The Inspiration-Industrial Complex, Part I: Marilyn Monroe Never Said That
Part of my job is social media management, and part of social media management involves Instagram. I make posts to shift e-books, draw clicks to blog posts, get shares, likes, and follows. And what snags the most shares, likes, and follows are often inspirational memes. You know the kind I mean:
Now, we humans of late capitalism are a very isolated and lonely lot. We work a lot more than our predecessors did at jobs that often seem unfulfilling--jobs which frequently follow us home, thanks to the convenience of mobile technology. Many of us are divorced, single, or in unstable relationships. Those of us who pay attention to the news willingly subject ourselves to a firehose of shit daily: liberal democracy collapsing like a sandcastle at high tide; high tide getting higher thanks to global warming, about which we are doing nothing and have precious little time to do anything at all; falling life expectancies in the US (driven by overdoses and suicides, hooray); the continued existence of Justin Bieber. We need some reassurance. Some uplift. And if we’re all going to be shackled to our fondleslabs for hours a day, we may as well get a little tickle of self-affirmation whilst we’re scrolling.
The problem is that these memesare deeply insincere. They’re insincere within themselves, and they’re used for insincere aims. The first part of this two-part essay will look at the former condition: how the content of that inspirational meme you just double-tapped on Instagram is likely to be bullshit, and a lot less comforting if you think about it for more than a minute.
Insincere within Themselves
The Internet is a carnival of fact-free and fact-lite disinformation, and the inspirational quoteosphere embodies the worst tendencies of the whole shitshow: it cherry-picks soundbites, normalises “thought leaders” with questionable beliefs and motives (if not outright abhorrent beliefs and motives), does away with context and nuance, and often just invents things out of whole cloth.
Let’s start with the common problem of misattribution.
“I Never Said That.” - Marilyn Monroe
Many of the quotes out there credited to famous actors, athletes, authors and other thinkers are frequently misattributed or flat-out made up. This is true of virtually any meme you see with Marilyn Monroe’s name slapped on it, but also many that bear Gandhi’s name, Einstein’s, and Winston Churchill’s. Where these mismatches come from, it’s hard to say. But it’s clear they’re all trading on the fame and popularity of the unfortunate dead folks whose images they’ve misappropriated.
The most surreal example of this I’ve come across recently happened to someone who (at the time, anyway) wasn’t dead yet. In 2013, the late Ursula K. Le Guin found out there was a very popular quotation floating around the Internet with her name on it. It’s this one:
The problem, of course, is that she didn’t write or say that. She describes the experience of discovering this quote (and her vain attempt to push back against it being attributed to her) in her October 2014 essay “The Inner Child and the Nude Politician”, which is now anthologised in her last book of essays, No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters:
I looked at the sentence and thought, Did I write that sentence? I think I wrote something like it. But I hope not that sentence. Creative is not a word I use much since it was taken over by corporationthink. And isn’t any adult a child who survived?... The sentence itself, its use and popularity, bothers me even more. Indifference to what words actually say; willingness to accept a vapid truism as a useful, even revelatory, concept; carelessness about where a supposed quotation comes from--that’s all part of what I like least about the Internet.
Indeed, Ms. Le Guin, indeed.
Google Your Gurus
Another problem with these quotes is that you may mash that retweet button without realising you have shared sentiments from a controversial, deeply problematic, or even downright despicable person. For instance, I see a lot of Osho quotes going around:
Quite apart from the fact that this particular quote could be used to justify all manner of selfishness and irresponsibility-- sorry, kids, I’m not going to fulfill your expectations of being your “mom”, I’m going on a ten-state killing spree with your gym teacher because I want to live in my own spontaneity!-- it’s kind of important to realise who Osho was. There’s a good chance you already know.
Did you watch the hit Netflix documentary Wild Wild Country? The one about the cult that took over a town in Oregon, the one run by a guy called the Bhagwan, who owned dozens of Rolls-Royces, “strongly encouraged” his followers to have group sex, and allegedly signed off on his underlings’ plans to poison people with salmonella and assassinate a U.S. Attorney?
The Bhagwan is Osho. He changed his title after fleeing the United States.
It’s possible that if you shared this image, you did it with full knowledge of who Osho was, and you truly believe the case against him and his group is total bullshit, in which case: you do you. But it’s more likely you didn’t know, and in the moment of sharing it-- maybe while checking your phone first thing in the morning, or waiting for an automated till to open up at the supermarket-- you didn’t care enough to check.
That’s partly because this is the Internet, where we all skim along on the surfaces of ideas like well-cast stones, and partly because it is quite natural to assume that an idea which appeals to you must have been conceived by someone who is also appealing to you. (Although technically you could say Osho was appealing: people were willing to build him a city in the wilderness and plot mass murder on his behalf.) But you know what they say about why you should never assume, right?
Context is Everything
When seen against the backdrop of their larger works, many quotes presented in your Insta feed actually began life with very different intentions. Presenting them outside of that context is misleading in the way a journalist taking a quote from a politician’s speech or celebrity interview out of context is misleading.
