Taking Liberties

I HAVE A CONFESSION TO MAKE: I use social media. In fact, I enjoy social media. I delight in the responses I receive from friends and family when I post pictures of my cute children to Facebook. I like seeing pictures of other people’s cute children on Facebook. I appreciate the network of scholars I find on Twitter. And I’m also glad that Twitter provides me a platform to promote my own work. Social media, it seems, channel my desires.

And that, it seems, is the problem—at least as Bernard E. Harcourt lays it out in his challenging book Exposed. Harcourt, a law professor at Columbia University and founding director of the Columbia Center for Contemporary Critical Thought, warns us that “our joyful and fulfilling embrace of social media” is yoking us to a new techno-oligopoly unprecedented in its ability to control the masses. Harcourt implies that totalitarian logic organizes our society—but, echoing past New Left critics of “repressive tolerance,” he contends that this softer brand of thought control enlists us, the great self-surveilling digital audience, as engineers of our own cognitive subjection: “We have brought this upon ourselves willingly, enthusiastically, and with all our passion.” Concentrated power vacuums up our desire and turns it against us to enslave us. This is what Harcourt calls the “expository society”—only instead of the emperor, it’s the masses who are left feeling naked and open to hostile, never-ending, and exploitative public view.

Anyone who’s followed the whistle-blowing exploits of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden and the investigative reporting of Glenn Greenwald will be conversant in the sordid details of the techno-oligopoly that Harcourt outlines. Shadowy government intelligence agencies, such as the ubiquitous National Security Agency, have partnered with the most powerful communications corporations in the world to develop and deploy data-mining technologies that endow them with the most granular details of the personal lives of the billions of users who throng the agoras of the online world. As a result, police and counterterrorism forces—as well as the ever-humming commercial algorithms behind your average Google search or Webmail chat—now have unprecedented surveillance capabilities.

Many cite George Orwell’s novel 1984 as a metaphor for the ways in which we are now dominated by pervasive technological rule, and one of the smartest features of Exposed is Harcourt’s analysis of such metaphors. In this case, Harcourt argues that Orwell didn’t go far enough. While Big Brother, who dictated every facet of life for his subjects, is an apt analogue for the sheer totality of the techno-oligopoly, Orwell was exactly wrong in his most important prophecy. In the Orwellian nightmare of 1984, Big Brother considered individual desire—and, most particularly, the sexual expression of such desire—as an intolerable kind of subversion; but as Harcourt points out, the expository society, in fact, exuberantly feeds on our desires, in all the lavish ways that we seek to fulfill them online. The more we express our desires in the spheres of digital commerce and media, the more we are transformed from autonomous private citizens into harvestable bits of data. Our “very passions, shaped and cultivated in the digital age . . . render us virtually transparent,” Harcourt writes, dubbing this the “dark side of desire and pleasure.”

The implicit solution to the depredations of this expository society seems to be a return to Victorian mores such as interpersonal reticence and delayed gratification—although Harcourt is too savvy to posit such a thing. When coercion thrives on unfettered desire, asceticism becomes a revolutionary principle. Of course, such a posture ignores the ways in which the old dispensation, which insisted on the repression of our animalistic desires, was itself stifling. Orwell envisioned dystopia as a place where desire had been obliterated because that particular plot made sense in the context of 1949, when 1984 was published. Indeed, most cutting-edge writers and artists in the postwar years sought to subvert a culture that seemed stultifying in its conformity. For them, human desire, in all its beautiful and horrible manifestations, was something worth emphasizing, and the act of unlocking desire was liberating.

Harcourt’s pessimistic analysis of how desire empowers the techno-oligopoly leaves little room for this more optimistic chronicle of desire and its cultural expression. Read in isolation, Exposed makes it difficult to come to grips with a profound historical irony: The very desire that now shackles us to a shadowy digital leviathan was recently thought to be the ticket to human liberation.

Fortunately, the great cultural and intellectual historian George Cotkin has written a new book, Feast of Excess,that gives us a rich understanding of how and why postwar artists and writers revolted against social norms that constricted desire. Reading Cotkin alongside Harcourt is a bracing experience, eliciting a maximum degree of cognitive dissonance. The forms of expressive desire that Harcourt depicts as peculiar to our contemporary expository society represent, in Cotkin’s engaging account of the liberationist ethos of the emergent postwar counterculture, the vocabulary of cultural freedom formulated by musicians, painters, and poets.

