We have another first time contributor on Ethnography Matters! Christina Dennaoui was a graduate student of anthropology, media, and religion at the University of Chicago. After graduate school she started a new chapter as a digital planner and strategist for a digital marketing agency in Chicago. I met Christina through her amazing tumblr blog, Modern and Im/Material Things. Christina isn’t an ethnographer, but she’s a crazy smart social theorist working in industry, so we immediately bonded. Here’s some more about Christina from her bio:
Off the clock, she is an artist, and producer of electronic music. She also volunteers on the Associate Board of Chicago’s largest LGBTQ resource center. She is currently working on a project, which she jokingly calls “post-colonial dubstep.” The project combines elements of critical theory with dance music. This project began with a transatlantic collaboration with Parisian musicians to “remix” Zizek’s Occupy Wall Street speech and is now expanding to include other contemporary philosophers. She’s not much for the Twitters but she tumbls and is fond of email.
In my ideal world, I would use the summer season as an opportunity to catch up on recently released works of fiction or non-fiction. This summer, however, has been the start of a somewhat ambitious project: actually reading all of the books on my bookshelf in their entirety. Crazy, right? My goal is to take my time with each book, actually “sitting with” the author’s arguments rather than voraciously consuming theory like I did in graduate school. My graduate studies focused on religion, anthropology, and communication theory, which means that I have shelves full of work that relate to my professional work in digital strategy and planning. Although there is no grand theme uniting all of the books on my list, there are a few sub-themes worth calling out: archiving and identity, personal branding, quantifying individual interests, and the meaning of “strategy.”
Bruno Latour and Vincent Antonin Lepinay
(A PDF of the book)
Though short in length, Latour and Lepinay’s introduction of Gabriel Tarde’s Psychologie Economique is dense but remarkably clear. Situating Tarde’s work in a larger context of economic and political theory, Latour and Lepinay tease out some the aspects of Tarde’s work that provide useful conceptual frameworks for articulating the more esoteric aspects of economics as a field of study. One area that is of particular relevance to my work is Tarde’s interest in the qualitative measures of economies, such as conversations, tastes, ideas, etc. For Tarde, one of the shortcomings of his contemporaries was that their economic methods often focused on the study of wealth and production to exclusion of other available data. It wasn’t that one approach was better than the other but that a narrow focus creates methodological problems because it often results in the construction of the very structure it aims to study. It’s a simple enough argument, yes, but one that was lost in the wake of Marx’s work.
Tarde’s aim was to sketch out an approach to the field of economics that considered all relevant material and immaterial data. As someone who works in the field of digital advertising strategy and measurement, my day-to-day is spent making sense of how to quantify and measure the affinities of consumers to brands. More often than not, I’m tasked with how to render online conversation about products or brands into actionable strategy that yields an actual return on investment (read: makes money). But in a field where traditional spend models still reign supreme (e.g., “For every 4 dollars I give you in spend, I want to make 8 dollars…”), forcing online consumer discourse into such quant focused models doesn’t always make sense. Although alternative models for measuring online conversation are being created, they’re often positioned as separate but unequal. In Tarde’s framework, these conversations (ideas, really) would not be isolated or privileged but rather seen for what they are: another factor moving economies.
Continuing the discussion of immaterial factors that move economies, Illouz’s book uses psychology and therapy as a conceptual starting point. Illouz’s argument is multifarious: 1) economic theory often presents capitalism as an a-emotional world dominated by rationality, and 2) the rise of therapeutic narratives of self-care have provided a context in which boundaries between public and private spheres have been blurred, allowing for capitalism (more broadly, the public sphere) to become increasingly emotional and private spheres to become increasingly framed by the language of goods, products, and services. The process by which emotional and economic relationships inform and define one another is what Illouz refers to as “economic capitalism.” Similar to Tarde’s work, Illouz’s work focuses on aspects of economic study that are often marginalized: emotionality and intimacy. She draws on a wide range of material to make her case: the birth of Human Relations as a discipline, emotional intelligence, self-help columns in women’s magazines, internet dating websites, and even episodes of Oprah. Similar to Arlie Hochschild’s research on intimacy, labor, and care, Illouz’s work investigates emotionality as an object of production and consumption.
