facebook twitter tumblr newsletter
Marginal Utility
By Rob Horning
A blog about consumerism, technology and ideology.
rss feed

Finer Things


I have long had a lot of respect for the music criticism of Patrick Bateman. In his three oft-praised (and deservedly so) essays in American Psycho on poptimism and the rise of 1980s adult-contemporary, he scrutinizes the inescapable radio sound of the time, examining albums and artists so iconic, so popular, that they could have seemed too ubiquitous to bother to assess, to omnipresent to secure any critical distance from. Analyzing monoliths like Genesis’s Invisible Touch or Huey Lewis and the News’s Sports could easily have seemed as beside the point as evaluating the sunshine, or water (which Bateman also takes on, in a tour de force, back-of-a-cab lecture on the differences between mineral, spring, distilled, and purified waters and brands). But Bateman finds a way in by resolutely remaining on the surface, generating an implicit, searching critique through what his intentionally impoverished discourse — a masterful parody of  vapid promotional press releases, as well as the indifferent “service journalism” music reviews that derive from and populate them  — can’t say.

His discussion of Invisible Touch is illustrative in this regard. It is not that the critical voice Bateman adopts is incapable of cogent insights: His claim that the album is “an epic meditation on intangibility” is plausible and not entirely banal, and the argument that the songs are “questioning authoritative control whether by domineering lovers or by government (“Land of Confusion”) or by meaningless repetition (“Tonight Tonight Tonight”)” is a provocative imaginative leap. But these points rest beside limp sub-clichés like “You can practically hear every nuance of every instrument” and “In terms of lyrical craftsmanship and sheer songwriting skills this album hits a new peak of professionalism,” not to mention the casual factual errors (Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks of Genesis are identified at one point as Mike Banks and Tom Rutherford), racist asides, arbitrary comparisons, and unsubstantiated assertions of personal preferences. One grasps Bateman’s point that critical intelligence is easily muted by a variety of biases, driven both by privilege and ignorance, and authorized overall by a crypto-”positive” attitude mandated by the culture industry’s commercial orientation. Commercialism and “poppiness” and “clean” (as in ethnically cleansed as well as digitally pristine) sound are all equated with one another and elevated to the level of transcendent, self-evident social values. Of course music should be “clear and crisp and modern,” and lyrics “positive and affirmative.” These generalities license the underlying bigotry necessary to preserve the status quo that commercial pop music is always ultimately committed to.

It’s a shame Bateman didn’t find the time in his general laying-waste to the shibboleths of 1980s culture to take down the single-most egregious purveyor of soulless yuppie aspirationalism and slick sterility: Steve Winwood, whose Back in the High Life must have soundtracked many of the overpriced and hyperattenuated meals at the trendy bistros and trattorias that Bateman lambastes throughout American Psycho. A cursory look, however, at contemporary reviews of the album suggest Bateman’s satire would be redundant. Rolling Stone declared Back in the High Life “the first undeniably superb record” of Winwood’s solo career, citing the “passion long smoldering in his finest work” that “explodes” in the opening track, “Higher Love,” one of the seven singles drawn from this eight-song album. The reviewer celebrates the “deliberate precision” of each of the songs, which are also praised for each being over five minutes long. The New York Times declared after the album’s release in 1986 that “the spare textures and loosely blocked arrangements of [Winwood's] music today make only minor concessions to contemporary pop sounds.”

Winwood’s vacuous hymns to hedonism and the “finer things” the aging rich can afford are, in their way, nearly as offensive and excoriating as the hallucinatory violence Bateman imagines visiting on the world of superficial splendor within which he has imprisoned himself. This is music that can only be enjoyed by someone who is dead inside. The smug and simpering ditties on Back in the High Life cauterize one’s ossicles and vestibular nerves as effectively as aural battery acid, though they work not by administering pain but though their stupefying competence, which is so dull that it nullifies the very desire to hear. Much as Bateman represents himself and his peers as being inundated and ultimately annihilated by luxury, Back to the High Life oppresses with its fussy, ultragroomed arrangements, the sonic equivalents of the ludicrous menus and outfits Bateman meticulously details. (“Van Patten is wearing a glen-plaid wool-crepe suit from Krizia Uomo, a Brooks Brothers shirt, a tie from Adirondack and shoes by Cole-Haan. McDermott is wearing a lamb’s wool and cashmere blazer, worsted wool flannel trousers by Ralph Lauren, a shirt and tie also by Ralph Lauren and shoes from Brooks Brothers. I’m wearing a tickweave wool suit with a windowpane overplaid, a cotton shirt by Luciano Barbera, a tie by Luciano Barbera, shoes from Cole-Haan and nonprescription glasses by Bausch & Lomb.”)

