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Marginal Utility
By Rob Horning
A blog about consumerism, capitalism and ideology.
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Value-seeking surveillance and The Hunger Games

I just finished reading the first book of The Hunger Games. Given my hobbyhorses, it’s probably not surprising that  I read it entirely as a novel about the ramifications of having to live as if life is a reality-television show. [UPDATE: Having seen the film, that seems an inescapable interpretation.] That is, it’s designed to appeal to teenagers (and everyone else) who all live with the unavoidable pressure of being scrutinized as a source of entertainment. The novel explores the effects of living under constant value-seeking surveillance, what it does us to know that someone is always trying to get something out of watching us (even if it’s just marketing data) and not being sure how far we should play along with and play to the unseen eyes.

Regarding it as a book about the pleasures of surveillance helps me accept its premise, anyway, which made no sense to me otherwise. It’s pretty implausible that a society would come up with the Hunger Games as a way to organize society, but it works not only because there is a ton of narrative momentum to the book but also because it makes resonant metaphoric sense. You might read the government’s imposition of  gladiatorial child-killing tournament as a metaphor for meritocracy and student debt peonage or something, but the novel seems to go out of the way to stress the spectacle of the Hunger Games as what holds the dystopian future society together. What is centrally important about the Games is that they are broadcast. People appear to enjoy watching this spectacle and are riveted to it, and that the participants can win benefits in the game by playing well to the audience’s vicarious needs for certain forms of entertainment through the game.

But it is also repeatedly implied that people are forced to watch the games, because this is how social order is maintained year after year — the games remind the citizens of state power, which rests not just on a control over life and death over people’s children but also the ability to put on a highly entertaining show with the highest stakes. In other words, the state works (i.e. it reinforces its authority) by forcing people to do what they already at some level enjoy. Or perhaps: the state finds a way to extract power by taking on the responsibility for providing a kind of pleasure that people can’t  pursue for themselves. It incites and gratifies pleasure so guilty that citizens end up enthralled; they get something they can’t admit they want but also enjoy too much (in some shameful, unacknowledged way) to organize to resist.  Or perhaps: the state stages an event so horrible that we have to imagine that someone else really enjoys this spectacle a great deal, and that is why they don’t rebel against it and stop it. We don’t realize that those same “someone elses” think we are that someone else who enjoys it and doesn’t rebel. So the fear of other people’s vicarious pleasure inhibits us, as does the fact that we can intuit their pleasure in something so wrong in the first place. The potentiality of vicariousness, which our own experience confirms, makes this system of control possible.

What is key to my way of thinking about the book, then, is how the state orchestrates these various disavowals and projections, how the Games are able to provide a pleasure that viewers can easily imagine someone else enjoying so much that they can’t imagine the others would be their allies in changing the system of which the games are a part. This can then simply be mapped on to our own social lives: What sorts of inescapable entertainment do we think are for “them” and make us think “they” aren’t on our side? And are we always already this they? We consume such entertainment warily, defensively, because we “have to” (to keep up with the zeitgeist, to avoid exclusion, and so on), but really it’s for no one but itself, it’s for capital, it’s for “power,” it’s for the people who profit from its dissemination.

In the Hunger Games the state makes that entertainment. In our world, the culture industry alone used to turn that stuff out — ironically enough, The Hunger Games phenomenon is exactly this sort of entertainment that everyone is simply supposed to know about. (Mad Men also springs to mind after the past weekend, when my Twitter feed was full of people complaining about Mad Men in other people’s feeds.) But now, social media has become another source of this type of entertainment: We are making it and imposing it on each other for social-media companies’ benefit. We’re all supposed to use Facebook and Twitter, etc., but no one can read and “share” for very long without starting to have some reservations. The creepy voyeurism and exhibitionism of it is palpable, no matter how much of a digital native one might be. Still we play along reluctantly with it and believe no one else has any interest in putting a stop to it all. After all social media exist and are becoming more and more popular with each passing day. So we come to think Facebook must be for all these other people, but we have to keep consuming it too. Otherwise we would miss out; we’d be left out.

So the reality TV-like, value-making surveillance of contemporary life is obvious to all, only now it’s not something anyone volunteers for exactly; our “friends” are the spies for Facebook. How do you escape from that system without discarding all your friends, the only friends you know? Especially when you are doing the same thing to them?

In Hunger Games, we’re beyond the fears embodied by The Truman Show, which was about suddenly discovering you were in a reality show without realizing it — that reality was a false construct, a simulacrum made to exploit the emotions you have in inhabiting the fake world. The Hunger Games presumes we already know we are inescapably embedded in the reality show and tentatively examines what revolution would have to look like within such a society. It hints at what forms of resistance might be available when the escape to “authenticity” and nonperformative behavior has become unthinkable, even as an ambition. And it looks at what happens when omnipresent mediatization turns our “friends” into simultaneous competitors for attention and adulation from unseen others.

