Monthly Archives: December 2004

The flexible personality and disposability

Some postulates:

The tendency of technology has been to make consumer goods more disposable; this in turn justifies the feasibility of machines that can produce so much. This will to disposability conspires with social imperatives, leading to rapid revolutions in the cycles of style and fashion. This disposability becomes the material basis for the “flexible personality” that Thomas Hine notes in Populuxe. Posited by every kind of lifestyle magazine and celebrated in management books like Who Moved My Cheese?, the flexible personality welcomes change in all aspects of life, and finds something stodgy and suspect in tradition, something inherently inefficient. The flexible personality is man fashioned by machines as seen from the perspective of consumption, just as the automaton is the man fashioned by machines as seen from the perspective of production.

The natural extension of the flexible personality is the disposable personality, one that is only as deep as the shifting array of fashionable consumer goods that constitute it. Personality has been detached fron the anchors of family and community and geography and profession that once gave it a permanent shape; now the contors of personality itself are open to the cycles of fashion, and you are expected to be a certain kind of guy to be in touch with the times. This is how humors, once seen to be as inborn as can be, tied literally to bodily fluids, have come to seem like trends: the insistence that irony was a trend of the nineties, replaced by a new earnestness after 9/11.

The kind of convenience enabled by technology is recognized as such because it facilitates the disposable personality. What is convenient is always divorces us from commitment to longer-term plans in favor of spontaneity. Spontaneity is fetishized as an adjunct to novelty, even though they have nothing to do with each other.

The disposable personality perceives himself to have an expansive personality, believing that the sheer quanity of variegated experience deepens him. He is like a collector, but of attitudes instead of things. He (or, more precisely, his culture) has made an attitude into a thing. Personality traits are separated from the scenarios and activities that evince them and become things one can own and display on demand like knick-knacks, through adopting proper postures. The continuous identity is refuted; there’s no need to justify how you can get from one attitude to another. You can wear a Che Guevara shirt one day and a Brooks Brothers suit the next without cognitive dissonance. “Convenience” is another word for the systematic breakdown of identity continuity. We see convenience in those things that implicitly tell us not to worry about consistency or commitment to a self-concept. We think these things are convenient because they tell us we don’t have to embody character in action, but can simply adopt by buying the right accessories whatever personality we want.

In having the freedom to become anybody, with the expectation to try to be anybody, we aspire toward being nobody, with no history, with no defining features but the pile of crap we own. Anything we can’t purchase is jettisoned from the self-concept.

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The blissful nowhere

At airports, the security check is now a rite of passage, so elaborate as to assume metaphoric resonance. After shedding one’s garments, after elaborate preparations, after difficult decisions regarding what must be left behind, after saying goodbye to the loved ones who cannot share the voyage, after much wailing and gnashing of teeth, one crosses over and sails beyond the horizon, passed the point of no return, and emerges reborn on the other side (where, if one is fortunate, one can put on one’s belt before one’s pants have fallen down). This powerful sense that there’s no going back might be one of traveling’s most exquisite thrills, and that feeling is strongest for me when I’m squatting on the tiles, putting my shoes back on, wondering what kind of magazines I’ll look at in the newsstand, wondering how much will be extorted from me for a bagel and coffee. For me, there’s a sense that when I finally make it to the hermetic space beyond the X-rays and metal detectors, I’ve already arrived at my true destination, the blissful nowhere, that place where I’m definitively severed from all my ties and cares. I’ve escaped the quotidian of my life, and entered into the quintessential liminal space, where everything is provisional and where no one is truly home, that silly Tom Hanks movie notwithstanding. Because when we travel, the specific place seems to matter, but what we’re really searching for may be that particular state of mind, that disorientation that comes from being separated from your known routines and conveniences and thrown upon your own wits to make do, to be free from the responsibility for choices — what Schwartz goes on about in The Paradox of Choice — and be free to enjoy limits, limits on what you know to do or eat, limits on where you can go. Traveling seems to be a way of going beyond one’s limits, but it’s actually a way of artificially imposing them on yourself, of making yourself ignorant again after all the accumulated knowledge and strategies of everyday life begin to clutter and stifle one’s mind. These strategies — where to find breakfast and lunch, where to park a car, what to read in the newspaper, etc. — are ultimately imprisoning even as they enable us to function; they function by closing out the myriad possibilities that confront us at every turn. The whole point of the quotidian is to prevent things from happening.

