(from a talk I did in I think 2015 on travel writing(?))
It’s a weirdly affecting experience to browse the Amazon reviews for Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love. For many people, this book has obviously been extremely meaningful: many reviewers refer to Gilbert as “Liz”, and expound the virtues of her extremely personal narrative, which, as one reviewer instructively suggests, leaves one feeling “inspired, entertained, and hopeful”. Indeed, this sense of unimpeded inspiration and hope seems to be one of the central appeals of the book, as another reviewer suggests that this memoir functions as proof that “one can live one’s life in an ever expanding circle of vitality and joy”. So, with that in mind, this morning I’d like to examine how Gilbert uses this sense of personal inspiration throughout Eat Pray Love to subtly endorse individualist consumerism as a vehicle for spiritual fulfilment.
From the outset of the narrative, it is clear that Gilbert’s primary objective is to establish a sense of trust and complicity between the narrator and her readers, such that when she introduces the reason for her unhappiness, readers are encouraged to consider her situation in relation to their own. Note, for example, the bland generalities she employs to describe her discontent at the opening of the narrative: “I was supposed to want to have a baby. My husband and I…had built our entire life around the common expectation that after the doddering old age of thirty…I would have grown weary of traveling and would be happy to live in a big, busy household full of children and homemade quilts, with a garden in the backyard and cozy stew bubbling on the stovetop” (10). In this way, Gilbert aims squarely at the hidden fears of other middle aged women who find themselves disinterested in the heteronormative American Dream, and invites them to reflect on exactly why the normative family unit is an unfulfilling imposition on their agency as individuals.
In this sense, Gilbert offers a valuable and easily-accessible first-hand account of what Lauren Berlant would call “cruel optimism”, or, the phenomenon in which “something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing” (1). For Berlant, Liz Gilbert’s anxiety would be understood as the disconcerting tension between her attachment to the pursuit of what she has been lead to believe is the “good life”, and her aversion to the normative domestic role of women within that life (i.e., rearing children, tending a garden, making stew). And this tension is really the crucial thing, as it activates Gilbert — and therefore, her trusting readers — to an awareness of the cruelty of their attachments. As Berlant goes on to argue, “if the cruelty of an attachment is experienced by someone…even in a subtle fashion, the fear is that the loss of the promising object/scene itself will defeat the capacity to have any hope about anything” (24). This is to say, the sudden revelation of the paradoxical cruelty of one’s attachments also reveals the precarity of one’s being-in-life, as the subject is forced to find new objects toward which she can orient herself, or else risks a complete loss of attachment to anything and becomes disillusioned with the world as a whole. Thus, an awareness of the cruelty of one’s attachments is both a risk and an opportunity, wherein one’s normative attachments are productively disturbed and the potential to locate new and more fulfilling attachments is activated.
But this is where Berlant and Gilbert’s projects diverge. Where Berlant explicitly lays out the roots of cruel optimism in the reductive logic of consumer capitalism and goes on pursue more productive modes of “being in life without wanting the world”, Gilbert subtly re-inscribes her briefly disillusioned reader back within the logic of consumer capitalism. For Gilbert, the language of female empowerment is employed only so far as to encourage her trusting reader that self-interested consumption is actually a viable method of rebelling against the oppressive norms of their patriarchal society. Thus, when Gilbert goes on to allow herself to “express little baby-step wants” (23), she’s simultaneously granting a kind of permission to her reader as well: her admissions that “I want to go to a Yoga Class”, or “I want to buy myself a new pencil box” (23) are rendered not as fairly straightforward impulses toward consumerism, but as very real personal victories against a society that demands female selflessness. When she first sees the photograph of David’s “spiritual teacher”, she writes, “My heart skipped a beat and then flat-out tripped over itself and fell on its face. Then my heart stood up, brushed itself off, took a deep breath and announced: ‘I want a spiritual teacher’ ” (25). While there is obviously nothing particularly radical about this statement, it’s framed to suggest a new “spiritually active” mode of being in the world. Gilbert’s “heart” heroically brushes itself off from the imposition of selflessness and demands a new set of “spiritual”, or self-interested consumer goods toward which she can orient herself. Thus, the entirety of the narrative that follows, despite what appear to be very real moments of “spirituality”, are always already couched within the logic of personal consumption. This new “spiritual” mode of being is predicated on a slight shift from the normative domestic consumerism that Gilbert defiantly eschews, into the superficially distinct mode of empowering self-interest.
