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

Fun Will Find a Way

Screen Shot 2015-07-16 at 11.03.55 AM

In 1969, in the midst of unprecedented civic unrest in the United States fueled by an imperialistic war abroad and rampant institutionally supported racism at home, the Stooges — a band from Detroit that experienced the riots of 1967 at close proximity — released the song “No Fun.” Maybe it wasn’t meant as a manifesto, but it is hard to imagine a more stark rejection of the “fun morality” of consumer capitalism that was reaching ascendency in the advertising imagery of the era. In this period, lifestyle and luxury magazines championed and illustrated a hedonistic lifestyle that was meant to be both the respite and reward for eschewing political engagement. Corporations were in the process of appropriating youth trends and choreographing them to the program of enforced leisure spending and addiction to ephemeral novelty, labeling shifting fashion winds and permissive personal mores as the real “revolution” that emerging spenders should engage with. Forget civil rights, forget Vietnam, forget feminism: check out this new hi-fi! Smoke this cigarette!

“No Fun” says no to that mentality, endorsing through negation a spirit of genuine resistance. The singer of “No Fun” opts to remain “freaked out for another day,” rather than be coerced by the pseudo-pleasures of consumerist conformity, accepting that this condemns him to ostracism and exclusion. Because he recognizes that the “fun” on offer is anything but, he himself will be stamped as unfun, as an apparent narcissist who prefers aloneness and is in “love with nobody else” but himself. But he is willing to wager that the true narcissist is not the refusnik but the one who goes along to get along, who colludes with capital’s demand to find enjoyment in disposability, of products as well as people.

As Jean Baudrilard would concurrently note in his study The Consumer Society, “Modern man spends less and less of his life in production within work and more and more of it in the production and continual innovation of his own needs and well-being. He must constantly see to it that all his potentialities, all his consumer capacities are mobilized. If he forgets to do so, he will be gently and insistently reminded that he has no right not to be happy.” The singer of “No Fun,” singing from a rust belt city that saw the birth of assembly-line production and its incipient decay, says no to such mobilization, and chooses three-chord, fuzzed-out monolithic boredom over the smooth seductive sounds of the fun ideology.

Moving forward a few years, past the end of the 1960s optimism about social change and deep into the economically troubled “Me Decade,” we can get a good sense of what the inverse of “No Fun” sounds like, listening for the apotheosis of the fun ideology in action in popular music of the 1970s. Over that decade, the singer-songwriter introspection that had marked the disillusionment of the Baby Boomer generation as it aged and settled into compromised complacency had begun to curdle into chart-dominating “soft rock.” These generally faceless acts from a pre-music-video era turned out slick singles about the ups and downs of the leisured life, which was represented by the culture industry as a matter of transgressing normative boundaries. Daniel Bell, complaining about the breakdown of traditional associations of class and behavior in a 1972 article, provides a representative list of the sorts of activities the public believed constituted the avant-garde of leisure in a post-scarcity society: It was a matter of “who will use drugs, engage in orgies and wife-swapping, become an open homosexual, use obscenity as a political style, enjoy ‘happenings’ and underground movies.” In a later revision of his ideas about the “cultural contradictions of capitalism,” Bell declared that the affluent society that consumer capitalism had bequeathed us also generated a “fun morality” of personal gratification that triumphed over a “goodness morality” of abnegation; this fun morality, he writes, “centers, in most instances, on sex.”

Given that popular view — that sexual liberation was a sign of material success and cultural cool — popular music sought to provide vicarious access to the swinging life. Hence the emergence of the hot tub genre of pop, sometimes alternately dubbed California Rock or mistakenly conflated with yacht rock (which I have analyzed previously here). Hot tub music typically consists of mellow, often bearded white guys singing about sexual adventurism or its heartbroken aftermath over gently orchestrated, sonically pristine backdrops. Examples include “Moonlight Feels Right” by Starbuck, “Let Your Love Flow” by the Bellamy Brothers, “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight” by England Dan and John Ford Coley, “Baby Don’t Get Hooked on Me” by Mac Davis, “Sentimental Lady” by Bob Welch, “Afternoon Delight” by the Starland Vocal Band, “Magnet and Steel” by Walter Egan, and so on.  But I would like to focus on one particular exemplar of this genre: Pablo Cruise.

Formed in 1973 from members of two second-string San Francisco acts — It’s A Beautiful Day (a sort of watered-down Jefferson Airplane) and Stoneground (an Electric Flag knockoff), the band chose its name by invoking a derogatory stereotype of the “laid-back Mexican” and fusing it to a slang term for seeking casual sex partners; according to the band’s now defunct website, ”Pablo represents an honest, real, down to earth individual; and Cruise depicts his fun loving and easy going attitude towards life.” The band would take a few years to smooth out their musical approach, breaking through in 1977 with A Place in the Sun. By this time, they had settled on a gone-troppo sunset-and-palm-trees logo and refined its late-Doobies-meets-Buffett sound, crafting paeans to the ideal epitomized by the all-inclusive Caribbean vacation at a singles resort: Life is just tan and available babes on the beach, and a never-ending coconut-based cocktail obsequiously served by an economic unfortunate from the Global South. Sounds like “fun.”

