work in progress in social theory and cultural sociology

Consumer eccentricity and subjectivity fetish

As I am gearing up to re-working my paper on Plessner’s notion of eccentricity and Campbell’s analysis of romantic consumer selfhood I notice that a reference to Sennett’s Fall of Public Man is not quite contemporary enough to highlight the concerns about the dissolution from ceremonial division of (mostly public) roles and the (mostly private) person behind the mask of the roles (which appears as the authentic subjectivity behind and constrained by the roles – but in fact is the realisation of an opportunity afforded by the existence as mask-wearer, role-performer).

The existence online, the more or less public display of authentic selfhood in social networking sites which – as Daniel Smith shows – culminates in the public existence of the celebrity vlogger: a persona who seems to exist, entirely, as presented and constructed for his or her audience on YouTube and whose (social as much as commercial) value is determined by the number of hits and subscribers.

My response to the concerns (not the phenomenon itself) around this consumer virtuality as de-civilisation and collapse of the difference between role and person was as follows:

Ceremonial roles are insufficient in an individualistic culture – they remain necessary! – there is a shift to prestige in a trivialised artistic, creative existence: ‘The rigid masks of an arbitrary and interchangeable office, which imparts to the most different personalities the same aura, gives way here to a counter-picture appearing in the unique work brought to permanent form of the person who created it.’ (Plessner 1999: 141). Such objectification (e.g. as a facebook entry) necessarily creates a distance – and hence establishes a subject that is not to be defined by the sum of their performances. The struggle for prestige as “struggle for a true face” hence still constitutes an “unrealisation” – the true face just as another role. This is not a repetition of the medieval situation where “man never was alone” – it is a performance of a private self that is detached from and thereby constitutes a subjectivity ‘behind’ the private self, thereby realising even further the potential that lies in the anthropologically given eccentric positionality. This implies a higher degree of integration of self in style, not as alternately bemoaned and celebrated, dissolution into “multiple personalities”.

But of course the potential loss of eccentricity is not to be dismissed out of hand. A well constructed authentic selfhood nowadays can be as important as functional role-specific capabilities. The presentation of individual selfhood in social media can have economic consequences when employers check applicants’ or current staff’s Facebook pages. Political scandals that thrive on the erosion of privacy – such as the MPs expenses claims scandal in the UK 2009 – are further signs of such a collapse of the separation of the mask of the role performer and the performer as a person (Thompson 2011). It can be argued that it is the importance of this difference as argued by Helmuth Plessner that makes it a matter of concern for so many. As Thompson (2011: 64) puts it:

For it is precisely because we continue to value this distinction, precisely because what is made public and kept private really does matter to people, that the blurring of the boundaries has become the source of such intense concern. The ability of individuals to exercise control over the territories of the self and to restrict access by others is constantly challenged and in some contexts  compromised, by the capacity of others to avail themselves of new means – technological, political and legal – to gain access, acquire information, exploit it for their own ends and, on some occasions, make it public. the shifting boundaries between public and private life become a new battleground in modern societies, a contested terrain where individuals and organizations wage a new kind of information war, using whatever means they have at their disposal to acquire information about others and to control information about themselves, often struggling to cope with changes they did not foresee and agents whose intentions they did not understand, a terrain where the established relations of power can be disrupted, lives damaged and reputations sometimes lost.

Something is at stake here – personal autonomy. The paradox of individualism: that being different is to be socially recognised (Popitz 1987: 642), seems to move from recognition of the fact of difference as such to recognition of a specific, desirable difference. While postmodern writers used to speculate about the coming of a multiple personality as norm, the danger here is that we are witnessing a re-centring of the subject around the advertised personality performance. A wide consensus in exists not necessarily among students of consumer society, but among the liberal media analysts that there is a cult of the self that seeks expression in consumption and now primarily in social media. Bauman condenses this view to a formula of commodification of subjectivity.

‘“Subjectivity” in the society of consumers, just as “commodity” in the society of producers, is (to use Bruno Latour’s felicitous concept) a faitishe – a thoroughly human product elevated to the rank of superhuman authority through forgetting or rendering irrelevant its human, all too human origins, together with the string of human actions that led to its appearance and was the sine qua non condition of that appearance. In the case of the commodity in the society of producers, it was the act of buying and the labour capacity of producers that, by endowing it with market value, made the product of labour into a commodity – in a way not visible in (and hidden by) the appearance of an autonomous interaction of commodities. In the case of subjectivity in the society of consumers, it is the turn of the buying and selling of the tokens deployed in the construction of identity – the allegedly public expression of the “self” which is in fact Jean Baudrillard’s “simulacrum”, substituting “representation” for what it is assumed to represent – to be effaced from the appearance of the final product.’ (Baumann 2007: 14f.)

