Monthly Archives: December 2013

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I think this distinction between “old” and “new” narcissism might be useful.

Christopher Lasch, in his celebrated book The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (1979), wrote: “The new narcissist is haunted not by guilt but by anxiety. He seeks not to inflict his own certainties on others but to find a meaning in life.” The guilt of the “old” narcissist might constitute nothing more than this conservative aversion to self-disclosure. The old narcissist processed his self-obsession by inflicting his certainties in a way that nonetheless left his “self” concealed: the “new” narcissist, by contrast, presents an agonised face to the world; his “self” is confessed and given over to others, leaving him free to ignore the social contract and do as he likes.

This fits with my contention that social media “confession” is a way of getting rid of the self, of expunging an accursed share of self that burdens action with anxiety and unmeetable responsibilities. (What, with “the infinite responsibility to the other,” who can ever get anything done?) Identity formation and maintaining an integrity that integrates behavior over time becomes irrelevant; identity is resolved post hoc by data processors and fed back into an individual’s behavior through the devices that keep everyone networked and responsive.

“New narcissism” is a self-centeredness that consists of selfishly discarding the self and the responsibility for controlling one’s behavior so that it appears consistent to others. Without this consistency, which is a kind of politeness that allows other people to know how to interact with you, people have to instead rely on mediation to navigate social encounters and protect them from other people’s unpredictability and boundarylessness. 

Rather than rely directly on the other person to present a coherent version of themselves — rather than count on their attentive presence in the moment, and their making a focused effort to assimilate and integrate that social interaction to an ongoing version of their self — we will rely instead on that person’s social media streams and the various algorithmic filters and processors we can selectively apply to it, to calculate what responses we might get from a person in real time. 

The new narcissism means we are giving permission to one another to treat each other like robots.

On narcissism: the mirror and the self

This is a footnote from Lewis Coser’s article “Social Conflict and the Theory of Social Change.” He distinguishes “realistic” from “nonrealistic” conflicts on the basis of whether the conflict’s goals are something other than “releasing tension.” Nonrealistic conflict is a matter of performing a collective fantasy, of earning an “activist” badge, of feeling like one “is making a difference” without worrying especially about whether this difference is actually made. The tension released is a matter of dispelling the sense of personal impotence. 

I’m interested in Coser’s claim that “Members who join for the mere purpose of tension release are often used for the ‘dirty work’ by the realistic conflict groups.” Not sure if thIs is self-defeatingly cynical, to take advantage of the ego-driven enthusiasm of genuinely exasperated people, those who have become fed up with ordinary life’s traps. Are narcissists the shock troops of the coming insurrection?

I think of this when I wonder whether the “realistic” people are subtly encouraging the “nonrealistic” tension-releasers to view self-harm as a mode of sabotage. If you are a tool fashioned by capitalism, then damaging yourself is a good way of upsetting the machine! The more damaged you feel, the more you are doing for our cause of destroying capitalism!

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Computers, “financial engineering” and credit, social media, algorithms that predict what you want, NSA surveillance, giant new holding corporations called Master Limited Partnerships – all of these surround us and wrap us into a complicated modern web. Some of it is wonderful, other parts of it are threatening – while even more parts are just incomprehensible.

And behind it is the new money power – giant institutions, and individuals that can bend politicians to their will. The repeal of the Glass Steagall act in 1999 – which arguably did a great deal to create the financial corruption of our age – is just one example.

While the old institutions that grew up over the past hundred years to protect us now find themselves unable to comprehend or cope with the new systems of power. Politicians, regulatory institutions, intelligence agencies, the mainstream press, the police, the BBC, the colleges of academia- all of them, as McClure said in 1903:

“They do not understand”

And cut off from the real power struggles – these old institutions are starting to prey on each other. Leaving us both confused and undefended.

BBC – Blogs – Adam Curtis – WHAT THE FLUCK!

But as long as others re-share what you share, your being is secure. You are rippling throughout the network, and you can hear the reassuring echoes

The Viral Self  (via nathanjurgenson)

The takeaway about authenticity I got from that decade-ago discussion was that, while authenticity is bad when it’s fixed on a common and unquestioned set of standards, it can be a tremendously useful way to judge things. And so critics, rather than accepting predetermined standards of authenticity, should construct their own ideas of what’s authentic based in their particular values and tastes at any given moment. Authenticity shouldn’t be internal and fixed, it should be externalized and fluid. It’s the best way to ensure that “authentic” doesn’t come to be synonymous with “the shit old white dudes think is important.”

Social media, stretching back as far as discussion boards, opened up a space for a cornucopia of ideas about authenticity to coexist, and that’s good, even if we should perhaps have more self-confidence to decide which are true. What’s frustrating, I think, isn’t the cornucopia but the fact that some voices are trying to reduce those multiple (and conflicting) standards into a canonical singularity. The voices that dominate discourse online want to redefine authenticity in terms of their values: open, meritocratic, rational and objective, validated by success. They want to make “authentic” mean “good by internet standards,” and to make us think that this connection is so obvious (“of course crowdsourced things are better!”) that it’s not worth arguing about. The problem with postauthenticity, in other words, isn’t that “authenticity” will become disconnected from any values. It’s that we won’t be able to see the values it’s connected to.

