Monthly Archives: October 2004

Modernist moments

In The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, Daniel Bell bases a great deal of his argument on the preposterous claim that modernism was triumphant and hegemonic in the late 20th century and falsely maintained that it was an adversarial stance (much the way social conservatives like Bell maintain a defensive stance today, despite the 2000 Bush coup, and the primacy of their noxious agenda everywhere). In some ways this resembles Thomas Frank’s co-optation argument in The Conquest of Cool. The rebellious pose was never really a threat to the system, but was the system itself, in its most flattering self-regard. But Frank’s target is the smug hipster who works as adman, not the marginalized artist like, say, Barnett Newman, who may have been praised to the skies by elitist critics but whose vision of art had about one millionth the impact The Beatles, for example, had on average Americans. Modernism was a preoccupation for elites, and the battles over its significance took place on college campuses and in unread journals, and it crept into the mainstream only to be dismissed as the prattle of the idle. Meanwhile, the mass culture that developed hand-in-hand with the apparatuses for making and distributing consumer goods and which reflects the implicit values of those apparatuses perfectly (get more, get it now!) insinuated itself everywhere through new media forms that modernism neglected. (Are there modernist web sites? Modernist rock bands?)

Bell wants to call the self-serving individualism a product of a pernicious modernist attitude that’s then imported into late capitalism rather than acknowledge that it’s a consequence of consumerism itself. The loss of anchoring values that Bell blames modernism for is actually the consequence of commodfication, which relativizes everything through the medium of exchange value. There was no council of self-appointed modernists infusing our culture with their irreligious nihilism, progenitors of the alleged Hollywood cultural elites that Bush-supporting bigots like to denounce. Putting self over community is the natural extension of the economic policies that reward selfishness and profit and recognize no other motives, and the self as ultimate arbiter leads inevitably to the kind of “relativism” that makes such things as gay marriage acceptable to a growing majority. If consumer capitalism is in any way liberating, though, it is through this process, promoting tolerance as the necessary corollary to the enshrined, unquestioned freedom of choice.

Bell insists on terming “the organization of social and aesthetic responses in terms of novelty, sensation, simultaneity, and impact” modernity instead of capitalism itself — capitalism thrives on those social conditions, creating what Bell calls “modernity.” The real problem lies in Bell using a label that others apply much differently in order to tar those other things with the same brush. He accuses modernism of cultivaing an emotional indulgence in the moment, but much modernism sought instead to dramatize alienation, to prohibit that sort of identification, the vicarious emotionality that characterizes popular culture, and has always served as the means of keeping pop culture apolitical, allowing it to serve its function of siphoning off general social discontent. The immediacy of modernist art should not be confused with a loss of aesthetic distance, which is a mark of sentimental art, art usually sympathetic with the status quo and playing on emotions, values and attitudes it can count on already being present in its audience. Modernist art, for better or for worse, tried to cultivate new emotions, vlaues and attitudes — this is why Bell condemns it universally. But these new attitudes were not the ones that caught on with the general public; the new attitudes that swept the public were those novelties brought on by technological innovations, which allowed admen to exploit the desire for convenience, increasingly defined as a freedom from the nuisance of other people. This brings on the decay in community that Bell decries, not modernism or irreligion. America has never been more religious — look at the praying president — but it is a self-centered religion, by and large, defined by the notion of having a personal, unmediated relation to God or Jesus, who is imagined to be “the kind of guy you could have a beer with.”


Tyranny of criteria

It may be that people want there to be a class of people who are famous for absolutely no reason — the Paris Hilton phenomenon. If a person is famous for some specific accomplishment, then to appreciate that person requires some understanding of the criteria. You have to understand something about music, or at least pretend to, to be interested in the doings of a person famous for music. But to be interested in something famous for no reason requires no criteria, no prior knowledge or understanding — instead it requires a suspension of such things, a willingness to put aside questions of merit and be fascinated for no good rational reason at all. So the Paris Hiltons of the world offer an escape from technocratic reason, rationality and calculation perhaps? Not for those who profit by them, but perhaps for those who are just inexplicably fascinated.

The ability to do something for no reason at all is extremely attractive in our society, the ultimate luxury, which naturally attaches to the extremely wealthy — Paris Hilton — who simply manifest that capacity, the ability to exist beyond criteria, beyond evaluation, to simply exist at the level of pure impulse. If our work and leisure time are subject to equally rationalized calculation, it’s only natural that our dreams would be haunted by these visions of unwarranted, uncalculable celebrity; if we are oppressed by merit and injustice, we would naturally seek escape in something with no merit before whom the logic of justice withers.

