So this blog has officially moved here. This is the URL: http://blogs.popmatters.com/marginalutility/
The archive of content will stay here, but I may raid it now and again for posts at the new location, which I hope will have a larger readership. I apolgize in advance for the redundancy, and for the ads anyone reading will now have to deal with, which, I must say, seem pretty distracting and may potentially trivialize some of the stuff I try to write about. (That is, if my own lack of rigor and knowledge doesn’t already accomplish that.)
Thanks to anyone who has been reading.
The way passionate love is sold in novels and films and pop music has a lot in common with the way shopping is celebrated by the more narratively inclined forms of advertising. I used to think about this alot when I read 18th century novels as a graduate student, tracing the connections between a nascent consumer-goods-advertising industry and the organization of one of the first national culture industries in England, the book-selling business. Not only did early advertising appear in front and backs of novels published then, but they frequently borrowed rhetorical strategies and tropes from the novels, which were fixated on ill-fated love. Why the connection? Once a society shifts to a capitalist consumer culture, consumption becomes a matter not of satisfying wants but of maximizing profits inherent in branded goods. A branded good derives its value from an implicit story about the brand; its value is literally a matter of well chosen words. (This is why branding experts are paid thousands of dollars to name deodorants and fruit punches and the like.) At the same time, as goods become more widely available, they become a means of self-definition, so that we consume them not for their inherent usefulness but for what they can communicate about ourselves to others. So acquiring the right goods becomes a way of showing the world who we are, and ultimately, of revealing to ourselves who we want to be. Consumption becomes a kind of quest for identity, for fulfillment on a much different level than keeping one’s belly from grumbling. In this way, it mirrors what the myth of romantic love. Romantic love often appears as a quest for a soul mate who will complete us, who will allow us to become who we truly are. A lover is presumed to complete us the way we expect goods to also complete us; the two often end up competing for that role as we balance our private obsessions and collections and compulsions with attempts to integrate a partner into our lives. A lover can seem like a possession (trophy spouses) and possessions can become like lovers as both are carefully honed to make for the best display of how one sees oneself.
But viewed through Denis de Rougemont’s assessment of the myth of romantic love in Love and the Western World, one can see another similarity. Rougemont argues that the essence of pasionate love, as it’s delineated in the West, is its self-created obstructions. One loves not the beloved but the idea of being in love itself and all the obstacles that prolong that feeling. He quotes a piquant passage from Chretien de Troyes to illustrate: “My ill is what I want, and my suffering is my health…it is my willing that becomes my ill; but I am so pleased to want thus that I suffer agreeably, and have so much joy in my pain that I am sick with delight.” Such desire seems comparable to the desire advertisers seek to instigate, the pleasure of wanting never sufficiently satisfied by the pleasure of having. Sociologist Colin Campbell argues that the “spirit of consumer capitalism” turns on just this dynamic, on daydreams inspired by wanting goods that are inevitably disappointed by ownership. That disappointment returns us to the market to daydream about some new goods, and thus we keep the industrial growth machine moving. So the twin myths of love and shopping work symbiotically to promote a mutual ethos: it is more pleasant to want than to have, that love and shopping are fun for thir own sake independent of the relationships they achieve, that disappointment is actually more satisfying than satisfaction, that daydreams are always better than real-life activity. When we live in daydreams, shopping can be an acceptable proxy for actually doing things. Not getting your money’s worth, viewed in the glow of thwarted romantic passion, becomes glamorized as a kind of romantic disappointment, just another necessary intermediate stage on the quest for the ideal, for that moment (that only comes with death, de Rougemont argues) when you truly feel like you have it all, that your collections are all complete and you are truly, finally loved.
Lately I’ve been letting what The Wall Street Journal reports on set my agenda, but my subscription has run out, so I may be left to my own devices. That is, if the paper ever stops coming to my apartment. Despite having allegedly run out last week, it’s still there on my doorstep when I leave in the morning. Presumably this is because the Journal’s subscription service expects my renewal form any minute now, and it doesn’t want to inconvenience me with any interruption in service. The nice people at the Journal wouldn’t want me to miss out on any Forex reports or any breaking news in the credit markets or the latest from the courtroom in the never-ending “Executives on Trial” column. Maybe I’m supposed to feel guilty or be so impressed by the paper’s magnaminity, by its faith in me as a reader, that I finally break out my checkbook and do the inevitable. But I’m currently hewing to a run-out-the-clock strategy, daring them, as it were, to stop delivering it.
