“Thoughts are a nuisance,” said one of my patients. “I don’t want them.”
Wilfred Bion, Learning From Experience
New Conditions of Production and Reception
Like all other commodities, a change in function of cultural objects shapes the various modes of consumption. Culture is now something you microdose, like the new white collar workers who take psychedelics to get through an overloaded work week. The tendency is to provoke addiction. You’re meant to get a shot of it, to get it coursing through your system so that you can relax, focus or simply feel anything at all. We use it to fill up the emptiness of time and existence, to help us turn off after the work day or to get us through it in the first place.
Dosing culture exposes a connection between needing to make sure the market, which is ultimately made up of our minds and emotional lives, is always ready for more, and the kinds and qualities of aesthetic products that are now prevalent. The function of the objects as attention commodities shapes the rest of their attributes. Huge swathes of culture today are just technologies organized around ceaseless, interminable, addiction-like dosing. This goal exhausts both their form and content.
Adorno long ago emphasized that quantity replaces quality as art is infused with the capitalist principle of exchange above all else. With dosing culture, the synthesis of the object with the exchange principle hits a new pitch. It becomes autonomous even from any immediate economic imperative. Things are made to become ‘viral’ for their own sake, and ‘virality’ is built into the way they are made. The objects challenge us not in terms of quality, that we rise to the task of meeting formal demands and layered meaning, but in terms of sheer quantity. They ask not what we can manage in experiential complexity, but simply whether we can keep up.
Individual works are constructed to fit into a totality that we can never escape, and the totality begins to shape particulars to their core. Artists consider how to shape their ‘content’ in such a way that it moves seamlessly from one platform to another. They work to make sure the ‘hook’ in their song is short and powerful enough to transition between YouTube, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok. Television writers now construct whole scenes around ‘gifable’ moments to be endlessly shared online. The platforms where circulation takes place are designed to trap us, to importune us, to constantly disturb us back into cross-eyed consumption.
The shift from layered engagement to dissociative dosing, being a part of general tendencies within capitalism, has a material explanation. Today, artists sense that they should never make their ‘content’ too filling or rich. Otherwise you wouldn’t be able to keep consuming it. Amateur production rises in importance. Some people are now more likely to watch an hour-long stream on YouTube in which nothing happens or a podcast about nothing in particular than to read a novel or watch a film, which requires attention over time. This has given way to a new ideology of freedom within a total sphere of domination. Anyone can go viral at any moment, anyone can break in simply by adding more content to the platform. The sense of openness hides the thoroughgoing conventionalism that is required in order to participate.
Many people now profess that they are simply no longer able to read or watch a film in its entirety, so habituated are they to constantly taking in content in small doses. Capturing the meaning of a traditional work requires thinking back and forth between events and holding the parts in one’s mind over time. This has grown increasingly difficult. Reading like this requires what Bloom called a capacity for irony, which “demands a certain attention span, and the ability to sustain antithetical ideas, even when they collide with one another. Strip irony away from reading, and it loses at once all discipline and all surprise.” Dosing culture rebels against this kind of engagement at the most basic building blocks of form.
Notions of Content
The move from sublimation to dissociation culture has made its way into the language we use to describe artists, or in contemporary jargon, ‘content creators.’ All mass culture since its inception has been mediated by the profit motive, and, by extension, the division of labor, specialization, creation by committee, etc. Dosing culture today, though, often takes the form on the one hand of a platform mediated patronage model, and on the other an extension of advertising into everyday life in ever more nuanced ways. Ostensibly independent creators are no longer tied to a single firm or even a single medium of expertise. They work independently, creating content for different platforms. They must create their own audience of followers first before they will be taken up by larger concerns. The nexus of authority and control today is the total domination of consumption and production by the tyranny of the platform (and, by extension, various forms of software and automation and the companies that own them). ‘Influencers’ commodify their very existence, their personalities, their everyday life to an extreme degree. One ‘follows’ them only to be subjected to a vision of everyday life that is seamlessly interspersed with advertisements for products, to the point where the two become indistinguishable.
