Monthly Archives: June 2010

No escape from modernity, etc.

Here’s what I gleaned from Giddens’s Modernity and Self-Identity, which is an elaboration of his argument in The Consequences of Modernity: modernity erodes tradition by instituting abstract, non-local systems that organize and explain everyday life. Our trust in these scientific systems is much shakier, not compelled as trust was in traditional explanations of folk life. This makes modernity a “risk culture” — we are always consciously calculating the open-ended outcomes offered by our environment. “To accept risk as risk, an orientation which is more or less forced on us by the abstract systems of modernity, is to acknowledge that no aspects of our activities follow a predestined course, and all are open to contingent happenings…. Living in a ‘risk society’ [Ulrich Beck] means living with a calculative attitude to the open possibilities of action, positive and negative, with which, as individuals and globally, we are confronted in a continuous way in our contemporary social existence.” We can’t opt out of modernity, withdraw into a kind of internal exile of localness. Traditions are phased out, and lifestyles take over. “The more post-traditional the settings in which an individual moves, the more lifestyle concerns the very core of self-identity, its making and remaking.”

The reflexiveness of modernity’s systems of mastery (the way they evaluate themselves and feed that knowledge to reshape the social fields they survey) comes to characterize self-perception; the self becomes a modern abstract system itself in this sense, and we try to operate and master it, become responsible for it, maximize its potentiality. But the opportunities in the reflexive self come with “ontological insecurity” — a sense that life is meaningless and the that self is an endless project, never quite secure. We don’t get to enjoy having a self, being embodied; we must always be tending to identity in a state of remove from ourselves, a ongoing alienation.

One way we try to stabilize the self in such conditions of modernity is through imtimacy. “Trust, interpersonal relations and a conviction of the ‘reality’ of things go hand in hand in the settings of adult life.” We need others we understand to confirm our sense of what is going on, our narrative. But social networks take away some of the space in which “pure relationships” (disinterested, yet reflexive intimate relationships) can occur — instead identity is mobilized in commercialized spaces.

Nevertheless, Giddens remarks that identity is “not to be found in behavior nor the reaction of others but in the capacity to keep a particular narrative going.” This involves self-monitoring, bodily control, displaying a competence in sustaining social normalcy, knowing how to enjoy the rules. We must be able to perform what Goffman calls “easy control.” Some of these are “regimes” of diet, dress, grooming, etc — everyday modes of self-discipline that reflect a willingness to play the game of social life by its rules. These are a basic backdrop to the narrative of self. But reflexivity with regard to these regimes gone awry produces eating disorders, etc.: “anorexia represents a striving for security in a world of plural, but ambiguous, options. The tightly controlled body is an emblem of a safe experience in an open social environment.”

In general, the protective cocoon of normality depends “on the coherence of routines… as they are ordered within the reflexive project of self.” These, in Max Weber’s theory, present a field of action for us that is “calculable”.

Still “the responses of the other are necessary to the sustaining of an ‘observable/accountable’ world, and yet there is no point at which they can absolutely be relied upon.” Hence the modern condition: “Quite often, paradoxically, the actor subjects his behavior and thoughts to constant scrutiny. Self-scrutiny in this guise is obsessional; its experiential outcome is much the same as in the other instances, a feeling that the living spontaneity of the self has become something dead and lifeless.” We have a morbid self-awareness that forces us to renarrate experience and assess it rather than lose ourselves in it. We are always seeking to have ourselves confirmed in our sense of ourselves.

In my view, the strategies for producing the self (and for problematizing it in the first place) are governed in our time by specific requirements of consumerist capitalism, which prompts insecurity, and the sense that momentous decisions confront us — what Giddens calls “fateful moments”. These moments of vulnerability leave us open to external influences, to reinscribing new sets of values and purposes for our lives. Giddens sees these as times of “reskilling” — reappropriating knowledge from the abstract systems as it pertains to the crisis. I am more skeptical, and think these reappropriations may take the form of prepackaged goods — clusters of commodified solutions that have the effect of reinforcing the social relations suitable to the existing order (or at least one of its competing factions). The mere fact of personal change can make this reinscription seem like autonomy, liberation, power, but the values are not organic to the individual but are the individual’s means perhaps of reharmonizing with hegemonic ideas and owning them — learning to operate the society from a position of agency even as society dictates the goals. Also, re-skilling becomes an identity signifier rather than an acquisition of knowledge for its own sake and for what it can practically achieve, so it reinscribes the idea that identity trumps the flow of experience.

