Category Archives: capitalist ideology

Social media and sensiblity

The parts of old novels that we find most boring are also the ones that will tell us the most about the ideological needs of past readers. We find these sections boring because they cater to desires or address ideological confusion we no longer experience, or they spell out ideological propositions we have since come to take for granted. Boring passages represent the world in a way we no longer find necessary or thrilling, but in them we can uncover how to reopen the problems that ideology has come to perhaps too tidily solve. Guided by boredom, we can rediscover precisely what ideology guides us to regard as unworthy of careful attention. (No, don’t pay attention to the everyday mechanics of male supremacy; its boring!)

I was inspired to start re-reading Nancy Armstrong’s Desire and Domestic Fiction because I remembered it made a claim about the analytical usefulness of readerly boredom, in reference to Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740). This paradigmatic novel, one of the earliest in English, was among the first publishing sensations — the original “must-read.” It thrilled 18th century readers like Diderot, but most contemporary readers find it excruciatingly boring — particularly its second half, all about domestic protocol in a country house. In case you haven’t read the book (and you should!), the first half is about country squire Mr. B wanting to have sex with Pamela, one of his servants. She resists when he tries to rape her and writes copious letters about it, which Mr. B reads and then falls in love with her. Eventually she sees how she has “reformed” him, and they marry. Detailed domestic instructions ensue, showing how a servant can deserve an aristocrat’s love and respect through diligent housekeeping. In case you missed its subtle message, the novel is subtitled “Virtue Rewarded.”

Armstrong argues that in the boring parts of this novel we can trace the conversion of political tension between classes (as industrial capitalism began its rise and social mobility ceased being impossible) into a solvable crisis of courtship that can be traced in a novel’s plot. What was the aim of social mobility, if not revolution? Courtship novels offer one solution: They create a universally accessible space (the domestic space) and a universally accessible prize (the domestic woman, who can supply universal comfort to her family regardless of their level in society). “True love” conquers class animus, or at least makes such considerations a side matter to the main story about one’s life: finding a partner, enjoying their intimacy, and learning to appreciate their inner depths while establishing the domestic space together as a world apart.

Because of their political usefulness in transforming class struggle into a “sexual contract” between a man and a woman in an isolated domestic sphere, Armstrong argues that courtship novels became the dominant form of novels in general — what was understood as a “real” or “quality” novel. Genuine novels aren’t simply fictions; they must show how the motive of love specifically transcends other “interested” motives and constitutes the essential goal in life. The durability of this ideological ruse can be seen in the popularity of the rom-com, though in a rom-com, viewers are not bored by familiar plot materials; instead they satisfy our genre-driven expectations. We can’t yet tell what parts future generations will find boring about them, but they will likely be those parts that strenuously tried to assimilate contemporary political tensions to the courtship story. It will be the stuff that we need to be made to believe so that future generations won’t even know they have a choice about it.

Another aspect of Pamela that can come across as boring is the way it must teach readers how to read novels — something we definitely take for granted. In Pamela one reads lots of scenes depicting other people reading; generally they are reading the very same text (Pamela’s letters and diaries) you have already read and are modeling the appropriate level of responsiveness to it. The book thus dramatizes its own consumption and promulgates its appropriate usage. The novel is a product that teaches you how to consume it. In many early novels, the key subtext is often, How does one learn to read stories? How do I read my social experience in the same fashion? How can I hoard affect, how can I extract sentimental goods?

I’m interested in this because the novel-reading experience then was as novel then as social-media-consumption experience is now. Social media platforms in some respects function like the formal qualities of early novels; they teach us how to extract the pleasure from the product, how to live our lives in a way that social media models and can accommodate. Both novels and social media are erotic technologies, in that they make it possible for users to experience new pleasures of intimacy in new ways.

