Monthly Archives: May 2013

Conceptualism and populism

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The quote above is from “Escape Attempts,” the prologue of art critic Lucy Lippard’s Six Years, an account of Conceptual Art’s emergence in the late 1960s. It reminded me of what I was trying to get it in these posts about alt lit and Tumblr as staging ground for community-building as art practice. I want to treat them as the return of Conceptual Art in a new, technologized guise. Lippard defines conceptual art as “work in which the idea is paramount and the material form is secondary, lightweight, ephemeral, cheap, unpretentious, and/or ‘dematerialized.’ ” To me, that sounds like a description of art practices on Tumblr, which is as ephemeral and dematerialized as can be. Often it aspires to unpretentiousness as well — not much pretension in the craft of making an image macro or gif. It purports to stand outside the traditional art world and be open to everyone.

Conceptual Art, like Tumblr, posited a DIY art world without the institutional baggage, where people make art fast and pure and circulate it through spontaneous, ad hoc channel, reaching “real” audiences beyond the art world who “really” need the invigorating, therapeutic balm of art:

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Likewise, on Tumblr, direct relations between artists and audiences allow them all to assuage their loneliness or powerlessness in the face of “existing information networks” and the privilege they enshrine.

But whereas traditionally, democratizing the art world was a matter of letting talent trump  connectedness, on Tumblr, connectedness is by default an important formal element in everything posted there. The “notes” are listed right with the work. Far from allowing talent to escape being eclipsed by networking skill, It foregrounds networking skill as a huge part of craft. The barriers of participation are much lower, but the nature of participation is skewed toward making connections rather than art. If your post has no notes, you didn’t actually make it. In that Cluster mag conversation I mentioned in the previous post, Molly Soda says, “Reblogs. Favs. If nobody reblogs you, you’re worthless. Say you had a blog and no one ever looked at it, but you wrote on it everyday and posted what you thought was interesting content—would you keep doing it if no one looked at it?”

To address the tension between making things and connecting, the artists in a community can adopt as a norm a supposedly inclusive disposition meant to undermine elitism and the emphasis on who you know. With alt lit, it seems that earnestness is supposed to be the formal marker of inclusiveness; with other kinds of Tumblr art, the populist gestures can manifest as ironic attacks on the shibboleths of the tech world or traditional art market. Sometimes these two different approaches work off of each other — the earnestness as an “authentic” alternative to the jaded posturing of the ironists; the irony as liberatingly impersonal alternative to the humid narcissism of the earnest.

But in the end these dispositions are not inherently inclusive or liberating or democratic. The network form that Tumblr imposes and that users can integrate into their work doesn’t automatically confer populism, “community” or “accessibility.” Instead it can put brackets around “community” and threaten to turn it into a concept, an art subject rather than an effect that art has on an audience. In other words, making connections becomes synonymous with making art. Being social in itself becomes the art practice, as in relational aesthetics.

Lippard writes as a disillusioned former enthusiast for the democratic potential of conceptual art, whose “dematerialization of the art object” she hoped would protect artists from the corruption of the art market.

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But the conceptual artists were soon assimilated, and their ephemera sold on the market as totems of their creative aura. Lippard concludes that “clearly whatever minor revolutions in communications have been achieved by the process of dematerializing the object” — and for that we can read “digitizing the object” or “embracing social media” — “art and artist in a capitalist society remain luxuries.”

This is what capitalism does in its process of co-optation. It turns genuine efforts at “democratic outreach” and inclusive creativity into bastions of reinvigorated privilege, often against the will of those being invested with privilege almost behind their backs. The “broader audience” — the one that might have engaged art in a way that bypasses the cultural capital and class habitus traditionally necessary to “appreciate” art correctly — gets turned off, or is abandoned. Instead, a new generation of art-world insiders is forged by their very determination to remain outside.

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Productivity of loneliness

a diagram of two personalities

Nothing is more prone to make me feel lonely than looking at social media. Yet when I feel lonely, looking at social media is one of the first things I do.

That is a little too neatly formulated, though; I’m often not aware that “loneliness” is the affect I am experiencing. It registers in different ways — obscure feelings of dread, ambient shame, a nagging feeling of having forgotten something, a dull sulkiness when confronted with evidence of other people’s joy. It’s never that I am thinking, “Hey, I’m lonely, I think I will go online!” Admitting loneliness feels like such a mark of failure to me that I usually have to be deep into my coping strategies before acknowledging it to myself.

I wonder whether this reluctance to admit loneliness makes my coping strategies for dealing with it into instances of cruel optimism, accommodations that don’t resolve the problem but rather ensure it will persist as a suboptimal status quo. You like being lonely! Look at all the blogging you get done!

A comment by “Tumblr princess” Molly Soda in this Cluster magazine conversation between her, Jesse Darling, and Rosemary Kirton started me thinking about this. Responding to a question about the kind of work she does on Tumblr, characterized by Kirton as “emotional or intimate labor for which there is a demand but no societal recognition,” Soda says:

Honestly, I’ve never thought of my Internet presence as a service. If anything, I’ve always seen it as selfish, or self-indulgent. The way I’ve interacted with the Internet has always been to secure some form of validation, and the reason I share so much is because I want to know that others feel the same way, or have been there, or can at least sympathize, or give me words of encouragement or I don’t know. I think a lot of people use the Internet—and specifically blogging platforms like Tumblr or Livejournal or Blogspot—as a way to combat loneliness. If anything I think my relationship with my readers/fans/other bloggers is symbiotic… they help me cope, just as I help them.