I wonder if seemingly fateful moments are deliberately manufactured by consumer capitalism because they destabilze our sense of self, opening us to the potential of new purchases to launch a new lifestyle, to uses purchases as the means of imagining more avenues for how we may develop our identity.

The disappearance of the concept of fate makes everything a matter of subjectively assessed risk, which increases our general level of insecurity. This (along with the proliferation of expert systems) is another reason that there is no escape from the experience of modernity, from the sort of identity-based defense mechanisms and traps we fall into. This constant awareness of risk could theoretically produce a financialization of everyday life — we assess our moment-to-moment life chances with the tools of risk management and hedging, with obvious consequences to “disinterested” pure relationships.

Cites Sennett, The Fall of Public Man on modernity: In Giddens’s paraphrase, “any sense of personal dignity or civic duty tends to evaporate. Authenticity substitutes for dignity: what makes an action good is that it is authentic to the individual’s desires, and can be displayed to others as such…. Social bonds and engagements increasingly thereafter recede in favor of an endless and obsessive preoccupation with social identity.” Giddens rejects this, but I agree with Sennett.

Cites Zygmunt Bauman on the necessary conditions for consumerism: “The market feeds on the unhappiness it generates: the fears, the anxieties and the sufferings of personal inadequacy it induces releases consumer behavior indispensible to its continuation.” Sounds right to me. Through marketing demography, lifestyle packages are offered as solutions to the inadequacy, the ontological insecurity, that offer readymade sense of belonging — like joining the goth scene by one day getting the right clothes at Hot Topic.

The summation, I think, of Giddens’s ideas in this book, on “the looming threat of meaninglessness”:

The best starting point for understanding why this should be so is the pervasiveness of abstract systems. Day-to-day life becomes more calculable than it was in most premodern contexts. Calculability is expressed not only in the provision of stable social environments but in the chronic reflexivity whereby individuals organize their own relations to the encompassing social world. The threat of personal meaninglessness is ordinarily held at bay because routinized activities, in conbination with basic trust, sustain ontological security. Potentially disturbing existential questions are defused by the controlled nature of day-to-day activities within internally referential systems. Mastery, in other words, substitutes for morality.

"End of work" literature; "counteracting causes"

A few notes from “The End of Work or the Renaissance of Slavery? A Critique of Rifkin and Negri” by Constantine George Caffentzis, who rejects the end-of-work scenario on traditional Marxist grounds, namely that capital needs human labor to exploit to create surplus value. He says we should recall:

Marx’s Ricardian recognition that every worker permanently replaced by a machine reduces the total surplus value (and hence the total profit) available to the capitalist class as a whole. Since the capitalist class depends upon profits, technological change can be as dangerous to it as to the workers. Hence the capitalist class faces a permanent contradiction it must finesse: (a) the desire to eliminate recalcitrant, demanding workers from production, (b) the desire to exploit the largest mass of workers possible.

That tension can never be fully resolved, though the end-of-work theorists tend to see its demise in the spread of machine-driven automation, and more important, the networked society. Networks end up tapping into the “general intellect” — the affective production of individuals in non-formal work settings, the sort of production that goes along with making self-identity. Workers slip out from subsumption under capital, and are productive on their own autonomous terms, even as capital finds new, indirect ways to harvest that production. The contradiction is resolved — for certain industrial sectors, at any rate — by exploiting a mass of workers through the network while the “workers” work on immaterial things without realizing what they are doing is work — to them it is identity-making, self-expression, entertainment. But the rest of industry, still riven by the contradiction, resolves it through globalization — exploiting masses in underdeveloped economies.

Both Rifkin in The End of Work and Negri in his whole corpus refer to Marx’s vision of machines replacing grunt labor. Negri tends to cite the Fragment on Machines from the Grundrisse, but Caffentzis points to Marx’s later version of the idea in Capital III.

Marx’s most developed discussion of this story is to be found in Part III, Capital III: “The Law of the Falling Tendency of the Rate of Profit.” There he recognizes that a tendency towards the total replacement of humans by an “automatic system of machinery” must continually be met by “counteracting causes” or else the average rate of profit will actually fall. These counteracting causes either increase the mass of surplus value (e.g., raising the intensity and duration of the working day), or decrease the mass of variable capital (e.g, depress wages below their value, expand foreign trade), or decrease the mass of constant capital (e.g., increasing the productivity of labor in the capital goods industry, expand foreign trade) or some combination or these disjunctive possibilities (Marx 1909: 272-282).

The “counteracting causes” are key to Caffentzis’s critique. He sees them in the expropriation of immaterial labor, free (and possibly forced, dependent on how you view psychological imperatives in the modern world) labor of self-construction — among other things as listed below.

