Can a real self be found between the Scylla of anomie and the Charybdis of legislated identity?
As behavioral economists labor to demonstrate, the chief problem with markets is the idiosyncratic consumer. The math works out; it bears no grudges. It implies a just, efficient order that assimilates available information and distributes social product according to an impersonal, incorruptible logic (that’s the gist of neoclassical normative economics).
If not for the consumer’s stubborn biases, if not for their annoying habit of letting social relations interfere with market math, we would have a Pareto-efficient paradise, but instead people have friends who trade favors, they have family members and neighbors they help out, they enjoy the smug pride that derives from the exercise of position, that derives from the noblesse oblige of altruism. Because markets are embedded in these legacy social relations, not everyone’s dollar is worth the same everywhere. Other forms of intangible, uncountable capital — social capital (who you know) and cultural capital (what you know) and even subcultural capital (what weird stuff you know) are brought to bear on the exchange process. The anti-aristocratic dream of a perfect market, the quintessential bourgeois utopia in which we are all equal before the merchants and free to get whatever we desire as long as our cash doesn’t run out, remains an elusive fantasy.
In their nascence, what capitalist markets seemed to promise was total anonymity, the freedom to be hidden in plain sight within the emerging mass of consumers. They were held to allow for private passions to be turned into interests, as Albert Hirschman points out. This meant that personal selfishness could be regarded as ultimately contributing to a larger good (via the invisible hand) that would otherwise remain inscrutable if we remained hidebound in our tribalistic ways. Individualistic pursuits, extricating ourselves from socially determined patterns of exchange, became integral to moral redemption, for when we channeled our greed and envy and combativeness away from social relations and into markets, they were turned into constructive forces. The individual was then justified in liberating himself from hereditary hierarchies, the restraints that curtailed his free operation in markets, as these hindered the alchemical process of transmuting original sinfulness into socially useful information and energy. This economic solution to man’s sinfulness evolved into a celebration of individualism for it’s own sake, an ideal embodied by Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, the isolated individual who, uninterfered with, can fulfill his authentic needs from scratch on the seeming blank slate of an undeveloped island.
With no identity, we have no incentive to be anything but passive consumers, gobbling in obscurity the culture-industry products made for everyone and no one in particular.
Possessive individualism, however, no longer seems such a unalloyed good. The freedom it once promised is shaded with atomization and alienation. Life in advanced capitalist society is frequently depicted as anomic, with a hedonism made possible by ubiquitous consumer goods failing to make our lives meaningful. We complain about being trapped on a consumption treadmill whose speed is ever increasing, acquiring more and more stuff that repeatedly fails to satisfy us. And at the same time, our connections to others become more tenuous, superficial, contingent. As Marx wrote in the Communist Manifesto, “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.”
Faced with such a sobering vision, however, we have chosen to recede into new delusions. Since the impersonal markets of capitalist society seem to have brought us to this unpleasant anomie, a nostalgic impulse grows to return to communal patterns of exchange — localism, mom-and-pop small business, handicrafts, home production (as if the domestic factory was a wonderful institution). These were “pure” relations. The impersonal market is seen as a venue in which power leveraged by large corporations can dictate the opportunities available to the individuals caught in their maw. Individuals become demographic data points; the freedom of anonymity gives way in popular imagination to soul-crushing facelessness, a society in which no one knows your name. With no identity, we have no incentive to be anything but passive consumers, gobbling in obscurity the culture-industry products made for everyone and no one in particular. In order for consumption to be meaningful, by the logic of this critique, it must be publicized in some way.
If market-driven anonymity brought alienation, let’s return to socially inflected exchange, and escape from the impersonal market and presumably from consumerist identities defined by the hegemonic marketing discourse, by brands, by mass-market homogeneity, by reified desires and goods hoarding. Let’s bring the “venerable prejudices and opinions” back.
Though it may seem as though this powerful nostalgia is a way to undermine “consumerism,” contemporary consumerism is actually the means for reawakening those traditional prejudices, breathing new life into them as they assume new forms. Part of the confusion that sometimes arises on this point is semantic — a market economy, capitalism, and consumerism are not synonymous, though sometimes the terms are used interchangeably. The market-based individualism that emerged from the 18th century was rooted in impersonality and anonymity, the shedding of inherited identities, whereas the consumerist self-centeredness that has been emerging since the 1960s is grounded in narcissism and ongoing identity projects.
