Friday, March 1, 2013

The Young-Girl and the Selfie

In reality, the Young-Girl is only the model citizen such as commodity society has defined it since WWI, as an explicit response to the revolutionary threats against it -- Tiqqun, Preliminary Materials for a Theory of The Young-Girl
A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself -- John Berger, Ways of Seeing
About a week and a half ago, CBC Radio’s show The Current aired what could politely be called a “discussion” — and impolitely, a travesty — on the role of the selfie in contemporary digital culture. Featuring Andrew Keen, author of Cult of the Amateur and reliable old-man grump on the subject of Web 2.0, Toronto novelist Hal Niedviecki, and ex-pat Canadian writer and actual young woman Sarah Nicole Prickett, the conversation started started badly and ended at cringe-worthy. About halfway through, two adult men laughed out loud at the idea that young women’s bodily experiences under sexism might play a role in the evaluation of the selfie’s moral status, and at that point Prickett (and I, as the listener) check out of the conversation. Keen, who dominates the latter half of the discussion, bloviates that selfies are about “extreme narcissism” and that, as a cultural phenomenon, they are simultaneously absurd, embarassing, narcissistic, and — apparently — a pressing moral issue.

The accusation of narcissism leveled at self-photographers and, if opaquely, at teenage girls in particular is evidence of an extraordinary lack of insight into the workings of femininity under late capitalism. Keen’s moral condemnation of the selfie as an act of narcissism is plainly unencumbered by any consideration that narcissism, as a personality trait, may not only be what capital expects but also demands from young girls, in order that they be legible as girls at all.

Which is not to re-categorize the selfie as a radical act of political empowerment (although this view has been taken up, more or less successfully, on hundreds of Tumblrs across the Internet). When it comes to the selfie, my preference is to strike the word empowerment from our vocabularies entirely. I’d also like to leave out narcissism as an individual moral failing, and the phrase male gaze because, really? Male gaze? Really. Selfies, like orgasms, Girls, make-up, and high heels are most often — and most tediously — discussed in the frame of will-she won’t-she individualist choice feminism, which inevitably ends up in one of two places. First, that everything women do is feminist because they’re women and they’re doing it. Second, that nothing women do that relates to making bodies interesting or beautiful is feminist because, like, dudes run the advertising agencies or something. Both of these positions are boring at best, and politically useless at worst. 

As an alternative, I suggest we get down to the brass, materialist tacks of the matter: under capitalism, what does the selfie actually do


When we talk about selfies, what we are really talking about is teenage girls. “Teenage girls” here is more of a concept than a biological necessity; the age is primarily arbitrary and the girl-ness is semiotic at best. But the disgust at the moral failures of kids today, with their iPhones and their Instagrams is a gendered disgust — it is disgust for bodies whose worth is determined not by those who inhabit them, but by those who look at them. It is disgust for bodies that run in emulation, whose primary labour is dedicated to looking a particular way rather than making a particular thing. 

Tiqqun, in Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl, takes the body of the Young-Girl (who, they make clear in the introduction, is not necessarily an actual young girl) as the central unit of late capitalism. As a caveat, many readers of Tiqqun put Theory of the Young-Girl down because it comes off as gross and sexist. If you read the new translation for Semiotext(e) by the excellent Ariana Reines, she says as much in her introduction (excerpts here at Triple Canopy). What Theory of the Young-Girl requires, in order to be useful, is an understanding that the body or idea of the teenage girl is sometimes separate from the actuality of teenage girl-dom. This conceptual separation is not just tangential to the work — it is in fact what allows it to hold together at all. 

The Young-Girl, according to Tiqqun, is “the model citizen of commodity society”, an identity colonized by capital. The Young-Girl is the citizen as consumer, not just of material products, but of ideology iteself. This identity is not ahistorical — not all young girls throughout time have been Young-Girls — nor is it a biological necessity. Rather, it is an historical invention, one that works to make the bodies of young girls useful to capital. If Young-Girlism is about capital’s attempt to colonize the sphere outside of industrial production, who has beem less outside that sphere than the teenage girl? The flapper, the flaneuse, the hysteric — prior to the advent of consumer capitalism, the bodies of young women can be read as the bodies most useless to capitalism.

