Rob Horning of the always-awesome blog Marginal Utility has an essay at n+1 connecting the trends in fast-fashion retailers like Forever 21 to indentity formation on social media websites on the one hand and to perpetual uncertainty in labor markets throughout the world.
They have changed fashion from a garment making to an information business, optimizing their supply chains to implement design tweaks on the fly. Zara “can design, produce, and deliver a new garment and put it on display in its stores worldwide in a mere 15 days,”2 and this flow of information is by far the most significant thing the company produces…
Much as fast-fashion companies are routinely accused of pirating designs, Facebook continually oversteps once sacrosanct norms of privacy, opting users in to data-divulging mechanisms by default and backpedaling only when confronted with public outcry. It offers a space akin to the fast-fashion retailer’s changing room for the ritual staging of the self, inviting users to seize upon “stylistic elements” from wherever they can be grabbed. We become involuntary bricoleurs, scrambling to cobble together an ad hoc identity from whatever memes happen to be relevant at the time.
Horning concludes: “By seeming to mitigate the problems that neoliberalism creates by shifting economic risk onto workers, social media has been able to colonize the collective consciousness. Facebook, fast fashion, and the like provide new mechanisms of solace, quantifying our connections and influence (and thereby making them more economically useful to us) while enhancing the compensations of consumerism by making it seem more productive, more self-revelatory. Though we may be only one of a thousand friends in everyone else’s networks, that never seems especially important when we’re in the midst of posting new pictures. ” In other words, Facebook is the narcissist’s nirvana.
And when Horning says “And so we vacillate between anxious self-branding and the self-negating practice of seeking some higher authenticity: we have to watch ourselves become ourselves in order to be ourselves, over and over again” what he is talking about here is the “anxiety trap” that’s been discussed on Partial Objects since the blog started. Only here, rather than the producer setting the axiety trap through conventional advertising, they set up institutional structure in which we lay the trap for ourselves and each other. What is Facebook but a series of idealized representations of ourselves self-selected to make us appear more authentically happy than we are in real life? But Facebook pits our idealized representations against those idealized representations of others.
What Horning’s excellent article doesn’t touch on is the artifice at the heart of all of this.
The greatest critique of social media, shopping, constant rebranding–i.e. global capitalism in general–is that he people who run it, do not themselves participate in it. The people who own and run Google do not blog and Tweet incessantly. Zuckerberg does not have a personal Facebook page where he takes pics of himself at keg parties and posts them up. I don’t know What Larry page and Sergey Brin are watching, or when they get out of bed. That’s the stuff that you post on their sites that they exploit for money.
The man who who runs Forever 21, Do Won (Don) Chang, does not obsess over creating his personal fashion brand. He, and his family who run the company with him, do not obsess over having the latest clothes, or modelling their image after the trends they spot. They are by all accounts a traditional, typical Korean family. When he first emigrated to America, he held a number of jobs, one of them was as a janitor. On his Facebook page, he identifies himself as a devoted Christian, and includes some quotes from scripture. Does a guy who got his start working three jobs and scrubbing toilets strike you as the kind of person to encourage his children to chase fashion trends and buy new clothes all the time?
Take note of the fact that none of Mr. Chang’s work ethic, none of his worldview of sacrifice and hard work, is on display is his commercial creation. That outlook has enabled him to make sacrifices, endure hardship, persevere and build something massively successful. Instead his store promotes a lifestyle of perpetual youth and endless fun that engenders and feeds a ravenous and paranoid consumer mindset the he himself doesn’t possess and wouldn’t instill in his children.
The point is this: the people who make these things don’t really use these things. Paris Hilton doesn’t watch reality TV, but she wants you to watch her reality TV show. Larry Page and Sergey Brin don’t read or click Adsense ads, and Zuckerberg–who reads ancient Greek and Latin–doesn’t spend his time telling Facebook “what’s on his mind today.” Don Chang doesn’t want his daughters turning over their wardrobe every two weeks shopping at Forver 21. These people make things that they themselves would never use in the way that they want you to use them. This is the hypocrisy at the heart of capitalism, and it has been this way since the beginning, but it has never been so nakedly obvious.
Consumerism is a carny hustle. A game. Ask yourself why it is that the people who run the game generally don’t play the game. Ask yourself who is really winning the game.
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