The Culture of [fill in the blank]

by longingforthereal

If we’re to take Christopher Lasch’s 1979 analysis of American culture as authoritative, and also containing some predictive power, the last decade and a half appears to mark the capstone of the “culture of narcissism.”  The spread of the Internet and its most successful offshoots—notably, social networking sites like Facebook and OK Cupid—pushes what Lasch called “the apotheosis of individualism” to an even greater height.[1]  We are awash in savvier new age therapies, now amplified with greater claims to delivering lasting fulfillment because they are powered by increasingly sophisticated means of mass distribution (witness the TED talk).  Gadgets like the iPhone and Android smartphones offer the promise of complete independence from the inconveniences of talking face-to-face or asking for directions at the same time they enforce an ever more total dependence on the digital interface.  Worst of all, there is no sign that any of this will let up soon.

The neologism “smartphone” is an interesting designation worth lingering on.  What does it mean when we dignify a tool with a title signifying intelligence?  Lasch might ask.  Does it suggest that we have ceded some of our own power as rational beings to our more efficient gadgets?  If so, what vision of progress is embedded here?  It’s easy to wonder if the word itself denotes more respect for the tool than the person using it, but this is likely just the tip of the iceberg.  Judging by the leading indicators, the age of Apple, Google, and the new technocrats who herald the virtues of other-direction as repurposed “friendship” (Mark Zuckerberg) or “dating” (Sam Yagan, OK Cupid’s CEO) confirms everything Lasch forecast over 30 years ago.  It is merely a further irony of history that his book is now more readily procured by way of Amazon and absorbed through its Kindle.

And yet, however prone we are to remember Lasch’s analysis when we feel the empty bottles and crushed cans of contemporary culture pressing against us, there is an alternative reading available.  According to James Livingston, we and our gadgets are living in revolutionary times.  The cultural transformations that followed in the wake of capitalism’s great successes over the past 150 years mean much more than Lasch lets on; in fact they prove that his deep pessimism is entirely unwarranted.  As Livingston argues in his latest book, Against Thrift (2011), the discrete psychological and characterological patterns that emerge with modern consumer culture are actually good for us—good for our economy, our environment, and our souls, as he puts it in his subtitle.[2]  More specifically, the distinctive habits, values, and folkways that consumer culture fosters allow us to relate to one another more deeply and to experience activities like listening to music and eating gourmet food more richly.  Taken as a whole, these manifold opportunities make the culture of late capitalism an altogether better place to live than any epoch that came before it.

By breaking down traditional moral restraints that once imposed clear limits on consumption, pleasure, and instant gratification, Livingston argues that our late-capitalist consumer aesthetic—available and prevalent in most western countries, preeminently the United States—helps rein in a new form of social democracy in which everyone plays an equal role: that of consumer-citizens.  Advertising facilitates this tidy procession of goods and satisfying consumer experiences by ebbing away at the residual cultural cache of Puritan thrift and Victorian moralism—and so long as the U.S. government (among its other western, or at least good capitalist, counterparts) ensures an adequate distribution of income—seemingly a strange fantasy on Livingston’s part—progress will continue unabated.  The democratization of consumer-citizenship and its attendant form of pursuing happiness will be the metanarrative of capitalist development long after Mark Zuckerberg is dead.[3]

Such is Livingston’s optimistic counter to Lasch’s dismal portrait of late- twentieth century American culture and society.  They form a convenient opposition for certain purposes—but if we consider them our only options for appraising where we stand in light of recent history, it’s not hard to come to the conclusion that both arguments leave something to be desired.  In their own way, Lasch and Livingston each tend to polarize our understanding; they rely on different kinds of generalizations, and in the end they both present overly stark and totalizing pictures of complex social realities.  If only because both writers gloss over the infinite multiplicity within the singular American culture they attempt to paint with one broad brush or the other, we have good reason to ask for more specificity, more accuracy, and more nuance—if we can get it.

