Monthly Archives: July 2005

Compulsive shopping

I should feel more sympathy for the compulsive shoppers, but I have to admit that my first reaction is to think they are pretty idiotic. Much of my spiel here is about how the industrial system molds individuals into compulsive shoppers to some degree or another, and perhaps its defensiveness over my own shopping compulsions that makes me recoil and scorn the truly obvious cases — they’re ruining it for everyone by making it so plain. So I should really celebrate their existance, beaue they illustrate at the far end of the continuum what is true of us all. Money magazine, that bane of my mailbox, arrived recently, and besides naming my girlfirend’s hometown the “best place to live in America” on the cover (she had quite a laugh over that), it included a little featurelet about compulsive shopping. It was as insightful as any feature in Money (that is, not really insightful at all) but I was fascinated nonetheless by the extremely bizarre nature of the shopping addiction of the woman profiled. She was addicted to buying clothes from Gymboree, a children’s clothes store. That the addiction had taken such a bizarre form seems to demand some consideration of psychological factors dealing with family dynamics, as opposed to the socieconomic points I’d be inclined to hammer on ordinarily. What a bizarre way to get overinvolved in your kids’ lives, by buying them coordinated outfits obsessively from a cutesy mall store. It probably has less to do with trying to buy the kids’ love than to return to childhood yourself but with an adult’s buying power or, rather, an adult’s credit limits. A collector’s mania probably factors in as well. Compulsive shopping probably needs several alibis to take root to the point where you can be a feature story subject in Money. The collector alibi, the gift-giving alibi, the nostalgia alibi — then the ad/sales propaganda kicks in a few: sales, limited editions and so forth. The motives vecome complex, impossible to unravel, so that when you talk yourself out of one reason, there’s another around the corner to convince you. I suppose that’s how the psychology of addiction works in general. Anyway, it’s especially important to discipline compulsive shoppers and humiliate them in various ways lest the rest of us, who are compulsive shoppers in a slightly different sense, begin questioning our own buying patterns or expecting something else to do in life but amass things.

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Universal marriage

Here’s an astounding fact, from a LRB review of Between Sex and Power: Family in the World 1900-2000 by Göran Therborn: “In 1960, 70 percent of American women aged between 20 and 24 were married, as against 23 percent in 2000.” The rapid drop-off must be disorienting and frightening in some ways to those who experienced those days of near universal marriage — what a pitch of social control there must have been, how codified must have been so many interactions that are much more nebulous now. Marriage is now clearly a decision that’s postpones until one’s thirties: part of this is extension of the post-adolescent drift period and part of this due to more women having careers of their own and having those careers taken seriously. The tenaciousness of the cultural Right seems to have a lot to do with this fact, with their memories insisting that such a thing is possible, a world where everyone marries at 21 and subjects themselves to the social and juridical control of their personal lives that marriage constitutes. When bigots argue marriage must be protected from homosexuals, it seems paradoxical, because gay couples adopting the marriage standard would only help secure marriage’s faltering grip over the lives of Americans. The more copupls who marry, the more likely marriage will survive as a integral social concept. But the Right must believe that homosexual marriages cheapen the sacrament and encourage straight couples not to bother — if marriage is no longer about enforcing rules about what a woman can or can’t do, then as far as they are concerned, it’s not really marriage anymore. Gay marriages between men obviously throw that standard out the window, and that’s why the considered a “threat” to marriage.

Silent disco

This is one of the fucking stupidest things I’ve ever seen. Could it also be brilliantly self-parodic? In the Netherlands, stringent anti-noise legislation led to the ad hoc creation of the soundless disco, where all the dancers where wireless headphones with the DJ’s music piped in. So you are confronted with a room full of self-involved exhibitionists literally locked into their own cone of silence. Small talk is boring if not impossible at clubs anyway so why not remove the pretense all together, and let people gyrate together in a communication-free zone. Brilliant! In the Netherlands, they were forced to do this, but these jackasses in Williamsburg (where else?) are doing it only because they think it’s weird. It’s supposed to be some kind of participatory performance art piece, but do hipsters really need new oppotunities to reagrd their lifestlye as a work of art?

Says one bemused bystander quoted in the piece, “It’s like everybody’s bedroom-dancing, but in a crowd!” Bedroom dancing exists because bedroom dancers experience a sense of shame and a socially graceful shyness that for better or for worse keeps their self-expression private. But these folks who dance in the crowd want attention. Also in the same article, possibly the best attribution ever: “‘Well, I guess it doesn’t bother the neighbors,’ mused Ambrose Martos, 32, a professional clown from Park Slope.” A professional clown indeed.

