November 25, 2019

Not hearing the oarsmen

Last week, Real Life published this essay by Ben Schneider about the “experience economy,” a concept premised on the idea that we can consume prepackaged experiences the same way we do goods and services. The more this idea takes hold, the more it can seem as though experiences should consist of discrete objects rather than a flow and that what is enjoyable about an experience is not its substance but its commodification — the fact that it can be made into an object, collectible, exchangeable. It is “memorable” (and pleasurable) because it is detachable. And our pleasure in them makes us complicit in the commodification process, structuring our demand for “experiences” that can be unilaterally amassed and consumed, from which the social dimension can be subtracted.

Social media allow us to reify more moments from our lives as “experiences” on that same model, as interchangeable units of self-documentation that can then be sequenced in any order in our memory or in algorithmically sorted feeds. Experiences don’t need to be part of extended narratives; they are “memorable” without necessarily being anchored in anything larger. They don’t need to be remembered as part of a signifying sequence; instead their memorability is indexed by how visceral they are in the moment, and how viral they are afterward.

In this, “experiences” resemble what Ryan Broderick describes in this Buzzfeed article as the Republicans’ approach to the Trump impeachment hearings. Rather than attempt to establish a plausible counternarrative to explain the president’s actions, they are staging discrete moments that can be consumed in isolation: “Each round of GOP questioning is not meant to interrogate the witnesses … but instead to create moments that can be flipped into Fox News segments, shared as bite-size Facebook posts, or dropped into 4chan threads.” These need not add up to anything as long as they go viral independently. The strategy is not to present a defense but to call into question the validity of any narrative — which is to say the “postmodern condition” as Lyotard described it is still with us.

The old principle that the acquisition of knowledge is indissociable from the training of minds, or even of individuals, is becoming obsolete and will become ever more so. The relationship of the suppliers and users of knowledge to the knowledge they supply and use is now tending, and will increasingly tend, to assume the form already taken by the relationship of commodity producers and consumers to the commodities they produce and consume — that is, the form of value. Knowledge is and will be produced in order to be sold, it is and will be consumed in order to be valorized in a new production: in both cases, the goal is exchange.

What Lyotard is saying here about knowledge can also be applied to “experiences” in their commodified form. Experiences are produced to be sold; they are made to facilitate exchange rather than elaborate a life story. The “experience economy” has induced us to take the same anti-narrative approach to our own lives, “creating moments that can be flipped into … Facebook posts.” With perfect irony, social media platforms encourage us to post these moments to “our Story” to reinscribe them in their ephemerality.

When experiences (or knowledge) are produced to be consumed, they are put entirely in service of enjoyment in the moment. They no longer seek to represent the truth or facilitate personal growth or life progress. It’s tempting to label the enjoyment of such “experiences” as phony, indicative of false consciousness: People subjectively believe they are enjoying themselves, but objectively, from a more collective point of view, they are reproducing their own misery. Just because you “engage” with something more, that should not be taken to mean that you enjoy it. Retweets are not endorsements.

The “false consciousness” line of argument had fallen into disrepute in the wake of “poptimism” and a pseudo-democratic leveling of popular culture. Though “hydraulic” theories of consumer manipulation are making a comeback in the critiques of algorithmic recommendations and the culture they yield, it is still generally more fashionable to argue (as I have at times) that there are no guilty pleasures, taste is class snobbery, and that no consumer choices can be aesthetically wrong. But this concedes that “consumption of commodities” is the only possible form experience can now take. I find this passage from conclusion of Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious helpful in clarifying the logic and stakes of “false consciousness“ arguments. It suggests that these arguments are not trying to claim that some thoughts or pleasures are “wrong” or “ideological,” needing to be fixed by replacing them with “truth.” Rather, they emphasize the incontrovertible point that the self is always “nonidentical” with itself. We don’t always what we want or what we are doing or why; we are caught in continuous processes of trying to figure it out.