What we need is a new path away from Lasch and Livingston’s two poles.  Following Lasch’s lead, we need to look closely at what we’ve lost in the march toward post-modernity.  But following Livingston’s lead we need to envision the culture of late capitalism as a complex field of experimental culture play in which newly independent agents, often endowed with newly acquired material means, articulate novel configurations of identity, selfhood, and moral values.  Above all we need to try to get at some of the new definitions, discourses, and representations of subjectivity that multiply alongside, and often in response to, our ubiquitous consumer culture.  In other words, we need to think about our culture—and cultural phenomena like the Internet—more anthropologically.  What does the prevalence of smartphones tell us about the particular longings of Americans living in the early twenty-first century?  Is it possible that the culture of options, of manifold available forms of selfhood, which is embodied in the Internet and fostered by the mass consumption of gadgets, carries the premise of democratic citizenship to its highest possible realization?  What do we make of Facebook then?

We will always be scratching the surface of the culture we seek to represent under one light or another.  The question is how we should go about sorting and characterizing those tiny glimmers we can see.

-Michael Fisher


[1] As Lasch put it in 1979, “The growth of bureaucracy, the cult of consumption with its immediate gratifications, but above all the severance of the sense of historical continuity have transformed the Protestant ethic while carrying the underlying principles of capitalist society to their logical conclusion.  The pursuit of self-interest, formerly identified with the rational pursuit of gain and the accumulation of wealth, has become a search for pleasure and psychic survival.”  It is not difficult to picture Lasch perusing Facebook or OK Cupid and coming to the same conclusion about the Marquis de Sade’s vision of republican society: “Sade imagined a sexual utopia in which everyone has the right to everyone else, where human beings, reduced to their sexual organs, become absolutely anonymous and interchangeable.  His ideal society thus reaffirmed the capitalist principle that human beings are ultimately reducible to interchangeable objects.”  In our case, to “friends” and/or potential dates we see scrolling down a screen.  Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (New York, 1979), 68-69.

[2] Although Livingston has been developing his defense of consumer culture for almost twenty years, it is only in his latest book that he opted for such a provocative title and subtitle, which reveal the scope of his ambitions.  As he puts it in the introduction to Against Thrift, “In this book, I make the case for consumer culture: why it’s actually good for the economy, the environment, and our souls, among other things.  In this sense, I’m trying to heal the split in our personalities by demonstrating that less work, less thrift, more leisure, and more spending are the cures for what ails us.”  See James Livingston, Pragmatism and the Political Economy of Cultural Revolution, 1850-1940 (Chapel Hill, NC, 1994), Pragmatism, Feminism, and Democracy: Rethinking the Politics of American History (New York, 2001), The World Turned Inside Out: American Thought and Culture at the End of the Twentieth Century (Lanham, MD, 2009), and Against Thrift: Why Consumer Culture is Good for the Economy, the Environment, and Your Soul (New York, 2011), x.

[3] That is, if he dies at all.  According to Raymond Kurzweil, author of The Singularity is Near (2005), “we will transcend all of the limitations of our biology” in the next 30-40 years.  As Ashlee Vance reported in the New York Times in 2010, Kurzweil is betting on “the arrival of the Singularity — a time, possibly just a couple decades from now, when a superior intelligence will dominate and life will take on an altered form that we can’t predict or comprehend in our current, limited state.  At that point, the Singularity holds, human beings and machines will so effortlessly and elegantly merge that poor health, the ravages of old age and even death itself will all be things of the past.”  Silicon Valley entrepreneurs like Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the founders of Google, are the major funders behind Singularity University, which started offering courses on the latest and most promising new technologies in 2008.  It goes without saying that some of these courses cost upwards of $25,000 per ten weeks, which means that Zuckerberg’s kind of wealth may be a perquisite for entering the next phase of human history in a privileged position.  Strangely, James Livingston has yet to comment on this prospect.  See Ashlee Vance, “Merely Human? That’s So Yesterday” The New York Times, June 12, 2010.

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