Thursday, 1 January 2015

Nigella and the Simulacrum

As our thoughts turn to the coming year, so the media whistles up some vacuum-packed "modern technology is rubbish" filler. The latest comes from LibDem hack David Boyle, the author of "Broke: Who killed the Middle Classes?", metaphorically doing a Jim Royle ("My arse") by insisting "The future? We’ve seen it all before". The core of his argument appears to be that the convenience food of the future, trialled by the Apollo missions and popularised by Cadbury's Smash, has been usurped by Nigella Lawson: "far from disappearing, our kitchens, with their shiny pots hanging unused above the stove, are now the biggest rooms in the house".

It is obviously absurd to imagine that the Apollo programme was ever intended to be a template for an Earth-bound future. Equally, we need to remember that Smash was an entertaining series of short films with an edible merchandising tie-in, not a culinary revolution. As anyone who ate it will know, it was largely bought as a treat for kids in the 70s (the attraction quickly palled). It failed to change our eating habits because it was relatively expensive (potatoes are surprisingly cheap), peeling and mashing spuds wasn't that onerous to begin with, and it tasted like wallpaper paste. In retrospect, it was a better education in semiotics and marketing than a foodstuff.

Boyle thinks we have turned our back on this bright future because we crave authenticity: "We might even drink instant coffee sometimes. But we are determined that the unspun, unmanipulated and unmarketed shall not perish from this Earth. Even if we have to wait in line for a hissing coffee machine. This has been dismissed as a middle-class fad, but most of us seem to be demanding more personality from politicians, more moral coherence from corporations. Authenticity is basically classless, even if it manifests itself in different ways for different people". Boyle is also the author of "Authenticity: Brands, Fakes, Spin and the Lust for Real Life" (you can see a pattern here, and not just in the old one-two style of title construction).

Authenticity, as a species of cultural capital, is anything but classless. Likewise, to claim that what we want from politicians is "personality" (rather than honesty), or what we want from corporations is "moral coherence" (rather than paying tax), is to privilege middle-class norms (Boris Johnson is a personality, businesses have moral personhood). Costa Coffee or Starbucks are obviously no more authentic than Nescafé, and arguably a lot less authentic than a styrofoam of tea from a roadside van, but the ideological purpose of this quote is not to convince us that positional goods are "unspun" but that there is an equivalence between coffee, politics and the public image of corporations. They are all to be treated as consumption preferences.

The segue from the authenticity of coffee shops to the inadequacy of technology is clumsy: "we cling to the real world ever more tightly as the virtual world presses its claims", a belief that Boyle attributes to the libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick (who incidentally advocated a minimal state and ended up justifying consensual enslavement). This is a crass misreading of Nozick's experience machine thought-experiment, which sought to provide a philosophical proof against hedonism (i.e. that pleasure is the greatest good) by suggesting that we would never permanently swap reality for a simulation, no matter how pleasurable. Nozick's point was not that we would "cling to the real world ever more tightly", but that we would never wholly let go of the real world.

We all live in the "real world" and mostly have limited and superficial dealings with the "virtual world". This is not The Matrix, or even the weekends-only sim that Nozick would presumably have been cool about. The virtual world is importunate but easily resisted. It presses its claims like a gnat. Boyle's second belief is that "despite what we are told, technological change is actually slowing down". This statement is fatuous, in exactly the same way as its opposite - "technological change is speeding up" - would be. The apparent pace of technological change is a matter of perspective, categorisation and philosophy. Technology is not a uniform field but simply the collective product of human curiosity and innovation. What we can say for certain is that there is more technology about, both because it is cumulative (the banal truth of the "shoulders of giants" metaphor) and because there is a larger global population (i.e. more curiosity).

To talk about "speed" is to fall into the error of assuming that innovation is directed via a single channel at a uniform rate, like a water hose whose flow is moderated by a tap. The tap is a metaphor for authority. The claim that technology is speeding up is a claim of efficiency - that progress is best managed by authority. The claim that technology is slowing down is a claim of effectiveness - that the achievements of the past will not easily be improved upon (the nostalgia of "shoulders of giants"). Both are conservative claims: the one advocating the maintenance of existing authority (e.g. the primacy of academic research and by extension our hierarchical education system), the other advocating scepticism about the social value of novelty and implying that the common herd is easily seduced by fashionable trivia.

Boyle's techno-dammerung lament is part of his ongoing campaign for authenticity, which boils down to the idea that there are certain commodities (and by extension people) that are more "real" than others and thereby of greater worth (the antipathy to Smash, like NescafĂ©, has a snobbish dimension). The roots of this discrimination go back to 18th century sensibility (the cultivation of elite taste), via 19th century romanticism (life lived at a pitch) and the arts and crafts movement (the progressive rejection of modernity). The 20th century has, in the words of Alain Badiou, exhibited a "passion for the real", hence the obsession with identity, fakes, signs, simulacra and simulation (I cite Nigella Lawson's "career", m'lud). But this very questioning and doubt has been recuperated as a form of fetishism in which uncovering the reality of commodities - their origin and social mode of production - has been commoditised in its own right. Ethical shopping is shopping with knobs on.

This is why the search for authenticity, which often starts as a progressive rejection of dominant norms, quickly descends into status competition (those "shiny pots hanging unused above the stove" are Le Creuset) and a peevish nostalgia that dovetails with middle class whingeing. The very lack of authenticity is deemed to be an affront, the curtailment of a right, which harks back to the old idea that modernity is a conspiracy against sensibility. There is a growing market for the meme of the beleaguered middle class, partly because of rational concerns about future access to well-paying and status-rich careers, as job polarisation and wealth inequality advance, but partly also because of the profusion of commodities, which gives rise to constant dissatisfaction and mild paranoia.

Not least among the meme's properties is that it distracts attention from the real victims of socio-economic change. As Stewart Lansley pointed out when Broke was published, "The main losers from today’s spreading crisis of opportunity and livelihood are those on middle and lower incomes [i.e. the working class] ... Some parts of the middle classes are being caught in this whirlwind of change, and the current generation will have it tougher than their parents and grandparents, but they remain a good deal better protected than most of the rest".

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