Monthly Archives: September 2012

"Symbolic efficiency," "liquid modernity" and identity-capacity

I am mainly concerned lately with how “becoming oneself” has turned into a crappy job — a compulsory low-paying, low-skill job. Rather than work within the accepted constraints of an inherited identity and embrace the pleasures that that identity defines as possible and sufficient, we are sentenced to continually develop our identity in an unlimited field, finding only fleeting pleasure in the midst of perpetual structural dissatisfaction.

Somehow our capacity to have an identity has become someone else’s capital stock; we are driven to add labor to that raw material to make profits for the owners of our digitized identity containers — the social media sites and device makers and so on. Interiority has become a factory; social media the showroom floor.

But what turned our identity-capacity into alienable capital? Do we just blame modernity and technological change for eroding the traditions and limitations on which stable identity was once based? Or to invert that, is technology to be credited for expanding our identity capacity, for removing the time-space limits that once constrained it and made “working” on who we are a possibility no one thought to consider?

Related question: Is capital concentrating on the technology that opens up the field of identity making because it satisfies individuals’ demands for “freedom” to be who they want to be, or is that how capital is selling an intrusive, invasive technology that aggressively dissolves personal integrity in order to make more malleable raw material? Technology makes workers more “abstract” in the sense that they are more amenable to doing “whatever” and even embrace the pursuit of novelty for its own sake as an expansion of their personal capabilities. (Oh, I know, evolution programmed us to love novelty, and various regions of the brain light up on MRIs when we are distracted by something new, and capitalism is a perfect expression of our evolutionary destiny as a species. Criticism is meaningless, etc.)

Jodi Dean’s use of “symbolic efficiency” (borrowed from Žižek, who adapted it from Lacan) offers one way of theorizing this condition. For Dean and Žižek, the loss of symbolic efficiency means we have a hard time believing in the sort of expert systems and ideological constructs we are supposed to believe in to fix our identity within socially sanctioned limits. The problem of course is that society now sanctions chiefly limitlessness for personal identity; family, religion, etc. are mostly outmoded by the technologically enhanced pursuit of experience that we can record and recirculate to enrich the media circuits of “communicative capitalism.”

Dean writes in Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies, “we never really know whether what we say registers with the other as what we mean as well as our sense that we are never quite sure what ‘everybody knows:’ There is no ultimate guarantor of meaning, no recognized authority that stops our questioning or assuages our doubts.” No big Other to believe in or to do the believing for us.

In the absence of guarantees that the rightness or wrongness of our life choices is stable — a loss of faith in the language in circulation to talk about such things as duty, honor, virtue, etc. — we fall into the trap of pursuing quantity of experience instead. The given identity from society tends to be that of an insatiable consumer, the residual identity left after other identity groups are destabilized. “As a result of the critical work of these [social] movements, as well as the accompanying decline of the welfare state and empowering of neoliberalism, racial, sexual, and ethnic identities are less fixed, less stable, less available as determinate subject positions.” The result, Dean argues, is a shift from a “Keynesian to a neoliberal ideological formation” in which identity is open-ended, not fixed by ISAs.

Neoliberal ideology does not produce its subjects by interpellating them into symbolically anchored identities (structured according to conventions of gender, race, work, and national citizenship). Instead, it enjoins subjects to develop our creative potential and cultivate our individuality. Communicative capitalism’s circuits of entertainment and consumption supply the ever new experiences and accessories we use to perform this self-fashioning-I must be fit! I must be stylish! I must realize my dreams. I must because I can— everyone wins. If I don’t, not only am I a loser but I am not a person at all. I am not part of everyone. Neoliberal subjects are expected to, enjoined to, have a good time, have it all, be happy, fit, and fulfilled.

The end of the welfare state and decline of symbolic efficiency may appear to usher in a new era of freedom from rigid norms and expectations. But the fluidity and adaptability of imaginary identities is accompanied by a certain fragility and insecurity. Imaginary identities are incapable of establishing a firm place to stand, a position from which one can make sense of one’s world. Moreover, their very mutability and normative indeterminacy, configure imaginary identities as key loci for operations of control (rather than internalized discipline), particularly those operations affiliated with desire and fear as they promise and provide enjoyment.

To put that another way, we are hailed not as somebody specific, but as someone with crucial potential and we must not disappoint. We are hailed as someone who should be happy and we must fulfill that expectation on alien terms. We are constrained to be strive for happiness; happiness is never allowed to be understood as complacency. It’s personality kaizen: a requirement to constantly improve our capacity for pleasure and our efficiency in pursuing it and our flexibility in experiencing it. “The consumer today is imagined as excessive,
extreme, and unregulated. She is imagined, in other words, as a composite of the neoliberal market itself.”

Zygmunt Bauman, in Liquid Modernity, offers a similar analysis of our anchorlessness, and how this leaves us vulnerable:

It is such patterns, codes and rules to which one could conform, which one could select as stable orientation points and by which one could subsequently let oneself be guided, that are nowadays in increasingly short supply. It does not mean that our contemporaries are guided solely by their own imagination and resolve and are free to construct their mode of life from scratch and at will, or that they are no longer dependent on society for the building materials and design blueprints. But it does mean that we are presently moving from the era of pre allocated ‘reference groups’ into the epoch of ‘universal comparison’, in which the destination of individual self-constructing labours is endemically and incurably underdetermined, is not given in advance, and tends to undergo numerous and profound changes before such labours reach their only genuine end: that is, the end of the individual’s life.

There is no respite from self-construction; it’s a cathedral that can’t be completed. And the inevitable failures and shortcomings of our identity in progress, our inevitable disappointment with what we have and what we see being promised, what others seem to be allowed to enjoy, becomes our fault. Politics seems not to be a viable avenue to addressing our disgruntlement; instead soul-searching and more and more elaborate consumption, and just as important, mediated declarations of who we think we are by virtue of that consumption.