I found this written on a post-it note on my desk under a pile of papers, and I can’t remember what it was supposed to be for. I think it might be the conclusion to an essay I may never have written.
The desire to feel like an individual is a false need instigated by capitalism to make us productive in the social factory and to make us consume more in pursuit of a reified authenticity.
Not surprisingly, I find myself persuasive, but this still has problems. Talking about the truth or falsity of needs is probably counterproductive; it doesn’t change the fact that they are experienced and that they have behavioral consequences. Still, I was trying to get at the idea of individualism as a distortion of some inarguable human requirement of social recognition, which need not take the form of being heralded as unique, as some novel innovation on the general form of “human being.” The falsity is in failing to see alternatives. (Often, what’s false is the or in “true or false.”)
Perhaps becoming an “individual” is better understood as an organizing goal than a need or a desire. It’s not a concrete end but a way of conceiving personal motivation, of explaining to oneself what one is doing. It can rationalize the energy committed to a project after the fact, or when doubts about a purchase arise. But at the same time individuality is a goal that we always already believe we have achieved — we are subjectivized under consumer-capitalist relations to intuitively know that we are unique and that our particular contribution to the economy of symbolic meanings is ineffable, irreplaceable and thus extremely necessary. (Only I am capable of linking to this Bad Brains video and this essay about alienation from my specific location within the social graph, leveraging my particular resources of linkage to give it a special and particular meaning right now as you see it.) So when we desire individuality, we are yearning for proof of something that at the same time we can’t conceive of being false. The answer to “Who am I?” is given in the ability to state the question. I am the person who’s asking.
But the pursuit of individuality seems to stand against the view that capitalism requires a general understanding of labor as “abstract” and alienable, not specific to any particular worker. The capitalist assumption is that anybody can conceivably do any necessary labor, which is why it can be legitimately priced. But working on ourselves — developing interiority and an appreciation of our own depths and potentialities as well as the unique contributions we can make (valuable because they are unique) — seems anything but abstract. Commodifying authenticity would seem to be an insurmountable paradox. Capitalism’s greatest trick is to get us to buy into this impossibility.
Capitalism is arguably always in the process of producing the sort of subjects it needs to reproduce itself as a system; new forms of subjectivity develop to accommodate critique of capitalism as well as to make exploitable new opportunities for profit. New forms of subjectivity, new ways of conceiving of our social being allow for new sorts of commodities at the same time as allowing for new forms of consolation. The consolations are often the commodities themselves. (Facebook is one such recent consoling commodity.) But the tendency of capitalism to assimilate critique at the level of subjectivity effectually means that all critique may appear to us as self-critique; we recognize the consequences of our efforts to change capitalism in how they change the way we feel about ourselves.
Self-help comes to seem like a plausible political strategy in and of itself under conditions of “immanent causality” — wherein the causes of changes in subjectivity seem at once like effects. The recognition that all politics seems to us like a politics of the self, and thus narcissistic, can end up discouraging us from pursuing political action, which can feel like just so much solipsism. In other words, as capitalism faces the critique we direct at it, the sort of subjectivity permissible within it changes, changing us in the process — and these changes can feel unexpected, unintended. We can forget what we wanted or experience the gain of it as a sudden loss. Because capitalism has inescapably produced our ways of knowing ourselves, when we force capitalism to change, we are forced to see ourselves differently as well: a self-critique that is as harsh as our anticapitalist actions are successful.
But it is probably not useful to ascribe agency to capitalism and make it into a subject capable of “instigating” things. But it’s hard to get around that kind of grammatical construction when you want to get at systemic consequences that no one in particular conspired to produce. No council of capitalists convened to draw up a desirable form of subjectivity to inculcate everyone with; rather the “subject under capitalism” is a product of accretion, or rather it emerges from a given context that is always itself dynamic. (It won’t be long before children will seem as though they were born knowing how use a smartphone, and what sorts of things one “naturally” uses it for.) Though it warps conventional logic to say so, our ideological investment in individuality is both cause and effect of itself. We are invested in the idea of our uniqueness, so we refuse to credit the forces that shape our consciousness to not credit such things as ideology. It works because we want to believe it can’t, because its substance is the negation of itself. (Ideology = ideology doesn’t exist.) Within this semi-tautological system, we operate as though what ideology projects is already true and thus help make it so, reproducing something that had not yet been produced — that did not exist as a finished achievement. So no one is to blame for the reproduction of individualism in capitalism because everyone is to blame. That’s not very helpful either, but it perhaps saves us the trouble of attacking the wrong enemies. Fight the commodity form, not the other people subjected to it.
Even if capitalism can’t “make us productive,” is it more accurate to say that we make ourselves productive through the process of knowing ourselves? Or has that done irreparable semantic damage to the word productive? Are we “productive” when we don’t know we are working? We are not conscious of producing ourselves because we presuppose our own existence as unique individuals, and thus we disavow identity construction with greater intensity the more we perform it. So in our everyday-life sociality, we don’t know what we are making or that we are making anything, yet value is extracted from the ability to tally our behavior and circulate it in a distributable form that bears legible meanings. Just as “capitalism” is a dubious but necessary agent in an indirect and collective process, so is this nebulous notion of social production without a tangible product or producers. The “product” is what is always being chased in the data, just as the individual subject is what is always being chased in social behavior within capitalist relations, which require the quantification of unquantifiable things like the value of collaboration and affects so that the value can assigned (and its eventual expropriation justified somehow). I think that’s what I meant by reified authenticity, anyway. It’s the product that can’t be acknowledged as a product, made by people who refuse to believe they are making something. Profiting on such a product requires a specific kind of ideological dance the steps of which social media companies are only now learning. They involve redefining the self in terms of what is exposed rather than what is internal, completing the shift of “inner -directed” to “other-directed” selfhood that David Reisman described in The Lonely Crowd by making other-directedness appear as purest form of self-expression.
Can self-critique even be meaningful if our consciousness is produced by capitalism, if the limits of the thinkable are set by what capitalism can potentially solve? Isn’t it worse if that tendency to self-criticize has already been built into the capitalist subject as a mechanism of entrepreneurial innovation? Self-critique is creative destruction at the level of the personal brand.