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Marginal Utility
By Rob Horning
A blog about consumerism, technology and ideology.
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The Primitive Accumulation of Cool

Elizabeth Peyton, Craig (1997). A version of this post originally appeared on Generation Bubble

The Birth of Cool

The rise of consumerism coincided with a promise about liberation. We could transcend the horizons of the self — traditional roles, limited class mobility, geographic isolation — thanks to free choice in the ever-diversifying marketplace, which would allow us to express our uniqueness through the material culture we assembled for ourselves. Without consumer goods, our true self would rest dormant within us, untouched by the desire that could vivify it. Rather than resting content to remain how we were born — conditions we didn’t choose and which can only seem more arbitrary to us as we gather life experience — we can yearn for novel things, surprising things, aspirational things, cool things, and the sort of social relations that revolve around those things. Consumer desire would be the medium of the true self, the self we create for ourselves rather than the one we inherit from the circumstances and social relations into which we were born.

Consumerism, with its idealization of idiosyncratic personal taste as a marker of self-actualization, demanded an atomized self bent on escaping the “trap” of social influence. Its rewards — rooted in being able to measure the distance you’ve come from your origins — are premised on the goal of achieving a unique identity purged of debts to the taste of others; only then is the self existentially free, truly self-created.

The contingency-free liberal self was initially nurtured through discourses (advertising, primarily) that seemed to single out addressees and target them for flattery. These individuating interpellations treat addressees as significant regardless of their occupation or family pedigree. What made them worthy of attention was their potential to want something new. Being born into a set station in life once guaranteed recognition of a limited sort (indexed to one’s highly explicit and largely fixed place in the social hierarchy), but the dislocations of capitalism (its vaunted creative destruction) have voided this guarantee, replacing it with fantasies of social mobility.

Social and cultural capital have become labile, and individuals are responsible for improving their personal stock. With the right work ethic and dedication to education and sycophancy, you too can climb the ranks, and soon people will be telling you how cool you are!

Individuals are encouraged to become entrepreneurial about the self, about identity. But in order to galvanize the economization of subjectivity, social recognition must become conceivable as an abstract, fungible, socially scarce commodity — we must view it as attention, as fame, as something countable in media-exposure minutes. The point of Warhol’s famous dictum is not the specific number of minutes we will all be famous, but the idea that fame could be parceled out to everyone in standardized units, that our significance to society could be measured in a specific number of them.

Consumerism, because it hinges on the idea of “growing” our identity, depends on the currency of recognition, of standardized attention, which could be called fame but more often than not is called cool. Our subjectivity (or our moment-to-moment everyday, lived self-consciousness) becomes a kind of factory for producing identity out of the raw material of consumer goods and commodified experiences; this identity stock can then be “sold” or at least measured in terms of “attention,” which is reconverted, for purposes of mystification and fetishization, into the amorphous quality called “cool.” Thus rationalized, self-production can be made subject to the same sorts of incentives that have been used to make production of conventional commodities more efficient and responsive to market demands. Consumerism itself evolves into a social system to marshal, channel, and distribute attention, now serving as a shadow currency with a volatile yet opaque exchange rate with more traditional forms of money.

Cool offers a new fusion of social and cultural capital with demonstrable competencies in consumption — knowing what to buy, and when, and how to seize opportunities to display it. Who paid attention to what, who recognized what as cool — such questions begin to map the terrain of goods circulation. Consumers become trail-blazers, laying down the paths along which attention, affect, and (eventually) goods can be counted on to flow. Cool is produced as capital simultaneously with the conduits that allow it to flow. It registers as a trace, the mysterious motive force that can account after the fact for why goods, and affect, and attention measured in other terms, moved in a certain direction or accumulated in particular hands. Cool is not ontological, not a quality certain people and things inherently possess, but rather is a residual quality, like “goodwill” in accounting. It’s a catch-all name to explain cultural shifts we can’t otherwise account for.

Consumer goods initially served as the chief means for embodying and carrying “cool.” Marketing discourse invested commodities with a flexible and ever more rapidly changing set of cultural attributes, generating brands capable of manifesting “creative expression” in a stable, concrete form that individuals can own. Individuals could assemble a cultural identity — once dictated mainly by pedigree and employment category — through goods and brands they could amass and display.

Just as important, if individuals had enough “cool” (i.e. reliable access to a certain level of mediated attention), they could transfer new attributes back to the goods and brands through their association with them. The self became the site of this valorization, the place where cultural attributes become volatile and can be attached and detached and revalued. Manufacturers merely make goods and seed them with provisional meaning through marketing; the self is where the meanings are really built up and transformed. Successful investments of cool increase the salience of the cultural attributes addressed, enhances the symbolic usefulness of the goods or brands in question. They make these goods more generally useful, more meaningful, to anyone who might use them — what they can signify becomes richer. (Their symbolic efficiency is enhanced.) The investments are unsuccessful when they reduce the goods’ capability for meaning, destroy their apparent exclusivity, dilute their efficacy. Given all these investments,  the meanings of goods change continually — complementing planned obsolescence with symbolic obsolescence. This increases growth, measured in terms of increasing numbers of exchanges.