Take Norman Mailer, one among the many significant figures Cotkin highlights in a series of fascinating vignettes that follow a chronological, year-by-year order from 1952 until 1974, which Cotkin takes to be the golden age of what Susan Sontag dubbed the “New Sensibility.” In 1959, the year before he stabbed his second wife, Adele, in the chest and back with a penknife in a drunken fury, Mailer published the provocative essay collection Advertisements for Myself. Mailer’s biographer Mary Dearborn called Advertisements the “first polemic” of the New Sensibility, an outlook devoted, as Mailer was, to the idea of culture as a “feast of excess.” Rather than deny long-repressed human desires, Mailer and others celebrated them by focusing their art and writing on violence, sex, and madness. Thanks to them, as Cotkin puts it in a not-unexcessive metaphor of his own, “transgression was tattooed on the arm of American culture.”

Cotkin describes Advertisements as “self-analytic and confessional, raw and honest,
pugnacious and portentous,” and above all “performative.” Mailer helped invent what became known as gonzo journalism, a quintessential expression of the New Sensibility eventually perfected by Hunter S. Thompson (whom Cotkin features in a later chapter). “Mailer was a character in, as well as a commentator upon, his life and work,” Cotkin writes—his career became “a public performance, like a confession before an audience of priests, except in this case, rather than requesting forgiveness, what he wanted was attention,” an impulse all too familiar to the self-advertising names that throng our social-media feeds.

Today we are all conditioned to lay much of our inner life open for inspection on the Internet. Share on Facebook and await the likes; tell on Twitter and await the retweets. Mailer was honest when he said that “the way to save your work and reach more readers is to advertise yourself”—a dictum that now reads like it might have been cribbed from the VC presentations for the early investors in Facebook, YouTube, or any among the scores of social-media concerns that have stampeded into our formerly private lives.

Carter Mull, Nicky, My Neighbor, 2013–14, ink-jet prints and metallic foil on Sintra, 57 1/2 × 43 3/4".
Carter Mull, Nicky, My Neighbor, 2013–14, ink-jet prints and metallic foil on Sintra, 57 1/2 × 43 3/4". Courtesy the artist and Marc Foxx Gallery

If Mailer prefigured the confessional ethos of our contemporary world, perhaps Allen Ginsberg’s renowned poem Howl, which he first read at the Six Gallery stage in San Francisco on a Friday night in October 1955, anticipated today’s transgressive celebration of desire across a dizzying array of customizable media platforms. The Six Gallery audience, which included a host of other artists and writers such as Ginsberg’s Beat comrade Jack Kerouac, feasted on Ginsberg’s excessive stanza about men “who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy.” Little did anyone know that a few decades later transgressive images of that sort would become simple commodities available to anyone at a keystroke.

But the New Sensibility was not simply an expression of raw desire; the rebels had a cause. When Ginsberg wrote that he “saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,” he was speaking, at least in part, of the perverse madness of American society in the Cold War era—which calmly and dispassionately incorporated the prospect of a nuclear holocaust into the technocratic calculations of the national-security state, the corporate world, and the university. On a more visceral level, Ginsberg was speaking of a society that locked gay men like him up in psychiatric hospitals. Whereas previous generations of poets might have written of the sublime—the fugitive and transfiguring moments of reflection and grace that transcend the bleakness of biological existence—Ginsberg’s stark confessional voice blurred the lines between life and poetry. “Poets and writers increasingly talked directly, perhaps excessively,” Cotkin writes, “about their own experiences with depression, abortion, madness, and suicide attempts.”

This is where the New Sensibility in its origins diverges from today’s gleefully expository society. Whereas postwar poets believed confessing dark secrets might unmask the dehumanizing effects of modern society, Facebook wants us to keep our sharing upbeat (pointed argument and controversy, it seems, will be largely confined to the quick and disposable functionality of the site’s forthcoming “Dislike” button); it would hardly behoove the placid march of digital algorithms moving in perfect lockstep with your consumer interests to have the website also serve as an outlet for your disaffection with the status quo.

Mailer’s braggadocio, however much it heralded the narcissistic tendencies of the expository society, also had its liberatory side. Mailer was a leftist who found postwar conformity not only unbearable but deadly. As he said of those who created the rules: “The shits are killing us.” Since Mailer thought the powerful men who instilled cultural conformity were the same men to blame for the Vietnam War, he believed that a new sensibility of hipness might dislodge the hidebound elite responsible for such death and destruction.

