Monthly Archives: February 2011

personal brand as neoliberal subjectivity, fashion industry as modeling circuit for development of such a self

There’s probably some theoretical jargon I could find to describe what’s going on with Google’s initiatives in the fashion industry, but I can’t think of it right now. From Silicon Alley Insider:

What Google has done for the industry is set up a digital listening post. By providing “Designer Analytics,” Google gives the boutique owners a deep dive into the habits of shoppers, telling them not just what they are buying, but why. They are given information about what specific products are “loved” or “hated”, what colors, shapes and patterns are resonating or not. Then there is a totally different, and broader, data set on the consumer trends. Here the designers learn what is happening in the aggregate to all designers, not just themselves. So industry trends in color, shapes and patterns can emerge from the general public.

Besides helping the designers find their audience, Boutiques.com is also designed to help the shopper find what he or she is looking for.

Google describes the service on the site this way:

“Boutiques.com is a personalized shopping experience, brought to you by Google, that lets you find and discover fashion goods through a collection of boutiques curated by taste-makers — celebrities, stylists, designers, and fashion bloggers. Boutiques uses visual technology to help fashionistas discover and shop their look and creates the opportunity for designers to showcase their collections and latest inspirations online.

“Boutiques.com is built on technology developed by our team of fashion experts who work with engineers to “teach” our computer systems to understand various patterns, pairings, and genre definitions. When signed into your account, Boutiques.com learns about your style and preferences and in turn, provides you better results and recommendations over time. Ultimately, Boutiques.com will provide shoppers with a much richer and interactive shopping experience and help drive traffic to retailers’ websites.”

Consumer behavior is fed more directly into production; it doesn’t expend itself in the creation of the consumer’s self-image. The pleasure consumers take in consuming by way of self-presentation is recaptured by manufacturers and used to shape subsequent designs, tightening the loop, accelerating it. We don’t buy a shirt and wear it and that’s that. Now the degree to which we are satisfied by the purchase, the various modes of satisfaction, are fed back into the production cycle as a component of the manufacturing process.

Consumption becomes much more directly a part of production. The self we postulate with the shirt in this example is already aware of itself as bearing that R&D responsibility; the personal brand is at stake in the degree to which one’s personal efforts to be fashionable are recaptured. The success of the self depends on the success of its usefulness to industry as fashion R&D. Accordingly, the self is an ongoing experimental space, not ever anything secure or established — it is always a capital stock to be risked in ventures, not something that exceeds or exists outside of the dynamics of the market. This is a triumph for neoliberalism and its imposing a fundamentally entrepreneurial subjectivity. We exist insofar as we see ourselves profiting, we see our personal brand equity growing (or, alas, shrinking). We don’t exist when we refuse to see how our brand plays in the market-driven world.

The online repository becomes the site of the self — the way in which the recommendation engines and tracking databases know better than we do what we want, what we should see, what we are going to do, what sorts of choices we would like to have presented to us to give us a sense of control over the actual surfeit of possibilities. The self naturally requires markets and retailers to supply it with the terms by which is can express itself, realize itself, give itself instantiated being. We rely on those accelerated exchanges, which are our opportunities to speak the self.

So we end up in symbiosis with digital devices which archive our identity-making gestures. Because the devices can record all our gestures, they all become identity making in the end — no activity that is not overtly self-defining. To overstate it: One’s identity can never be so strong as to render particular gestures negligible. The identity is always tenuous, always being rewritten anew by each addition to the archive. So it is cumulative at the same time it is totally discontinuous. Each addition generates an entirely new formulation from a selected set of gestures from the archive.

The neoliberal self is the personal brand, which depends on accelerated opportunities for consumerist exchange to augment and evaluate itself, know it exists.

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MIchael Bull’s Sound Moves

A bit repetitive, as though it were article expanded into a book. It consists mainly of snippets from interviews with iPod users, and seems a little dated. Offers insight into a time before iPod’s capabilities were taken for granted. The interesting aspect of the book is the argument about iPods reflecting post-Fordist subjectivity. They allow users to dictate the feel of the space they occupy and are invited to believe they have escaped the imposition of conformity by “mass culture”. They can alter the sound world of the workplace to ostensibly suit their needs — do they opt out of immaterial labor and the general intellect this way?

