"we can only do what it seems to us we were made for, look at this world with a happy eye but from a sober perspective.”

-W.H. Auden

Conspicuous Consumption

When I was younger, I thought it my duty to separate myself from everybody else by adopting ascetic, quasi-intellectual tastes, even if that meant sailing beyond the edge of my comprehension. I often didn't know what was going on in Godard's films, or in Ezra Pound poems, but I knew I liked them.

That isn't to say I enjoyed them. What was pleasure anyway? Relative, ephemeral, a distraction, probably some sort of trap — proof that you are colluding with the powers that be in the construction of consumerist desire. Better to challenge oneself, to pursue intellectual mastery through discipline. I thought conformity and the culture industry that nurtured and exploited it could be defeated by adamantly rejecting the accessible present. So I sought private respite in the obscure and abstruse: foreign records from thrift stores; randomly chosen seven-inches from the back of the record store (this was the 1990s); the forgotten sounds of bygone eras on barely audible AM radio stations.

The half-understood words of Adorno were my guide: "Bombastic triviality, superficiality seen as apodictic certitude, transfigures the cowardly defense against every form of self-reflection." I saw in that argument — from "Perennial Fashion — Jazz," in Prisms — authorization to pursue a self-consciously and unapologetically elitist tack. I wasn’t going to make excuses for having ill-considered tastes; I wasn’t going to embrace popularity as a virtue. Instead I would seize on difficult, idiosyncratic works on the grounds that they had not "renounced the right to be different" and manifested the possibility of art as embodied critique, as utopian possibility. I wasn't going to fall for those "old accustomed modes of reaction." I would escape from marketed tastes and pursue a defiantly individual course, toward true self-knowledge free of cultural determination. True hardcore.

Not that there was anything truly individual in the tastes I tried to adopt. They were painfully derivative, and required copious amounts of bluster and self-deception. But my consumption nevertheless seemed authentic to me as long as it was not dissolved in immediate satisfaction. Wrestling with the inconvenience of difficult art elevated me above consumerism's lubricious appeals; refusing pleasure meant refusing complicity. But that perverse rejection of pleasure, that niche I thought was so distinctive because so unpleasant, merely masked from me the fact I was actually squarely at the heart of consumer capitalism. I saw myself as its enemy, but I served to reproduce its mechanisms at a deeper, more fundamental level. Consumer culture's success is most assured when we signal our rejection of consumption by consuming our way to individuality.

Pursuing difficulty for its own sake masks the status symbolism, the sanctified identity, that we are really after—from ourselves if no one else. But considering the social hierarchies that flow from tastes, what sort of ethics should govern cultural consumption? Does it even make sense to say that there is a wrong way to consume? Who's in a position to judge? And should we hold ourselves accountable for skirting difficulty—or for pretending to deep knowledge of a subject when all we have done is browsed the Wikipedia page? Stymied by these questions, I have let my tastes go lazy. For instance, after I read this essay about Joanna Newsom at Hilobrow by Erik Davis—who wrote

In the past, I tried Newsom’s Milk-Eyed Mender and couldn't stomach it; a few years later I copied Ys from a friend and didn't make it through once. This time, I think, I should resist. Instead of seeking out the mp3s, I am trying to preemptively accept the new truth about my lazy self: I don't want to hear difficult music played on unconventional instruments. I don't want to listen to ten-minute songs without verse-chorus structure. I don't want music to meander. I want highly structured, short songs that have worked within the established constraints and tried for transcendence through them. I want them to both be accessible and represent some sort of ideal of accessibility. Perhaps this makes me a "poptimist" (though no one should be comfortable self-applying that word).

At stake is the approach we take to near-inescapable cultural abundance. Do we stay on the shore from fear of drowning in vulgarity, or do we wallow in it, trusting it can buoy us? Should we limit ourselves to the Newsoms of the world, or just turn on the radio? I want to reject the idea behind this claim of Davis's: "Ys was a masterpiece by any measure of sense or soul, an ornately organic webwork whose emotional and thematic control fully justified its difficulty and rewarded its many exegetes." But what if this were mystification? Difficulty may be intrinsically rewarding, but it may serve primarily as a way of converting culture into cultural capital—asserting a correct way to consume that ties into class background. The basic motivations available to everyone regardless of class background—things like immediate, spontaneous pleasure – get lost.

