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Figment.com: A New Technology for the Culture Industry?

I’m in a bit of a pessimistic mood tonight, so bear with me as I revisit some Adorno:

…although the culture industry undeniably speculates on the conscious and unconscious state of the millions towards which it is directed, the masses are not primary, but secondary, they are an object of calculation; an appendage of the machinery.  The customer is not king, as the culture industry would have us believe, not its subject but its object…Neither is it a question of primary concern for the masses, nor of the techniques of communication as such, but of the spirit which sufflates them, their master’s voice.  The culture industry misuses its concern for the masses in order to duplicate, reinforce and strengthen their mentality…The masses are not the measure but the ideology of the culture industry, even though the culture industry itself could scarcely exist without adapting to the masses.

–Theodor Adorno, “Culture Industry Reconsidered,” trans. Anson G. Rabinbach, New German Critique 6 (Fall 1975)

A December 5th New York Times article by Julie Bosman entitled “Web Site for Teenagers with Literary Leanings” describes a new venture called Figment, an online forum created by Dana Goodyear, a staff writer from The New Yorker and Jacob Lewis, a former managing editor of The New Yorker.  Originally intended to be a “social network for young-adult fiction” à la Facebook, Figment, which launced today, defines itself as “a community where you can share your writing, connect with other people who love to read, and discover new stories and authors.”

While initially presented as “an experiment in online literature, a free platform for young people to read and write fiction,” according to the Times article, I’d like to suggest that Figment is, in actuality, treating  such literary-minded teenagers as “secondary,” as what Adorno calls mere “appendage[s] of the machinery,” through a misused concern for their role as literary producers.  (In fact, Figment makes no bones about portraying itself as a culture machine; according to its site, “There are other people [besides Goodyear and Lewis] who turn the little gears inside the Figment machine.”)  In this reading, Figment is a kind of instant, virtual focus-group for publishers, a nicely bundled package of market research: according to Lewis, “For publishers this is an amazing opportunity to not only reach your consumers but to find out really valuable information about how they are reading.”  David Steinberger, the chief executive of Perseus, says that “teen culture is a constantly moving target.  We’re looking for partners who are deeply embedded in the way teens interact.”  Figment, through a sleight of hand interpellation, invites teens to “write themselves into” this very embeddedness: the promise is that one can “write oneself into” an imagined creative community through new modes of expressivity yet one is, at the very same time, inscribing oneself into the ideological structures of the culture industry.

To be sure, there are many promises of the internet and social media, and thinkers like Michel de Certeau have done much in recuperating the agency of the consumer, though I worry that, in the case of Figment, the expressed interest in “techniques of communication” is really a mask for reinforcing and perpetuating the ideology of the market.

Michael Leong is the author of four volumes of poetry, e.s.p., Cutting Time with a Knife, Who Unfolded My Origami Brain?, and Words on Edge, as well as a translation of the Chilean poet Estela Lamat, I, the Worst of All. His poems have appeared in jubilat, Lana Turner, New American Writing, Tin House, Verse Daily, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and elsewhere. Excerpts from a new manuscript in progress is forthcoming in Best American Experimental Writing 2018. He is Assistant Professor of English at the University at Albany, SUNY.

14 thoughts on “Figment.com: A New Technology for the Culture Industry?

  1. No, they’re being totally honest! “Figment” literally means “something feigned”! (Expect deceit!)

    I’m always so happy to see Adorno being discussed; he’s the clue to the entire 20th century. Michael, in addition to agreeing with you, I’d say that your reading can be applied to all social networking and new media: Goodreads, Facebook, Amazon, YouTube, and so on. It’s all one big focus group. Hell, even Google knows where I live, thanks to my repeated use of Google Maps; I may be a paranoiac codger, but I’m certain that someone somewhere is using that data to better online direct adds at me. (And I say right on the Brits for running Google street-view cars out of their neighborhoods.)

    But, yeah, of course it’s the kids that the culture industry likes to prey on the most. I was just thinking about something like this re: Mario and Mickey Mouse; it’s a half-formed tangent, but bear with me:

    So Mario is enjoying a new lease on life, because all of us who loved him as kids are now having kids ourselves, and our kids love him anew. And we see them loving Mario and that warms the cockles of our hearts (and allows us to relive our childhoods).

