Social media and sensibility

Joseph Highmore, Mr. B Finds Pamela Writing

The parts of old novels that we find most boring are also the ones that will tell us the most about the ideological needs of past readers. We find these sections boring because they cater to desires or address ideological confusion we no longer experience, or they spell out ideological propositions we have since come to take for granted. Boring passages represent the world in a way we no longer find necessary or thrilling, but in them we can uncover how to reopen the problems that ideology has come to perhaps too tidily solve. Guided by boredom, we can rediscover precisely what ideology guides us to regard as unworthy of careful attention. (No, don't pay attention to the everyday mechanics of male supremacy; its boring!)

I was inspired to start re-reading Nancy Armstrong's Desire and Domestic Fiction because I remembered it made a claim about the analytical usefulness of readerly boredom, in reference to Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1740). This paradigmatic novel, one of the earliest in English, was among the first publishing sensations — the original "must-read." It thrilled 18th century readers like Diderot, but most contemporary readers find it excruciatingly boring — particularly its second half, all about domestic protocol in a country house. In case you haven't read the book (and you should!), the first half is about country squire Mr. B wanting to have sex with Pamela, one of his servants. She resists when he tries to rape her and writes copious letters about it, which Mr. B reads and then falls in love with her. Eventually she sees how she has "reformed" him, and they marry. Detailed domestic instructions ensue, showing how a servant can deserve an aristocrat's love and respect through diligent housekeeping. In case you missed its subtle message, the novel is subtitled "Virtue Rewarded."

Armstrong argues that in the boring parts of this novel we can trace the conversion of political tension between classes (as industrial capitalism began its rise and social mobility ceased being impossible) into a solvable crisis of courtship that can be traced in a novel's plot. What was the aim of social mobility, if not revolution? Courtship novels offer one solution: They create a universally accessible space (the domestic space) and a universally accessible prize (the domestic woman, who can supply universal comfort to her family regardless of their level in society). "True love" conquers class animus, or at least makes such considerations a side matter to the main story about one's life: finding a partner, enjoying their intimacy, and learning to appreciate their inner depths while establishing the domestic space together as a world apart.

Because of their political usefulness in transforming class struggle into a "sexual contract" between a man and a woman in an isolated domestic sphere, Armstrong argues that courtship novels became the dominant form of novels in general — what was understood as a "real" or "quality" novel. Genuine novels aren't simply fictions; they must show how the motive of love specifically transcends other "interested" motives and constitutes the essential goal in life. The durability of this ideological ruse can be seen in the popularity of the rom-com, though in a rom-com, viewers are not bored by familiar plot materials; instead they satisfy our genre-driven expectations. We can't yet tell what parts future generations will find boring about them, but they will likely be those parts that strenuously tried to assimilate contemporary political tensions to the courtship story. It will be the stuff that we need to be made to believe so that future generations won't even know they have a choice about it.

Another aspect of Pamela that can come across as boring is the way it must teach readers how to read novels — something we definitely take for granted. In Pamela one reads lots of scenes depicting other people reading; generally they are reading the very same text (Pamela's letters and diaries) you have already read and are modeling the appropriate level of responsiveness to it. The book thus dramatizes its own consumption and promulgates its appropriate usage. The novel is a product that teaches you how to consume it. In many early novels, the key subtext is often, How does one learn to read stories? How do I read my social experience in the same fashion? How can I hoard affect, how can I extract sentimental goods?

I'm interested in this because the novel-reading experience then was as novel then as social-media-consumption experience is now. Social media platforms in some respects function like the formal qualities of early novels; they teach us how to extract the pleasure from the product, how to live our lives in a way that social media models and can accommodate. Both novels and social media are erotic technologies, in that they make it possible for users to experience new pleasures of intimacy in new ways.

New mediated pleasures tend to be regarded as inherently dubious (or the inverse, inherently liberatory). Social media is regarded by many commentators as dangerously narcissistic, echoing one of the original moral panics about reading novels, that it was tantamount to masturbation. Reading meant that you removed yourself from social interaction to enter into a private solitary fantasy world of pretend intimacy that gave you asocial emotional satisfaction. To counter this, novelists tried to redeem novels with didactic content that taught readers how to behave in society. They were covert conduct manuals made palatable and — as their defenders would eventually come to argue — more instructive through absorbing storytelling. This was certainly Richardson's modus operandi. Pamela evolved out of an instruction manual he had composed, Familiar Letters on Important Occasions, that was meant to provide boilerplate form letters for semiliterate people. It dawned on him that teaching people what to write was close to teaching people what to think and, more important, what to feel.