In a society over saturated with manipulative symbols, it must come as a relief to become preoccupied with one that seems filled to bursting with its own emptiness, with its own magnificient insignificance.

Pure celebrity, celebrity for no reason, allows for pure fascination, fascination with no criteria and no limits and no expectations or explanations. This is pure freedom, pure the way a page is blank.

The Barnum effect

This morning I’ve been reading Thomas Hine’s Populuxe, a fairly breezy account of ersatz-futuristic design in the 50s and early 60s and what it signified — planned obsolescence, manipulative advertising, the media supplanting the community as dispenser of trusted advice, etc. And it reminded me of something that always interested me when I was studying 18th and 19th century novels, particularly when Hine asserts that “People enjoy being fooled creatively,” by way of explaining the enduring appeal of blatently manipulative and misleading advertising. Of course early novels, with their attendant expectation that we suspend disbelief in various ways, leverage the same desire for being fooled creatively, tricking us into being moved emotionally by fictitious scenarios or counterfactual histories. And films capitalize even moreso on the principles; CGI has made them elaborate trompe l’oeils, manipulating the evidence our senses provide in order to please us with the cognitive dissonance. This could be called the Barnum effect, after PT Barnum, who was one of the first to systematically exploit the average person’s desire to be tricked. Only now instead of buying tickets to a freak show to be fooled, we buy crappy consumer goods that fail to deliver the magic they fooled us into thinking they embodied and enabled. QVC, the Home Shopping Network, the GEM superstore: these are the Barnum freakshow modernized. We enjoy the fantasy that the goods arouse, and then we enjoy the ingenuity by which we were led to indulge the fantasy, after the reality of the good bursts it.

Robert Lane, in his study of sources of happiness under market democracy, tends always to count cognitive dissonance as a kind of displeasing ambivalence, a stressful confusion. But it can also be an exciting invitation to suspend rationality and to let go of the source of stress — the rational, realistic appraisal of one’s circumstances — and indulge in an unreal world where irrationality is harmless fun, or proof of the triumphantly creative human spirit, or some such nonsense. So we enjoy knowing ads are lying to us even as we begin to believe their lies. We respect them for trying to fool us, and we enjoy that in being fooled we enter a fantastic world of possibility more fulfilling than our own. I think this is the essence of current TV ads’ assault on logic (‘Coors Light is the coldest tasting beer’). It’s also a sad comment on how the real world of consumer capitalism so consistently lets us down, that we need these ad induced fantasies as compensation. This is the Excederin effect — once you start taking it to cure headaches, you no longer can tell that Excederin actually contributes to the headaches it purports to cure, and your hopeless dependance on false solution spirals.

Consumer magazines, similarly, are machines for manufacturing cognitive dissonance, it promulgating mixed messages. We enjoy the jumbled fantasies they inspire even as their incoherence makes us anxious — anxious of missing out or of not fitting in or of not really understanding what’s going on a là Mr. Jones — and that anxiety leads us to keep reading, more and more and more.

Narrate yourself

The most recent issue of the TLS features an essay by Galen Strawson arguing against the notion that one must be able to transform the events of one’s life into a story in order to live a meaningful, fulfilling life. Strawson bases his case in intellectualized bluster and raw unsupported assertion, and he provides himself cover by accusing the “narrativists” of doing the same, generalizing from their own personal experience as he does to make his case. This seems to reduce ethical questions to a matter of opinion, or a relativist matter of what one personally “feels” to be true. Nevertheless, it does raise an interesting possibility, that by rejecting self-narrativity, one can eschew the kind of self-fashioning that consumerism relies upon and exploits.

Modern commodities have very little in the way of pure utility, that is, few of them are necessary to one’s life. What they do instead is constitute a kind of material language (like what Swift in Gulliver’s Travels describes at the Acadamy of Lagado, where to create a universal language they replace all words with the things they signify and hold them up, which requires men to carry a giant pack of goods on their backs, or to talk in special rooms where lots of things are ready at hand) that serves to facilitate our making a narrative of who we are. We define ourselves by the story of what we own, the goods remind us of the story.

If Strawson is right, we can dispense with that story, and perhaps, too, the goods. The problem is that Strawson also advocates living only in the present moment: “in the midst of the beauty of being” we should not stop to think about who we are or what limits we might have decided to set for ourselves through an overarching autobiography in progress. Having no limits sounds nice, like a kind of total existential freedom that is our Sartrean birthright. But without limits, one is also vulnerable to endless cycles of unrewarding consumption; there is no reason one shouldn’t just consume and consume and consume hedonistically. Yes, the pleasures of possession will be nullified, but will there be sufficient impetus to be productive if one is not trying to produce a life for oneself?

