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Marginal Utility
By Rob Horning
A blog about consumerism, technology and ideology.
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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.