Urban life doesn’t impose its rhythms and symbols on them so much as they impose a soundtrack on their journey through urban spaces, taking in from those spaces only what suits them and blotting out the rest. They “subjectivize space — consume it as if it were a commodity. In the process, immediate experience is fetishized…. Users prefer to live in this technologized space whereby experience is brought under control — aesthetically managed and embodied — whilst the contingent nature of urban space and the ‘other’ is denied.” Basically, iPods foster the illusion of control by imposing sensory deprivation. We become dependent on them to “feel free” and autonomous, withdrawing to its tiny space, where we are lord and master.

Because we can carry so much music with us, we stop letting music dictate a mood to us; we choose music to suit our attitude. We don’t listen; we deploy music as mood enhancer or stimulant or whatever.

Also, iPods are a polite means by which we permit ourselves to ignore everyone else. “The use of these technologies simultaneously fulfills the desire for, or management of, social proximity.” That is, we use them to control social presence, to moderate (through socially accepted means — accepted perhaps because they are new technologies and that excuses the rudeness), our level of engagement with others in public spaces.

Rebranding the American system to include redistribution

From Steve Waldman at Interfluidity:

Health care costs are millions of people’s livelihood, and inefficient health care costs are a big part of that. Much of how modern economies survive is by protecting information problems and barriers to competition that sustain overpayments. This broadens the wealth distribution while permitting recipients the fiction that flows of purchasing power involve no transfers (“welfare”), only proud, self-reliant income. The theory of labor unions and the theory of an inefficient health sector are identical, except one is more transparent and the other has proved more capable of buying political protection. The problem, in both cases, is not that there are transfers, but whether the distribution of transfers — to whom, from whom — is wise and fair. By forcing ourselves to pretend there are no transfers, we prevent ourselves from even posing the question.

Perhaps I am a creature of the conventional wisdom of my day, but I want to tell it strong. It is not those who advocate, but those who prevent, stabilizing transfers of purchasing power, who are the true Marxists. These self-styled capitalists do not espouse Marx’s theories, but they do something much worse: They perform them. They behave in precisely the way that Marx expected capitalists to behave. They cripple the American system’s greatest strength — its ingenuity, flexibility, adaptability. They prevent the sort of collective action through which earlier generations proved that capitalism could made be consonant with decent, stable, and broadly prosperous societies. In doing so, they risk proving Marx right.

Not only do I agree with the substance, here, but I think Waldman is doing something interesting rhetorically, which enacts the point he is trying to make.

The way I would put what he is saying is that with redistributionist welfare policies (which are necessary to stabilize a capitalist economy), ideology is everything. They must be presented in a way that masks incidental injustices and preserves the fiction of individual autonomy to the highest degree, for in that autonomy, more or less, resides the quality of life the system is erected to maintain. Not material wealth or endless distraction, but the sense that one is the author of one’s own life within an essentially open social field. I would argue that we intentionally prevent ourselves as a society from “posing the question” of the fairness of transfers, since scrutiny unwinds the idea most of us are not in reality children at the mercy of a paternalistic government. Posing the question (Marxists might call it “highlighting the contradictions” or something like that) presents the possibility of disrupting the necessary transfers, which, as Waldman notes, are the way government solves the collective-action problem that capitalist accumulation creates (i.e. all capitalists must be rapacious and accumulate for its own sake or else be extinguished through remorseless competition). Instead the illusion of unrestricted freedom allows us to tolerate the hidden subsidies, the cronyism, the intermittently manifest inequality.

But whereas in other countries, this evolving regime of transfers is labeled social democracy or even socialism, Waldman tries to assimilate it to capitalism itself — to the real “American system,” not the conservative free-market fantasy version of it — and argue that the only successful capitalist societies are the ones that take on these socialistic redistributionist elements. He’s essentially rebranding American capitalism: it’s not the deregulated libertarian marketplace; it’s a mixed economy that balances entrepreneurial ambition with social welfare. Its innovative engine is not a matter of deregulating and finding new ways to profit, but in finding new and cleverer ways to solve capitalism’s collective action problem.

The point then is to redefine the American system to include different standards of fairness and social welfare — to fight on that ideological terrain — without pretending to be making nonideological statements yourself. Instead, seem to concede to the opposing view will hijacking their preferred terminology.