Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Mass meanings

I was reading a book by James Twitchell called ADCULT USA, which purports to be a fair and balanced appraisal of role of advertising in contemporary culture, and certainly is as even-handed as anything you'd hear on Fox News. Like all apologists for the ad industry, Twitchell has to postulate a certain kind of human being in order to jusify a society where the proliferation of "commercial speech" is not seen as detrimental, but is instead seen as rational, inevitable, a product of technology finally catching up to what humankind has always wanted. (Which is a good example the kind of thinking that works up those who denounce teleological views of history, which always justify what exists as inevitable, as the purposeful and logical end of all that had preceded it.) Twitchell arges that "getting and spending" are inherently fascinating, that humans by their nature seek to enrich their lives' meaning through endless exchanges. The latter may be true, but these exchanges have only recently become conceived of as shopping exchanges, as a trade of money for a thing. Twitchell claims that humans are fundamentally enamoured of things, as opposed to being interested in things as means to some larger activity. Exchanging things socially constitutes an activity, but acquiring things for their own sake is an aberration, isn't it? To defend what ads do, which is to reinforce through repetition the climate in which owning things is seen as preferable to (or at least a viable substitute for) doing things or making things or engaging in some kind of social activity, one must claim a natural fascination for things in themselves, and scoff at the notion of use value. Ads, by injecting dead things with meanings not inherent to them, by relating the great mass of heterogenous things into a system that makes them eloquent, allows them to speak one's class status or articulate one's social aspirations, help to bury use value under an avalanche of new and often arbitrary meanings, would-be exchange values entirely contingent on fashion and whim, on how far advertising's message has penetrated.
When we consume, in most cases, what we are bent on consuming are these meanings, which is rooted in the object's social meaning, which is fomented, articultaed, spread and sometimes generated by advertising -- the staus in objects stems from this, our media exists largely to assign this status to consumer goods, whether through reviews or ads or simple display. We lost touch with the use vlaue for most of things in our world, we know only a desire for these ephemeral meanings, which a more diversified media and a more completely ubiquitous ad presence, helps manufacture, prodcing an endless wealth of them, ever changing and ever proliferating. With more media, there are more meanings than ever, and the more there are, the less likely it is we'll be able to sate our appetite of them, as there will always be another one to inspire us down another acquisitive chain.
For attaching meanings to things has the effect of reifying meaning, making meaning something we accumulate quantitatively. When only feel the mastery of understanding what a concept means by accumulating all the things attached to it. We understand meaning in music and art by collecting it rather than studying it. We hae large book collections to testify to our mastery of certain subjects. We need to signify our masery of certain soheres of meaning by displaying the right objects -- increasingly, there is no other way to have that understanding recognized than there objects. Knowledge needs to be certfied socially, to be recognized, and more and more, the only way to earn social respect and notice is through brute acquisition, through being able to display the right accoutrements.

This is the consumer society's ultimate triumph, to connect knowledge with ownership, to habituate everyone to thinking through commodities, to understanding their own limits and their own potential only through commodities, those things that can be bought and sold, which of course, we all natually enjoy so much.

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