Strawson would likely argue that the need to be productive is superfluous, that the beauty of being from moment to moment may be sufficient for a fulfilling life. But such an approach is profoundly antisocial, since what one constructs a lifestory about oneself for is to make oneself accessibel and reliable to others. And the social dimension of life is ultimately where the rewards of being emerge. A narrated life helps one integrate into social groups in a meaningful way and allows you to share pleasure and accomplishment, which alone makes such things meaniingful. Living in the eternal present may seem to lead to solipsistic hedonism, but such a state probably doesn’t exist.

So that is what Strawson ignores, the fact that one constructs a story of self for others, not for oneself. Of course this story will be sentimentalized in accordance with current cliches and genre tropes, of course this story will be largely fictional as it relates to the actual past. But it does make a person available to another in a way that permits more interaction than the purely sensual.

Refusing to narrate oneself also seems a radical refutation of cause and effect — you refuse to connect incidents in your past to where you are now. This too would seem to make one more vulnerable (though Strawson claims one can master life’s choices like a musician masters an instrument, without remembering the details of practice sessions in the past), prone to repeat the same fruitless choices the way addicts do. it seems to me that addicts life in the eternal present and their addictions are a desperate means of preserving this unnatural state of ignoring the causes and consequences of their actions. Again, it’s profoundly anti-social, a refusal to see the effects of what one does to others because one neglects to see what effect one has on oneself.

The problem with having a life story for oneself is that it allows marketers to insinuate their stories for one’s more organically derived. In fact, you might question whether there can be a truly organic life story. If our stories are typically consoling fictions to account for our failures, are we merely using a more articulated strategy to evade our repsonsibility to others?

Living without narrative seems akin to the radical prescription for a life in the margins, in the interstices of an indefeasible hegemony. When the “systems of oppression” can’t pin you down as an individual, they can’t define you and oppress you, the way, say, ads do when they call you out and grab your attention, like Williamson describes in Decoding Advertisements. It’s like this: you’re not an asshole until you turn around when someone yells “Hey asshole!” Then you confirm that social view of you, and internalize it. But to ignore all of society’s calls would be to lead a fairly lonely life.


Seeking to capitalize on the recent trend of business-based reality shows such as The Apprentice, Fox, always a good barometer of current strategies for inflaming reactionaries and catering to insecurity while exacerbating it, has concocted a show called My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss, in which a handful of young, attractive, and, most important, Ivy League trained contestants are fooled into thinking they are competing for an important position in a company when in fact the whole thing is rigged to allow the audience watch them humiliate themselves in a variety of ways. The surface appeal is obvious: cater to the bread-and-butter American hatred and suspicion of intellectuals by revealling just what cynical, brown-nosing phonies they are. The anti-intellectual viewer gets to attach vicariously to the mean-spirited moron who bosses the ivy Leaguers around, which likely feels like sweet revenge for that species of conservative who feels bossed around and scorned by some alleged Northeastern liberal elite.

The subtler appeal is that it confirms for the Fox watcher that the kind of ambition and aspiration embodied by Ivy Leaguers is actually a fraud. So it peddles self-satisfaction to the viewer, teaching him that he’s actually smarter than these hoity-toity brainiacs just by watching TV, which puts him on the side of those who are rigging the game instead of foolishly playing by its rules. They were right not to worry about college, to worry about amassing any kind of wealth or power in society; much better to laugh at those who try, those who ultimately boss them, and define the limits that outline their own possibilities. The show gives a false sense of power to those who accept powerlessness and solace themselves by being masters of the channel changer for their TV sets instead.

But its most persuasive appeal is likely that many people know the feeling of applying for jobs that don’t seem to really exist, or the absurd arbitrariness of the job market in our alleged meritocracy. People already believe that the system is rigged, and these sorts of “reality shows” secure their realism by parading those rigging mechanisms before the viewer’s eyes. This in turn authorizes a kind of anti-ethics: the game is fixed so no rules apply; those who play by the rules fail to understand their real significance as filters weeding out those insufficiently ruthless to supercede them.

