Self and Lack Thereof: On Kierkegaard and Capitalism

August 31, 2016

In the age of social media, identity is becoming increasingly fluid and fragmented: with greater access to information comes more exposure to new perspectives and personalities, and for every side of our selves, there is a channel to express it and an audience at the ready. This explosion of identities fits neatly into the logic of consumer capitalism: more identities means more markets. Thus, identity fluidity – a concept that has liberatory potential – ends up reinforcing existing capitalist structures. Søren Kierkegaard, as one of the early experts on identity, presents a useful lens to explore this contradiction.

Crop Rotation

Kierkegaard explored the idea of an ever-changing personality both explicitly and implicitly. It is notoriously difficult to find a consistent self or author behind his works as his use of pseudonyms and irony often obscures his point of view. In Either/Or, behind the pseudonyms of A and B, he argues for the merits of the aesthetic and ethical lifestyles, respectively. In one chapter, Crop Rotation, the aesthete A works from the axiom that all people are “tedious.” A argues against the maxim that idleness is the root of all evil – in fact, idleness can be a marvelous thing! Instead, it is tedium that makes people wicked and therefore attempts to overcome it are only natural. His solution is “crop rotation”: continually changing one’s experience of the world by taking on new subjectivities.

One must also continually vary oneself; this is the secret. For this, it is necessary to have control over one’s moods. In the sense of being able to generate them at will, this is an impossibility, but wisdom learns to utilize the moment. […] One must know how a mood affects oneself and is likely to affect others before taking it on.

In other words, tedium (and thus evil) is combated by continually changing one’s self and one’s moods. This is not a straightforward task: the ability to change one’s subjective experience requires a meta-awareness of, and ironic distance to, life. Once there is irony, it becomes difficult to place anything A writes – for any given passage, the reader cannot be confident that A would sincerely endorse it, and it is even less clear whether Kierkegaard would. In this way, just a bit of ironic distance can give the subject a high degree of freedom – if you know that they do not mean what they are saying, there is the potential for them to mean anything! A’s lack of commitment to having a self, to making choices, and to ethics means that his potential is almost infinite. By committing, he would have “everything to lose, nothing to gain.” However, this freedom is of a negative form: it is freedom from meaning and from the limitations that come with a singular, consistent self, but it is not a freedom to do anything.

Youth & normcore

Identities are becoming more fluid and fit less into the stereotypical molds that we were once used to. A culture where irony is everywhere, coupled with easy access to thousands of communities online, has made it possible for the Internet generation to explore many different subcultures and their corresponding identities in a short amount of time. A good example of this was normcore. Today’s consumers want to experience all the different (and quite possibly inconsistent) sides to their identity (particularly through their consumer choices, but not exclusively so). The marketing company that coined the term described normcore as:

the freedom to be with anyone. […] Normcore moves away from a coolness that relies on difference to a post-authenticity coolness that opts in to sameness. […] Your consumer choices aren’t irrelevant, they’re just temporary. People compromise, people are inconsistent. Making one choice today and a conflicting choice tomorrow doesn’t make you a hypocrite. It just makes you complex.

The contemporary consumer’s goal is to be able to fit in whether she is chanting with hooligans at a football match, listening to a lecture on gender studies, or going to a rave on a Monday night. It is not just the freedom to choose a superficial persona, but the freedom to try out the different underlying identity. Crucially, having these multiple identities means that the subject no longer belongs to just one group of consumers. Normcore causes market growth by breaking down the distinctions between markets – suddenly, the football fans are buying punk clothes, and the punks are buying football tickets. Normcore fuels capitalism by encouraging consumption of an even wider range of products.

BuzzFeed is one of the most apt embodiments of normcore. The driving factor behind BuzzFeed’s success is its habit of publishing posts that appeal to ultra-specific parts of visitors’ personalities. On any given day, the front page displays posts such as “16 Things Only Competitive People In A Relationship Can Relate To”, “24 Things That Close All-Girl Friend Groups Understand” and “17 Hard Truths About Growing Up Vegetarian”: readers have to relate to many different identities in a short amount of time. Before he founded BuzzFeed, Jonah Peretti critiqued this phenomenon in a 1996 paper titled Capitalism and Schizophrenia. His paper describes the process of identity formation that has made the site so popular and shows how this is both necessary for, and a result of, advanced capitalism.

Identity under capitalism

Peretti makes a Lacanian interpretation of these identity formations. In particular, he looks at the mirror stage of a child’s development – the stage at which an infant, before she has developed a unified ego, begins to notice her reflection and identify herself with it. Before this (which occurs at roughly six months of age) the infant will not recognize the reflection as being of herself. The mirror reflection shows a complete, consistent body that is different from the child’s turbulent and fragmented experience of reality thus far. The reflection represents the “Ideal-I” that the child will spend the rest of her life trying to attain (though this is an impossible quest). When the infant first recognizes herself and her “Ideal-I,” a desire for the Other is born that did not exist before. It is because she lacks this idealized self that she desires it. Mirror stage identification does not require a literal reflection in a mirror – it can also occur when the infant sees another child, for instance. Nor is this form of identification unique to infants. It is the same process that makes us identify with the main character in a film or book.

