Friday, April 22, 2005

Consumerist cathedrals

Now that I work on Fifth Avenue, I see some very strange photos being staged by tourists on my walk to the Crown building. Aside from videotaping the Trump Tower, since its featured prominently in a television show (I thought videotaping buildings was an act of treason under the Patriot Act or something) they also pose in front of shop windows at Bergdorf Goodman and Tiffany's to have their photos taken with merchandise. It's very much like the old exhibit at Binion's Horseshoe in Las Vegas, where you could have your picture taken with a million dollars. You wold literally stand beside a glass case in which 100 ten-thousand-dollar bills were mounted, and a photogrpaher would snap your picture. Some people would even put their arms around th case, as if it were a cherished friend. Fetishized money seems to be the allure of Las Vegas, so this particular tourist trap seemed to me the quintessence of the city, its spiritual core, the essential transaction that made it function, a ritual that reenacted the town's fundamental promise -- we will taunt you with enormous sums of money, and let you breathe in the wealthy atmosphere, swim in money's natural ecosystem. Never mind that you will leave your own money behind.

Something similar is going on with these photos of people in front of expensive boutiques. These are the keepsakes the tourists are pursing, themselves in close proximity to the luxury goods whose ads they've been subjected to, whose totemistic "magic" has apparently infested and denatured their dreams. This seems to prove that commodities really in fact do have the fetishistic aura Marx and his Frankfurt school followers theorized: Their allure is so strong that just seeing yourself next to them, even though they are behind heavily alarmed plates of glass, is enough to fortify you, make you feel stonger, make your dreams that much more enriched. "I got this close to having what society has deemed the ultimate spiritual treasure" these photos must tell these tourists when they are back in their hometowns. The commodities are totally divorced from the means of production that created them or the social hierarchies encoded in the way such positional goods are valued. The commodity seems like the wellspring of value, power, potential, all the good things in life that have been expropriated from the people carefully positioning themselves next to the jewelry displays and smiling for the camera. This is their idea of a vacation: getting close to the things they never could afford.

I have the tendency to take these luxury shopping districts for granted and see them as poisonous blights, spiteful testimonials to the contempt the rich have for the poor in this country. But they are holy pilgrimage sites for those acolytes in the national religion of consumerism, they are glorioius, inspiring cathedrals of comfort and sensual delight to those very people on whose behalf I am so eager to be indignant. These places are significant, famous; these are the places where important celebrities have walked. Who wouldn't want to come and trace their footsteps? Tiffany's symbolizes our culture's aspirations so succinctly; photographing yourself there is in a way like having your photo taken shaking the president's hand. It doesn't matter if he doesn't know who you are. You have managed to put yourself in the proximity of power, or of a massively meaningful symbol (which may in the end be the same thing as power). And the connection by proximity allows you to forget for the time being the total lack of connection such places have with your actual life, that no amount of dreaming and hard work is likely to ever allow you to be a real customer at such stores, to give you the sense of entitlement and cultural competence to make you feel confident enough to walk in and feel like you belong. The photo of you at Tiffany's masks the fact that one's aspirations and one's actions are utterly divorced from each other; that one's actions will not achieve one's aspirations, because the aspirations have been so wildly distorted in part by advertising's pervasiveness, in part by oligarchical politics, in part by materialism's supplanting traditional spiritual pursuits.

I have always been suspicious of tourist photos: They seem to reify life as it's being lived, deferring the experience to the point when the film is developed. But these photos of shopping sites compound things, are exponentiallly worse. These are reifying photos that dignify and celebrate earlier reifications, objectifying the moment in which people are already delighting in the symbols of their objectifiction.

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