Rifkin’s intuition is correct. For the Manifold of Work extends far beyond the dimension of formal waged work and this non-waged work does produce surplus value in abundance. If it is more directly and efficiently exploited, this work can become the source of an new area of surplus-value creating employment through the expansion of forced labor, the extension of direct capitalist relations into the region of labor reproduction and finally the potentiation of micro- and criminal enterprises. That is why “neoliberalism,” “neo-slavery,” “Grameenism,” and the “drug war” are the more appropriate shibboleths of the Third Industrial Revolution rather than the “non-profit” third sector touted by Rifkin, for they can activate the “counteracting causes” to the precipitous decline in the rate of profit computerization, robotization and genetic engineering provoke. [bold added]

Caffentzis has little sympathy for Negri’s vision of the multitude eluding capital’s control. But there does seem to be something to Negri’s claim, in Caffentzis’s words, that “techno-scientific labor cannot be controlled by capital via its system of wages and work discipline rounded out with the promise of entrance into the top levels of managerial, financial and political power for the ‘best.’ ” Another way of putting that is: workers need more than wages to feel rewarded. They need attention, recognition, meaning, what have you (this is one of the “consequences of modernity”; the destabilization of identity and the onset of perpetual reflexivity). This doesn’t allow them to escape from capital, but instead opens a new means by which labor can be exploited, controlled. The workers’ pursuit of affect is a new potential market, a potential source of profit, a space that thanks to technological developments can be rationalized and subsumed to capitalist relations.

Critical blogging, self-wrongeousness

Here’s an illustration of some of the problems of reflexive self-identity, how it can corrode perfectly noble ideals when those ideals seem to become Lego bricks for self-fashioning, even when we don’t want them to be. The sense that others might accuse us of strategic affectations of ideas makes us debilitatingly self-conscious about it, and that self-consciousness makes the accusation seem more true, making our prose stilited and false, riddled with tentativeness and guilt.

From a Tiger Beatdown post by Sady Doyle. It’s in part a critique of the subject position one ends up adopting when conducting a certain kind of critical discourse, and the dangers inherent in that posture when combined with a medium like blogging, which is read as inherently personal and self-revelatory. Basically, “critical blogging” carries with it the risk of coming across like a self-aggrandizing douche; the subject matter can end up subordinated to one’s one identity — the brand of the blog. The arguments made therein become banners waved to demonstrate some notion of personal cool. (I worry about this a lot myself; my inadequate solution tends to be to avoid most forms of feedback.)

Here is the crux of Doyle’s rigorous self-criticism:

I mean, I’m talking about myself here. You get that, right? I’ve borrowed too much from other people, and haven’t bothered to check those arguments before incorporating them, because they were popular or persuasive; I’ve oversimplified things I was supposed to be critiquing, for the sake of making a point; I’ve rationalized and politicized my tastes and personal dislikes and bad personality traits, to make myself seem like a better person or a better feminist, and at some points I’ve thought — probably, God knows, even said — that “good person” and “good feminist” were one and the same thing. Maybe you’re better than me; maybe you’re pure. But it’s a problem, with any moral system of thought: At some point, we learn what we’re rewarded for saying, how we’re rewarded for seeming, and then we say those things and seem that way, for the reward. It’s like any other set of social norms. But when feminism is used this way, not as a means to get into truth, but as a means to make truth easier or even to avoid it, it’s really not all that different from, say, reading a lot of Ayn Rand. Granted, the results of its clueless or selfish application will probably be better than what the Objectivists have managed thus far. But it’s still something you do for you, rather than for the sake of doing it; it’s a means of propping yourself up. Of self-glorification.

In a sense, this is a recasting of the observer problem — how do we pursue Truth without biasing our results with our own imperfections and biases and purely personal and contingent desires. We get in our own way, and we know it — thanks to the way we are situated in a mediated culture that (in my view) forces upon us a morbid self-awareness and insecurity. And thus we come to doubt our own motives, we become cynical about our own projects even as the cynicism increases our need to believe desperately that something is worth doing. The question then is how to lose ourselves yet retain autonomy, a sense that we are still guiding our own inquiries?

