Paris and Me, Part 1

What follows is a very early draft of the first half of the Computers and Writing presentation I’ll be giving in Palo Alto next week. I hope you might read it and tell me what’s redundant, what’s missing, and what’s foolish. The presentation’s major logical steps (of which tonight’s argument comprises points 1 through 3) are as follows:

  1. Rhetorical self-production can be understood today as an act of product differentiation or branding; conversely, consumption of products or services can be understood today as a technology of rhetorical self-production.
  2. Foucault’s governmentality — as the relation between technologies of self and technologies of power — is enacted in online writing on blogs and in the relation between individual and commercial institutions. [Sometimes, as implied by (1), the individual and the commercial can blur: see Paris Hilton and Jason Kottke.]
  3. This relation can be problematic in the case of public schools because of unequal power relations and the possibilities for domination. The massive resources of advertisers can change minds and shift opinion in undemocratic ways; more money can equal a larger voice and an increasingly unequal society.
  4. However, (3) is a characteristic of the environment of a mass economy. Today, self-production via branding is indicative of a move towards a distributed, peer-to-peer economy (facilitated by digital technologies) where the power relations we associate with a mass economy are being fragmented and replaced by other relations we haven’t yet completely fathomed.
  5. In this individuated peer-to-peer economy, not all transactions are market or commodified, and the most promising and interesting possibilities for individual agency may exist within non-market, non-commodified transactions.

Here’s the first half, with the second half to follow tomorrow:

A Google search for her name returns four and a half million hits. According to gossip site Defamer, she’s “the closest thing we’ll ever see to a being made of pure, uncut fame.” At age 24, she has a published memoir, a recording contract, a reality show, her own lines of clothing, perfume, and jewelry, several film roles, a nightclub, “and, of course, herself — last week she admitted charging up to $200,000 for a 20-minute appearance at parties. ‘If it’s in Japan, I get more,’ she said” (Guardian UK). More than any other person today, Paris Hilton has made her public identity into a saleable commodity: a brand.

At Wealth Bondage, Dominatrix CEO Candidia Cruikshanks rages that The Happy Tutor is trying to steal her “brand equity” — said equity, of course, embodied in the written performance of all that attitude, in the online personae of her cohorts at Wealth Bondage (“America’s cheerleader” Chastity Powers, “faithful consort” Dick Minim, “adjunct in charge of hidden meaning” Dr. Amrit Chadwallah, et cetera) and in oh my those boots. We can take from Candidia’s fury the same lessons we take from Paris Hilton: the creation and performance of a public persona has economic value, although Candidia’s five-inch spike-heel patent leather thigh boots may be worth somewhat less than Paris Hilton’s metallic faux-leather round-toe sling-backs or Peyton Manning’s Reebok cleats. Furthermore, even in the cases of Manning’s and Hilton’s brands, this value is largely immaterial, since foot protection – in comparison to image — is a secondary concern. Paris Hilton’s glamour and blankness of affect embody her brand just as much as Candidia’s contemptuous attitude and Peyton Manning’s squeaky-clean all-American-ness.

In fact, there is a nascent cottage industry in management literature dedicated to this phenomenon: “personal branding experts” like David McNally, Karl Speak, and Peter Montoya urge entrepreneurs, managers, and anyone with ambitions for success in business to “be your own brand.” Unique to our contemporary situation, however, is the combination of the effects of economic production and consumption on the fashioning of individual identity, and vice versa: rhetorical self-production can be understood today as an act of product differentiation or branding; conversely, consumption of products or services can be understood today as a technology of rhetorical self-production. In her essay “The Age of Egocasting,” Christine Rosen describes the “personalization of technology” by which “the individual’s control over the content, style, and timing of what he consumes is nearly absolute,” and how such technologies “enable us to make a fetish of our own preferences” (1). Our preferences — as publicly enacted in blogrolls, in “100 Things About Me” lists, in the way we express tastes and preferences and likes and dislikes and praise and blame in weblog posts, in the way we hurry to post our own answers to online quizzes that tell us who we are, in our iTunes playlists, in the very weblogs we choose to comment on — are, in their performance and in our self-conscious sense and monitoring of that performance, ourselves. This, Rosen says, is egocasting: “the thoroughly personalized and extremely narrow pursuit of one’s taste” (2). And when we understand that blogrolls are lists of “Links [that] have a direct value on the Web and can be seen as a pseudo-monetary unit” (Jill Walker, “Links and Power”), we understand as well that the public marking of one’s choices of informational consumption can be interpreted as the commodification of identity.

Thomas de Zengotita carries Rosen’s analysis a step further, arguing that the individuation of economic consumption and its concomitant individuation of advertising turn us into highly self-conscious, media-flattered consumers. There’s a cable channel for everyone, and Amazon, Audioscrobbler, and TiVo all know what you like and show you more of the same. As a result, “The flattered self is a mediated self, and the alchemy of mediation, the osmotic process through which reality and representation fuse, gets carried into our psyches by the irresistible flattery that goes with being instantly addressed” (de Zengotita 7), and the expectation of individuated personal attention has become a mark of our contemporary self-production and performative representation of our subjective experience. Think for a moment: do you remember that summer when “Don’t Believe the Hype” was on every radio wherever you went? Or “When Doves Cry”? Or “Paradise City”? The experience of that summer has become mediated; difficult or impossible to disentangle from the experience of that song. And so it goes these days, more and more, with fewer and fewer experiences wholly separate from any media connection — and, in fact, de Zengotita argues that we have begun to see our own experiences as a form of media. We are all self-aware method actors in our own lives, de Zengotita contends, performing those lives through representation and association. The public blogroll – and its extension in individuated online collections of citations such as and CiteULike — is a form of mask, a way to tell other people what type of person you are. What type of individual you are. As we understand from Foucault, writing is a technology of self-production (153).