Not that the entreaties to renew haven’t been entertaining. They’ve come disguised as surveys. They’ve tried to be pleasant in e-mails, and stern in very official-looking letters, and they’ve tried to bribe me by reminding me how I can deduct my subscription as a business expense, providing receipts prepared in advance for my tax records. Their pleas often revolve around how much more powerful I’ll be then the poor saps who don’t read the Journal—it’s all very pragmatic, no sense that anyone would be stupid enough to read it just to remain informed, for the sake of it. Of course, the plan is to make money, to dominate, to weaponize information and use it to smite one’s financial enemies. This is one of the lessons for which I am most grateful to the paper: that information is always leverage, and if you haven’t sensed the profit angle inherent in a piece of data, then you don’t really know it. You don’t even have to read the noxious opinion page to feel like yo uare seeing through the dead eyes of capital itself as you read the B and C sections. It is, as they like to say, “Capitalism’s user’s manual” and indeed, it shows you how to become capital’s instrument, to think with its cold, dead brain, reinforcing the stultifying manner of corporate thinking required to manage a capitalist system; it encourages you to think in the reductive “rational” thought processes presumed by neo-classical economists. The utter lack of sympathy with consumers, who are routinely rhetorically evoked as wily enemies if not fickle children, is palpable and instructive. So maybe I should be insulted that the renewal service tries those same tricks on me to sell me the very paper that tries hard to convince me to view such things from a lofty height, to make me feel immune to them. In the slew of flattering advertising and pandering pleas for your money, (well dissected in the semi-regular Advertising report in section B) it can be easy to forget what corporations really think about you.
Also, this blog may be moving to this new location soon.
The point I was trying to make yesterday, as I was grabbing stray moments during the day to work on the post, is this: Consumption was billed as the medium for democracy after World War II, where free and equal particpation in the marketplace and the world of goods permitted a kind of nominal equality, the fulfillment of America’s promise to be a society where opportunities are equal — we can all go into the store and theoretically buy the goods there, so we are all on a level playing field. It’s a silly notion, but has a persuasive power as ideology, and makes the phenomenon of corpporations purposely reinforcing class with their marketing stretegies a bit surprising. If America is the land where everyone’s equal as a shopper, then why are there special stores for the ghetto? Why no Jimmy Jazz on Fifth Avenue? But it profits retailers to play the game of catering to different classes; it allows them to take advantage of informational deficiencies. Or to put that into comprehensible English, it allows them to exploit the ignorance of the lower classes. As Douglas and Isherwood aptly point out in The World of Goods, poverty is less a lack of income than it is a lack of information — whether it be the habitus to gain the networking connections necessary to succeed, the familiarity with what’s socially important to get along with others, or the simple ability to shop comparatively and budget. When your income flow is unpredictable, you can’t budget, and when you have no transportation that’s reliable, you can’t comparison shop. Uncertainty destroys one’s ability to behave “rationally” as economists expect, and this failure to be “rational” leads to the poor being blamed for their own predicament. “Well if they wouldn’t waste all the money on fees to Rent-a-Center, maybe they wouldn’t be so poor.”
Consumption, as Douglas explains, is about power. When consumption behavior seems irrational, it indicates the extent to which someone is disenfranchised. Control over consumption rituals is a way to protect class power and exclude lower classes from access to it. Consumers, by consuming and enacting these rituals, participate in the perpetuation of class as a matter of course, without any thought to their role in perpetuating inequality, thinking all the time that the ramifications of their behavior is basically private. Marketeers who target customers by income are reenforcing inequality knowingly, they groom the field on which the consumers play out class distinction and furnish that game its equipment.Because consumption seems fundamental and personal, it is the key way in which we participate in reproducing social ideology, in stabilizing the classification systems that structure our society. Consumption makes material this hierarchy and consumers, by shopping, animate it, invest it with its effective power and reproduce it. In a capitalist consumerist society, it is the fundamental way to create class distinction, it is the system by which class is knowable, and at a core level at which it feels given, unchangable.