She continues:

It’s especially bad news when we do this on the level of personal narrative. Which is where we get back to me, to the person I’ve agreed to be while I take part in this conversation. Because, at this point, I have to acknowledge that the extent to which I deplore this way of engaging has to be measured against the extent to which I’ve participated in it. Or contributed to it. Or caused it. Every time I yell at some pathetic anonymous commenter and people cheer, every time I get all righteously outraged without talking about what I’ve done that is the same or worse as what the person I’m outraged about has done, every time I play the toreador and gore a bull for your entertainment, I shudder a little. Because I’m helping it happen: Aiding in the creation of a discussion where we reward outrage and scorn and hatred and Othering of the ideologically impure, the bad feminists and unfeminists and anti-feminists, all the while pretending to a purity that none of us, living in this our inherently compromising and mindfucking world, actually possesses. I’m glorifying myself; I’m letting you glorify me; I’m giving you a false impression of how things actually work, letting you believe that the world consists of Good People and Bad People. I’m telling you that I am Good, and that you are Good to the extent you agree with me, and that people — other people, people on the outside of this discussion, not us, certainly — are Bad if they disagree with us. I mean: This is basically how every terrible thing in the history of humanity has started, the decision that there’s an Us and a Them and the former is good and the latter is bad. Doing it in the name of lofty principles doesn’t mean you’re not doing it; it just means that when the problems — the self-falsification, the repression, the insistence on ideological purity rather than self-examination or originality or thought — creep up on you, you’re less likely to notice them and more likely to rationalize them. Because your aims really and truly are good.

This is the cult-of-personality problem, in which the mission gets conflated with the missionary. This is why “rigorous self-criticism” exists as a Marxist cliche; it’s an effort to recalibrate the goals with the means of pursuing them, trying to assure that bourgeois individualism and selfishness hasn’t intruded. But how does one prevent this conflation when it seems a primary ideological tactic employed within our culture to neutralize and invalidate critique? Criticism is blunted at the ad hominem level, by claiming the critic is a hypocrite or by pointing to how much glory the critic seeks for herself. (Adorno, somewhere, gets at this point.) It’s easy to rub a writer’s nose in their ego and prompt their self-flagellation. People makes mistakes, they change their minds, they get lazy, they rely in received arguments, they go too fast, and often there seems like there is a good reason, or maybe there isn’t a good reason. But none of these should be sufficient to silence critique or invalidate it when taken as a whole, as a praxis, as a good-faith hermeneutic. None of that is a reason to react by embracing relativism either.

The reflexivity imposed on us by the “conditions of modernity,” as Giddens puts it, has a tendency to render us passive and encourage us to seek answers to social problems in the purely personal. It presents a trap beyond the trap of self-righteousness: the trap of self-wrongeousness, that sees self-critique as an end
in itself.

Reflexivity of self-identity, addiction, romance

Some tidbits from Anthony Giddens’s The Transformation of Intimacy.

“what is distinctly problematic about modernity: the impossibility of evaluating emotion” — reflexive emotion always compromised.

“Addictions are a negative index of the degree to which the reflexive project of self moves to center-stage in late modernity.”

“Romance is the counterfactual thinking of the deprived.”

Giddens seems to hint that addiction is a kind of morbid reflexivity — a self-consciousness about self-fashioning that has gone awry, has been balked at. It means the sticking to self-generated compulsive routines in the absence of the lost traditional routines of life, which in the past made addiction unthinkable, not recognizable conceptually.

He posits intimacy and “confluential love” as a healthy mode of self-monitoring and romance as a kind of skilling up for it, a means of training in learning how to monitor one’s emotions and express them so that they may be understood by others, as well as learning ways to be attentive to the emotions and expressions of others. But couldn’t romance also be an addiction to vicarious fantasy, an addiction to self-identity, spurring an out of control narcissism? The production of self in the guise of the intimate relationship, which becomes necessary to develop a self — “I’m nothing without you” may have some substantive truth to it.


From “Immaterial Value and Scarcity in Digital Capitalism” by Michael Betancourt.

Though I am skeptical of the overall argument, I found this section interesting:

While digital capitalism may appear to be an affective form of capitalism, and to a certain extent it does deploy affective measures to achieve its ends, a more correct designation is agnotologic capitalism: a capitalism systemically based on the production and maintenance of ignorance. The accusations of fraud against banks such as Goldman Sachs for creating derivatives “designed to fail” and then claiming that these commodities are of the highest value demonstrates this process of misinformation designed to obfuscate, confuse and confound….
This agnotism affects all participants within digital capitalism, precisely because it is the enabling factor for the perpetuation of the cycle of bubbles and the escalation of values they create….
The affective labor created to address this alienation is part of the mechanisms where the agnotological order maintains its grip on the social: managing the emotional states of the consumers, who also serve as the labor reserve, is a necessary precondition for the effective management of the quality and range of information. The creation of systemic unknowns where any potential “fact” is always already countered by an alternative of apparently equal weight and value renders engagement with the conditions of reality — the very situations affective labor seeks to assuage — contentious and a source of confusion, reflected by the inability of participants in bubbles to be aware of the immanent collapse until after it has happened. The biopolitical paradigm of distraction, what Prada calls “life to enjoy,” can only be maintained if the underlying strictures remain hidden from view. If affective labor works to reduce alienation, agnotology works to eliminate the potential for dissent.

