Monthly Archives: April 2005

Against personal responsibilty

Who would be against personal responsibility? Everyone believes that they should be responsible for their own actions and sensitive to the effects of their deeds, right? It’s the price we pay for all that autonomy we have in our free society as powerful and unique individuals jousting in the wide-open arena of the marketplace. As Margaret Thatcher pointed out, “There is no such thing as society,” and everything that for every thing that happens to an individual, there is some other individual that’s culpable.

Of course that’s silly. That presumes all individuals are born equal, and that institutions are transparently functioning, entirely neutral entities with no ends of their own, and that the aims of corporations are no different than the aims of human beings, a myth nicely exploded by the recent documentary The Corporation, which details all the sociopathic things corporations can do that individuals wouldn’t. The myth of personal responsibility is similar, in that it attempts to protect institutions from scutiny and force those individuals who suffer because of them blame themselves and feel guilty and helpless in the face of “reality,” in the face of “the way things are.” You’ll notice that people who are well insultaed from the consequences of actions, people like George W. Bush, for instance, are especially fond of yammering on about how important personal responsibility is. It’s because he knows it is a cudgel that only clubs the heads of the poor.

Zaretsky, in Capitalism, the Family, and Personal Life has an incisive chapter on “proletarianization and the rise of subjectivity,” in which he argues that the consequence of capitalism’s removing production from the family space and centralizing it (making it entirely exploitative and useless in affording the worker a sense of meaning) is the creation of a separate non-productive sphere, “personal life” where workers can find life’s meaning and compensation for their empty work. The crux of this personal life is the feeling that one’s individuality is important, and should be nurtured through intimate relationships, which are rewarding for their own sake, and for the sake of reminding you that you are special and not an interchangable pawn in the hugh profit-making machine. But of course, while capitalism is setting up the conditions for dignifying the individual in private life, it is also making him into precisely that pawn. The contradiction holds in the ethos of consumption, which, as Zaretsky explains, “the rise of ‘mass consumption’ has vastly extended the range of ‘personal’ experience available to men and women while retaining it within an abstract and passive mode: the purchase and consumption of commodities.” (I love the scare quotes around personal in there). In other words, our vaunted individualism and our hallowed personal responsibility under capitalism amount to little more than shopping. And we dignify shopping, not autonomy. We replace spiritual identity with “lifestyles” which Zaretsky dubs “a word that is used to defend one’s prerogatives regardless of the demands of ‘society’ ” A lifestyle is what’s left when individual choices are seen as divorced from social reality, or are made in opposition to it, as a reaction to it rather than a part of it. A lifestyle is a parody of what personal repsonsibility is presumed to mean. When capitalism fails to dignify our lives, and consumption proves an endless acquisitve tradmill with more desperation and fatigue than pleasure, we’ll not blame the system that has empowered us to make such important and responsible choices (do I want a Ford or a Chevy?) but will instead wonder what is wrong with our lifestyle that makes us miserable (maybe I should go on a diet.)



It seemed like harassment of some sort to be subjected to yet another harassment policy pow-wow with the HR people and the lawyers at my new job. And it seemes especially hypocritical since the men’s magazine I work for could be considered a tangible piece of sexual harassment month after month, as its very existence could be considered a monument to chauvanism and a continual provocation to commit insensitive acts of sexism in order to feel like a “real” man. But I suppose that is what the harassment policy is all about, shifting responsibility for sexism to individuals and away from the institutions (like this magazine) in which it is entrenched. So we as individuals are perpetually feeling guilty and responsible for things that the institutions we serve adovocate in myriad ways. We focus on changing ourselves, and continually struggle with that, while we ignore the institutional problems that guarantee we will fail.

Birth of the bourgeois artist

The bourgeois novel, according to Lukacs (I think), has developed in order to stage the conflict between the individual and society, two abstractions that capitalism created and opposed to each other. The purpose of novels is to show how the individual confronts society (aka “the system,” aka “reality,” aka “the human condition”) and learns that society is too large and entrenched and complicated to be affected by the efforts of any one person, and that in fact the mature thing for any individual to do is to accept the status quo and the small private pleasures it affords. The quintessential example may be Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, which ends with its would-be revolutionary hero content to get some casual nookie in a brothel after abandoning all his aspirations.