This is explicit in the song “A Place in the Sun,” whose lyrics endorse the idea that “everybody’s heart needs a holiday” and that “everyday invites you to find your place in the sun.” That place in the sun is styled as a refuge from the arduousness and frequent disappointment of committed relationships: “Love always promises to last forever, but sometimes it just don’t work out,” the song explains, hence one needs a place where love is supplanted by indulgence (provided you can afford it). This is the essence of “fun,” as it was constructed in the period: a purchased escape from a sense of responsibility to others, with the pleasure emblemized by sexual libertinism serving as justification for any perceived moral lapses. Since other people will no doubt disappoint you with their faithlessness, you may as well please yourself pre-emptively. Moreover, the selfishness of the act will be the index by which you can measure the pleasure it is providing.

In The Culture of Narcissism (1979), Christopher Lasch was noting how “the cult of intimacy conceals a growing despair of finding it,” with marital relations becoming difficult to create, let alone sustain, given the self-centeredness of those who might venture into such bonds. “Personal relations have become increasingly risky,” he noted, “most obviously because they no longer carry any assurance of permanence. Men and women make extravagant demands on each other and experience irrational rage and hatred when their demands are not met.” Pablo Cruise had seized upon that “irrational rage” alleged to be in the zeitgeist and turned it into its affective opposite, slick grooves that sought to equate stepping out with chilling out.

Pablo Cruise’s first big hit, ”Watcha Gonna Do,” a veritable clone of Boz Scaggs’s “Lowdown,” refines this theme, fully capturing both Lasch’s sense of relationship “riskiness” and Daniel Bell’s grasp of the “fun morality.” Ostensibly a warning offered to a man in a relationship on the rocks to be thankful and appreciative of his partner (“all your friends they’re calling you a fool / ’Cause you don’t know a good thing when you got it in your hands”), it plays more like a teasing question, an invitation to consider all the things he would do once his partner was no longer in his way. ”What you gonna do when she says goodbye? What you gonna do when she’s gone?” Well, you can indulge all the guilt-free promiscuity you want. The song instantiates the cultural contradiction that Bell had pointed to, referencing the “goodness morality” while strongly implying its futility, its outdatedness. The incantation of the title phrase, “Watcha gonna do?” makes it plain that the song takes it as given that she will inevitably go, no matter what. So why not indulge?

A similarly cynical blend of sentiments is on display in “Never Had a Love Like This,” which details the ephemerality and uselessness of relationships (“There’s been a hundred if there’s been one, and they have all been nice for a while”) only to claim that the current relationship the singer is in is an exception. Again the message for the listener in this self-negating stew is that love is fickle and uncertain, but self-satisfaction is solid rock beneath your feet, an island in the sun.

Worlds Away, Pablo Cruise’s 1978 follow-up to A Place in the Sun, reiterates these same escapist themes, as the title might lead you to expect. The album’s hit, “Love Will Find a Way” (not to be confused with the later Yes single from 1987), picks up where the earlier singles left off, once again offering a parable of love’s inevitable disappointment in the guise of a celebration of its resilience. The first verse recaps the familiar scenario, the threat that Lasch saw looming over all the era’s rampant narcissists:

Someone, someone’s done you wrong
You thought that
Your love was strong
Now you’re feeling like
Such such a fool, poor you

And the chorus provides the customary reversal, asserting that “once you get past the pain, you’ll learn to find love again,” thus one should “keep your heart open because love will find a way.” Once again, what it means to have an “open” heart is double-sided, inviting the imagination of any number of couplings as love finds its various ways to transpire. Love finds the way, the recipient just maintains a posture of receptive openness to whatever occurs. This basic passivity is crucial to the escapism promised by Pablo Cruise and its hot-tub-rock cohort. What is fun is in part the flight from responsibility, but also, and more important, the assuredness that pleasure will find you without your having to make any effort. Translated into the reality of capitalist life, that means emotional effort can be supplanted by the ease of purchase making. Novel goods that satiate novel desires will find a way, and you can escape the depressing way in which love dims by allowing those new desires into your open heart.

Fun, as Baudrillard argued, is always code for a consumer society’s requirement of what he called “universal curiosity,” a hunger “driven by a vague sense of unease” — what today tends to be called “FOMO” or the “fear of missing out.” Fun allows those subject to its tyranny to believe that what is obligatory — fulfilling capitalism’s need for ever increasing consumer demand — is actually an expression of their existential freedom, their liberation: Marcuse’s repressive tolerance under a sunnier mantle, complete with palm trees and an ocean breeze.

But the reign of fun, in its Pablo Cruisian guise, was to be short-lived. New trends in pop music, triggered by the punk rejection of hot-tub-rock’s flaccid smoothness, would put an end to the genre’s commercial viability, and the spirit of repressive tolerance would take on new disguises. Not coincidentally, the last song that the Sex Pistols, the widely heralded harbinger of the emerging punk spirit, would perform onstage in 1978 was the Stooges’ “No Fun.”




You don’t control an algorithm by feeding more information to it; you teach it to control you better.

Facebook is updating the way it implements its News Feed algorithm, which controls what users see when they open up Facebook and just begin scrolling. In apparent response to criticism that the algorithm is an opaque black box that displays content to users that suits Facebook more than the users’ interests, Facebook will now allow users to supply information to directly tweak the algorithm on their end, instead of having to try to blindly guide the algorithm through behavior (from within and outside Facebook) that Facebook may or may not capture and process. Rather than like a bunch of posts by a person in hopes of seeing that person’s posts more regularly, you can now tell Facebook whose posts you always want to see, as if you were following them on Twitter and had them on a list. You can also bounce people from your feed without unfriending them, a move akin to “muting” in TweetDeck.