Here too is another overlap with my professional work: consumer brand evangelism as an index of corporate consumption and production. Digital outreach is media strategy designed to increase consumer advocacy on behalf of corporate brands through digital channels. The aim is simple: get people with large online networks to talk about products on behalf of brands, acting as a kind of intermediary between agencies and brands to drive word of mouth marketing. Consumer sentimentality is measured and objectified, but all of the exchanges are not nearly as nefarious as they seem. Admittedly, this is the area of my work that I find the most ethically challenging: when and where does consumer agency begin and corporate exploitation end? Are these emotional exchanges between consumers and producers opening new forms of personhood (branded selves, corporatized personhood, etc)? How are these online consumer-brand conversations examples of emotion capitalism? More broadly, do these conversations create different kinds of emotional capital or individual identity?
The Practice of Everyday Life
Michel de Certeau
“Strategy” has become of particular professional and personal relevance to me. Professionally, I am paid to be a “strategist.” Off the clock, strategy becomes a personal kind of ideological framework for how to behave in the world. While these spheres of my life are not mutually exclusive or all that distinct, the use of tactics within them have become of increasing importance. Beyond creating an ideal digital marketing strategy or personal politics, what does it mean to put strategy into practice? What does the actual implementation reveal about the strategy? For De Certeau, “everyday practice,” is the means by which people navigate and potentially subvert larger social norms. The Practice of Everyday Life is not a critique of social norms or an extensive discussion of subjectivity. Rather, De Certeau focuses on how everyday practice can be understood as a kind of “operational logic.” Distinguishing between strategies and tactics, De Certeau also tackles the relationship between consumers and the means of production – he argues how in certain instances, consumption can act as an invisible form of production. His work also draws on Bourdieu’s notion of habitus and Foucault’s work on social practice. Though I have yet to get through his chapters on consumption, thinking about “everyday practice” is perhaps one way to tackle my questions about consumer agency, corporate exploitation and corporatized personhood.
Reborn: Journals & Notebooks, 1947 to 1963
Edited by David Rieff
The Talented Miss Highsmith
Another area where my professional life bleeds into my social life is the idea of the self as a brand. Over the last few years, the “personal brand” has become a kind of “everyday practice” for some of my friends and I. For me, there is no better example of Illouz’s point about “emotional capitalism” than the discourse surrounding “personal branding”: your personal life is put on display and carefully edited so as to help (professionally) position you in a certain but favorable light. Though we all speak about our personal brands in a satirical manner, we remain cognizant of the reality that our online activities are archives that follow us. We are engaged in a practice that has us curating our present selves in order to position ourselves for future opportunities we may or may not want to audiences we may or may not know.
Rounding out my theory heavy reads, my final two books are the journals of two famous writers: Susan Sontag and Patricia Highsmith. Had it not been for a few recent essays in This Recording and The New Inquiry about Highsmith and Sontag, I would not have known about these books. Both books are an exercise in reading the personal, intellectual archives of strangers. Sontag is less strange to me, as I’m familiar with much of her writing and consider Regarding the Pain of Others a personal favorite. I respect her precise yet accessible style of writing. Reborn is the first volume of her journals, spanning the chunk of her life between her teen years and mid-twenties. The only familiarity I have with Highsmith is the frequency with which her work is used a kind of lesbian litmus test (The Price of Salt, anyone?). Unlike Reborn, The Talented Miss Highsmith is a biography of Highsmith that relies heavily on the extensive archive Highsmith kept of her writings, personal experiences, and miscellaneous thoughts.
While there are many things to be said about these books and the exceptional women for whom they were made, I am most intrigued by the moments of awareness of their personal and public identities that run throughout the journals. What I mean here is how these two women, who became public figures, navigated and at times reconciled their fallibility with the public personas (brands, if you will) they were actively creating for themselves: “In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could do to any person; I create myself…[The Journal] represents me as emotional and spiritually independent. Therefore [alas] it does not simply record my actual, daily life but rather – in many cases-offers an alternative to it.” [Sontag, p.164-165] Even in their journals, even before their fame, they wrote with the expectation that their journals would someday find an audience beyond themselves. Highsmith presciently noted: “But there must be a core of self-respect in a person who continuously keeps a diary. Maybe he doesn’t intend to look back, but someone else might even if the diary is in code.” (p.37)