This process of investment appears subjectively as “creative expression”: Goods, brands, anxiety, and attention are the inputs; the output is a perpetually provisional self, a subjectivity sensitive to insecurity and craving validation but aware that any validation can be only temporary. This self becomes the new master commodity for carrying cool, which it manifests in always variable, always speculative, amounts. As a result, the self must constantly seek opportunities for validation — for exchanges that can reveal how much cool it possesses and can serve as opportunities to increase that amount. The self is incentivized to gather affirmations through self-display, to produce the self as cool. When we begin to clamor for the right of creative expression, it is principally an economic demand, for the right to work as a consumer.

When we are freed into anonymity by capitalism, we have to rebuild our social identity on what appear to be our own terms, and we long to have that identity validated. Consumerism is the system for that; it organizes the meanings that can signify identity and the economic practices for making and circulating them. We are put to work making meanings to make an identity for validation, but those manufactured meanings strengthen only the consumer system as a whole. We remain continually insecure, always having to make new meanings.

We can’t work on ourselves directly; we can’t meaningfully recognize ourselves and validate our own significance. We can’t make cool alone in isolation; we need audiences. We must route our efforts through an external system of judgment so that it can return to valorize our identity capital, our reputation. Once, that judgment was orchestrated chiefly through media proxies, through representative celebrities with whom one identified. Media consumption was a matter of letting oneself be judged vicariously. Now we don’t need that so much; social media can serve as that external system of judgment.

So if capital is, as Harry Cleaver writes,Kathi Weeks quotes this Cleaver line in The Problem With Work. “a social system based on the imposition of work through the commodity-form,” than consumerism is its corollary, a social system based on the imposition of prosumption work through the form of cool.

Capitalism dissolves the self in atomized isolation; consumerism rebuilds it. Consumerism puts forward a set of relations that lets us regard the self capitalistically: The self is reconceived as a stock of capital, but the value of that capital is relative, unstable. It can’t function as a store of value but must always be in process. It must continually circulate and grow or be obliterated.


Elizabeth Peyton, Liam (1996)

Cool Work 

Originally, consumerism was subservient to capitalism; it served capitalist ends by manufacturing demand and enabling planned obsolescence. It established novelty and convenience as basic values, replacing non-demand-friendly ones such as communal responsibility, subordination, respect for traditional ways.

Novelty and convenience accelerated consumption cycles. It only remained to make demand insatiable. That is accomplished by cool. If consumption is creative expression, then our demand to consume is as limitless as the self we wish to express. There is no limit to the “amount” of cool one can aspire to accumulate.

As capitalism exhausts the exploitive potential of factory production in an given society, it shifts toward a services-oriented economy, and its profit centers shift from producing goods to producing selves. In “Free Labour,” Tiziana Terranova claims that “the end of the factory has spelled out the obsolescence of the old working class, but it has also produced generations of workers who have been repeatedly addressed as active consumers of meaningful commodities.” These workers were primed to take on the new forms of labor engendered by consumerism — what Maurizio Lazzarato has called “immaterial labor,” or “labor that produces the informational and cultural content of the commodity.” Immaterial labor involves a

series of activities that are not normally recognized as “work” — in other words, the kinds of activities involved in defining and fixing cultural and artistic standards, fashions, tastes, consumer norms, and, more strategically, public opinion.

These are precisely the activities of self-fashioning, of defining cool and amassing the cultural capital to produce it authoritatively. Immaterial labor, as Lazzarato notes, is the “interface of a new relationship between production and consumption.” Its “raw material,” Lazzarato notes, is “subjectivity and the ‘ideological’ environment in which this subjectivity lives and reproduces.” That is to say, immaterial labor describes the process that allows identity-oriented consumption to function simultaneously as meme production. In early capitalism, the worker needed to be reproduced as abstract labor; the worker’s subjectivity was made a site of discipline and learned passivity. But consumer capitalism, in which meanings supplant goods, requires a different sort of subjectivity. Lazzarato writes:

The production of subjectivity ceases to be only an instrument of social control (for the reproduction of mercantile relationships) and becomes directly productive, because the goal of our postindustrial society is to construct the consumer/communicator—and to construct it as “active.” Immaterial workers (those who work in advertising, fashion, marketing, television, cybernetics, and so forth) satisfy a demand by the consumer and at the same time establish that demand.

Whether from fantasies of fame, fears of exclusion, or the sheer will to broaden our being, we volunteer for this work — no shop discipline necessary. Consumerism, as immaterial labor, is a job, only one that doesn’t pay in wages. At best it’s paid in recognition, in affect, in affirmation. The more externalized our identity becomes — grounded in public displays of cool — the more “valuable” this alternative mode of payment. But for Terranova, this is  “free labor” — “the moment where this knowledgeable consumption of culture is translated into productive activities that are pleasurably embraced and at the same time often shamelessly exploited.” The work we perform in building out personal identity is simultaneously harvested to, as Lazzarato explains, “promote continual innovation in the forms and conditions of communication (and thus in work and consumption).”