Ideally, traveling opens all the possibilities while simultaneously lowering standards, making us tolerant and thus open to new experience. This expansive mood strikes me once I’m reborn beyond the security wall. (I suppose this happens to others as well, and this is what makes them talkative when they sit beside you on the plane or at the little airport bar.) This is why it makes no sense to me when people plan trips meticulously, and try to take the security of their everyday life with them on their journey. You surrender precisely that feeling of security the moment you pass through the security check point — that’s the meaning of that rite, which transforms the meaning of security to something quite different.

No choice

Over the holidays I read Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice, which aptly summarizes alot of decision science but wraps it in a weird therapeutical package, so that it reads like a self-help book (or worse, a management book), with lots of bullet-pointed advice. The upshot of it is that the amount of choices in contemporary American society make more of us into “maximizers” — shopping perfectionists — when we should be content to be “satisficers” or people content with something that adequately fulfills our perceived needs. Having more options in our lives leads us to believe that we should never be content with something that doesn’t suit us perfectly, since it is so much more likely that the perfect thing is out there. We now have the means to be more discriminating, and this is leading only to more regret and dissatisfaction rather than more optimal satisfaction of our desires. A lot of it seemed common-sensical to me, but apparently many Americans are so brainwashed by the joys and alleged “freedoms” of consumer choice that they need to be reminded that the more time you spend shopping, the more likely you’ll be full of unfullfillable desires and a chronic sense of dissatisfaction. The consumer marketplace functions by leaving you chronicallly wanting; if you could actually fulfill yourself you (and the rest of us) wouldn’t be constantly buying more crap and the engine of economic growth would suddenly be stunted. The advertising industry thrives because we need to have our desires perpetually stoked — we enjoy this; we’re thankful for ads in giving us a purpose, now that sustanence needs are fulfilled. So we happily mount the so-called hedonic treadmill, as it gives us something to do. But the shallownesss and passivity of such a life purpose inevitably leads to depression, which Schwartz documents. It’s not merely the overwhelming number of choices and the sense of crushing responsibility that attends them (and the inevitable failure of these choices to really satisfy that is cloaked from us, mainly by the consumer optimism that is drummed into us by every kind of ad, whether we pay attention to it or not) that makes us depressed; it’s that we remain dimly aware that our energy might have been invested in more significant ways than picking between colas or between suburban tract homes. We crave meaningful work and tight-knit communities and friends (At least according to Robert Lane’s throughly convincing The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies, which Schwartz cites) but we get sidetracked into collecting more goods that promise to attenuate our indviduality, extend our autonomy in the guise of convenience, or allow us to wield the mighty sword of modern technology in the form of an iPod. So we prioritize all wrong.

The same misprioritizing may have happened to the working class in general in post-WWII America, when it accepted expanded consumer choice and “freedom of choice” in the marketplace instead of extending political reforms and preserving union power. Beguiled by commoditites, working class families bought in to the ideology implicit in most consumer goods, that is, they see isolation and interclass competition as “individualism” and “convenience.” Consumer goods always imply the dignity of individual ownership over the satsifaction of sharing and cooperation. Not to sound like a utopian dreamer, but this anti-community ideology that’s built in to the marketplace (with its need to individuate in order to sell the same thing to more people and keep growing profits) seems to lead to much unnecessary misery. Sold on consumer choice as freedom, the working class exchange dignified work for a choice of shoddy clothes at Conway or Wal-Mart or Old Navy, or among knockoff of luxury items, and they don’t worry about whether it’s a fair disitribution of society’s wealth to see all the real luxuries they’re not privy to. And embracing consumer choice as the core of what they’ve achieved as a class, they are forced to put even more weight on the kind of paralyzing, depression inducing decisions Schwartz talks about. And the enrgy that might have been revolutionary is frittered away as anxiety over shades of makeup and kitchen appliances. It’s the kitchen debate, all over again, I guess: entree into consumerism and its world of fantasy saps any enthusiasm one might have for political organization. Snce much of the pleasure of consumerism is relative, comparative; it sets you in competition not with the consumers out of your league, but with the ones most like you and thus breeds division.