In the company’s announcement of these changes, Facebook product manager Jacob Frantz explains the company’s motivation: “We know that ultimately you’re the only one who truly knows what is most meaningful to you and that is why we want to give you more ways to control what you see.” I love the use of the word “ultimately” in that statement. We’ll try to implement a bunch of technological mediations to shape what meaning even means to you, but ultimately we accept that that final decision rests with you. It took us a while to get there, but we ultimately recognize, with some reluctance, that we unfortunately can’t tell you what to think.

But I think that Frantz wants to make Facebook ultimately sound considerate. The company is letting users have more agency. It is deferring to them. The changes seem like a reasonable response to criticism of the algorithm’s opacity: Look, here are some more levers to adjust that algorithm.

But this is not really a new development; there were already innumerable levers at our disposal to alter Facebook’s algorithm and its interpretation of us. Like this post, view that profile, visit this third-party site while logged into Facebook, etc. We didn’t know what the exact effects of these would be, and we still don’t know what the exact effects of the new “controls” will have on our News Feeds. You don’t control an algorithm by feeding more information to it; you teach it to control you better.

Facebook has always deferred to users because that deference allows it to gain more information that can be presumed more accurate than what it can merely infer. And it has never wanted to tell us what to find meaningful; it wants only to inscribe Facebook as the best place in which to discover our sense of meaning. The control Facebook’s algorithms impose is not what to think but where to think it.

At best, these new options allow users to enjoy more of a feeling a responsibility for what the News Feed serves them, but the apparatus still functions in the same way. Users generate data for Facebook’s algorithm, which the company uses to categorize them.  This categorization then not only determines what Facebook users see but it also constitutes a profile that allows the user’s attention to be sold to advertisers and other third parties.

The only difference is that you are feeding data directly into an algorithm whose inner workings remain obscure. The algorithm still serves as an intermediary alibi that permits Facebook to present whatever information it wants to present to users under the auspices that somehow the user has obliquely insisted on it. The News Feed takes control away from users while conveying a sense of the users’ ultimate responsibility: The users get to see themselves as discriminating (in the positive sense of the term, though the pejorative sense is also at play) while making none of the effort.

Behind this is a presumption about what Facebook users want: an automatic stream of content that keeps them looking at and engaging within Facebook rather than doing something else that takes them outside of Facebook. Much like cable television narrows our exercise of choice amid the field of possible information to flipping channels, Facebook narrows it to the single action of “scrolling down” through the programming it has seen fit to algorithmically supply.

The underlying assumption is that people don’t want to have to choose among different ways of choosing to be informed — that is, of different ways to seek, evaluate, and assimilate information. They don’t want to have to be; they just want to scroll. Scrolling is perfect in that it satisfies a users’ need for action and their need for boredom, as a spur for further action. It sustains desire in an ideological cultural climate that tells us over and over again that “desiring” (particularly in the form of the money or attention we have to spend) is what makes us desirable, interesting; that our desire is what makes us powerful, not the choices we ultimately end up making on account of it.

So the problem is not that Facebook users have insufficient control over the algorithm that displays content; it’s that users are willing to use Facebook as their primary gateway to the world, a kind of television with the minor improvement that the local news always includes reports on people you know. This leads to seeing the world only as so much content that Facebook can sort and prioritize and reify and sell. Facebook becomes (much like television had been before it) the medium that confers reality on experience. Until the News Feed algorithm has processed something, revealing its overall significance in our social graph, it really doesn’t properly exist. The moment the algorithm assimilates it is the moment when something actually happens.

Recently, Mark Zuckerberg said that he’d “bet there is” “a fundamental mathematical law underlying human social relationships that governs the balance of who and what we all care about.” Of course, this is precisely what Facebook’s News Feed algorithm aspires to articulate. And naturally Facebook will represent this “law” as a discovery, a rendering of a pre-existing truth, a fact of nature. But that will only conceal the real accomplishment: having imposed a model that reshapes what is perceived as real about social relations in its image, in terms of what it can manage. The “fundamental law” depends on everyone using Facebook, and thus all that law will be able to express is how people persist in using it. For Facebook, the ultimate meaning of your life is that you want to use Facebook while you’re living it. Let your profile be your epitaph.

Media and Consumer Desire

Screen Shot 2015-05-01 at 5Historian Neil Harris’s 1978 essay “The Drama of Consumer Desire” (included in this collection) is an attempt to historicize the transformation of consumption into consumerism, tracking how the connections between consumer products and personal identity began to be forged by the beginning of the 20th century. He is mainly concerned with the “works of fiction which placed the buying process within the social experience”: how characters in novels modeled for readers what it meant to be a consumer, and how to derive pleasure from consumption beyond the use value of any particular good.

Novels were part of the larger ideological matrix encompassing all media that performed this function, operating in the face of what was initially a conservative critique that recognized how “mass society” threatened traditional class hierarchies and religious-based notions of what was proper behavior, particularly for those in dominated social positions. (Incidentally, this conservative critique currently lives on in the artisanal fetish, the idea that restricted choice in the market and compulsory manufacture for personal use constitute due penance to be paid for longings for sensual satisfaction and yield experiences that are held to somehow be “more real.” For such critics “reality” is pegged to the traditional limitations placed on experience by one’s social station; the “maker ethos” often disguises a set of sumptuary laws.)

