Do you ever feel like a wind-up toy that requires cranking just to make it out of bed? Lack of interest in stuff? Unusual moods? Well, don’t worry too much, you’re probably just depressed, according to an uber-creepy advert for antidepressant Pristiq. Deservedly lampooned in various parody versions on YouTube, it features a close-up of a woman emoting about her identification with a wind-up doll, intercut with images of said doll in case you’re too thick to imagine one for yourself, before backing up all that subjective shizzle with some totally objective science explained by a ‘reassuring’ (i.e. male) voice and vector graphics illustrating the cheery little dance of serotonin neurotransmitters that will commence once you’ve necked a few of these.
A Prozac ad meanwhile promises a shudder-inducing holy therapeutic trinity of Confidence, Convenience and (my personal unfavourite) Compliance…’cos being compliant feels good! Anyone would think these big pharma companies are in bed with politicians or something…oh hang on…
Franco Berardi (aka Bifo- even theorists have street names these days) has a few, infinitely more illuminating things to say about the societal psychopathology of panic and depression in his book Soul At Work. Developing the work of Alan Eherenberg’s wonderfully titled book, The Fatigue of Being Oneself, which outlines depression as a pathology with a strong social content directly linked to pervasive competition, Bifo describes depression as being “deeply connected to the ideology of self-realisation and the happiness imperative”.
Zizek has described this imperative of happiness-first ‘tolerant hedonism’, as emblematic of what Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello call The New Spirit of Capitalism, a revivified capitalism which ‘triumphantly appropriated (the) anti-hierarchical rhetoric of ‘68, presenting itself as a successful libertarian revolt against the oppressive social organizations of corporate capitalism’.
Fulfillment and self-realization is no longer optional in a post-‘68 capitalism which privileges the paramount importance of being happy; what started out as a countercultural antagonism to the stultifying effects of Taylorist managerial/ corporate culture culminates now in a burden, another ‘thing-to-do’: become ourselves, which is understood as become our happy selves.
It transpires that this chimera of selfhood requires work, effort and persistence (hence the fatigue) and a whole industry is geared towards the never-ending DIY project of discovering, and being oneself. In the void left by religious instruction- think 10 commandments- a panoply of tools, tinctures and instruments promise to fill the cracks in our hearts, blast away unhelpful patterns and gloss over our lackluster surface to deliver the self we could be, the self we truly are, underneath all this crap.
It’s a paradoxical quest for self-betterment that promises to deliver the self we already ‘really’ are, but just haven’t done the right ‘work’ to be able to access it. And there is so much work to do on this soul: self-help books for everything from time management to heartbreak, meditation for stress, exercise and raw veg diets for health, therapy for head-fucks, networking for status, and so on and on in a spinning top of endless responsibility for one’s self.
Summed up nicely by the slogan (and the existence) of Psychologies magazine, Know More, Grow More, this drive for self-improvement also involves a stupendous amount of knowledge accumulation/ sifting. In an attention economy of ever-diminishing time, and ever-increasing speed and volumes of information, this creates yet more psychic stress: what the hell do you fix first? Moreover, failure to achieve this mythical state of self-realization leads to a drop in motivation, where, as Ehrenberg puts it, the depressive individuals are “not up to the task, they are tired of having to become themselves”.
Naturally the info-overload enabled by ever-increasing speeds of connection info isn’t confined to the self-DIY project; it’s a more wide-spread affliction. As Bifo points out, cybertime is limited to human capabilities, which has only a finite quantity of attention to share out, in contrast to the unbounded space of cyberspace, whose speed can accelerate indefinitely, expanding without limits into galaxies of infodust. And as Virilio points out, ‘the reality of information is entirely contained in its speed of dissemination’- it’s not ‘separate’ from its distribution and its network, since ‘speed is information itself!’
Speeding towards the limit of cybertime, a cracking commences, where ‘we collapse under the stress/ pressure of overproduction/ hyper-productivity’ (Bifo), unable to accommodate the assaults from the avalanche of attention-demanding goods. The exploding heads in Cronenberg’s Scanners, borne in the early years of the mediafication of everyday life, seem a presciently fitting visual analogy for the boiled-brain sensation induced by the avalanche of interesting articles, things/ people to follow and comment on and ideas/ trends to keep up with.