It seems like there is some performative humility in this and possibly some protective disavowal to shelter her work from a misrepresentative analysis or from being aggressively sociologized. But that she calls her relationship to the community she has helped catalyze as both “selfish” and “symbiotic” seems to reflect the way symbiosis on Tumblr is not a fusion of collaborative parties into a single organism but rather a matter of economistic exchanges among them — lonely people reciprocating, instead than leaving behind loneliness in a collective subjectivity. Yes, that is a lot to demand of a content-management system, I know, but nonetheless, Tumblr encourages alone-togetherness in the way it makes recognition take preformatted, quantifiable forms. The medium encourages seeing recognition as exchangeable currency, discrete trackable traces rather than a boundary-dissolving affect.

Tumblr posts are thus wagers for accumulating that currency, for gathering “strokes,” to use analyst Eric Berne’s terminology from Games People Play, his 1964 book that launched a fad for calling out other people’s manipulative behavior as “mind games.” (Darling mentions “strokes” and Berne’s “transactional analysis” in the conversation.) But when you’re gathering strokes, you’re also consenting to keep playing the game that seems to make it urgently necessary to get more and more strokes.

Berne argues in his book that we are saddled with an existential deficit of strokes stemming from childhood (Mamma don’t go!) and are doomed to be insatiable for all our lives. Molly Soda concurs: “I think everything human beings do boils down to insecurity,” she says.

When work is posted on social media sites, there seems to be little choice but to evaluate it in terms of attention, as if organizing a community of supporters and building up likes to ease the insecurity of abandonment is the entire purpose of making things, writing things, posting things. But that’s not true, is it? The medium imposes attention as evaluative mechanism on the work, which makes it seem like attention-seeking was the artist’s original intention retrospectively. The echo chambers of community boosterism online can reinforce this impression, as though work was created to send out ripples of mutual appreciation and nothing more. When the work is done by women, as in the “girlswarms” of producer/consumers on Tumblr discussed in the Cluster conversation, there is a sexist tendency to dismiss it as mere emo-narcissism. (I’ve certainly been guilty of this.)

I’m no transactional analyst, but I don’t think we are always driven by insecurity. I think capitalism functions by manufacturing insecurity (or envy) and persuading us to call it desire. I believe that certain environments and practices make our attention hunger worse. I’ve tried to make the case in the past that social media make it worse, mainly by inserting users into an “attention economy” while alienating them from less combustible gratifications of routine social life. The apparent potential for sociality in social media renders routine social life inadequate; social media can also roil that social life with manufactured drama that feels more devastating, as the Internet makes it seemingly permanent and public.

Social media, however, certainly seem to assuage loneliness, even though they might only be harnessing it. The question is whether Tumblr work like Soda’s mitigates a pre-existing loneliness that people had already been experiencing and would have continued to experience without it, or does such work actually create demand for Molly Soda’s “product” (immediate loneliness relief) by exacerbating lonely feeling in the long-term? Performing affective labor seems to only create more demand for more affective labor; the load is never lessened.

If this labor is necessary, who is it necessary for? Does it reproduce a miserable status quo by helping people cope with it? To what degree is it producing gender as it is processing loneliness? The “Tumblr Teen-Girl Aesthetic” gets linked to Tiqqun’s Young-Girl (a intensely capitalistic subjectivity engendered to generate insecurity and desire and rationalize capitalism’s fetishization of youth, novelty, sexuality, etc.)  because of this suspicion, that the affective “intimate” labor that Molly Soda, et al., perform goes toward reproducing the conditions of female objecthood that make their recuperative work necessary. Viewed from the outside, “girl-swarm” Tumblr communities can seem to validate and redeem the “Young-Girl” subjectivity rather than dismantle it, as they often trade in the tropes of self-objectification, exhibitionism, seduction, self-diminution as means to evoke intensity, an overwhelmedness. A life less lonely.

Capitalism feeds on such intensities, appropriating them wherever it can find them. It is not restricted to female production. (The stereotypical male equivalent is possibly porn consumption/redistribution, or maybe the proliferation of discourse spawned by fantasy sports leagues.) Social media incubate these kind of intensities while rendering them productive, exploitable. Could they have been felt by any other means?

It’s a lot easier to feel lonely once you’ve had a feeling of belonging somewhere; all that’s necessary is for that belonging to seem fleeting, precarious. I think this is built in to online social media to a certain extent, because the sense of companionate presence is ghostly, elusive — it demands of people a ton of production in the form of likes and posts and comments to manifest itself, and even then it’s asynchronous. You remain alone in time, if not in space, or vice versa.

I sometimes am reminded to feel lonely by looking at Twitter. Then I feel terribly left out. This usually prompts me a powerful urge to want to Tweet things to relieve the pressure. But of course, if someone has tweeted at me, I feel disproportionately appreciated, cosmically significant. I’m lulled into thinking some quantity of attention will resolve loneliness once and for all. But I am not sure it works that way. Attention doesn’t solve loneliness, absorption in an activity does. Checking Twitter doesn’t quite rise to the level of “activity,” though writing blog posts like this one might.