Now it is important to insist that this idea of the subjectivity fetish is overstated in the same way in which, at least in the Baudrillard-informed reading, that of the commodity fetish is. As Rosen (1996) has forcefully argued, the interpretation of the commodity fetish as a complete and inevitable distortion in which people cannot see that commodities are products of human labour is just absurd. Only very deluded individuals do not know such things as that clothes are made in factories (and most likely by underpaid workers in Bangladesh, India, Turkey etc.). And even less does production disappear as completely as suggested by Baudrillard. Similarly, I would argue, the commodification of subjectivity may well be a fact (or rather: an apt metaphor), but that does not mean that the denizen of the world of material and virtual consumer goods falls for the illusion of authenticity of the selfhood on display. To the contrary: the general suspicion is that people are not really as they present themselves on Facebook. Facebook is not the Matrix.

The artistic performance of individuality as a role in itself, the aesthetisation of self in the pursuit of a consistent style still is a role performance, be it one twice removed. The self itself becomes a mask – and a mask affords the non-identity of its wearer. Of course – as Plessner says, this is only an opportunity and the wearer does not need to realise this potential. So just as there indeed were and are one-dimensional persons who manage to achieve nigh complete identity with the ceremonial roles they perform, so there will be an performer who is not identical with the performed, exceeds the personality on display and takes incommensurability to a new level.

If the individuality/subjectivity that exceeds one’s roles is transformed into something that is displayed rather than something that is lived out in the retreat of a Habermasian Lebenswelt, then the question emerges if not a new level of agency behind that performed individuality role which now has become a subject to recognition. The person maintaining their Facebook profile from their bedroom or kitchen table will carefully control what kind of information about their everyday activities makes it onto the Wall or is tweeted away. Just as the diaries of 19th century novelists must not be mistaken as revelation of unfiltered private life because the authors wrote them with posthumous publication in mind, so of course it is only the not quite savvy user of such sites who will fail to make a difference between the person typing away and the person presented online. And thus, of course, there is now a much wider awareness that authentic subjectivity is produced rather than a natural given to be expressed. The difference between the presented/represented and the presentation/representation remains – and it is not at the cost of the former. Baumann suggests just that (and expresses a common sentiment):

‘In the carnivalesque game of identities, offline socializing is revealed for what it in fact is in the world of consumers: a rather cumbersome and not particularly enjoyable burden, tolerated and suffered because unavoidable, since recognition of the chosen identity needs to be achieved in long and possibly interminable effort – with all the risks of bluffs being called or imputed which face-to-face encounters necessarily entail. Cutting off that burdensome aspect of the recognition battles is, arguably, the most attractive asset of the internet masquerade and confidence game. The “community” of internauts seeking substitute recognition does not require the chore of socializing and is thereby relatively free from risk, that notorious and widely feared bane of the offline battles for recognition.’ (Bauman 2007: 115)

This of course is highly contestable – the prediction of a society of loners glued to the screen has not materialised and the myriad of (social-network induced) rendezvous, raves, riots and revolutions indicates that face-to-face is a thing of the past.

Throughout the anthropological fact of eccentricity remains – it is impossible to capture or trap human subjectivity for long. As the collapse of totalitarianism has shown, “greedy” sociality cannot even be enforced for very long even with the most violent and ruthless means. And it can also not be achieved through entrapping authentic expression in a consumer society. The eccentric consumer moves behind the publicised private persona. The persona becomes a mask in its own right (but a more elaborate one) and the subject exceeds their social existence even further. As Simmel emphasises: every socialisation produces a way in which the members of society is not socialised, beyond society – and the way that they are not socialised co-determines the way they are socialised  (Simmel 1992: 51).

Baumann, Zygmunt (2007): Consuming Life, Cambridge: Polity

Popitz, Heinrich (1987): ‚Autoritätsbedürfnisse: Der Wandel der sozialen Subjektivität‘, in: Kölner Zeitschrift für Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie, Vol.39, pp.633-47.

Rosen, Michael (1996) On Voluntary Servitude. Cambridge: Polity.

Simmel, Georg (1992): Soziologie, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp 1992

Thompson, John B. (2011): ‘Shifting Boundaries of Public and Private Life’, in: Theory, Culture & Society, Vol.28, No.4, pp.49-70

PS (21st September 2011)

The slightly uncouth translation of Simmel’s statement on the non-sociality within the social in the AJS has:

‘Another category under which men (Subjecte) view themselves  and one another, in order that, so formed, they may produce empirical society, may be formulated in the seemingly trivial theorem: – Each element of a group is not a societary part, but beyond that something else. That fact operates as social apriori in so far as the part of the individual which is not turned toward the group, or is not dissolved in it, does not lie simply without meaning by the side of his socially significant phase, is not a something external to the group, for which it nolens volens affords space; but the fact that the individual, with respect to certain sides of his personality, is not an element of the group, constitutes the positive condition for the fact that he is such a member in other aspects of his being. In other words, the sort of his socialized-being’ (Simmel 1910: 381)

Simmel, Georg (1910): ‘How is Society Possible?’ , in: American Journal of Sociology, Vol.16, No.3, pp.372-391

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