Monthly Archives: February 2005

Consuming poor

In the most recent New Republic, G. Pascal Zachary has an excellent critique of the crackpot ideas of C.K. Prahalad, who thinks we can end poverty by making the poor more inveterate consumers and by making corporations realize how much profit can be made by catering to them. Zachary points out the obvious: that it’s hard to make a profit from people with no money, and that making the poor consumers prohibits them from saving, the one thing that might help the end the cycle of poverty. What the poor need, Zachary argues convincingly, is good jobs, not more consumer junk. They certainly don’t need any more marketing pressure to consume; these pressures already fall on them disporoportionately, leading to the paycheck-loan phenomenon I was lamenting about last week. Who are the early adopters of flashy and largely unnecessary consumer goods? Who buys the giant TVs and the gas-guzzling SUVs and the tacky leather furniture? The poor, because the only tenuous stake they can claim to society’s admiration, the only thing within their reach and educational scope, comes through these goods. (I apologize if that’s patronizing, but empirical evidence would seem to back it up.) Having the loudest stereo may be the only way they are able to think of themselves as a somebody, and get an emotional lift. Isolated from social support networks and poorly educated, they are defenseless against marketing, which is one of the prime forces for setting them on the path of reckless consumer spending and measuring self-worth in square-inches of flat-screen plasma.

Corporations already employ the best ways to make money off the poor, the time-honored method of exploiting their weaknesses and gouging them with prices unheard of in suburbia. The poor can’t choose where they shop, therefore they must suffer the absurd prices at convenience stores or rent-to-own centers. The poor can’t secure cheap credit, so they have to accept paycheck loans. They can’t go to the bank in their neighborhood, because there isn’t one. So they have to pay 10 percent for the privelege of having their checks cashed. These methods are thriving, and free-market profit remains high as long as the poor’s options are kept limited and their education remains bad. Which is why cynical Republicans love destroying government — this assures that the poor will have no recourse and will constitue an evergrowing populace from whom easier and easier money can be made.

Vacation spending

According to historian Gary Cross, working people endorsed and embraced the consumer society as it took its current shape in the early to mid twentieth century because it promised to a group used to being driven by the threat of hunger a positive outlook on the future, of a widening scope of wants fulfilled. Providing the complementary fulfillment to work time is free time, divided into domestic time, spent fondling the accumulated goods whose ownership was made possible by easy credit and slavish work commitments (Cross refers to households as “museums of domesticity”), and holiday time, during which workers experience the “magic of uninhibited spending.”

You can probably tell I find this a bit dubious, but only because of the positive spin put on the structuring of leisure time, which in reality can often play out as an equally stressful para-employment wherein one is desperate to consume not for enjoyment but for identity and social significance, compelled by the needs of a mass-market system that requires great amounts of by and large pointless consumption. And the celebration of work/leisure bifurcation reinforces capitalist assumptions of work as an inherent disutility, something you do because you have to and not because it gives your life productive purpose and meaning. Capitalism requires deskilled workers who are complacent about the meaningless work they must do to eat, because the deskilling makes it easier to exploit their labor and makes productive processes more efficient. With meaningful work, workers would likely be less inclined to express their identity through consumption (meaningful work would provide them with a more stable identity imbued with a proud sense of competence), and would be capable of doing more than simply decompressing in their leisure time (passively watching television or passively acquiring objects, etc.) if they were engaged in something personally compelling throughout the day. In other words, a lack of meaningful work leads to a compulsion for compensatory meaningless distraction during non-working hours. Or it leads to working in leisure time at something one does find meaningful: Writing a blog, organizing massive collections of DVDs, building home additions, yard work, et cetera. This creates a time-squeeze, as time committed to work doubles, leaving little time for more casual social interaction.