One of Schwartz’s most interesting points was how difficult decision making becomes when each decision is held to be revealing of your true self, a phenomenon that sets in when the number of choices would seem to be able to accomodate it. You can’t pick something to exemplify your true self, because it is the cumulative decisions over time that make yourself known to you; you know yourself through the act of deciding, over and over again, but consumerism leads us to expect to know ourselves beforehand, in order to decide. This creates anxiety because we suddenly feel like we don’t know ourselves in some absolute ontologcal way that we ought to. But of course, identity is a process, not a reified thing; it’s not like a commodity itself though we are encouraged to think of it that way, as something we passively possess and can flaunt rather than as something through which we live. The need to display one’s authentic self through consumer choices seems related to the disappearance of public personae that Sennett charted in The Fall of Public Man — we are expected to be impossibly, intimately, spontaneously authentic in public, because we’ve collectively rejected public role playing. Public and private sphere distinctions have eroded — technology like cell phones have contributed mightliy to this — so that there’s no space in which to develop a “true” self not subject to the vagaries of public opinion. A continuity is expected between public and private selves that’s impossible to maintain; we end up being too intimate with strangers, who listen to our conversations with doctors on the bus or in the grocery-store line; and strangers to our families, who can’t identify the side of you that is reserved for them, that marks them as insiders. But I’m rambling here —

Increasingly, our social self is defined by these consumer choices, so we have no choice about choosing; our failure to choose will be as much of a choice we must take responsibility for as our actually deliberating long and hard. And the pain of these trivial choices gives the lie to the “active consumerism” strategy sometimes proferred by pop-culture enthusiasts who want to argue that consumers are “users of culture” rather than passive victims of it. Those who use the culture for self-definition find themselves assenting to the basic premise that consumerism (and not meaningful work) is the route to selfhood. They try to redefine consumer coice as meaningful work itself, but it fails beacuse the labor of choice produces the alienation and misery that Schwartz details. “Active” consumers still adhere to and replicate what Baudrillard calls the code, the matrix of associations that reify identity and make a moveable feast of the concept of utility. When we accept that we can purchase meaningfulness, real meaning is sucked into the vacuum of the marketplace and becomes subjecct to its arbitrary whims, its manufactured cycles.

Music reviews and reification

Occasionally, I review albums, and I knew this practice was slowly destroying my ability to appreciate music altogether but I wasn’t sure why. (By the way, I think this is true of most reviewers; most cease to be music fans once they professionalize their responses to music — the less professional the music writer, the more sincere and useful his response is likely to be. This is why amazon.com generally is the best place to find music advice outide of your circle of friends.) I thought it may have been a product of the surfeit of mediocre music available that ordinarily I would have ignored, but that’s not it — that’s not the only reason, at any rate. I think it has more to do with the fact that once I finish reviewing an album, I never feel like listening to it ever again, even when I’ve purported to really like it and insisted on how often readers will find themselves listening to it should they get it. I really think I mean those things when I write them; it’s just that saying them suddenly invalidates the comments by standing in as a proxy for them. Once I announce I’ll be listening to some record forever, I no longer feel the need to actually do it. Also, the act of articulating what I feel about a record ossifies it immediately; the summing up how it made me respond foreclosed the possibility of having further responses, of having those inital responses deepen or transmogrify. Fixed by my careful formulations, the record is no longer dynamic to me, andthus there’s no more reason to listen to it. When I first began reviewing records, this felt like a blessing. Writing about a record seemed to complete the consumption experience, bringing to it a satisfying, productive sense of closure. Overwhelmed with music to play, it felt good to lay some options permanently to rest; it was like working through an accumulated pile of magazines, or the Sunday paper, and earning the sweet freedom of throwing sections away. But then I started to have a sense that music was becoming too disposible to me, and that the fault was not with the music itself (much as I was initially inclined to think so) but with my attitude. I was trying to use it up like it was bread going stale rather than accept it as some permanent contribution to the storehouse of human culture. Art is presumably timeless, capable of yielding new appreciative responses as the context in which one stumbles across it changes. But music-as-commodity, if the music companies have their way, is meant to be completely disposible, so you have to keep buying new product month after month after month. So here I was, thinking I was striking a blow against junk culture by decrying how ephemeral most music was and really I was just doing the record companies’ bidding. (It may be that in reviewing any record you are inevitably doing their bidding; it really is true that no publicity is bad, when you think on an aggregate scale especially.)