His point is that instruments like synthetic CDOs and fiat currency allow for the creation of fictitous capital, and someday we need to pay the piper. I think that David Harvery elaborates this theme a bit more lucidly in The Limits to Capital

But the idea of an economy that manufactures ignorance is worth developing. It has obvious connections to the prevalence of asymmetrical information. Markets don’t necessarily reveal information or operate efficiently, and actors in markets have reason to try to prolong the ignorance of their trading partners. Persistent information asymmetry can destroy markets for goods of uncertain quality. Many businesses thrive on producing deliberate confusion in the populace — mainly those that make money on charging unnecessary fees or are unusually aggressive in practicing price discrimination (itself often enabled by imperfect information). Also branding can be used to mask deficiencies in quality, so that consumers buy the idea of the brand rather than the usefulness of the product. Information about the brand’s appeal can drown out information about the branded product’s worthiness.

So there can be an ongoing incentive to produce and maintain ignorance, and keep people entertained and distracted so they don’t bother to become better informed about the various contracts and deals they enter into as consumers. Another way of saying that: consumers are compensated for their ongoing ignorance in affect and pleasure.

Betancourt’s position fits the argument that much of recent financial innovation has been precisely about obfuscation that (with the help of credulous rating companies) makes the implausible seem safe to institutional investors. Cf. Minsky’s theories about capitalism turning cyclically into a huge scheme of finding the bigger fool to stick with the inevitable losses. Instead of producing socially necessary goods and services, we spend our time and energy trying to deceive one another and flatter ignorance.

Agnotology also fits with the capitalism’s having to rely on “animal spirits” to sustain itself — the resources needed to reproduce that sort of entrepreneurial zeal in successive generations are worth considering. The ideology of the competitive spirit needs to be produced that it such ambitious striving is its own reward, even in the face of repeated business failure and the corrosive emotional effects of a constant war of all against all. “Animal spirits” are a kind of willed ignorance (encouraged institutionally) of capitalism’s detrimental consequences.

“Consumer confidence” is also related to the production of ignorance, if you accept that consumerism is not in the interests of those on the debt treadmill. To what degree is it a matter of ignorance of consumerism’s systemic inability to satisfy us, its systemic propensity to instill insecurity and dissatisfaction? Are the means by which its measured a means of reproducing it, and its importance — an effect of reflexivity à la Giddens? Massive efforts are made to manipulate people emotionally into a state of “confidence” (or desperation) that allows them to spend freely. A main product of consumer capitalism is this affect — a tolerant view of debt; an eagerness for novelty; an overweening need to consume conspicuously; an optimistic vision of future prospects; an eagerness to substitute ownership for experience; and so on.

Ontological security and identity

In The Consequences of Modernity sociologist Anthony Giddens rejects the idea that there has been a epistemic break that has initiated the postmodern era, seeing in contemporary conditions (globalization, affective individualism, informatization, consumerism, etc.) an intensification of the modern era’s governing principles. The foremost of these in his view is “time-space distanciation” — disembedding practices so that continuity can be maintained across space and time rather than depending on copresence in a particular place. In Giddens’s words: “By disembedding I mean the ‘lifting out’ of social relations from local contexts of interaction and their restructuring across indefinite spans of time-space.”

I had no idea what he meant by that until he presented some examples — basically “abstract systems,” based on faith in expert knowledge, are disseminated across society and replace localized modes of trust and continuity. The “systems of technical accomplishment or professional expertise … organize large areas of the material and social environments in which we live today” and allow us to venture forth into the world with some confidence. We enter an elevator in any city, or an Italian restaurant in any American town, and understand what to expect. We can use money to get things we need everywhere. Thanks to our belief in money’s universal value, we trust that don’t necessarily need a personal relationship with the pub owner to get a pint.

The social rules for us, in other words, are not contingent on the quirks of every particular locality; we can leave our home base and continue to feel comfortable enough and confident enough in our surroundings to act like ourselves. We garner “ontological security” (“the confidence most human beings have in the continuity of their self-identity and in the constancy of the surrounding social and material environments of action” — that we have a seld) from abstract systems (ways things work in modernity across places; the distributed brands and chain stores; the universally recognized authorities; celebrities, etc.) rather than from being fixed in a time and place.