The identity of the Young-Girl is about taking these previously useless bodies and making them useful. If they are not useful for making things, then they will be made useful for buying things, and this consumer identity is performed on and through her body. What characterizes the Young-Girl is that her body is a commodity, one which belongs to her and is her responsibility to maintain the value of. The concept of the teenage girl — a concept that actual teenage girls can inhabit more or less successfully — is a collaboration between industry and girls themselves. It exists in the liminal space where consumption and emancipation begin to overlap: if I represent my individuality through the consumption of particular items (lipstick, science-fiction novels, cupcakes, leather jackets with studs) is this emancipation because I made a choice? Capital says yes, that emancipation comes from participation in consumption, rather than it's rejection. Tiqqun says no -- that we must think not of liberating the Young-Girl, but liberation relative to the Young-Girl. I tend to fall in with the latter; that consumption is offered as an alternative to liberation, rather than its realization. 


If we treat the Young-Girl as a historical concept, it’s hard to get away from the fact that in some ways teen girls are often what Tiqqun says they are. The way Tiqqun describes the Young-Girl is insulting, at best. It is also, on my reading, fairly accurate. But the disgust that comes with it, I think, hinges on the question of whether we (as former/continued young girls and Young-Girls) carry the burden of responsibility for engaging in this particular mode of citizenship. The practice of the selfie provides a roadmap for an answer. 

Back to the original question: what does the selfie actually do? It is clearly the product of work, both on the body and on the representation of the body. I will be the first to admit that I have spent inordinate amounts of time figuring out how best to hold my face and body in order to take the most flattering mirror-photograph. It is the culmination of research — most girls tilt their heads down, look up and shoot from above, so maybe I should too — and skills. It is also an engagement with an external discourse, one in which what Dorothy Smith calls “the doctrines of femininity” are widely available on the newsstand, on television, on the internet, and on the street. Smith writes that women create themselves as instances of the textual image — that women’s bodies, and those of young girls in particular, run in emulation. 

Emulation in computing is a strategy of preservation, a tactic in an ongoing battle with obsolescence. Unlike make-up and fashion, which are often determined (usually by men) to be techniques of falsification — how many times have we heard girls with “too much” makeup describe as “fake” — emulation in computing is about authenticity. If the the body of the Young-Girl is her primary commodity, her ticket of entry into the world of consumer capitalism (outside of which she is not only useless but also illegible), then her ability to authentically maintain the femininity of her body maintains its value. Participating in femininity, and documenting and representing that participation, is not only a relation of the young girl to herself, as the narcissism explanation would have it. It is also the relation of the young girl to herself as the Young-Girl, as an object to work on, and whose realization can be more or less effective. The selfie is both a representation of and, in the case of social media sites like Instagram and Facebook, an opportunity for the public recognition of that labour. The image may assert sexual subordination, but it still asserts.


So if selfies are labour of a sort, why is the discourse around them so fraught? There is palpable disgust evident in Tiqqun’s description of the Young-Girl, and in Andrew Keen’s analysis of digitally-driven narcissism. Keen frames his disgust as a reaction against the moral failures of a generation. I think there is more to it than that. Disgust is not just about reproach or disapproval. Disgust is about contempt. It polices the boundaries between observer and observed. For Kant, disgust is about imagination: 
The object itself is represented as it were obtruding itself for our enjoyment while we strive against it with all our might. And the artistic representation of the object is no longer distinguished from the nature of the object itself, and thus it is impossible that it can be regarded as beautiful. 
The object that intrudes is the body of the teenage girl — simultaneously the site of desire and pity. The representation of the the object is the selfie. That young women express feelings of shame and disgrace upon realizing the pressing requirement of femininity is built into the Young-Girls’ place in the hegemonic structure of capitalism. The Young-Girl is the model citizen of contemporary society not because we worship her, but because by expending her energy on the cultivation of her body, her potential as a revolutionary subject is neutralized. If young girls are the hated bodies of capital (along with immigrant bodies, racialized bodies, LGBT bodies, etc) then they must also be predictable bodies; that is why we spend inordinate amount of money on emphasizing the important of beauty, the importance of fashion, the importance of youthfulness and desirability and individuality. If the best way of making your womanhood legible is to adorn your body in a particular way — whether femme or punk rock or teeny bopper or whatever — then there is an injunction to perform that work. Women who do not do that work, particularly teenage girls who ‘opt out’ as it were, face social repercussions far more meaningful than some 40-year-old dude calling them narcissists. We elevate the work women do on their bodies to the utmost importance, and then punish the outcome of that labour. That is how hegemony works.