I wonder whether my steady engagement with social media has made me develop a taste for oscillating between loneliness and transcendence that’s stronger than the wish to simply not be lonely. The rebounding between moods makes me feel productive, it prompts me to generate a trail, it makes me curious, voyeuristic; it keeps me scrolling. At times I think the productivity of loneliness is underappreciated. In the so-called social factory, modulating levels of loneliness can serve as a powerful productivity tool. Just as high-frequency traders thrive on volatility rather than steady upward growth, social-media producers thrive on chaotic mood swings rather than stable, ongoing contentment.

But maybe the affect at stake in Tumblr work like Soda’s isn’t the loneliness of the creators — that noble Romantic source of inspiration. It may make more sense to see it as an art practice that denies a privileged space for a detached observer — a space that men in particular are accustomed to occupying. That is, it incites loneliness in the viewers who approach it the wrong way, the passive viewers who are not at the same time producing something for the collective, who are not part of the swarm.

Archival subjectivity

The idea of the subject as archive, or subjectivity as documentation (rather than something that is documented after the fact), seems to be cropping up a lot recently. I’ve been pushing the idea of an archive-based “data self” for a while now, so I’m excited to see this. It seems to me that ubiquitous surveillance will be the fundamental fact about subjectivity from here on out, though its effects can take all sorts of forms — there can be all sorts of theories about it.

new e-flux essay by Boris Groys on “art workers” argues that utopian dreams about identity as expressed in art have shifted over time. (It’s weird to equate art making with identity construction and self-expression, perhaps, but we’ll leave that aside.) Modernism sought a true self that was different from that assigned by contingent circumstances of birth and upbringing and so on — “the utopian impulse is always related to the desire of the subject to break out of its own historically defined identity,” he claims. Yet postmodernism, he concedes, hoped to dissolve identity into deterritorialized flows and free play and escape the limitations of bourgeois individualism. This is an escape from imputed identity not toward some inner true self but toward open-ended no-self.

Now in the Internet era, in which everything is traceable and deterritorialization is impossible — “On the internet, every free-floating signifier has an address,” Groys notes, “the circulation of digital data produces not copies, but new originals” — the utopian aspiration is for a hermeneutically impermeable subjectivity: “It is the dream of an unbreakable code word that can forever protect our subjectivity. We want to define ourselves as a secret that would be even more secretive than the ontological secret — the secret that even God cannot discover.” Groys basically thinks subjectivity has become a password: “the contemporary subject is defined as an owner of a set of passwords that he or she knows—and that other people do not know. The contemporary subject is primarily a keeper of a secret.” 

That doesn’t really follow to me; I think boyd and Marwick’s idea that we are all becoming “social steganographers” — using codes to baffle unwanted audiences and achieve affective privacy — is more persuasive. In other words, the search for the master password is a social process that never ends; people don’t see identity as a static secret to be locked in an impregnable digital cave, but as a fluid thing defined by trusted peers who get updates on (or co-construct) the changing codes being used to express it. I’m not sure if Groys is suggesting that the task for the artist today is to make the aesthetic equivalent of uncrackable passwords; uninterpretable objects that can house subjectivity safely, protect it from the internet’s archiving and algorithmic processing and endless recirculation and potentially hostile repurposing.

Some of what Groys writes reminds me a lot of Brad Troemel’s New Inquiry essay about Athletic Aesthetics, but where Groys seems to lament that artists no longer have the luxury of a studio space in which to nurture “true-self” creativity, Troemel seems to celebrate this. Groys frets that artists have become bloggers and that art’s aura has been lost, artists are in Internet “hell,” he writes. Troemel, by contrast, seems much more optimistic about the artist’s productivity becoming the masterpiece, championing  the continual public reassertion of creativity over a mystified private summoning of the cosmic muse. This builds a more direct link with audiences, whereas the old ideal of the artist genius working in private was built on the untenable notion that great artists don’t even think about their audiences, don’t need them.

I think Groys’s comments about the impact of an inevitable personal archive are more reasonable: 

In a certain sense, the archive gives to the subject the hope of surviving one’s own contemporaneity and revealing one’s true self in the future because the archive promises to sustain and make accessible this subject’s texts or artworks after his or her death. This utopian or, at least, heterotopian promise is crucial to the subject’s ability to develop a distance from and critical attitude towards its own time and its own immediate audience.

The archive doesn’t merely capture the past, it extends the ephemeral into the future, offering people the fantasy of rediscovery, or favorable reinterpretation. (My version of this is that the self is actually deferred to the future; it’s a product of how the archive is received.) To honor the utopian promise of archives, we should embrace “decontextualization and reenactment of individual phenomena from the past” rather than faithful “historical recontextualization.” 

At Mute, Yuk Hui’s “Archivist Manifesto” starts from the same premise, that “we are archivists, since we have to be. We don’t have choice. This decision is already made, or determined by the contemporary technological condition.” Hui links the everyday tending of personal archives with Foucault’s notion of the care of the self and Simondon’s ideas about “technological humanism.” Since “the development of archival tools embeds a large extent of deskilling,” this process must be actively resisted to preserve the semblance of individual autonomy — Hui proposes we take a more active approach to constructing the metadata about ourselves, managing how search engines represent our archives.

