The Null Device

Enthusiasm and its discontents

Mark Dery critically examines at the relentlessly upbeat politics of enthusiasm in the age of the Tumblr blog and the Like button:
At its brainiest, this sensibility expresses itself in the group blog Boing Boing, a self-described “directory of wonderful things.” Tellingly, the trope “just look at this!,” a transport of rapture at the wonderfulness of whatever it is, has become a refrain on the site, as in: ”Just look at this awesome underwear made from banana fibers. Just look at it.” Or: “Just look at this awesome steampunk bananagun. Just look at it.” Or: “Just look at this bad-ass volcano.” Or: “Just look at this illustration of an ancient carnivorous whale.” Because that’s what the curators of wunderkammern do—draw back the curtain, like Charles Willson Peale in “The Artist in His Museum,” exposing a world of “wonderful things,” natural (bad-ass volcanoes, carnivorous whales) and unnatural (steampunk bananaguns, banana-fiber underwear), calculated to make us marvel.
Of course, there is a downside to this relentless boosterism: the positive becomes the norm (how many things can you "favourite"?); meanwhile, critical thought becomes delegitimised. When everybody's building shrines to their likes, any expression of negativity is an attack on someone's personal taste, making one a "hater" (a term originally from hip-hop culture which, tellingly, gained mainstream currency in the past decade). From this relentlessly upbeat point of view, critics are no more legitimate than griefers, the players in multi-player games who destroy others' achievements motivated by sadism:
At their wound-licking, hater-hatin’ worst, the politics of enthusiasm bespeak the intellectual flaccidity of a victim culture that sees even reasoned critiques as a mean-spirited assault on the believer, rather than an intellectual challenge to his beliefs. Journal writer Christopher John Farley is worth quoting again: dodging the argument by smearing the critic, the term “hater” tars “all criticism—no matter the merits—as the product of hateful minds.” No matter the merits.
The culture of enthusiasm, and the culture of disenthusiasm (which Dery mentions), seems to be founded on the assumption that we are defined by the things we like and dislike. It's a form of commodity fetishism taken into the cultural sphere, though one step removed from the accumulation of material goods, rather dealing with approval and disapproval. Not surprisingly, it's often associated with youth subcultures; take, for example, punks' leather jackets; the names which appear on the back, and those omitted for obviousness or inauthenticity, signal their wearers' authenticity and legitimacy in the culture. (Hipsters take it further, into the realm of irony, where one's status is measured by how close one can surf to the void of kitsch; being into, say, Hall & Oates or M.C. Hammer, is worth more than safe choices like Joy Division and the Velvet Underground, which are so obvious a part of every civilised person's background that trumpeting one's enthusiasm for them is immediately suspect.)

However, likes and dislikes, when worn as badges of identity, can become mere totemism. Do you like, say, The Strokes or Barack Obama, because you find them interesting, or because you wish to be identified as the kind of person who does? Or, as A Softer World put it:

Cultural products (a term which encompasses everything from pop stars to public intellectuals, from comic books to politicians) can fulil two functions: they can be valued for their content or function (does this band rock? Is this book interesting?), or for their function as establishing the consumer's identity. Much like vinyl record sleeves framed on trendy apartment walls by people who don't own turntables to project an aura of cool, favourite books or movies or bands or public figures can be trotted out to buttress one's public image, without ever being fully digested. (Witness, for example, the outspokenly religious American "Conservatives" who idolise Ayn Rand, a strident atheist who expressed a Nietzschean contempt for religion.) Likes and dislike, in other words, are like flags, saluted or burned often out of habit or social obligation as much as any intrinsic value they may hold.

At the end, Dery points out that, far more interesting and telling than what we like or dislike are the things we both like and dislike, or else find fascinating; things which compel us with a mixture of fascination and repulsion, in whatever quantities, rather than neatly falling into one side or the other of the love/hate binary.

Freed from the confining binary of loving versus loathing, Facebook Like-ing versus hateration, we can imagine an index of obsessions, an inventory of intrigues that more accurately traces the chalk outline of who we truly are.
Imagine a more anarchic politics of enthusiasm, poetically embodied in a simulacrum of the self that preserves our repulsive attractions and attractive repulsions, reducing us not to our Favorites, nor even to our likes and dislikes, but to our obscure obsessions, our recurrent themes, the passing fixations that briefly grip us, then are gone—not our favorite things, but the things that Favorite us, whether we like it, or even know it, or not.

