March 8, 2019

To Deny Oneself Is a Luxury

When critiquing social media, I sometimes fall into the trap of assuming that tech companies want to dictate our behavior through some combination of surveillance and algorithmic control, affording merely illusory forms of participation, expression, and agency that have the actual effect of circumscribing them. This would have its apotheosis in a behaviorist nightmare world where predictive analytics have become so thorough and precise that we exist in a state of pure passivity, conditioned to want only what is set before us once we hear the Pavlovian bells.

But in such a world, surveillance would have, in a sense, abolished itself: Nobody would be capable of doing anything unanticipated, so there would be nothing new to capture, no new data to process, no sources of growth for the “surveillance capitalists.” What I was trying to suggest in last week’s column is that the role of surveillance and ever more intensive monitoring is not to put people into smaller cages but to recast more and more aspects of our lives as speculative opportunities, for ourselves and for other people. That is, our identity is not pinned down and prescribed by this process; instead identity is intensively subdivided into more and more components, each of which is only ever probable — a likelihood, a risk, a correlation — and that probability is fluctuating all the time. Surveillance performs this subdividing work and supplies the data that can allow for the constant recalculation of these probabilities, allowing for various bets on us or investments in us. This kind of monitoring doesn’t single individuals out as subjects of interest, but rather aggregates people’s data to make categorical targeting and risk assessment more fungible — individuals can be sorted in and out of various categories and demographics interchangeably or simultaneously as particular sorts of audiences are sought and paid for.

Cultural theorist Michel Feher, in “Self-Appreciation; or, The Aspirations of Human Capital,” describes this as a specifically neoliberal subjectivity: regarding oneself as human capital that seeks to valorize itself. Under neoliberalism, subjects see themselves as a “portfolio composed by their behaviors” whose value they work to constantly improve, as though they were securities in a market. But we can’t actually “sell” these, the way that workers, under a different interpretation of political economy, can be seen as selling their labor power. We can only try to act in ways that enhance their assessed value in the present moment. Feher insists that as neoliberal subjects, “our main purpose is not so much to profit from our accumulated potential as to constantly value or appreciate ourselves — or at least prevent our own depreciation.” This, he claims, plays out as a preoccupation with “self-esteem.” To facilitate and administer this kind of subjectivity, means must be deployed to allow people to assess themselves by market-like mechanisms, and social control can take the form of moving these various markets. “The neoliberal art of government,” Feher argues, “is precisely about playing the human capital market, about betting for or against certain behaviors, sentiments, and lifestyles to shape the portfolios of conducts that the governed are taken to be.”

In Portfolio Society, Ivan Ascher makes a similar argument, with a darker spin: Neoliberal subjects are those “who are to varying degrees compelled by necessity to make promises and thereby make their probability available to others for gambling purposes.” That is, people must take on various forms of debt in order to be credibly rated — they have social standing (or “social credit”) only to the degree that they pass through perpetual cycles of indebtedness. Ultimately this is how we are measured, and self-esteem follows from rather than precedes this evaluation. From this perspective, we don’t accrue human capital as an increasing amount of property, we manage human capital as a set of investments that ground our subjectivity in the modality of risk management. That is to say, “human capital” posits not having some kind of money in the bank but always being overleveraged to make the investments in oneself that one feels compelled to make to have “social credit.”

Eugene Wei’s essay about “Status as a Service” does an effective job explaining how social media platforms have become part of the infrastructure for neoliberal subjects to assess themselves in terms of what Wei calls their “social capital” (rather than “social credit”), and for those subjects to be governed through various tweaks to the platforms’ interfaces, metrics, and affordances.  But it is also an illustration of how the neoliberal social infrastructure is naturalized, how its particular sort of subjectivity and set of incentives begin to presented as inherent truths about human beings. Wei begins by declaring as a first principle that “people are status-seeking monkeys” — i.e. it is a fundamental and not a conditioned trait, a primitive animalistic behavior that shapes sociality. From this view, the desire for status in particular forms and within particular hierarchies is not structured by social conditions but dictates them, a move which immediately obscures the way neoliberal governmentality works and renders it immutable. This desire for status is then biologized; Wei points to the “a jolt of dopamine from the recognition that comes from contributing to the world at large” to explain why people are motivated to build their reputation on platforms.

Once you have essentialized status competition as fundamental human behavior, the best you can do is figure out ways to capitalize on that. To that end, Wei offers some business-oriented analysis of how social media platforms have succeeded or failed at catering to this basic human desire to “seek out the most efficient path to maximizing social capital.” This analysis is often astute but also frustrating: Wei often points out how platforms structure users’ incentives and gets them to honor the particular scoreboard the platforms’ have erected, but then falls back to the shrugging truism that people just love playing games and platforms are just catering to an inherent need.