But Cross is certainly on to something when he notes the experience of “the magic of uninhibited spending.” Spending, we are constantly reminded, is the best way, the most appropriate way to exhibit power in our society — it lets the market arbitrate as it naturally should, since as we all know the market is the best way of regulating all things human. We vote with our dollars and thereby have true, perfect democracy, right? It makes perfect sense that those with more dollars have more votes, since they have more of a stake in society and have worked harder for it, of course. Anyway, when we relax our grip on reality and decide to spend impulsively on vacations, we experiece something like unlimited power in our unlimited spending. We get an intimation of godlike immediacy and omnipotence, fulfilling desires as fast as we can generate them, destroying the difference between thought and action. But this is a sham power; it relies on our desires being only those things the market can readily supply — it requires our deepest wishes be for owning those things that are ready at hand. But because we like the fantasy of omnipotence, especially on vacation, the point of which is to feel the power denied us at our drudge jobs, we bend our desires to be those things that money can buy, and we end up struggling to maintain the pretense as we throw our money at lowest-common-denominator tourist traps and mass-produced faux luxuries. We end up buying things we don’t really want because we feel like we aren’t really having a good time otherwise. This is one of the reasons why souvenir shops can thrive. The truly luxurious things, the positional goods of uncrowdedness, uniqueness, unspoiledness, etc., remain out of our reach no matter how much we are willing to spend, no matter how good our credit is, because they had been locked up long ago by old money.

Cross suggests that these spending vacations replace the seasonal and religious festivals that once gave meaning to the passage of time. It seems appropriate that we should enshrine unrestrained spending as part of our yearly rituals — the free-spending summer vacation mirrors Christmas buying bonanzas and both celebrate spending as power and pleasure divinely melded into one and the same gesture, the quintessential expression of cultural participation.

My recent mini-vacation to Arizona started me thinking about this, because I realized that I had been saving up a lot of purchases I needed to make in order that I could make them during the trip — I ended up buying new boxer shorts and a big tube of Tom’s of Maine toothpaste in Tucson, as well as a full complement of sweaters and shirts at various regional thrift stores. I just naturally associated vacation with the need to be spending copiously, as a time when my natural reluctance to spend money on clothes and things is relaxed, as a time when I have the leisure to be contemplating choices in underwear and so on. This seemed very strange to me, that I needed to take a vacation in order to buy toothpaste, that my relation to spending had become that pathological. I’ve so thoroughly internalized the idea of vacations as free-spending times that I am loath to spend when not on vacation. Vcations now cue spending for me rather than arising organically out of it. Vacations have ceased to be about relaxing for me, and have become about acquisition. Or, more scary, I’ve simply made acquisition the only way I know how to relax.

The Tempe breakfast conundrum

No, that’s not the name of a hippie jam band. That’s just what I’ve been calling this phenomenon in my head that I experienced while on vacation. And I know that the following will be a specious argument based on anecdotal evidence and imperfect information, but I want to know why the hell it’s so hard to find a place to eat breakfast in Tempe. In Tucson, there are literally hundreds of little restaurants, privately owned, that exist solely to serve you breakfast — Don’s, Robert’s, Jerry Bob’s, the Egg Connection, Bobo’s, Wags, Molly G’s, et cetera, et cetera. There are so many that one woman I knew when I lived there made it her quixotic quest to methodically rate the breakfast at each one on a number of often idiosyncratic criteria of her own devising in a meticulous little notebook she carried. She was already years into her task when I met her, and was nowhere near completion. In Don’s, there was a chalkboard charting the restaurants that had failed in Tucson in the time that it had managed to survive; the names included such corporate-owned chain diners as Village Inn, JB’s, Carrows, and Cocos.

Yet in Tempe, when Bonnie and I wanted to get something to eat in the morning, we patrolled back and forth along the blocks and surveyed shoppinng center after shopping center in vain. No breakfast places to be found, generally, and those chain restaurants — the aforementioned Village Inn, IHOP, Denny’s, we did find were so crowded that people were waiting outside for the privilege of eggs. So what is going on? One theory I came up with (based on nothing but personal prejudice and observation) is that this reflects the different demographics of Tucson and Phoenix. Tucson has more than its proportion of drifter-types, that’s for sure — just stand on Fourth Avenue and watch as the gritty desert rats walk by shaking their tambourines and dreadlocks or grooming their copious underarm hair. But it also has its population of stagnant semi-deadbeats, people who drift in to go to college or find like-minded misfits or hide from bill collectors and then stay on forever when they discover how cheaply one can live there. It’s like the desert version of Hotel Caliifornia, check out anytime you like, but you never leave. Tucson has the illusion of enlightened, progressive culture without its accompanying expense, which makes it a magnet for every weirdo from West Texas to El Centro, and which means those who settle, stay, and develop off beat routines to accomodate them. Hence the pleathora of idiosyncratic breakfast restaurants, often owned and staffed by these selfsame oddballs. Phoenix’s eastern suburbs, on the other hand, seem populated entirely by middle-managers relocated by their corporations to Phoenix’s cheap and plentiful and tax-beneficial office space, and Mormons, whose suspicious swearing off of coffee and penchant for raising large families (and thus cooking at home) makes them enemies of the small breakfast place. And relocatees, wrenched from their comfort zone in New Jersey or Witchita or wherever, crave familiarity; hence their preference for chains, even when they prove inefficent and inconvenient (and lousy — which you know if you’ve ever eaten a chicken-fried steak at Denny’s). What results is one of those lose-lose situations that nonetheless make corporations happy: the prevelance of chain restaurants keep small proprietors out of the breakfast business, so no one steps in to correct the market and alleviate demand. So those looking for an idiosyncratic breakfast experience, or just an edible one, are thwarted, as are those looking for something comfortably familiar, who are now forced to wait unreasonably.

