief value, as pan-optic societal institutions have increasingly atomized people to better subject them to its codes, there has developed a shadow desire to maintain connections to other people, to ease the burden of isolation.

This is usually played out through entertainment consumption. Most entertainment hinges on vicarious identification, which is the refied form of a personal relation with another person. Vicariousness becomes a way to seem as though you are having a relationship with someone while at the same time allowing that relationship to be efficient, convienient, ends-oriented, and so on. It allows the relationship to function as a commodity. Eventually the vicarious relation we learn from entertainment comes to govern our actual realtions to people, so we sympathize with people while remaining aloof, a spectator of our own relationships.