In my theory of postmodern consumer culture, I have made use of Claude Lévi-Strauss’ ‘science of the concrete’. The theory states that humans are very deceptive upon observation. What can look like worshipping trees, plants, and rocks, turns out to be an elaborate existential system to which one learns how to conceptualise the world and act within it, constantly working within an established system of concepts which are tied to practices which created them. Today, what may look like utopian ideals sold in exchange for money in reality turns out to be a way of constructing a cosmology to act within, and in so doing, establish relations between persons and material objects. Clothing was a good example, I thought, initially because upon reading Simmel’s text: it seemed that the ability to adorn oneself to firstly establish contiguity with prevailing aesthetic judgements also gave witness to a desire to impress and guide others to one’s one inclinations. This is a sociological example of what Rousseau described as the outcome of ‘inequality’:
“man must now, therefore, have been perpetually employed in getting others to interest themselves in his lot, and in making them, apparently, at least, if not really, find their advantage in promoting his own.” (‘Discourse on Inequality’, (Everyman’s Library, 1946, p.202).
This Rousseauian view of consumption as the “inseparable attendants of growing inequality” (p.203), I interpreted as involving something much more subtle in contemporary social life. It seemed less that people were involved in this vertiginous drive to outdo each other for material advantage, but more concerned with seeming-to-be worthy of something much more intimate: recognition every single human existence. However I felt that sociological wisdom on this matter of “commodity aesthetics” was far, so very far, from the mark. Both Baudrillard, in his ‘Symbolic Exchange and Death’ and Haug, in his ‘Critique of Commodity Aesthetics’, seem to grant the laws of fashion (and also ‘all’ commodities raised to the level of a sign over abstract exchange value) with an ability to change aspect of the human condition. It is as if the wretched reach of Monsieur le Capital had a sickle and black hood, casting shadows over aspects of Leben [life], dissolving the authentic nature of human being. All ironic twists of post-structuralism seem to be subject to this fundamental belief that, behind capital, lies a true human essence (somehow espoused by Marx) which only spectacle diminishes, and it is such illusions of fashion as embodying sexuality or sophistication, cashier of cool, supremely endowing the bearer [trager] with sartorial abilities to perform such things more fanciful than the imagination.
Yet therein lies a truth with all such pessimistic and radical critique of aesthetics as the new critique of political economy; it is not however based on the level of emancipation, or critical theoretical negative dialectics – the exact point of all this ‘fashion is capital, but also sexuality, also sex, also the body, also death of (possible) identities’ (see Baudrillard, SE&D, p.97-98) is that it is being both a consumer of this way of adorning, is also a claim to being recognised as the adornment. This was my way of suggesting that lest an alienated web of real human relations behind the torment of capital’s latching onto real human being, it was that the social relations to which the individual becomes recognised is mediated through the cognitive categories which capital personifies (just as Marx’s labourer brings his commodities to market thereby realising his exchange value, and thereby actualising himself as a producer of commodities: instead of directly satisfying a need he goes round the houses). So too with our postmodern consumers.
My claim to this theory – that commodity aesthetics was less about illusions of cognition, more about a social process of recognition – was confirmed when I set about trying to find ethnographic from friends: I asked them to tell me stories about cinema trips and nothing came out to confirm my points. I asked them to tell me about men who had chatted them up and the stories were ample with the science of the hyper-concrete employed for a claim to recognition. The consumption of cinema and television is an individual act (even if watched with others); the space of real life is where the personifications of capital live (as Marx knew full well) – I should have known!!! With these stories of men using lines from films I got very excited and started to document these down. Late one night I received a text message: it was one of my interviewee’s informing me that two gentlemen in a bar had performed a ritual first seen on CBS sitcom ‘How I Met Your Mother’, with verbatim dialogue and replica clothing, a carbon-copy of the television screen. I was so amazed of the lengths that these gentlemen went through that it was almost a shame that the poor girls they did it too had boyfriends and couldn’t complete the ritual ‘picking up woman in a bar’ (the magic of the dance to bring about sex would have only strengthened and reinforced its legitimacy as magical practice). Yet the theory had stood up against Popperian falsification and I wrote it up. But I left out (due to lack of data) what a theory of mis-recognition might be (as I was too concerned with the recession as ‘spiritual crisis’ to bother with this aspect of the fetish of commodity aesthetics). I now have some data … but it is not about ‘lines’, ‘fronts’ and Goffmanian categories. It involves commodity aesthetics as mythical characters: celebrities as the embodiment of (Simmellian) social forms (like ‘the stranger’, ‘the nobility’, ‘the poor’, ‘the miser’, ‘the spendthrift’, etc.). What are these myths used for … ?