A writer at TPMCafe raises an interesting question here. Why hasn’t it proved economically feasible (and thus inevitable) that grocery store chains move into poor neighborhoods and exploit their desperation for better quality produce and lower-priced food. The real estate is cheap and the customer base is more or less assured. Some respondants opined that insurance and security costs would make it unprofitable, others pointed to “it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” business model of most retailers. The most interesting reply pointed to the rebranding of the same goods, groceries, to appeal to different class demographics, the way Gap/Old Navy/Banana Republic does. As much as the Republican hacks whose campaigns they fund hate “class warfare,” big corporations love to differentiate by class and exploit class differences for the different sources of profit they yield. It’s interesting, though perhaps obvious to anyone who’s shed their “America is a classless society and shopping is where we are all equal” blinkers, how different classes ahve different vulnerabilities and can be flattered in different ways. If I still lived in Arizona I could do some field research to explore the difference between shopping at Fry’s and at Albertson’s — the stark difference in mood you experience in stores less than a mile apart selling basically the same thing. Part of it is the music, the lighting, and the odd specialty product, and general upkeep. But the chaos of the poor-neighborhood store has mostly to do with the chaotic lives of the customers, who make do without the niceties middle-class people take for granted — ready transportation, adequate child-care arrangements, an income that requires no corner-cutting when it comes to food, etc.
Also Fry’s, skewed toward lower-income immigrant workers, has a far more extensive ethnic food section, something that must disturb Albertson’s middle-class clientele. The grocery store is apparently a place we go to discover that everyone else is really like us, traveling the same narrow band of experience as we are. Ethinc products would disturb us with a sense of the larger world outside when we are not prepared for it — better to go to Cost Plus for that stuff, where the food travelogue is carefully designed to keep us feeling in control of information. I admit, I’m a bit overwhelmed by my current neighborhood grocery store, the Trade Fair on Ditmars Boulevard in Queens. Not only does it defy the laws of extension by cramming for more then should be possible in a tiny space, but it has a wealth of products from all over the globe, unprentiously stocked right alongide American made goods — no ethnic shelf-space ghetto for the packages labeled in Cyrillic or the skinned goats hanging from hooks.
Anthropologist Mary Douglas is one of those rare academics who can write so persuasively and commonsensically that she can convince you that her discipline is the crucial lens through which to see all phenomena in order to understand it. I’ve been rereading The World of Goods, a book of consumption she cowrote with economist Baron Isherwood, and I keep stopping to think to myself, I should have studied anthropology in college. The book’s basic premise is that consumption is a meaning-fixing ritual, is an inherently social act never conducted in isolation, and it thus refutes notions of the unlimited sovereignty of the consumer. Consumption is thus also not voluntaristic; you don’t choose when and how to do it. Social norms dictate the field in which one can stake out an attitude toward consumption, and participation in society depends on using consumption rituals to signal an understanding and assent of society’s values. And in Douglas and Isherwood’s view, consumption is the means by which an individual constructs an intelligible universe for himself. They echo the view that comsumption is really prodcution of a household, the process by which families are made and grown.
