Does social media lead to a devaluation of introspection? This is what Nick Couldry and Andreas Hepp claim on loc 4098 of their The Mediated Construction of Reality:

The selfie stamps the marker of ‘the self’ onto whatever things a person wants to record as a way of increasing its value. But why should that have become so important recently? There are no doubt many overlapping factors at work here including the changing affordances of smartphones, but one background factor, we want to suggest, is the increasing devaluation of introspection: that is, reflecting, comparing, building the basis of a memory through organized thought that remains ‘internal’ (still unshared). Introspection, in the habit of taking selfies, gets overridden by the ‘higher’ value of generating an exchangeable trace of one’s ‘experience’ whose form is tailored exactly to the data-based needs of social media platforms.

This is an example of why I think Margaret Archer’s work on reflexivity might prove extremely powerful in making sense of how social media is reconfiguring subjectivity. Couldry and Hepp assume here a zero-sum relation between interiority and exteriority, as if the disposition to share (cultivated through repeated exposure to the incentives of the platform) necessarily implies the diminution of introspection. There is certainly a tension between these internal and external moments: it is a matter of the time available to the agent and the duration of their subsequent mental activity if nothing else. However, there are many ways in which this tension could be negotiated, reflecting characteristics of the people concerned and the situation they find themselves in.

This is what I think of as reflexive variance: the variety of ways in which individuals orientate themselves to their situations, linking self and circumstances through the generation of action trajectories. Recognising reflexive variance is something which sociology has never been good at because it is a phenomenon which sits uneasily at the intersection between the domains of psychology and sociology. It is a matter of introspection, social action and environment: the relation which obtains between them in a particular situation. It’s much easier to leave the introspective to the psychologists (who circumscribe its objects by admitting only a limited range of social referents) or to subordinate it to social action or to the environment through various theoretical devices. But the diversity with which people orientate themselves to what are empirically similar experiences will tend to get lost in this case.

There are descriptive and explanatory problems which emerge from this. However, it also facilitates cultural critique of a rather irritating sort, with identifiable trends afflicting some within a group being assumed to hold true for all members of that group (or even all groups, if the critic in question is prone to overstatement). I’ve been thinking a lot in the last couple of months about the conceptual structure which is common to many of the most prominent critics of digital media for its postulated consequences for young people. It strikes me that it rests on a denial of reflexivity variance and repudiating these critics will involve recovering the range of ways in which people respond to social media.

I’m increasingly interested in how interiority is represented in culture. I mean this as a general term for depicting inward experience of whatever sort. I’ve been primarily thinking about this in terms of film and tv so far. Partly because I happen to be someone who watches a lot of films. But there’s something interesting about manner in which this medium so often depends upon inevitably visual techniques to depict inner life. However not all such representations take this form. In fact some are a matter of the deportment of the actor, how they depict the orientation of their character towards others in a film (and often implicitly towards the audience). There was a Vanity Fair article I came across a while ago which captured something of this

How does Pitt embody cool? As the director Andrew Dominik noted in a DVD extra for the 2012 film Killing Them Softly, “When you watch Brad, you always feel like something’s going on under there, but you’re not quite sure what it is. I think that’s the reason he’s a movie star. He has that quality of mystery. He doesn’t invite you to share his position somehow.”

He doesn’t invite you to share his position. That is as good a definition of movie cool as there is. The cool actor invites admiration, envy, and desire, much more than empathy, because he is unreadable. His characters leave you wondering what it would be like to be them, without ever imagining that you could.

On the other end of the continuum is Tom Hanks, an actor who almost always invites you to share his position. The power of Hanks’s performances lies in their ability to communicate exactly what it would be like to the character he is playing, which is why he has succeeded so much at the Oscars. He has been nominated five times for best actor and won it twice, one of only nine actors to do so.

I would suggest that the argument being made here could be recast in terms of the variable opacity with which an audience experiences the internal life of a given character played by an actor. Not ‘inviting you to share his position’ constitutes a representation of inner life which embraces the elusiveness of that interiority. Some characters draw you in, externalising what is going on internally and inviting others to empathise with it. In contrast, there are those who make no attempt to do this, with their actions being clearly purposive but it being equally clear that those purposes do not include seeking understanding from observers.

I think this is why the final scene of Killing Them Softly is so powerful. Pitt’s character has been elusive throughout. At the end, his frustration leads him to share aspects of his internal life and we gain an insight into the cynicism with which he views the world. But appropriately enough, this heretofore absent externalisation is soon subsumed into a practical attempt to terminate the transaction: “Now FUCKING pay me”.

Pitt plays him in a way that makes no attempt to “communicate exactly what it would be like to be the character he is playing” and the film is so much more powerful for this. In fact I’d argue it’s crucial to the unfolding of the film’s narrative. This raises a question: is the mode of representation applied to the interiority of key characters similarly important to the narrative progression of other films? How does the role played by the representation of inner life (thinking, deliberating, imagining, day dreaming etc) in telling cinematic stories vary? Do the two ends of the continuum invoked by the Vanity Fair article tend to map on to two distinctive kinds of narrative? I suspect it can’t be that simple but there nonetheless seems to be quite a lot in this question that could be usefully explored.

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Well this is interesting (sort of). Though it reminds me of the ‘Free Hugs Society’ some peculiarly obnoxious students at Warwick established a few years ago, something which prompted them to go around grabbing strangers while being seemingly oblivious to how intrusive and problematic this was to many of the people being grabbed. The people behind it seem to be predominately social marketers (see also the partners) which contributes to the irritating, though interesting, zeitgeistyness of the project. I’m fascinated by the process which leaves “why talk?” as a coherent question that can be answered by invoking popularised notions of social capital.