The “distanciation” makes our identities portable — makes them seem like our own rather than belonging to the town in which we were raised. No longer are we fixed by a set of local traditions (unquestioned routines, rituals) that we must rely on to operate in the world. Instead our local practices are linked to globalized social relations through disembedded (nonlocal) institutions, e.g. we eat at McDonald’s, we shop at supermarkets — the stores are more comforting and familiar to us than the people around us, who are indifferent strangers who signal their benevolence by studiously ignoring us.

The distanciation and disembedding processes bring about “reflexivity” — a self-consciousness about social processes and about the self. “What is characteristic about modernity is not an embracing of the new for its own sake, but the presumption of wholesale reflexivity.” We are curious about the social processes in which we are operating, and we modify them through our engagement with them on the meta-level. We “appropriate claims to knowledge” (some of us more than others, thanks to power differentials) and this extends the social field in which we operate, expands our conception of our identity, and what we can control.

Tradition had been grounded in a particular, often naturally given time-space (how things are done here); once this is disrupted, as social environments become more human-created (and natural space regarded as “empty”), individuals are free to ascribe personal reasons for routines that were once “simply what is done” and investigate the ways in which things work. This investigation then alters the processes observed. “The point is not that there is no stable social world to know, but that knowledge of that world contributes to its unstable or mutable character.”

By wanting to know about social processes, we set in motion the means by which they evolve; the cycle then feeds on itself, intensifying the conditions of modernity. This circularity (along with the diminishing of tradition and religion that goes along with it) generates a widespread sense of dis-ease, existential angst, even as it makes possible self-cultivation, self-fashioning, self-actualization. Modern identity is born of acute self-consciousness, the alienation of watching ourselves be ourselves makes the self seem an actual, discrete thing.

To ease this angst, modernity has developed reembedding mechanisms anchored in facework — access points where we see a human representative of an abstract expert system. These people help build our trust in abstract systems, or if they are corrupt or incompetent, they set in motion our desire to build up our own knowledge of the system to allay our distrust. Trust, generally, Giddens suggests, drawing on Winnicott and other object-relations theorists, ameliorates the anxieties of self-consciousness, the ontological insecurity that stems from having the nature of our being problematized.

The open-ended nature of modern identity means we have a constant need to have trust refreshed. We get some of this from the continuity of the social world — the familiarity of the buyosphere from one town to the next. But this is ultimately unsatisfactory:

The routines which are integrated with abstract systems are central to ontological security in conditions of modernity. Yet this situation also creates novel forms of psychological vulnerability, and trust in abstract systems is not psychologically rewarding in the way in which trust in persons is.

Identity requires interpersonal trust, not just faith in impersonal systems and infrasructure. An intimacy deficit opens up, and we demand more of personal relationships than was expected in premodern times to close the gap, to guarantee our ontological security, which relies on personal recognition of others, not merely the ideological interpellation by institutions. Friendship becomes less pro forma (a matter of tribal loyalty) and more intimate, dependent on “personal affection.” Giddens argues that “authenticity” becomes important in this regard, as a marker of the new type of friendship bond.

Relationships become an ongoing project of manufacturing security-giving personal trust: “Trust on a personal level becomes a project, to be ‘worked at’ by the parties involved, and demands the opening out of the individual to the other” through “demonstrable warmth and openness…. The work involved means a mutual process of self-disclosure.” The crux of my critique of online social networks is that this process of trust-building reciprocity has been encroached upon by commercial interests, inhibiting its function, compromising it. We are losing the sources of personal “authentic” (i.e., noncommercial) trust that have made modern life tolerable. Hence social networks increase our sense of isolation while seeming to remedy it, much as consumerism exacerbates our yearnings while seeming to cater to them. The basic trust from friendship that is supposed to compensate for our having to draw ontological security from abstract systems is now being assimilated into an abstract system itself. Less cryptically: we have to make our identity out of globalized markers, brands, practices determined by institutions out of our control, etc. One thing that seems in our control totally is the intimacy and intensity of our friendships, our relationships. But Facebook wants to co-opt that reciprocity, that project of trust building, and make it into another public, self-aggrandizing, commercialized project.

Giddens raises a good question: “Is the search for self-identity a form of somewhat pathetic narcissism, or is it, in some part at least, a subversive force in respect of modern institutions?” I think we can rule out the latter. But identity making is not merely pathetic narcissism; it’s also big business, a source of life-style innovation that can be used to drive the turnover of trends and social meanings, generating new profit opportunities. It helps accelerate the cultural throughput, exhausting cultural meanings more quickly.