Harris quotes Dreiser’s Sister Carrie to show the elaboration of the emerging “consumer sensibility.”

There is nothing in this world more delightful than that middle state in which we mentally balance at times, possessed of the means, lured by desire, and yet deterred by conscience or want of decision.

This posits the pleasures of consumerism in shopping, not ownership or use. Ownership and use only demystify the goods in question, whereas shopping activates them, brings them to life in the imagination. Moralists have long condemned this enjoyment of the cultural attributes of goods rather than their functionality, but it is a recognition that consumption is social rather than purely private, that shopping, when it expresses identity, plugs people into more fluid, fashion-driven means for having a social presence. It allows consumers to trade traditional circumscriptions on identity for new-fangled ones bound up with the incentives of retailers.

According to Harris’s analysis, this imaginative pleasure in shopping emerges directly from capitalist competition, which prompts retailers to devise new ways to create rather than satisfy demand. As retailers tried to compete on the level of the brand, appeals were made to consumers on the level of how they feel about buying something, urging them to experience shopping itself as more pleasurable, more convenient, more fulfilling, more distinctive.

Driven by keener competition, shop owners now realized how crucial was eye appeal to retailing success … In place of merely showing goods, stores were displaying tableaus and pictures suggesting locale, mood, or historic incident. Captivated by such pictures, customers stopped, to purchase their ideals of fantasy as well as the specific commodity.

This move detaches “consumer demand” from any kind of organic basis and makes it wholly malleable, manipulatable. This not only prompts retailers to try to manufacture desire; it also liberates consumers from the belief that their traditional place in society has totally conditioned their desire and set certain “natural” limits on it. Instead anyone can and should want whatever can be made to seem desirable. The nature of desire changes, from a desire to epitomize one’s station to a desire for novelty and self-elaboration, in terms of the traits that can be read out of goods.

Such self-elaboration means constant testing of one’s self-image against society’s reactions, since the traditional criteria have been discarded. Hence, part of consumption becomes display of that consumption, as its purpose is not to sate some eternal, intrinsic material need but to express something new about the person you want to be. Consumption as consumerism produces an image of the self, stages a performance and an audience evaluation.

In other words, media becomes central to consumption: One is only consuming in consumer society if it is conspicuous. There is no such thing as inconspicuous consumption.

Harris notes the importance of cinema’s advent to “enhancing the social role of consumer goods,” not merely by glamorizing them but simply by demonstrating how they could be deployed to signify qualities about characters and situations.

The image on the movie screen inevitably focused attention on the objects which formed part of its decor. The lingering closeups, the use of music to emphasize mood, the employment of objects and sets as significant aspects of plot and character development, all emphasized the sensuous properties of what might have been seen, more casually, as mundane artifacts, hardly deserving of sustained attention.

As a result, movies (like novels had before them, but with more immediacy) habituated viewers to “examining the surfaces, shapes, and dimensions of objects with new interest.” Movies made people “read” consumer goods, which taught them how to write with them as well.

Through such representations, mediated consumption becomes the standard form of consumerism, and the desire for objects becomes melded with the desire for attention. Thus, consumption generally stimulates a demand for more and more media with which to broadcast it. This has culminated for now in the proliferation of social media, which function as means to broadcast consumerist desire, whether or not the consumption takes place in material terms. As Harris’s analysis suggests, all media serve to make consumption productive; social media extend that productivity to the furthest point yet.

What emerges from this process of mediating consumption is the association of goods with a variety of inferable attributes, affective states, spiritual overtones, and the like. Mediating consumption makes it have signifying capabilities; once that is established it only remains for audiences to negotiate the specific meanings in various contexts. Mediation establishes what Baudrillard called “the code” and mediating the self, linking it to goods as signs, assimilates our identity to the code, making it another sign among signs. As Harris puts it, goods move from “expressions of status to guarantors of identity” as the act of consumption becomes more intensively mediated.

As the mediation of consumption has intensified, it has become increasingly immaterial. Once, consumerism as a system hinged on the idea that you had to buy the physical goods to try to stabilize those goods’ particular meanings for yourself. (Jean-Christophe Agnew’s essay about the “acquisitive gaze” makes that case; I discussed that here.) But social media allow for such stabs at stabilization through appropriation rather than purchasing. You can mediate your shopping without consuming anything more than images, available for free. As the pleasures of shopping are mainly found in access to the social, indications that you belong to the network can replace the implied social pleasures that ownership of goods once provided. We want to consume the signs of our social relevance, our belonging, more than we want to consume or own stuff. Images of stuff can be valorized by circulating them; they need no original use cases as real stuff to establish their potential value. (This may mean that what Pop Art anticipated has come to pass, that all consumable stuff becomes art when mediated and subjectified, at least if you take art to mean something that is desirably useless.)

