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Monday, May 15, 2006
Virtua EMP paper

Part 2: Economies of Shame

(read part 1)

Before we get into specifics, let's orient ourselves with a comparison or two between Economies of Shame (EOS) and Economies of Pleasure (EOP). A good example of a participant in an EOP would be something like an A&R guy or a DJ, whereas a good example of an EOS participant would be a poster on an internet message board or blog comment box, or, I dunno, a clerk at a record store or something. They're worth separating as markets because of fundamental differences in their functionality. An EOP is a gambler's market, with participants placing relatively few "bets" on individual acts and hoping those will pay off big. An EOS is more of a war of attrition (or, to be nicer, it's like owning your own small business), with the daily maintenance of capital through numerous small acts the norm, excepting the occasional well-timed big gesture, but even then, said gestures are really only effected when a participant has accrued a lot of capital in the market. In other words, where an EOP is about anticipating market valuation (and then working to manipulate that variation, but never so blatantly)--betting a work/artist is going to get yay high and then paying off if they hit the mark you've set--in an EOS, you work to impose your own individual valuation on the market, so your reward comes by changing market variance. In an EOP, the reward comes only if evidence of your involvement is absent, whereas an EOS requires your involvement to be as clear as possible, and thus pays off more constantly and in smaller increments than the all-or-nothing EOP. That's a big part of why the EOS is the much more common model.

The reason for this distinction lies in the common belief that your likes are your own, but your dislikes stem from the understanding and imposition of external standards.[2] Thus, in an EOS, cultural capital is primarily accrued through the rejection of cultural offerings, and, as stated before, not only the rejection itself, but the timing and nature of the rejection. Such a rejection is presented as a "once I was blind but now can see moment," an understanding of the truth that must, as the night follows the day, change your opinions about individual pieces of music; if this rejection is not made by others in the marketplace, such performative utterances attempt to dictate, then you are simply rejecting the truth rather than its implications. The nature of an EOS dictates that even utterances ostensibly meant to promote or embrace a given artifact are simultaneously rejections: you are claiming that said artifact has a value greater than its current market value, and that disparity is due to cultural capital being tied up in certain other, overvalued artifacts. So, for instance, championing Gang of Four in 1998 would have entitled you to a lot of cultural capital two or three years hence~, but not if you were doing it as a "Gang of Four fan"--you had to be doing it as a function of shame. Why weren't you listening to Gang of Four back in 1998 you fool, since they are so obviously great?[3]

The Essential Statement of an EOS is: "You don't like them, do you?" (This sounds pretty teenagery, and it is, but I think it's always there, if sublimated.) It works through assumptions, which is to say that it evokes the value of a particular work as something absolute and widely accepted, rather than in flux and contingent on the market in question--in other words you gain capital by convincing other people that the market value of a work is something other than what it actually is, and thus incrementally drive the value toward your own. The Essential Statement is not actually an argument, it's just opinion presented as observable fact, and indeed actual well-reasoned cases for the value of a particular object aren't really an efficient technique, economically speaking. If the market is well-balanced and large enough to contain so much capital that it would take a massive fluctuation to have any large-scale effects, then reasoned argument becomes a viable tool since the blunt object of scorn is no longer as effective, but as we'll see later, if the EOS is tied to a corresponding EOP, this actually diminishes the power of argument.

Once a given player in an EOS gains enough cultural capital, the game for them changes somewhat. For instance, where generally one of your primary goals is to avoid the appearance of ignorance, once you have a large enough store of capital you can "spend" it by expressing ignorance in such a way that it seems noble--"Well of course I wouldn't have heard of them, I don't deign to follow such trivial matters." If someone with that much cultural capital hasn't heard of them, how good could they be? Again, the power in an EOS comes from your (perceived) intelligence and the (perceived) strength with which you express it. There's a real man-standing-alone image, although that image is pretty dangerous, as we'll get to in a second. You deserve capital because you are clear-headed enough to reject what others are accepting, or vice versa. It's very oppositional.

But let's get out of all these semantics for a second and talk about the basis of all this: shame. This probably stems from the fact that we start talking about music in a way that's key to our identities as teenagers, which is a stage of life when we're ashamed of lots of things, few of which we can actually control. And the process of becoming a music fan involves gradually realizing how little you actually know, sort of like being a monk, except instead of being a religious devotee, you're ostensibly a free-thinking rebel, so willingly sublimating yourself to a master feels like the wrong way to go, even if we end up doing that anyway. I feel at this point I don't really need to point to the mountains of evidence of shame as a motivating force in music listenership, from the simple fact that people have "guilty pleasures" (yes yes I know) to people judging other people on behalf of their music collections to people actually making moral claims about music, with such moral claims rarely being positive. And I don't say this as someone who himself is trying to situate himself outside the dynamic, looking in and saying "tsk tsk tsk" to the participants. When I started writing my blog, avoiding the shame dynamic was a big motivating factor: I wanted it to be, like pop, a big inclusive tent, where if you didn't know something, that was cool, because there's lots of stuff I don't know, and let's talk about it, hey. But as I've become more enmeshed in the music nerd community, I've found myself, and found others with ostensibly similar views on inclusiveness, nevertheless resorting to shame as an easy tactic, no matter how hard I might resist it. And this, in turn, has made me think about how shame can actually be a productive force in some circumstances. [4]