In this light, the selfie isn’t about empowerment. But it also isn’t not about empowerment. Empowerment, or lack thereof, is not part of the picture. Neither is narcissism, as either a personal or a cultural moral failure. And the selfie isn’t about the male gaze. The selfie, in the end is about the gendered labour of young girls under capitalism. Do we honestly think that by ceasing to take and post selfies, the bodies of young women would cease to be spectacles? Teenage girls are Young-Girls, are spectacles, are narcissists, are consumers because those are the very criterion which must be met to be a young woman and also a part of society. That their bodies are commodities enters them into economies of attention, and that is where the disgust with selfies comes from. In an economy of attention, it is a disaster for men that girls take up physical space and document it, and that this documentation takes up page hits and retweets that could go to ‘more important’ things. And so the Young-Girl must be punished, with a disgust reserved for the purely trivial. To paraphrase that beloved of Young-Girl films, Ever After — itself paraphrasing Thomas More’s Utopia — what are we to make of the selfie but that we first create teenage girls and then punish them?

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Serious beauty mistakes

Don't ask how I ended up here -- morning browsing Internet K-hole is always the answer -- but there is something about beauty tip advice sites that draws me like a moth to the flame. I'm not particularly interested in the tips themselves, having maintained a satisfying a mascara-blush-lipstick routine since high school, but numbered lists about how to make your face look more anything-y always harbor the potential for outrage. As a veteran hate-reader, I can't look away.

The tips-list that came up this morning, Seven Beauty Mistakes That Make You Look Old, took a step outside of the usual "too much concealer, hair too flat!" line of advice, however, sneakily inserting this gem right in the middle of the list:
In our busy and hectic lives, people build up a great deal of stress throughout the week. It’s a serious beauty mistake to have lots of stress on your shoulders and not do anything about it. Skin suffers when the body and mind are under stress, and no amount of beauty tips or make-up can undo the damage caused by stress. Find a healthy way to reduce stress and keep yourself looking as beautiful as you can.
Stress! A serious beauty mistake. In a contemporary situation where the global economy is floundering, student debt is soaring, and sexism and racism are alive and well, the most important thing to know about stress is that it your skin will look a little worse for the wear. Par for the course for women's beauty advice, which is --as far as I can tell -- essentially about masking the physical manifestations of living under late capitalism. At this point, "keep yourself looking beautiful" is less girlish advice on how to look youthful, and more a coercive injunction to think about what might happen if you don't. If that's not stress-inducing, I don't know what is.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

In which I watch Undercover Boss

So, obviously, I ended up on the couch on a Friday night, beside my mom and my brother, watching Undercover Boss and seething. I don't know how the channel ended up there between The Rick Mercer Report and plans to watch David Fincher's House of Cards on Netflix, but forty-five minutes later I was stuck in CBS's capitalist fantasy, waiting for the inevitable end.

For those of you who are privileged enough to have never seen an episode of Undercover Boss, the basic premise is this: head corporate honcho joins climbs down the ladder to join little people in the trenches for a few days. While on the job -- washing dishes, doing sanitation work, or in tonight's episode, cutting chickens in half at Boston Market -- the bosses learn something about just how difficult it is to do intellectually bereft, physically repetitive, and socially unrewarding work all day, and show off their newfound respect for the worker by bestowing gifts of cash and promotion on the the employees with the most tragic stories and cheeriest demeanors. In this particular episode, three employees received approximately $20,000 each, to which one drive-thru worker responded with an exclamation that God moves in mysterious ways.

Like essentially every other reality television show, Undercover Boss offers emotional payout in the form of providential benevolence. We can all feel good because the single mother going to school part-time on her days off can move up in the company, and the aspiring nurse can quit her second job to learn the break management software and teach it to the regional market leaders. Or at least we can until we think about the other seventy-five employees who are still moving warmed-over green beans around in a stainless steel box to make them look "nice" for the customers. But Undercover Boss bothers me more than shows like American Idol or Say Yes to the Dress because it touches more on the realities of life in the service industry while simultaneously valorizing the enforcement of brand-management affect-policing.