For the novelists Harris examines, the transformation of shopping into performance was lamentable, an indication that “consuming is one of the few art forms left to individuals; their expression of purpose and self must be in terms of what they can buy, for there is no other standard of value.” But that view seems less pernicious, less tragic, when you change “what they can buy” to “what they can appropriate.” Mediated consumption makes explicit the latent creativity in trying to wrestle pleasure out of the things of this world and out of the potential connections we might form with others through those things. That we must mediate our relations with others though these networks, these performances, these things, is perhaps a different problem, not to be blamed on the supposedly intrinsic inadequacies of the art of appropriation itself.



The Acquisitive Gaze

Screen Shot 2015-04-29 at 12.39.58 PM

1. In its early mission statement, Pinterest described itself as primarily a social network that was “connecting people all over the world based on shared tastes and interests.” But as the site grew, it became more clear that users were less interested in being connected to people than to stuff itself. Now Pinterest describes itself as “a place to discover ideas for all your projects and interests, hand-picked by people like you.”

Screen Shot 2015-04-29 at 12.40.57 PM

Recent reports that Pinterest intends to introduce a “Buy” button suggest that the site is not content to let users rest with “discovering ideas” but instead would like to convert idea-discovery into a mere precursor for purchases rather than an end in itself.

Pinterest has emerged as a para-retailing apparatus for “social shopping,” in which users add value for retailers by organizing consumer desire into various moods and themes on boards. Some users have been able to earn commissions through this work, but Pinterest has moved to suppress third-party marketing links in advance of its “buy button,” which will reserve commissions for that platform itself.

Screen Shot 2015-04-29 at 12.41.44 PM

2. In certain ways, Pinterest’s move to disenfranchise users is an attempt to protect its status as a forum for a kind of self-expression that reads as “authentic.” If users profit by their curation, it detracts from the “authenticity” of their desire, making it seem mercenary. At the heart of Pinterest’s viability is its reputation as a space of genuine consumer desire: The pinner’s sincerity is what generates the economic value of the act of pinning, what allows the construction of boards to add associative value to the objects pinned. It allows pinning to appear as something other than just an obvious form of word-of-mouth marketing.

Screen Shot 2015-04-29 at 12.42.13 PM

3. Pinterest built its user base by seeming to offer a space that allowed an escape from the creeping imperative that users produce original content for social media sites (for free). It seemed to allow us to be straightforward consumers again, finding “inspiration” instead of the demand to build out a personal brand through our innovation and creativity.

Early on, the site was critiqued for failing to afford a space for rich personal expression. Sociologist Bon Stewart argued in 2012 that Pinterest, since it explicitly discourages self-promotion and relies entirely on the appropriation of someone else’s creative expression, turns curation into passive consumerism; it allows for the construction and circulation of a bland sanitized identity. “Its express purpose,” she wrote, “is to free us from the awkwardness of self-expression and keep us safely in the realm of the pre-chewed, the market-filtered.”

Screen Shot 2015-04-29 at 12.45.32 PM

4. But it’s not that Pinterest prohibits self-expression; it limits self-expression to the surface of found images, which are organized and deployed to convey one’s aspirations or moods or desires or ingenuity. This mirrors the processes of consumerism generally, in which mass-market products are bought and consumed not merely for their use value but for what they can be seen to be saying about the sort of person you want to seem to be. Vast ideological apparatuses are employed to teach us how to read out of images the various characteristics and attributes and traits (“beauty,” “cool,” “fashionability,” “cleanliness,” “health,” etc.) we seek to embody ourselves.

Screen Shot 2015-04-29 at 12.46.50 PM

5. In “The Consuming Vision,” an essay about novelist Henry James, of all things, Jean-Christophe Agnew argues that the consumerist culture emerging in James’s time was a “world constructed by and for a consuming vision,” an “imagined world … in which imagination itself strives to gild, glaze, and ultimately commodify its objects.” This consuming vision becomes hegemonic in a world that comes to be seen as made entirely of commodities. “What modern consumer culture produces,” Agnew argues, “is not so much a way of being as a way of seeing — a way best characterized as visually acquisitive. In short, modern consumer culture holds up the cognitive appetite as the model and engine of its reproductive process.”

Agnew points out that the churn of markets assures that these sorts of characteristics are never stable in any given commodity or experience. Consumerism posits such meanings as free-floating, redeployable, highly contingent and not intrinsic to a good’s use value. (Soap might make me objectively clean, but will it make me feel clean, which is ultimately more important?)

Thus those meanings are always socially determined to a degree, and always require further labor to affix them to goods. Advertising has traditionally served the purpose of attaching the affective associations with products; social media now enlists the members of one’s social networks to assist in this process. We aid in the building of such ad hoc associations between feelings and goods (we are “prosuming,” making our consumption productive of symbolic meaning by broadcasting it), but this serves also to reinforce that the overall sense that the meanings are applied and withdrawn at social whim.

Pinterest is geared toward stimulating this acquisitive appetite for images without sating it. Every pin we post is not merely self-expression, but a useful amount of taxonomic and organizational labor that enriches the value of Pinterest’s network as a whole, as well as the specific goods pictured and classified and invested with new potential meanings. It remains productive, even if that productivity is masked from the producer. Consumerism is not ever passive, if passive is meant as the opposite of creative or expressive; rather it offers a coherent system for expressing the self through commodities. But it comes at the expense of the possibility of an uncommodified self.

