Spontaneity On Demand

Salvador Dalí. A Couple with Their Heads Full of Clouds (1936)

“Mediating our identity and our experience recapitulates it in a form that can circulate and be easily reproduced, [and] consumed… [W]e now respond morally and emotionally not to the stark fact of physical presence of the person with whom we are sympathizing, but to the way that person’s identity has been symbolized.”

In his 1998 book The Corrosion of Character, sociologist Richard Sennett contrasts two 18th-century attitudes toward the routinized labor that was just beginning to be imposed on more and more workers in a budding capitalist economy. Denis Diderot, Sennett argues, regarded routine as potentially meditative, with the virtues of repetition yielding both a deep, thorough understanding of a necessary action and a contemplative mastery over time. In other words, routine could facilitate our entrance into a state of flow, to use psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s terminology — allowing us to lose ourselves in the moment and experience an ecstatic harmony with the process. Paradoxically, our minute and intense focus on perfecting a task opens the possibility of spontaneous emotion, an unanticipated feeling that washes over us — a spontaneity not dependent on novelty.

Sennett compares Diderot’s idealized view of routine to that of Adam Smith, who regarded the routines stemming from the division of labor not as spiritually engaging but as soul deadening, stupefying humans to the level of brutes by restricting them to mindless, deskilled operations. Such joyless and mechanical labor prevents workers from having the constitutive experience of sympathy for another’s needs or another’s suffering, which, according to Smith in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, allows us to transcend our moral myopia and participate meaningfully in society. Sennett notes that for Smith, such spontaneous outbursts of sympathy formed the basis of personal character. “To develop one’s character,” Sennett suggests, “one has to break out of routine.” Here, spontaneity is linked with uncertainty rather than certainty — with being jarred out of routines and into a heightened state of ambient awareness.

Consumer culture has seized upon Smith’s moral perspective and made it foundational. Perpetual novelty is the basis of character, the prerequisite for achieving the ideal of becoming a unique individual with uniquely defining experiences. If work was to be soul-crushing, we could readily compensate for that in our leisure time, in which we could “self-actualize” through lifestyle-oriented consumption. The banality of work processes opened up a protected sphere for the self away from the job in consumerism. So rather than pursue an ideal of losing oneself in the unmediated experience of deeply embodied routines as Diderot proposed, we seek to develop our character for its own sake, as if it were quantitatively measured, and make sure everyone knows about it. Once this mainly a matter of conspicuous consumption. But abetted by communication technology, we can now mediate our identity through a variety of means — through what we say, what we share, what we self-publish, as well as what we wear, what we own.

We can launder the narcissism of all this self-display by regarding it as a prerequisite for eliciting and experiencing sympathy. Mediating our identity and our experience recapitulates it in a form that can circulate and be easily reproduced, consumed simultaneously by any number of readers or observers, who can experience sympathy for us on their own schedule. As a consequence we now respond morally and emotionally not to the stark fact of physical presence of the person with whom we are sympathizing, but to the packaged representation of that person, and more precisely to our efforts to decode the way that person’s identity has been symbolized. Sympathy, then, is our emotional experience of the code itself. Mediation becomes the apotheosis of sympathy, and the ability to translate signs into feelings the measure of the depth of our character.

Mobile gadgets, Web 2.0 apps and social networks and other recent developments have made mediation more and more immediate. We verge closer to the ideal of real-time redistribution of the self, which makes the grounds for potential sympathizing — sharing — increasingly synonymous with digital dissemination. With real-time as the horizon, the time frame over which our narratives of personal identity need to span in our imagination necessarily shrinks to the vanishing point. The idea that we must posit a long-term identity disappears. We are left to build a self out of a pile of discrete, discontinuous moments, all concretized by our increasingly frantic gestures of self-publication — the status updates and shared photos and tweets and text messages and check-ins of contemporary life. This is now what it means to be free to become who we are.