The Boston Market episode makes this particularly evident because it is apparently the only episode in which an employee is fired by the undercover boss. While the self-proclaimed "Kim Kardashian" of Boston Market is an abrasive personality who clearly takes some perverse pleasure in shit-talking the clientele, he is ultimately fired not for expressing these sentiments to a customer (he does not), but to a woman he presumes to be a non-Boston Market diner waitress with aspirations to owning a restaurant. In this context, his catty vitriol re: elderly customers and crying children comes off less as corporate insubordination and more like service-worker solidarity. "It's not mean of me to hate customers," he says at the end of the episode, and while it certainly would be 'mean' to hate any of them as individuals, a generalized resentment of the category of customer on the part of service workers seems almost banal.

But more than the firing of a petty and disgruntled employee, it's the weekly rehashing of the 'boss goes slumming' schtick that really grates. What it makes evident, in the end, is that none of the bosses worked their way up in the company, but were rather outside hires. This gives lie to the opportunities provided, at the end of each episode, to those few selected employees to "move up" in the company. Ultimately, the boss goes back to her job mending Boston Market's failing brand -- a job depicted at the beginning of the show as consisting mostly of tasting chicken and spouting off phrases about better living through fast food -- and the rest of Boston Market's front line employees go back to their dead-end service jobs without a $20,000 reward from corporate for busting their ass while still attending school. The fact is, retail, food service, administrative, and other low-wage jobs are often defined by dead-end career development, unpredictable hours, minimal benefits, and precarious job security. The fantasy that things would be better on the bottom if only those on the top knew just how hard it was strips workplace relations of any political context, relegating the experience of the worker to a simple test of who can be the happiest when the cameras are on.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The absence of tension or the presence of justice

Each year, around Martin Luther King Day, I find myself drawn back into a reading of his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Usually this reading is precipitated by wading through a swamp of Facebook comments, Reddit posts, tweets, and news articles quoting the I Have A Dream speech and oh-so-innocently asking why it is that we still talk about race when MLK's "dream" was that we would all be judged by the content of our characters. This year, as I read, I had other things in the back of my mind. The ongoing Idle No More movement, in solidarity with the indigenous people of Canada. The consistent, frustrating, and sometimes overwhelming public discourse around the labour movement and union-busting legislation. The outcome (or lack thereof?) of the Occupy movement. The language of choice that now dominates contemporary white feminism. 

One of the most egregious rewritings of history in the last fifty years has been the appropriation of MLK Jr.'s rhetoric for the purposes of quashing direct action, in the name of a 'colorblind' society. The words and nonviolent legacy of Dr. King are trotted out at a moment's notice, when social upheaval and the outrage of the oppressed get too in-your-face for those who exist comfortably in positions of privilege. I see this most recently in the disheartening public conversation around the actions of Native activists in Canada -- that Canadians have sympathy for the movement but not for its methods. We see the same rhetoric when union workers, both public and private, take to the picket lines or to government buildings to make their voices heard. Certainly, protest for your rights, just don't inconvenience me, we say. I agree with you, but does your protest have to be so inconvenient?

In his letter to moderate white church leaders in his community, MLK addresses just this question:
I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
This preference for the absence of tension over the presence of justice remains evident in all discourse around issues of social inequality. I understand that you are in pain, we say, but could you not be quite so public about it? And in the worst of the scenarios, could you not be quite so public because I have shopping to do and the violation of your rights is less important to me than getting to the mall.