The go-along get-along mentality advocated by such novels predominates in contemporary culture, and it has become the basic paradigm for maturation — you “grow up” when you get a job that alienates you and get a spouse who seems to compensate for it. But there have always been those who have historically resisted this maturation process, ppeople who choose to live outside of the system, or in opposition to the rules it lays out (work 40 regular hours a week, be monogomous, procreate, collect material possessions, etc.). Zaretsky, in Capitalism, the Family, and Personal Life, runs down some of these conscientious objectors in his account of the creation of private life, or “intimacy.” The earliest ones to reject this maturation process were the Romantics, who clung to a radical individualism for its own sake in the face of capitalist organization and the divsion of labor. The Romantics “argued that one’s work should be an expression of oneself rather than just a means of survival.” Hence art becomes a matter of expressing oneself as an individual as well — the only message worth expressing, in a climate of bourgeois commercialism and depersonalization, is my work is unique, my work transcends value, I, as an artist, am unique and not interchangable like dollar bills or proletarians. “Real” art thus becomes self-referential, about itself, about the artist’s sense of self. Art becomes a matter not of craft, discipline or social reality, but a matter of originality for its own sake. The artist becomes a role model for separating the private from the public, of “pitting oneself, one’s inner feelings, private thoughts, and dreams against ‘society.’ ” In this way then, in the process of critiquing them, art reinforces the divsions instilled by capitalism rather than healing them. It champions the private “inner life,” which is the product of the alienation art simultaneously laments. And at the same time art surrenders any claim it might have had on effecting social change, since any changes it advocates can ultimately be dismissed as merely self-promoting. All bourgeois art is understood now as being an artist’s attempt to claim special transcendent status; thus all art is held to be elitist unless it reproduces the formulas that justify the sacrifices we make to mature. Art will continue to be irrelevant until it surrenders “creativity” and “originality” as goals, as criteria.

Historical roots of "family values"

Eli Zaretsky’s concise broad-stroke account of capitalism’s effect on the family, Capitalism, the Family, and Personal Life, contains one of the most lucid explanations of emergence of private life as a kind of trap for workers in capitalist society and why “family values” are always embraced by the most repressive and reactionary forces in society. Zaretsky argues that the development of all vs. all capitalism, which eroded home production (the basis of the family in the pre-Industrial period), transformed the family into the haven where one could escape the alienation incipient upon the division of labor and production of profit supplanting the production of man (to paraphrase Marx). Women were expected to epitomize all the “humanizing” values that capitalism had eradicated from society at large, which had been reduced from a civic sphere to a merely commercial one. Woman became the guarantors that capitalism wasn’t evil and alienating, that it was in fact producing a noble creature like the all-sacrificing, super-sympathetic, ultra-mothering woman, and the domestic sphere in all its pieties. These domestic values are often represented to be eternal, universal, but they develop as a response to capitalism’s dehumanizing propensities. So in defending woman’s place in the home, and all the suffocating “family values” and anti-abortion planks and the “defense of marriage” and so forth, reactionaries are trying to protect the haven that has for them lost its historicity and has become the only possible haven available in our world. Without women as domestic mavens, everyone will be in the midst of the dog eat dog competetion that capitalism promotes. As Zaretsky explains, “The emancipation of women threatened to degrade all society to a common level of cynical manipulation.” This is helpful, I think, in trying to understand what animates the right in their cultural war, to see their actions as something other than a backward prudishness and prejudice.