    So I was wondering if this is part of how Mickey Mouse became such a media sensation in the 1950s: he first appeared in 1928, and was enjoyed by the kids of the the late 20s/early 30s, who were later having their own kids by the late 40s/early 50s. And when they saw their kids loving Mickey Mouse, and felt the same way we 30-something Mario lovers feel now.

    …Well, it’s a rough thought, and I don’t know if it’s really going anywhere, but I wonder if that’s what happened. Makes Mario seem a lot more insidious, doesn’t it? (I’ve always found Mickey pretty creepy, even though I think Steamboat Willie an incredible work of art.)

      1. The consumer as “an object of calculation” indeed.

        I found the formulation that Pandora destroys music’s “cultural aura” in the age of digital reproduction to be interesting…it seems as if the culture industry no longer needs any hype or perceived “coolness” to promote its products.

    1. Yeah — Adorno is a foundational thinker for the 20th century — he was wrong about some things (jazz for instance) but few have meditated so cogently on the barbarity of our time, of the frightening dialectic of progress and regression.

      I’m with you on the Mickey/Mario thing — the marketing that targets generational cycles… it’s insidious, as you say, and exploitative… I feel like a cultural conservative now but I think there is, indeed, much to fear…

      It’s funny how you mention paranoia… I’ve been thinking a lot recently about Sianne Ngai’s formulation that “conspiracy theory [is] a viable synecdoche for ‘theory’ itself”; she defines paranoia as a “dysphoric apprehension of a holistic and all-encompassing structure.” So not only Adorno and Horkheimer’s culture industry is relevant but also Debord’s society of the spectacle, Althusser’s ideological state apparatuses, Lacan’s Law of the Father, Foucault’s techniques of surveillance, etc etc

  2. The culture industry is going to do its thing regardless of whether teenagers are writing or sharing literature enthusiastically or not. While I can see the downside of using this for “data mining” purchases–we all want to believe that we are unimpeded agents, prime movers in our purchases/literary tastes/ artistic pursuits, maybe there is a more positive spin to put on it. This isn’t asking teenagers to press a bunch of buttons, from the sound of it, to passively consume and rate literature and then marketing on the basis of that–rather, it’s handing the reins over to teenagers and encouraging them to be producers, to be active participants in literary community. That that community is tied into the marketplace is already true, but if anything I see room for more diversity, more subversion, more voices, and thus more diffusion of culture rather than the concentration of top-down culture. Give teenagers a bunch of garages and instruments and you may try to shove the next garage band down their throats from the corporate offices fifty floors up, but you’ve still given them the garage and the shredding equipment. Similarly if you gave them a bunch of cameras. And if you are listening/watching what they do, maybe you’re creating the conditions for a groundswell to actually impact the culture itself, which could be a positive thing.

    1. Well, I hope so, Tim, I hope so… Certainly there are limitations to Adorno’s rather monolithic conception of a culture industry. You’re right: the issue of agency is terribly important but I’m not sure if there’s a clear or easy way to articulate an oppositional agency in our times… We really aren’t “unimpeded agents” — you can probably tell from above that my understanding of the subject is Althusserian — we are “always already” indoctrinated and inscribed within ideological structures. So, to me, “handing the reins over” is illusory — we are always already “reined” by ideological forces

      That being said, I do hope there is room for subversion and diffusion, for something like Tim Jones-Yelvington’s “anti-Stephenie Meyer” project (http://bigother.com/2010/07/07/could-somebody-smarter-than-me/) rather than a replication and extension of a Twilight-driven culture.

      It does seem to me that Figment.com is mediating young readers/writers in ways that are different from just providing teenagers with cameras and shredding equipment… I suppose this is why I am especially wary… Thanks for your thoughts.

    2. The problem is that this is yet another corporate attempt to manage and exploit natural creativity and curiosity. Kids are perfectly able already to draw, write, play music, etc. They’ve been doing so since the dawn of time. What they don’t need is a company to provide the infrastructure (read: boundaries) for their endeavors: “Whatever you’re into, you can find it all here!” Just like how I can find every book I need at a Barnes & Noble! How convenient!

      Needless to say, kids also don’t need corporations peering over their shoulders, subtly data-mining and branding them.