My reading of this is that this is what selfhood, subjectivity, has become — a consciousness of metadata. We may perhaps project into the future of how we might be found out through various search terms and play to them, but I think metadata categories are imposed on us, and we embrace them as truth, as a new dimension of what makes our experiences “real.” We don’t know what or who we are until our data is properly tagged.

Hui wants us to reist such “crowdsourcing” of archives in favor of an ethic of care. That reminds me of the surveillance scholar David Lyon Levinasian hope that visibility will foster relations of care between lateral surveillants; one way this can surface is that we will make the most favorable sorts of metadata more salient for our loved ones, make their virtues more searchable. This seems like it could complement steganography as a way to accommodate the loss of privacy as something we could passively take for granted. Now we need our social groups to actively help us build privacy for ourselves — establishing obscurity by co-operating on establishing the terms by which we will be seen by outsiders, protecting one another from  their search-engine-driven invasions of the social-media archive. 

“A pattern of privacies”

I randomly came across art critic T.J. Clark’s “Modernism, Postmodernism, and Steam” and decided to read it because it had some analysis of one of my favorite paintings, Manet’s Le Chemin de fer:

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Clark points out what has always struck me most about it, the uncomfortably short distance between the viewer and the figures depicted: “The girl and the governess are put in a space that is more like a cage than a terrain vague. From railings to picture plane there are no more than two or three feet.” No wonder the woman looks annoyed, as though we’ve interrupted her reading and now we’re crowding her by looking. I like how Clark wants to give an optimistic read of this but then talks himself out of it:

The governess is reading and dreaming. For a moment she may be all outwardness and facingness, but she still has two fingers keeping her place in her book. Maybe steam could also be a metaphor for the freedom of the imagination. But then we look again at those implacable railings, dividing and ruling the rectangle, pressing everything up to the picture surface. Surfaces are too easily organized, that is the trouble with modern mobility and anonymity. Always in the new city freedom (evanescence) is the other side of frozenness and constraint.

Clark takes the steam as representative of modern instability, the anomie and potentiality that  Simmel describes in the “Metropolis and Mental Life,” which some can face and others can’t. But that changeability, that fantasy of infinite urban possibility, is also an illusion, something that taunts us from the other side of the fence. The more immediate reality is intrusion, surveillance, professionalized care relationships like that of a governess for her charge.

Modernity was making the world a “pattern of privacies — of appetites, possessions, accumulations.” Clark sees Manet’s girl as an expression of this seemingly hopeful promise, whereas the governess suggests the flip side of control, the process of inculcating standardization at a deeper level than public conformity. Modernity made for individuated subjects and media-marshaled masses simultaneously; it begins to enact control through individuated desire, through the freedom of consumer choice. It aspired toward “absolute material lucidity” through total standardization or rationalization.

Modernist art, Clark argues, is a response to modernity, an attempt to express those conflicted ideals and test them.

Modernism is the form formalism took in conditions of modernity — the form it took as it tried to devise an answer to modernity. And that form was stressed and aberrant. Either formal order was foregrounded — one might say fetishized — to the point that it registered as positively an imposition, a prefabrication, a set of machine-made templates. Or form was dispersed — pushed toward the point of emptiness or mere random juxtaposition — discovered always on the verge of incompetence or arbitrariness… Modernism is the art that continually discovers coherence and intensity in tentativeness and schematism, or blankness lurking on the other side of sensuousness.

In modernism. “formalism was extremism,” Clark writes.

All this reminded me of this Time article about the campaign against skeuomorphism. Skeuomorphs are digital objects that are designed to mimic their functional analogues in nondigital space: a “trash can” on a computer, for example, or a digital bookshelf that displays the epub files on an iPad, or this whole trompe l’oeil shelf motif in OS X’s dock:

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Interface designers, in a modernist gesture, want to do away with them entirely, which, as the Time article points out, will make for a fairly user-unfriendly experience. The lack of skeuomorphs — the radical flatness of the interface design — is why most people want nothing to do with Windows 8, the same way they want nothing to do with Cubism.

It’s worth asking of anti-skeuomorphic design the same questions Clark asks about modernist painting:

How do the values and excitements called “modernity” look (this is Manet’s question) when they are put down in two dimensions? Painting in modernism was a means of investigation: it was a way of discovering what the dreams of modernity really amounted to, by finding what it took to make a painting of them — what kind of play between flatness and depth, what kind of stress on the picture’s shape and limits, what sorts of painterly insistence or abbreviation? And if these are the means we need to give such and such an ideal of modernity form, then what does this tell us about the ideal? Does the available imagery of the modern pass the test of representation? If I draw it — if I give it this particular visual existence — does it survive?

If aggressive user-unfriendliness is the cost of anti-skeuomorphism, what does that tell us about that designers’ ideals? What are they trying to represent? A fantasy of pure functionality?  But by purging “gratuitous” ornament, these interfaces become paradoxically nonfunctional.