There are many, many Shakespeare quotations roaming the web which fall into this category (though, to be fair, people have been quoting Shakespeare out of context for centuries). Perhaps the most famous is this quotation from Hamlet:
This quote comes from Act I, Scene 3 of Hamlet, and is a line from a long speech by the character Polonius. The speech is directed at his son Laertes, who is about to set off on a journey to France. Here’s the whole thing:
Yet here, Laertes? Aboard, aboard, for shame!
The wind sits in the shoulder of your sail,
And you are stay'd for. There- my blessing with thee!
And these few precepts in thy memory
Look thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportion'd thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar:
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch'd, unfledg'd comrade. Beware
Of entrance to a quarrel; but being in,
Bear't that th' opposed may beware of thee.
Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice;
Take each man's censure, but reserve thy judgment.
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not express'd in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man,
And they in France of the best rank and station
Are most select and generous, chief in that.
Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all- to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell. My blessing season this in thee!
So the famous quote comes within the context of fatherly advice to a son. Fine. But the character context is important, too. Polonius is the right-hand man of Hamlet’s uncle Claudius, and naturally you remember from high school English Literature (or maybe from watching Hamlet 2000, the one where Polonius is played by Bill Murray? No?) that Claudius murdered Hamlet’s father, King Hamlet of Denmark, then married Hamlet’s mother Queen Gertrude and proclaimed himself king in turn. Polonius, then, is chief lackey to the play’s villain, and can himself be interpreted as quite sinister, depending on the production.
Usually, however, Polonius is portrayed as a long-winded, banality-spouting old fool. His speeches are meant to irritate the audience as much as they do Hamlet (who eventually kills him, setting into motion the play’s downward spiral towards the final bloodbath). Shakespeare is parodying the Polonius type through this cliche-riddled, self-contradictory speech. You’re very, very likely not meant to take it seriously.
We will probably disseminate more sincere wisdom by making inspirational memes out of things my father, a regular Mr. Malaprop, has said to me:
But then again, maybe not.
@cotton_mather Liked This
Most insidiously, through their promotion of “The Secret”-style ideas about positive thinking, inspirational memes often work to reinforce old narratives about who deserves what and why. Bad relationship? Work on your own bad issues and your partner will love you, even if she is actually just a selfish asshole. Stuck in a dead-end job in spite of a college education? Clearly it is your inability to #hustle that’s the problem, not systemic issues related to how corporations are incentivised to offer shitty jobs, or how race/sex/class contribute to lack of upward mobility for many otherwise qualified people. YOU can create YOUR best life by YOURSELF! And if you don’t, it’s entirely your fault, regardless of the forces arrayed against you.
In the UK and the United States, it's possible to trace this type of thinking directly to Protestant sects such as the Puritans, who connected material success, health, and social satisfaction not merely with positive thinking but actual divine favour. Cotton Mather, among other Puritan leaders of the time, referred to faith and business as a man’s “Two Callings”, and counseled his congregations that if they were financially struggling, diligent prayer would ensure that “all your business will go on the better, all the day, for your faithfulness to God.” These 17th-Century ideas about success and worthiness have shed their buckled shoes and doublets to move through a variety of guises over the centuries, whether it's Dale Carnegie or Dianetics. Now it’s served up to us daily in our social media feeds.
Miya Tokumitsu has made an intensive study of how “inspiration” and self-help work to lock in toxic notions of individual effort as the end-all, be-all of societal advancement. In “Tell Me It’s Going to Be OK”, a recent essay for The Baffler, she describes the “narcissistic feedback loop of neoliberal positivity, which focuses on what feels good, rather than what is gracious and just,” and connects the collective psychic impact caused by our broken systems of economic, political, and moral accountability with the demand for self-help pabulum.
Work becomes divided into two opposing classes: that which is lovable (creative, intellectual, socially prestigious) and that which is not (repetitive, unintellectual, undistinguished). Those in the lovable-work camp are vastly more privileged in terms of wealth, social status, education, society’s racial biases, and political clout, while comprising a small minority of the workforce. For those forced into unlovable work, it’s a different story. Under the DWYL credo, labour that is done out of motives or needs other than love—which is, in fact, most labour—is erased.
Erasing labor means erasing the people who do it, too, and erasing the need to organise to improve conditions on their behalf.
I realise what I sound like, here-- an undergrad who’s discovered Marx and then gone on to deconstruct the “Hang In There, Baby” cat poster-- but if inspirational memes are meant to inspire people to improve their lives, it’s worth looking at whether they send signals about whose lives are considered worthy of improving, or even who gets to have their lives considered “real” in the first place. In both instances, it's too often people who already have heaping helpings of privilege.
And the solutions on offer from inspirational memes--navel-gazing mindfulness, positive thinking for the sake of positive thinking, or cutesy tough-talk like “put your hair in a messy bun and put on some gangster rap”-- emphasise a kind of soft-focus narcissism that elides any notions about wider responsibility towards others.
This above all: to thine own self be true.
In part two of this essay ("Have You Considered a Licensed Therapist Instead?"), I'll focus on the industrial side of the equation: the motley crew of advertisers, self-help gurus, life coaches, multi-level marketing schemes, and others who monetise the uplift offered by inspiration--often without accountability when things go wrong for their customers.