Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Sennett on the challenges facing neoliberal subject

Neoliberalism demands a certain kind of subject able to tolerate precarity, evince flexibility, revise traditions on the fly and so on. This subject needs to inhabit postmodernity without remorse or much regret, without breaking down so much that he can't work efficiently. The subject needs to be more or less self-motivated to produce, to regard himself as a creative personal brand that generates economic value through the practices of everyday life as well as whatever wage work he is lucky enough to secure.

In The Culture of the New Capitalism, Richard Sennett examines what kind of individual could thrive in this environment. (my bolding)

Only a certain kind of human being can prosper
in unstable, fragmentary social conditions. This ideal
man or woman has to address three challenges.

The first concerns time: how to manage short-term
relationships, and oneself, while migrating from
task to task, job to job, place to place. If institutions no
longer provide a long-term frame, the individual may
have to improvise his or her life-narrative, or even do
without any sustained sense of self.

The second challenge concerns talent: how to develop
new skills, how to mine potential abilities, as reality’s
demands shift. Practically, in the modern economy,
the shelf life of many skills is short; in technology
and the sciences, as in advanced forms of manufacturing,
workers now need to retrain on average every eight
to twelve years. Talent is also a matter of culture. The
emerging social order militates against the ideal of
craftsmanship, that is, learning to do just one thing
really well;
such commitment can often prove economically
destructive. In place of craftsmanship, modern
culture advances an idea of meritocracy which celebrates
potential ability rather than past achievement.

The third challenge follows from this. It concerns
surrender; that is, how to let go of the past. The head of
a dynamic company recently asserted that no one owns
their place in her organization, that past service in particular
earns no employee a guaranteed place. How
could one respond to that assertion positively? A peculiar
trait of personality is needed to do so, one which
discounts the experiences a human being has already
had. This trait of personality resembles more the consumer
ever avid for new things, discarding old if perfectly
serviceable goods, rather than the owner who
jealousy guards what he or she already possesses.
Basically the ideal neoliberal subject is driven by the quest for novelty, interprets its innovative consumption experiences as a kind of self-production and the source of identity (which is no longer derived from meaningful work or craft skills). That identity is never anchored in tradition or community or even continuity of life experience because it must always be revised to accommodate new experiences and pursuits. It must be frequently updated.

That is where social media comes into play. Social media serves to help shape neoliberal subjectivity along these lines and support it once it is established. It helps establish the personal brand model of the self and offers a broadcast channel for making consumption into meaning-making production (immaterial labor). And it offers a way to manage the plenitude that threatens to overwhelm people, sustaining the balance of productive curiosity and drowning in meaningless, futile choices. The social-network environment allows meaningless choice to become meaningful because concretely shared and tallied, and allows for accelerated consumption to seem not useless if not damaging to personal identity (not mastering anything for real) but extra efficient, as social-media sharing is a mode of processing that feels like mastery. This leads to more acts of communication, more data for media companies to attempt to monetize.

And in general, social media supports the ideal of convenience over difficulty, making dilettantism normative and making social behavior subject to time-shifting, that is, to be done alone at one's convenience rather than in periods of direct reciprocity and co-presence. Social media attempts to streamline affective labor, carework, which neoliberalism and neoliberal states by and large refuse to pay for.

I've just started reading the book, so I'll probably follow up with more posts, but this seems like a useful way to frame my subject -- how social media supports the neoliberal/post-Fordist subject faced with expectations of precarity and flexibility and novelty and co-creation and so on. Neoliberalism's flexibility and precarity => personal branding (mandatory self-reliance, productivity of everyday life and sociality) => social media (medium for personal brand, expediting accelerated consumption to extend identity and co-creation and generate marketing data for pigeonholing purposes). We work on our identities and mistake this for a politics and for entrepreneurship.

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