      As a kid, I wrote because I wanted to, encouraged by teachers and parents and librarians. Now, as an adult writer, I rightfully resent the extent to which I must subordinate my natural impulses and desires to the culture industry (if I want to publish, teach, etc). Figment is a way to acclimatize kids at a young age, so they don’t perceive that alienation, or feel any resentment: interpolate them into the modern culture straight from the womb! Adorno wrote as passionately as he did about the culture industry because the culture industry really is that insidious, and it knows full well what it’s doing. (I’d be very curious to see what Figment’s promised ROI is, to their investors. But good luck finding that out!)

      If Dana Goodyear and Jacob Lewis want to help kids out, they can create a non-profit, or volunteer at an after-school organization, or donate some paper and crayons to some destitute inner-city school. Then they can chaperone as the kids go on a walk to a local park, and play and write and imagine without any screens or computers present.

      “Children want, more than they want anything else, and even after years of miseducation, to make sense of the world, themselves, other human beings. Let them get at this job, with our help if they ask for it, in the way that makes most sense to them.” —John Holt

      1. Adam and Michael,

        I think your grounds for suspicion are well-founded…a not-for-profit would sit much better with me, and by no means am I embracing Figment uncritically. But along with boundaries/infrastructure come opportunities as well, including the possibility of community, of exchanges, of moments of connection and so forth. Adam, it sounds as if you are romanticizing or idealizing this Noble Savage ideal of childhood artistry and curiosity when the reality is that children are inundated with corporate iconography from the womb already. They listened to Mozart in the womb because their parents thought it would give them a “leg up” when kindergarten rolled around. Or those ridiculous Baby Einstein videos where the company actually had to pay out refunds to every buyer when the research came out that they were in fact, if anything, detrimental to cognitive development. I guess the difference I see here–without underestimating the pervasiveness of institutions and the corporate wolves who are likely observing the latest variants and trends in sheep baa-ing–is that you are to some degree encouraging an active engagement and the formation of community. Community and institutions of all sorts have their pernicious elements, but damn if we can live without them entirely, and I’m not sure we want to. The sorts of things we see here, for instance, wherein the infrastructure enables a conversation in which you remind me to maintain a healthy skepticism about corporate interests or clues me into the history of slow motion in film or any other of the innumerable things I’ve learned about on Big Other that I wouldn’t have learned if I was sitting and scribbling in my Rousseauian lean-to–these are the fruits.

        1. Hi Tim,

          Thanks for the reply. This has nothing to do with the Noble Savage, though. It has to do with Figment being utterly fucking lame (Dana Goodyear being in charge all but guarantees that). Sure, it’ll offer kids some opportunities…so does the local cineplex—the opportunity to hear Top 40 hits and watch Harry Potter films—which they can then chat about at Facebook! Be the first of your friends to Like The Deathly Hallows! Want to download some Cool Harry Potter wallpapers? (This is the hip new Media Convergence you’ve been hearing about. It’s also called “the death of Net Neutrality.”)

          Kids are inundated with popular culture from pre-birth, I agree. I think that’s an argument for adults backing off more, and letting kids navigate it themselves—not encouraging them to sign up for lame focus groups disguised as “Kewl Teenz Rock!!!” communities. (Did your high school show Channel One during homeroom? The cool homeroom teachers—the ones who actually cared about the teenage minds they were being entrusted with—were the ones who turned that type of shit off. And who looked the other way when the anti-corporate kids smashed the Coke machines in the hallways…)

          […] you are to some degree encouraging an active engagement and the formation of community. Community and institutions of all sorts have their pernicious elements, but damn if we can live without them entirely, and I’m not sure we want to.

          Whence such absolutism? I, too, am all for community. In fact, I take communities so seriously, that I don’t think that corporations should be allowed to form them. Because corporations are not interested in forming communities. They are interested in forming (and then managing) target demographics, which are actually the exact opposite of communities.

          I’d be totally for Figment if it were a bottom-up, grassroots-formed internet community, like a BBS, or 4chan, or a fan-run online fanfiction library, or many blogs (like the awesome Big Other, which wasn’t put together by a corporation. And WordPress is open-source, and it was founded by Matthew Mullenweg when he was a teenager. It’s not a company run by the New Yorker.). In fact, all of those things already exist, and I think they’re great! (Go us!) Kids aren’t hurting for ways to socialize/express themselves on the internets! What I’m opposed to is the corporate takeover of those free channels. Stuff like Figment is like…like WordPress shutting down, and being replaced by the Barnes & Noble Book Blog. Now visitors to Big Other can read posts AND get recommendations as to which corporate bestsellers they might like! It’s totally rad, dude! Cowabunga!