Consumerism doesn’t necessarily arise out of all market societies. It is instead a concept that cuts across markets, though it conceivably derives its force from the surplus that capitalism is forced by its logic to produce. Consumerism is less a matter of mere consumption practices than it is an approach to subjectivity. Consumerism in late capitalist society is a matter of making sure identity is an ongoing social problem for the individual, a competitive arena that intersects with but does not entirely overlap that of markets. To absorb that production surplus that secures economic growth, newfangled potlatches (not the atavistic ones longed for by Georges Bataille) begin to take shape in which consumers create themselves through extravagant wasteful consumption, through status displays grounded in positional goods, through exhibitions of exclusionary rituals. We fashion identities (or lifestyles) out of consumption practices in a never-ending process of self-actualization. But this doesn’t mean we can build any identity we choose; the constraints that once impeded us in precapitalist social relations return with renewed force. The class identity that once fixed for us at birth — the one that melted into air — returns and those unfortunates with less inherited cultural capital become proletarianized in a whole new sphere, becoming cultural proletarians.
Robert Kozinets’ 2002 ethnography of the annual Burning Man festival in Nevada (pdf) illustrates the sad fate of the cultural proletarian as well as how a consumerist mentality can vehemently oppose markets. The implications of the article suggest that the would-be anticonsumer may in fact be the consumer par excellence, who now goes by many names — the hipster, the arriviste, the scenester, the prosumer. Rejecting the old mass market in favor of idiosyncratic niche markets and cliquish alternatives to retail outlets, the new superconsumer believes that the limited-access transactions he participates in makes his behavior noneconomic. Since price is not important in these transactions, he ignores how he is trading in the more nebulous currencies of attention, prestige and status display as he seeks recognition and validation. He thinks he has transcended the petty accumulation of goods and deals instead in authentic, superior values. Because no money changes hands, just subtle affirmations and rejections, he is able to pretend that he is not involved with exchange at all but instead is simply involved with the straightforward, unmediated process of living. But such behavior is the apotheosis of consumerism, wherein subjects can’t distinguish between consumption and self-display, and identity is constantly being renegotiated in a welter of markets whose boundaries are deliberately obscured. The labor we put into ourselves is expropriated, though we believe we volunteer it in exchange for admission into the new sharing arrangements, the post-economy.
Burning Man began as a bellwether for the post-economy. The festival prides itself on its rejection of the corporate hegemony and proclaims itself as an alternative to the consumer society within which it takes place. As Kozinets puts it, “By positioning production and consumption as expressive rather than productive, the rational efficiency motive that drives marketplace production is discursively disabled, and opportunities for re-enchantment emerge.” But that takes a rather short-sighted view of how rational motives can also govern self-expression in the attention economy fomented by a rejection of the impersonal market model. At Burning Man, exchange is “re-enchanted” by making more explicit the cultural and social capital bound in up in everyday transactions and by allowing for no escape from the capricious judgments of other participants or from the hierarchies in which the transactions are re-embedded. (If not re-embedded, then the latent structures — the class hierarchies and prejudices in play — are made overt.) Kozinets notes that though Burning Man “has many similarities to a Disney theme park,” he found that — unlike at Disneyland, I would venture to say — “people indicated that they were constantly judging others in terms of the degree of their participation in the event” in order to identify outsiders to be derided as inauthentic.
Of course, these poseur “tourists” serve to structure the authenticity of these self-appointed judges’ own participation, and by extension, their identity. Kozinets suggests that Burning Man participants’ “use of these passive, isolated consumer-as-dupe comparisons may point to the higher cultural capital” denoting the festival goers’ belonging to an “educated intelligentsia.” They engage in “building strong communal ties and using the ancient practice of vilifying the outsider.” Though exchange hardly ceases, the function of exchange in upholding class boundaries is foregrounded, and its potential to be purely utilitarian is denied. No acquisition is innocent; all will be scrutinized and evaluated, and social consequences meted out.
Hence the prejudices banished from impersonal markets with ideally anonymous actors return to the “re-enchanted” market spaces of Burning Man, where every exchange is all too personal. Kozinets supplies this anecdote:
As an example of an alternative exchange model, Ike discusses the Space Lunge, his favorite bar at Burning Man. If you want a drink, the bartender asks you to provide a story or a joke in exchange for it. Everyone present at the bar listens and, if the response is favorable, the bartender provides you with your drink…. To some people, requiring a personal revelation in exchange for a drink might seem a much more expensive proposition. Yet Ike emphasizes the value of this sharing and personal openness to building communal relations, a personalizing act that simultaneously singularizes the exchange and vivifies the social gathering.