If as Boris Groys has suggested, our Web 2.0 prosumerism has lead to the emergence of a society of the spectacle lacking in spectators- as we are all so busy with creating the damn stuff there just isn’t enough time to go round- a huge volume of content is destined, from its inception, for the info landfill. But beyond this lies another fear, perhaps: that we too have become bits of digital debris on the stage of social media and are thus liable to get lost in the invisibility dump. And as anyone who has advertised on- well, or even just used- the web knows, stayin’ alive is all about visibility in the attention economy; except this time, the product is you. So how do you perform your product for public consumption? And who’s watching?
Attention scarcity, is, as Rob Horning puts it in a fantastic blog post about microfame, “a matter of TMI, which has an obvious connection to some of the more salient practices of microcelebrity: confessional writing, oversharing […] exhibitionism, the New Sincerity, and so on.” In other words, TMI in the sense of gross or overly personal pics, or vomiting your heartbreak all over FB, is linked to the general TMI avalanche the internet represents; there’s just so much crap out there vying for a sliver of our attention, that we must shout louder, or more embarrassingly, than everyone else to be seen, and thus validated as existing, connected beings.
Or as he puts it, these modes of self-display “reflect the possibility of a life lived merely to confess it, to share it on social media”, where intimate, private moments become tangible currency; the more outrageous, the more it gets noticed.
Not that this is anything new; reality TV cultivated- and depended on- this mode of celebrity/ infamy via public debasement (or at least exhibitionism). Except now it’s our friends, peers, family and colleagues whom we both watch and are watched by; we are the ‘microcelebrities’. From famous for 15 minutes, to famous to 15 people, to microfamous to 1500 people, perhaps.
The pursuit of microfame, predicated particularly on self-presentation to those who don’t already know you well, seems particularly pertinent to artists, for whom labour is, as Sven Luttken puts it, ‘marked by the inability to distinguish between labour and leisure, […] working hours and free time, performance and life’.
Within social media, the artist’s public profile is manifested not simply through traditional signifiers of ‘work’- their videos, photos, invites to shows, press, etc- but also, crucially, through the status accorded by their connectedness to particular social groupings, i.e. their ‘non-work’ life. Again, IRL, this echoes the casting of artists- not just their work- as cover stars for mags like Art Review, or life-styley photo shoots allowing glimpses of their ‘real’ life.
In a collectively written essay called Club Kids: the social life of artists on Facebook’, the authors suggest that group exhibitions (especially online ones) function to forge publicly-paraded links between artists and curators, who simultaneously promote each other so that “the strongest ties artworks in today’s group shows often share are the Mutual Friends the artists have rather than the work itself”. These connections are further bolstered by the strategic tagging of party pics which are posted on FB for their audiences to digest.
Apart from cynical careerism and supporting the argument that labour and leisure are indistinguishable- no such thing as down-time, every moment can be instrumentalised- what this suggests is that the party-posturing and connectivity is just as important as the ‘real’ work, or that the public performance for a FB audience is the ‘real’ work.
Boris Groys has argued that autopoetics, or ‘the production of one’s own public self’ is key in the age of social media, where every public persona- not limited to politicians and celebs- is also a commodity. What the ‘Club Kids’ are flirting with then, is becoming just profiles, no work; ‘artists without art’, as they put it. Or as John Kelsey suggests, ‘the figure of the artist herself dematerialises, become a profile- her most abstract work being herself or her own connectivity.”
Can artists work with this profile, not just for instrumental ends (fame! Being ‘some-body’), but to destabilise/ critique it…and if so, how will the market commodify this 2.0 version of dematierialisation? How might we, as Kelsey asks ‘truly [begin] to inhabit networks’ so that ‘more ecstatic and catastrophic modes of interconnection’ can be experimented with?
An ecstasy of self-catastrophe, perhaps, a willingness to self-destruct one’s own profile in a kind of online version of the ‘public meltdown’, enacted as a critique of the system of online representation rather than a result of buckling under its strain. Let’s see what drugs they come up with for that.