The song lyrics on Back in the High Life alternate between inspirational exhortations that demand uplift without effort (“Bring me my higher love!”) to paeans to midlife crises overcome (“All the doors I closed one time will open up again!”) to ominous warnings directed at unspecified others who are overstepping their boundaries (“Freedom Overspill”). The parade of guest appearances by some of pop’s most boring voices (James Taylor, Dan Hartman, James Ingram) is complemented by rote musicianship from well-traveled session players, including Hall and Oates’s drum programmer. Even the album cover, which seems to have provided the design template for chain-hotel and all-inclusive resort ads for the past three decades, serves up sepia-toned sanitization, a slice of boomer life cropped to its essence: a white guy (it could be Van Patten, it could be McDermott) smiling to himself in the center of the action, while indistinct bodies circle around him, supplying him with an unearned sense of ambient energy.

It is impossible to hear Back in the High Life now as it must have been heard then, as a coruscating collection of zeitgeist-affirming hits rather than a shocking display of hermetic entitlement and complacency. But then again, those were the “finer things” consumers yearned for, then as now. That its sophistication was so blatantly superficial just made it seem that much easier to reach.




Do the Robot

jean louis

Good news for the labor theory of value, from a recent article from the Harvard Business Review: “Automation Won’t Replace People as Your Competitive Advantage.” That’s meant to be reassuring. Even if we can’t imagine any jobs so specialized or service-intensive that a robot can’t steal them, we can rest assured that capital won’t always find it profitable to go with the machines. Humans, it turns out, have creative and affective faculties beyond strict functionality — the article’s authors, drawing on a new management tract called Humans Are Underrated, identify “empathy” and “storytelling” — and companies will need to find a way to take advantage of these to beat out competitors. At the end of the day, you can’t really exploit a robot the way you can a person.

As the authors of the article explain, “You will always need good people. And you need a system that engages them and allows what is unique and valuable about individual people to be leveraged.” Being a “good person” means exceeding the job description in ways that profit the company. That is the essence of “individuality”: It is not a product of our snowflake souls but a production input shaped by the exigencies of the capitalist production process. “Uniqueness” is simply what can’t be otherwise automated but remains exploitable.

The corollary to that is that we work to produce “unique” aspects of our personality to become useful to capital. (This is the gist of the Marxist idea of the “real subsumption” of identity. Capitalism’s mode of production fully drives the formation of personality rather than adapting its processes to some inflexible pre-existing identity-formation process.) The culture-wide celebration of authenticity is not a revolt against corporate values but an expression of them. Authenticity is precisely the opposite of the image of a disinterested, spontaneous self that the word sometimes conjures. If you are not “authentic” enough to be exploitable in some way — if your personality can’t be “leveraged” — then authenticity is not really available to you. You can’t afford to be yourself.

The unpaid work of striving for “authenticity” is a matter of formatting oneself into an exploitable human resource, into a kind of rival good that one company can make use of to the detriment of another. One of the problems for capital with automated processes is that they distill the hidden abode of production into a kind of intellectual property, which makes it eminently copiable. Thus, the advantages of such processes readily spread to competitors: They just copy your machine, install your software.

Thus automation leads to a new urgency for employers to exploit the unique qualities of their employees. The HBR article urges managers to recognize this:

In our highly competitive economy, managers may be too easily seduced by the apparent advantages of automation. In relentless pursuit of lower costs and greater throughput, they might miss the fact that advantages in storytelling, judgment, and other human strengths are much harder for competitors to replicate.

It’s nice to see that storytelling and human judgment being championed here, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that the management class would fight for those qualities if they weren’t profitable and couldn’t be put to competitive advantage. The minute a machine could tell a story that reliably sells, the management gurus would be telling us to “Get used to it, tomorrow’s Shakespeares will all be robots,” as robot stories flooded the market and destroyed the ability for  a human to write for a living, and then the search would be on for some other discrete “human strength” to reify and exploit. What constitutes a human strength is highly malleable and contingent on machine capabilities; it is driven by and measured in terms of what machines can or cannot simulate. It is not a matter of some sort of essential species being.