In The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz sheds light on some of this in his discussion of the dorm-room-poster study. A group of students were offered a choice of posters (some fine art, some cartoons), and the students who were forced to justify their choice of poster in writing chose different posters than they would have had they simply chose on unreflecting instinct. Those who had to write chose the (theoretically) funny cartoon ones because it was easier to put in wards why they were funny; those going on instinct took the fine art posters. Schwartz concludes that the students who took the cartoons would have chosen the fine-art posters only they weren’t confident about explaining their reasons why they preferred it — they lacked the vocabulary to describe their appreciation of fine art, while it was easy to make a plausible justification of why a cartoon was funny. So if forced to articulate why we like something, we’ll like more facile things; we’ll like what we’re already capable of articulating, rather than like that which forces us to come up with new explanations and new ways of thinking. Also, once we commit to one justification for a choice, we stick to it, and let it preclude our awareness of other reasons and factors, of criteria that might induce us to question our choice. People who chose the cartoons defended their choice but didn’t actually hang them up. People who chose the art did.

Applied to record reviewing, this suggests that the most well-reviewed records will be the most easy to understand at a single listen, and that the criteria evinced, on the whole, in reviews will be the most shallow things about music. And once reviewers say these things, they’ll feel locked-in to them, even though they reflect what’s easy to put into words more than what they actually experience when they listen. Music that summons inchoate, contradictory, complex responses; this will either be dismissed or go unreviewed, or will be apprciated for simpler reasons. And once those simple reasons are put down, the record, for that reviewer, will be forever limited to those simple reasons, and will be far less interesting to her than the records she hasn’t reviewed.

So if this is true, our conscious justifications for our tastes have more to do with our verbal skills, our critical vocabularies, than with anything in the objects we seem to prefer. This is one argument for reading sophisticated pop-music criticism (as if it exists) as opposed to the bite-sized nuggets of snappy prose in The Village Voice or Rolling Stone or Pitchfork, which sing with punchy dexterity but allow for very little sophistication of thought. (Try working in an intricate point in 150 words. The very best of them, the allusive poets of the medium, can only hint at such nuance.) But it also is an argument for never thinking about your taste, never becoming reflexive about your aesthetics, and thereby allowing them to continue to grow and to accommodate things beyond your current grasp. The suggestion is that reflexivity automatically leads to refication, that language captures something elusively alive and kills it. (I once used this argument to justify never telling a girlfriend that I loved her — a strategy I wouldn’t recommend, by the way).

