Today’s social media landscape lets artists promote and market their work in ways that were unimaginable even a decade ago, but it also enables a cycle of rapid-fire production and consumption that excises exploration and experimentation from the art-making process. In today’s attention economy, a modern artist’s work must be commodifiable in order to justify its existence, not to mention meeting the cost of living in a so-called arts-and-culture center like New York City. By participating in the cycle of production and consumption, artists become “creatives,” and as our large cultural centers become increasingly inaccessible to anyone outside of the business or media sectors, we have two options: either to conform to social media’s demands or to flee.
The tension between commodification and flight sits at the heart of Fiona Alison Duncan’s debut novel, Exquisite Mariposa. Her narrator—also named Fiona—is a burned-out and struggling culture journalist in New York City who bolts for Los Angeles. Tired of the materialistic world of celebrity journalism, where everything is distorted by the presence of media attention, she moves into a building known as La Mariposa and takes a cheap room. Thus Fiona tumbles into a circle of twentysomething creative types who are as resistant to the idea of normalcy as she is. But when Fiona develops a scheme to monetize the lives of the house’s inhabitants while challenging the attention economy’s dominance, she realizes that it’s not as easy to get distance from that dominance as Fiona had thought.
Fiona pitches a reality show about her roommates, Nadezhda, Morgan, Alicia, and Miffany—along with various subletters, lovers, and hangers-on—to a branding agency with the slogan “Be Human.” While she’s repelled by a world in which lives are on constant display, she’s intimately familiar with it: in her previous career she had been enmeshed in a glamorous world of high-fashion events and chic parties. She’s got the contacts, sensibility, and experience to develop a show, but she’s also intrigued by the possibility of using reality television and social media to critique and comment on the way they transform the lives of young, media-savvy creatives into goods for public consumption. She envisions the show as an analysis of our relationship to social media and of the effects of that relationship on our humanity. The project will be a “trial in inter subjectivity. A critique of youth as a commodity. A vision of zeitgeist really embodied. It would be truthful, lifelike, amazing.” If all goes according to plan, the show will explore the milieu of a generation caught between the real world and the virtual one.
La Mariposa is a perfect case study for her inquiry. The apartment already looks like a stage set, with posters proclaiming WHAT DO WE WANT? NO JOBS! WHEN DO WE WANT THEM? NEVER! hanging from the walls. Even as Fiona, Nadezhda, Morgan, Alicia, and Miffany seem to hail from similar lower-middle-class families that cannot provide them with a monthly allowance, they nevertheless want to build lives that can accommodate their artistic ambitions. They’re also wily enough to play the social media–reality television game to their advantage. These women are, as Fiona observes, “what my father, who hates American power games, calls ‘the other 1 percent.’ Attractive, intelligent, and savvy enough to scale class brackets, we could probably, if we really wanted to, achieve: fame and/or money, illusions of safety, US success!” Herein lies one of the book’s principle questions: The pie is out there to be hacked at, but do we really want to carve ourselves a slice with the same knife that routinely stabs us in the back?
Duncan’s prose mirrors this tension. Even as she interrogates the attention economy, she adopts the language and form of the social media world the book is describing. Telegraphic phrasing, for example, evokes the brevity of Twitter. Fiona remarks, “Alicia intimidated me. Composure does. Those who can pose.” At other moments, the book jumps from personal anecdotes to observations on social media, virtual realities, beautification rituals, astrology, and food fads, mimicking a late-night Wikipedia deep dive. The book’s confessional tone—which readers might mistakenly read as autobiographical—places Duncan in the canon of women auto-fiction writers such as Kathy Acker, Chris Kraus, and Joanna Walsh; but you can just as easily think of Exquisite Mariposa as emerging from the more recent tradition of blogging and LiveJournaling that introduced writers such as Kate Zambreno.
Almost as quickly as Fiona secures the contract for the show, she finds herself prey to the very structures she wants to examine. Her enthusiasm wanes when the young branding manager with whom she’s collaborating asks her to communicate her housemates’ personalities in one easily advertised adjective. Frustrated with the plans for the show, Fiona finds herself wanting to spend time in the “Real.” For her, the Real means a heightened sense of authenticity, “a mode of perception… [whose] defining characteristic… is not trying. Like athletes and musicians say, it’s when you’re in the flow.” The Real means not straining after an image of what your life could or should be like, or patterning your life after the desires of social media algorithms. Compared to the bliss of the flow, the notion of converting the everyday comings and goings of her new, exciting housemates and friends into digestible branded content seems like a soul-destroying public performance that would render their lives meaningless. Instead, she decides to write a book—Exquisite Mariposa.
Out from under the thumb of the branding agency, Fiona has the space to explore her critique of the culture industry beyond the confines of snappy sales quotes. At the same time, even the book becomes prey to the all-consuming, appropriative forces of the industry it’s critiquing. As Fiona observes, “The youth culture industry relies on our selling ourselves short, on lit kids trading in their creativity, vitality, and taut-skinned desirability for a good party, tenuous social validation, and the false promise that cultural capital may translate in time to a source of real income.” In a cultural context where anything can be flattened out, universalized, and sold at warp speed, a rhetoric of authenticity has been subsumed into the attention economy racket. This quandary is at the crux of Exquisite Mariposa: In a world where culture can be absorbed and disseminated around the globe in the time it takes someone to upload a video to Instagram, is it ever possible to get enough distance from this context to examine it?