The persistence of skeuomorphs indexes the resistance users have to living entirely in a hermetically designed world — created by a design team, working in isolation, with as little reference to the familiar, shared material world as possible — that is superimposed over the patterns of privacy we’ve knocked out for ourselves using the shared visual language of the socially built world. We cling to our fake digital textures and desktop metaphors not out of bitterness or cluelessness but because we don’t want to be oppressed by the tyranny of industrial designers.

Beyond creativity

At his blog, Brian Droitcour has an excellent essay looking at two different approaches to demystifying the idea of creativity in poetry. The first of these he associates with Kenneth Goldsmith’s mechanical approaches to appropriation, as outlined in Uncreative Writing. In a Chronicle of Higher Education article, Goldsmith draws on Marjorie Perloff’s notion of “unoriginal genius” to define uncreative writing as the act of “literally moving language from one place to another, proclaiming that context is the new content.” This approach depends on the Internet for much of its source material, for the digitization of text that makes copying and pasting practical, and for the vast decontextualization that a giant, indiscriminate network enables.

Goldsmith argues that appropriationists are

language hoarders; their projects are epic, mirroring the gargantuan scale of textuality on the Internet. While the works often take an electronic form, paper versions circulate in journals and zines, purchased by libraries, and received by, written about, and studied by readers of literature. While this new writing has an electronic gleam in its eye, its results are distinctly analog, taking inspiration from radical modernist ideas and juicing them with 21st-century technology.

In general Goldsmith posits the uncreative poet as a kind of cool hunter who sees value in textual chunks that are taken for granted in their native space. The appropriators add value to these chunks mainly by having access to the art and poetry circles that can recontextualize them. Their success as uncreative writers hinges on how much pickup they can get for their appropriations from knowing audiences. If their thefts are ignored, the uncreative writing doesn’t occur.

Uncreative writing in Goldsmith’s vein replaces creativity with exclusivity, leaving aesthetic authority in the unchallengeable hands of those who can impart “genuine” artistic context to any content whatever. If you are an “original” as opposed to “unoriginal” genius, any threat to the established elites that you might represent is thereby neutralized. If you are making any sort of art without the imprimatur of recognized art elites with the right pedigree and network base, it can be safely ignored, because those elites are no longer under any pressure to justify their authority (or its contextualizing power) by actually discovering talented artists. They just need to choose among people they like (amenable acolytes) who are playing their game of mechanical appropriation. Their authority is conserved in a tautological game of acknowledging the conceptual artists who are already predicating their work on the elites’ ability to call it art.

Droitcour sees Goldsmith as being too mechanistic in his view of language as “material.” For Goldsmith, Droitcour argues, “Language is concrete—an unnatural mongrel of rocks and clays, a favored foundation of junkspace.”  Whereas, Droticour notes, “there is another way of looking at it: Language is material because people are material. Our bodies touch, eat, digest, and excrete the world around us. Language is part of how we participate in the metabolism of the world.” Language, he insists, is more akin to organic excrement than industrial waste.  With that in mind he contrasts Goldsmith’-style unreadable telephone-book-size appropriations of internet content with another internet-reliant form, “alt lit,” which he describes as “issuing from the body like abject emissions.” Droitcour claims that alt-lit practitioners, rather than emulate machines as Goldsmith endorses, remind one another about the messiness of human being that persists despite literal constant contact with machines, even after machines come to structure a large proportion of human interaction: “The constant proximity of machines reminds us that we’re not machines—that we’re weird and hungry and messy and queer and lonely and gross in ways that they (the machines) can’t be.”

Alt lit trades in the generation of “feels,” which Rachel Monroe describes in this essay about Tumblr affectivity as an interntet-native form of emotionality, “distinct from pre-internet emotions in that they are more like feelings for feelings’ sake … an internet crush is the feels personified. You can’t do anything about the feels except feel them, then maybe go look at some more pictures online. They are an appetite that does not expect to be sated, an intensity without any perceivable end.” Feels are the attempt to convey emotional intensity without physical presence; that methods that have been developed so far to accomplish this mainly revolve around confrontational vulnerability. This aura of risk, combined with the immediate accessibility of the author within the network where the content appears, allows readers to read intimacy out of the work and assimilate it to the infrastructure of an ad hoc community of intensity-seekers.

So alt lit’s formal qualities generally serve the purpose of facilitating this kind of networked intimacy, eschewing the remote refinement of modernist poetics. As Droitcour notes, “Alt lit’s social priorities exceed, or are equal to, its aesthetic priorities.” The social priorities are served by appearing to communicate in some excessive way — posting too much, sharing too much, excising ambiguity (though this often creates a deadpan quality that it is virtually indistinguishable from irony). Sometimes this is dubbed the “new sincerity,” as this essay about Internet poetry by Sofia Leiby details. She cites a curator who

sets up a dichotomy between “feeling”/ “poetry” and the “information age”, roughly equating poetry to ‘feeling”, assumingly positing it on the opposing end of the “information age.” He argues that poetry might create a “balance” in the coldness of our technology-driven times. As a result, “poetry” is assumed to possess feeling or intuitive qualities. He seems to suggest that poetry is the way to fight slick, ironic artistic tendencies.