Even the Freudian model of the unconscious … is everywhere subverted by the neo-Freudian nostalgia for some ultimate moment of cure, in which the dynamics of the unconscious proper rise to the light of day and of consciousness and are somehow “integrated” in an active lucidity about ourselves and the determinations of our desires and our behavior. But the cure in that sense is a myth, as is the equivalent mirage within a Marxian ideological analysis: namely, the vision of a moment in which the individual subject would be somehow fully conscious of his or her determination by class and would be able to square the circle of ideological conditioning by sheer lucidity and the taking of thought. But in the Marxian system, only a collective unity — whether that of a particular class, the proletariat, or of its “organ of consciousness,” the revolutionary party — can achieve this transparency; the individual subject is always positioned within the social totality (and this is the sense of Althusser’s insistence on the permanence of ideology).

What this … means in practice is that the dialectical reversal must always involve a painful “decentering” of the consciousness of the individual subject, whom it confronts with a determination (whether of the Freudian or the political unconscious) that must necessarily be felt as extrinsic or external to conscious experience. It would be a mistake to think that anyone ever really learns to live with this ideological “Copernican revolution,” any more than the most lucid subjects of psychoanalysis ever really achieve the habit of lucidity and self-knowledge; the approach to the Real is at best fitful, the retreat from it into this or that form of intellectual comfort perpetual.

You can’t suddenly realize your class position, your ideology, or the content of your unconscious and thereby transcend or eliminate them. We never get rid of the unconscious, or the way ideology mediates reality to us and makes it comprehensible. We never get to identify our class position and thereby reject it or its implications. The most powerful fantasy in The Matrix is the red pill, not the blue pill: The idea that you can ever experience the real unmediated is far more fantastical than living in a particularly lush mediated dream world.

Accordingly, the responsibility to “decenter ourselves” never ends, because the structure of consciousness is always working behind our backs to recenter our individualistic view, or individualistic pleasures and feelings. Pleasure needs to be regarded as suspicious even as we allow ourselves to enjoy it, because it speaks of how we’ve been conditioned to tolerate the status quo and become complicit in it. If we take pleasure in what we think is resistance, it might be a good idea to consider whether that resistance is complicity in disguise. There are no guilty pleasures because all pleasures are guilty.

From another perspective, that could be taken as the mission statement of the experience economy: Assure that all experiences are no more than guilty pleasures. The phrase “experience economy” was coined in 1998 by business consultants Joseph Pine and James Gilmore, who hoped to convince retailers to turn their stores into stages (or platforms, if you will) where visitors could participate in experiences. This visitor engagement would translate into sales and brand equity; shoppers would become de facto workers promoting the brand by taking seriously the idea that it could function like a tourist destination. That ideal of brand participation has since mostly migrated to online platforms, where it informs influencer culture and the logic of “sharing” life experiences in a promotional mode.

Not coincidentally, Pine and Gilmore would go on to write a book about “authenticity,” a name we’ve apparently settled on to describe the value of the commodified experiences they encouraged. (A few years ago, I wrote up some notes on that book here.) Prepackaged experiences inherently lack many of the qualities traditionally associated with “authenticity”: They are not intrinsically personal, spontaneous, or disinterested. They are certainly not inalienable. But Pine and Gilmore boldly redefine authenticity as essentially the use value of the commodified experience. To grasp at authenticity, one must consume experiences; authenticity stems from economic exchange rather than being voided by it. As this idea caught on, “selling out” became an impossibility, as it became a prerequisite for being “true to yourself.”

By this same logic, the “self” becomes a commodified experience. It doesn’t initiate experiences or even experience them phenomenologically; instead it emerges at the end as the result of amassing and arranging experience commodities — curating them into a legible personality. This basically evacuates the idea of experience or selfhood as consciousness and replaces it with objectified forms. Subjectivity, our continuous consciousness of ourselves from moment to moment is detached from our selfhood, which we only know when it is presented to us in the “authentic reproductions” we co-create with products, brands, and platforms. That sounds like it should be a bad thing. But it might also serve as a way of reframing our intrinsic false consciousness by insisting there is nothing we can be false to.