Communal relations are indeed reestablished, by the palpable and immediate threat of exclusion. The nondescript transaction is made into a public spectacle, a performance in the theater of consumption. Money is refused because it is no longer trusted as a neutral store of value, and the institutionalized trust that is required to make impersonal markets work is entirely rejected in favor of more subjective currencies that permit the dealer to sit in judgment over those supplicants wanting his favor and his goods (which have been rendered into the same thing). Sumptuary laws are implemented on an ad hoc basis, with only the worthy being able to participate in exchange. All of us must mount the confessional and reveal not merely what we want but who we are, who we hope to be. We must sing for our supper in an ongoing contest, like American Idol writ small.
This is the apotheosis of consumerism, where our identity is entirely implicated and that fact can’t be buffered by the anonymity of money and market exchange. Rather than entering into an exchange with a stable identity, we become ourselves through the public transaction, which provides us with a self only for as long as it is approved in the interaction process. The exchange is “singularized,” its uniqueness supplants that of the people involved. They fade into the communal backdrop, waiting to emerge again in another dramatic moment of “sharing.” And every effort at sharing will be judged, fixing our place within a status hierarchy. We can fantasize about finding the status hierarchy we could dominate — maximizing our “subcultural capital.” But this involves doubling down on personalized exchange, moving further away from the capital that circulates with no questions asked (money) and reinforcing the value of contingent capital that has worth only in particularly circumstances. So at that point, we would be dealing in an even more obscure personal currency, begging for people to accept it, exchange it into acceptance and attention. Even if we were fortunate enough to find people to accept it, would we be willing to sacrifice the ability to trade with anyone else? Or would we be content to be the big fish in a ludicrously small puddle, without worrying about the size of everyone else’s ponds?
The main purpose of social networks, once we are coaxed into building them for ourselves, is to guarantee us a place to display our consumption.
The cant about “sharing” and “personal revelation” in Kozinets’s anecdote should be all too familiar to us in the age of social networking. Web 2.0 is the extension of the Burning Man ethos to the social space that’s fashioned online, which we are all expected to increasingly inhabit. The whole purpose of Web 2.0, with its various enticements to participate, is to more closely bind us to our online behavior, especially our purchasing activities, further blurring the lines between consumption and identity. We submit customer reviews. We set up profiles that catalog our tastes and preferences. We rate items so that automated recommendations can be made for us. And we are encouraged to share continually with our friends, in archived, proprietary forums belonging to corporations, under the auspices that these broadcasts will establish for us more significant “communal relations.” Web 2.0 puts to rest forever the notion that the Web is a haven of anonymity. Not that it ever was. Sure, we could make up funny noms de guerre for ourselves online, but browser cookies and static IP addresses made sure that by and large, we were carefully tracked all along. Our participation in forums, our commenting on blogs — this sort of thing could be anonymous, but our spending can not. Online commerce cannot take place with cash; instead every purchase is personalized, every dollar spent online can be traced to a person, to a credit card number or PayPal account. Thus commerce is the core of online being; online identity has spending at its root. As the online identity takes on more importance, so does the spending that anchors it. Text and images can come from anywhere, be of anyone, can be doctored. But the identity linked to money is particular; it gets validated, it is expected to persist, it has credit riding on it.
The main purpose of social networks, once we are coaxed into building them for ourselves, is to guarantee us a place to display our consumption. The point is to discourage online anonymity, to get us invested in the notion of reputational capital. Rather than a proliferation of dummy email addresses and nicknames, we can lodge our real identity on the Internet and build up our connections to others, harvest the bounty of network effects for ourselves. We begin to publicize every purchase, to authenticate every choice by broadcasting it. We strengthen our communal ties with every singularized transaction. We will have reason to believe that everything we buy has an impact on our reputation, on how we are seen, on who we really are. We will respond accordingly, stylizing and designing the most mundane commodities so that they can elucidate some aspect of personality. The quaint idea that one might want to keep one’s consumption private, personal, will slip out of our collective memory. What do we gain by that? If we share, we contribute information, we add value to the network and we know that our voice has been aggregated. Our drop was added to the demographic data pool, but more important, our own personal archive has been enriched. Our identity has become deeper with the new piece of information, that can be cross-referenced, indexed, made accessible to search engines. We become more findable. We can begin to keep score of how often we’re found, how real we are to the world.
The idea that there could be any benefit to anonymity will be lost along with it. Anonymity will not be the guarantor of privacy; it will be solely the mark of non-personhood, of exclusion.
Rob would love to hear from you. Drop him a line at horninggenbub [at] gmail [dot] com.
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