Sunday, November 01, 2009

More on "Consumer Emancipation"

I have posts at Generation Bubble and PopMatters about impersonal markets allowing us to escape the tyranny of identity, whereas Web 2.0-type hyper-personalization gestures work against that in the name of regenerating a lost sense of social relations. All this does is create a new form of commercialized social relations, extending consumerist practices (shed of market-based restrictions) into more intimate spheres. And it brings back the hierarchies that originally constituted social capital with renewed force.

Reading an article by Robert Kozinets about Burning Man ("Can Consumers Escape the Market? Emancipatory Illuminations from Burning Man") galvanized a lot of my thinking on this subject. I have a few points to add in response to some ideas he raises in the Discussion section of his article.

1. Kozinets writes:
Burning Man provides a powerful example that blends the often volatile and individualistic self-expressive urge with a communal ethos. The key is in the casting of self-expression as a communal gift. Self-expression thus becomes a means to connect one's most heartfelt thoughts and feelings to other people.
I think that the self-expressive urge and the communal ethos don't blend but remain in tension. One must invent a community, an adoring audience, in order to imagine that self-expression is a gift. and things like Facebook serve to make that fantasy easier to sustain, by making positive feedback thoughtlessly implementable. It costs nothing to seem as though you are taking in someone else's updates, etc., as gifts and not nuisances, because the mediating role of Facebook makes it easy to consume and process those "shared" "gifts." Outside the mediating system of Facebook, the reality of having the gift of our self-expression rejected outright or ridiculed grows much greater. The sharing begins to seem more a violation of social norms of courtesy. Our identity project seems less whimsical and more intrusive, demanding. Outside Facebook, we would seem like we are wheedling for attention. So we take refuge in Facebook, as Kozinets suggests Burning Man serves as a refuge (fantasy space) where one does self-fashioning as a favor to the world. And in Facebook, our "gifts" can be harvested for marketing purposes by taking our proffered information and collating it with our networks and deriving sellable demographic data.

2. Kozinets: "The most important rules of conduct fostering Burning Man's emancipatory potential are actually not its No Vending injunction but its interconnected No Spectators and Radical Self-Expression rules."

I think that all three are interconnected. The ordinary impersonal markets with cash exchanges that we are accustomed to in capitalist society are suspended to force participants to sell their own "radical self-expression" instead as a self-conscious product, for approval and attention and status and a stable position in an emerging social hierarchy. This is allowing identity-driven consumerism to supplant capitalist consumption. In other words, consumerism (in the theory I am trying to elaborate here) is not a product of markets but an independent ethos. It sprang from the need to consumer a mass produced surplus but has since become autonomous and established itself as the primary discourse for generating narratives of the self. The market, on the other hand, is an atavistic structure that works against the sort of self consumerism exalts -- markets prefer anonymous subjects engaging in exchanges ruled entirely by rationality rather than the vagaries of social relations and social/cultural capital.

3. Kozinets: "I suggest the term hypercommunity to distinguish from these other communal phenomena the phenomenon of a well-organized short-lived but caring and sharing community whose explicit attraction to participants is its promise of an intense but temporary community experience."
The intensity and the impermanence are linked (as Kozinets goes on to note); social networks seize upon the mechanisms Burning Man evinces for creating a community built on coercive sharing, but tosses out the impermanence that excuses the coercion. It becomes an unbounded injunction to confess everything in order to be.

4. Kozinets:
Whether in culture-capital-laden appeals to authentic communities that exist outside of the market or to so-called radical self-expression that fits within subcultural and communal norms, the urge to differentiate from other consumers drives participation at Burning Man and does not release them from the grip of the market's sign game and social logics.
Precisely. Only the sign game and social logics are cut free from markets by events like Burning Man, setting the stage for the more complete domination of society by those logics. Kozinets calls it "youtopia" and wants us to believe that it is a positive thing, a way out of the isolation, atomization, and alienation that consumer capitalism has brought on rather than its perfection.

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