Modernity is the result of having the familiar no longer be the local but merely the local manifestation of something global, removed, abstract, transcendental. This is the clearest expression of how Giddens relates modernism with consumerism, positing how consumerism has managed to anchor itself by providing an abstract sense of the familar (chain stores, etc.) embeddable anywhere:

The sense of the familiar is one often mediated by time-space distanciation. It does not derive from the particularities of localized place. And this experience, so far as it seeps into general awareness, is simultaneously disturbing and rewarding. The reassurance of the familiar, so important to a sense of ontological security, is coupled with the realization that what is comfortable and nearby is actually an expression of distant events and was “placed into” the local environment rather than forming an organic development within it. The local shopping mall is a milieu in which a sense of ease and security is cultivated by the layout of the buildings and the careful planning of public places. Yet everyone who shops there is aware that most of the shops are chain stores, which one might find in any city, and indeed that innumerable shopping malls of similar design exist elsewhere.

We are integrated into a globalized community even as we are estranged from the local ones that our ancestors knew. Shared experience is not a local phenomenon but something that happens in virtual communities linked by shared experiences and understandings and knowledge of how life works, shared tastes and affinities developed through personal choice rather than assigned by fate of locality. Community has been displaced and made virtual, rendering identity a perpetual work in progress, a striving to reach a home that may have no fixed reality as a particular place but is instead a state of mind, a realization of some ideal self and ideal community that nurtures that self. It may be an unrealizable fiction.

Cold Intimacies and the cult of sensibility

From Eva Illouz, Cold Intimacies

1. Freudian depth psychology is a modern technology of self-production that masquerades as a set of practices that reveal the “authentic” inner self. Therapy and its tools elicit the self, but a particular sort of sick self that requires suffering to exist and progress.

2. This technology of self-production catches on as a means for consolidating bourgeois hegemony. Therapeutic selves and the means for forming them yields what Illouz calls emotional competence — the ability to self-analyze and communicate one’s emotionality in terms that other bourgeois can understand and work with, as well as read each other’s emotions and respond in a constructive way. This set of cooperative practices establishes an emotional style or habitus that marks middle-class belonging and becomes a requisite qualification for professional jobs, office work, etc. Emotional style becomes an accessible way to stratify people by class in an ostensibly democratic society. It seems “fair” as judgment is rooted in a discourse of health. Emotional competence also allows for a new kind of pleasure from relationships based on therapy talk, metarelationship conversations — “relating” through talk about each other’s feelings and the enjoying the resulting sense of intimacy and mutual understanding. “There are now new hierarchies of emotional well-being, understood as the capacity to achieve socially and historically situated forms of happiness and well-being” (73). Middle-class people have the advantage, a set of learned practices to deal with the instability of modern identity and relationships.

3. But at the same time, depth psychology and therapeutic procedures reify emotionality, subject it to reflexive, conscious manipulation, undermining emotional spontaneity. “The reflexive act of giving names to emotions in order to manage them gives them an ontology, that is, seems to fixate them in reality and in the deep self of their bearer, a fact, we may claim, which goes against the volatile, transient, and contextual nature of emotions.” Metaemotionality freezes emotions, makes them alienated, even as it proves their reality, reveals us to ourselves as suitably emotional.

This is precisely the paradox of sensibility, in the 18th century sense of the word. The cult of sensibility reified emotionality to dignify it, but ended up making it as instrumentalized as the economic rationality it was evoked to contrast with.

Emotional states, identity become end products to be publicized and validated rather than lived-in experiences. Our “moral and social competence” is a matter of executing the therapeutic narrative of self-discovery and self-betterment. “Narrating and being transformed by one’s narration are the very commodities produced, processed, and circulated by a wide cohort of professionals … and by media outlets.” This commodity — public identity — qualifies one for social recognition: see me, feel me, touch me, heal me; I have suffered. Rather it qualifies us for publicity.

Emotional competence becomes emotional capital, once a field is established in which reified emotionality is convertible into other forms of capital. Web 2.0 is such a field, though the “social factory” in general allows for this convertibility. Immaterial labor is more or less the process of turning emotions into other forms of capital. “The performance of the self is crucial to economic performance … Emotional intelligence reflects particularly well the emotional style and dispositions of the new middle classes … in intermediary positions, that is, which both control and are controlled, whose professions demand careful management of the self, who are tightly dependent on collaborative work, and who must use their self in both a creative and a productive way” (66). Emotional intelligence, then, indexes one’s potential as an immaterial laborer — my theory is that social networks are being relied on more and more to reveal emotional intelligence, to each other, to the state, to potential employers, and so on.