Regardless of what the human strengths happen to be at any given time, companies will do their utmost to maximize the value of those “uniquely human qualities,” touting them as marks of authenticity and management’s devotion to both consumers and workers. Contrived cheerfulness, because it is currently hard to automate or convey with machines, is heralded as “authentic” or “caring.” The authors cite the example of Southwest Airlines, because the company attempts to differentiate itself through warm service, “hiring for attitude and training for skill.” The authors of the HBR article note that the company “doesn’t lack for press about its positive organizational culture and cheerful customer-facing employees,” and a Google search certainly confirms this. But it would be a mistake to see the qualities that Southwest deliberately tests and hires for (positive attitude, creativity, sense of humor, other-orientedness) as “authentic” human qualities that they merely screen for and nourish. Rather, their hiring process produces those qualities as valuable, establishes a material process by which the fabrication of those qualities becomes a useful job for an employee to assign themselves. (Ironically enough, that hiring process increasingly makes use of algorithmic sorting and Big Data; machines are used to help select the most valuable unique and unmachine-like humans.)

In other words, Southwest sets up a system where it behooves workers to pretend they care for customers in particular ways, to work hard at the simulation of care, which basically precludes the possibility of the care being “genuine,” if that even means anything. Arlie Russell Hochschild’s The Managed Heart details the nature of this “emotional labor,” which she argues impinges on a worker’s ability to experience emotions that are their own and not instigated by the job. When workers try to force “authenticity” for work, it precludes their ability to feel authentic about themselves in any context.

The behavior that seems “genuine” to customers is not fixed — the folksy preflight routine in the aisle can quickly come to seem stale and corny. What makes a person seem genuine in a commercial context has nothing to do with the actual disposition of the people involved in an exchange but with the expectations established by other commercial interactions. This follows from the logic of people’s “uniqueness” being seen solely as a competitive advantage, something that consumers covet and can detect. “Genuineness” is a real thing only to the extent that it is differential from other companies’ phoniness. There are no “genuine” interactions, only ones that seem so and keep the customer satisfied.  Profit determines whether behavior is genuine: If it was profitable, it was genuine; if not, it was phony.

Ways of seeming genuine get depleted through overuse, and new ways to convey sincerity must be invented. Employees must not lapse into a routine and “go into robot,” like the disgruntled flight attendants in Hochschild’s research. But at the same time, the “sincere” emotions must be accessible on demand, as part of an industrial process. Southwest screens not for people who can’t go into robot, but for people who go into robot in less detectible, less familiar ways. In a way, it would suit companies if people would give up on the attempts at faking genuine feeling and believe that they can simply and unreflectively “be themselves”: This would preserve the integrity of companies’ hiring and screening systems and assure that they won’t be gamed. Then companies could hire people who don’t have to fake what passes for genuine at that particular juncture. They could always replace these savants when the way they are naturally begins to seem contrived to others. People who make no effort to be themselves are perfect for validating the “objectivity” of personality tests. Advice to “just be yourself” translates as “Don’t you be anything, let us tell you who you are!”

But once beyond the hiring phase, companies want workers who are capable of working hard at feeling, even if it is simply to mask it. Emotional labor only works as competitive advantage when it can be compelled by bosses yet remain convincing, improvisational enough to fool customers. Service businesses need to avoid making emotional labor into what the HBR authors call a “system that compels people to perform standardized acts in the same way.” So bosses have to insist on an ”authenticity” from workers that takes their alienation up an exponential level. Companies impose a system in which employees are held responsible for making the systematicity invisible. Workers are compelled to find ways to be creative about performing routinized tasks and seem to be organically “doing what they love.” (Pret à Manger’s experiments in forced spontaneity are an interesting example of all this.)

Miya Tokumitsu had a good critique of the Do What You Love ideology in Jacobin, in which she argues that “do what you love” means turn your passion into human capital — the real subsumption of identity in another guise. She writes,

 According to this way of thinking, labor is not something one does for compensation, but an act of self-love. If profit doesn’t happen to follow, it is because the worker’s passion and determination were insufficient. Its real achievement is making workers believe their labor serves the self and not the marketplace.

Having a “real” passion for your job is the extension of exhibiting “genuine” feeling in the workplace, but instead of serving a customer, it serves a boss or client. Again the metric that establishes the reality of feeling is ex post profit. If no one wants your passionate work, it’s not really passionate and you are self-deluded.

Tokumitsu argues that genuinely lovable work is a privilege that comes at the expense of lots of unlovable work being done by others:

Work becomes divided into two opposing classes: that which is lovable (creative, intellectual, socially prestigious) and that which is not (repetitive, unintellectual, undistinguished).

As a result, Tokumitsu argues, unlovable work becomes “dangerously invisible” to those whom it permits to do what they love. And in the meantime, those who love what they do work harder for less or no pay.

