Monthly Archives: December 2011

Exhaustion of generic raw material

From Fredric Jameson, “Realism and Utopia in The Wire” (pdf)

Jameson points out how formulaic pop culture is losing some of its vitality with the reduction of all possible motives to one: greed. Capitalism, presumably, persuades us all that material advantage is the master motive: follow the money.

But we must also enumerate the shrinkage of motives for that indispensable ingredient: the murder. Not only did there used to exist an interesting variety of motives, they could be investigated by an interesting variety of private detectives, a species that seems to have become extinct. Social respectability — that is, the possibility of scandal and its damages; family structure and dynastic or clan systems; passions and obsessions of all kinds, from hatred and revenge to other complex psychic mechanisms—these are only some of the interesting sources for motivation that have become increasingly irrelevant in the permissiveness of contemporary society, its rootless and restless movement and postregionalism,
its loss of individualism and of bizarre eccentrics and obsessives — in short, its increasing one-dimensionality.

Thus today, paradoxically, the multiplication of consumer niches and the differentiation of “lifestyles” go hand in hand with the reduction of everything to the price tag and the flattening out of motivations to the sheerly financial: money, which used to be interesting in the variety of its pursuits, now becoming supremely boring as the universal source of action. The omnipresence of the word greed in all national political vocabularies recently disguises the flatness of this motivation, which has none of the passionate or obsessive quality of older social drives and the older literature that drew on them as its source. Meanwhile,
the psychic realm has also been drastically reduced, perhaps in part as a result of the omnipresence of money as an all-purpose motivation, perhaps also as a result of the familiarities of universal information and communication and the flattening of the individualisms… society today is one from which, for all kinds of reasons (and probably good ones), difference is vanishing and, along with it, evil itself.

This means that the melodramatic plot, the staple of mass culture (along with romance), becomes increasingly unsustainable.

Evil becomes inconceivable because greed is all too conceivable, and is written into everyone’s character to varying degrees. Some will obey the rules placed around when and how to rationally pursue one’s advantages; others won’t. As a result, pop culture becomes increasingly unable to deal credibly with moral subjects.

It never ceases to startle me that a brilliant thinker can be such a bad writer. It challenges some of my preconceptions about language and thought.

Collective identity and the coming festivalization of culture

Interesting bit from Bill Wasik’s Wired article about technology and riots:

To Stott, members of a crowd are never really “on their own.” Based on a set of ideas that he and other social psychologists call ESIM (Elaborated Social Identity Model), Stott believes crowds form what are essentially shared identities, which evolve as the situation changes. We might see a crowd doing something that appears to us to be just mindless violence, but to those in the throng, the actions make perfect sense.

By contrast, Stott sees crowds as the opposite of ruleless, and crowd violence as the opposite of senseless: What seems like anarchic behavior is in fact governed by a shared self-conception and thus a shared set of grievances. Stott’s response to the riots has been unpopular with many of his countrymen. Unlike Zimbardo, who would respond—and indeed has responded over the years—to incidents of group misbehavior by speaking darkly of moral breakdown, Stott brings the focus back to the long history of societal slights, usually by police, that primed so many young people to riot in the first place.

Fits in with the idea that collective subjectivity is real but was systematically surpresed by top-down media in the 20th century. Protocols of neoliberalism and post-Fordism has necessitated the loosening of those strictures to capitalize on cooperation and Virnoesque virtuosity and immaterial labor and so on, but along with that loosening comes the potential formation of these spontaneous rogue mob subjectivities that avenge the ongoing exploitation. Seems to me this in turn will lead to an increased festivalization of culture, with programmed carnivals designed to form these collectives in controlled space-times and vent their anti-establishment energies.

It’s about being part of a group that has long felt invisible (no radio, no TV) despite the existence of enormous numbers. One might call this the emergence of mega-undergrounds, groups of people for whom the rise of Facebook and Twitter has laid bare the disconnect between their real scale and the puny extent to which the dominant culture recognizes them. For these groups, suddenly coalescing into a crowd feels like stepping out from the shadows, like forcing society to respect the numbers that they now know themselves to command.

Social media and the "prestige area"

I have been reading C. Wright Mills’s White Collar, which is by turns excruciatingly dull and empirical, and then brilliantly prescient and polemical. It’s boring when he is doing the impossible work of describing society in terms of how many people are doing this job or that job and so forth, but great when he starts coining phrases like “cheerful robots” and “managerial demiurge” and begins speculating on how media intersect with emerging middle-class ideology.

In a chapter called “The Status Panic” Mills analyzes the function of prestige in the U.S., where the bases for it are “ambivalent and unstable” and as a result, “the enjoyment of prestige is often disturbed and uneasy.” Mainly he’s talking about the shift from work-based prestige to consumption-based prestige, which is one way of understanding how consumerism came to be dominant. He details the different “prestige areas” that different strata have to operate in and how media create new ones, or expand those which already exist. Traditionally you were dealing with neighbors and townsfolk and so on. The media prompts invidious comparison wiht idealized insecurity-making celebrity types. Social media means you are dealing with everybody you have ever known and lots of other curious strangers.

Mills connects communication with prestige, pointing out that communication can be geared to not convey information but prompt invidious comparison.

Some communication system is needed to cover any prestige area, and in modern times, with the enlargement of prestige areas, ‘being seen’ in the formal media is taken as a basis of status claims as well as a cashing of them.

The media thereby creates “status markets” in which the signifiers of prestige begin to more rapidly turnover. Media also allowed different strata to observe others outside of their ordinary run of life and develop disproportionate expectations for themselves.

I wonder if the prestige area generates the media system appropriate to it, as Mills seems to be thinking, or if the media system enables new forms of prestige, defines new prestige areas technologically, as the brief history of social media suggests. I think the key idea is Mills’s sense that media “agitate” prestige areas — they generate a “status panic” which churns the meanings of status symbols and generates incentives for a variety of consumer behaviors.

When media coverage was a scarcer good — when media was more tightly controlled and required more capital to transmit — pure visibility signified status. Obviously social media is in the process of changing that, but there seems to be a ideological hangover that leads us to still think of attention in the abstract as being prestigious.

This HBR article by Daniel Gulati notes that Facebook is “creating a den of comparison” — that is, it is broadening the prestige area, leaving less space for us to operate outside of the concern for how we are coming across. I don’t live in a Brooklyn neighborhood for this reason; I want to go home somewhere that I won’t feel perpetually judged (assuming I can quell internal paranoia). Facebook means you can never go home, never escape. It wants to open the possibility that the whole of life be subsumed within a prestige area by mediatizing everything.