Sensibility worked similar changes — made men more suitable for the needs of capitalism, generating norms of cooperation, trust, negotiation, etc., necessary for developing the entanglement of relations necessary for growing the economy. But the man of feeling became a type; emotions become ambiguous in terms of their authenticity, as they acquired a strategic component.

With emotional capital viable, emotional capitalism flourishes as the manipulation of emotional states to achieve career goals, power, sellable products becomes an unmistakable opportunity, if not a necessary approach to cultural achievement and social recognition. Illouz defines it as a “culture in which emotional and economic discourses and practices mutually shape each other…. Affect is made an essential part of economic behavior and emotional life — especially that of the middle classes — follows the logic of economic relations and exchange” (5).

In the culture of emotional capitalism, emotions have become entities to be evaluated, inspected, dissected, bargained, quantified and commodified. In this process of inventing and deploying a wide battery and range of texts and classifications to manage and change the self,they have also contributed to creating a suffering self, that is, an identity organized and defined by its psychic lacks and deficiencies, which is incorporated back into the market through incessant injunctions to self-change and self-realization. Conversely, emotional capitalism has imbued economic transactions — in fact, most social relationships — with an unprecedented cultural attention to the linguistic management of emotions, making them the focus of strategies of dialogue, recognition, intimacy, and self-emancipation.

Emotional competence is fundamentally ambivalent, in Illouz’s view. Emotional self-awareness has genuine benefits (it is a “technology to reconcile individuality with the institutions within which it operates,” helping preserve a sense of self as it has become subject to constant external evaluation, as it has become necessary to “perform the self” for economic reasons) even as it reifies emotionality and subjects it to exchange and technological manipulation.

The most serious consequence is that “actors seem to be stuck, often against their will, in the strategic” approach to emotionality. The Internet exacerbates this, making rationalized interpersonal relations possible on a much larger scale and to a much greater degree, but wiping out the emotional, somatic aspects of these relations that make them viable, make them resonate. Illouz cites Jorge Arditi, who suggests that people have things in common that are too common, which makes relations somewhat generic, formulaic. (Her analysis of online dating is organized around this idea.) Illouz writes that “closeness results from the specificity and exclusivity shared between two entities. In this sense, nearness implies the sharing of ‘existentially generated meanings'” — inside jokes, lived reciprocity, common experiences that wouldn’t be elicited by surveys or self-help questionnaires or relationship counselors; the stuff that would be shared in advance as interests on a social-networking profile. Nearness, intimacy is precisely the stuff that moves us that we don’t predict in advance. Internet sociality tends to expect us to be adapt self-analysts and enforces the supposition that we can know what will move us predictably in advance.

This traps us into a cost-benefit approach to relationships that ultimately disappoints us, as it contradicts expectations inherited from previous constructs of romantic love. The discrete ontology posited for emotions makes them commensurable, exchangable, measurable, and thus subject to rational calculation, evaluatable by abstract criteria (as opposed to the demands of the moment). The capitalist acceleration of consumption then takes hold of relationships, meaning that our emotional choices and experiences are driven by considerations of convenience. Internet dating exemplifies this: It “has introduced to the realm of romantic encounters the principles of mass consumption based on an economy of abundance, endless choice, efficiency, rationalization, and standardization…. Romantic relations are not only organized within the market, but have themselves become commodities produced on an assembly line, to be consumed fast, efficiently, cheaply, and in great abundance.” Essentially a description of Facebook-style sociality.

These efficiency principles, however, undermine emotions’ ability to situate us in the world. “Therapeutic communication instills a procedural quality to emotional life which makes emotions lose their indexicality, their capacity to orient us quickly and unself-reflectively in the web of our everyday relationships.” Rather than operate on a “thin slicing”, “Blink”-style level of immediate judgment based on subtle physical cues, we become Spock-like in accordance to the ideology of therapy and deliberate analysis, of deploying language to control emotions — the prevailing mode, she argues of the Internet (at least in the pre-YouTube era in which this was written). The Internet is a collection of private selves — not a Habermasian public. It encourages the formation of an analytical self composed of answers to a series of questions about preferences in advance of social encounters, not developed through social interaction. So it promotes an inward turn, assessing one’s tastes and values as the same time it requires exhibitionism — publicly displaying the results of the inner quest to have them validated or recognized.