But the logic that sees competitive advantage in the “human touch” means that all work must be lovable and be performed as such for customers (and the managers who are supposed to be their proxy). Unlovable work isn’t made invisible but is made to seem visibly, irrepressibly loved. After all, what keeps a crappy job from being automated, from this perspective, is the joy in it that a worker can manifest and woo customers with. What prevents a job from being automated is not necessarily its complexity, as Peter Frase explains in this post (and elsewhere):

From the perspective of the boss, replacing a worker with a machine will be more appealing to the degree that the machine is:

  • Cheaper than the human worker
  • More convenient and easier to control than the human worker

If workers demand more wages, machines become more attractive to bosses. Likewise with “meaningful work”: If workers demand more meaningful, lovable work, then they become less “convenient” to bosses. But workers whose value rests in how much they show they love their job are quite easy to control. Servility is built into the practice. Frase writes that “the truly dystopian prospect is that the worker herself is treated as if she were a machine rather than being replaced by one.” Even more dystopian is the prospect of being treated like a de facto machine while being expected to express boundless “human” joy about it.

The threat of automation, then, can be used to extract more emotional labor and more competitive advantage from humans. After all, one of the few things a robot can’t supply is enthusiasm.


This paper by economist David Deming (via) makes the case that because of automation, “the labor market increasingly rewards social skills.” Translated out of economist-ese and into a language critical of capitalism rather than complicit with it, that means the point of exploitation is shifting, moving deeper into the human personality and turning more of life’s nonwork and leisure into exploitable labor. Social interaction is tamed and subsumed, so that it can’t be oppositional to capital but is a “human resource” within it.

Deming notes that “high-skilled, difficult-to-automate jobs increasingly require social skills,” by which he means jobs that require “tacit knowledge” and the ability to read other people’s behavior and put yourself in their shoes. Jobs, that is, increasingly involves empathy as a discrete form of labor, empathy as competitive advantage, empathy as something bosses can compel and manage.

This will have the effect of codifying the empathy process, making it ultimately amenable to automation itself. The rising value of social skills increases the capitalist desire to automate it, save on labor costs, and then push the point of exploitation to some new and deeper level of human behavior.

The commercialization of empathy, the reification of it as a skill, also gives incentive to workers who must exhibit it on demand to optimize the effort it takes: This entails becoming emotionally simplified and demanding emotional simplification in others. It means contriving situations, work processes, in which “the other person’s point of view” is constrained to only a few conceivable ”rational” options. It means reducing empathy to routines. It means self-robotification among workers in hopes of streamlining what it takes to see from the other person’s point of view. This does the work of translating “social intelligence” into something ultimately code-able.

The model of workplace skills and team building that Deming creates for the paper actually serves as a kind of blueprint for how this could proceed: “This paper should be viewed as an attempt to extend and formalize the definition of one particular dimension of “soft” skills — the ability to work with others,” he writes. These soft skills don’t resist automation so much as exist higher up the automation chain. But the work of automating social skills isn’t a matter of more sophisticated computer programming; it’s a matter of reducing the scope of typical human behavior — and the range of empathy that people are capable of and expect — to something that can be programmed.

There’s nothing inherent in emotionality that resists behavioralist reduction, that can’t be programmed. It requires active belief, active resistance, to maintain that emotion can’t be automated or outsourced or circulated like currency. But for that resistance not to be co-opted, not to attenuate some new form of human labor to exploit, it has to be conceived as making emotions useless. Resisting the automation of emotion means resisting emotion’s recruitment as a skill.

Notes toward a reconceptualization of Boney M.’s “Daddy Cool”

boney m

Indeed, what about “Daddy Cool”? What is his place in the Symbolic Order? What is the particular “daddy issue” that this improbable musical concoction articulates, a song that ritually and quite literally intones the name of the father and asserts the Law while nonetheless impelling listeners toward the dissolution of self in dance-floor jouissance?

What are the relations of desire that structure the subject under the sign of the phallus? Are we oedipalized by this seductive father figure? Can he release our flows or simply canalize them? What, after all, is so “cool” about this big Other, Daddy Cool, such that he can make us “crazy like a fool” about him? And is this patriarchally induced insanity in fact the first step toward a deterritorialization sufficient to decenter and trouble, if not entirely undermine, Daddy’s rei(g)n?

Deleuze and Guattari, of course, point out that “Oedipus creates both the differentiations that it orders and the undifferentiated with which it threatens us.” Daddy Cool is no different. We must first let him castrate us in order to instantiate the body without organs. The name Boney M., with its overtly phallic overtones, is surely relevant in this respect — could not the inexplicable and mysterious initial M stand for missing?