Viva irony

Since 9/11, though the tendency may have begun earlier, it’s been a critical commonplace to dismiss irony as a kind of lazy apathy, a phony hipness ploy, and to celebrate cultural effluvia as heralding a new sincerity, one that allows for more optimism, or authentic feeling, or whatever. Consider for example the review in the Villiage Voice for the latest album by trendy Spandau Balleteeers, Interpol. Never mind that the reviewer tries to have it both ways, seeming to cool and world-weary for the very album he’ s (she’s? I forget) praising for avoiding the “apathetic shtick” of indie rock. Indie rock had lots of problems, myopic self-involvement being perhaps the largest, but let’s put to rest once and for all the idea that it’s alleged irony was some kind of affected trend no different than using synthesizers or drum samples.

What’s the difference? Irony, assuming it’s actually there and coherently detected by the listener, alwys refuses to permit escapism, which is the main function of pop culture in our society. Ironic music, ironic art refuses to be used as a brainwashing escape or as a vicarious emotional exerciser for people who live dead lives of working meaningless jobs in dreary suburban nonscapes. In fact, its primary function is to make you aware of how frivolously escapist other pop culture is, and hopefully help you reject it and reject the dead-end world it’s supposed to ameliorate for you.

The new “sincerity” in crappy music like Interpol is a return to the 80s for sure, and not just in its witless mimickry of haircut pop that was revolting to begin with. What they are sincere about is making a buck, and the silly pseudoearnestness in their songs is there to allow you to groove on what it might feel like if you actually had emotions in your everyday life while letting the band mime those emotions for you. What’s back is music as empty escape, as fantasy fodder; and in a few more years we’ll appreciate even more what an anomalous oddity the 90s were, equal to the 60s in that a large segment of youth culture poised on the verge of rejecting the hipster prison advertisers and culture industry bigs had designed for them. Revolution was in the air, sort of, but that’s a lot more than you can say for our current times, when barely 50% of Americans are capable of figuring out just what a complete moron the current president is.

Design for living

I wanted to write something about the current vogue for industrial design, for products whose utility is allegedly complemented by design so flamboyant that its unmistakable even to the untrained consumer’s eye, making them think something like, Wow, that toilet brush is “cool” (or, perhaps, if it’s a woman thinking, “cute” — wait, is that sexist?). Mass-market retailer Target specializes in these products, of course, adopting what IKEA perhaps began, and now they even brand their products with the industrial designers’ names, hoping to give them the cultural capital of clothes designers’ names, the kind of value that adds on $50 to the price of a T-shirt.

No one seems particularly bothered by this phenomenon, and conservative critic Virgina Postrel’s book The Substance of Style celebrating it as a species of democracy made a bit of a splash a year ago. But isn’t only serving to make our lives collectively more superficial, and to allow the constricting codes of competitive, conspicuous consumerism to colonize even more of our everyday lives. If the design nazis had their way, we wouldn’t even be able to carry a coffee mug without wondering if it cool enough to be seen walking down the street with. We would be obliged to be ashamed of our toilet paper holder, our spatula, our ice cube trays. Nothing is to be free from the expectation of being able to someone mutter, “cool.”

It once was thought that what would eternall y be held to be impressive was the aura of not giving a shit. Italian courtiers during the renaissance called is sprezzatura. This was the paradoxical art of seeming like you pay no attention to the impression you’re making while somehow simultaneously giving the impression that you’ve thought of everything and have it all under total control. Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier is devoted to simultaneously explaining and mythologizing/mystifying this process, thus, in a sense, exemplfying it.

That ethos seems no longer to apply to contemporary culture: effort and expenditure, a potlatch of consumptive waste, seems to be the surest way to secure cultural capital. The Martha Stewart ethos: effort revealed everywhere, all things fretted over with an anal-retentative furor. The prison-house of design, all things with their superficial qualities cannibalizing their functionality. Sure, you might protest that the ingenuity of these items is that they are functional and designy. But at some point the designedness interferes, distracts from the activity the item is supposed to be helping you do. The activity becomes subordinate to the tools. You become the tool.

Postrel, from what I gathered, argued that these new design options allowed poor folks to better express themselves through commodities, giving them pretty baubles, letting them eat cake. This is a corollary to the notion that democracy is a matter of equal access to goods, not equal opportunities or equal rights or equal respect in civic society; a harshly corrosive notion to the idea of civic society itself. It posits a society where all individuals need to have for themselves, making all shared things irrelevant trash — just look at the crudeness of America’s public space. Why not apply the ingenuity of modern design there?

Modern design isn’t out to improve quality of life, it’s out to create differentiation and to manufacture competitive advantage and profit potential out of then air, out of the insecurities of consumers without a civic society to buoy their esteem.