But what of the notion that the unexamined life is not worth living? The road of the “inarticulate as truth” leads inevitably to dubious ideas like the innate moral sense and spontaneity being mistaken for authenticity. It leads to a Calvinistic sense of cool, that some people, the Elect, just have it, as demonstrated by their natural interest in sophisticated things, and some people don’t. (Renaissance Italians such as Castiglione called this sprezzatura, the by-definition indefinable — it’s a bit of a paradox –suaveness of the effective courtier.) Those without aesthetics would be doomed never to learn them. Isn’t it better to see aesthetics (and love) as not being inexpressible, as not being somehow too ineffable for words, and see it instead as something worth refining and expanding one’s language for? Even if it is an unmaintainable illusion? I console myself with the thought that writing about all those records and ruining them permanently for me has made my overall responsiveness to music more sophisticated, more intricate, more articulate; they were the sacrificial lambs to the development of my music taste. I sharpened my skills on them to better treasure that which I won’t speak of.

Traveling, with blooper reels

On a recent flight back to New York I sat across the aisle from a man in his early twenties who was watching a movie on DVD on his laptop. Nothing remarkable in that, in and of itself, but I was surprised that he felt no shame watching a film with so much full frontal nudity on his eighteen-inch monitor. He was sitting next to a woman in her later forties, and whenever I glanced up from my anacrostics to check in and saw topless girls, I looked at this woman for a reaction. Usually she wasn’t looking at his screen, but sometimes she was, taking it in with an expressionless face that I interpreted as mutely disapproving. He never looked embarrassed, though; he was engrossed entirely by the film, whose plot seemed so entirely formulaic that I could deduce it from watching about forty-five silent seconds of it. It was a teen comedy in which a group of American friends travel to Europe together, offend some neanderthal old-world types with their ignorant exuberance, but ultimately triumph through the force of their good intentions, finding happiness and adventure and, for the main protagonist, true love. The appeal of such a film is obvious: It provides a vicarious travel experience in many ways superior to actual travel (no waiting in interminable lines with your shoes and belt off and your pants falling down to pass security checks; no annoying foreign languages you have to pretend don’t exist; no irritating journeys outside the parameters of your apartment, etc.). Simulated experience is always going to be easier than actual experience, and the entertainment industry is always going to urge us to ignore the difference between simulated and real, even as tourist industries insist the opposite (all while strenusously working to make real experiences more controlled, more like carefully calibrated, altogether predictable simulations). The unfortunate thing about real experiences is that are unpredictable — that’s their essential, definitive quality. The marketable thing about entertainment is that it affords a largely predictable satisfaction — which is why it is pointless to complain that a film in formulaic. Of course it is; that’s its purpose. That’s why it sells.

What I found strange about the man on the plane was that he was enjoying a vicarious experience of exotic travel in the midst of actually traveling. It seemed strange to me. Was he trying to learn what to expect from traveling, learn how to behave, what he should learn? Was he looking for boilerpaltes for how to reduce his own upcoming travel experience to safe formulas whose meanings resolve themselves for us instantaneously, so familiar are their implications from our repeatedly seeing them played out in TV shows and novels, and so comfortable are we with these culturally approved conclusions. Like late-eighteenth-century novels taught readers how to tread the path to companionate marriage, demonstrating why love marriages should be presumed to be superior than arranged ones — an extremely new idea to Western culture at the time (just read Clarissa or any Jane Austen novel), perhaps contemporary films of this sort are teaching kids what to get out of their modern-day equivelant of the European Grand Tour, available now to large swaths of people who were once content with Disneyland. If the custom now demands a trip to Europe, these films, then, at least help make the continent of Europe as user-friendly, as accessible and comprehensible as Disneyland. This is how an omnipresent culture industry has cannibalized the real; how it has inverted the real/contrived dichotomy. Now, our primary experiences are entertainment, and we expect our actual experiences to conform to the expectation entertainment has conditioned us for. So we take a European vacation to try to live up to the film, rather than expecting the film to live up to the vacation experience we know. The entertainment is primary, the lived experience parasitical of it, rather than vice versa, which common sense would lead you to expect if you thought about it. In other words, as Thomas de Zengotita argues elaborately in his upcoming book, all our experience is always already mediated. We know what to expect alrady of what were heretofore unimaginable experiences. No wonder we’re so often disappointed (but that’s all to the good, because that keeps us trying). The consequence is that the since the real lives up to the contrived, the contrived can be constructed to whatever stipulations one would want. And then, more and more actual experience is derived from or copies experiences invented to serve certain designed purposes, to communicate ideological precepts, and in this way the designed ideologies are more and more deeply imbedded in actuality, seem more and more inherent, like common sense rather than propaganda imposed from without. Of course Americans are good-natured innocents, of course they are doing old world countries a favor by visiting them, and the people over there need to let go of their retrograde traditions and their finicky protectiveness of their heritage. Travel becomes an inevitable clash of innocence with corrupted experience, and we all no that innocence always eventually triumphs, sweeps that rooted way of life away. And incidentally, this is just what capitalism needs, as “all that is solid melts into air” and the traditional inhibitions to unbridled consumption are quietly obliterated in the name of innocence and spontaneity.

