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Tue, May. 23rd, 2006, 12:53 am
What’s “Special?”

So, I’m way behind with my reading list (by something like three months and fifty books), but I’m reading a book I find at once incredibly infuriating and very smart, so I thought I would rant about it while I’m highly motivated to do so.

I picked up Hello, I’m Special thinking that it would be an entertaining rant about modern culture a la Christopher Lasch or, if I were very lucky, Paul Fussell. Instead, I got a bizarre mix of condescension, insight into the structure of community, French and German philosophy, and calls for social activism.

The points Niedzviecki (and now, oh man, I am really hoping he’s not related to Kyle) makes are generally smart ones. For example, he starts with the notion that mass media culture relies on promising “specialness” and access, while structurally requiring an inability to deliver. Then he takes this point to some quite interesting places, like explaining why that encourages bizarre extremism as attention-getting behavior and why individuality, in our culture, has become an anxiety-provoking phenomenon. Finally, his argument about attention as a commodity is brilliant. The only other place I’ve seen work like it is in Anna Fels’ spectacular Necessary Dreams (which I just reread, so is probably getting its own post at some point), though if people can point me toward other places that address attention as a scarce social resource I would really appreciate it.

Unfortunately, he puts his good ideas into the context of the most condescending, insulting, rude argument I’ve ever come across. Nothing is good enough for Mr. N. when it comes to individuality. He’s particularly offensive and wrong when it comes to communities of choice and participatory creativity. For one thing, he hasn’t done his research; tell me one person who thinks that Magic Land is the most important MMORPG out there! But worse, he seems to have the idea that any kind of participation in creative culture is irrevocably tainted by the specter of the eeeevil media. While he thinks that caring about pop culture is a waste of time, he’s even more insulting about things like people filming backyard wrestling leagues. A typical analysis is his discussion of fan fiction, where in a paragraph he concludes that it’s a waste of time, and that the participants are just second-raters, unable to actually compete in the “specialness” market, but who want a small, meaningless way to inject their so-called personality into pop culture, which is really what they care about, anyway.

No, seriously. That’s exactly what he argues. Wanting to be recognized for your talents, or choosing a community where you are welcomed and appreciated, or participating in popular culture in any way? “Specialitis,” and to him that’s a deep insult.

I wonder if you could take the smart parts of his analysis and work them into a more clueful, less insulting argument that takes into account why participatory culture matters (even if some of it is built off pop culture) and why the communities that people form by choice are still meaningful ones. Right now, he seems to be making the argument that the only worthwhile way to be a person is to go live on an isolated rural island, and that’s bullshit, but I bet you could take the argument about people longing for recognition within communities of choice and make a smarter, more realistic argument about it.

It would help to know what he thinks a good community is, and what authentic recognition of people’s internal natures would look like. Of course, I don’t think he knows, which is a big part of the problem.

Grr. I need to go read the last chapter now, and then I really must sleep.