There are 7 comments on "Enthusiasm and its discontents":

Posted by: Greg Sat Jan 22 13:27:16 2011

Interesting article. I agree - people seem to brook no criticism, mistaking it for attack.

Regarding the other problem - that increasingly we are defined by the things we "like" - I wonder if this is a byproduct of the practice of modeling website users in software?

It emanates from the world of social websites such as Facebook and dating sites. In these systems, the most important "domain objects" are the users themselves. Inevitably then, users are modeled in software.

In software, an object is equal to the set of the values assigned to its properties, and nothing more. Each site user has the same set of properties, and can vary only by the values these store.

We perceive real people as complex mixes of thoughts and inclinations moderated by situation and history. Their simple properties - age and so on - are a tiny part of reality. But in software these properties are the only reality. The details people type in, and the buttons they click, are a website's only perception of people.

Posted by: acb Sat Jan 22 23:03:40 2011

The phenomenon of defining oneself by likes is older than the internet. All the youth tribes of the rock'n'roll age were predicated on this. As are choices of reading material (particularly in the UK, where newspapers such as the Guardian and the Daily Mail stand for entire sets of political values, though elsewhere too; for example, McSweeney's seems to stand somewhere next to Wes Anderson and Neutral Milk Hotel in the pantheon of bourgeois bohemianism)

Posted by: Greg Sun Jan 23 03:28:31 2011

Sure, defining people by their likes is pre-tech, but modeling people in software might "lock it in". Using classes or database tables means we have no choice but to define each person as (nothing more than) values stored in a set of attributes of our choosing, and since the database only talks to the web UI we have no choice but to populate the values of the properties according to buttons they click. My hunch is that object-oriented programming leads website developers to think this way. Somewhat technology-deterministic I know.

I read the Guardian but had to look up McSweeneys, Wes Anderson and Neutral Milk Hotel. What category am I in? (Hopefully not "old".)

Posted by: Greg Sun Jan 23 03:46:13 2011

I should add that I'm working on this problem lately, so I'm kind of thinking aloud. I'm building a website with social networking features in a health-support domain and we're trying to figure out what should be in users' profiles - what are the attributes by which each user is defined to the others.

We've added all sorts of attributes and then pulled a lot back out. There are difficult questions. Should "favourite movies" etc be included? Personally I don't like that in social sites because I don't watch movies and have nothing to type in. Does this make me persona-non-interesting? And which attributes are relevant in a health domain? We want people to see each other as people, but don't want the site to get too off-topic. One idea is to give users some free-text attributes with prompting questions, but you still have to choose what the questions will be.

It's interesting to compare profiles on different sites and see how the developers view their users.

Posted by: Wed Jan 26 23:50:22 2011

I've seen a number of commentators lately pointing out that your Facebook profile isn't "you", it's you playing what you want people to think "you" are. I never "like" things that I don't actually like, but I have to admit feeling that as I do this, I'm broadcasting a certain persona to the world.

Then there's the whole confused etiquette of the "Like" button. If I see an obituary for someone I respected, do I "Like" it? I don't *like* that they died. But there's no "Commiserate" or "Pay respects" button. I feel the same way on Metafilter, sometimes, clicking the Favourite button in an obituary thread, or a thread about some terrible tragedy.

Posted by: ianw Sat Jan 29 04:02:23 2011

notwithstanding the various points made in this post and its comments, surely the idea/practise of defining each other / ourselves by what we "like" and "dislike" is not some 'assumption' underpinning the culture of [etc.] but something profoundly inherent in the meaning of the word "like".

Posted by: acb Sat Jan 29 20:57:55 2011

"Like", like "love", is a word which applies to various concepts. The most basic, and overwhelmingly dominant one, is approval or self-identification: liking sports teams, bands, political champions and such. Because humans are hardwired for tribalism, it drowns out more nuanced, detached, meanings, such as finding topics interesting as topics.

Perhaps we need a word without the positive implications of "like". Though the problem is that by not appealing to the gut-punch of tribal self-identification, it'd be a lot less compelling. Which matters a lot for sites like Facebook.

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