The concept of the self as being recomposed from moment to moment, as being free to the degree to which it can repackage itself in a novel way, meshes well, as Sennett points out, with capital’s demands for labor flexibility and adaptability in the postindustrial economy. Mechanized work routines, dull and restrictive as they once may have been, nonetheless anchored a stable and enduring sense of self and a coherent narrative of personal identity by providing a certain predictability and continuity to experience, which found expression in stable labor contracts and the benefits of a social safety net. Diderot’s sense of the potential for transcendence in routine still lurked therein; the promise of slow, steady social mobility provided a long-term trajectory.

But postindustrial, service-oriented capitalism, bolstered by ascendant neoliberal ideology regarding borderless mobility, efficiency and productivity, has shredded that safety net and promoted in its place the enriching virtues of constant change and keeping all options open. For capital, this makes for streamlined workforce of temps, freelancers and other spare parts as needed, who are encouraged to freely innovate and collaborate on the job — whose responsibilities are open-ended rather than routinized — so that their creativity can be harvested and expropriated. Many service workers are no longer forced to see themselves as cogs in the machine but instead as a privileged creative class who work in jobs that facilitate their inner dynamism.

If we accept Smith’s view of routine, this should seem like progress. Flexibility on the job seems to promise more spontaneity. With routines stripped out of work life, we need to be more engaged with our circumstances from moment to moment, we need to be able to form and dissolve cooperative bonds, we need an enhanced sensitivity to others in order to work well with random collaborators and meet the demands of occasional employers. All this seems to require and prompt more moments of sympathy, of emotional attunement. The deeper sensitivity to others should theoretically deepen our own responses to our experience.

Work flexibility, however, doesn’t banish routine; it merely shifts it to a deeper, more personal level — the level of self-expression and self-fashioning. Leisure is no longer a protected sphere away from work discipline but instead becomes itself the site of discipline, the site of routine, as the need to share our individuality becomes a digitally enabled compulsion. With the stable self dissolved, constant self-broadcasting of novel and revealing mediated moments becomes a necessary gesture to reassert and prove our identity.

The immediacy of constant presence on digital networks allows us to regard these acts of sharing as moments of sympathy in Smith’s sense of the word, a conjuring of reciprocity in the act of positing an audience for our self-publication. Each gesture of sharing is an sets the stage. We can repost an image of what we are in the midst of experiencing to a social network instantaneously, capturing our sense of self as it is situated in that moment and permitting us to imagine the sympathetic reinforcement of that self, whether or not anyone responds — whether anyone comments or clicks to “like” it. And scanning the updates others have shared in a spare moment allows us to complete the circuit of sympathy, as we empathize on our own schedule with the packaged intimate glimpses of self that others have thought to broadcast.

But those ostensibly novel moments of self-recognition, once the hallmark of spontaneity, are now deliberately and perpetually produced. Though we no longer work in factories, we have put our sense of self on a sort of assembly line, using just-in-time logistics to manufacture it on an ever-tighter deadline. The rote mediation and rebroadcasting of our constructed individuality yields a stultifying and self-negating spontaneity on demand. And technology intervenes to automate the gestures that once defined us: recommendation engines tell us what we want, predictive filters tell us what we want to know, and social apps broadcast it all out to the world when we consummate those prefab desires.

What’s lost in all this is sympathy’s ability to strike us as a spontaneous shock, the decentering flash of recognition of the reality of someone else’s emotions — the very quality of sympathy that Smith found so morally bracing. Because sympathy is programmed into the organization of social networks, it becomes another automated feature, conveniently mediated by the network infrastructure rather than our own moral effort.

The possibility for achieving flow through routine has been supplanted by a ceaseless and continually distracting flood of sympathy-eliciting information that overwhelms any effort we might make at mastering the influx. We can’t organize it or assimilate it all; we can’t reciprocate all of the personal information coming in from others. We cannot vicariously experience all that is shared, all that is served to us; we pick and choose according to our whim. Social networks present us with a marketplace of delectable emotional moments. So even though all these sharing gestures invite and simulate sympathy, true sympathy cannot exist in the digital realm. We can only consume those moments as a kind of sentimental entertainment.