New mediated pleasures tend to be regarded as inherently dubious (or the inverse, inherently liberatory). Social media is regarded by many commentators as dangerously narcissistic, echoing one of the original moral panics about reading novels, that it was tantamount to masturbation. Reading meant that you removed yourself from social interaction to enter into a private solitary fantasy world of pretend intimacy that gave you asocial emotional satisfaction. To counter this, novelists tried to redeem novels with didactic content that taught readers how to behave in society. They were covert conduct manuals made palatable and — as their defenders would eventually come to argue — more instructive through absorbing storytelling. This was certainly Richardson’s modus operandi. Pamela evolved out of an instruction manual he had composed, Familiar Letters on Important Occasions, that was meant to provide boilerplate form letters for semiliterate people. It dawned on him that teaching people what to write was close to teaching people what to think and, more important, what to feel.

But adding didacticism doesn’t really solve the onanism problem. As Eve Sedgwick points out  in “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl”, citing 18th century literature scholar John Mullan, “the empathetic allo-identifications that were supposed to guarantee the sociable nature of sensibility could not finally be distinguished from an epistemological solipsism, a somatics of trembling self-absorption.” In other words, if you identified with the characters in fiction to learn from their experience and felt what they feel, you were still indulging in the same affective short-circuit that bypasses the need for actual others as a prerequisite for emotional pleasure. The novel (as is claimed about smartphones and other modes of online engagement today) pre-empts the need for co-presence. But the pleasures of exercising sensibility — an 18th century term for vicarious feeling whose vogue coincided with the novelty of this skill, giving it moral credibility — supposedly proved one’s fitness for better society, but they could only be truly enjoyed in private, which invoked the specter of subversion. No one really knows what crazy thoughts you are having when your nose is buried in a book. You are adapting yourself to the norms of the text, and not the social position you are physically inhabiting.

This irresolvable tension between didacticism and autoeroticism can be put to productive ideological use, helping perform the cultural work Armstrong argues novels were doing at the time, resolving political conflicts through the universal promise of domesticity. That is, the pleasures of reading were put to use in authorizing the collective imagination of the social pleasures of domestic retreat. It created a new kind of connoisseurship — the sensitive fiction reader who could readily experience vicarious emotion and thus proved her finer moral sense.

Before novels were in wide circulation, most people had never exercised the capacity to sustain an identification with a fictional character who existed only as text. Once this leap is made, it opens the possibility of seeing oneself as a textual artifact, as a consciousness made up of words that could be preserved and transferred. The same novelistic discourse that writes interiority into an accessible form also makes it seductive, alluring, something to fantasize about possessing. The pleasures of writing oneself into being generates at the same time the pleasures of reading such writing — pleasures which validate the self-production.

In Richardson’s novel, as Pamela compulsively writes letters about her feelings (18th century sexting), her sentimental diaristic prose begins to displace her body as the object of desire for Mr. B. In one famous scene, he undresses her not to access her body but to find her hidden diary pages. This displacement, Armstrong argues (drawing on Foucault), is how modern subjectivity (a primarily female subjectivity) is born. It stems from eroticized resistance and intimate surveillance. Mr. B learns the erotic appeal of using his power to elicit Pamela’s interiority, to stimulate it and draw it out, and this proves far more pleasurable than using brute force to ravish her body. Given that this precious interiority — the product of courtship, the fruit of authentic love — is available to everyone regardless of class, novels show us that you don’t need a lot of money necessarily to build a rich inner life within. That interior life, that refinement of the moral sense, is true wealth.

For readers of novels, the lesson is that if you have the sort of refined sensibility that can enjoy the interiority that a novel’s prose is creating, you too possess true wealth. You have sensibility, a kind of connoisseurship far more affordable to the bourgeoisie. It was a way to show a moral superiority to other people without relying on conspicuous displays of wealth, which were transformed in novels (in Jane Austen’s books, for instance) into vulgarities.