Payola

What’s with this bizarrely impassioned screed against Spitzer’s prosecuting the pay-for-play scamsters in the music and radio industries by Daniel Gross? Gross thinks it’s a waste of time and money to prosecute companies who market their goods under false pretenses. After all, it just proves that these people are “bad businessmen.” Yes, and the perpetrators of stock fraud are often incompetent brokers too, so should we dismantle the SEC? (Wait, Chris Cox has already been confirmed, hasn’t he?) Maybe we should stop regulating ads, because only companies who weren’t confident in their lousy product would resort to such tactics and of course when consumers discover they are being lied to they won’t buy it anymore. Those whoo were burned? Tough shit for them. And hell, why bother regulating food and drugs? Only bad businessmen would sell beer with formaldehyde, like those Chinese breweries mentioned in the Wall Street Journal yesterday, or would see hot dogs with sawdust in them to fill them out. They won’t fool anybody for long. When a few customers die, the rest of the world will know to avoid those things, so why bother prosecuting them? The market will punish them fine, all on its own. Gross points out that if people don’t like radio they can turn it off. Well, if people don’t like cancer from cigarettes, they should just stop smoking. Why bother labeling the packs or restricting the ads? Let Joe Camel pass out free smokes to high school kids during pep rallys. No one is going to force those kids to then light up. Just as every radio has an on/off switch, so does every mouth open and close.

Gross presumes that because pop music is a matter of subjective taste, and not a life or death matter, the marketplace can sort out anamolies like payola that distort what is made and distributed. And he assumes the ease with which small players can enter the music market hampers the effectiveness of payola. But the flood of product only makes payola more effective, it makes exposure that more essential, so that one crappy song nugget can stand out amid the diarrehea-like flood of bad pop music. (Sorry for that disgusting metaphor. But the payola biz is disgusting.) And subjective taste doesn’t necessarily triumph, since it is so nebulous and malleable; most people’s tastes are in fact shaped by repeat exposure. Payola, pay for repeated plays happens because it works, not because the industry is desperate. And the secretiveness is necessary because overtly revealing songplays as paid commercials would subvert the way it works, by making people think they are obeying their own subjective taste, discovering their own unique interests, when in fact their wants are being manufactured through a quasi-Pavlovian system of timed and repeated stimuli. Spitzer is right to be appalled by payola because it is a covert system of subverting an individual consumer’s autonomy; it’s a intentional form of cultural brainwashing, and it doesn’t belong in an allegedly free society.

Little boy blue

Noting the concurrent rise of fey troubaours of the adolescent consciousness, Matthew Wilder skewers the likes of Wes Anderson, Jonathan Safron Foer and Conor Oberst in this extremely entertaining essay. Wilder contends that these constitute a new iteration of the male artist, which in a Thomas Frank-like touch, he dubs “LittleBlue SmurfBoy™–after the fetish of [their] patron saint, Donnie Darko, the most sensitive and martyred of [their] kind.” Wilder seems right on target when he points out “the salient LittleBlue SmurfBoy™ trait–the endless running of fingertips over Stuff I Really Really Like.” Making lists of the the commodity junk that aspires premature nostalgia passes for art only because we are all desperate for means to redeem the endless amount of time we spend consuming, in amassing trivial data about particular niches in the shopping world. Their catalog of obervations ring true and as rejected and forgotten items once improbably and perhaps pointless beloved, the nostalgia objects resound with the poignancy of that birthday card your mom bought you that showed just how little she really understood you. Nostalgia for old consumer junk is a breath away from being an emotionally devastating critique on how commodities have intruded into the most intimate relationships we expect to ever have.

But I don’t understand Wilder’s longing for Maileresque bluster and surly pugnaciousness and dick-flexing to return to cultural discourse. Hasn’t he ever heard of Chuck Pahlaniuk? Then again, maybe that hack is so popular because he’s filling the underexploited niche Wilder yearns to see saturated. Wilder laments the “safety” of recent pop culture, but he’s neglected the genres where over-the-top oneupmanship occurs. Navel-gazing McSweeneyites do not constitute the whole of public discourse on the arts, and hipster auteurs are not the only artists. Wilder rightly directs his critique at edtors who don’t cultivate writers who will call bullshit on crap like Coldplay and Bloc Party and champion more challenging fare, but such fare is out there in abundance.

Also, Wilder’s prose partakes of the same look-at-me hipness, the overheated verbal ostentation, the cryptic concision and allusiveness for its own sake, that characterizes the people he criticizes. This kind of prose hates deliberative thought, and scorns the notion that an idea might require more than four words to be put across. It expects the reader to be as hopped up and impatient as the writer seems to be, and that state of mind is conducive only to blanket-statement reactionary dismissals. The goal of such prose is to make a showy splash, which is the same trait that is so infuriating about Oberst and Anderson — they undermine the serious themes hey stumble on because they are so eager to show off precociously. Show-offs never seem to believe or care about anything, because you have the impression they will change their ideas to suit what will make the biggest impression. I was left thinking the same of Wilder’s conclusions, that they were cooked up to seem outrageous rather than being heartfelt. But what is “heartfelt” anyway — post-structuralism did away with such a notion.