“Goods are the visible part of culture. They are arranged in vistas and hierarchies that can give play to the full range of discrimination of which the human mind is capable.” Thus consumption is simply material culture given a temporal dimension, and it’s function beyond subsistance is making tangible the rules of social life: “Consumption activity is the joint production, with fellow consumers, of a universe of values. Consumption uses goods to make firm and visible a particular set of judgments in the fluid processes of classifying persons and events.” This is hard to dispute, this argument that commodities are “good to think” as well as use, to paraphrase Levi-Strauss, as Douglas does. But this seems to circumvent the problems posed by a capitalist consumer society, which adopts these universal truths about material culture as a kind of cloak, an alibi for expansionist goals specific to capitalism. By trying to universalize consumption practices, Douglas seems to carry water for capitalism, normalizing its set of values and dropping from the discussion the coercive phenomena that are particular to it. Commodities have meanings in all cultures, and the attempt to control their meanings take different forms, no ne of whcih are especially benign. Modern capitalist culture simultaneously amplifies those meanings throught he mass media echo chamberand seeks to rigorously control them. It encourages the displacement of activity and will to the commodities themselves, which become fetishes for the human qualities that they are invested with, while allowing a passivity to settle on individuals themselves. Commodities become less useful for thinking, as the industries that assign meaning to them become more powerful, more centralized, more relentless, more insistent as they attempt to control these meanings for purposes of profit. Under captialism, the meanings of goods have become exploitable for profit, and this distorts them toward announcing a system of values that represents the interests of profit rather than the interest of humans. Capitalism commodifies meaning itself, attaches profit to the fashioning of various realities in a way that pre-capitalist societies did not. Previously, a coherent set of values may have been imposed by the most powerful voice, by entrenched institutions wielding consolidated power, because reality was not yet capable of being auctioned off to the highest bidder, and because society wasn’t stuctured to maintain simultaneous competing realities. One can argue that this ability was an inevitable development with technological change (while arguing that capitalism/market democracy is the end of history), but it is nonetheless an important distinction to preserve.
Lately critics have piled on Wes Anderson for making private, inscrutable adolescent hipster fantasias in which set design trumps any kind of potential audience interest in plot or character. His films are dubbed elaborate dollhouses whose innummerable details are painstakingly placed just so, while the lifeless characters, thereby turned into dolls, limp through an undercooked story speaking unlikely lines. But he is far from alone in this tendency, if anything he’s merely following recent trends in the fine arts world epitomized at last year’s Whitney Biennial and currently on full display at a thoroughly entertaining but strangely empty exhibition of contemporary work by New York artists at P.S. 1 in Queens. Perhaps a long-developing reaction to the lazy conceptual work in the 80s and 90s, the tendency now is to create hyperprecise and extravagantly meticulous work in which all the conceptual ideas are muted or overwhelmed by the painstaking and laborious process of their execution. So virtually everything at P.S. 1 fell into two camps: drawings with obsessive, microscopic detail receding into an infinite fineness (as with the absolutely amazing bonsai-tree like sculptures made by cutting out silhouettes in a paper bag) and room-sized installations developing a whimsical Willie Wonka idea to an absurd extreme (the best example of this was the truly nightmarish room full of yeti-like robotic snow monsters). These are often technical tours de force, but they inevitably seem to be about nothing more than the artist’s own compulsion, or more generously, the amount of free time they can devote to their art. It is as if they are out to prove they have to devote their energies to nothing else in this life, that when they make their drawing of 20,000 cats intertwined with each other, they are proving their professional commitment to art. The essence of these artists’ fantasia then, regardless of its specific form, is the fantasy of being a pure artist, doing nothing but making art even though the economy doesn’t really afford them a place in productive society. And that’s ultimately our payoff in looking at these works, getting to daydeam of the ability to indulge our curiosity and our whimsey with such relentless focus, spending all our time on it instead of processing payment claims or attending productino meetings or making photocopies or whatever it is we really do to earn our keep. The reason these things seem so often to be adolescent is that they recall our own adolescence, the last time we could indulge ourselves by making colleges or building life-sized dioramas in the form of out bedrooms in our parents’ houses. Some artists make this literal, recreating teen-age bedrooms. At P.S. 1, one clever take on this theme turned the effluvia of a teen’s life into a sailing vessel, the ship of fledgling personality that an adolescent sets out on into the choppy waters of mature selfhood — because personality is a vehicle, after all, not an ontological essence. Anyway, it’s the focus on the individual somehow skirting the expectations society places on him, avoiding the stultification of the jobs it creates for people, that makes this art smack of hipsterism, as well. Hipsters, like artists, are often subsidized by someone — their parents usually — and need not make any concessions to the Man. Hipsters, unlike artists though, are usually content to make their being their artwork, they live as their own work of art, with much less attention to detail.