Screen Shot 2015-04-29 at 12.47.21 PM

6. As Agnew pointed out, the meaning of the images circulating as signs are unstable; Pinterest intensifies this instability. When we can’t know for sure what contexts we are getting with a particular good — when we don’t know how long it will continue to signify what we believe it does at this moment — we may become filled with an anxious need to try to do something to shore those meanings up, to salvage our investment in certain goods.

Screen Shot 2015-04-29 at 12.50.26 PM

7. Agnew: “Under such conditions, it is extraordinarily difficult to sort out needs and wants. One motive that an advertisement or commercial can be said to call out in every instance is a cognitive one: the desire to master the bewildering and predatory imperatives of the market by an acquisitive or possessive gesture of mind. Here, cultural orientation becomes one with cultural appropriation.”

Pinterest speaks to that “possessive gesture of mind” by which we seek to fix the meanings of things, and in the process fix the nature of our desires, of who we are trying to become. Literal digital appropriation becomes a means to generating a sense of orientation in a culture in which everything that is solid melts into air, as Marx famously declared: “Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” Only that moment of sober clarity never comes because we keep ourselves inebriated on images; we keep busy pinning things.

More than just affording us serial opportunities to try to pin down the meanings of things, Pinterest invites us to view all the images the internet offers as advertisements. We are asked to scrutinize them for the bundle of affects they might contain, and then to perform the work that will liberate those qualities and allow them to circulate more freely as detached signifieds. It permits us to let an accumulative, shopping mentality govern everything we do online.

Screen Shot 2015-04-29 at 12.51.00 PM

8. Consumerism once limited this sort of self-expression to what one can afford. But with Pinterest, users can simulate the acquisition of things and experience similar gratification. Pinterest’s great advance seems to be that it lets users shop for images over the sprawl of the internet, turning it into a endless visual shopping mall in which one never runs out of money. And because it is virtual, no one has to “wastefully consume” products that they want merely for the status implications. It allows for, in Nathan Jurgenson’s phrase, “consumerism without consumption.”

Writing at the Atlantic, Chris Tackett went so far as to argue that sites like Pinterest are actually “anti-consumerist” because they allow people the instant gratification of choosing things without actually having to buy them or spend much time on the fantasy of it. Rather than a deep and protracted engagement in the consumerist drama of how a product will change you or convey something integral yet new about you, Pinterest allows you to culminate the appropriation efficiently and move on.

Screen Shot 2015-04-29 at 12.51.37 PM

9. Pinterest users can simply add desired goods to a board and instantaneously indulge the fantasy that some part of the site’s user base will see it and draw the appropriate conclusions. The gesture immediately circulates. This fantasy need not climax with a purchase or seek appropriate occasions to display it. And it need not be terminated by the disillusionment that comes with actual ownership, when an affectively inert thing takes its place amid the mounting slag pile of one’s emotionally spent objects — objects that no longer say anything about you and have become merely useful at best, objects that sit there taunting you with your discarded ideas of who you were trying to be, and for whom, and when.

Screen Shot 2015-04-29 at 2.14.46 PM

10. On Pinterest, there are apparently no such physical stakes, no contexts that are fixed at a point of purchase and then outgrown; one can keep on pinning and never know the disillusionment of possession. The evidence of how one’s pins circulate amid unanticipated contexts will continue to trickle in, authorizing new fantasies about the self and what your pin might mean to these strangers, in the alien context of their pinboards. Algorithmically driven recommendations of “related pins” further recontextualize one’s pinning gestures, dismantling any pretense of their uniqueness and situating every image within an ocean of similar images, as seen from the point of view of the machine.

These ways that one’s pins are processed seem to invite you to leave the game of conspicuous consumption and enter into the game of virality. Who you are — the revealed nature of your identity — can become less a matter of what you try to specifically communicate with your selected pins but how widely those pins are promulgated, and by whom.

Screen Shot 2015-04-29 at 2.15.37 PM

11. Perhaps that is what Tackett meant by calling Pinterest “anticonsumerist.” But by overcoming the sources of friction inhibiting users from shopping — financial limits, the lack of occasion for conspicuous display — Pinterest accelerates users’ cycling through consumerist fantasies, bringing on what might be seen as hyperconsumerism. The affordances of Pinterest demand that we never stop shopping. We can be continually signifying identity with images, without limit, with an audience for these gestures always implicitly present.

Pinterest unleashes unlimited sign production, laying the basis for unlimited aspiration among users. The more you pin to express yourself, the more your self-expression becomes tentative and incomplete, contingent on all the other signs interlaced with one another within Pinterest’s web.

That is, Pinterest allows for the purest expression of what Jean Baudrillard called the “passion for the code” that we’ve yet seen. We accumulate and sort images, trying to extract their essences, and in the process reduce ourselves to a similar image, a similar agglomeration of putative qualities that can be read out of a surface. We become images ourselves rather than one speaking through them. Pinterest may turn words into images, but on Pinterest, users are obliged to use images as words.

Screen Shot 2015-04-29 at 2.18.58 PM

12. Pinterest encourages the fantasy of solitary self-creation, with the assessing audience always assumed to be present but at a remove, available on one’s own terms, as free as the images proliferating online. But by building in immediate public display into every consumerist fantasy, into every desire to express personality through consumer choices, Pinterest undermines the idea that solitary fantasizing might also be considered private. The efficacy of the fantasy comes to depend entirely on social validation rather than the potency of the personal imagination.