The most common stance on public direct action among those who ostensibly agree but do not participate is that the raising of tensions now simply frustrates the progress that is inevitable with time. The anti-gay bigots are getting older, they will have less and less influence as time goes on. The racists are dying. The misogynists are greying. These stories of the aging out of oppression neglect the role played by direct action in the early days of contemporary social movements -- do we truly think that we would have seen an extension of civil rights to black Americans without the Freedom Riders, or the opening of society to gay and lesbian individuals without Stonewall? On the subject of time and progress, MLK had this to say:
I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom...Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.
Contemporary discourse also neglects the central and ongoing role of collective action in social change, instead telling stories of individual people coming to individual consciousness and leaving it at that. In my earlier piece on the language of choice and the politics of justice in feminist discourse, I noted what I felt to be an uncomfortable closeness between choice and consumption; that by equating choice with freedom, we also equate consuming with justice. I feel similarly about the consistent equation that to be legal is to be just, and that acts of civil disobedience -- of blockading, of picketing, of occupying -- are therefore unjust because they disrupt our notions of the legal. King argues that direct action is not meant to comfort but to disturb; that it is, in fact, the creation of of a disturbance in the social fabric that allows for a space to open up in which a dialogue can occur:
Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. 
As we move forward into a decade begun in the depths of a financial crisis -- with soaring economic inequality underlying a flurry of rightward tendencies in the spheres of reproductive, sexual, labour, and  racial justice -- it is disappointing that the public conversation about social change leans so heavily on the words of a man who stood up for justice while displaying such an aversion for the tactics he employed. The confluence of Inauguration Day with MLK Day is a happy reminder of how far we've come; the ongoing struggle of the marginalized, the oppressed, the destitute, and the exploited should be an admonition that it is not yet enough. And when the question of appropriate methods of protest inevitably arrives, those of us who inhabit the positions of the privileged would do well to remember the Letter from a Birmingham Jail. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

On Returning

For those of you who have been following this blog from the beginning -- hello friends and family who know me in 'real life'! -- you know that a lot has changed for me in the past year or so. Incidentally, this is approximately the amount of time that has passed since I posted in this blog.

In the past year I have chosen to leave my graduate program with my MA, been underemployed in the retail sector, and moved to Nova Scotia. In the process of all of this, I completely ceased to write. I don't just mean in this blog; over at least the past six months I have ceased to write anything at all.

I've tried of course. There are about seven incomplete drafts -- some only sentences long -- sitting in my "to be posted folder" waiting for me to come back to them and try to remember what exactly it was that I had to say. A few might reappear for me in the next few weeks. Most are lost to a pop cultural or academic moment that has passed and will spend the rest of their mostly-blank lives in the draft graveyard. Every time I sat down to write, I drew a blank or turned on the television, or switch to Tumblr, or opened a book instead.

Today, in the grand tradition of attempting to fulfill an anxiety-ridden New Years resolution before the month is out and all hope is lost, I came up with a plan to start writing again. I would read articles that were interesting online, then write about them in my brand-new Evernote/Moleskine notebook, digitally transfer the pages into Evernote and then...try to do something with my thoughts, I guess. My partner, watching me go through this process after a year of watching me say I was going to write and then subsequently not write decided enough is enough and put my feet to the fire and demanded that I explain what exactly was my problem.

What it comes down to, in the end, is that leaving grad school left me with the feeling that my work lost any authority it was imbued with. Which wasn't much in the first place, I suppose, but having long felt at least a vague sense of "I know what I'm talking about" reinforced by "and someday I'll have the degree to prove it", it was disheartening to see the later sentiment changed to "but I work in retail at the age of 26 so really what do I know".

I left grad school because the work I was doing didn't quite fit the discipline I was studying in, and I was more committed to the work than I was to the field. I still am. But over the course of months of coming home from work at the mall, the sense that I have a voice that could make a contribution to the conversation receded into a morass of insecurity that I gave up my place in the conversation when I gave up the profession in which it takes place.

Ultimately, I am not one for the confessional (see my upcoming post on why Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall was my favourite book of the year, and Sheila Heti's How Should A Person Be? was my least), but getting back to writing means, in part, letting go the notion that my position in academia conferred on me a unique perspective from which to write. Strangely, my academic work and my personal politics were and are deeply invested in the idea that the academic position does not provide any particularly revelatory leverage over knowing the world. And yet the sensation remains that in abandoning academia I have abandoned the analytical essay for the lyric confession, and in preferring the former to the latter, should essentially cease to write at all.

In the end, fuck that? Much of the interesting and compelling work on subjects that fascinate, compel, and incite me has never been published by academics (or if it has, it appears in non- or lesser academic spaces) and will continue along the same path. I may as well add my voice to that chorus and see what comes of it.