April’s theme is LUST FOR LIFE, which should connote Dionysian partying rituals (which we now call “prom,” “homecoming,” or just TUESDAY AFTERNOON, am I right?!), but we can’t forget about that lust part, that tug, that ache. And the ache isn’t necessarily for “life” as in euphoria, but just something more human, than this, right now. I keep seeing this time described as surreal, as hyper-real. Recent events support the seriously-entertained-by-smart-people theory that we are living in a computer simulation. Dystopian novels have surged in popularity. Zadie Smith pointed out in her recent interview with George Saunders, “Historians in 100 years might write about [the 2016 election] as being the first internet election, in which what happened was actually an expression in the real world of a virtual reality.” Since more and more “real life” is happening online—so much of mine has, in ways so close to who I am and my circumstances that I can’t even extract any clear cause-and-effects—I have been thinking a lot about how the internet got here. Why is it that when we have the world at our fingertips, we choose for it to be a place that magnifies and reinforces some of the worst aspects of human behavior? That condescends to the reader, assumes unintelligence? The way materialism and consumerism have trained us to try and “fill the hole” by buying stuff, mindless scrolling and hoping to feel something—or to remain distracted from the basic discomfort of being alive, or worse, from one’s oppressors—have become other ways to try and solve feelings of existential lack. Starting at a younger and younger age, we are taught to conflate Likes with social capital, and social capital with self-esteem, subconsciously assigning currency to one’s every feature in the hopes that it will all add up to a feeling of belonging in this version of the world that we choose to live in online that doesn’t even want us to be our best selves, anyway. Every thought is followed by an evaluation of its shareability, either in the mind or tested on social media. Watching its reception unfold, the premium on universality becomes even shinier. Countless young people reflecting back other young people reflecting back generations of depictions of young people in media, entertainment, and advertising. Whether we’re literally living in a computer simulation controlled by intelligent life on another planet or not (lol), we can’t help but simulate all this content. The recognizable is mistaken for good, substantive, even original. One’s ability to distinguish feelings of validation from those of genuine connection wanes. Instead of striving to feel known, we settle for just being seen. By learning to commodify the moments and thoughts which make up this existence, we all become performers, while remaining, firmly, the audience.
For as long as people like myself have advocated for its value as a learning resource and way of connecting with other people, the election of Trump felt like ultimate proof that the shitty parts of the internet are more powerful: as a tool of capitalism distracting people from their own positions in the class system, and indoctrinating them into beliefs, or at least distributing their time/page views/dollars to systems, that continue to keep them oppressed.
In 1976, Stuart Ewen described adolescence as the “period of time with none but a consumptive relation to civil society.” In more recent years, through the internet, young people have had more influence over what is being sold back to us than ever before. This is great when you can cut out the middleman and teens are just making things for each other (except for how it fucks with your sense of self-worth as I summarized above), and when the middleman is paying teen creators for their work so that people can do what they love in a capitalist society that we all have to learn to exist within. It also means that it’s easier and faster for brands to figure out what the youth is into, and to sell it back. Because it’s savvy enough to react to accountability culture and the vocalness of communities underserved by mainstream media, the Spectacle has made room for feminism, activism, and identity politics—most often as slogans, clickbait, and Word Salad-y headlines. In “The Trump Resistance Will Be Commercialized,” Amanda Hess writes of the way brands have inserted themselves into the Trump conversation under the guise of “raising awareness”—as if an underwear brand’s Instagram account should be considered a reputable source of news or discourse. Publications have brands, too (including this one); articles are not just pieces of journalism, but products (including this one). Going back to the individual, one’s “stance” on these issues becomes another type of flair in the process of self-commodification. Imagine someone who might be intellectually and even emotionally perturbed by the election of Trump, but who is ultimately protected by the privileges of being (let’s use someone who looks like me, because that’s all I can really speak to): white, cis, straight, able-bodied, and middle-to-upper-class. Imagine that that person spends a lot of time pulling her hair out in the form of impassioned internet comments about how Trump’s inauguration signals the apocalypse and she is [heartbroken, devastated, *crying selfie*]. Imagine she works in entertainment, where young women are valued primarily for their sex appeal and are, therefore, considered disposable, with an early expiration date. Imagine that she’s looking for a quality that sets her apart from the rest. Imagine a photographer friend recently telling me she had a phone call with the “team” of an internationally known pop star in which a manager said, “Everyone has to be an activist now.” We have no way to fact-check that because she won’t tell me who it was, so you can either believe me or not! Fake news! Alternative facts! Hiss! I’ll just refer to my friend Laia Garcia’s tweet: “slash-activist is the new slash-dj.”