In the space created by the practice of reading, sentiments supplant material riches — just as in Pamela, her letters supplant her body as the truly desirable object of delectation. While reading, the ability to feel vicariously is more efficacious than material luxuries in providing pleasure. The competency to extract affect from texts becomes a core part of the middle-class habitus, a challenge to the aristocratic mode of life and a compensation for lacking the material basis for it. There is no more democratic and egalitarian space than the imagination, where everyone who is literate is presumably on equal footing to enjoy the pleasures of having deep emotional feelings.

If literacy and vicarious pleasure were the great political compensations of early capitalism, deflecting class animus while paving the way for consumerism, then technological literacy and the sensibilities afforded by social media may be the compensations of our period of stagnating neoliberalism. Social media seem like a new way to buy the bulk of us off with affect, all while creating new types of consumer products in commodified emotions. (Novels were an early form of commodified emotion, among the first mass-manufactured experiential consumption goods.)

The tension between a private, intimate kind of pleasure — “sharing,” a modern update of the faux-mutuality of sensibility — and the sociability it is supposed to anchor is still with us. We can all be producers of emotional goods; we can be novelists as well as readers, deepening our competency in the field of sensibility. We consume other subjectivities as we prepare our own for consumption. Part of that product includes a reified “ability to enjoy sharing.” We can prove our emotional competency (as Pamela does) by eliciting as well as experiencing affective sensitivity. We can generate as well as succumb to feelings — not just with a select few people, as in the era of familiar letters addressed to loved ones, but with a broad audience, including strangers. Our sensibility can be more directly conjoined with our reputation.

But this process remains suspect; we still are in a state of moral panic about the sensibility derived from new media: It’s solipsistic, inauthentic, inappropriate. These mask the way these new pleasures ameliorate the ills of capitalism not by mitigating them but by intensifying commodification and turning more of everyday life into exploitable labor.

All of this suggests that the emotional competencies of social-media use will be central to  political struggles, but not merely in the instrumental ways researchers tend to focus on. (Social media leads to more street protest: yes or no?) The pleasures and the habitus grounded in social-media use are masking conflicts, absorbing their energy and processing it into microfame and other “viral” distractions. It may be politically useful to start from those pleasures and find a better use for the energy encoded within them, one that will bring about an even greater and perhaps more collective kind of pleasure.

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Sexting and self-expression

Yesterday, after Nathan Jurgenson mentioned it on Twitter, I read a 2012 article from New Media and Society called “Sexting as Media Production: Rethinking Social Media and Sexuality,” by Amy Adele Hasinoff. The gist of it is that consensual sexting isn’t inherently harmful to teenagers or adults, to women or men. Nonetheless, sexting panic has been deployed to find new levers of control over female sexuality, new ways to secure female docility, negating sexting’s potential to counter the effects of other forms of gendered control.

As Hasinoff details, “educational” “safety” campaigns urge teenage girls to efface their gender and sexuality in their online presentation for their own protection and shield themselves with a distrusting attitude toward any contacts online, who should all automatically be assumed to be predators. At the same time, assertive use of social media is depicted as shameful disinhibition. Hasinoff notes that “a dominant fear” about girls’ access to smartphones “is that the immediacy and ease of mobilemedia communication undermines their supposedly innate desires for chastity.” Of course, that desire for chastity is a patriarchal imperative, part of the process of assuring that women behave as property rather than desiring subjects in their own right.

Since I’ve written before about the potentially disinhibiting effects of social media, I took this paragraph as a bit of a rebuke:

Some observers worry that mobile phones and the Internet cause adolescent girls to engage in risky or non-normative sexual behavior. In testimony before a congressional committee investigating the dangers of MySpace, online safety expert Parry Aftab argues that teenagers are ‘disconnected from the immediate consequences of their actions online, [so] many “good” kids and teens find themselves doing things online they would never dream of doing in real life’. She notes that they post photos and texts online in which they appear to be ‘drunken sluts’. Likewise, a panicked newspaper article about online predators on MySpace quotes a psychologist worrying that teenage girls are ‘acting in a very sexually provocative way’ and are ‘disinhibited’ by the Internet. By placing the explicit blame on technology, these commentators denounce teenage girls as ‘sluts’ for expressing their desires online. There is no parallel widespread discourse that technology causes boys to create sexual images or to be ‘provocative’ — being sexually inhibited is not expected or desired for boys, and accessing online pornography is usually seen as normal for them.