At this point, it has become a cliché to say that an advertisement does not sell a product; it sells a lifestyle – though it might be more accurate to say that it sells an identity. For an ad to be effective, the subject has to identify with it (in the Lacanian, mirror-stage sense). We buy Nike shoes not because they are the best running shoes, but because the runner in the ad induces an ego formation in us that makes the shoes vital to our self-perception as active, sporty individuals. We are faced with hundreds of these identifications in a single day on TV, the internet, newspapers, magazines, posters, and so on. We form identifications with the characters in our favorite TV show, with the supermodels on the subway advertisements, and with the musician on Spotify. The critical thing to note is not necessarily the content of these images, but the fact that the rate at which we assume identities is increasing, and that we are assuming them with greater efficiency. Many of these identifications encourage us to buy a product by inducing a sense of lack and coupled with the increasing ease of spending money (such as credit cards and online shopping), global consumption is increasing rapidly. In this way, these extremely rapid Lacanian identifications fuel consumer capitalism: The increasingly rapid rate at which images are distributed and consumed in late capitalism necessitates a corresponding increase in the rate that individuals assume and shed identities. Because advertisements link identity with the need to purchase products, the acceleration of visual culture promotes the hyper-consumption associated with late capitalism.

The ease with which we form these egos means that they are not very deeply seated – they fade away fast to make room for the next identification. When there are too many mirror-stage identifications, the effect is that of two mirrors facing each other: an infinite number of selves are created, continuing into the fading horizon. They are far from sophisticated and encourage breadth of experience rather than depth. This is notably similar to the criticism that Kierkegaard’s pseudonym B directs at A in the second part of Either/Or.

Before B’s criticisms become relevant, we need to establish how A’s texts relate to these mirror-stage identifications. A’s crop rotation is done to fight tedium: for excitement. In contrast, the Lacanian “crop rotation” that Peretti discusses is not necessarily a conscious process. It is something that we do automatically when faced with a dissonant host of images in media and advertising. When it is conscious (as it is in normcore), fighting boredom is only one of the reasons behind it – the other is a rejection of cultural pressure to be a unique, yet predictable, individual. Normcore does have one thing in common with A: the dismissal of a search for authenticity, which in both cases is seen as limiting. A does not explicitly advocate the kind of rapid identity assumption seen in Peretti’s paper – he does not go quite that far – but it is probable that he would be sympathetic to the goals of normcore. Normcore takes the vast set of images and identities created by capitalism and embraces them all, without committing to any single one of them. A’s philosophy will appeal to the normcore millennial because the normcore millennial is already living it in its most extreme form. Because this rapid and superficial identity assumption is in some ways reminiscent of A’s texts, we can look to the second half of Either/Or as well as other texts by Kierkegaard for a more in-depth understanding.

Kierkegaardian perspectives

In Either/Or, the ethicist B is confident that A’s aesthetic life is spiritually void:

Can you imagine anything more terrifying than seeing your being dissolved into a multiplicity, than seeing yourself truly become many, becoming a miserable, demonic legion, and thus losing the innermost, holiest in a person, the binding force of the personality?

B’s ultimate aim is authenticity through a consistent identity, doing one’s duty, and making choices that are compatible with one’s ethical code. It is not possible to be genuinely oneself without embracing the deepest identity hiding beneath the multiple ironic personas, and embracing this identity means allowing ethical considerations into one’s life. This advice will not do much for the millennial since the imagery of consumer capitalism generates identity assumptions that are instant, automatic and unnoticed – the average consumer today would reject B’s advice on the grounds that they do not need it, that they are obviously only one person. Even in the case of normcore, where the multiplicity is intentional, the advice does not have much of an impact: normcore was articulated as an alternative to the struggle for authenticity, which it sees as continuing indefinitely without ever reaching its goal. A different approach is found later in B’s half of Either/Or:

He now discovers that the ‘Self’ he chooses has an infinite multiplicity within it because it has a history, a history in which he acknowledges the identity in himself. This history is of an unusual kind because in this history he stands in relation to other individuals in his lineage and to the lineage itself, and this history includes pain, yet he is only the one he is by this history.

Appealing to the multiplicity within a consistent self is more likely to get a positive response from the normcore millennial. B presents a singular yet multifaceted view of the self that does not limit identity to just a series of temporary personas (an either/or) but instead allows an individual to explore the various sides to her true self (a both/and). A profound sense of this self could mean that the subject can resist the mirror-stage identifications asked of them by advertisements and other media. If not, perhaps it could allow them to withstand at least the desire for consumption created by the ads.