My friend Joanna was going to be at the PSFK Conference in New York this week, and she turned me on to the blog of one of the speakers, Grant McCracken. I enjoyed it â€“ it's the sort of cultural commentary and philosophical review that I like both to read and to write. So of course I have to start things off by critiquing it mercilessly.
McCracken had a today about the NFL's proposed rules to ban long hair, and was bemoaning it as an instance of individual expression being curtailed by cultural powers-that-be. I commented on it:
Americans are by and large "instrumentalists", then, although they might delude themselves into thinking otherwise. The only reason we pay attention to Troy Polamalu at all is because he can really play ball. His "expressive" hair is rather accidental, a slight differentiator for his personal brand. It's his instrumental value that provides the bedrock of our interest in him. I doubt he would disagree, either. He might not like the League trying to quash is his personal branding, but he would rather be remembered as a great NFL player than "that long-haired guy."
People who try to define themselves by their "expressive" nature -- their looks, their tastes, their arbitrary whims -- are usually the people who don't have any instrumental value to speak of, either because they are adolescents who haven't yet had enough opportunity to distinguish themselves by their achievements, or because they are losers. If expressiveness has utility, because it leads to great art or self-confidence or candor, then we can admire it. Otherwise it's just trade dress.
Americans are supposed to be individualists â€“ we are focused on personal achievement and personal fulfillment, rather than defining ourselves by our membership in collectives. Yet that celebration of the individual sometimes blurs into a celebration of individuality for its own sake . . . as if there was some inherent virtue in being unique. This "expressive individualism" seems hollow to me. I do believe people find all kinds of enjoyment and virtue in self-expression . . . but to believe that "expressing yourself" is inherently good and meaningful is merely narcissism.
Too simple by half, my friend. What is your blog if not an attempt to express yourself? You might argue that you are hoping it will have "utility"--turn people on to spirituality, catalyze productive thinking, etc--but I think it's a stretch to say that the productive value is essential and the self-expression is accidental. More accurate to say that the drive to self-expression, which is one of the most fundamental human drives, leads to wonderful things like your blog.
The blog is an attempt to express myself. To the extent that it meets my need for self-expression, it's a good thing . . . for me. But to claim it's a good thing, period, simply because I made it, would be narcissistic. And I don't think self-expression deserves the name unless it is attempting to DO something. The point of self-expression is NOT to "express the self." The point is to express something meaningful, with a point and a purpose and an end. Otherwise it's just noise.