In responding to some Newsom song I hope never to hear, Davis writes, "Faith is a corny move, even if sometimes it’s the only jimmy crack you’ve got. But there’s the rub: the second you sink your teeth into it, you must do more than feed. You must taste as well." Davis is describing how art can serve as a placebo for emotional pain, but the passage made me wonder about how placebos function. Do they trick us into engagement with what ails us, relaxing our despair, or do they prompt us to let go and thereby let ourselves heal? In consuming art, we are not supposed to be able to get away with sitting back and letting it heal us; our passivity would seem to negate a work's affective power. Art presumably "works" because it engages us in a reflexive way— we notice ourselves noticing the art. Passive consumption, as Davis says, is merely a way of "feeding" on culture that holds us back from truly "tasting" it.

But if what it means to “taste” is to insert class prerogatives into our mode of appreciation, then perhaps feeding indiscriminately, with no concern for difficulty or deep engagement, can rescue pleasure from the teeth of cultural capital and strike a blow at status hierarchies sustained by what are ultimately arbitrary tastes. Without the pretense of artistic difficulty, maybe there can be no naturalization of class status through aesthetics. This line of argument makes it harder and harder for me to believe that difficulty in consumption can ever be justified. But at the same time, it becomes harder not to see even that as a rationalization, as distinction-seeking raised to the next power. Could ambivalence be the last temptation of cultural capital?

The problem is that there seems to be no place to hide our tastes, to remove them from scrutiny. And the thrust of technological change has exacerbated the situation. Our depth of engagement with any given work could once remain a private matter; now it is much easier to publicize how and what we consume, which has implications for the sorts of things we might choose. At the same time, the benchmarks for ordinary social participation are changing, so that a failure to disclose in real time what we’re reading or listening to, or a failure to elaborate our likes and dislikes online in an archived space, may come to be considered peculiar, suspect behavior. Moreover, the surfeit of easily accessible digitized culture currently overwhelming us has affected our relationship to cultural difficulty, as Nicholas Carr argued in his Atlantic article about Google making us dumb. Intuitively, I know what he means: With songs (and everything else) so abundant and accessible, I have naturally begun to put a premium on those artifacts that allow me to conserve attention. Carr argues that

as people’s minds become attuned to the crazy quilt of Internet media, traditional media have to adapt to the audience’s new expectations. Television programs add text crawls and pop-up ads, and magazines and newspapers shorten their articles, introduce capsule summaries, and crowd their pages with easy-to-browse info-snippets.

With the Internet promising access to everything at once, it's hard to sustain focus, to want anything in particular. Accordingly, for consumption purposes, I find that I want easy things because I can absorb them more quickly; with my attention span sufficiently hollowed out, I can pass effortlessly on to the next thing. That gliding feeling of moving on has become at least as satisfying as pouring over the same thing, drilling blindly into the depths.

Carr points out that the sudden potential for a gargantuan intake of condensed culture has yielded a new capitalist aspiration—to build mass consumption in one person:

The idea that our minds should operate as high-speed data-processing machines is not only built into the workings of the Internet, it is the network’s reigning business model as well. The faster we surf across the Web—the more links we click and pages we view—the more opportunities Google and other companies gain to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements.

To make money, then, media companies will be forced to cater to simpletons with short attention spans—attention spans that Google and Facebook and other Internet companies have shaped to suit their own ends. But what is in it for us, the simpletons? As intuitive as it seems, it’s still inadequate to merely declare that technology has transformed us. We must ask: why would we suddenly want to supplant quality with quantity? And isn't the claim that culture is becoming cruder belied by musicians like Newsom, who are free to indulge their imagination like never before in the recording age since they can distribute their work without much commercial support? Media companies may want simple stuff for simple minds, but they have no leverage to force their (increasingly unpaid) artists to comply.