Any activity that online media platforms succeed in rendering “social” ultimately ends up being depersonalized, drained of spontaneity and injected instead into the ongoing collective elaboration of the code.

Screen Shot 2015-04-29 at 2.19.24 PM

13. Pinterest gets to the heart of the ambivalence of so-called social shopping. Making things “social” is supposed to lend the stability of one’s social network to the contexts of consuming, but instead multiplies the instability of meaning, raises the cognitive calculations involved in what a good might possibly mean another exponential level. Pinning something on Pinterest plots that desire on a “social graph” that has countless dimensions, so the clarity one might have hoped the gesture would bring is immediately invalidated and must be reiterated in an endless string of corrective amendments, additional pinnings to further clarify what we really mean to communicate, to further demonstrate our tastes of the moment, to further clarify who we are.

Collector’s Item

Screen Shot 2015-04-10 at 4.34.03 PM

I am in the process of moving, which entails packing up my record collection, and confronting some awkward questions about why I even have one. The collection is not about the music: I don’t own a single record that I don’t also have in digital form on an array of hard drives and triple-redundant backups. And though I am as prone as anyone to fetishize the “warm” sound of real vinyl, I’m also self-aware enough to be skeptical of my own ears. Plus, down that road leads to things like obsessive fretting about which plants the records were manufactured at and the need to get “hot pressings” to hear how the recording should “really” sound. For me, MP3s are basically fine.

Beyond that, the collection’s bulk makes it incredibly inconvenient, though therein may lie its actual appeal. The inconvenience enchants the act of listening, enchants my labor in assembling the collection. Inconvenience triggers nostalgia, particularly since “progress” tends to be understood in terms of efficiency. The cumbersome nature of putting on a record and then flipping it over conjures all sorts of other lost experiences — dialing rotary phones, looking things up in books, etc. Listening then becomes a journey into a romanticized, half-remembered past from which tedium, frustration, and disappointment have been edited out. And if the record skips, I can always play the song on my phone.

But is that nostalgia enough to justify all the moving boxes? All the packing and unpacking? The collection has become a physical manifestation of sunk costs; it makes me feel like I have come too far to stop now.

Walter Benjamin’s “Unpacking My Library” is sort of the canonical account of collector-hood, but I am put off a bit by his talk of “real libraries” and being a “genuine collector.” Much of what he says about collecting books is echoed by Jean Baudrillard in The System of Objects, only Baudrillard makes it all pejorative. Collectors “invariably have something impoverished and inhuman about them,” he writes. They “never … get beyond a certain poverty and infantilism.” (Benjamin, by contrast, rhapsodizes that “to a true collector the acquisition of an old book is its rebirth. This is the childlike element which in a collector mingles with the element of old age.”) Benjamin celebrates the “harmonious whole” of a collection; Baudrillard sees this harmony as pathological escapism.

No matter how open a collection is, it will always harbor an irreducible element of non-relationship to the world. Because he feels alienated and abolished by a social discourse whose rules escape him, the collector strives to reconstitute a discourse that is transparent to him, a discourse whose signifiers he controls and whose referent par excellence is himself.

If this holds for gestures of digital appropriation, it may shed light on Pinterest and Tumblr usage. Although it may seem a bit counterintuitive to view social media this way, posting images and linking them to your profile can be seen as an effort to transcend social judgment, flying in the face of the metrics that want to make it inescapable. On your own Tumblr, you get to be a taste tyrant; each new post supports the fantasy that you can dictate the rules of style for yourself by fiat, beyond the encroachment of cultural-capital anxieties. The mere process of adding another image (rather than the judicious choice of some specific content) can be the means by which you push aside the fear that your choices may be governed by a social logic beyond your control. Any specific item, evaluated on its own, immediately calls forth social standards of evaluation, but the process of accumulation itself is beyond judgment — particularly under capitalism, where only accumulation can be for its own sake.

The metrics, from this point of view, are there to prompt you to try negate them with additional content. Alternatively, one could treat low numbers as proof that one has successfully checked out of the numbers game, regarding objective nonpopularity as a sign of one’s indifference to it.

For Baudrillard, collecting is a way to sustain desire in the face of inevitable death, a way to escape time. “What man gets from objects is not a guarantee of life after death but the possibility, from the present moment onwards, of continually experiencing the unfolding of his existence in a controlled, cyclical mode, symbolically transcending a real existence the irreversibility of whose progression he is powerless to affect.” Collecting allows collectors to turn lost time to cyclical time, subordinating serial acquisition to spatial ordering. And because the collection signifies the collector, it lets collectors “recite themselves, as it were, outside time.”

Baudrillard claims that “what you really collect is always yourself.” Thus he, like Benjamin, argues that possessing objects stands in opposition to actually using them. Any collection tends toward forbidding actual use: think the comic-book collector whose items are rated and sealed in plastic, or the record collector who is afraid to ruin the vinyl by playing it. One collects objects to purge them of their usefulness, subordinate that use value to the curatorial logic that the collector applies so that any collected object signifies only the collector.

But once you start signifying yourself with what you collect, you are consigned to always be collecting:

An object no longer specified by its function is defined by the subject, but in the passionate abstractness of possession all objects are equivalent. And just one object no longer suffices: the fulfillment of the project of possession always means a succession or even a complete series of objects. This is why owning absolutely any object is always so satisfying and so disappointing at the same time: a whole series lies behind any single object, and makes it into a source of anxiety.