I am not an omnipresent, all-knowing authority on other people’s intentions. Who am I to say who’s performing? Doing what I love for a living—writing, acting, running Rookie—has meant commodifying myself, as well, including my concerns about the world. Continue to question me, Rookie, everything. WHAT’S REAL, MAN? *smokes joint.* This brings us to the rabbit hole which opens up when you try to call out “virtue signalling,” as explained here by Oliver Burkeman:
“[M]oral condemnation, the Yale psychologists show, boosts your reputation even more effectively than bragging about how moral you are. It’s a shortcut to high status. No wonder we’ve evolved, or been socialised, to respond so angrily when we discover it was unearned.
This, I suspect, is the kernel of wisdom in the overused accusation of “virtue signalling,” an insult thrown at people suspected of being more interested in flaunting their progressive credentials—as anti-racist, anti-sexist, et cetera—than actually being moral. (Of course, accusing someone of virtue signalling is its own kind of signalling—an effort to demonstrate how hard-nosed and savvy you are.) What makes virtue signalling annoying, surely, is the suspicion that the signal’s false: that the signaller isn’t really so moral, or might even be using signalling as an alternative to being moral. Whenever you read an article morally condemning someone, it’s worth asking if the call-out is the writer’s way of not confronting their own prejudice.”
I am also reminded of Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl, a book from 1999 by a group of anonymous French theorists by the name of Tiqqun. The Young-Girl doesn’t have to be young or female, but the fetishization of those two qualities are what define this archetype: a person who has so deeply interpolated the messaging of capitalism that by striving for constant perfection/fuckability/girlhood/youth/immortality/pink-ness, by viewing every experience and relationship as an opportunity to make profit (even if it’s not literal dollars but a furthering of her social status), she remains isolated. (The book can get reductive and extreme in the interest of making a point, but I appreciate the boldness.) Here, they explain the next logical step for the Young-Girl after a trend has become too ubiquitous:
“As the Young-Girlist formatting becomes more widespread, competition hardens and the satisfaction linked to conformity wanes. A qualitative jump becomes necessary; it becomes urgent to equip oneself with new and unheard-of attributes: One must move into some still-virgin space. Hollywood sorrow, the political consciousness of TV news, vague neo-Buddhist spirituality, or an engagement in some consciousness-soothing enterprise should do the trick. Thus is born, bit by bit, the organic Young-Girl.”
This reads today like Theory of the Woke-Bae. I wonder if the most recent development in the organic Young-Girl—activism—will be remembered as a moment in social change or a moment in celebrity, the way it became important for a starlet to appear “real” and “down-to-earth” in the past 10 to 20 years. We’ve gone from “I eat cheeseburgers and I hate the red carpet!” to “I make movies as a form of activism.” The language of feminism is appropriated by media who’ve agreed to sell these people as having something to say: Society has convinced women they can’t be more than one thing, but this girl checks all the boxes: model, influencer, activist!
I’m not mad at the culture for changing, but I can hold two thoughts in my head at once, and I don’t consider it cynical to listen to the little voice that acknowledges the ways in which moral interest can coexist tidily with fiscal interest. Publications, brands, and personal brands get to appear subversive while following the new status quo: giving audiences content not designed to make them hate themselves. What a radical thought! The world is such a hellhole at the moment that it feels somehow distasteful or ill-timed to point out the seemingly microscopic problems with the left. I used to roll my eyes at articles focused solely on re-centering “the conversation,” believing these conversations to be insular. But the conversation—online media—is more powerful than I thought it was. From where I stand, it’s plainly obvious to everyone I know or who might be reading this that Breitbart is evil and right-wing fake news is dangerous. I don’t know how you begin to dismantle that monster, but I know liberal, feminist, left-wing media—where I’d categorize my own platforms—had a hand in this disaster, too, and I want to understand how. “Public intellectuals,” “public feminists” like myself—where can I improve?
1. “The Young-Girl is the commodity that insists on being consumed, at every instant, because at every instant she becomes more obsolete.” Tiqqun, Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl.↩
2. “In the hungry gaze of the Young-Girl, each thing and each being, organic and inorganic, looks as though it could become possessed, or at least consumed. Everything she sees, she sees as and thus transforms into a commodity.” Tiqqun.↩
3. “Women are given Woman to consume, the young are given the Young and, in this formal and narcissistic emancipation, their real liberation is successfully averted.” Jean Baudrillard, The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures.↩
4. “Being identifiable isn’t necessarily ‘real.’” Richard Maxwell, Theater for Beginners.↩