The imposition of the Oedipal drama’s triangulation — “she’s crazy like a fool,” “I’m crazy like a fool,” “What about Daddy Cool?” — culminates in the song’s dramatic bridge, in which the voice of the father desperately asserts, “She’s crazy about her Daddy! She believes in him! She loves her Daddy!” But this insistence only serves to invalidate the status of that belief and, in turn, cloud the hegemony of the law and the primacy of the phallic signifier with doubt. Her belief alone sustains the virility and authority of the totem; her devotion to the name of the father precedes its actual effectivity in practice. It must be assumed and thus can never be confirmed. (This is why Irigaray proclaims the “Oedipal interdiction” to be a “categorical and factitious law … in a culture in which sexual relations are impracticable because man’s desire and woman’s are strangers to each other.”)

The name of the father must be invoked (repeatedly, in the mesmeric structure of “Daddy Cool”) in order to be repudiated, to be revealed in its hollowness. The assertion of phallic law also exposes it to ridicule; its aggressive protuberance is also its vulnerability. Irigaray:

In this perspective, we might suspect the phallus (Phallus) of being the contemporary figure of a god jealous of his prerogatives; we might suspect it of claiming, on this basis, to be the ultimate meaning of all discourse, the standard of truth and propriety, in particular as regards sex, the signifier and/or the ultimate signified of all desire, in addition to continuing, as emblem and agent of the patriarchal system, to shore up the name of the father (Father).

But this claim of ultimate meaning, of grounding the possibility of signification itself, is a celibate machine. The song’s refrain “what about Daddy Cool” is itself nebulous, irresolvable — a garbled transmission of the intended lyric “wild about Daddy Cool” (and sometimes mistransliterated as the even more threatening challenge “What about it, Daddy Cool?”) that performs its own wildness, its refusal to be semantically tamed. Yet this daddy remains a semiotic eunuch, incapable of guaranteeing the transmission of meaning and securing the future according to an existing organization and distribution of authority.

When, in the inaugural utterance of “Daddy Cool,” we hear a deep authoritative paternal rumble, who is actually speaking? “The voice of the Other,” Lacan insists, “should be considered an essential object.” We know that the voice on the recording belongs to Frank Farian, the producer and Svengali behind Boney M., yet suitably and not unimportantly, Farian refuses to be seen speaking, sending out an imposter, dancer Bobby Farrell, to mouth the words.

The fact the speaking voice of the father turns out to be an imposter may seem to be yet another example in support of Slavoj Žižek’s famous dictum that the “big Other does not exist.” But this supplementation does not have the effect of reinforcing the symbolic efficiency of Daddy Cool. It does not allow us to behave “as if,” to both reject phallic authority and yet behave as if its strictures are binding. Nor does it turn “Daddy Cool” into a target for cynical complaint. The “cool” of Daddy Cool is not a matter of ironic distanciation; instead it is more the “cool” of McLuhan’s cool media, which require a more immersive and constructive engagement. Listeners must account for the obvious aporia in the figure of the father, and this inherent implausibility makes him compelling, such that Boney M.’s September 1976 appearance on Musikladen was both necessary and sufficient to propel the song to international prominence in the socius. On that appearance, Farrell fulfills the role of Farian/daddy manqué, triumphing by failing to convince that he is the voice of the Other while dissolving the site of the speaking father, and thus phallologocentrism itself, in a ceaseless series of fluid contortions of the body, a visible unraveling and an unraveling of the visible, the decoded flows seeming to twist and warp his body as they wash over him. We are called to witness the presence of an entirely different libidinal economy.

Hence we must regard “Daddy Cool” as another seminal contribution to the debate between culturalists and psychoanalysts over the universality of Oedipal structures in ordering human practices. We may paraphrase Deleuze and Guattari and state that “it is within capitalist society that the critique of ‘Daddy Cool’ must always resume its point of departure and find again its point of arrival.” Daddy Cool is superimposed on larger and even more amorphous familial figure, that of capital itself, and the way in which it orders cultural production such that mass audiences can be accessed and manipulated and imbricated and suffused with a pseudo-liberatory pleasure. “Daddy Cool” is the site of a necessary collision and conjunction of decoded flows in the process of their recoding. The “crazy” deterritorialization that Daddy Capital’s presence entails corresponds directly to a collateral movement that reasserts capital’s ability to extract value from it.

Could Daddy Cool ever make us “crazy” enough that we would cease to be “fools,” cease to be “wild” merely about capitalism’s enticements to productive desire but about the possibility of the transgressive desire beyond belief in him? We must not cease to love Daddy Cool but instead learn to love him too much, with an ardor that he can’t reciprocate and which short-circuits him.