Hasinoff probably goes a little too easy on the commentators she mentions here, who seem to rely on an untenable distinction between what people do online and what people do in “real life.” Online behavior is “real” and has “real” consequences; indeed, consequences tend to be greater because the behavior is archived and far more easily reproduced and redistributed.

Online space isn’t “unreal”, but it space is new enough to be subject to different modes of social control, so different forms of personal expression occur there. The space itself is unevenly policed, and it’s still contested; it is disinhibiting in the sense that the norms for that space aren’t completely codified and standardized. But a process of translation is taking place, with gendered norms being rearticulated to accommodate new technological affordances.

The basic ideology behind these norms is the same: Evidence of male sexual desire is unproblematic; evidence of female sexual desire is a provocation. Sex is done to women and  harms their integrity unless they take the proper care to prevent it. Otherwise they throw the gasoline of their untempered sexuality onto the flames of male lust and are consequently responsible for the resulting explosions.

That there is a male audience for sexualized images of girls is taken for granted and seen as unalterable, whereas a girl’s choice to engage with this presumed audience is seen as her fault. The implication of this ideology is that a girl’s natural desire is not to consume sexuality, as it is for boys; rather it’s to be consumed as a sexual object. As a result, her temptation is to self-objectify, just as a boy’s temptation is to consume pornography. The hysterical discourse about these temptations has the ultimate effect of normalizing such behaviors as the appropriate risks for gendered subjects to engage in, leading them down the road to heteronormativity.

The genuine risks, the ones that would jeopardize the reproduction of patriarchal society, are thus not broached by subjects, male or female. The defiant self-creating impulse is channelled into safe territory and neutralized. Self-expression unfolds through preordained controversies; the rebellious T-shirts are preprinted and ready for purchase.

A familiar bait and switch occurs in all the fretful concern trolling about sexting. To protect girls from objectification and exploitation, which doesn’t allow them to “be who they are,” they are essentially encouraged to be sexual ciphers, or to be nothing at all. The commentators and “experts” noted above tend to attack female assertiveness by regarding it as deluded self-objectification, behavior somehow impelled by “the culture” rather than by autonomous desire. Female assertiveness is automatically proof of female false consciousness.

Yet no one’s desire is autonomous  — if total autonomy from contextual influence is the standard, then we are all operating from false consciousness all the time.

Despite the apparent concern over female objectification, “non-normative” sexual behavior doesn’t involve female objectification but female assertiveness. It’s “risky” because it threatens existing power relations. This assertiveness is not only is a matter of sexual self-presentation but might also include girls consuming images as boys do, or proliferating their affective bonds or role-playing across a spectrum of performative possibilities. Disrupting the norm of female passivity would also necessarily involve encouraging male self-presentation, male self-objectification. It would involve the rejection of promiscuity as a male achievement or female disfigurement — the dequantification of sexual expression and the dismantling of the idea that chastity is tradable property.

Far from being an expression of an lone individual’s deviance, Hasinoff writes that “sexting could help girls find new ways to express their sexual needs and desires and even perhaps rewrite some of the gender norms that ask girls to be passive and acquiescent in intimate heterosexual relationships.” It’s no accident that this sort of discourse among teenagers is actually illegal, as Hasinoff points out. (When teens sext amongst themselves, they become child pornographers from the point of view of the law.)

