Pinterest and the acquisitive gaze

I signed up for Pinterest without really knowing what it was, out of a general sense that it is important to reserve a user name on any service that’s garnering attention. When I found that it was an image aggregator, I didn’t understand what the fuss was about. Why would I want to serve as a volunteer photo researcher? How is Pinterest any different from those Tumblrs set up to display a mosaic of images? Is it supposed to be a Twitter of images or something? I couldn’t imagine what I would use it for, so I sort of forgot about it.

But recently Pinterest has entered the mainstream, as a para-retailing apparatus presumed to appeal mainly to women. The site’s supposed femaleness has occasioned a lot of theorizing, some of which Nathan Jurgenson details in this post, as has its anodyne commerciality. Bon Stewart argues that Pinterest, since it 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 “Stepford” identity. In other words, it becomes another tool for enhancing our digital brands at the expense of the possibility of an uncommodified self.

Give that emphasis on passive consumption, it’s not surprising that Pinterest has come to be associated with shopping fantasies. Pinterest’s great technological 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. Chris Tackett suggests that sites like Pinterest are actually “anti-consumerist” because they allow people the instant gratification of  choosing things without actually having to buy them. “Virtual consumerism means a real world reduction in wasteful consumption,” he writes, and that’s all well and good, though I’m not sure that making window shopping more convenient is in any way “anticonsumerist.” If anything that seems to reinforce the consumerist mentality while overcoming one of its main obstacles — people’s financial inability to perpetually shop. With Pinterest, they can at least simulate that experience, acquiring the images of things and associating them with themselves, appropriating the qualities the goods/images are thought to signify at that given moment. Pinterest allows for the purest expression of the Baudrillardian “passion for the code”

“It is not the passion (whether of objects or subjects) for substances that speaks in fetishism, it is the passion for the code, which, by governing both objects and subjects, and by subordinating them to itself, delivers them up to abstract manipulation,” Baudrillard wrote in “Fetishism and Ideology
 that we’ve yet seen. We accumulate and sort images, trying to extract their assimilable 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.

In an essay about novelist Henry James, of all things (included in The Culture of Consumption collection edited by Jackson Lears and Richard Fox; well worth the $1 it’s selling for) 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.”

The connection to Pinterest seems obvious to me; it is geared to satisfying the acquisitive appetite for images, which is itself nurtured by what consumerism has taught us to read out of images —  various characteristics and attributes and traits (“beauty,” “intelligence,” “fashionability,” “cleanliness,” “health,” etc.) we seek to embody ourselves. 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 they are always socially determined to a degree. Advertising has traditionally tried to stabilize the associations of affects with products; social media now enlists the members of an individual’s social networks to assist in this process. We get to aid in the building of such ad hoc associations between feelings and goods (we are “prosuming,” making our consumption productive of symbolic meaning but broadcasting it — for what it’s worth, I wrote an essay about how this plays out in fast fashion), but this serves to reinforce that the overall sense that the feelings can be applied and withdrawn at social whim.

This instability is the basis of Agnew’s chief insight. 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 become filled with an anxious need to try to do something to shore those meanings up.

Under such conditions, it is extraordinarily difficult to sort out needs and wants. But if it is commodity contexts that are sold and consumed, as the theory and practice of contemporary marketing suggests, then 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.

Clearly 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 and all that. It never hurts to quote the passage from Marx: “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, in effect. 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. This was already implicit in the principle of bookmarking; you claim pages as your own through you intent to consume them at some point, and this becomes the act of consumption for all intents and purposes. But Pinterest adds public display to that act of forestalling appropriation, so that the appropriation can be made to signify to others what you want to be and what a thing might mean (rather than merely trying to fool yourself about what you’ll actually read).

Any activity that online marketers seek to render “social” ultimately ends up being depersonalized, drained of spontaneity and injected instead into the ongoing collective elaboration of the code. But Pinterest particularly 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.