Know Your Product

Screen Shot 2015-07-29 at 2.47.40 PM

It’s common to critique social media by pointing out that users believe they are consumers but are in fact are the product, a packaged and labelled audience being sold to marketers, the real “users” of ad-supported social media. Or worse, users are both the product and the labor making the product, all for the benefit of the social-media companies that own it. This means we are not merely deluded but also exploited when we think of ourselves as “consuming” social media.

The assumption in this critique is that we don’t want to be a product and instead want the agency and autonomous expression that social media seem to promise. From that point of view, users sign up on Facebook with the goal of expressing themselves and hearing what their friends have to say, but are eventually warped into becoming a kind of reified personal brand through exposure to the product’s toxic affordances of self-quantification. Naive users think they are signing up for a personalized public sphere and then, undeterred by the evident oxymoron, find themselves in a hall of mirrors in which all they can see — and all they end up wanting to see — is themselves.

I’ve made that argument in the past, but it seems to presume a sort of haplessness in social media users, who don’t know well enough to stop using services that are exploiting and stupidifying them. It doesn’t seem adequate to explaining the pleasure users derive from social media, even as they become reifying and exploitive. I don’t think users’ continued use is strictly a matter of network effects and sunk costs, or even a matter of a cost-benefit analysis permitted them to make a rational decision that surrendering their personal data constitutes a fair exchange for the services social media offer. Instead, I want to consider the possibility that users enjoy becoming the product.

The services that social media supply (holding a “graph” of one’s social connections; amassing and archiving personal data; making the promise of an on-demand audience for oneself plausible; permitting a variety of pre-formatted modes of self-expression; offering algorithmically constituted recommendations of what you should read, who you should know, how you should spend your time; and so on) help constitute the self as something a user can consume. We get to be a commodity and consume it at the same time. We are like the hot dog putting ketchup on itself.


This self-commodification does not diminish the user’s self-conception but rather makes the self conceivable, legible. The self as product is inherently not guilty of some of the deauthenticating aspects of agency which threaten the integrity of other versions of the self: being calculating, unspontaneous, manipulative, phony, etc. The self as product can be seen as something that simply is, a given thing articulated in a definite form. It enters the realm of the socially conspicuous.

Only as a product can we recognize ourselves as “genuinely” real, given the amount of attention and effort collectively directed at enchanting and foregrounding products within a consumer-capitalist culture. We are ideologically trained, repeatedly, every day, to love consumer goods; naturally we would want to become a consumer good ourselves, to appear deserving of love — from ourselves as well as from other people (who, on social media, offer quantifiable tokens of that deserved love in the likes and so on).

Products in consumer-capitalist culture quickly lose their lovability, however, as they lose their novelty. They become moribund. They become trash. Consumerism relies on disposability and the perpetual renewal of consumer desire, of discontented people constantly demanding more for themselves. This allows for the limitless expansion of demand in the economy. Consumer ideology fuses self-growth, also conceived as potentially limitless, to the ability to want more things. This converts an economic imperative into a moral one: I must embrace my limitless potential and find ways to express it, or else fail as a human being.

Growth itself, as a personal goal, is adapted from the capitalist necessity of pursuing limitless accumulation in an economic environment of growth or death. Personal growth is a matter of continual dissatisfaction, of refusing to be content, even as we make ourselves into content. Anything that I start to think I know about myself seems not merely familiar but fake. What is real about me is what I discover about myself (usually in the form of fresh desire), not what I already know, which I have consumed already.

So the self, as a product, loses its enchantment for us and needs to be revitalized to the extent that it becomes familiar, known, understood. We love ourselves only as a novelty, a mystery, not as a staple product. We want to be able to apprehend ourselves as a new, desirable thing that we can consume and enjoy. This makes us feel relevant, marketable. We can imagine someone buying into the idea of us, and that helps us buy into ourselves. But inevitably our desire for ourselves needs to be renewed, and we will need to be repackaged.

It seems untenable to feel authentic only when you’re surprising yourself. Social media try to make this contradiction seem to cohere. They offer ways in which to always consume ourselves anew as new. Algorithmic recommendations in particular cater to this hope of seeing a stranger in the personal data we’ve generated, an alien person we can claim as a real self. They can enlarge our ability to desire (making us grow) while seeming to draw on true information about us that we have somehow provided. Everything you have consumed and expelled online gets purifed and re-presented as new desires, a new you.