Indeed, the whole text of Eat Pray Love is self-consciously presented as an artifact of consumerism, as the spiritual journey that Gilbert enjoys is entirely enabled by a $200,000 publisher’s advance. As Gilbert describes: “I can actually afford to do this because of a staggering personal miracle: in advance, my publisher has purchased the book I shall write about my travels” (35). Personal miracle or not, the advance reminds us that this text and the “spiritual content” it contains are already products that have been purchased, and will be sold. Thus, to buy into its message of self-empowering spirituality is to confirm the legitimacy of the mechanisms that enabled its production. Again, this does not undermine the very real spiritual experiences that Gilbert describes: spending one fifth of a million dollars and a year abroad to explicitly indulge in self-discovery would doubtlessly be a very transformative experience. But by explicitly embedding that experience within the logic of consumption, Gilbert is subtly reaffirming the ostensibly irrefutable centrality of consumerism as the mediator of human experience: Thus, her trusting reader, who deeply identifies with Liz Gilbert’s disillusionment in the cruelly optimistic “good life fantasy” of house, husband, children, and domestic duties, is seduced by an even greater consumer fantasy of spiritual fulfilment: as Ruth Williams succinctly describes, “the EPL brand purports to allow women to ‘buy’ a piece of Gilbert’s spiritual journey” (615), which, of course, presupposes that spiritual fulfilment is something that can be purchased at all.
Thus, unlike Berlant, who envisions a mode of being beyond “The Good Life fantasy” in which “one would achieve both mental health and a commitment to equality [by embracing] precarity as the condition of being and belonging” (194), Gilbert simply expands what “the good life fantasy” entails: she affirms the inherent value of the heteronormative relationship and its accompanying set of consumer goods, and then appends the additional fantasy of spiritual fulfilment through self-indulgent consumption, a fantasy which the marketplace is eager to accommodate.
I spent the afternoon yesterday reading through Grafton Tanner’s Babbling Corpse: Vaporwave and the Commodification of Ghosts. It’s a fun book! It’s some of the best writing I’ve seen on how the internet actually feels right now: disjointed, ephemeral, endlessly complex and yet somehow still fundamentally shallow.
One of the main arguements of the book, as I see it, is this idea that late capitalism has more or less forced the drive for innovation in art to atrophy, such that what we’re left with is a bunch of mass-produced consumer art that just mines the aesthetics of the past and sells them back to us (i.e., contemporary radio pop is mostly the same rehashed ideas over and over again, comicbook superheroes have re-emerged as an acceptable form of entertainment for adults, star wars is back, etc.). Thus, artistic innovation, marginal as it is, takes on a new form as well: it responds to late capitalism’s slick marauding of the past with some past-maurading of its own, but rather than turning old art into the polished new products, it seeks to transform earlier artifacts of consummerism into warped and uncanny versions of themselves.
The main example of this, for Tanner, is vaporwave, which, as he suggests, “take the fit, smiling, white-teethed mask off Muzak and replaces it with a more sinister face — the dead stare of unfettered capitalism” (41). For Tanner, vaporwave is the quintessential genre of late capitalism, as it employs capitalism’s own tricks and repurposes them for its own end (i.e., endless repetition, rehashed asthetics, shallow gestures toward broader concepts or themes). Tanner’s discussion of vaporwave’s relationship with consummerism is really illuminating and gave me a lot to think about.