Hence the connection between alt lit and authenticity, and its subterranean connection to “hipsterism,” which generally lurks wherever authenticity is mobilized for promotional purposes.

Leiby cites the work of Jared Boger as an example. His work, she argues

seems to be about feeling emotionally connected to technology, but deferring, alienating ourselves from our feelings, like how it feels to look through your Facebook to see if friends left you messages. Under a poetic form, this profanely banal experience becomes extremely emotionally fraught. Boger favors straightforward syntax, and this makes his poems a little embarrassing, and they feel sincere. It’s so sincere that it’s almost ‘cute’, in its middle class-ness, its Beach House and Love of Everything references. It holds nothing back.

Alt lit is premised on finding new formal means for simulating authenticity, or sincerity, or vulnerability, or feels. These formal means have less to do with language then with the affordances of networks and new media, and machines that in Droitcour’s words “generates a visceral flow of language in and out of them all the time.” The technology becomes instrumental in generating the “nothing held back” atmosphere, the language crafted foremost to not inhibit that sense of outpouring. Extrapolating from what Leiby writes above, the most authentic gesture in the social media era is the plea for attention, and a literature made entirely of such pleas will register as the most authentic form.

Droitcour links the excess of alt lit to simulated presence, to the valorization of existing in the flow

Alt lit only matters if you’re online and reading it as it happens—just like the way that conversational speech only matters if you’re physically present when it’s spoken. Alt lit thrives in social media, and it invigorates social media by amplifying the feeling of presence and participation in it. It’s the poetry of bodies engaged in technologically mediated social being. Living in and against the networks that support it, the creativity of alt lit appears as an everyday bodily function…

In alt lit, the act of making yourself available to others is inherently creative. Creativity is dissolved by generalizing it to comprise virtually any performative act; compared to Goldsmith’s vision, this seems like a democratization of the poetic impulse at the expense of craft, a rejection of poetry’s aesthetic sorting function in favor of facilitating a different, theoretically inclusive sort of belonging. We can all just excrete creativity by virtue of being human and wanting to connect, wanting to have our affectivity acknowledged in an online social space that always threatens us with total dematerialization. Droitcour claims ” alt lit recasts creativity as a primal urge to make something beautiful, not just for the sake of making it but for the enjoyment of it in the context of social being, for the sake of feeling alive.”

I am convinced by this argument on a theoretical level, but the alt lit circles on Tumblr nonetheless seem like contextualizing cliques that are no different structurally than the cliques that could authenticate Goldsmith’s uncreative writing. They are merely a competing circle of authenticators with a somewhat different affect they are championing: not the “radicalness” of appropriation and ironic juxtaposition so much as the “radicalness” of emotional confrontation, of embarrassment as a tonic of authenticity, of the mystery of apparent transparency. Alt lit promises the solace of the communal as its poetic substance, but it threatens to shake out into a lower-stakes simulacrum of traditional star systems, with a hierarchy of celebrity practitioners and participatory fans who help build the celebrities’ notoriety. These elites will be assimilated into the traditional art/literature world at some point, after the sorting has crystallized.

To protect itself from such a process, alt lit circles would need to be both transparent (to maintain the intensity of their feels) and invisible (to protect them from the hierarchization and instrumentalization of network building). This seems like an inherently unstable proposition.

Reviews are not criticism

Tom Vanderbilt, always worth reading, wrote an essay for the Wilson Quarterly about Yelp and online review culture:

If the God Criticism—in the sense of experts telling the anxious middle what to read, what to see, and how to be—now lays on its side, an Enver Hoxha statue in a Tirana back alley, what’s left? A new utopia of fisherman-critics who are free to make up their own minds and influence others? A glorious world of transparency and objectivity? A radical rewriting of the canon?

Perhaps. But there are complications with this idea that the Internet has obviated the need for experts and for critical authority. One question is what is happening to criticism itself when the evaluative architecture on a site such as Amazon is the same for leaf blowers as it is literature, when everything seems to be quantifying one’s hedonic response to a consumption activity; when we are forced into a ruthless dyad of thumbing up or thumbing down, or channeled into expressing a simple “liking” for something when the actual response may be more complex.

The beautifully tossed-off reference to Enver Hoxha makes me want very much to agree with his sentiment, but I have a hard time taking these “complications” all that seriously, at least in these terms. Yes, I am one of those horrid “too much sociology” types who thinks much of what passes for cap-c Criticism (or “criticism itself”) is elites flexing their cultural capital in the mirror. Snob critics invent bullshit terms like “the literary” to police otherwise indiscernable class boundaries and use aesthetics as a velvet bludgeon to beat back the uncultivated into their shantytowns of inarticulateness.

It’s not clear why anyone would expect Amazon to support criticism rather than promotional discourse (reviewing, etc.). Reviews are not criticism — Vanderbilt quotes critic Daniel Mendelsohn to this effect. So why are critics even concerned with them? It’s as if they feel that online review writers are crapping on their lawn. But even if critics did have some right to erect a fence around what they see as their turf, reviewing and criticism are entirely different territories. People don’t go to Amazon to contemplate the leaf blower’s place in the canon or how it reflects the culture or manifests some Platonic qualities of the fine art of leaf blowing qua leaf blowing. They go there to buy one, much as they do with books. Criticism doesn’t happen at the point of sale. It seems strange that anyone would expect that it would.