(via barthel)

If virality supplants authenticity, the possibility looms that the revision of one’s authenticity standards will be in the hands of Facebook’s newsfeed-algorithm coders, not any individuals.

The goal is to make authenticity fluid without making it “empirical” or data-driven — subject to revision based on the self’s statistical performance in social media. 

Viral self

[Image: Kris Hargis]

[Image: Kris Hargis]

I keep telling myself I should stop pursuing virality through critiques of virality. But then I’ll read something about how virality can be pursued and engineered as an end in itself — like this Wall Street Journal piece by Farhad Manjoo, or this from the Atlantic Wire about the site Viral Nova by Alex Litel — and I will be inspired to write a series of tweets about online circulation and its various measures displacing other forms of content with which to make up the self. And then I will track my Interactions page on the Twitter site to see how they did, and how I am doing.

The thrust of the articles linked above is that aggregating viral content is a business model threatened by its own popularity. Renowned viral-content collector Neetzan Zimmerman worries his methods will be adopted by competitors; Viral Nova proves how launching a viral-content site takes few employees and little capital, thus threatening the potential of viral sites in general as an investment.

Litel writes:

Though ViralNova is the synthesis of a self-made millionaire’s years of experience in SEO-driven content, it also represents the volatility of internet-oriented media—someone without venture capital, publicists, or big-name journalists, effectively built their own immensely successful version of BuzzFeed or Upworthy. As much as those sites might market their proprietary technology and processes, ViralNova suggests it can be reverse engineered fairly quickly by anyone with a careful eye for emulation — which is to say everyone on the Internet. 

The fact that virality can be “reverse engineered” without fear of shortages of viral-worthy content is interesting enough. “Amazing” and “heartwarming” or “surprising” content is a matter of form, not extraordinary incident. But how did “everyone on the Internet” become so good at “emulating” this form, or at emulation in general? Does this mark some kind of evolution in subjectivity toward spurious cultural replication? Is the appeal of viral content the model it provides for self-memeification? Are we all starting to premise our self-worth on manufacturing or uncovering virality (and thus becoming viral ourselves by proxy) as Neetzan Zimmerman does? Is the pursuit of virality becoming hegemonic, as online “engagement” metrics that track viral content are taken also for reliable measures of self-esteem?

Engineering virality seems to be becoming a virtue in its own right, a moral practice. Being able to play upon various emotional triggers to generate virality subordinates those emotions to a greater “good,” whose goodness is established by the mobility of the affect generated. It’s less a matter of something being “moving” than the fact that it “moves” — that the experience culminates not with how you feel upon being told something but in retelling it. The emotions that viral content provoke almost immediately become pretexts for establishing a point of contact with an audience — that feeling of connection serves as the governing emotion, the root of “authentic” feeling.

Virality thereby becomes the reigning truth procedure, setting the horizon beneath which occurrences no longer figure socially, no longer count for anchoring identity or asserting a self. If a retold experience doesn’t continue to circulate, the experience and the original retelling of it amount to nothing. They are not even false; they simply don’t matter.

This, then, would be the “viral self,” which knows itself only in terms of how well it can circulate content. When it can no longer circulate content, or what it shares goes nowhere, it ceases to exist. It is “postauthentic” in that it finds the truth of itself in ex post facto metrics rather than fidelity to some pre-existing ethic or value system. “Authenticity” is an after effect of having marshaled an audience that values your content. It has nothing to do to being true to some unchanging interior spirit regardless of the presence of an audience or not.

The “viral self” could also replace the concept of “microcelebrity” or “microfame” as a way to describe what people are doing on social media in trying to garner likes, followers, reblogs, and so on. I have never really liked the implications of those terms, which suggest a pursuit of some excess above ordinary social life, as if the pursuit of microfame expressed a dissatisfaction with one’s appropriate and “natural” level of social attention. But virality isn’t about exclusivity or personal talent; it’s instead an expression of being extremely attuned to what is expected, what is desired by others, what can provoke another’s engagement and inspire them to connect other people to your information. You become subordinate and equivalent to the information you spread, which itself is only significant insofar as it is spreading and remains in motion. A famous person has become a someone; a viral self is always in process of becoming, proving itself. It is dynamic without being necessarily aspirational; it needs only to be moving, circulating; it doesn’t need to climb.

Social media don’t facilitate the pursuit of fame — establishing one’s permanent arrival at a level of social importance. That is still reserved for the few. Instead they normalize the measuring of attention and circulation, of making “engagement” the unit of social recognition (as it is for advertising efficacy — in a consumer society, advertising establishes our social norms). By concretizing and facilitating engagement, social media unsettle our bearings for figuring out what a normal or “appropriate” amount of attention is. No one knows what is normal, what is enough. It’s always being refreshed. Instead, one learns that sharing and posting makes one appear, makes one be — and when others re-share what you shared, your being becomes more secure as long as that process continues. Your being ripples throughout the network, and you can hear the echoes.

Social media sustain a measurement system that makes “more attention” seem always appropriate and anything less insufficient. If you are not growing your online presence, if your content is not circulating ever more widely, then you are failing. You are disappearing. You are not only not “microfamous”; you are not socially relevant. You are on the fringe, in danger of total exclusion. You are adding nothing to the social bottom line. You are not inspiring anybody.