Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Creativity, the death of skepticism

Rightly skeptical of economists' explanations of consumer demand (needs are instinctual, needs are induced "hypodermically" by producers, supply creates its own demand, needs are spurred by social emulaton), sociologist Colin Campbell argues that modern consumer demand is mostly a matter of daydreaming -- the world of consumer goods facilitate more elaborate daydreams to make us happy. We imagine how these goods will enrich our lives, and derive pleasure from our imaginings, more pleasure than we get from actual consumption. And because our daydreams are always disappointed, desire can be insatiable, inherently unfulfilllable. In an almost Lacanian (if not Keatsian) turn, Campbell suggests that the state of desire is pleasurable itself, and that the moment of consumption is the moment of disappointment, the point at which the carefully tended daydream disintegrates. Wanting the thing permits pleasing daydreaming, obtaining the good is a let down, and we must obtain a new want. "Individuals do not so much seek satisfaction from products, as pleasure from the self-illusory experience which they construct from their associated meanings." (Much the way Kelvin Lancaster asserts we seek to consume bundles of "characteristics" rather than goods themselves.) It's been long held that it's pleasant to have things (we live in the ownership society, after all), but Campbell argues that its equally pleasant to want things. And the more things we can think to want, the more feverish our brains become with consumerist fantasies of potency and ease and comfort, the more pleasant life will be.

According to Campbell, the 18th century in creating capitalist consumer economies, discovers the personality trait necessary for those economic arrangements in autonomous hedonism, the imaginative ability to control pleasurable stimuli by attending to the emotional aspects rather than the material aspects of experience; to enhance the quality of experience, instead of the frequency -- a "Romantic ethic" of imaginative individualism in consumption to complement Weber's Protestant ethic in production. Deferred gratification not only has the benefits for production that Weber described, it also has its benefits on the demand side, as the gap betweeen wanting and having is the gap in which much of the pleasure is generated. As emotions come to be understood as wholly interior and responsive, the modern man "comes to possess the ability to decide the nature and strength of his own feelings." This changes our individual economic goals from material comfort to emotional stimuli. (Utility is almost irrelevent from this view, since pleasure precedes consumption.) Self-consciousness, in the modern sense, appears at this point. We become acutely aware of ourselves as subjects (Lacan might say we enter the Symbolic as a culture) as indivuated, as managers of our own consciousness.

Campbell claimed that a new personality type emerged in the late 18th century, one that was stocked with this new ability to imaginatively create pleasure by picturing a self-aggrandizing narrative based on consumer goods, which possession
of the goods fails to realize for the consumer. When I was writing a dissertation, this insight was the linchpin, because I argued that the commercial novel was (in the quintessential New Historicist phrasing) agent and product of this evolution in personality. Novels catered to this personality type and helped encourage it into being. The deferrment of gratification inherent in novels (you defer completion until the end) mimics the deferred gratification of consumption: The story of a purchase has the same trajectory as the story in a novel. Also, the suspension of disbelief which so much imaginative pleasure relies is an integral part of the novelistic experience; reading fiction forces one to practice this frame of mind and teaches one the pleasures of surrendering skepticism. This sounds good in theory, but it was nearly impossible to deduce this process from the novels themselves. I wanted to argue that "sensibility," the cultivation and display of one's feeling heart, was involved in this, as the cult of sensibilty relied upon vicariousness, emotional projection, sympathy of the sort Adam Smith described in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, relied upon novels to practice this ability. And the stock romance plot seemed to model some kind of instrumentalist vision of self-satisfaction that seems transferable to the consumer experience. Novels also work to undermine the old moral strictures against luxury, lionizing luxury instead as a moral good of its own, as an ability to feel more deeply and with more sensibiility, in turn dignifying consumerism. But it was all pretty speculative.

Campbell's view requires we look at advertising as entertainment itself, as sculpting the scenarios that foster our imagination, as opening that gap between wanting and having that makes pleasure (pleasurable striving, pleasurable daydreaming) possible. This may be why people enjoy watching television ads, enjoy looking at catalogs and print ads, and why these ads rarely detail the products they promote but instead offer ambiguous images of glamour and well-being. These nebulous pictures of personal happiness supply our dreams with shape -- even offer us hope, because the corollary to this is that one must find refuge in daydreams because private imaginative life has come to be a central component of our consciousness as shifts in the economic structure of society has encouraged individuation, competetitveness, detatchment from social groups that once provided and defined pleasure.

Such a view also explains the shape of modern entertainments, films and novels and popular music and so on, which Campbell argues foster a permanent desiring mode. If pleasure is predicated on ever more detailed daydreams, entertainment's function is to encourage those daydreams, urge passivity and vicariousness, stock imaginations with sumptuous and implausible detail. Entertainment is essentially no different than ads, in fact it is advertising by other means.

And it follows that creativity will have a radically different meaning. Creativity is the ability to imagine yourself consuming in different ways; creativity is a matter of being able to forge the fictional links between goods and feelings for yourself, and if you are really talented, for others. I have always been generally dubious about the idea of "creativity" -- it seems a covert way of encouraging isolation, selfish individualism and competetion, planting the seed for that essential consumerist thought that one's own tastes are always best and must be expressed through serial purchases. The ideology of creativity often hinges on the bogus notion that you can invent things in isolation from the society you live in, and all this does is blind you to the ways that society is shaping you, making it impossible for you to resist such shaping. Creativity in its debased form is the ability to work with the vague raw material in ads and make it into pleasurable daydreams; it is decidedly not the critical demolition of this material. "Creativity" makes the links; it doesn't break them.

Pleasure is contingent on the ability to suspend disbelief: "In order to possess that degree of emotional self-determination which permits emotions to be employed to secure pleasure, it is necesasry for individuals to attain that level of self-consciousness which permits the 'willing suspension of disbelief;' disbelief robs symbols of their automatic power, whilst the suspension of such an attitude restores it, but only to the extent to which one wishes that to be the case. Hence through the process of manipulating belief, and thus granting or denying symbols their power, an individual can successfully adjust the nature and intensity of his emotional experience." In other words, controlling our skepticism and deploying it according to our imaginative needs becomes more important than using skepticism as a method for determining truth. Suspending disbelief is the key to happiness, skepticism becomes the bar. If you can cease being a skeptic, you can go to a movie like Million Dollar Baby and revel in its emotional manipulation -- this is pleasure; having one's emotions exercised in a carefully contrived fashion (this is what the promises inherent in commodities do generally, according to Campbell, once we've learned to use ads right). But skeptics are senselessly depriving themselves of this pleasure; they lack the imagination to go along, to vicariously project into the film. Skeptics lack that kind of "creativity." This is what creativity may secretly mean in contemporary consumer culture, the general refusal to critical in order to get more fantasy-pleasure out of consumption.

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