Pinterest, “Lifestyle” and Walter Benjamin

Closing down the 10 year project that was my LivingSmall blog has me thinking about blogs, and the internet, and Walter Benjamin.

Benjamin has been clattering around in my head for months now while I’ve been trying to form a coherent argument about why I dislike Pinterest. Actually, about why I dislike Pinterest and slick, overly-photographed lifestyle blogs. And why I find the concept of “lifestyle” itself so troubling.

It was Benjamin’s observation that “mechanical reproduction” of art brings it spatially closer to the masses while simultaneously draining it of the very quality of presence that makes it art in the first place, a quality he called “aura.”  We’ve all had this experience with famous paintings. That they are reproduced as posters and postcards and coffee mugs and calendars drains them of their actuality. When you finally see Monet’s water lilies — are you really seeing them? or are you just seeing the reproduction you already know, writ large, there upon the wall?

And what so of the internet? Although I stopped blogging at LivingSmall because I had said everything I have to say on the topics of gardening, or chickens, or baking bread, or canning; I also found myself turned off by the way the “lifestyle blogs” both proliferated and became increasingly slick.

I think of it as the “bowl of apples problem.” What happens when the bowl of apples on my kitchen table starts to look, to me, privately, at home, like “a bowl of apples?” What does it mean that the lived experience of our daily lives is becoming something we don’t experience directly, but start to externalize? Start to see as “lifestyle?” I suppose that’s part of the pleasure for some — the idea that your bowl of apples looks like it could be in a magazine, or a slick blog — it’s what makes people feel like they’re getting it “right” — but it complicates the always-tricky notion of authenticity. Am I having an honest experience of aesthetic pleasure when I arrange some apples in a yellow bowl I brought back from France, when I enjoy the way they look on my kitchen table in the early summer sunlight? Or, am I imitating something I’ve seen online, even if I’m not imitating it consciously?

The proliferation on the internet of idealized visual images of activities in which I find pleasure — gardening, cooking, chickens, foraging — cheapens those experiences for me, and causes me to distance myself from the authenticity of my own experience. It inserts a layer of external imagery against which I wind up comparing my experience, and which thus distances me from the pleasure of engagement. I wind up either wondering if I’m doing it right, or more typically, because I can be this way, I wind up losing interest in things I genuinely like because they’re becoming trendy.

I love my yellow bowl I bought in France. It bears all sorts of memories with it, and to fill it with fruit and set it on my table gives me pleasure. To fill it with fruit, put it on my table, and photograph it for Pinterest is something else entirely.

That I can’t quite get a handle on what that “something else” is, is part of what’s fueling the new writing I want to be doing, some of which will be appearing in this space.


6 thoughts on “Pinterest, “Lifestyle” and Walter Benjamin”

  1. Hello. Please, would you let me know if you are still using your treadmill desk and what brand treadmill you purchased – was/is it electric? manual? Sorry to go from the sublime of your writing to the mundane of my request – but I will very much appreciate your input. I’d like to make a tdmll. desk and want to purchase a manual, cheap, but new, treadmill for it… Thank you, in advance. All the best, Chandler Harris

  2. Hi Chandler — I am still using my treadmill desk — not all day long, since the only place it fit was in the basement and that gets gloomy, but it’s terrific. Unfortunately I don’t have any advice about treadmill makes — I went to Play it Again Sports and bought the cheapest basic treadmill they had that had arm rails that looked like they’d support a narrow tabletop. I like the idea of a manual one — let me know if you find a good one that works for you.

  3. Hi Charlotte–you might like Rosalind Krauss…provides context for such…hope you are well! Anna

    1. Hello lurker! You’d laugh at how much stuff I bitched about in grad school I’m now re-reading with interest. Any Rosalind Krauss in particular? I’m also really digging Renata Salcel …

  4. Oh, am I a lurker? Not everyone has to be connected in an open/public and mainstream way to the uber network, do they? 🙂 ..sorry if that’s annoying for you!

    I had no idea you read Benjamin…have you read Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory? It’s crazy tuff stuff; I’ve never made it through the thing…you might read JM Bernstein on Frankfurt school is awfully good–clearer (go-to reference for lectures, etc.)

    I like Krauss’ newest one (I think)-‘Under Blue Cup’…she can be a bit thick with the high langue of modernist/pomo theory, ’tis true (and annoying)…but the way she integrates passages from Merleau-Ponty (I recall you’re a fan), Barthes, and Tim Clark (his ‘The Sight of Death’ is magnificent too, I’ve taught sections of that in my crit studies seminar)…makes the thickness worth (at least my) while. And a very attractive book to boot. all reference directly or indirectly the Benjaminian aura, etc–…anyway, take care! The Lurker

  5. …thinking on it…maybe Optical Unconscious by Krauss is a better rec. Take care!

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