Does anyone seriously expect Yelp or Amazon reviews to be a useful guide to how to think about something? They are there to create a climate of enthusiasm that gets you to buy something. The star-awarding and the ratings-of-ratings apparatus drive engagement and generate data that the platforms can use in its marketing efforts; whether the individual reviews do anything to inform other users is incidental.

(This is how social media generally work: the platform wants the user-generated content more than the other users do, so the interface drums up a sense of urgency that is utterly lacking in the alleged audience. If you set up a booth at a carnival where people paid you a nickel to yell into a megaphone, everyone else on the grounds wouldn’t necessarily be psyched. But you would love it if they decided they had to use your megaphone to yell at each other about it.)

Amazon, Yelp, and other product-review compilers don’t owe their users any sort of editorial standards. These companies are not promoting criticism; their aim is always to defuse or diffuse it. As a Netflix employee tells Vanderbilt, users don’t really want more eloquent reviews or “expert” opinion. They don’t go to Netflix to be judged but to be entertained. I sometimes have a hard time accepting that this evasion of judgment bothers people. Oh, no! The “masses” are revolting! They are refusing to take critics seriously! They are being bad subjects! They are threatening me with their enjoyment of things I can’t appreciate and haven’t sealed with my imprimatur of approval!

Of course the evaluative architecture (read: amateur-advertising platform) on a commercially driven site like Amazon is going to be inadequate to the aims of criticism. Amazon wants to sell as much stuff as possible, and it is happy to provide a platform for amateurs — no one is “forced” to like anything or express any opinion there — to do some free marketing and create some free merchandise for them. If “everything seems to be quantifying one’s hedonic response to a consumption activity” on Amazon, that’s because of what consumerism promises — you spend some amount for a certain quantum of utility, and for a moment, for at least as long as the exchange preoccupies you, you are free from having your right to pleasure trampled by the realities and constraints of social hierarchy. You can briefly reside in the realm of sovereign taste. This is dangerous, but not because it compromises the alleged authority of tastemaking “experts.”

In light of what I was arguing yesterday about tastes and values, the proliferation of “evaluative architectures” appears to be trivializing occasions and spaces where values might otherwise be articulated. Frivolous and spurious reviews let users assess more aspects of everyday life as matters of taste and not matters of social interaction governed by values— values that ideally would be explicitly negotiated instead of being mystified in class habitus. At its best, criticism is an attempt to perform that public negotiation of shared values. (At its worst, it contributes to the mystification of snobbery.)

At the New Yorker‘s site, Gideon Lewis-Kraus argues that Yelp — which, like credit-rating agencies, takes money from the clients it is supposed to be neutrally reviewing — serves up “a manipulated consumer certainty” in its algorithmically selected review teasers “that only shores up the authority of an unchosen, hidden source,” namely that of Yelp itself, and the clients it serves (the advertisers, not the site’s users). Worse, it does so under the guise of granting users the feeling of authority. Not only is that authority ineffectual in practice (people of Lewis-Kraus’s generation apparently all know Yelp is a “terrible source of information” and “ignore Yelp entirely”) but it reinforces the idea that exercising cultural authority as an individual is something we should be entitled to and that the “right” to be recognized as an authority is a value we all share. Because, of course, what the world needs now is more microaggression.

The invitation to review consumer experiences is, as Vanderbilt seems to suggest, an invitation to indulge in some egocentric assertions of taste autonomy as freedom — to assert the right to an opinion for opinion’s sake: “the masses liberating the objects of criticism from the tyranny of critics is that so many reviewers seem to turn toward petty despotism.” It prompts users to arbitrage opportunities for making claims of their special personal authority, as if authority (even in matters as insignificant as local restaurants) were important in itself. In other words, they look for chances to be bullies.

“Evaluative architecture” also sets users in competition with one another under the pretenses of cooperation — reviews are easily mistaken as efforts to help others, but they are more often power grabs. The point isn’t to help someone else eat at a good restaurant but to become a heralded and platform-certified power reviewer who garners more attention than the other nobody reviewers. Yelp and Amazon create pools of crypto-authority for their customers to fight over, but unlike real authority, no one, not even Lee Siegel, is obliged to pay these reviews any mind.

If amateur reviewers were like companies, maybe the competitive environment would make them efficient, but they are more like interchangeable laborers. (Vanderbilt notes how individual reviews are less important to the platforms than the aggregate total, which is algorithmically processed to provide marketing angles.) Vanderbilt notes that Yelp reviews are a way for customers to police the affective labor of service workers, but he might have also pointed out that Yelp reviewers themselves are “immaterial laborers” who are apparently willing to accept access to the tools as their pay.

From an economistic point of view, reviewers work for largely winner-take-all tournament wages “paid” in the form of attention. They are not the “fisherman-critics” of full communism because they don’t control the means of their criticism production or how the product circulates. But viewing amateur reviewers as workers may be a useless frame; it makes more sense to regard them as consumers who are consuming the experience of “having a voice.” The problem with this is not that it threatens the discourse of other “real critics” but that it separates the significance of having a voice from being heard.

