In the most recent New Yorker Peter Schjeldahl concludes his review of an exhibition of New York art from the eighties with this anecdote:
“For me, the single most shocking idea to emerge from the East Village is not recalled in this show. It was a proposal by Walter Robinson to create a lucrative market in a new species of folk art: the crudely lettered, pleading cardboard signs wielded by the homeless who then teemed the city’s streets. The signs had everything: funky elegance, patent authenticity, social content, convenient scale, and reliable supply. I tried, and failed, to contemplate those tissues of misery as found art. The gesture of selling them seemed at once grossly ingenuous and vilely cynical, disgracing both art and the market. But suddenly the project (which went nowhere) strikes me as the supremely honest exposure of an anxiety that most of the artists in “East Village USA” squirm to deny or finesse: a double bind of élitism and populism. Drives to be at once aesthetically impeccable and socially justified generated alternating currents of bad art and bad faith, which only lordly money could be counted on to adjudicate. Some such quandary afflicts all ambitious art in American democracy.”
Taken together with reports of “disaster tourism” in areas of Southeast Asia, where Westerners have traveled to take photos of themselves in the midst of ruins, a picture of a morbid tendency in consumerism comes into clearer focus: the desire to consume misery by proxy, to experience suffering vicariously — and the question of how cynical are those who cater to this urge. Similar questions were evoked by the September 11 terrorist attacks, when people felt compelled to express their grief through consumption, to commemorate by visiting “Ground Zero” and buying knicknacks memorializing their pilgrimage. Were the people selling those knickknacks moral monsters? Were they exploiting events or expediting a greiving nation’s wish to connect to a historic national event in the way they are best adapted to, through shopping. (After all, the president famously comforted the nation with instrurctions to go back to normal life and keep shopping.) People want to buy their way into a relationship with well-reported tragedies — we are led to believe that money can buy so many things, that all of human life is made exchangeable through its medium, that it makes once impossible experience routinely possible for us, so why wouldn’t we think it can buy this? Capitalism commodifies experience and makes it available as an objectified thing to people who might not otherwise be able to experience it — in other words it passes off things as actual experiences and doesn’t distinguish between actual experiences and their commodity derivatives. There’s nothing malicious or inappropriate in people drawing the conclusion that they can buy a piece of tragedy; if we find it so, then we should find the entire organization of social relations inappropriate.
Suffering by proxy has a long history; its first flowering may have been the “cult of sensibility” of the late 18th century, epitomized by Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey (which in typical Sternean fashion mocks the trend it epitomizes). People in this period would pay to tour mental asylums and empathize with the suffering of the deranged, as they felt this proved the strength of their innate moral sense, which in turn proved how inherently noble they are. It allowed the middle class to feel a claim to an enotional aristocracy. Sensibility commodified emotion in the form of the early novel, which presented tableau after tableau of agony, encouraging readers to weep openly and prove the generosity and strength of their feeling heart. Buying a novel routinized the idea of buying an emotional experience. Now the idea is so prevelant as to be invisible, unquestioned, common-sensical. It’s the essence of entertainment, the core of the culture industry.
Does suffering by proxy invalidate the original suffering, the “authentic” suffering, or does it dignify it through social recognition. Schjeldahl’s point seems to be that it’s doing both simultaneously, crystallizing one of capitalism’s many contradictions. Social recognition is granted by commodification, which is at the same time exploitation.