How, then, do we judge the New Sensibility in the light of the ambitions that its most ardent prophets sketched out for it? Did desire save us from our totalitarian fate? Or did it merely usher in a more streamlined, digital version of the same thing? Cotkin makes plain his admiration for the cultural revolutionaries whose work he interprets. Ranging from the radical actor and director Judith Malina to the experimental composer John Cage to the noir novelist Patricia Highsmith to the Pop artist Andy Warhol, Feast of Excess is very much a fan’s chronicle, even though Cotkin does register mild suspicions about some of the lingering effects of the postwar cultural revolution. Mailer’s radical confessionalism “now appears dainty and subdued,” he notes, compared to the mundane linkfests and mood updates posted in the Twittersphere.

Still, even after giving voice to such disclaimers, Cotkin is mostly sanguine about the persistence of the New Sensibility. He contends that the boundary-pushing imperatives of the postwar aesthetic revolt gestated an innovative culture. The New Sensibility made possible The Sopranos and Breaking Bad. Its excess, Cotkin writes, “is to be celebrated, not as a simple end, but as a process, an experimental imperative for finding new truths, new critiques, and going in new creative directions.” Cotkin cites the example of punk rock, which, in its drug-induced, violent mania, “was certainly an ode to excess.” But punk “also offered a sense of community and liberation, a refusal to bow to constraints and expectations.” Many of the alienated young souls of the postindustrial wasteland found a higher truth in punk. In this respect, the New Sensibility’s excessive blurring of the lines between art and reality was, paradoxically enough, a way to achieve the sublime.

Such optimism is perhaps warranted in the distinct sphere of cultural production; by any reasonable measure, the New Sensibility improved our enjoyments. But did it improve our lives in other ways? Or is it implicated in the harms associated with neoliberalism? Cotkin briefly mentions that the new culture he chronicles was “connected with the explosive growth of capitalism, consumerism, and advertising in a ‘golden age’ for the American economy.” But is our feast of cultural delights made possible only by the capitalist oligarchy’s own feast of excess on the common good? For all the richness of his book, Cotkin has little to say about these questions.

Harcourt, for his part, contends that the expository society has eclipsed humanism, an ethos that prioritized individual autonomy. Privacy, once considered a “human essence,” is now bought and sold. The expository society goes hand in glove with the logic of neoliberalism, in which everything is for sale, even our most intimate desires and taste preferences. Social media are thus irredeemable in Harcourt’s eyes—the revolution will be neither televised nor shared.

So what is to be done? Harcourt outlines some of the methods that people have used to resist the totalitarianism of the expository society. He details the exploits of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange’s clearinghouse for whistle-blower documents, which has been attempting to reverse the expository society’s governing blueprint by empowering citizens to carry out their own brand of surveillance on governments and corporations. Harcourt also halfheartedly points to examples of people who co-opt neoliberal rules of engagement to their advantage, such as one woman who incorporated her social-media self and sold off her various digital parts to the highest bidders. These less-than-inspiring case studies open out, in turn, onto Harcourt’s anticlimactic conclusion that what we need is a leaderless assemblage of activists, each doing whatever he or she can to resist the techno-oligopoly. Mirroring the utopian-minded (and, one should point out, failed) strategies of Occupy Wall Street, Harcourt wants us to “create a space” for alternatives to the expository society and partake of an “ethic of the self” grounded in the knowledge that we are more important than our data.

Harcourt’s humanist conclusion is hardly a call to arms befitting the nightmarish terms in which he describes the expository society. But perhaps this is because our world is not as nightmarish as he makes it out to be. There’s no doubt that many aspects of the expository social order provide cause for serious concern, especially the persistent rule of capital over what should be the common good, including the Internet. But such a problem is not new—and prospective solutions need not be new, either.

By focusing on the “social” in social media, surely we can envision ways to recalibrate the machinery of desire to work for us. Imagine the possibilities of a world in which the many, as opposed to a Mark Zuckerberg or three, owned the means of such production. Viewed against this backdrop, the notion that we are all connected in our desire isn’t, by itself, something to fear. It is an opportunity.

Andrew Hartman is the author of A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars (University of Chicago Press, 2015).