          Tim Jones-Yelvington just blogged about Dennis Cooper? Interested readers should also check out Bridget Jones’s Diary! Which is now a great new film! You can download it tonight, then rank it 1–4 stars!

          I mean, have you visited Figment? If you haven’t, I encourage you to go take a good, long look. It’s banal beyond belief:

          http://figment.com/features

          Blogs to Stalk: The Book Muncher

          Once a week, we feature one blogger who we think is crackerjack. Check them out!

          Crackerjack!

          OK, so let’s say my 13-year-old self is living now, and wants to take part in Figment. So I sign up, become a blogger there. Now I post some of my writing, a fanfiction novel in which Harry Potter sodomizes Mario with a broken Coke bottle, then gets his dick bitter off by a zombie velociraptor. Am I, too, crackerjack? No? Oh, I’ve just been banned for writing such stuff?

          Bigoted, extremely violent, or pornographic content is not OK, and may result in the removal of your content from the site.

          (But violent queer pornography was my favorite genre when I was 13! It still is! I guess I’m…A FREAK! (SOB!))

          Oh, and now I’m being reported to my guidance counselor and local police because I’ve tripped all sorts of FBI warning flags? THANKS, FIGMENT!

          TJY gets it—right, Tim? Anyone who was A FREAK in grade school and high school (I proudly raise my hand now, although I was pretty busy getting stuffed in my locker at the time) gets it; they know that you can’t turn to the fucking New Yorker for help flying your flag. Because the New Yorker is one of the stupidest, safest, most conservative magazines in print (at least since the 1980s). It’s the death of culture; it’s where authors go to die. (OK, sure, the cartoons are sometimes amusing.)

          Who is behind Figment?

          Figment was co-founded by Dana Goodyear, a staff writer at The New Yorker, and Jacob Lewis, the former Managing Editor at The New Yorker and Condé Nast Portfolio. Pretty spiffy bunch, no? There are other people who turn the little gears inside the Figment machine, who you’ll meet if you stick around long enough. [Emphasis mine!]

          L-A-M-E… No velociraptor-dick-munching fiction will be forthcoming at Figment, I think I’m safe in promising you that. But you CAN read a perfectly nice new novel, CONTAGION, by the perfectly nice Joanne Dahme:

          Rose Dugan is a young and beautiful woman living in Philadelphia in the late 19th century passionate about keeping Philadelphia’s water reservoir clean and healthy. But when Rose starts receiving threatening letters, warning her to convince her husband to shut down his plans for a water filtration system or else, things take a turn for the worse. A conspicuous murder and butting heads cause Rose to search for the culprit, the truth, and a way to keep the people of Philadelphia safe from contagion in more ways than one.

          CONTAGION is 11978 words long and takes approximately about [sic] 1 hour to read. And when you finish, you can buy it on Amazon! And if it gets enough hits, it will be optioned into a film starring Amy Adams! Pretty spiffy, no?

          …Luckily, most teens, freaks and non-freaks alike, can see through corporate bullshit pretty quickly.

          Cheers,
          Adam

          P.S. If anyone would like to read my Mario/Harry Potter death-fic, please email me back-channel…

          1. http://figment.com/books/91-Contagion

            CONTAGION
            Prologue

            “Isn’t he handsome, Rose?” my mother asked, beaming at Patrick Dugan as he sat with his parents on the opposite side of our dining room table. My mother had told Fanny to set the table with our finest china and the two bottles of claret that Father had stored in the cellar at my birth for just this occasion. Mother’s French lace tablecloth had been ironed and a large vase containing white roses was placed just a little off center to hide a stubborn stain left by a previous dinner guest. The silverware reflected the warm glow of the candles.

            “Well, Rose . . .” she nudged me affectionately.

            My voice had retreated. I was thirteen years old and suddenly was the focus of the intense stare of the very handsome Patrick Dugan. He was adjusting his tie. I had caught him stealing a glance of his own reflection in the silver vase just moments before. He looked at me now with a teasing smile.

            It was our betrothal dinner. Patrick was twenty, and we were paired as a result of our fathers’ long friendship and profitable construction partnership. Successful Irishmen in the 1880s were still suspect, my mother told me. We needed to stay together, to prove ourselves to Philadelphia society. What better way than to create a permanent bond between our families.

