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A PLEA FOR SELF-EXPRESSION(ISM)

There is a certain neoliberal ideal involved in the notion of self-expression. The injunction – ostensibly permissive – to put pen to paper, or whatever artistic tool to whatever artistic medium, and to vent one’s spleen and ‘get it all out’ through artistic ‘catharsis’ creates the ubiquitous singer-songwriter, poet and painter, bemoaning their losses and displaying their angers in front of others in the name of a supposedly ameliorative ‘honesty’, and ‘relatableness’; these figures cut a shape in modern culture that apparently opposes itself to the flipside: the injunctions of mainstream entertainment – to go out, enjoy unabashedly, and to ‘twerk’…

There is a risk in the ‘self-expressive’ manifestations of art and ‘alternative’ entertainment however, to slide out of honest representation and into vindictiveness, apathy and vitriol, in the portrayal of others, for example, or of the extolling of individualistic traits and selfishnesses (see Alex Niven’s Folk Opposition for a summary of some of these perils, in relation to the trend of ‘nu-folk’). These traits may then elide the wider social and structural contextualisations and connotations, and even revert back, invertedly, to the non-communitarian ethos of the mainstream.

The art of this kind of movement of life narrativisation also becomes questionable on the point of the actual locus of production of narratives: does the narrative produce the work, or the mode of working – ‘self-expression’ – the narrative? Lacan formulates his aesthetics of psychoanalysis – in relation to the critical concept of sublimation – on these very questions, and they are those that insist that we do not give an ism to the genre of self-expression like we do, for example, to Expressionism. Nonetheless, there remains self-expression’s therapeutic aspect, and, as Lacan quotes Freud quoting Heinrich Heine, in his first Seminar: ‘illness is no doubt the final cause of the whole urge to create. By creating, I could recover. By creating, I became healthy.’

But there are perhaps other areas in which self-expressionism should be championed and have an apologia produced for it. Our modern social milieu situates us in an interstice between our social media profiles, for which image-crafting and hyper-analysis are everything, and the (prospective) working world, for which image-crafting and hyper-analysis are, in fact, also everything. The ‘status anxiety’ that thus goes with this maintenance of an online self has become epidemic, situating us in a strange interval between panopticism and narcissism, schizophrenia and anonymity; but it is also becoming an anxiety enforced by employers, and even potential employers. To put it glibly, profiles are leading to profiling, and surveillance culture is finding its breeding-ground in the virtual world (the virtuality involved in what you may post one day affecting a decision on your employability another is hyperreal to the extent of Orwellianism). Electronic media has become a Repressive-Ideological State Apparatus of the Employer, to put it in Althusserian terms.

Of course, psychoanalysis stresses that the effects of an enunciation at any juncture will find realisations in future manifestations, but for this lesson to have been learned and subsequently negatively deployed by the symbolic order of the working world is a step (too far) in completely the wrong direction. This lesson is now deployed in such a way that a job can be lost due to a picture of oneself taking an alcoholic beverage appearing on Facebook (as happened to American teacher Ashley Payne (pictured above); posting from the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin, no less), or that an email criticising working conditions creative of stress and excessive pressures can be quashed with charges of ‘gross misconduct’ (see Professor Ian Parker’s ordeal at the hands of Manchester Metropolitan University last year), or even that some apprehension arises in us if we wanted just to angrily comment on, say, a four-hour unpaid interview for a cinema job (such as encountered by this contributor earlier this year), over whether this will go to show a certain unwillingness to future employers…

The question thus arises whether social media are, like our pub tables, platforms for self-expression, or not; if so, this is a simply plea that they may be so. Indeed, let CVs be CVs, and ‘What’s on your mind?’ statuses be ‘What’s on your mind’ statuses.

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