I’m finally reading Situated Actions and Vocabularies of Motive by C Wright Mills. As I expected I don’t actually like it very much. I have a strange relationship to Mills, in that I find him an inspiring figure but I’m not particularly interested in his work. In this case, I don’t accept the methodological premise that social action should be explained ‘from the outside’, I don’t accept the theoretical premise that reflexivity only intervenes when action is impeded and thus it’s hard for me to engage with the paper, given that these aren’t really argued for and the rest of his case depends upon them.

This is a shame because ‘vocabularies of motive’ is a concept that really interests me. There’s much here I agree with:

Individualistic, sexual, hedonistic, and pecuniary vocabularies of motives are apparently now dominant in many sectors of twentieth-century urban America. Under such an ethos, verbalization of alternative conduct in these terms is least likely to be challenged among dominant groups. In this milieu, individuals are skeptical of Rockefeller’s avowed religious motives for his business conduct because such motives are not now terms of the vocabulary conventionally and prominently accompanying situations of business enterprise. A medieval monk writes that he gave food to a poor but pretty woman because it was “for the glory of God and the eternal salvation of his soul.” Why do we tend to question him and impute sexual motives? Because sex is an influential and widespread motive in our society and time. Religious vocabularies of explanation and of motives are now on the wane. In a society in which religious motives have been debunked on a rather wide scale, certain thinkers are skeptical of those who ubiquitously proclaim them. Religious motives have lapsed from selected portions of modern populations and other motives have become “ultimate” and operative. But from the monasteries of medieval Europe we have no evidence that religious vocabularies were not operative in many situations.

A labor leader says he performs a certain act because he wants to get higher standards of living for the workers. A businessman says that this is rationalization, or a lie; that it is really because he wants more money for himself from the workers. A radical says a college professor will not engage in radical movements because he is afraid for his job, and besides, is a “reactionary.” The college professor says it is because he just likes to find out how things work. What is reason for one man is rationalization for another. The variable is the accepted vocabulary of motives, the ultimate of discourse, of each man’s dominant group about whose opinion he cares. Determination of such groups, their location and character, would enable delimitation and methodological control of assignment of motives for speqfic acts.

I just think you fundamentally misrepresent the process if you exhume interiority from the picture. I don’t find it plausible that the growth and entrenchment of vocabularies of motivate can be explained in entirely relational and/or structural terms. I think the approach Mills advocates, rooted in Meadean pragmatism, can offer a lot of insights into the interactive aspects of vocabularies of motive (how these operate between persons) but that it inevitably fails as an account of socio-cultural change at a macro level.

Part of my interest in this stems from a desire to better understand the causal powers which vocabularies of motive can exercise intra-personally. This is what I was trying to get at here. The vocabulary we use to make sense of our own motivations has important consequences. I can parse the same impulse, or lack thereof, in very different terms (“that’s wrong”, “that’s normal”) with importantly divergent consequences. I’m arguing that these terms, deriving their meaning from the broader network of terms in which they are embedded, exercise causal powers in the sense that their meaning makes a difference. To introspectively designate an impulse as ‘wrong’ can serve to intensify distress, producing a deepening of what Mouzelis describes as an ‘intra-habitus contradiction’:

Reflexivity may focus less on interactive and more on intra-active processes. In other words, reflexivity may be enhanced not only when there are contradictions between dispositions, positions and figurations, but also when the subject has to handle intra-habitus conflicts. For instance, Trevor Butt and Darren Langdridge (2003) studied the diaries of the well-known comedian Kenneth Williams (1928-1988) and found a deep contradiction between his homosexual dispositions on the one hand, and his deeply conservative, anti-libertarian mentality on the other; the latter predisposed him to consider anything related to homosexuality as “filth”. These two fundamental aspects of K. Williams’ habitus both products of differing and varied socialization processes were obviously linked to his overdeveloped reflexivity which a reading of his diaries makes very obvious.

Whereas designating the impulse as ‘normal’ can encourage the resolution of this ‘contradiction’. I’m sure I can think of many examples that fall into this category (not least of all from my asexuality research) and perhaps I need to sit down and do this in order to get a better grip on this conceptually. What interests me is:

  • How cultural resources (words, tropes, concepts, images, motifs) exercise causal power vis-à-vis intra-personal deliberation.
  • How the exercise of this power serves to condition the individual’s orientation towards these cultural resources over time e.g. how people become invested in certain vocabularies which have done affective ‘work’ for them in the past.
  • How these divergent orientations serve to contribute, directly or indirectly, towards the transformation or reproduction of these vocabularies of motive.

My point is not to counterpose an exhaustive focus on interiority to the interactionist focus upon the social. Rather I think we have to incorporate both within our frame of reference if we are to achieve an adequate grasp on the dynamics of cultural change which are observable with regards to ‘vocabularies of motive’. So to use a concrete example: with my asexuality studies hat on, I’m very interested in how what could be described (fuzzily) as a vocabulary of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ came to be replaced by a vocabulary of ‘normal’ and ‘pathological’ in relation to sexual impulses and sexual acts. I simply don’t see how you can explain this sort of temporally extended cultural change if you reduce, due to a prior methodological commitment, any deployment of such a vocabulary to the situational dynamics in play. What these vocabularies felt like to different persons and groups (including those reactionary groups who felt threatened by the erosion of moral certainties) isn’t just epiphenomenal froth. It’s an important part of the causality at work here.