But adding didacticism doesn't really solve the onanism problem. As Eve Sedgwick points out  in "Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl", citing 18th century literature scholar John Mullan, "the empathetic allo-identifications that were supposed to guarantee the sociable nature of sensibility could not finally be distinguished from an epistemological solipsism, a somatics of trembling self-absorption." In other words, if you identified with the characters in fiction to learn from their experience and felt what they feel, you were still indulging in the same affective short-circuit that bypasses the need for actual others as a prerequisite for emotional pleasure. The novel (as is claimed about smartphones and other modes of online engagement today) pre-empts the need for co-presence. But the pleasures of exercising sensibility — an 18th century term for vicarious feeling whose vogue coincided with the novelty of this skill, giving it moral credibility — supposedly proved one's fitness for better society, but they could only be truly enjoyed in private, which invoked the specter of subversion. No one really knows what crazy thoughts you are having when your nose is buried in a book. You are adapting yourself to the norms of the text, and not the social position you are physically inhabiting.

This irresolvable tension between didacticism and autoeroticism can be put to productive ideological use, helping perform the cultural work Armstrong argues novels were doing at the time, resolving political conflicts through the universal promise of domesticity. That is, the pleasures of reading were put to use in authorizing the collective imagination of the social pleasures of domestic retreat. It created a new kind of connoisseurship — the sensitive fiction reader who could readily experience vicarious emotion and thus proved her finer moral sense.

Before novels were in wide circulation, most people had never exercised the capacity to sustain an identification with a fictional character who existed only as text. Once this leap is made, it opens the possibility of seeing oneself as a textual artifact, as a consciousness made up of words that could be preserved and transferred. The same novelistic discourse that writes interiority into an accessible form also makes it seductive, alluring, something to fantasize about possessing. The pleasures of writing oneself into being generates at the same time the pleasures of reading such writing — pleasures which validate the self-production.

In Richardson's novel, as Pamela compulsively writes letters about her feelings (18th century sexting), her sentimental diaristic prose begins to displace her body as the object of desire for Mr. B. In one famous scene, he undresses her not to access her body but to find her hidden diary pages. This displacement, Armstrong argues (drawing on Foucault), is how modern subjectivity (a primarily female subjectivity) is born. It stems from eroticized resistance and intimate surveillance. Mr. B learns the erotic appeal of using his power to elicit Pamela's interiority, to stimulate it and draw it out, and this proves far more pleasurable than using brute force to ravish her body. Given that this precious interiority — the product of courtship, the fruit of authentic love — is available to everyone regardless of class, novels show us that you don't need a lot of money necessarily to build a rich inner life within. That interior life, that refinement of the moral sense, is true wealth.

For readers of novels, the lesson is that if you have the sort of refined sensibility that can enjoy the interiority that a novel's prose is creating, you too possess true wealth. You have sensibility, a kind of connoisseurship far more affordable to the bourgeoisie. It was a way to show a moral superiority to other people without relying on conspicuous displays of wealth, which were transformed in novels (in Jane Austen's books, for instance) into vulgarities.

In the space created by the practice of reading, sentiments supplant material riches — just as in Pamela, her letters supplant her body as the truly desirable object of delectation. While reading, the ability to feel vicariously is more efficacious than material luxuries in providing pleasure. The competency to extract affect from texts becomes a core part of the middle-class habitus, a challenge to the aristocratic mode of life and a compensation for lacking the material basis for it. There is no more democratic and egalitarian space than the imagination, where everyone who is literate is presumably on equal footing to enjoy the pleasures of having deep emotional feelings.

If literacy and vicarious pleasure were the great political compensations of early capitalism, deflecting class animus while paving the way for consumerism, then technological literacy and the sensibilities afforded by social media may be the compensations of our period of stagnating neoliberalism. Social media seem like a new way to buy the bulk of us off with affect, all while creating new types of consumer products in commodified emotions. (Novels were an early form of commodified emotion, among the first mass-manufactured experiential consumption goods.)

The tension between a private, intimate kind of pleasure — "sharing," a modern update of the faux-mutuality of sensibility — and the sociability it is supposed to anchor is still with us. We can all be producers of emotional goods; we can be novelists as well as readers, deepening our competency in the field of sensibility. We consume other subjectivities as we prepare our own for consumption. Part of that product includes a reified "ability to enjoy sharing." We can prove our emotional competency (as Pamela does) by eliciting as well as experiencing affective sensitivity. We can generate as well as succumb to feelings — not just with a select few people, as in the era of familiar letters addressed to loved ones, but with a broad audience, including strangers. Our sensibility can be more directly conjoined with our reputation.

But this process remains suspect; we still are in a state of moral panic about the sensibility derived from new media: It's solipsistic, inauthentic, inappropriate. These mask the way these new pleasures ameliorate the ills of capitalism not by mitigating them but by intensifying commodification and turning more of everyday life into exploitable labor.

All of this suggests that the emotional competencies of social-media use will be central to  political struggles, but not merely in the instrumental ways researchers tend to focus on. (Social media leads to more street protest: yes or no?) The pleasures and the habitus grounded in social-media use are masking conflicts, absorbing their energy and processing it into microfame and other "viral" distractions. It may be politically useful to start from those pleasures and find a better use for the energy encoded within them, one that will bring about an even greater and perhaps more collective kind of pleasure.