Expertise is increasingly irrelevant, and technical skill is less important than being marketable as a personality. Content creators think of their tasks as inherently networked. One has to build a following at all costs so that your ‘fans’ can be monetized. A content creator might start as a Twitter comedian, podcaster or YouTube star, but eventually they get into writing, advertising, TV, major label music production. The very idea of creativity has changed. It has become serialized, repetitive, networked and reduced to a total process. The shift to content creation fits the ideology of the post-industrialized, networked regime of production, reception and circulation. Regardless of an artist’s movement between fields, this regime tries to hide the fact that what lies behind it is toil and precarity. One must never allow this fact to infect the products themselves, and some platforms even use algorithms to censor out ‘negative’ content. This is perhaps also why contemporary culture is so infused with a constant swing from manic ecstasy to open-eyed nihilism, wearing its indifference to quality and significance on its face.
The new idea of content might be illuminated through a comparison. German philosophy drew a distinction between two words for ‘content’ in aesthetic theory—Inhalt and Gehalt—and this distinction touches on a key to the difference between culture as dosing versus sublimation. Content as Inhalt simply means what is being depicted or expressed. It is the information, subject matter or piece of reality that we find represented in a work of art. Gehalt, on the other hand, is content as ‘import,’ ‘meaning,’ or ‘substance.’ Hegel points out that judgments of artistic quality or truth, if they are to be saved from tautology, must depend not only upon what is being expressed—for instance, ‘X is a great work because it depicts God, heroic people, brave actions, the ideal human form, etc.’—but whether or not the how of expression and form is correct for the what. This combination of the how with the what (whether harmonious, discordant, etc.) is what Hegel refers to as Gehalt. The way something is treated, displayed and depicted is what results in its meaning, import or ‘aesthetic truth.’
This might sound so obvious as to be unworthy of comment, and it is true that these considerations were once tantamount to artistic initiative in its most minimal sense. Art was the result of whatever alchemy of form and content the artist could muster, whether applied from outside by rules or convention or from inside the work itself and the needs of its autonomous development. This is what gave birth to meaning. Today even this bar has become too high for large swathes of culture. It is important to consider these concepts now only because works that are made with the idea of Gehalt in mind allow for a kind of experience that is irreducible to the regime of endless dosing.
The idea of experience that comes through a communion with the Gehalt of a work is closely connected to another enlightenment notion, that of communicable, universal experience expressed in a singular work. This is to be distinguished from networked, mandated ‘sharing,’ which implies the standardization of that which is shared. Rather, the universal in the singular stands as proof that human beings are still willing and capable of expressing meaning through art that points, even negatively, to the possibility of a truly human world. We go out looking for such works because, in the words of Emerson, they “impress us with the conviction that one nature wrote and the same reads,” that in aesthetic experience there is a momentary cure for alienation. “We read the verses of one of the great English poets, of Chaucer, of Marvell, of Dryden, with the most modern joy—with a pleasure, I mean, which is in great part caused by the abstraction of all time from their verses. There is some awe mixed with the joy of our surprise, when this poet, who lived in some past world, two or three hundred years ago, says that which lies close to my own soul.” The artist feels that the object is other to them even as they have created it, that they have in some sense discovered something that was there and couldn’t be any other way, that they ‘follow the marble where it wants to go,’ to summarize a point made by Michelangelo. On the side of reception, this is the kind of object that has the capacity to move us in a way that is both socially shared and private.
This idea of content as a dynamic relation between subject and form, and the related ideas about artistic universality, often lead to what are now politically incorrect questions about aesthetic quality. Comparing one work to another to arrive at a judgment of quality is now considered improper. We are uncomfortable with questions of quality in art, and prefer that everyone be allowed to consume whatever they want. We rarely question whether or not what we say makes us happy actually does so, or what is gained in the process. But questions of artistic success, which are determined in part by whether or how a work or artist manages to speak to us from the past, have not gone away. The Inhalt of Kafka’s oeuvre, for example, cannot be separated from the depiction of the rise of cities and bureaucracies near the birth of modern capitalist life. But the Gehalt of his work—the way he makes you feel terror at the fact that rational institutions (the family, work, bureaucracies, etc.) prepare us for a life of desperate unfreedom—is something that opens up to us only through the way that he treats or expresses these themes, his method of generating shocks. It is now part of his work’s truth content.