Assertiveness is culturally conditioned. If girls self-objectify for attention in ways boys don’t appear to, that’s because gendered orientations toward objectification have already been inculcated. So female assertiveness may take the form of conformity to the sorts of sexual self-commodification that get rewarded with quantified online attention. Such girls are then decried as “fame whores” or “narcissists,” or victims at best, for operating according to the logic of sexual objectification instead of internalizing and absorbing its contradictions silently. Hasnioff points out that “girls are often expected to develop sexual desires and modes of sexual expression that bear little evidence of their saturation in mass media representations of sexuality.” While it may not change the coercive context in which such choices are made, conforming to such representations nonetheless doesn’t undo one’s exercise of agency.

Still, as Hasinoff notes, girls’ behavior is not regarded as a type of subjectifying “media production” but instead as objectifying no matter how much agency they seemed to exercise in mediating themselves. They are held responsible for the lousy forms of self-expression patriarchy encourages them to take — forms that then seem to justify their being denied further agency when necessary.

Hasinoff wants researchers to focus on sexting as “media production” because this “would encourage researchers to ask different questions about the risky features of personal sexual media and about the new forms of communication and self-expression that sexting might enable.” One such question: “When girls use mobile media to produce their own pornography, how are they challenging the sexism of the commercial media industries and how are they reproducing it?” And how are they doing both at the same time? Can they be extricated, or is any challenge to this sort of commercial sexism immediately assimilated as a reaffirmation of it?

That is a more salient risk then the idea that girls will become “disinhibited” and give away their precious sexual property, whose value depends on its scarcity, its being kept out of circulation. (Some of my writing about risk taking on social media is colored by this sexist idea.)

Better to regard risk as stemming not necessarily from the content of what’s shared but from media producers using media channels that they don’t fully control. The problem is not with their decision to produce sexual content (there are lots of potentially good reasons to do this) but with the potential for it to be redistributed by unscrupulous recipients or interloping third parties. “If social media content producers have ownership over their private images,” Hasinoff writes, “the focus of sexting safety campaigns should clearly be to reduce unauthorized distribution.”

But producers don’t have that ownership. We are as alienated from the value of the content we make for social media as women are from the value their sexuality makes for consumerism. Self-expression, sexuality, are mediated as someone else’s property. All sorts of obfuscating pretenses are necessary to keep us producing this value without controlling it. It seems to belong to us because we are held responsible for it; sometimes we may even want to to provoke such accountability by making the content more and more “extreme.” Risk taking is not just a matter of seeking action, as I argued before, but it’s also a way to get social confirmation that one’s actions are really one’s own.

At any rate, the imperative to protect both social media and patriarchy means that most likely we will continue to act as though the real risk lies in exposing society’s sexual hypocrisy.

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:

Screen Shot 2013-05-08 at 5.26.17 PM

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.

Stray notes from reading of David Graber’s Debt, in progress

Reading it on an iPad, which is stupid and I deserve all the inconvenience that causes, but it drove me to take some notes on the inside of a few matchbooks.

1. Money as honor, not as value measure. Money initially measures status; only later is it mobilized as a medium of exchange. It never attains the social neutrality we want to ascribe to it that would suit capitalism and its ideal of rational, frictionless exchange for everyone and for always. It remains a moral measure, a socially constructed means to express moral superiority.

2. Slavery as destroying social relations of contingency, allowing for abstract and purely instrumentalized relations between people; slavery as precedent for later “freedom” of bourgeois urban life (as Simmel sort of depicts it) — anonymous encounters and exchanges mediated by money and trust embodied in money, permitted exchange without personal relationship or embedded networks of intricate and structuring obligations. So the roots of debt in slavery masked by the incipient ideology of freedom as convenience of the ties and obligations of reciprocal relations with other people. It’s probably too much of a leap, but I’ll suggest it anyway: Slavery produces convenience. At the ideological level anyway

Chariot of the Gods? as metaphoric/mythic recasting of absurdity of economies organized around slaves digging up precious metals to give to soldiers to enslave more miners. What should society be organized to accomplish? Certainly not that, though in practice such a system may have evolved to permit the reproduction of hierarchies. Seems this is the function of debt, not the mobiization of productivity for some humane end.