By processing our personal data into things like Facebook’s Newsfeed, algorithms can present us with a carefully repackaged self. We then get the thrill of unboxing ourselves as if we were a coveted new product and seeing what surprise awaits within. That this box we are continually rewrapped in is also a cage can be more readily excused. In that cage, we will only see what reinforces the central importance of novelty, but it won’t matter as long as we feel new ourselves.

Signs of ephemerality

train guy

What happens when what is archived no longer seems to qualify as part of what is authentic about you? The allure of ephemerality intensifies.

1. Ephemerality as a strategy for generating authenticity. The untenability of old notions of authenticity becomes more apparent the more one is entrenched in mediated social networks that archive data about a user. Because social media turn so much experience into representations, social media eradicate the possibility of spontaneity (another legacy notion of what is authentic), as we plan for the mediation of what we are doing even as we are doing it. (See Nathan Jurgenson on the idea of the “Facebook eye” here.) As the data accumulates, it begins to make identity appear incremental instead of given all at once, born into us like a soul, dictating our personality from some permanent, essential inner core. Instead identity is an open construction site that other people are invited to tour, a work in progress that will never be completed, as the archive can house more and more data.

Identity is understood less as a concrete thing and more as a process. But whereas things simply seem to be, processes are understood to have goals. If we are thought to just have a self, its purpose is not questioned; when the self is a process, the question arises of what the purpose of that process is. Drawing on how Wendy Brown defines neoliberalism in this interview, as reducing people to market actors and inciting them to turn every aspect of one’s life into something marketable, we can see this process of self-making as self-neoliberalization: making an account of one’s life to try to turn as much of it as possible into various forms of “human capital.”

By housing so much personal data, networks not only foreground the contingency of identity (how we act differently in different contexts; how we seem different when our data is filtered in different ways, or when it is compared with other users exhibiting similar behavior patterns) but also make it plain that all the archived information about us feed directly into our efforts to capitalize on our sociality—to turn our social connections and everyday personal behavior into marketable assets. This makes any behavior that gets archived get perceived as self-interested and thus contrived and inauthentic — we are only doing it to gain advantage, not because it is “who we really are.”

Ephemerality emerges as an alternative to neoliberal human-capital building, to the construction of identity as something that is wholly marketized. Once, ephemerality was unremarkable, as virtually everything about our everyday lives was ephemeral: unmonitored, unrecorded, not saved, not processed into usable and potentially valuable information. Our everyday life was not mediated and commoditized to anything like the same degree it is now, with the advent of cheap digital recording devices and cheap, massive data storage.

But now ubiquitous surveillance and archiving makes ephemerality seem scarce; it’s no longer assured by technological limitations. (In fact, technology seems to guarantee the opposite: That everything is recorded and nothing is ultimately deleted; nothing is beyond the accessibility of a CCTV camera or a clever hack.) We look for signs that something will actually be ephemeral — not intended to be part of our cultural-capital stock. Ephemerality now needs to signified, in the face of its threatened disappearance. Thus, what is taken as ephemeral may have nothing to do with actual ephemerality, actual disappearance. Ephemerality, like authenticity, becomes a feeling and not an empirical attribute of a thing or moment.

2. Signs of ephemerality are repurposed indicators of phoniness. The sign of ephemerality alone may be sufficient to trigger a feeling of authenticity; it can purchase a moment of relief from the burden of self-consciousness (authenticity’s nemesis). If something about your self-representation in a situation conveys the spirit of ephemerality — of obsolescence, of a future going-out-of-fashion, of disposability, of irreverence or unseriousness, etc, it . It may allow the person signifying the ephemerality to feel “in the moment” and others to attribute “disinterestedness” to what they are doing, making the person seem as though they are “being real.” In general, the sign of ephemerality permits the affect of “realness” — what it marks is admissible as genuine, not calculated or designed to manipulate, and that atmosphere of authenticity may be permitted to permeate the entire social encounter.

The markers of disposability are precisely those things that indicated something’s trendiness, its trying-too-hard-ness, its fashion-victimhood. They emboss a thing with a sell-by date. It’s the pattern on a piece of fast-fashion apparel that dooms it to imminent irrelevance. It’s the lyric “the best soy latte that you’ve ever had, and me” in that Train song, something that both catches your attention and makes you cringe. That lyric is awful and contrived in a way that makes it qualify, paradoxically enough, as sincerity. Or rather, “sincerity.” It’s mis-calculatedness is foregrounded, impossible to miss, and therefore it pushes aside the need to question its intent, or the integrity of it. You need no paranoid hermeneutic for Train.