Airport ambiance

I had to go to Rockefeller Center today because I had packages to mail out, and the closest post office to where I work is there. It was no day for a lunchtime trek; by the time I walked four blocks in the sauna-like heat I was soaked in sweat. You could do Bikram yoga out on Fifth Avenue. Nevertheless the tourists were out in full force, though many of them had taken shelter underground in the Rockefeller Center concourse, clotting the passages and lunching on the stairs and generally blocking passage everywhere. After I mailed my packages, I got some pizza slices at Two Boots and wandered around looking for somewhere to eat them. Sitting at an anonymous table with some strangers, a familiar feeling washed over me, and it took me a minute to identify it. Then I realized what it was: I felt like I was in an airport. Rockefeller Center has the same ambiance that you experience in airports once you’re past the draconian security barriers. The same wash of tourists, of disoriented travelers looking for stopgap solutions to their quotidian needs, the same bland portable food options, and the lines, and the same gift-shop traps set for tourists geared up to spend, spend, spend. Why would you trouble to fly to New York merely to visit somewhere that resembles the airport you just left, I wondered, but then realized that wasn’t really fair. The concourse really was just a waystation, not a destination. But as tourism becomes a more pervasive industry, the primary industry of more and more places (especially as other forms of commerce and business can be handled online, with no travel) the accoutrements of tourism will begin to blanket more and more of the earth. EVerywhere will have airport ambiance, will be loaded with chain restaurants and food-on-the-go and knickknack shops. It will become harder and harder to avoid the places where tourists go, because they fucking go everywhere.

The end of the economy of scale?

I’m not so diligent that I read every story in the Money & Investing section of the Wall Street Journal — I don’t do due diligence with the Forex report (though the yuan revaluation has given it a spark) and I have to say the credit markets and options report are usually a little over my head. But I do read Justin Lahart’s Ahead of the Tape column everyday, mainly because it’s above the fold on the front page and I can read it on the train in the morning without spilling my coffee. Today’s column covered Amazon.com’s growth figures. Lahart thinks Amazon’s growth will slow as more retailers open up shop online servicing ever more refined niches. Because so little overhead is necessary to run an online business, the economies of scale that once worked in large firms’ favor seems to apply less and less. Anyone with an Internet connection can more or less start an international business and reach customers in every geographic market.

I can’t fault the theory, but I think it fails to account for the power of branding. Once overhead money went into transportation and warehouse space and office furniture and payroll systems and the like, now more of that money can go into brand building and advertising — these are the areas where large players can regain the edge afforded by economies of scale. Joe Blow’s Internet business will never be able to create a brand identity — he lacks even the verification eBay and Amazon provide their third-party vendors with their customer-feedback system, which they can administer with an air of neutrality. For better or worse, size implies trustworthiness in modern retailing, it implies (perhaps erroneously) a history of success in pleasing customers — the size stands in for word of mouth, which our atomizing society has rendered more and more difficult to come by. The Internet, which masks the size of the firm you’re dealing with, thus seemed a less safe and secure marketplace to explore for the average consumer, until Internet superbrands emerged. Cultural ubiquity rather than their physical size now conveys the trustworhty impression for the eBays and Amazons. Also, the brand itself, the iconography of a commodity’s origin has a value independent of a good’s utility, of course. The cache of a brand can only be created by large-scale investment in PR and advertising. Online retailing will likely only become as efficient in undermining large companies as Lahart imagines when consumers become comfortable conducting all their shopping blind, indifferent to who they are buying from.

It seems more likely that the pervasive presence of small, fledging retailers will drive more people to big name retailers. Dealing with a corporation makes shopping impersonal, allows it to be an exchange with only one person in it, letting that person believe it is all about him and only him. It can seem as though the company exists to serve his ends, that its elaborate codes of customer service have all been concocted to provide him with his satisfaction. But dealing with small retailers makes an exchange more personal, more redolent with the obliging friendliness, complexity and courtesy and deference that goes into interpresonal exchanges — you are no longer at liberty to expect it to be all about you and be as selfish as you fantasize about. Dealing with faceless big retailers, you can be as petulant as you want without feeling embarassed — you’re not making demands from an entity that has any feelings of its own. The essence of shopping as a leisure activity lies in its proving playgrounds for solipsistic fantasy — that ceases once we humanize the other party to the exchange.