The cultural regime of the current moment is Kafka-esque only insofar as we experience it as a purgatory with no sense of time, development or escape. In dosing culture, a creator’s treatment of a subject, the way they choose to solve artistic problems, does not extend from reflection on the material and its potential at a given moment but is determined by the platforms and geared toward imitation of trends. Works have become leveled, meme-like and oppressively monotonous. Our physical spaces have been infused with the same idiotic songs for decades now. The same cultural styles return again and again. Movies are in large part cannibalized versions of ‘intellectual property’ (IP) or remakes that will continue to be remade year after year, decade after decade. Dosing culture requires this timeless, prepackaged content. It conjures the feeling of release as inseparable from addiction and dependency, as an endless flow of trash that we imbibe without ever reaching satisfaction, and without ever going anywhere. The social media-induced delusion known as ‘FOMO’ (fear of missing out) perfectly expresses this contradiction: no matter how rare we know authentic experience to be, how aware we are that our spheres of communication are composed of endless heaps of the same with no way of escape and no real sense of satisfaction, we nevertheless cannot get rid of the belief that happiness is possible, and that other people are having it. “There is hope, but not for us.” People are happy, we’re sure of it. Only we never are.
Culture atrophies not only from an internal law of exhaustion, a ‘death drive’ of modernism, and not only because it is emptied out and reduced to exchange, but also because capitalist society has become a black hole, a snake eating its tail, a man-made catastrophe which lumbers on like a force of nature. Dosing culture’s formal impoverishment is connected to contemporary life’s general historical amnesia. It is culture that is built to step into the void of our own powerlessness over the course of the world. Culture in its domain is no longer the dream of something better, nor the illumination of the ugly truth of our contradictory nature. It is simply a sigh: ‘Well, we have to have something.’
The connection between dosing and objective powerlessness, the sense of inevitability that typifies contemporary life, is perhaps most perfectly expressed in those areas that previously held at least some semblance of a relationship to ‘reality.’ News media and journalism in general have become a non-stop parade of mania and psychosis. In many respects, these areas are now merely an extension of dosing platforms like Twitter. News cycles get shorter and shorter. The institutions of information not only endlessly propagandize, whipping up scandals out of thin air, but also block digestion through the psychotic way in which they communicate stories. The field that previously prided itself on objectively seeking out facts despite its relationship to power now barely even bothers itself with the pretense of being anything other than hysteria and elite opinionating. Whole staffs of reporters are gutted to fund overpaid op-ed writers with no expertise to speak of and underpaid writers churning out as much content as they can manage. Not only do major outlets manufacture consent in the straightforward way first outlined by Chomsky and Herman, basically repeating the narratives that have been provided by the state and powerful actors in the economy. This method was mostly a question of content, not style. Today, the manner in which information is communicated is equally important. The goal is not merely to report, but to do so in a way that drums up a daily moral panic that intentionally prevents reflection on the part of the audience. The very form the news takes is psychotic. It constantly shifts from one thing to another with no consistency at all. Each day’s moral panic is treated as if the entire world hangs in the balance, and every outlet squeezes as much attention as they possibly can until all of a sudden the item is dropped as if it never happened. Near total amnesia is mixed with ceaseless anxiety. Nothing ever changes, nothing is improved, and the catastrophes keep piling up.
The public sphere is now a mind-warping economy of ‘takes,’ half-baked opinions to be used as battering sticks or projected onto others. That someone might actually have real knowledge, or that inquiry could be something undertaken in a collective, mutually beneficial way, are notions most would never even bother to entertain. The entire public sphere has been reduced to a giant comment section. The minute something is published an army emerges to air grievances, often without having read the piece in question. In the sphere of psychotic reception, response is more important than understanding, and mania and hyperbole prevail here as well. You cannot simply disagree with something, rather you must protest against the very existence of the thing you disagree with, which is offensive, horrible, an act of violence. Emotion overtakes intellect almost as a rule, and the result is that no one ever learns anything. This not only results in a destruction of our capacity for thinking, but our ability to actually solve problems that are essential to our survival.