The mystery, then, is why the slack isn’t picked up by the same corporate concerns already profiting. This may be a matter of profit margins. Breakfast is just simply not profitable enough to make it worth a corporations while to get into it wholeheartedly — its a perfect business for the small-time proprietor: modest margins, smaller overhead, etc. So, contrary to the received wisdom of our nation’s ideologists, the market fails the consumer here and the invisible hand satisfies no one.

Paycheck loans

I’ve just come back from Arizona, where I spent a few days in Tempe and Tucson. There’s a general air of poverty to these places, not only because public process and civic accomplishment is measured in how many new miles of freeway have been built, but because there are paycheck-loan kiosks just about everywhere. I’d think they were simply the next generation in check-cashing storefronts, those enterprising replacements for actual banks in neighborhoods where banks won’t open, catering, as Victor Ozols suggests, to illegal immigrants who must live a cash-only life, but often there’d be a paycheck-loan place in the shopping center with several banks, where you’d think competition between them alone would make one of the legitimate lenders take up the riskier trade. There were even paycheck-loan places that innhabited former Weinerschnitzels and old Filiberto’s restaurants. I used to think that Mexican fast-food was the king of all hermit-crab businesses, but these paycheck-loan stands prove that on the scale calibrating the lowest common denominator with the highest profit margin, it stands as king. That business model is so exploitative that it can thrive where poverty, blight, or just plain common sense have driven out all the other bottom-feeders.

To be honest with you, I don’t know how it works, and I have a hard time fathoming a life so hand to mouth that I would need an advance on my paycheck, which comes every other week. Presumably you get some large lump sum up front and then have your wages garnished like a deadbeat dad for the rest of your adult working life. I do know that in most states in the northeast, predatory lending is outlawed by usury laws, perhaps to protect the thriving loansharking racket for organized crime.

Is it simply that those living in Arizona are more indebted than the res tof the country, or is it that economic and social relations make the pervasive debt more overt? Perhaps there is a lingering stigma to being a debtor felt in the northeast, whereas those in the southwest boast of the size of their car payment as they would the horsepower of their Hemis. Maybe it’s that the hodgepodge of new arrivals that characterize any Western city creates an environment where everyone’s a stranger and shame isn’t possible in the same way it is where your family is known. Part of becoming that ultimate consumer citizen, that untethered individual with maximum autonomy, unconstrained by tradition or duty, is becoming completely vulnerable to the pressures of paycheck loans — in the absence of some community-based identity and its accompanying safety nets, one must do whatever he must to get the money needed to project the kind of identity he imagines for himsef, and if that means mortgaging everything, then so be it.

I am in absolutely no position to judge and my utopian imagination of a Mister Rogers universe of cooperative neighbors might be a bit naive, but the prevalence of these loan places conjures a Infernoesque atmosphere of demons devouring devils, of an ethics-free zone of bad decision-making, rampant hedonism, desperation, predation, and pitilessness. Some apocalyptic mixed metaphors for you: This paycheck-loan landscape is ground zero for consumerist fantasy gone totally amuck, the Baseline (Road) of a society that promotes competetive acquisition over communal values, barn burning over barn raising, daydream desires and impotent flailings after them over more constructive and achievable projects shared among neighbors. The pathetic need to consume in order to be somebody can generate no more searing critique than these flaming yellow kiosks in your neighborhood, reminding you how desperate your fellow humans can become, and how our culture affords the poor so few avenues to dignity that it seems worth it to them to mortgage half their weekly wage in order to buy a huge plasma screen TV or a shiny new pickup truck. When these paycheck-loans places thrive in a neighborhood, along with the Rent-to-own furniture outlets and the 99 cent stores, it’s an unmistakable badge of shame that an entire community should (but doesn’t) feel the sting of.