But the logic of social capital imposes the incentive to seek status; it doesn’t merely describe it. I found Feher and Ascher’s approach helpful for moving beyond that to look at the stakes in structuring human “needs” that way. Which reminds me of Baudrillard’s “The Ideological Genesis of Needs,” where he systematically rejects any “need” as fundamental, up to and including the will to live: “When the system requires it, it cancels this instinct and people get excited about dying (for a sublime cause, evidently).”

The point is that we are goaded into caring about status in particular ways, goaded into constantly ruminating over our “self-worth” by the means provided for calculating it and ranking ourselves against others. Baudrillard, drawing on Veblen, argues that “society regulates itself by means of the production of distinctive material” — it produces hierarchies and stages competitions as a form of social control, developing a variety of means to compel people to play. This compulsion is not a matter of applying external force, of sending captives into the gladiatorial ring. It’s more that people are brought to see their sense of themselves as dependent on competition. Certain forms of status-seeking are naturalized within us, as a way to think about ourselves. This authorizes a regime of constant checking, constant self-monitoring, constant efforts at self-expression and self-promotion to trigger re-evaluations of one’s value, one’s particular identity, at any given moment. The constantly updating information keeps the set of probabilities that constitute us in constant flux; we require the means and occasions to recalculate ourselves, to make “self-esteem” possible.

People’s subjectivity — “how they care about and take care of themselves,” in Feher’s words — is developed and sustained by modes of self-measurement and comparison. There is no essential, internal self we can discover through this; instead just a propulsive anxiety to see where we might stand. We come to know ourselves and direct ourselves through the frameworks that things like social media metrics or FICO scores provide. It’s entirely characteristic that Wei laments the absence of better measures — neoliberalism in part consists of the perpetual search for better, more invasive measures of our self. (Hence “surveillance capitalism.”) These measures and numbers are never fully adequate, but they suggest answers to what Feher posits as a fundamental neoliberalist question, “What does one need to appreciate and value oneself?” But the value invested in those measures and constituted by them is social, collectively (albeit asymmetrically) constructed, and not inherent or natural. We are not born seeking good credit. And your credit score doesn’t “belong” to you.

It used to be that apologists for neoliberalism in the 2000s would propose that in a perfectly neoliberal world — one that the internet’s long-tail distributive structure would usher into existence — every person would be able to find their own status hierarchy to dominate. Status would somehow cease to be scarce and relational but would still retain its motive force, its capacity to orient and govern us. The way social networks have developed since then, as Wei details, have cooled that idea, revealing instead that “life is nothing if not a nested series of status contests.” Users gravitate to the networks where they can profit by their supremacy over others, the more the better; the commercial incentive prompts people to develop skills that suit the affordances of the platforms, whereby they become “influencers.” The scale of the hierarchy you dominate is extremely important, to the degree where that scale is more important than its substance — what Wei, in a analogy with cryptocurrencies, calls the “proof of work” a status game depends on — or simply is its substance. In other words, the point of Instagram is not posting appealing images and videos; the point is the size of its user base and the money you can command for brokering the attention of some portion of that audience. In Wei’s terms, the “proof of work” required to master a hierarchy becomes self-referential, an end in itself. The point is not to master something specific, but to make mastery itself more meaningful — to engage in arenas where winning matters more.

There is always a hierarchy of hierarchies; every new scoreboard a social platform develops finds its currency convertible to other forms of status at more or less depreciable rates. They collapse into each other, the different forms of “proof of work” become essentially one and the same (as with Marx’s “abstract labor”): they all indicate a certain amount of influence or supremacy over other people. So you can’t escape from status competition through the multiplication of new status games, any more than you can escape from the logic of fashion through antifashion. If you declare that you have no image, that is your image. You can’t unilaterally opt out of a generalized form of subjectivity. You can’t choose not to have a credit score, or a Facebook profile. That is not to say status-seeking is “natural”; it is to say that it is hegemonic, and analyzing it as a form of capital should at the very least serve the purpose of estranging it, not reinforcing the idea of its naturalness.

Baudrillard argues that “truly beautiful, definitively beautiful clothing would put an end to fashion. The latter can do nothing but deny, repress, and efface it — while conserving, with each new outing, the alibi of beauty.” That idea can be generalized to describe all the forms of self-presentation that society places at our disposal. We can never actually, fully express some “true self” by these means, because that would put an end to all further self-expression. Instead, these “outings” — the various rearticulations and reassessments of our mediated selves — sustain the true self as alibi even as they efface it, render it merely probable rather than essential.

It seems like you start to master fashion as a game once you leave the alibi of beauty behind and seize upon elusive opportunities to capture and capitalize on difference (which has the by-product of extinguish it, assimilating it). Likewise with the self: You start to win the game of “social capital” when you leave the alibi of the true self behind and look for opportunities to become not who you are but whatever seems advantageous at the time (which has the effect of nullifying or generalizing that advantage). But it may be that nothing feels more like losing than proceeding without an alibi. No matter what you do, you’re always guilty.