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Marginal Utility
By Rob Horning
A blog about consumerism, technology and ideology.
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Liquid Modernity and Social Media

I’ve been reading Zygmunt Bauman’s Liquid Modernitywhich has some interesting speculation about mandatory individuality in the “liquid modern” world, in which few traditions and institutions remain to anchor identity.  It’s a familiar story: capitalism (if you follow Marx’s version) dispenses with old solidities to facilitate a universal trafficking of everything, such that you end up having to buy your own identity rather than inherit it by virtue of being born. That’s not necessarily a terrible thing if you would have been born into some subaltern caste, but it’s obviously not a guarantee that you will face some level playing field of equal opportunity. Our identities under capitalism are as circumscribed as they are under other forms of society but capitalism discourages us from identifying ourselves in terms of those circumscriptions, promising us instead the ability  to create ourselves in the face of them. That promise, though, is actually a compulsion. Everyone else’s freedom is compromised if we all don’t aspire to exercise it in the way capitalism prescribes.

Consumer capitalism prescribes choice over stability, so we are inundated with options but without any enduring frames of reference to make our choices lastingly meaningful, definitive. Options just beget a consciousness of more options. Choosing consigns us to making more and more choices, until the inevitable decision fatigue and ego depletion sets in. As Bauman never tires of pointing out, the only choice we aren’t offered is the choice not to choose. We’re cut off from all other sources of meaning that might support a different conception of how to be.

We have to become an individual, much as most of us have to work for wages. It’s both the overriding goal of life and a social duty — add you r value to society by uncovering and expressing your uniqueness. Becoming yourself is not some mystical and fulfilling project of actualization but instead becomes a crappy job. Given social media, it’s a crappy job with especially active employee surveillance. Someone is always watching to see if you are doing your job of becoming somebody: having opinions, making meaningful choices, affirming the meaningful choices others are making, cranking out memes, producing desire. Becoming yourself is largely a matter of becoming someone who is paid attention to. As Jonathan Beller notes, “To look is to labor,” given the ways in which attention can be measured and monetized.

All this choosing — which rearticulates us as a particular sort of a subject, one whose individuality is premised on consumer choices rather than some other sort of practice — casts life in the form of an endless shopping spree, Bauman argues. But, he writes, “Consumers guided by desire must be ‘produced’, ever anew, and at high cost. Indeed, the production of consumers itself devours an intolerably large fraction of the total costs of production — a fraction which the competition tends to enlarge further, rather than cut down.”

Choosing, it turns out, is kind of a drag, but the disappearance of the Big Other/loss of symbolic efficiency leaves us no other options but perpetual identity trial-and-error.

With the Supreme Offices seeing to the regularity of the world and guarding the boundary between right and wrong no longer in sight, the world becomes an infinite collection of possibilities: a container filled to the brim with a countless multitude of opportunities yet to be chased or already missed. There are more —painfully more — possibilities than any individual life, however long, adventurous and industrious, can attempt to explore, let alone to adopt. It is the infinity of chances that has filled the place left empty in  the wake of the disappearing act of the Supreme Office.

No wonder that dystopias are no longer written these days: the post-Fordist, ‘fluid modern’ world of freely choosing individuals does not worry about the sinister Big Brother who would punish those who stepped out of line. In such a world, though, there is not much room either for the benign and caring Elder Brother who could be trusted and relied upon when it came to decide which things were worth doing or having and who could be counted on to protect his kid brother against the bullies who stood in the way of getting them; and so the utopias of the good society have stopped being written as well. Everything, so to speak, is now down to the individual. It is up to the individual to find out what she or he is capable of doing, to stretch that capacity to the utmost, and to pick the ends to which that capacity could be applied best – that is, to the greatest conceivable satisfaction.

We don’t have easy access to convincing limits to the self — to an identity that would allow us to stop considering alternatives all the time. There are no implicit sumptuary laws to guide us. Liberation was once access to as much stuff as possible, but that led to unbounded desire (the sort of rationality neoclassical economics assumes). Now liberation would be an escape from the implications of limitless choice: that we can’t enjoy anything without it being shadowed by the possibility we are missing out on something better. Becoming oneself is just another way of second-guessing oneself.

Social media, I think, has evolved to in part address this pressure on the individual — they will stabilize the individual’s identity and nurture it in the absence of “big brother.” To make up for the loss of this “elder brother” whose recommendations we can trust to broaden us and please us and improve us, technology (under capitalism’s guidance) has given us algorithmic recommendations that attempt to manufacture what an elder brother might have said from the history of our previous consumer choices: including what friends we’ve chosen to link to and what sort of consumer choices they’ve made. Our algorithmic elder brother encourages us all to surveil and report on one another to make his advice more pertinent.

The productive aspects of consumption brought out in social media, the sorts of immaterial labor that derives from performing our consumerism for audiences, is also replacing the sort of marketing and advertising work manufacturers once had to pay for themselves — the cost of reproducing desiring subjects. The value of social media to capital is not merely in the marketing data it generates but also in its ideological effect on users, emphasizing the centrality of consumer choice (the way liking stuff becomes accepted as equivalent to doing stuff) and the ability to quantify those choices’ impact to the meaning of one’s life. The purpose of life is to influence our social networks and thereby establish and cement our sense of our place within them: We know who we are by the metrics governing our input into the network. We thereby get some of the ontological security back that was lost with the erosion of those more traditional forms of social embeddedness.

Bauman worries that “a society of consumers is one of universal comparison” and that there is no “normative regulation” of our aspirations, no limits that curtail our quest for some sort of ultimate experiencing self. We are always dissatisfied and disappointed with what we have, but our dissatisfaction can find no political expression, since we process it as a personal disappointment in our consumer choices. Instead of responding politically to the way capitalism foists a crappy consumerist subjectivity on us, Bauman argues that we instead try to make ourselves more adequate consumers, to learn how to get more out of what we choose and to cut bait with the choices already made. This sounds a lot like the neoliberal self, which must find pleasure in flexibility and adaptability rather than achievement or steady progress toward a fixed goal.

I’ve argued before that social media facilitate the sort of subjectivity demanded by neoliberalism. We jettison a old stable self (rooted by living in same place, having same job, being in same legible socioeconomic class and accepting its standard of living, conforming to quasi-religious social norms, etc.) in favor of the opportunity to perform the self tactically (for necessary economic reasons) and accept as a new-model stable self what the data about our performances relates back to us. Social media serves not only as reputation management for neoliberal firms but it also serves as a coherent container for personal identity. That, of course, means that it more closely conflates the two, so that we can’t conceive of an identity that transcends our résumé.

But Facebook and other social media present themselves as a the savior from the sort of neoliberalist precarity they exemplify. They encourage us to see becoming an atomized node in a network as being the same as belonging to a community, and to see the persistent lateral surveillance as a kind of civility. They invite us to regard our consumerism as useful productivity to a far greater degree than before, and they format the process of self-fashioning, constricting the field in which it occurs in the name of expanding it. The degree to which we accept Facebook as a guarantor of ontological security is also the degree to which we can’t escape the sort of performative identity that made us insecure in the first place.

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