That said, it can also clearly be a negative force, and one particularly glaring example of this is what I'll call a deflationary spiral~, when an EOS market actually "crashes." As I say above, two characteristics of an EOS market are that shame is regularly invoked to acquire capital because it is more efficient than reasoned argument, and there's a persistent image of "standing alone" that is economically productive to cultivate. By itself, this combo is fine. But add in the fact that there's a low cost to entry~ in an EOS, i.e. that even actors with little to no cultural capital can nevertheless have an effect on the market, and you get what the internet has helpfully termed "trolls." Put in terms of the language we've been using, what a troll does is come into an EOS market and make a statement about a particular object "totally sucking," which of course amounts to "everyone is wrong but me." Now, while this is obviously wrong (it's positing the value of the object at 0, which is true for basically nothing, and it's positioning the speaker as the only one to hold such an opinion, which is also almost never true), it's also a pure expression of the way an EOS creates capital: it opposes the actual market valuation of an object. But whereas normally there would then be a counter-opinion introduced, with the resulting exchange actually producing capital for both parties, there is no possibility of discussion, because to admit any flaw in the original statement would violate the "standing alone" stance, which is the only way the troll can get any capital.

If the troll is ignored, then nothing happens. But if they are engaged, the only possible counter is not to oppose, but to join in with the denunciations, creating a kind of post-revolutionary fervor of purity. At first, this is productive: it's like a breath of unambiguous fresh air to the constantly hemming-and-hawing EOS market. But after a while, the market will start to run out of things to denounce, so as the aggregate value of all objects in the market declines, so does the store of cultural capital in the market, since it's something that if not maintained is lost. The market's supply is choked off, and it either dies or descends into a forum solely for trolls.

The funny thing about an EOS is that everyone in it is willfully (and, I might add, productively) ignoring its contradictions: it's a community, but made up of people each with their own strong opinions that derive solely from a clarity of vision uninfluenced by the community; it's a game of shame in which one way of winning is to be unashamed. Take a look again at that Essential Statement: "You don't like them, do you?" We've focused here mainly on the first clause, but it's that little turn at the end that makes an EOS market work. The first part posits the existence of shame, but the second part presents a way out of it, thus making yourself subordinate to the speaker, but also (so the assumption goes) boosting your store of capital and thus your position in the market overall. Every statement of shame is also, oddly enough, a pandering statement, meant both to question and to confirm the listener's assumptions--"you are wrong about this, but you are a smart, thoughtful dude, so you see that, right?" It's this pander that fundamentally separates an EOS from pop, which is inclusive, rather than pandering. But, like lotsa stuff, we'll get to that later.

[2] Whether this understanding is true or not is immaterial, and is the subject for another discussion entirely.
[3] A great, admittedly self-conscious example of all this was something Simon Reynolds would do from time to time: create a kind of "market snapshot" of bands it would be a good idea to "back" (particularly as an up-and-coming musician) if you wanted to score points in the coming year. Regrettably, I can't find this anymore, which makes me wonder if I'm imagining it, but it is interesting that he hasn't done it in a few years, basically since he stopped being particularly enthusiastic about modern music; if he did it now, it would come off as either self-parody or bitterness. Seems like when he doesn't have something to boost he moves from an EOP market to an EOS market, and maybe others have moved with him, but this will all be covered after I get this paper finished.
[4] This statement in and of itself will probably cause some people to wish shame on me, but just wait and see where I'm going with this in a subsequent part. be continued in part 2a.

But first, a graph:

1-2: Market is somewhat stagnant and getting worse. General listlessness all around.
3: Trolling begins, with the market being too weak to oppose it. The value of objects decreases but capital shoots up as it is freed up and becomes falsely productive.
4: Value and capital cross at such an angle that a crash is almost inevitable, especially following (as it does) a slight dip in the aggregate capital.
5-6: Value and capital change in inverse proportions, as participants go on a denouncing frenzy and milk all value from the market.
7-8: Value comes close to bottoming out and capital, consequently, begins to fall. Realizing this, a market correction is attempted, but it fails.
9-10: Value and capital reach their lowest point and, lacking new supply, the market dies. Start over.