The market for cultural product hasn’t changed so much as the market for attention has come to compete with it. Accordingly, sales figures diminish in importance relative to the number of hits and links a particular work can instigate. A work’s value is measured less by how many units it moves than by how much people are writing about it, and how much they are associating themselves with it in various social-media environments. But no one need engage with, say, Newsom's album all that deeply; they only need to circulate their interest in it at a meme-like level for it to be considered a success, and encourage others likewise to keep the circulation going. Governed by such a value system, cultural consumption becomes a form of data processing rather than a pursuit of spiritual sustenance directed from within. One need not sustain engagement with Have One on Me and reckon with it on its own recondite terms as long as one can secure a sense of relevance by being aware of it as a happening, a phenomenon, and making others aware as well. Rather than consume our way to some contemplative reward, our spiritual sustenance can come instead from making culture ourselves. People who probably wouldn't have considered it before are becoming aware of themselves as cultural producers. New online business models are not solely a matter of our rapid consumption; they also depend on our "sharing," adding value and momentum to information to make it more rapidly consumable. The perpetual encouragement to share online — have a look at the sidebar on Facebook and its prompts to “reconnect” — seem to democratize the pursuit of attention and compensate for whatever contemplative consumption we forgo. Thus we recognize a new basis for grounding our identity, in serial self-broadcasting rather than deliberate connoisseurship. We can happily replace quality, always an unreliable marker and subject to revisions and devaluations, with quantity, which is dependably inarguable. For instance, I read an essay about Newsom's albums in 15 minutes rather than spend hours trying to wrangle with them on their own sonic terms. This simplification then frees up my time to make a personal production of my own (this essay), which I can share and hope for wide circulation of its own. Maybe it will get lots of hits. Maybe even a few comments. These are metrics that matter, that I can readily apprehend. Whether or not I'm being understood the way I may have hoped — well, I might not ever have known that one way or another. Now the numbers tell me that doesn't make any difference.

So there's an egalitarian promise in the rejection of qualitative appreciation. Indiscriminate consumption licenses unfettered, democratized production, just as the Internet conveniently makes both possible. The more we are driven to share the same harried, shallow approach to culture, the harder it is for any of us to distinguish ourselves by a "deep" or "sophisticated" response. Instead we come to privilege snap judgments posted in real time, which all share the same claims to relevance and are all, accordingly, aggregated by search engines. The cultural field becomes a plane on which more and more is scattered, with nothing ever taking root. Carr cites playwright Richard Foreman, who warns of our all becoming "pancake people." He says that like it's a bad thing. But that flatness is an illusion, the product of a cultural avalanche that has buried familiar bases for distinction. The unrootedness of our responses to culture begins to undo the prerequisite pedigree for "authentic" appreciation, effacing the class habitus that Bourdieu describes in Distinction. Davis sees hints of this even in Newsom's sprawling music: its unedited difficulty in his view symbolizes the tastes of freedom, intimating a "base generosity of spirit that allows us occasionally to proclaim, to one another, to ourselves: 'I believe in everyone.' "

That’s the utopian dream for art come full circle -- difficult consumption complemented and redeemed by unfettered creation. But my hard drive is now littered with failed utopias. The files of songs I can't stand but tried to abide not only serve as proofs of my own philistinism; they also indicate that difficult music has been reified. It has itself become a collectible. And the music I actually listen to testifies to my having been standardized, its pleasures overshadowed by what Bourdieu in Distinction calls the "fun ethic," which sees failing to pursue pleasure as a kind of personal failing, possibly pathological and necessitating therapeutic intervention. Together, the difficult and facile form a concatenation of shame. Their dialectic creates what seems an inescapable spiral. Pleasure and unpleasure converge, the supposed autonomy of difficult tastes inseparable from leisurely compulsion. I've progressed too far into cultural consumption for there to be any way for me to listen to something like Newsom's new album—or reject it—without making a statement, without incurring a guilt that stems from my sheer familiarity with it. This is how Adorno, in his understated fashion, renders the message of "difficult" pop music: "I am nothing. I am filth, no matter what they do to me, it serves me right." No wonder I want the lazy way out.

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