late-capitalist trips to the present

“For instance, you have become so estranged from your parents by a university degree that you are ashamed of how dumb they are. Reading critical sociologists, you realize this is the common experience of a whole generation of ‘upwardly mobile’ young kids from ‘lower class’ families lacking ‘cultural capital’. And this is when you begin to wonder who has molded your voice, your manners, your face so differently from theirs? Perhaps a strange beast that pertains to no one in particular and who is no one’s responsibility. It is a force to be sure, maybe a habitus.” –Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social

For the record, I know it’s possible to refer to me as a pretentious lunatic for the above quote, but there’s a set of assumptions within it worth exploring. So

when I’m feeling idle, I’ll go on Wikipedia, find a topic I already know I have interests in, like Jungian analysis or the performance of self in everyday life, and explore the suggested topics at the bottom of the page. I recently decided to read the entry on the hipster. Even though I’ve obviously heard people talk about hipsters and know to associate them with gentrified neighborhoods and over-stated glasses, I’ve never used the term to classify myself or anyone I know. However, after reading that hipsters generally enjoy honoring Lou Reed and reading beat poetry or using knowledge to replace a lack of economic mobility, I realized that my behavior and interests could be roughly associated with this subculture. Interesting how I can be associated with a set of discourses, while I, as a personality, experienced myself just listening to content that felt in alignment with who I believed myself to be.

Although I’ve made aesthetic and financial decisions with an assumption of authenticity, it’s remarkable that I could act in a way that feels like an authentic extension of my “self”, yet still end up acting in line with a set of attitudes in people besides myself. I don’t watch television, I’m not exposed to an overwhelming amount of audio or visual advertising, and I rarely use social media, and yet, even in moments of “authentic self-expression” I’m still reproducing categories that existed before I became a part of them.

I took a literary theory course last fall, and this was really my first introduction of any substance into Marxism, new historicism, psychoanalysis, post-structuralism, and some other whimsical [:—-)], complicated and paradigm-shifting ideas. I’m interested in Louis Althusser’s influential idea that ideologies structure subjectivity in a process known as interpolation, or the hailing of a subject into being (who accepts the call) (source: Global Literary Theory: an Anthology). In other words, we are exposed to a discourse, internalize it, and the line between ourselves and the discourse blurs. In “Judging Writing, Judging Selves” Lester Faigley likens this idea to someone yelling, “Hey, you!” in a crowded airport, and nearly everyone turning around as if they were being addressed individually. People are subjected to discourses, appropriate them into their behavior, and act like they are subjects of their actions, not realizing that they are outsourcing their perceptions of themselves to the content they’re exposed to.

One thing that is obvious in the hipster subculture is this interest in appearing inadvertently cool by dressing in a way that suggests you put very little time and attention into your appearance. For example, ever since I’ve become more invested in music, I’ve found myself feeling more “authentic” in over-sized t-shirts, vans and matte black pants. I would describe the feeling of dressing in this way as comfortable and “in-alignment” with how I’d like to perceive myself, yet it’s no secret to me that I’m inclined towards these clothes because I’ve spent many hours watching audiotree live sessions in which talented people give the impression of being un-interested in looking attractive yet manage to seem that way as a function of their lack of attention to their appearance. I’m also thinking about hats that are associated with something clearly not fashionable or interesting like the Michigan sewage company or the American Breeders Association and how the very fact of that these accessories are not worth wearing makes them unconventionally cool. (See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rqfAfqJ6OLQ). Perhaps people who could be described as hipsters, or those people who appeal to hipsters, are acutely aware of what is considered cool by mainstream standards and take extensive measures to subvert these expectations, whether or not they are conscious of doing so.

I am most fascinated by this idea that hipsters are commonly the ones serving their more financially stable peers in contexts like bars or coffee shops, (Again, this post is essentially my reflecting on the wikipedia entry for the hipster, so excuse my jagged transitional statements) but they use knowledge to compensate for their lack of economic mobility. Although this sounds like a value judgment, I don’t see it that way. This could be because I am not one of those people who can look at the idea of the hipster w the requisite amount of detachment. But it doesn’t seem clear to me that having financial success is better than knowing what you think or understanding history or the environment. Perhaps to invest in gaining cultural capital is to take an economic hit, at least for members of the middle class like me who took out student loans to study literature as opposed to “trust fund hipsters” who turned the money in their pocket into cultural capital. I suppose I’m giving up the potential for economic mobility to turn my middle class thoughts into an articulated understanding of the history and implications of culture. Of course there is a way in which financial stability can prevent premature death from starvation, but if all you have is financial stability, it’s likely that you end up spending all your money on consumerist activities like buying alcohol or being entertained by expensive televisions or amusement parks. At some point extra money no longer contributes to positive emotion.

I’ve had this narrative for a long time about why it’s been better to become verbally fluent and aware of the music and literature that created the culture we currently live inside, and it’s bizarre to think this priority of mine could be shared by an entire subculture. I’ve yet to be associated with many peers who share these priorities, perhaps in part because I grew up in a small rural neighborhood in western NY, and then followed this up with a small, catholic university with a basketball team that attracted most of the students. My history in part produced the conditions of my future. Peers who went to college to study accounting and nursing will be able to work less and be paid more and get more of their sensory and material needs met, and I’ll wiping the sweat off my brow and tearing to shreds the piece of paper on which I’m inscribing their orders of Samuel Adams and crab cakes, knowing all signs collapse into an endless chain of signifiers lacking grounding in any referent. AKA reaffirming initial impressions of my being a pretentious child who got the message by a bunch of practical people that i was spacey and out of touch and prioritized reading and writing over electricity and sensory pleasure, and this is my karma, clear and obvious.

