Self-Management, or The Society of Performance

I'm sitting at the bar the other night talking to a local writer who, from time to time, reads her writing in public. I've watched some of her recordings, read some of her writing. When I told her I liked her performances, she said she still hadn't watched any of my videos but had read a few of my posts. Which gave me pause: Videos? And then I remembered that I'd made some insane videos in which I rant at my laptop camera, stuttering and gesturing like a spastic pervert.

I find those videos unwatchable, all nose and ramble. And yet I've left them on the interweb for any, and very few, to peruse. (The only video that people seem to watch is me talking about Nietzsche's will to power. How do I know people watch it? I am notified via email when they leave their inevitably bile filled comments.) My co-gin-imbiber at the bar noted that she can't remove the videos of her as she didn't post them. But I can take mine down. So why haven't I?

The web is a kind of collective memory. We do what we do and the web notes it, indexes it, tucks it away for future access according to ever shifting algorithms (thanks mostly to Google's profit motive). But unlike my memory which can never be purged, the archive of the web can be scrubbed — sorta, more or less. In fact, I have taken things down — not often but I have. Why? Because they were a little nasty and perverse.

After all, I have multiple identities I negotiate. I have a so-called professional life as a brand strategist working with well respected corporations; one as a Deleuzian quasi-academic; another as a blogger about life, death, tequila, and capitalism; from time to time, as a guy trying to find a lady; and another as a former professor, old friend, and father (Facebook). There are probably more such identities but that's already complex enough. And so I pulled down writing that served none of these in a good way and, in my eyes, put some of these identities at risk — get too nasty and no one will hire or date me and, alas, I could jeopardize my custody. (Are these postings gone for good? I doubt it. Like all memory, where does forgetting go? Once folded into the engine, there's no getting out, not absolutely. The "trash" on our desktops is misleading. I'm suddenly tempted to quote the Eagles. See? Memory haunts us.)

And then it suddenly occurred to me: life today demands management of one's identity. I don't just create my identity through my self-expression. There are all these threads, voices, and possibilities that constitute me in the social that I have to constantly negotiate (to wit, I am thinking about the fact that I just split my infinitive which some don't notice, some enjoy, and some judge. For whom am I writing right now? You? Are you still reading? Did I just use "whom"?).

In his forthcoming book, Image Photograph (Punctum books), the artist-theorist, Marc Lafia argues (among other things) that we've moved from the society of the spectacle to the society of performance. In the society of the spectacle, we are turned inside out and folded into the capitalist fray. Our emotions, our identities, become indistinguishable from the commercials, magazines, movies, and TV shows that fill our lives. In the words of Debord, our social relations — including our relations with ourselves — are "mediated by images". There is no so-called authentic life; our emotions and relations have been supplanted by capitalist images.

Social media changed all that. Yes, we remain mediated by images. But we create, curate, and distribute those images. As McLuhan argues, new technology works us over completely. And so network, social media has transformed us from seers and seen into managers of identities. We are no longer just spectacle, mediated by images. We've been commanded to perform our imaging, to control, negotiate, curate, create, orchestrate the images that we are.

It's been pointed out that we've become the commodity for sites like Facebook, our identities bought and sold to advertisers. But, what's more troubling, is that we've become not just the commodity and not just the labor but the managers of our identities. We are indirectly complicit not only in our commodification for the likes of Facebook but we've become active agents of the corporate state and its relentless will to control and manage identities.

This is the ultimate fantasy of the bourgeois state: after it's tagged us with social security numbers and passports, once it's force fed us the inane garbage of its presumed pedagogy, it puts us to work to control ourselves. This is not Foucault's panopticon in which we watch ourselves; this is Foucault-cum-Kafka in which we endlessly manage ourselves according to algorithms of identity that are forever out of our reach. Tweak something there and over there an image, a quote, a comment pops up. It's comical and utterly insane as it's an impossible, relentless task, as absurd as it is necessary.

I find myself wishing I was just a commodity to be bought and sold. Then I could just do my thing and let the bidders bid. But our corporate state won't have it. It won't be content with hocking my identity, creating my emotions, surveilling my every action, eavesdropping on my every call. I can't even run from it, be the outlaw, Jason Bourne-like. No, it's put me to work: my very being has become my relentless self-management.


dg said...

"No, it's put me to work: my very being has become my relentless self-management."

Sincerely Mr C, I'm physically dizzy when you elucidate shit that has puzzled me for years.

Daniel Coffeen said...

I hope that's a good thing! In any case, it was an equally unsettling realization for me — and I thank the brilliant Marc Lafia for nudging me there.