Category Archives: consumerism

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.

E.S. Turner’s The Shocking History of Advertising

From notes I took in 1999, when I was researching the early history of advertising in England and its relationship to the development of a commercial fiction industry. The key link is something Turner quotes from a 1970 Atlantic article in regard to Americans’ good-natured acceptance of ads: “to be good-naturedly imposed upon is a positive pleasure, provided the cost of it is not too great.” In other words, advertisign not only subsidizes entertainment; it is entertainment, and fosters a complimentary mind-set to that which entertainment proper fosters.

Turner suggests ads succeed because they furnish people with preferable lies to live by that are more convenient to believe than the truth. He cites Bacon:

People would be unpleasing to themselves without an ad world to identify themselves within. It’s a ready-made imaginary for those who are too lazy or busy to spend the time developing their own. And it is a social imaginary that integrates one with his/her society. It’s a means to feel at home and at peace with one’s contemporaries and feel as though one can participate in the zeitgeist and know the terms by which one can secure social recognition.

In the early 20th century, advertising about advertising consolidated this idea. Ads create demand, teach us to want things, which allows to experience “success” on consumerism’s terms

Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year documented a pivotal year for advertising, demonstrating how panic opens gateway to public susceptibility. The panic yielded early examples of quackery in print, and underscored the longstanding association between advertising and quackery, which sells the experience of being duped as a cure. The process of being fooled, of suspending disbelief becomes the point, the experience justifies the product, which is nothing but an inert souvenir of how the ad kicked off an alchemical process within one’s imagination.

He notes Addison’s Tatler No. 224 as an early survey of English advertising. As advertising grew as an industry, it became an increasingly reliable source of revenue as governments taxed them with stamp taxes.

Turner makes a sort of defense of 18th century patent-medicine hawkers:

Worth noting that tobacco and snuff were basically patent medicines at the time, and advertised as such.

Mass market not sought by advertisers until the early 19th century.

He quotes Carlyle from Past and Present complaining about the inauthenticity problem with ads: that they allow manufacturers to focus their energy on convincing people of something that they could spend the same energy simply making it so. “The Quack has become God.” Of course he had — Turner alludes to the argument that consumer capitalism and advertising must follow from the industrial scale of production. A sufficient demand must be industrially manufactured to make it profitable to manufacture goods on the industrial scale. That is what modern media and advertising rest on.

More early history of advertising: the Edinburgh Review in 1843. And Idler (1759); Quarterly Review (1855).