We work to invest meaning in goods to make our identities correspondingly meaningful, but that same effort disrupts the entire web of meaning across commodities, scrambling the identity we are hoping to convey. Each  time we establish a new meaning for a good, we make the meaning of all goods a little more insecure, which necessitates further attempts to posit new meanings, and so on. As Lazzarato puts it, “It gives form to and materializes needs, the imaginary, consumer tastes, and so forth, and these products in turn become powerful producers of needs, images, and tastes.” In effect, we build our own consumerist hedonic treadmill, as our work “creates the ‘ideological’ and cultural environment of the consumer.” The more we “work on ourselves” the more we have to work on ourselves.

Bound up as it is with reciprocal recognition, attention, and affirmation, immaterial labor is, as Lazzarato explains, “immediately collective,” existing ” only in the form of networks and flows.” As such, it cried out for a master network to harbor its potential so it could transcend its seemingly inherent localism. The internet answered that cry. Immaterial labor describes precisely the sort of activities we routinely pursue online — not just explicit knowledge production (writing, editing, producing content) but also sharing information about ourselves, building profiles, conducting economic exchange, organizing cultural information, providing commentaries and so on.

The capacities and networks of the Internet permit an archived self that becomes a subject’s most important piece of property — “reputational capital,” the sum total of connections and actions produced within the social space online. This self subsists on positive affirmation and metrics that establish the visibility of its activities online, which can be measured and ranked. That ranking, the Warholian minutes of fame and the exponential degree of it, becomes the means to assure perpetual insecurity in the midst of an ocean of affirmations prompted by the platforms that harbor the digital selves.

Privacy Isn’t Cool

In reifying and quantifying our identity in ways that both flatter us and stoke our positional anxieties, social media encourage us to shed the last vestiges of market anonymity for full-blown self-revelation. We give the details of our lives freely and in great detail, because they return back to us in the form of affirmation and affect, confirming our capability to produce cool within the networks we build. Their ease of use takes immaterial labor out of the exclusive hands of hipsters and cultural entrepreneurs and guarantees creative expression for all. No need to live in a creative-class ghetto, pursue a graduate degree, or try to master the intricacies of various totemic subcultures anymore — we are all hipsters now.

Mapping Commercial Web 2.0 Worlds: Towards a New Critical Ontogenesis,” by Ganaele Langlois, Fenwick McKelvey, Greg Elmer, and Kenneth Werbin, details how online platforms resolve the tension between capitalism (which is about making us buy mass produced goods) and consumerism (which is about us making ourselves with those goods or with other socially circulated ideas)  and make alienation “disappear”: “In the Web 2.0 worlds there is no contradiction anymore between the marketing of user information and the subjective enrichment of users: what used to be two separate processes are now one in the augmentation of social and cultural factors.”

In social media, alienation appears as its opposite. The process of restricting identity to its articulation on social networks seems like an opening up of possibilities, thanks to automated recommendations, archiving, and the facilitation of immediate feedback on our broadcasted gestures. Thus we cooperate with the shifting of our social relations online, into the pens built and controlled by commercial interests. The commercialization seems like authentication. We can escape from impersonal market relations and make them all “social,” all deeply personalized and specific, and thus identity-validating.

In relation to a now-outdated sense of what once threatened consumerism — mass conformity — “social” consumption seems more like “community.” It moves us away from the anomie brought on by modernization, without turning into the sort of community that impinged on premodern identity. (It’s community without civic responsibility.) Only anonymous consumerism is soulless; when our consumption is indexed to our unique identity archive, it gains the context that gives it and us our soul.

The reproduction of consumerist social relations begins to shed the traditional marketing tropes that first sustained it (scare tactics and clumsy promises, ads imposed on us from outside) and adopts instead the new utopian language of technological liberation, of “active consumption” and universal “sharing” — in which we don’t see ads that are not relevant and our friends “frictionlessly” turn us on to new products and ideas. And our own deeds, tracking digitally, yield fresh suggestions automatically about where to go next. With predictive search, real-time responsiveness and recommendation engines, desire generation has been outsourced to the platforms. But that’s all right; we don’t need to draw the line between where the Web stops and we begin. The seamlessness of our ongoing identity production online makes them symbiotic.

We no longer need to fear “selling out” in the midst of creative expression, since we are already sold out by the terms of service. As online selfhood comes to dominate, we sell out simply by having an identity. Selling out becomes not the repudiation but the source of authenticity: We prove who we are by sharing more online and letting our immaterial labor be put to use. Authenticity can’t refer to fidelity to a given, in-born self — that idea was discarded with consumerism’s rise. Instead it must refer to the process of being recognized for the cool one has accumulated and recirculated. Authenticity is  a matter of generating genuine value for others through the integrity of one’s one consumption.

Benevolent algorithms will let us know ourselves fully. No more down moments, no more awkward face-to-face interactions, no more rejection, as we always are guided to that place in our network where we fit.

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