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.


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