"Say hello to my little friend"

In recent years, I’ve noticed that while the garish framed photos of Eminem or Nelly or 50 Cent or The Sopranos — the stuff you see on display in the closeout stores and in front of those mysterious luggage/electronics/who-knows-what storefronts in Chinatown or on commercial strips in outerborough neighborhoods — tend to come and go with the rise and fall of entertainment trends, but images of a sweaty, heavily made-up Al Pacino toting a machine gun in DePalma’s Scarface endure. Why this movie? Why these violent images of his defiant inability to yield to authorities in the midst of his coke-fueled, paranoiac rage? Who identifies with this so strongly that the image has become a staple, as commonplace on the stand of a sidewalk art vendor as images of the World Trade Center?

If the World Trade Center commemorates a unifying moment of national tragedy and signifies a resolve “never to forget” the terrorists’ perfidy, then what core set of values does a tweaked-out Pacino mowing down cops represent? The most obvious theory that presents itself is that the film epitomizes the immigrant experience, and the bloody apotheosis of the imaged framed and sold on street corners represents some trenchant refusal to surrender the American dream in its crudest, most materialistic form. The script, which charts Tony Montana’s rise from Cuban exile to Miami drug kingpin, caters to such an interpretation, emphasizing Montana’s perverse attempts at legitimizing himself. But what seems to have been an obvious critique of American materialism and the complete corruption of the American dream now perhaps survives on as its representative emblem in the minds of those for whom the dream still applies, for those yet to be disillusioned in their quest for it. A case of an audience “producing” rather than consuming, using a cultural product for their own ends over and against the intent of its original makers? Maybe. It seems to suggest that immigrants today feel like they are at war with the culture they are at the same time trying to assimilate with, that violence is an inevitable part of the emigration experience that they may as well embrace rather than fear. Attuned to the xenophobic ravings and close-mindedness of the current administration, they understand that they must lay siege on America to be accepted within it, that brute force and raw, violent power are the only means to achieve respect in this country if you are in a minority group.


On the front page of the Marketplace section of today’s Journal there are some fairly frightening photos of Asian teenaged girls dolled up like futuro Geishas, heavily made up, wearing these fur-trimmed lotus-collar robes, smiling and fawing in an enveloping and submissive relationship with their cell phones. The gist of the story is that Asian consumers allow their portable phones to be all-purpose marketing gadgets that keep them in the warm bath of advertising blather for all of their waking hours. American companies, naturally, want a piece of the action, hoping to make cell-phone users even more zombie-like and inconsiderate in their clueless self-absorbtion.

“Among the Chinese,” an Intel flack (oh, excuse me, Intel’s “staff anthropologist”) is quoted as saying, “cellphones have become such important status symbols that relatives at funeral rites burn paper cellphone effegies, so the dead will have their mobiles in the afterlife.” Naturally, from the Journal‘s standpoint, this is an altogether healthy development, because it seems to open the dead as a new marketing demographic. If only there were a way to measure how many ads the dead are seeing — perhaps some ambitious market-research firm should hustle up some corpses and focus-group them.

The reason why these ads have taken off in Asia but not in America is that Americans have a stubborn habit of regarding cellphones as utilitarian tools rather than all-encompassing lifestyle managers; Americans even have the audacity to turn them off except for cases of emergency. You can feel the frustration of the anthropologists and the marketing strategy executives — is there any difference anymore? — wondering, How will people get their cultural marching orders then? Asians are not embarrassed to be “technosexual,” an ad executive tells us, which helps them define themselves as “trend-setters” in their own personal “cyworlds.” In other words, these people have surrndered more and more of their privacy, which puts them on the cutting edge of cuturally-mediated identity and which leaves them feeling a more and more devestating emptiness inside when cut off from the cultural ephemera that gives them a sense of who they are. This is why they can’t imagine being without cellphones in the afterlife. The cores of their very souls are now defined by what media the cellphone can pipe into them to give them tangible character. I’ve already got a trend piece waiting to be hatched: Asian teens who commit suicide (seppuku style, perhaps) when they lose their cell phones. The loss of this technosexual repository of their souls will prove too dismaying to overcome, and they will fell there’s no other choice but to complete the spiritual death that the cell-phone loss precipitates with physical death.