Pseudo-Democracy and the Endless Con
The final stage might already be on the horizon, as culture moves from being planned and organized by massive industries with gatekeepers who develop stables of talent to a situation of total automation and algorithmic control. If Barton Fink satirizes the collapse of the artist into the hired lackey during the golden age of mass culture, the ‘content creator’ signals the collapse of the hired employee into the endlessly hustling amateur constantly hawking his wares through the algorithm.
A recent signal of this shift was when Amazon decided to ‘get into content’ by trying to crowdsource workable scripts for its new production wing, a plan that obviously ended in failure. But the idea is clear. We have moved from guys in suits hiring, developing and marketing talent to guys in blue jeans and Patagonia vests who replace the costly middleman of artists and expertise with coders and feedback loops of makers and consumers. Neither side is allowed to outrun or outsmart the other because, at the end of the day, they are the same people. This final regime requires acclimating people not to expertly-crafted kitsch but to manifestly empty trash they nevertheless become addicted to insofar as the ‘schema’ of their understanding—that mysterious process inside the mind which Kant believed underpinned all experience—is slowly replaced with elegant code.
This combination of lowered standards and algorithmic logic is the idea behind one of the fastest growing dosing culture platforms: TikTok. TikTok capitalizes on the identity of maker and consumer and combines it with a near total conditioning of attention by the despotism of algorithmic management. When you join its first goal is not only to get you addicted to consuming short bursts of content. It also has to prepare you to produce and share your own. This last bit is made more acceptable through the intervention of endless filters and ornaments that make you look like a less hideous version of yourself. The screen is constantly glowing and softening up faces, a technologically advanced version of the soft focus previously used in classical Hollywood movies. Consuming, producing and sharing become part of a single process. This circle of producer and fan is a stroke of late capitalist genius. TikTok has realized that the addictive chemicals released in the brain should be exploited on both sides of the cultural exchange—not only consuming images and signs but also producing and sharing them, receiving recognition and a false sense of agency.
This pseodo-democratic element has led to forms of grift that now seem to be endemic to human relationships under the current cultural regime. So called ‘stars’ of the platform make money through coaxing ‘fans’ to give donations dressed up in little character icons. In exchange, the donor is promised shout-outs to grow their audience, future collaborations (‘give me $300 and we can sing a duet together’) or just a fleeting moment of attention. This makes ‘content creation’ synonmous with smarmy, fawning, shameless and stupid behavior, and it reduces aesthetic reception to the most naked transactional relationship possible.
It might seem absurd to compare a social media app that is openly marketed as empty, ceaseless consumption with higher notions of culture. But the contrast allows us to get some analytical distance from forms which have become so routinized as to feel like second nature. Their whole orientation is to make us feel like it cannot be any other way.
If there is any light at the end of this tunnel, it might be contained in the openness with which this cultural regime acknowledges its own emptiness. As Jia Tolentino put it in her review of TikTok, “I found it both freeing and disturbing to spend time on a platform that didn’t ask me to pretend that I was on the Internet for a good reason.” This might be true, but it is also difficult to imagine a lower bar for cultural criticism.
There is no longer any attempt to hide the fact that the images and sounds we consume are an endless con, that it’s all just garbage, that the commodities we constantly shoot ourselves up with to enrich our lives never deliver us from the gnawing sense of meaninglessness. The result is the thoroughgoing infection of cultural life with irony, even if the irony has also become so stultified that it no longer stings. The next generation of consumers is already upon us, and it is no surprise that many of them voice concerns about the anxiety they feel from tech addictions that make them feel hollow and bad. There is probably no other solution but to simply log off. We already know we are not missing anything. Perhaps we will eventually find the courage to know what we already know, to return to that most fundamental role of art. Or, as Robert Hullot-Kentor once put it: to consider how art allows reality “break in on the mind that masters it,” perhaps one of our only methods of escape.
Chris Crawford is a writer living in New York.