“Enjoying It: Candy Crush and Capitalism” – Review Essay by J.A. Smith

Art: The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema

Review Essay:
Social Class in the 21st Century by Mike Savage (Penguin, 2015)
Enjoying It: Candy Crush and Capitalism by Alfie Bown (Zero, 2015)

On a bus in Manchester years ago, I overheard a middle-aged local asking a couple of well-heeled young university students what music they were into, this being the perennial ice-breaking question of that city. Underwhelmed with their non-committal replies, he frowned, “you students – you all say you like everything”. The findings of the Great British Class Survey carried out in 2013 – now written up as Social Class in the 21st Century, by the sociologist Mike Savage – rather bear out that man’s suspicious association of affluent upward mobility with just this kind of “liking everything”. As recently as a few decades ago, it was still possible for an exclusively highbrow frame of reference to serve as what Pierre Bourdieu referred to as “cultural capital”: the marker of solid haute bourgeois superiority. Today, by contrast, it seems that we are expected to enjoy everything. There is more “emerging cultural capital”, as Savage calls it, and more social esteem to be had, in taking some Lady Gaga with our Shostakovich, some Game of Thrones with our Buñuel. The strict divisions between those who go to classical concerts and those who go to pop gigs, between haute cuisine and takeout, galleries and raves, no longer exist.

This does not mean, needless to say, that we now inhabit some kind of postmodern utopia of taste, where snobbery is passé and everyone is a freeborn mixtape unto themselves. Rather, Savage’s interviews suggest, culture’s new divide is between the affluent who can afford to go out and do a bit of everything, and those of us whose social lives are organised around cheaper, less “stuff” based activities. In this age of growing inequality, a conspicuously omnivorous cultural life has become one key way of signalling aspiration. But that said, it is not enough for us to simply indulge these interests indiscriminately. Another trend Savage identifies is a division between those who cultivate a streetwise and discriminating language for their relationship to all the “stuff” they like and do – Bolivian techno for my worldly connoisseurship, Strictly Come Dancing for my camp guilty pleasure – and those less likely to speak so reflexively about the things they enjoy. “I just like what I like” is not a convincing statement in this new hierarchy of the enjoyers. Those caught merely liking things too sincerely, without being able to specify what they, uniquely, “get out of” Mozart or Miley are likely to be left behind.

Alfie Bown’s Enjoying It may prove to be the indispensable companion for negotiating this dangerous new world where it doesn’t matter what we like, provided we like enough of it and in the right way. He begins – as every good cultural critic must – by looking inward, at the ways in which his own enjoyments are implicated in the culture he is analysing. The editor of the hip critical theory blog, Everyday Analysis (also published by Zero), Bown is part of a growing online commentariat: inspired by social media, snarky memes and hot takes, and the Tarantino-esque hybrid philosophy of Slavoj Žižek. In other words, Bown as an author has plenty of “emerging cultural capital” of his own, and is as at home reading the radical philosophy of Gilles Deleuze and Jean-Francois Lyotard as he is playing app-based smartphone games, such as Angry Birds and Football Manager. According to Savage’s analysis, these tastes should make Bown a model citizen of the new culture of enjoyment, providing he can speak reflexively about how the clever philosophy stuff is serious business, while the computer games are a bit of fun which, while wasteful and an indulgence, we all do anyway.

This differentiation between serious “productive” amusements and frivolous “unproductive” ones is precisely the division and hierarchy that Bown proposes to interrupt. Take the example of Deleuze and his collaborator Felix Guattari. As long as it doesn’t stray into the suspicious realm of rarefied academic specialism, an interest in these exciting thinkers might easily figure in Savage’s analysis as a prime bit of “emerging cultural capital”, a good thing to know some provocative quotations from, or to be seen reading on the underground. And yet, as Bown shows in a marvellously succinct introduction to their thought, Deleuze and Guattari’s own interest in enjoyment is “not only unproductive but completely against systems of production”: a radical overturning of the idea that “we”, as human subjects, are in control of ourselves when we desire, or indeed, are anything other than an effect of the contradictory flows of desire itself. Deleuzian desire, then, actually has surprisingly more in common with the clearly “unproductive” enjoyment indulged in such trashy pop culture as the knowingly awful “Gangnam Style”. As Bown suggests, the enjoyment elicited by the Korean pop star Psy’s hit song is of a kind that “does not seem ‘enjoyable’ at all but which nonetheless produces in us a strange and intense satisfaction”. Far from being the kind of lowbrow cultural interest, which – as Savage shows – is permissible as long as we can come up with some highly individual explanation for “what we get out of it”, the irresistible enjoyment of “Gangnam Style” is precisely the collapse of any such proudly contained individual experience of enjoyment. It is, as Bown puts it, “an abandonment of oneself to the completely constructed nature of identity”: an anti-productive and anti-individualistic kind of enjoyment if ever there was one.