 

he who remains silent vigorously consents.

A performative contradiction refers to a statement whose presupposition contradicts its content. Sentences such as “I am dead” or “I am illiterate” or “I don’t speak English.” I can’t be dead, unable to read or write or speak English and proceed to make these claims. Even though the performative contradiction is a rhetorical principle, I am interested in its application to the realm of action. What if our actions can’t be distinguished from the cohesive state of our psyches, both its conscious and unconscious contents? Instead, our actions are inevitable extensions of the content of our psyches, which may or may not be available for our conscious viewing.

To illustrate what I mean—I usually think of myself as a vegetarian. I don’t eat meat because I am fearful of its potential health risks (though there seems to be conflicting evidence in this regard, so this explanation has lost some of its juice). BUT I am also fascinated by and have a tremendous amount of respect for consciousness, and I don’t think chickens and cows are any less conscious simply because they do not participate in language speaking or driving on freeways. (and here you might say something like yeah but they’re clearly not operating at the same level of sophistication as human beings. But if we’re respecting them only on the principle that they may be conscious, consciousness proceeds all the contents that inhabit it, including intelligence and competence, so this type of respect seems to arise prior to the fruits of a conscious agent).  And yet, I still eat mayonnaise occasionally, and sometimes I’ll eat cookies with eggs, and if I’m feeling especially unruly sometimes I’ll drink coffee with cream. You might think, well maybe these things are okay because animals were not killed in the process of creating these products. But if the natural course of their lives was re-negotiated by the human agenda this seems to be a disruption to their autonomy, and it seems like autonomy and consciousness are at least close to being indistinguishable.

Granted, it is possible that I am more susceptible to breaking my own principles than the average person, (only moderate in conscientiousness [58th percentile]) but my sense is that this sort of performative contradiction is more endemic to human experience than we collectively acknowledge. If there is a dis-junction between my stated values and my actions, then what if it’s not so much that my actions are out of alignment with my values, but that I don’t have a fully articulated set of values? Perhaps there are values that are operating beyond my conscious understanding that are manifesting in my behavior. For example– the person who smokes cigarettes and claims to value her life and her family. There is a way in which it is possible to smoke and still experience positive emotion that would contribute to a person’s will to live. But if the cigarette smoker knows that by breathing in these chemicals it is possible that one day she might be told she has a tumor pressing on her lung that has spread to her brain, can she (FULLY) acknowledge this possibility and value her life simultaneously? As Jordan Peterson articulated in his  8th rule: “Tell the truth; or at least, don’t lie” we only think we understand how a system works (in this case, the body) when it cooperates with us. Then the question becomes–what if my actions are always a perfect representation of my values, and it’s just that as an ego I am not, at any moment, fully aware of the constellation of desires and attributes and short comings which make up my psycho-dynamics. In short, there may be details of the unconscious that are unavailable for my speculation that result in my acting in specific ways. The implication here seems to be that when I conceptualize about myself, I only have access to a sliver of the relevant information. Of course, this was the news of psychoanalysis that we all embraced in the early 20th century, but the ego has a significant hold over daily thoughts and emotions, so it seems worth re-affirming: I as conscious witness am an amalgam of competing sub selves with their own set of desires and attitudes and emotional valences. It is possible that when I am stating my values, I am speaking for a single sub-self with desires that are split off from the version of me who sighs in resignation prior to taking a bite of a portobello mushroom sandwich with mayonnaise and cheese.

Most people do not acknowledge the parts of themselves that conflict with what mainstream culture deems acceptable. Darker thoughts that we might loosely associate with the shadow might occur because our status as members of the animal kingdom dictates that a certain level of aggression and resentment are necessary to getting what we want. What’s interesting about the kind of performative contradiction i’m describing is that it demonstrates not so much that the action is unrepresentative of the inner life but that our actions can emphasize some avenue of the psyche that has not yet been explored or acknowledged. Whenever people like me sit and articulate our values we’re only speaking from one of many autonomous selves. As Steven Pinker stated in The Blank Slate: the Modern Denial of Human Nature, “The self is a spin doctor not commander in chief.” The self can articulate a list of justifications for doing whatever suits its current purposes because it seems to be something like fleeting software that comes about depending on a person’s physiological climate. When I’m distracted and under nourished, a cold water and some indulgent food seems like the most obvious choice in the world, but when I’m feeling productive and caffeinated all I want to do is explore the world of articulating principles and figuring out what it would mean to stand beside them.

The things that get us in the most trouble—the drive for food and sex—arise from our instincts, and our interest in articulating values or creating blogs came at a much later time in the evolution of the species. Are the systems that evolved earlier are inherently more powerfully motivating than the ones that evolved later? If so, the performative contradiction I’ve been describing may be a fundamental human problem because we have these complex conceptualization skills but we’re still held hostage by the lower drives we share with other members of the animal kingdom. Maybe the performative contradiction is a problem that plagues most humans because it cuts to the core of our existential issues. We can conceptualize about our own death, but we’re still ultimately powerless in the state of our body’s eventual decay. In other words, we can learn as much as we can with our minds, but the mind is dependent upon the condition of the body. Therefore, in these smaller moments of choosing between sticking w principles and playing around w what it is like to be a body, the probability that we’re going to make the less enlightened decision is high.