What I wanted to draw attention to, though, is Tanner’s suggestion that Vaporwave actually manages to escape the endless cycle of production and consumption that characterizes late capitalism. He writes, “for the most part, there is a product we cannot consume in the virtual plaza, and that is vaporwave itself. Vaporwave is the sound of the virtual plaza reframed and thrown back at us in an attempt to reveal for us capital’s stronghold on our existence, but its method of production and distribution lies totally outside the financial transactions that occur in the plaza” (45). At first glance, this is a fair point: vaporwave is usually produced by individuals in their spare time, usually distributed for free on bandcamp or youtube.
But what’s worth considering, I think, is that what vaporwave is offering extends beyond the artifacts it produces. Vaporwave can also be understood as an aesthetic (or, “a e s t h e t i c 美的”, if you will), by virtue of which it is inherently available to be appropriated by the same late consummer capitalist culture that it is critiquing. In this sense, vaporwave producers are actually just performing the free creative labour in a process that is always already capitalism. While the novelty of the genre might feel subversive now, it‘s not particularly difficult to imagine a vaporwave soundalike scoring a make-up commercial or something (btw, has this already happened?). Consider how quickly vaporwave’s spiritual precursor chillwave transitioned from the Hot New Thing into a sort of punchline once some mainstream blogs got a hold of it (note as well that the longest lasting artifact of chillwave is probably Washed Out’s Gary Low-sampling “Feel It All Around”, which is now best known as the theme music for IFC’s Portlandia).
My point is basically this: while I agree with Tanner that vaporwave does serve as an interesting example of how art can continue to respond to the impositions of late capitalism in genuinely surprising ways, I remain sceptical as to wether it provides a model for actually transcending the late capitalist ethos in any sustainable way. The best we can hope for, maybe, is that, as late capitalism continues to mine our cultural past in an increasingly invasive and grotesque manner, art will responsively become weirder and more difficult to translate into a marketable product.
Btw, you can buy Babbling Corpse here at Zero Books.
The following is a very short thing written for a panel discussion on posthuman conceptions of community at the university of manitoba, 3 feb 2016
In her book Vibrant Matter, Jane Bennett develops a theory of vital materialism that employs the Deleuzian notion of assemblages to conceptualize the diffuse set of actors (both “human” and not) that are involved in the enactment of any given phenomena. The goal, for Bennett, is “to articulate a vibrant materiality that runs alongside and inside humans to see how analyses of political events might change if we gave the force of things more due” (viii). For Bennett, the emphasis on a wider set of beings is meant to recontextualize human intentionality as just one of many actors behind the enactment of any given phenomena, such that “[t]he locus of agency is always a human-nonhuman work group” (xvii). While Bennett’s work aims to fulfill the noble posthuman project of “decentering the human”, her conception of agential heterogenetic assemblages, wherein “strong responsibility seems… to be empirically false” (37), could be understood to suggest an eerie and chaotic agential landscape wherein human intentionally is subsumed into a blur of nonhuman forces, and human responsibility gives way to a kind of agentive nihilism. While I don’t think this is actually Bennett’s intention, it is definitely something that anyone reading her work is going to have to contend with. So, in what follows, I’d like to talk a little bit about why certain aspects of Bennett’s otherwise compelling notion of vital materialism are so troubling, with a particular emphasis on her usage of heterogeneity as the basis for the assemblage.