Myths are good for resolving social contradictions, so said Lévi-Strauss.
Today we live in a world where identity floats free. It seems the only way to paradoxically solve this problem of human concreteness, the fact that existing in the world as a constant entity in the face of others is actually a treat to the vapidity and rapidity of our cognitive processes, is to make the concrete ephemeral. If the world is thought of as a vast network of fleeting moments of existence (in the tv screen, silver screen and fashion and fad), the fact that humans do not die for at least (on average) 80 years, and the fact that they inhabit those very fleeting forms as purveyors of the spectacles, (for we assume the image of spectacle in fashion, in bodily hexis, in ways of associating ourselves in human world of identity), we become instances of servitude to the spectacle. So it is that we can be personifications of myths to others: this is why “who does he remind me of” becomes so easily affixed to the most trivial, partial and ultimately disquieting aspects of human concreteness. That one can go from being three cubic feet of bone and blood and meat to being inhabiting a spectral identity attributed to oneself from another leads one to be recognised as ‘being-like’.
This moment of recognition is the concrete human moment of the science of the hyper-concrete. The celebrity ideal floats around in people’s minds all day, affixing itself to whomever takes on the metonymical (or ‘partial-object’ to use Freudian speak) feature of the celebrity – the person who dresses as ‘The Doctor’ from DoctorWho dons the bow-tie and the tweed jacket as the metonyms of the character portrayed in the television show. But as Hegel and Marx knew, recognition is finds its satisfaction in another, in acknowledgement, so ego knows himself through alter confirming the status of ego-as-ego (recall Marx’s famous footnote in Capital where ‘Paul knows himself through Peter’). But of course, Peter can confirm Paul as not-Paul just as easily through attributing aspects of Luke to him. In his theory of exchange-value Marx saw it as a one-to-one relationship: the Bible as worth £2 is realised in the other embodiment of money which confronts it, Whiskey as worth £9. So this is the problem of mis-recognition: when the embodiment of £2 becomes seen as the embodiment of £1 … (see the passage where Marx says “the magnitudes vary continually, independently of the will, foreknowledge, and actions of exchangers” in Capital).
So too with people who adopt a view of themselves as A but becomes recognised as not-A, (as being attributed B, or C, or D, or any one of the various signs in the series of fashions on the rack, or celebrities in public consciousness). Imagine my surprise when I was told that I was not who I wanted to project, says the misrecognised. This is the identity politics which individuals have to endure if they are to play the game of consumerism, and we all do… you can change the way humans get recognised (as Marx knew, and before him Hegel, and before him Rousseau, and before him Mandeville (and no one before him because Aristotle got it wrong)), but you cannot change the way humans think – as Lévi-Strauss knew (and John Searle knows now).
UPDATE: 18th Oct. 00:10am.
The Social Network: a (sociological) review
Seeing ‘The Social Network’ solved a sociological problem for studies of commodity fetishism and contemporary commodity aesthetics: it is definitive proof that the Situationist, Post-Marxist, Postmodernist theories of the commodity and the ‘society of the spectacle’ are erroneous. People don’t buy in order to take into, extend their being, connect with dreams, linked up day-dreams with reality: they buy because they already are (and always will be … what, you ask: human)!!
David Fincher’s new film is basically a remake of Fight Club: it only happens if a girl starts it, not gets caught up in it. Marla Singer is the reason fight club happens. Erica Albright is the Marla Singer character in ‘The Social Network’: causing the creation of facebook is her narrative role… that she becomes the concrete basis of the site is however not really the issue. That she is the ethos of facebook is exactly the point: everyone wants to be liked. We all psychologically require recognition; otherwise humans are no-thing. That the whole reason for facebook and the fact that the site didn’t need advertising to be what it was, is it was the absent body of fashion itself. This is exactly the point of contemporary capitalism: people live lives, they don’t buy in order to be. They are in order to buy: facebook is not the virtual place of human existence which negates human connection: it’s the other way round. That people interact on it “as if it were human interaction ”is exactly its fetishized function. The cunning of reason is that humans do not stop interacting. That they now can interact on a digital, virtual plane, as an extension of and in causal connection to their own (so-called) real lives is exactly the genius of facebook: it does what everyone already was doing; only it did it as fashion does it, by changing the dress in the most arbitrary way that it made itself viable as a novelty, a nominal shift in ongoing human interactions. I don’t see any problem with it. It is a truly genius venture: selling people what they already had, I don’t know if anyone has ever done that before!
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