The fact that graduate school seemed to me a cult probably says more about me and my inability to view education as anything other than “self-actualization” and personal growth. I wasn’t always discouraged from this view, but neither did I have it forced upon me. I never abstracted myself from the schooling process and would not accept it as simply a program of professionalization and preferential networking. I chose to cling instead to an impression of the university as a place obscurely designed specifically to aggrandize my ego. I was thus made uncomfortable when any larger mission would come into view.
What’s thrilling in “I’ve got two lovers and I ain’t ashamed” is the way that multiple, complicated, ambivalent desires are acknowledged and thereby simplified, naturalized. It extends the promise that simply being honest about the feelings could resolve them into the complacency that Wells so adeptly conveys with her voice. For that moment, you forget that this sort of honesty is not especially welcome, and it certainly doesn’t simplify anything, no matter how natural it may feel.
Starbuck’s “Moonlight Feels Right” encapsulates an entire generation staring down adulthood, waiting to see if it would blink, if it would reveal some gaps in which a sense of freedom could be retained in the face of its mounting sense of responsibility and disillusionment.
The real shortcoming of The Parallax View, as I see it, comes in the final pages, wherein Žižek, having explicated his theory, waxes prescriptive, encouraging his readers to adopt what can only be described as an ascesis of imitatio Bartlebly. Bartleby, the titular character of Herman Melville’s immortal tale, is the pioneering figure of what Žižek deems is the most effective subjective positionality of resistance. The so-called “Bartleby-parallax” manages to avoid being caught up in the Hegelian pseudo-negations of counterhegemonic practices (Oh, the ever elusive Hegelian “negation of the negation!”). And we must, Žižek warns, be as resistant to these pseudo-negations in our “preferring-not-to’s” as to the hegemonic ills the former are intended to redress — I prefer not to eat factory-farmed, adulterated, genetically modified food; I prefer not to purchase food from an organic farming co-operative. Because not to do so and to remain, rather, in the old dialectic of resorting to alternatives to dismaying hegemony, is to remain ensnared in the Foucauldian circuits of power that result in the eternal recursion and reinscription of prevailing sociopolitical relations. The parallactic Bartleby, however, disrupts the workings of ideological apparatuses by cultivating an inner disposition of refusal until, according to Žižek, there opens up possibilities which are not determined by the dialectic.
I think we begin to see why the Federal Reserve has devoted itself to propping up the financial sector at the taxpayers’ expense. And I think that it has to do at least in part with the ideology behind the “ownership society,” which to my mind is simply a permutation of the ideology of consumer society in general. This ideology imposes greater conditions on full participation in society than simply having been born or naturalized in the United States, paying taxes, and avoiding brushes with the Law. It’s similar to when President Bush exhorted citizens shortly after 9/11 to express their patriotism by shopping: participation in civic life has been conflated with participation in the economy. This is an exceedingly foreboding development from political point of view, because it implies that citizenship is something you must purchase, not something that belongs to you by natural right. Certainly a homeless person sleeping in the park theoretically enjoys the same rights as a McMansion owning middle manager, but the elimination of welfare benefits since the Reagan years betrays a collective political attitude far different than the one we publicly pay lip service to. Anything impeding one’s attainment of middle-class status is seen as somehow undemocratic, un-American, and believing this plays right into politicians’ hands. Republican supply-siders, for instance, believe that high marginal tax rates somehow limits the average persons’ success. And out goes the baby with the bath water in the form of disintegrating infrastructure, budget-starved entitlements, and, most importantly, regulations meant to curb excesses and thus mitigate risk. So, as less risk is spread broadly across society, more of it falls on the individual, which in turn affects the premium attached to middle-class security.
The hipster, then, as the not me, the objet petit a, is a sort of double who “enters through the out door” and allows the hipster to maintain the image of his own individuality, but only as the dislocated site of imagined and imaginary resistance. The taint of hipster is the vehicle of this resistance that, through the magic of surplus value, contains within itself the voiceless ejecta of the Lumpenproletariat, as seen through the gaze of the bourgeoisie. Insofar as this gaze is capable of forgetting history, it transmutes antagonism into agonism. That is, liberation is presented, or rather presents itself, as both the head and the tail (but not the body!) of ouroboros, who must now be shackled, but not “to” itself or its own body.
It’s no secret that Generation Bubble’s political slant tilts to the left. Which is as it should be, I believe most days. But like any idealist, I suffer the occasional dark night of the soul. At such times I’m reminded of some words of Samuel Johnson’s. “None of the cruelties exercised by wealth and power upon indigence and dependence is more mischievous in its consequences, or more frequently practised with wanton negligence,” Johnson wrote, “than the encouragement of expectations which are never to be gratified, and the elation and depression of the heart by needless vicissitudes of hope and disappointment.” It is in the spirit of Dr. Johnson’s maxim that I present the following three theses.
Contemporary capitalism seeks to make us all into rabid collectors, constantly crossing off items of a list we think we’ve devised but is actually just an edit of a list dictated by retailers to suit their own ends. Overall, consumption goods, like labor in the production process, become somewhat generic; demand becomes perfectly fungible, ready to soak up the ever-increasing amount of stuff that will be dumped on the market as capitalist production necessarily expands.
Whether Dodds and Danforth’s hedonometer proves boffo or bunk remains to be seen. It does, however, throw a penetrating light on present circumstances. It reveals an unsettling general trend toward the conversion of the social sphere into a mis en scène of manipulation — a giant Skinner box of subtle complexity and variety, but a Skinner box nonetheless.
If these industries can’t hold the line as they’d like against peer-to-peer poachers, they may just have discard their traditional business model for one more robust to the changes which convulse culture almost daily. They might just have to entertain a business model organized around the price point of “free.”