            “To my lovely Rose,” Patrick stated, raising his wine glass above the flame of the candelabra. “Your sixteenth birthday won’t come soon enough.”

            My mother clasped her hands in delight. I turned a red that shamed the claret.

            DUDEZ I’M TOTALLY GOING TO SIGN IN RIGHT NOW AND HEART THIS…YOU SHOULD SIGN IN AND HEART THIS, TOO! I CAN’T WAIT TO SEE THE MOVIE AMY ADAMS IS THE GREATEST! MAYBE JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT CAN PLAY PATRICK…?

    1. Adam,

      If I’m being absolutist about community, you’re right to take issue…of course there is no either/or when it comes to community, institutions, etc. They are rife with compromise. I’m still not convinced that Figment is bound to be as bland and insidious as you’re painting it, though. It depends on a lot of factors, among them the degree to which the medium is in fact the message, i.e. the content is suffused with corporate interests, biases, a bottom line mentality and compromises, algorithms that exploit the writing and reading habits for corporate gain versus simply providing a platform for expression and most of all, enthusiasm. Whether something originates in a grassroots fashion or not does not inherently determine its value–it’s what comes of it that matters. Shit, if this forum provides a medium for kids to forge camaraderie, to speak in imaginative ways to the experience of oppression, to encounter otherness, to experiment with selfhood and challenge their medication and channel the energy of subversiveness in some kind of positive fashion, why not? Tomorrow I might wake up more cynical or more idealistic, but today I’m feeling pragmatic. And the pragmatic truth is that I’m writing this on brand name and eating brand name intermittently and I can hear brand name playing in the background, faintly, and if I had to count the number of objects in my field of vision that someone made money off I’d be doing that all night. You’re right, “focus group” is cringeworthy, about as ugly and unctuous as our language gets (but of course the language is itself in large measure inheritance, not “natural”). And maybe “Scribble away, kids, don’t mind us lurking in the background counting your keystrokes and tallying your purchasing preferences” is what it amounts to. But it seems like the positives might outweigh the negatives on this one. It seems a few leaps up from the multiplex-supersize-soda field of poppies you posit. There is art, agency, receptivity, and again, enthusiasm, being spurred.

      1. Hi Tim,

        I have no doubt that someone somewhere will have some fun—perhaps even the best moments of their life (“precious memories that will last a lifetime!”)—through Figment. I can have a good time even at the shitty mall near my parents’ house in Scranton—especially if I bring an mp3 player, so I can listen to my own music, and a book to read, or a sketch pad. That didn’t make me want to go to the mall when I was a teenager, or stop me from moving away from Scranton as soon as I could. And thank God for that.

        My disagreement is an ethical one: I’m opposed in principle to companies managing creativity, especially children’s creativity—exactly the situation that Michael describes below (the “this is YOUR place” capitalist rhetoric when it’s actually “their place”). Adorno, better than anyone, I think, has described precisely what’s so unappealing about that situation, and why modern-day capitalism is so insidious (and relentless) in insisting upon it. (One reason why: it’s a means for circumventing democracy. Again, good luck finding out what the Figment background lurkers are really up to.)

        Whether something originates in a grassroots fashion or not does not inherently determine its value–it’s what comes of it that matters.

        “The medium is the message.”

        The older I get, the more I’m convinced of this. It’s the infrastructure that matters most, as it determines most, if not all, of the eventual content.

        Still, maybe some clever young folks will do something clever with Figment—I’m a clever, pragmatic guy myself; I can find plenty of good books to read even at the most poorly-stocked Barnes & Noble—but the project’s whole premise is flawed, and they’re already off to a bad start. Were I 13 again, I’d join just so I could make trouble.

        Here, for example, is something you won’t find at Figment—to everyone’s detriment:
        http://tinyurl.com/23fr2o2

        Cheers,
        Adam

  3. I hear you, Tim, about the positive potential, but there are so many negatives attached to the way Figment.com is packaged — and Adam has been having some good fun with a lot of it above…

    The “This is YOUR place” really smacks of a “Your way, right away” capitalist rhetoric. It seems, in actuality, “their space” and they are setting the terms of engagement. This is Adorno’s misused concern.

    I really think Adam is onto something in pointing out the “Whatever you’re into…you can find it all here!” This is putting young readers into a position of generic belatedness — that whatever is of interest has already been written and has already solidified into generically recognizable models (that are presumably there to be copied and emulated)…

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