The danger of experiences is not that they will be inauthentic but that they won’t be, and they will confront us with our limitations, our inadequacy and mortality. Jameson, in Late Marxism, notes that Adorno used Marcel Proust as a kind of shorthand for “the peculiar property of experience never to be fully lived for the first time but only in its re-experience: something which both affirms and denies all at once the possibility of experience to be fully gratifying.” With these kinds of experiences, the “fear of missing out” becomes self-fulfilling, because we only can tolerate them as memories; while they are happening, we are overwhelmed with the sense that our hopes and expectations have not prepared us for enjoyment but disillusionment. Proust’s narrator, for instance, frequently spends pages attaching elaborate fantasies to the names of things, only to be disconcerted when he encounters these things not as names but experiences. When the experiences recede into memory and become representations again, they can become like the names once more, symbols for a cluster of personal associations and fantasies rather than destabilizing encounters with social realities.

For Adorno, the simultaneous affirmation and denial of gratification in aesthetic experience redeems its political potential, affords an escape from the false consciousness administered by the “culture industry.” Jameson quotes a passage from Negative Dialectics where Adorno describes metaphysical experience in terms of Proust’shappiness of the naming of villages such as Otterbach, Watterbach, Reuental, or Monbrunn. You have the feeling that if you ever go there, you will reach fulfillment, as though that really existed. Once you go, however, that promise retreats into the distance like a rainbow. Yet you’re not really disappointed; rather, you have the feeling that you can’t see it now because you’re standing too close.”

Disappointment, on this view, doesn’t erase the possibility of eventual satisfaction but instead extends it, sustains it, because satisfaction itself (under the shadow of death) is only possible as an idea, a dream, an aspiration. Adorno, Jameson notes, “nowhere touches the outer limits of metaphysical speculation with so transcendental a formulation … as in the affirmation of happiness as a ‘waiting in vain,’ a promesse de bonheur.” Jameson also suggests this is indistinguishable from despair.

The function of the experience economy (as the culture industry’s cutting edge) is to extract “experience” from this dialectic altogether. It seems to offer exchangeable experiences without the bother of a process of anticipation and disillusionment. You don’t need to work up a context for these experiences to enjoy them (let alone be disappointed by them) — that is what is being paid for. The market for experience and the media for vending them are all-purpose contexts. Instagrammable installations, for instance, replace the effort of anticipation with a kind of immediate immersiveness that presents itself as automatically photographable, an environment into which one can insert oneself without any friction other than waiting your turn. They, like all tourist traps, promise experiences so vivid, so branded, so pre-documented, so reified, that you don’t have to worry about their essence or meaning eluding anyone. They instantly convey that you were willing to participate in a spectacle whose harmlessness assures its social approval, you were willing to reinscribe its popularity, which has no basis in anything other than that collective willingness to share in it.

These experiences require no disillusionment or despair; they don’t require being remembered later. They are not meant to be memorable, but are “memorable” — they signify the idea of memorableness without inciting any of the pain that actual memories generate, the sense of distance, nostalgia, lostness, and inescapable mortality. And even if these ersatz experiences are disappointing, they are no different from “real” experiences, only the disappointment stings less and can readily be ironized and redeemed in “post-touristic” fashion. The Hard Rock Cafe was so stupid that it was awesome! If all experiences are incomplete and disappointing in the moment and none are fully gratifying, why not opt for the ones that at least operate like currency and not memento mori?

In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno and Horkheimer provide an allegorical reading of the Sirens episode in the Odyssey to demonstrate “the entanglement of myth, domination, and labor” and the function of art in their relationship. Whoever hears the Sirens song is doomed to death, so Odysseus plugs the oarsmen’s ears with wax while having himself tied to the mast.

What Odysseus hears is without consequence for him; he is able only to nod his head as a sign to be set free from his bonds; but it is too late; his men, who do not listen, know only the song’s danger but nothing of its beauty, and leave him at the mast in order to save him and themselves. They reproduce the oppressor’s life together with their own, and the oppressor is no longer able to escape his social role… The prisoner is present at a concert, an inactive eavesdropper like later concertgoers, and his spirited call for liberation fades like applause.

The worker-oarsmen are consigned to manual labor with no experience of art’s temptation, while the bourgeoisie can know art only by resisting it, by rendering themselves incapable of being freed by it in advance. Jameson elaborates on this reading, arguing that the episode demonstrates “the sheer guilt of Art itself in a class society, art as luxury and class privilege.” The experience economy addresses this guilt; it is the wax in our ears that sounds like music.