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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2 thoughts on “The flexible personality and disposability

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