The whole issue, as I see it, is summed up pretty cleanly when Bennett attempts to cash out her theory into a kind of ethics. She writes, “[p]erhaps the ethical responsibility of an individual human now resides in one’s response to the assemblages in which one finds oneself participating” (37). So rather than instilling a sense of responsibility toward one’s assembled community of human and non-human others, Bennett’s notion of the assemblage leaves the human actor observing his relationality to others only indirectly, while he vigilantly monitors his own participation in assemblages whose trajectory he appraises to be “likely to do harm” (37). What’s important to note is not only how this conception of agency leaves the human disconnected from what he would otherwise view as “his” actions, but, perhaps more fundamentally, the fact that, in a certain basic sense, it actually reaffirms the distinctly humanist ontological binary between human and nonhuman that Bennett is trying to distance herself from: The human is still figured as the starting point of inquiry, as he vigilantly calculates and reacts to his relationship to a heterogenetic assemblage from which he is implicitly uniquely capable of extricating himself.
While Bennett’s turn toward this residual humanism does read jarringly against the theoretical project of her work, my suspicion is that she is lead to this position on the basis of her heterogenetic account of the assemblage: because her notion of assemblages implicitly requires a set of ontologically distinct beings who then iteratively enact a “confederate agency” (37), Bennett’s vital materialism does not sufficiently problematize “the human” as a given point of departure: The heterogeneity of her assemblages in fact necessarily fixes the ontological status of “the human” as a discrete being before its inscription within the assemblage. Thus, the human subject remains the starting point of his own calculus, with all the anthropocentric and individualistic assumptions that the liberal humanist conception of “the human” entails, who then situates himself within an assemblage of others, who figure mostly as potential impediments to the enactment of his particular intentions. Granted, this is a decidedly uncharitable reading of Bennett’s theory, but without challenging the ontological primacy of the “human” being, she is left with no recourse to combat the inertial presence this humanistic anthropocentrism.
To remedy this, I advocate for what one could call “dynamic homogeneity” in assemblage thinking, or a conception of agency that not only directs its attention toward the assemblage, but actually takes the process of assembling itself to be ontologically primary.
Rather than conceiving of agency as a set of discrete phenomenal assemblages which are themselves constituted of similarly discrete, marginally interactive actors, dynamic homogeneity describes a singular, ongoing and indeterminate process through which ostensibly discrete beings (both human and not) are contingently assembled.
The benefit of this approach is that it effectively dissolves any hard or lasting boundary between the human and the assemblage, such that our human actor is freed from the illusion that he could ever truly choose not to participate in the assemblage with which he is inherently entangled: because his existence as such is necessarily contingent upon the singular, dynamic, and ontologically-primary process of assembly, he is also inherently and irrevocably tethered to the human and non-human community alongside whom and which he emerges. Thus, we are not so much focused on wether or not to participate in an assemblage that may be set up to cause harm, but rather how our own irrevocable participatory behaviour can be modified to encourage the flourishing of the whole ongoing assembling process. This is the basic move made by posthuman theorists such as Karen Barad, who argues, “There are no singular causes, And there are no individual agents of change. Responsibility is not ours alone. And yet our responsibility is greater than it would be if it were ours alone. Responsibility entails an ongoing responsiveness to the entanglements of self and other, here and there, now and then” (394). Like Bennett, Barad rejects the notion that responsibility is “ours alone”, but then goes on to suggest that, precisely because it is not ours alone, we are responsible not only to ourselves, but to our whole assembled community. By making the process of assembling ontologically primary, a dynamically homogenous account of vital materialism productively affirms our irrevocable participation in the world as an ongoing act of becoming, and emphasizes our responsibility to the community of others alongside whom we contingently emerge.
Okay, I’ve previously been blogging a little over at medium but after spending a little time going through some ‘academic research blogs’ I feel like wordpress might be a more fun place to post stuff. I’m going to maybe move some of my medium posts over here, just to populate the blog a little, but my plan is mostly to use this to post ideas and notes that have to do with what will hopefully become my PhD dissertation (which, though looming far in the distance, is causing me a good deal of anxiety indeed, so maybe this blog will at least capture some of that weird anxious energy, I don’t know). This blog probably isn’t really “for” anybody, though I have written a short and incredibly vague little thing about the basic thing I’m thinking about, and I earnestly welcome commentary, criticism, etc.
thanks, take care.