From the archive of fifteen credibility street (#17, 2000)
Practicing criticism is a matter of making facile gestures difficult.
— M. Foucault
The commodification of authenticity rests on one key strategy: an inducement to simple-mindedness. In order to sell a product as a solution to the problem of identity, the manufacturer must convince the consumer that the complexity of experience is illusory, that a simple product is effective precisely because a simple reality is disguised in a difficult appearance. This is necessary, after all, because self-help is nothing but packaging; these books, videos and associations are empty of content, but the presentations are engineered to very exacting specifications.
We live in an age that believes that wisdom lies in simple-mindedness. (How else do you explain Forrest Gump and television evangelism?) Who is distrusted more, in our civic culture, than the intellectual? Because the incentive to consume is impossible without a simple equation (need + commodity = satisfaction), the entire machinery of production is reductionist.
We once had the misfortune of attending a seminar on “How to Work with Difficult People.” The presentation consisted of the assertion that patterns of behavior and motivation–that is, the whole of human personality–fall into five categories. The author’s great insight was to name these categories after shapes: square, circle, squiggle, &c. The audience was enthralled; they actually believed that they were gaining some valuable understanding of human development. This group of people was quite ready to believe that they were stupid enough not to have thought of such a simple solution to the problem of social interaction. They were all too eager to surrender responsibility for the problem-solving of which their work mainly consisted. Many of the people in the room were imbeciles, and it might have been expecting too much to believe that they could think at an adult level. But several people should have known better.
People want to believe that problems such as alienated labor and intolerance can be reduced to simple categorization tasks. In the place of complexity of structure and historical processes, the infantilized favor colors, shapes and tautologies. This is exactly the kind of laziness and moral retardation that we associate with the failure to achieve adulthood. These are people living in fear of having to care for themselves.
The tropes of the self-help genre are childlike. Five simple shapes. A-B-C. Three steps to success. Visualize. Believe it and it is true. How is it possible that adults of normal intelligence could believe such blather? Self-help is a form of baby-talk. It is empty of adult meaning, but it has the seductive cadence of the nursery rhyme. Unlike children, who can’t be held responsible for their infantile desire, these consumers are choosing to turn off their self-awareness.
From an ethical standpoint, it is not a matter of fraud. Ideology is more serious than that. The valorization of simple-mindedness is Faustian bargain. In this case, though, we are not talking about trading your soul for worldly success. Rather, this is an exchange of your adulthood for a sense of security. (The same bargain, in fact, offered by religion.) The consumer capitalist state is offering you a bottle; you have to have discipline not to suck.
The total aestheticization of experience requires that one take responsibility for one’s thought and action. One must be an adult to be an aesthete. The first requirement of intellectual adulthood is integrity: the refusal to say that something false is something true, just because it is expedient or profitable. The adult world is complex. The aesthete acknowledges this, even though it may provoke anxiety or frustration. The aesthete rejects the fables and icons of advertising, folk wisdom and religion. The aesthete is a scientist, in the broadest sense, committed to analyzing the complexity of experience and continually engaged in critique. To critique is to discern. As Foucault reminds us, the practice of criticism is a public stand against simple-mindedness. For the aesthete, this is a daily activity and noble struggle.