Tastes and values

what you want

Chris DIllow marshals support in this post for the claim that “capitalism generates preferences which help sustain inequality, against the interest of many people.” That is, the preferences necessary for reproducing capitalism are endogenous to its functioning. He cites behavioral-economics research on cognitive biases and speculates on some possible social pressures that would make sufferers under capitalism (those on the wrong end of widening inequality) nonetheless exhibit a preference for capitalism, without having to posit a vast media conspiracy or rampant brainwashing to instill false consciousness.

Preferences seems like a strange, overly economistic word choice in this context, as if it were a considered decision to be born into capitalism. Marxist analysis usually talks about this question in terms of ideology and hegemony — means by which the range of possible preferences are constrained before it occurs to people to do any sort of preferring. Similarly, structuralism and post-structuralism often frame it as a matter of subjectivity — of capitalism engendering or fashioning subjects that suit capitalism. We are “subjectivated” within capitalism, such analysis claims, and thus our perceptions are already preformatted to accommodate incentives that suit capitalist accumulation. Profit-seeking, utility-maximization, efficiency all seem like common sense, as if they were natural-born values, not preferences. This is what it means to inhabit an ideology, or in Althusserian terminology, to be interpellated.

No matter what terminology you use, the issue is the degree of choice people exercise in assenting to capitalism — the degree to which participating in capitalism is revealing a preference for it rather than a failure to imagine alternatives in the midst of the triage of everyday life. Does it even make sense to say they can choose to resist it? Is there enough of a material basis for people living in capitalist societies to form a set of values genuinely antagonistic to it? Or are our anticapitalistic gestures aslo endogenous to capitalism and, in a sense, dependent on it and necessary to its continued function. As Chiapello and Boltanski argue in The New Spirit of Capitalism, critique of capitalism tends to be recuperated by the system, which anticipates it. The pursuit of meaningful work can be transformed into neoliberal reform of the workplace and the elimination of worker protections in the name of giving everyone the “privilege” of precarity and of being freelance “free agents.” Resistance appears as a consumer preference that capitalism can commoditize, exploit. Critique disappears into the marketplace of ideas — which remains capitalistic.

Why are capitalism’s mechanisms for inculcating its prerogatives so resilient? What sort of resistance could disrupt that process? Albert Hirschman’s “Against Parsimony” offers another way to look at these questions. In the essay’s first section, Hirschman looks at two kinds of preference changes: (1) “wanton” changes, which have nothing to do with deliberation and are at the level of tastes, and (2) changes based on consciously altered metapreferences, which occur at the level of values.

Economists, he argues, have increasingly concerned themselves only with “wanton” changes, going so far as to preclude the possibility of other kinds of considered change. From the Gary Beckerite point of view, all change is a matter of taste and revealed through behavior, and this behavior is not changed consciously but through the rejiggering of the implied incentives involved. Here’s how Hirschman puts it:

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This HIrschman finds understandably offensive, trivializing the conscious decisions individuals make to adjust their behavior for non-utility-maximizing ends and making it seem like policymakers merely need to “raise the cost” of objectionable behavior to make people mechanistically abandon it.

Economists, to protect their privileged role as the ideologists of capitalism, have a vested interest in reducing political behavior to utility functions. But it’s more than their self-protection at stake: naturalizing “revealed preference” as the only sort of preference eliminates the space for behavioral change rooted in alternative sets of values — values that might be exogenous to capitalism. Hirschman notes that “a taste is almost defined as a preference about which you do not argue— de gustibus non est disputandum. A taste about which you argue, with others or yourself, ceases ipso facto being a tate — it turns into a value.”

Economists, by arguing that there are only tastes revealed through market behavior, are trying to convince us that we don’t ever argue with ourselves (let alone others) about the nature of our choices. They are pretending that the cognitive biases Dillow highlights don’t exist or are somehow more indicative of what we “really” want than what we consciously affirm and pursue. They are naturalizing the idea that the market is the arena to which we must turn to express our choices meaningfully. The importance of our tastes to us make us implicitly grateful to capitalism for affording the arena for displaying and indulging them, and for normalizing the principle that everyone should be allowed to prefer whatever they want to prefer without reference to civic concerns.

Capitalism, with the aid of not only economists but also marketers of every stripe, seeks to make more and more questions of value appear as questions of taste. One weapon in this ideological war is the notion that “freedom of taste” is sacrosanct, and that it is somehow respectful to not challenge others on the basis of their values. (This is the thrust of the anti-political-correctness propaganda campaign.) The idea settles in that it is more comfortable to regard more and more values as tastes and view that shift as a kind of laudable, even progressive, sort of pluralism.

So resisting capitalism — and escaping the condition in which our preferences are always already programmed or recuperated — may be partly a matter of resisting the tyranny of taste:  insisting on the personal (I just like what I like) actually being political (What you want affects others).  Use social media not to like things and track attention but to insist that what appear to be tastes mask the values that are shaping social relations.

Hirschman writes: “May I urge that changes in values do occur from time to time in the lives of individuals, of generations, and from one generation to another, and that those changes and their effects on behavior are worth exploring.” It’s important to not purge them from the analytical frame, whether in the name of positive economics or poststructuralism.