3. Absence of paranoia is the affect of ephemerality. With something marked as ephemeral, you don’t have to interpret anything; its meaning consists of its meaninglessness, its refusal to last, to monumentalize or memorialize. That feeling is secured by the phoniness identified and processed. It ushers both interpreter and interpreted to a space beyond interpretation, beyond strategy and defense. It takes an experience off the record; it gives a sense of having that power. A tight tautological loop is conveyed: This isn’t being recorded/archived, so I’m not trying too hard, so no one is recording or archiving this, and around again. This reinforces the sense of permission that comes from ephemerality. The signs of ephemerality build in the idea that you can’t be judged for a specific appeal for attention.

This principle of getting interpretation out of the way from the get-go is behind those that highlight their nature as ads, that ask to be distrusted. This lowers the viewers’ guard, while flattering their intelligence. Self-debunking phoniness can put us at ease so that some deeper phoniness can skate by. It’s like getting yourself caught for some small infraction so that you can deflect suspicion about an even larger one. With signified ephemerality, one intentionally gets caught being overtly inauthentic or obvious or clumsy in an effort to be something, so as to posit a deeper authenticity that has been violated but nonetheless really exists.

This makes “ephemerality” a potentially effective medium for ideology, or for propaganda. Things marked as ephemeral insist on their harmlessness, which makes them deviously potent. (“Did you fall for a shooting star?”)

3. Ephemerality is not virality. On the surface, the cycle of virality — a sudden flare of massive attention followed by a loss of interest — can seem to mirror the fashion cycle, the hype cycle, the promise of eventual disappearance, of assured ephemerality. But virality sometimes is a matter of oversaturation and overfamiliarity to the point the thing is not noticed anymore — it’s not ephemeral; it just becomes taken for granted. And the viral thing insists on the importance of its spread; it consists in infection by contact. Its affect is an itchiness to tell more people.

Ephemerality signals something different; it doesn’t rely on circulation for its being. The viral and the ephemeral both are matters of form rather than specific content: the content of a viral video is always its virality rather than what it specifically depicts; the content of something ephemeral is first and foremost its immanent disappearance. But the ephemeral doesn’t depend on having its trace through time tracked and measured; it’s virality without metrics.

A sign of ephemerality can spread virally with the benefit of not seeming to want to. In this way, ephemerality augments virality, intensifying the sense that a thing must be shared while it still can be.

4. Paradoxical ephemerality. Once the ephemeral is a matter of signs, distinctive legible marks rather than actual decay or disappearance over an actual period of time, the notion of ephemerality becomes subject to an array of paradoxes.

Ephemeral signs need to signify and negate their status as signs simultaneously; a sign of ephemerality has to itself be ephemeral to be credible, yet it must be durable enough to remain legible. Deploying ephemerality as a sign is a way of signaling a lack of investment in one’s signaling choices; it attempts to convey you’re more important than any such superficial indicators, that something essential but unsignified about the self is pointed to (or even defined) by the foregrounded ephemera. But the very use of signs of ephemerality suggests an investment in the procedures of signaling the self, even as the signal is “I’m not so deeply invested in what I am signaling right now.”

When ephemerality becomes a proxy for authenticity, it also becomes reified and fakeable; it becomes something that people try to signal in its absence. (This is the central paradox of self-conscious authenticity. Once authenticity becomes signifiable, it becomes inherently inauthentic, as long as authenticity is defined as something intrinsically bound up in the thing being deemed authentic. You can get lonely looking for yourself out there.)

We signal authenticity by signaling our disavowal of any attempts to signal it. Ephemerality as authenticity adds another degree of paradox to this; suggesting that our efforts to signal this nonsignaling will soon disappear — but that suggestion is only at the level of the sign, conveyed by a sign of ephemerality. Whether or not it ever disappears no longer matters, as long as the idea the sign of ephemerality is supposed to convey is conveyed.

This interlocking set of contradictions leads to such possibilities as indulging in fashion in order to signal one’s indifference to it, or wearing obviously outdated or soon-to-be-unfashionable clothes to signify one’s own timelessness. Ephemerality then serves as way to signal that you are not really signaling anything. It is a reworking of the fantasy that you can “be in a band with no image” or “be normcore” or “be above trends” or “just be natural.” When I foregrounding the ephemerality of what I do, I am trying to convey the idea that my identity is sacrosanct, untouchable by what is ephemeral, i.e. everything. I am essence; existence is just ephemera.

The sign of ephemerality becomes the opposite of its practice. So these signs will become ineffective, fall out of fashion, prove their ephemerality after all.