The key scene in The Hunger Games for this interpretation — the one that prompted me to think I should write about the book — is when Katniss, the protagonist, realizes there is value in performing a budding love relationship with another competitor from her district, Peeta. She knows that if she makes it look like a conventional love story she assumes the audience wants, they will sponsor her and allow her adviser/coach Haymitch to reward her and parachute in tools she needs to survive. “I want to draw away, to close those shutters again, but I know I can’t,” she thinks. “It’s as if I can hear Haymitch whispering in my ear, ‘Say it! Say it!’ ” That is, say something schmaltzy and kiss Peeta as everyone in the viewing audience eats it up.

Basically if you play along and perform ideological expectations, some outside force will supply you with sustenance. If we give over our personal feelings specifically to the audience, we can survive. (Katniss thinks to herself “My instincts tell me Haymitch isn’t just looking for physical affection, he wants something more personal. The sort of stuff he was trying to get me to tell about myself when we were practicing for the interview.”) The contestants in the hunger games are made immediately aware of themselves as celebrities when they are selected to fight and most likely die, but the winners will know how to make the most of their immediate fame. And that means figuring out the vicarious needs of the audience and catering to them. That is the value in being watched — the affective labor the contestants perform. (See this post at Subashini at Disquiet blog. Also, Voyou on how it’s no accident that Katniss’s most important mentor is her stylist.) Reenacting the conventional stories at once gratifies the viewers and reinforces the “common sense” ideological “truths” about love, gender etc., that are supposed compensate for the miseries of life and give reliable order to it.

The meta-ness of Katniss’s strategizing is interesting; by having Katniss think through how to symbolize and act out  generic falling-in-love story for an audience hungry for vicarious entertainment, Suzanne Collins is also having her narrate the novelist’s problems in plotting the novel. Collins foregrounds the emotional manipulation of the story, problematizing it while indulging it along stereotypical lines, a clever means for having it both ways. This aligns we, the readers, with the audience of the violent reality show within the novel’s universe. Would we really want the Hunger Games put to a stop? Doesn’t our compulsion to keep reading betray us in that regard?

Not only does this scene remind us of our complicity in systems of control through vicariousness, it also illustrates the conundrum of authenticity under ambient surveillance. Katniss can’t experience “falling in love” as a reaction; she can’t consume her own story. She can only perform it. Her emotions are not responses to events but tactics. They are always competitive, a means to some end she’s fighting for. They can no longer unproblematically serve as  post hoc explanations of what an experience meant to her. Instead she has to wonder to what degree her performed emotions shaped what happened.  ”Because we’re supposed to be making up this stuff, playing at being in love not actually being in love,” as Katniss tells herself in the midst of playing up her love for Peeta.

Instead of taking her feelings for granted as a response, she exists in a perpetual state of confusion over what she should feel, what feelings she should perform, and what her body’s genuine reaction to the situation might be. She can’t tell if she actually loves Peeta; there is no basis by which she could make the determination, if the basis must be some sort of emotional response. She can’t accept spontaneous emotion as a way of interpreting her behavior or anyone else’s. It’s not clear even to her in the end whether her emotional reactions are real or strategic performances. The economic pressures of the moment make them feel real then and dubious afterward.

With social media surveillance as understood, we’re in the same situation. A paranoid hermeneutic reigns instead. Everything we do is always understood as someone else’s entertainment, and the degree to which others are entertained or edified determines the “meaning” of what we are experiencing. Evaluating the authenticity of a response relative to our “real” feelings is no longer a meaningful way of analyzing events. We don’t know who to trust; we think everyone might be playing us if they are not merely consuming us as spectacle. But again, we are all performing thinking everyone else is an audience, but they too are all performing all the time and not simply watching, or doing their watching as part of a performance. The pure audience that shapes everyone’s behavior doesn’t exist; or rather, it is capital itself, it is the value form being called into being as a mode of visibility.

We’re left performing ideology for some sort of tactical advantage toward winning the game, getting home again. But what is home, if there is nothing but the game? If the game of affective labor  – of maximizing human capital and quantifying influence and attention and everything else — has subsumed all of everyday life. There’s no place like home, so where am I?

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3 Responses to “Value-seeking surveillance and The Hunger Games

  1. Roadstar06 says:

    Totalitarianism and the oppression of freedom and liberty is the theme.

    • It is not so simple. Of course, it`s about totalitarianism (a kind of cultural or media totalitarianism), but, as Rob shows, it goes beyond and relates to our own way of set value to our acts in society… it`s also about the way we give sense to our social relationships. If you want, it is about a self-totalitarianism… at least, that could be the reflection regarding to Facebook and other social media and the power we have given to them.

  2. punksocks says:

    It’s totally about surveillance – the watching and being watched. If you think about in the context of one of the greatest dystopias – Nineteen Eighty-four – all the cards start falling into place. Well, they do for me.

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