Commodifying time

Time is the most precious thing we have. It’s the only thing that’s absolutely scarce, and always will be. In a sense, it is the measure of all value, and in another sense its value cannot be measured. Attempts to commodify time are thus inevitable — those commodities which appear to deliver more time is invaluable — and yet doomed to fail, serving only to remind us how mastery over time eludes us. (The repeated fantasy of the time machine, which has probably been a human dream since clocks were invented, testifies to this.)

Goods promising convenience and efficiency are most profitable when consumers feel the pinch of a time squeeze. But one’s perception of a time squeeze is itself the product of an overarching concern for efficiency. Efficiency makes one aware of time only in the guise of its being wasted, spent. Efficiency makes one wish to cheat time rather than exist within it; it’s an attempt to remove oneself from the very medium in which life occurs. It is alienation from life itself.

We are only squeezed for time when we are aware of our being removed from within it, when we are alienated from life experience, when we fail to understand the logic or purpose of the work we’re doing. When working life makes us feel dead, out of time, we become acutely concerned with efficiency (as our bosses are during this dead work-time) — the imperative to save time only occurs to us in those moments when we are at our furtherest remove from it, when it seems to us an abstract quantity with theoretic value. When we are alive within it, its value never occurs to us — it receded back into an a priori, a pre-conceptual category necessary for us to be.

So time is something whose value we only note when we are wasting it, hence we tend to waste more and more time to remind ourselves continually how valuable the unknown quantity of time we possess is. We make an abstraction of time, separate ourselves from it, and seek to possess it as material thing, in the form of commodities that promise convenience, efficiency, organization, et cetera. But the more those commodities commodify time for us, the more acutely we feel the need to commodify more of it, seek more convenience, more efficency. We remove ourselves further and further from being in time.

Paradoxically, one of the ways management makes workers aware of the value of time is by making them waste it at work, maintaining inflexible work schedules that, as Juliet Schor points out in The Overworked American, prevents people from choosing leisure when they’ve accumulated suitable income on a week to week basis. Real choices about how many hours one needs to work would restore one to time in a way that would deprive capital of the profits to be had in commodifying it. So the artificially long hours keep us aware of convenience (of time as thing) and makes us long for convenience, make us see it as more and more valuable to us. And convenience becomes more and more profitable.

And the time squeeze we experience also encourages us to use commodities in general as shortcuts to experience. Lacking the time to experience the meaningful production of things through our own decisions and effort, we buy things that imply that effort, and content ourselves with that — we even begin to think we are somehow “beating the system” through this shortcut, though we are actually burglarizing our own lives of substance and active engagement.

Desire management

Early critiques of consumerism from the left and the right would typically point to its destruction of traditional forms of association (which were all replaced by market-arbitrated competition) and to the new kind of selfish hedonistic personality it tended to foster. Consumerism promised instant gratification, and consumers became nothing but pleasure (i.e. utility) seekers who forgot all about God and country and true love and the fate of the poor and so on. But if Colin Campbell and Jackson Lears are right, advertisements and consumer culture don’t instill an unfettered hedonism and the consumer culture doesn’t promise an endless surfeit of pleasure. Instead consumer culture offers the illusion of control: control over desire, control over emotionality, control over oneself. Campbell argues that consumer culture urges people to daydream about commodities and master desire through the elaboration of self-told stories that elicit the expected emotions, stories whose efficacy are calibrated by the purchase of goods upon which they’re based, the disappointment of which stokes desire and makes it new, gives it fresh impetus. In his view, the modern person’s greatest perceived threat is boredom, and commodities and the fantasies they inspire allow consumers a mastery over boredom by giving him an array of potential desire with a Rubik’s cube worth of permutations. Through this system of desire management, we’re reliant on goods to stabilize the amount of stimuli we receive, to maintain the life-giving rhythm of excitation and relaxation. It also constrains us to living the bulk of our intellectual life, to expend the lion’s share of our mental energy on private fantasy worlds that exclude others and isolate us, making our lives that much more impoverished and make us that more susceptible to fears of boredom. Pre-consuemr society, people relied on other people to manage their stimulus flow; now we rely on goods and our lonesome selves.

