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 the poetry books e.s.p., Cutting Time with a Knife, Who Unfolded My Origami Brain?, and Words on Edge. His creative work has been anthologized in THE &NOW AWARDS 2: The Best Innovative Writing, Best American Experimental Writing 2018, and Bettering American Poetry, Volume 3. His co-translation, with Ignacio Infante, of Vicente Huidobro’s long poem Sky-Quake: Tremor of Heaven is forthcoming from co•im•press in late 2019. His critical monograph Contested Records: The Turn to Documents in Contemporary North American Poetry is forthcoming from the University of Iowa Press in May 2020. He has received grants from the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses and the National Endowment for the Arts. He teaches in the School of Critical Studies at CalArts.