Once, for youth everywhere, taking things to the street meant agitating for revolutionary change. Now, thanks to cellphone technology, people can be “continuing to do branded activities in the street,” acccording to another marketer. This is what technology has made of revolution. We want to storm out in the street doing our “branded activities” with our phones in the view of others, who we can’t be bothered to ackowledge, in part because they are already far too involved with their phone to make it worth our while anyway. I can’t wait for the future.

Consumerist cathedrals

Now that I work on Fifth Avenue, I see some very strange photos being staged by tourists on my walk to the Crown building. Aside from videotaping the Trump Tower, since its featured prominently in a television show (I thought videotaping buildings was an act of treason under the Patriot Act or something) they also pose in front of shop windows at Bergdorf Goodman and Tiffany’s to have their photos taken with merchandise. It’s very much like the old exhibit at Binion’s Horseshoe in Las Vegas, where you could have your picture taken with a million dollars. You wold literally stand beside a glass case in which 100 ten-thousand-dollar bills were mounted, and a photogrpaher would snap your picture. Some people would even put their arms around th case, as if it were a cherished friend. Fetishized money seems to be the allure of Las Vegas, so this particular tourist trap seemed to me the quintessence of the city, its spiritual core, the essential transaction that made it function, a ritual that reenacted the town’s fundamental promise — we will taunt you with enormous sums of money, and let you breathe in the wealthy atmosphere, swim in money’s natural ecosystem. Never mind that you will leave your own money behind.

Something similar is going on with these photos of people in front of expensive boutiques. These are the keepsakes the tourists are pursing, themselves in close proximity to the luxury goods whose ads they’ve been subjected to, whose totemistic “magic” has apparently infested and denatured their dreams. This seems to prove that commodities really in fact do have the fetishistic aura Marx and his Frankfurt school followers theorized: Their allure is so strong that just seeing yourself next to them, even though they are behind heavily alarmed plates of glass, is enough to fortify you, make you feel stonger, make your dreams that much more enriched. “I got this close to having what society has deemed the ultimate spiritual treasure” these photos must tell these tourists when they are back in their hometowns. The commodities are totally divorced from the means of production that created them or the social hierarchies encoded in the way such positional goods are valued. The commodity seems like the wellspring of value, power, potential, all the good things in life that have been expropriated from the people carefully positioning themselves next to the jewelry displays and smiling for the camera. This is their idea of a vacation: getting close to the things they never could afford.

I have the tendency to take these luxury shopping districts for granted and see them as poisonous blights, spiteful testimonials to the contempt the rich have for the poor in this country. But they are holy pilgrimage sites for those acolytes in the national religion of consumerism, they are glorioius, inspiring cathedrals of comfort and sensual delight to those very people on whose behalf I am so eager to be indignant. These places are significant, famous; these are the places where important celebrities have walked. Who wouldn’t want to come and trace their footsteps? Tiffany’s symbolizes our culture’s aspirations so succinctly; photographing yourself there is in a way like having your photo taken shaking the president’s hand. It doesn’t matter if he doesn’t know who you are. You have managed to put yourself in the proximity of power, or of a massively meaningful symbol (which may in the end be the same thing as power). And the connection by proximity allows you to forget for the time being the total lack of connection such places have with your actual life, that no amount of dreaming and hard work is likely to ever allow you to be a real customer at such stores, to give you the sense of entitlement and cultural competence to make you feel confident enough to walk in and feel like you belong. The photo of you at Tiffany’s masks the fact that one’s aspirations and one’s actions are utterly divorced from each other; that one’s actions will not achieve one’s aspirations, because the aspirations have been so wildly distorted in part by advertising’s pervasiveness, in part by oligarchical politics, in part by materialism’s supplanting traditional spiritual pursuits.

I have always been suspicious of tourist photos: They seem to reify life as it’s being lived, deferring the experience to the point when the film is developed. But these photos of shopping sites compound things, are exponentiallly worse. These are reifying photos that dignify and celebrate earlier reifications, objectifying the moment in which people are already delighting in the symbols of their objectifiction.