Lears makes a similar argument, elaborating his thesis that American consumer culture evolves out of a quasi-Protestant self-help, therapeutic ethos gone awry. He argues that advertising promotes the idea of discovering yourself, and thus your happiness, through goods, situating your identity in a parallel world of consumerist fantasy as opposed to the actual world in which you live (Baudrillard might say that these worlds have irrevocably collided). This quest for self through goods, through wholly individual striving leads to “an empty pursuit of efficiency that impoverishes personal as well as public life.” This corresponds with my argument about the pursuit of convenience for its own sake; it’s efficient consumption for no reason, and it leads not to satisfaction but an even more desperate need for more efficient consumption. And this striving for a fantasy of self-control (which is only possble in the limited but hyperbolized universe of goods) preempts one from developing the kind of social skills that might lead to an enriched public life, from developing the mature coping skillls to deal with the reality of social interdependence (which is a good thing, not the evil thing that consumerism/convenience fetishism leads you to believe it is).

(A note on efficient consumption: Kelvin Lancaster, in his discussion of consumerism as a matter of characteristics rather than goods, charts how the pricing of goods rather than characteristics and states of imperfect information can lead to inefficient consumption. There is no competitive pressure on the individual consumer, no bottom line for his to meet, to make him maximize satisfaction. So he might never choose the best bundle of goods to yield the satisfaction he seeks, and his waste is the producers gain — these are the profits of confusion, and make maintaining an atmosphere of confusion to the producer’s benefit. This is bourne out by media oversaturation, which produces confusion, and has the unpleasant side effect of making people feel over stressed, overwhelmed and depressed in unprecedented numbers.)

In short, as William Leiss argues, ads/consumer culture promote one particualr myth about how to achieve the good life (buying stuff) and does it so vociferously that it blots out our awareness of other possible routes (through personal relations, through meaningful work, etc.). The market promises happiness but it provides goods. And it always changes the rules about what bundle of goods are supposed to give happiness. We lose well-being combating the dissonant disinformation piped at us via ads at all possible moments, and we grow anxious wondering if they are right and we are wrong; after all the ads seem to have a lot of money behind them, and what’s behind our way of thinking? The greater our anxiety the more likely we turn to the market, to its expediency, to its apparent efficacy for relief, but the cure only exacerbates the disease.

On Storm King

In a shameless act of intellectual recycling, I’ve dusted off this essay about the sculpture park Storm King in upstate New York and posted it here, to capitalize on the buzz about large-scale public art Christo’s Gates has generated around here.

Storm King promotes itself as an “unusual museum,” one which turns nature into a kind of enclosing space, that turns landscape into a backdrop, that changes the natural into a design element. This remaking of nature may be more audacious, finally, than the monumental sculptures, which are generally banal. They all seem to strive for the sublimity of size; they seek to cow and awe their spectators, dwarf them, humble them with sculpture whose construction is inconceivable to the average person. The sublime is always about the unknowable, but the mysteries conjured by these giant metal monstrosities are not the spiritual questions that the moody landscapes painted in the 18th century inspired. Those paintings tried to imitate natural wonders, remind the viewer of things he can know first hand; they sought to remind their viewers of God’s creative work, and its inherent beauty. This could be seen in mountain views, in cloud formations, in the play of sunlight across a brook or batch of trees. I was thinking about this lying on the grass beneath a work called “Suspended,” by Menashe Kadishman, which consisted of two large box shapes, each about 30 feet tall, balanced precariously against each other. These were far less compelling than the clouds crossing the sky, which lent themselves more readily to the active shaping of my imagination – I sought to give sense and order to the natural forms, sometimes seeing representations of faces or things, sometimes seeing unlikely symmetries and harmonious formal congruities.