I don’t like to admit to myself that I collect records to stabilize my sense of my own identity, and I try to resist the seductive idea that my taste is autonomous, that it makes me unique. Despite how real that feels — no one else has this same weird collection of records as me! — I try to counter that tendency, resocialize my understanding of my taste. I want to demystify my own sense of individuality, collect my way out of the impulse to keep collecting. I want to exempt myself from the problem of being authentic, being unique — a losing proposition, self-hypocratizing. I want to defy individuality only because it seems like a nonconformist thing to do.

Boris Groys, in this passage from On the New, suggests that what’s worse than striving for authenticity is regarding yourself as inherently authentic. 

In many respects, contemporary man is a victim of the theory of original difference. He has been poisoned by the suggestion that, in the absence of all effort, he is already unique, different from all other men at a certain extra-cultural, authentic level of life. That is why he feels a certain frustration attendant upon the inevitable realization of his actual, insurmountable cultural banality.

To escape one’s cultural banality, Groys suggests, one must “work professionally in the cultural field.” Collecting things is a way to pretend to that status, especially if one approaches it not as a connoisseur but as a speculator in cool. I find that when I go to record stores, I get caught up in such games of aesthetic arbitrage. When I go record shopping I tend to only look in bargain bins. These are the records that have been deemed uncollectible, beneath serious notice. Will Straw, in “Exhausted Commodities: The Material Culture of Music,” argues that this built-up sediment of unwanted culture demystifies collectibles in general:

In the ways in which they accumulate, and in the fact that they sit there, unsold, these commodities contradict the definition of the commodity as a signifier of social desire.

The bargain-bin records are, in Groys’s terminology, the “profane,” the cultural material that is the opposite of art, the opposite of what is accepted in the official archive of relevant, memorable, interpretable culture. They are socio-cultural refuse.

To me, these records represent a cultural opportunity to buy low, a chance for me to assert myself in a territory revealed by the receding tide of fashion. By finding “good” records among the refuse, I get to assert a taste I know is highly idiosyncratic (In buying these Linda Ronstadt records, I am choosing something the contemporary market has rejected), and I wager on my own social influence (I will redeem these rejected Linda Ronstadt albums, and when they come back in style, I will have been there all along and can imagine I played some small role in revitalizing them.) And even if what I buy never becomes popular again, I can console myself with the proof of my uniqueness. (Until I remember how banal it is.)

Only in the bargain bins can I shop comfortably, knowing that I am not coattail-riding on someone else’s cultural capital, not following someone else’s fashion. Instead I can pretend both that I am both exercising my sovereign judgment and am indifferent to the whole game of taste, and also fully invested in the game and taking a savvy position within it, letting my taste be wholly guided by tactical positionality within it. When necessary, I can tell myself I have no taste at all — only timely, economically incentivized moves within fashion cycles. I can’t be held responsible for “really” liking anything! I am safely opaque.

Something similar happens, perhaps, in seeking virality in social media. The more apparently it seems that something was posted “just for likes,” the less it says about one’s “true self.” It’s just strategic, and everyone knows and accepts it as such. The more self-promotion you do, the less it seems you are talking about yourself. You’re just talking in the dialect of accumulation, reading from a shared script for the entrepreneurial self.

Curatorial gestures are likewise an amalgam of strategy and self-expression, with one perpetually permitting disavowal of the other. As with the bargain-bin records, If something I reblog on Tumblr gets reblogged a lot later, I can feel partly responsible and enjoy that success; if it doesn’t, I can congratulate myself for my distinctive taste. The pleasure I take in these things in themselves? That’s the most malleable component in the system, so that gets adjusted accordingly, to accommodate the other pressures.

For Groys, such salvage missions are the essence of cultural innovation, the hallmark of the artist’s function since the time of Duchamp’s ready-mades. Art, he argues, stems not from the creative unconscious or from the technical ability to represent objective beauty or truth but from redrawing the boundary between art and not-art. It comes from understanding “cultural-economic logic” and fashion cycles, and having the social wherewithal to affect them. Craft is more or less discarded, and art becomes indistinguishable from curation, collecting. Once the ubiquity of reproduction (mechanical and now digital) makes technical skill superfluous, a kind of mystified ornament, the only significant artistic medium is the cultural archive itself, and the ability to shift things in and out of it.

But there is nothing particularly special about being archived anymore. Digitization has made the cultural archive itself seem massive and amorphous, limitless, even as it becomes easier to search and exhume things from. Rediscovery, revalorization, devalorization, forgetting: all of it happens more quickly, and with lower stakes, since we all know everything is being saved in the cloud anyway. My puny record collection stands against that limitless digital archive; it’s my private attempt to raise the stakes again, even if only at the level of personal fantasy. I will be lugging that fantasy down three flights of stairs, unless I am willing to entrust it to the movers.

Still, it is hard to imagine that anything will ultimately be left out of the millions of petabytes of data being collected and stored. We’re frequently reminded that our little contributions are important enough to register in it — every time an algorithm tries to predict something about us, we know we are in there. We are already unique ID numbers in these databases, we are all inadvertently de facto “professionals in the cultural field.” That makes it all pretty banal from the human point of view. But big data sees the eternal value in all our curating and collecting, and it will save us all.