My man, philosopher Alain Badiou, is profoundly worried on just this point: In an age of “Enlightened,” progressive, inclusive thinking, do we not simply turn each person into a new potential very special respected market?
Do we not say, if you are a sectarian with group X—any group—that we can now sell you your own image (coffee mugs of X, blog aggregators aggregating criticism around X, cable news shows gently mocking X, X events…)? Maybe we do; maybe we have; maybe simulation and mass production have made this phenomenon more obvious or worse.
It is true that, in the Middle Ages, pilgrims didn’t necessarily buy the staff of the Crusader (the one “signed by the Cross,” lit., signed by the Sign…). But still they had to acquire that identifying item, and of course the red cross itself, pinned to the clothing, and whatever national garb—certain pajamas for Bretons, others for Bulgars, still others for the Rhenish, &c. They made identity choices before capitalism and before (for the most part) media.
What I mean is, have new media altered group identity? Or, as with every other human process, made it more molecular? It happens at a lower level. We are told to identify at a lower level, at a constant level. We are asked (we ask each others, we ask ourselves) to “update” our “statuses,” our identities, our consciousnesses, for all to see.
We are returning to an era of public consciousness, it is true. But we are also moving into a new era of constant identity. Identities can shift radically, so long as they are public. The new media make this individuation of the identity both easy and “exciting,” meaning subtly mandatory; it is now odd (has the tinge of failed coup, failed elitist gambit, or counter-gambit) to deny real-synchronous “updating” in some format.
This leads to constant marketing—but constantly shifting marketing. Marketing was always a step behind, in the old days, because it couldn’t necessarily get to you when you were open to being marketed to. Now, as soon as you send an email about a pet dog, BOOM, marketing about dog food. But you’re also more likely to have moved on, mentally, and the next word triggers the next BOOM, and the short bursts of marketing lag a step each behind the short bursts of your consciousness.
Again, more molecular—evenly so. Capitalists and consumer–producers have the same set of tools. We, in fact, now have the advantage in that we can be exposed to a limitless pool of stimuli, each of which drags in its wake a limitless but always insufficiently filtered (insufficiently supplying) market.
Again, the critic must know this and know it better than the capitalist. She must abandon a politics that is limited to traditional markets. Whether or not Badiou’s fears about the limits of liberal thought within capital are true, we have arrived at a new plateau and are not going backward. Each person IS in fact a market. The new and old media alike will attempt to make this work for their financiers. (Are you a New Yorker kind of person? Or more of a Vice?)
The critic must make a new, human politics out of the fact that the consumer, the artist, and the democrat have these same tools, so that new media is no more or less inherently evil or commodifying than old. The critic must find the intersections between the media, old and new, the markets of the individual, and the individual’s sense of herself as a human.
And, finally, “old” but actually quite Modern fears of the public will be—must be, but will be—abandoned, and politics must reattach to art and media and life, so that we do not operate unconditionally, as robots in a world of provided roles, but as humans, who choose and discard identities and resist markets and, yes, probably, create markets all the time. We must return to a public, political (“city,” lit.) world, and to a world of choice. We return to Time itself—this time, armed with camera phones.