But if such crass and unexplainable pop culture enjoyments can be seen as having something surreptitiously Deleuzian about them, actually reading Deleuze very often doesn’t. As Bown shows in a guiltily funny analysis of some of the contributions to the “Deleuze Facebook Group”, the feeling of safe self-congratulation a hip young postgraduate is allowed to feel when he dutifully takes such high-minded stuff off the shelf could hardly represent a more un-Deleuzian kind of enjoyment. Sounding all too like the arch and knowing high-end interviewees of the Great British Class survey, these rebel philosophers argue online over who is the most like Deleuze, who knows the obscure corners of his oeuvre the best, and even who looks the best reading his works on the beach. By contrast, Bown proposes, it may be when these firebrands drop the scholarly squabbles and guiltily retreat into the weirder enjoyments of the fag-ends of pop culture, that they are acting more in accordance with their idol.

The second half of Bown’s book is nothing short of a manifesto for a new university science: “enjoyment studies”. It has become common for universities to run slightly tongue-in-cheek and provocatively titled courses on “Harry Potter studies”, “David Beckham studies” and so on. These are always easy media-fodder (and probably intentionally so), inspiring news stories about dumbing down and Mickey Mouse subjects. But as Bown shows, the problem is not that such university subjects depart too much from the ordinary rigour of academic study. Rather it is that they do not depart from the ordinary running of the university’s norms of thought enough. Take Rutgers University’s course on Beyoncé, for example, or another university course on the cultural significance of the National Basketball Association. These courses no doubt do well to lure students in by promising them the opportunity to study what they already enjoy anyway. But on closer inspection, their claim to use popular culture as a “jumping off point” for analyzing such familiar well-meaning topics of interrogation on Humanities programmes as race, gender, and national identity suggests that a trick is being played. Students may well find a more or less identical list of secondary reading on both courses, as well as on their classes on Harry Potter, Britney Spears, and the American Sitcom. The point is that none of these “texts” is actually being taken seriously on its own terms: only as a vehicle for familiar discussions that stick to the formula of what Bown – citing the psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan – calls “the university discourse”.  

An “enjoyment studies” would have the task of addressing why we find these objects of entertainment so enjoyable in the first place. Bown’s book concludes with a series of virtuoso attempts to do just that, analyzing the pleasure of “Gangnam Style”, twerking, and Game of Thrones, not as mere “symptoms” of wider cultural trends, but from the point of view of the highly particularized kinds of enjoyment each gives us. This approach might superficially seem familiar from Blackwell’s “And Philosophy” series, which has published book after book making comparisons between some surprising aspect of popular culture (30 Rock, Family Guy, The Hobbit) and ideas from various traditions of philosophy. But, as Bown shows, these books turn out to have just the same problem as Beyoncé Studies, subjecting the supposedly unproductive object of enjoyment to the responsible and “productive” interpretive framework of existing academic norms. However voguishly demotic the “And Philosophy” series’ claim to “get philosophy out of the ivory tower” might be, actually for the most part it does no such thing. Very little is said about South Park or Mad Men in these books beyond what can be found to “prove” some established detail from Foucault or Hobbes. More damningly perhaps, as Bown points out, this approach “works to avoid saying anything new about philosophy”. Popular culture remains mere fodder to prove the more rarified points of philosophy, while philosophy itself remains ossified, unchanged by its encounters with its pop culture poor relations. By contrast, Bown in his discussions is looking to establish something of what is enjoyable in Game of Thrones, without “photoshopping out inconsistencies and pulling them onto the side of what we already know”, by being attentive to “an excess” present in the show, “which leaves us feeling that none or all of the ways we can explain why we enjoy the show are quite enough”.

From the Frankfurt School, to the Scrutiny movement, to the New Left, the wariness of intellectuals around mass culture has not always come from a place of straightforward snobbery. Just as often, it has been tied up with a conviction that a truly critical and democratic society could only be populated by citizens who have become intellectually nimble enough to get around an Andrew Marvell lyric or a novel by Proust; whereas capitalist mass culture as it stands necessarily produces docile unreflective subjects. Even the most latitudinarian practitioners of academic Cultural Studies today tend to find some way of discriminating between the popular texts they do approve of on whatever grounds (those that “are part of a genuine subculture”, “trouble our usual assumptions”, “challenge orthodoxies on race and gender”, or whatever) on the one hand, and those that are unduly simplistic, unchallenging, or uninteresting on the other. The English literary critic Alan Sinfield once remarked that it was a tragedy of the radical intellectual tradition that it has never been able to meaningfully overcome this persistent mythology, and to recognize the partnership it could forge with the often complex and exciting forms of enjoyment that – perhaps of necessity – are contained in anything with broad popularity. Bown’s genuinely original and provocative book offers some concrete ways by which we could make a start.

J.A. Smith teaches at Royal Holloway, University of London. His book, Samuel Richardson and the Theory of Tragedy came out this month.

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