In the currency of the writing classroom, where students exchange papers for grades, the tacit command to “Be yourself” associated with the personal essays assigned by so-called expressivist pedagogues is an injunction to create – via the technology of writing — a unique self that one can put into circulation; an identity that is constructed, commodified, and consumed. Julie Lindquist expresses the concern that asking for authentic “emotional responses for the purposes of academic rewards becomes, for students, a matter of producing the ‘money shot’ on demand”: Lindquist offers the example of the canny writing student who spins a wholly fictional “tragic account of his friend’s car accident and death” (197) to please his teacher. The graded exchange value of the student’s essay is the reason for Lindquist’s monetary metaphor, but Paris Hilton might remind us not to ignore the somewhat pornographic nature of publicly disclosing conventionally private acts – faked or not.

Furthermore, the booming popularity of amateur pornography, personal weblogs, and the memoir genre (Hilton, at 24, has written one) serves as an indicator of the increasing individuation of production and consumption. Shoshana Zuboff and James Maxmin confirm this increase, suggesting that we’ve already begun to move past simple “mass” consumption and production, and pointing out what that move has to do with the way individuals work in a networked economy of consumption. “In an advanced industrial society,” they write, “consumption is a necessity, not a luxury. It is what people must do to survive. It is the way that individuals take care of themselves and their families, much as hunting and gathering or growing crops were for people of earlier societies. [. . .] Through the consumption of experience — travel, shelter, college — people both achieve and express individual self-determination. No one can escape the centrality of consumption” (7).

Educators worry that the immaterial acts of consumption and production associated with weblogs are becoming increasingly commercialized. The examples of such commercialization are too many and too familiar to list here, so I hope a few might suffice: top sites like BoingBoing, Slashdot, MetaFilter, Instapundit, and Eschaton all rely on advertisements for income, while bloggers like Jason Kottke solicit donations in return for links, and Andrew Sullivan relies on both advertisements and solicited donations. What happens, then, when writing teachers domesticate such technologies by bringing them into the classroom? Foucault’s perspective, cited earlier, merits further exploration: he names four “technologies” “that human beings use to understand themselves” (146), and we might understand school-related blogging as the intersection of all four of those technologies: “(1) technologies of production [. . .]; (2) technologies of sign systems [. . .]; (3) technologies of power, which determine the conduct of individuals and submit them to certain ends or domination, an objectivizing of the subject; (4) technologies of the self, which permit individuals [. . .] to transform themselves” (146). I’ll here contend that writing teachers ought to understand student blogging as a technology of the self at the code level, as a technology of signs in the classroom, as a technology of power when a student focuses a weblog entry or series of entries around a subject other than herself, and — as my argument thus far should indicate — as a technology of discursive production.

From Foucault’s perspective, then, the writing teacher’s worry is that commercial aspects of the Web and the bottomless pockets of advertisers will serve as technologies of domination of the individual student: “the encounter between the technologies of domination of others and those of the self I call ‘governmentality'” (Foucault 147). Indeed, there exists a long-standing tradition — at all levels of education — of worries about the effects of commerce on students. According to PBS, some of the major problems with the increasing commercialization of schools are that “taxpayer-funded” schools “shouldn’t promote a particular company or product” and that schools can also “provide a captive audience for advertisers, and critics question the ethics and advisability of advertising to young people” in such situations. Furthermore, “the commercialization of schools endangers [. . .] community control of the school environment, and the autonomy of the school policies.” David Noble worries that “the commoditization of university instruction [. . .] raises for students major questions about costs, coercion, privacy, equity, and the quality of education.” And Wesley Shumar is concerned that learning and research in higher education have “come to be valued in terms of their ability to be translated into cash or merchandise and not in any other ways, such as aesthetic or recreational pleasure. Eventually, the idea that there are other kinds of value is lost” (5). Ultimately, the concerns of critics of the intersection of economics and education can be summarized in three points:

  1. In school environments, students may be victimized by their supposed inability to discern the difference between commercial and noncommercial interests.
  2. The introduction of commercial interests into the environment of public education is antidemocratic and takes decisions about the content and governance of education out of the hands of the public.
  3. The goal of all commerce is the transformation of use value into the harvestable surplus of exchange value: industry will never be as interested in educating students as it will be in making profits.

While composition teachers tell students to “Write for yourself” when they assign the personal essay and “Write for the world” when they assign the research essay, writing for the world is often the only assignment that is understood to have some future productive economic value. In contemporary mainstream economics, “being yourself” is a consumptive practice, and economic production (unless one is, like Paris Hilton, a member of the celebrity class) requires, in fact, an abnegation of self.

(part 2 follows tomorrow)

Paris and Me, Part 1