I assume one is supposed to respond similarly to these large abstract sculptures, but they seem more like intellectual exercises to me. They make me consider questions of what constitutes art: what differentiates these piles of metal scraps from something one might see on a construction site, for instance? Is it the artists’ intention alone? Is it the designation of museum space for these things? Should one leave inspired, as I was, to see the sculptural aspects of random man-made piles and of striking natural scenes?

I felt there was something inhuman about the scale of these works, something hubristic and off-putting. They seemed like monuments to evil, sites to conduct rituals intended to make people feel like robots – all of these sculptures testify to modern techniques of industrial design, and these things inevitably call up notions of dehumanization through mechanization. The titles of some of these works tell the story: “Gox #4,” “Parenthetical Zero,” “Five Open Squares Gyratory Gyratory,” “Volton XX,” “Expansive Construction,” “Petaloid,” “Eight Positive Trees.” It can’t be a coincidence that birds refuse to perch on these sculptures. No amount of careful placement can make these objects seem to belong in the natural environment. Their function is to undermine the beauty of the natural environment, make the natural environment appear incomplete, blank, devoid of significance without humankind’s radical intervention. It has the eerie feeling of a golf course, where the flags on the greens have been replaced by these crazy sculptures, and the quiet, white couples walking to and from them are chasing some imaginary idea rather than a golf ball. What are they after? A feeling of being “there” in a transformed space? A reminder of how we can dominate nature? I don’t know – it seemed to me that all the people there were hypnotized; they had all taken part in some awful ceremony at the foot of one of these contraptions where they worshipped the spirit of welding or something. These are engineering feats, and perhaps people want to worship such things that make modern life possible; maybe these abstract functionless engineering feats purify those feats, make them available only as wonders rather than as practical notions that allow tasks to be accomplished. As wonders alone, they can touch us spiritually they way we want them to, so that we can feel some kind of harmony with the world we have created for ourselves – this reminds me of another idea I have about Las Vegas as a modern American shrine (not a new idea, I guess, but I’m not interested in the supposed freedom of Vegas as much as I am interested in the remaking of a desolate, “blank” landscape into an environment only Americans can appreciate as natural, inviting).

This kind of art, as its starting point, rejects organicism, rejects representational realism; perhaps those are qualities that affirm “humanity”, at least affirm a scale of human action that makes it appear meaningful – some art celebrates small, slight gestures, gestures of which we are all capable, and dignifies those acts. These sculptures mock such activity; they intend to stun one into a feeling of sensory futility. One literally cannot see all there is of these pieces; one is constantly approaching them, looking all around them, trying to integrate different views – this links them to cubist art, another art form that rejects an integrative vision. Cubist painting, if I understand it right, presents multiple points of view on a subject simultaneously – the object seen from different angles, and in different conceptual ways (as object, as symbol, as metonym) at the same time. This underscores the impossibility of knowing a thing completely, of placing its relevance in some context with any certainty. This may be the sad truth, but art needn’t necessarily provide unpleasant truths to qualify as art.

The Watts Towers provide a useful contrast to this sort of art. The Watts Towers are in a ghetto in the Los Angeles area, built out of concrete and shiny trash by an immigrant mason with no formal training. Driven apparently by some inner compulsion, the builder let the towers grow organically, spending his spare time collecting bits of colored glass and broken ceramic and porcelain to add to his construction. So this work is in harmony with its environment, made out of found items, and built organically without a master plan. As such, it seems human in scale despite its size – one can see the artistic obsession behind it in its meticulous detail. No patina of formal training, or formally trained ways of seeing impede themselves between an observer and the work. Usually I would never make this kind of anti-intellectual argument, but I love folk art, I love the absence of pretension, and self-centered thinking that consumes the modern avant-garde artist, who is sure of her own relevance and cultural capital as taste-maker for the bourgeoisie. It maybe that Storm King reeks of the art business, of the construction of public-sized works of art with little input from the public they are designed to accommodate. There is something crass about the attempts at taste making at that scale – it is not the scale created by obsession, but instead a scale created by egotism.

Ultimately, I think those large sculptures are about distance and distancing. They appropriate to themselves the space around them, and make it hallowed, daunting, silent. They discourage the kinds of activities one would like to associate with public space: conversation, debate, thoughtfulness. One feels they can never be close enough, or far enough away from these things. They are sculptures for a society that has collectively rejected the notion of public space, and they stand a monumental mockeries of the idea of community.