When the man on the plane was finished watching the movie — I saw him watch the guy kiss the girl back safely on their home college campus — he proceeded to the DVD’s special features and started watching the blooper reel. I was astonished that anyone would want to linger a little longer with such a trite film, but it made a kind of sense to me after some unduly elaborate speculation. Blooper reels are presumably fun to watch because they purport to show us the making of something we had just taken to be real; and if we are in general supplanting reality with what we consume in movies, then blooper reels pull back the curtain to show us how reality itself is being assembled. That’s a pretty attractive, God-like perspective (but one that hinges on having bought into the movie initially). But what it suggests is that one’s one photos of one’s own travel experience are essentially blooper reels, too, outtakes from the seamless simulation of what was already known from media representations. Or, more darkly, one’s life experience is a kind of blooper reel, the moments you remember are the anomalies, the ones that give you pause and make you question whether in fact the representations are real. The media is out to replace our need for memory by permanently preserving and reiterating how everything is supposed to be and feel. In the perfectly mediated world, we wouldn’t remember a thing.

Stoic shopping

I’ve always been bothered by the concept of buyer’s remorse, because it seems to suggest that to be anything other than delighted with a purchase is a pathological condition, a symptom of psychological imbalance. In The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz discusses the decision-theory personality type of “maximizers” who, because they are never content with anything but the absolute best, are always disappointed with their purchases, even after they have agonized over them for far too long. The implication is that these people are perfectionists with unrealistic expectations, and that’s probably true; but isn’t their attitude the consequence not of some personal weakness but of cultural propaganda that insists that a “best” option exists, and that the integrity of one’s identity is at stake with every purchase? Buyer’s remorse seems to me a part of the “scoreboard” phenomenon, in which shopping is a zero-sum competition: if you didn’t get the best deal, you have lost and someone else has won, and that calibration of one’s pride matters much more then the actual utility of whatever was purchased, which becomes nothing more than a trophy. This is why people get into useless buying, into collecting; it affords a competitive field on which to bolster ego. Buyer’s remorse is the agony of defeat. It’s also the necessary risk to taste the unambiguous joys of scoreboard. Shopping is a central ritual in a democracy to resolve status anxiety, then, and that might be behind the remorse: the sense that the purchase has done nothing to resolve the staus uncertainty. But then remorse is inevitable, because one’s status always remains uncertain. It’s always in play, and requires constant efforts to maintain its momentum in one direction or another — advertising sees to it that one never loses a sense of anxiety. In order to shop stoically, one would have to remove oneself from the social hierarchy altogether, and that seems unlikely to bring happiness either: Commodities are always proxies for social relations, for connections to other people, for integration and belonging.

Is there any escape from this? Can commodities simply be commodities again, as they were before they were branded (and brands are simply the code of aristocracy remade for market democracy)? Say one spends freely not to construct identity and maintain status but simply to destroy one’s attachment to such trifles, to transcend them: Stoic shopping as a matter of Bataille-style expenditure. But the potlatch destructiveness and waste is always competitve, is the essence of status consumption. A commitment to generic buying? Can one buy oneself into deindividuation, and thereby escape into the margins and become truly free? Can one find freedom in perfect conformity? the chameleon’s freedom? I don’t know.