Friday, April 08, 2005

The New Frontier

In an essay in The Commercialization of Intimate Life, Arlie Hochschild proposes that with the closing of the American West and the difficulty in sustaining the myth of being able to "light out for the territories" literally, a la Huck Finn, a new frontier in consumption opened to supplant the lost geographic one. "Instead of 'going somewhere' the individual 'buys something.' And buying something becomes a way of going somewhere." In some ways, this is another way of configuring the argument Sociologist Colin Campbell makes about the essential appeal of consumerism, its promise of a private, autonomous fantasy world of ever-replenishing desire to launch oneself into through a revolving cycle of daydreams about various branded lifestyle goods. The frontier myth was one of perpetual reinvention, of always being able to eschew your past and start fresh in unbounded territory -- the fantasy space of commodity-induced daydreams is this kind of territory; goods don't care who you are, or where you've been, or what you did in the last town. Goods allow you to imagine a new you, and ads supply fantasies in which no questions are asked, where donning the Che T-shirt invites no unpleasant questions about what kind of revolutionary consciousness you have, where the present is all that there is. Rather than go somewhere, you consume something to make yourself new; and remaking yourself daily is offered as a worthy goal, as a way of "finding yourself" via a perpetual search.

Hochschild combines it though with some other points about the family, about new frontiers in advertising and marketing that promise to provide the intimacy of family life that has been systemaically eroded by capitalism, and its expectations about work and its tendency to commodify everything. She suggests that we consume to try to get to some idealized notion of a perfect family life, with perfect relationships with spouses or children. The promises is that of a "life free from ambivalence" -- which is what Huck Finn is after, after all -- a life where compromise (in the form of being civilized, in Huck's case) is totally unnecessary. But in pursuing commercial solutions to intimate problems, one admits a new form of ambivalence, a willingness to accept only those solutions one can afford in exchange for their being streamlined into simple economic exchanges. This in turn demystifies the intimate life, removes its aura, destroys its power to be a "haven in a heartless world," a refuge from capitalism's time pressures, vulgarization, exploitation, and reification. In looking for "new places to go" in shopping, we have pushed the frontier of what can be commodified has pushed deep into our intimate lives, leaving no place where a core of emotions unmanipulated by the market can exist, can serve as the comparison point for authenticity or for "true happiness" or "true identity."

Capitalism creates teh need for a haven from exploitation, but it also encourages an individualism that undermines such havens -- Initially it was community-based, then it was family-based, now it seems to based in a dyad, either with a parent, a child or a spouse. It shrinks as we try to make the haven more efficient, more conducive to our needs with less demand of sacrifice, as market ideology has taught us is the clearest expression of what's best -- maximum utility at the margin. But in the drive to make intimate life efficient, we destroy what makes it imtimate, the inefficiencies that represent what it means to be intimate -- the tolerance, the love of mistakes, the patience required to understand and respect other people, the "wasteful" sacrifices of time and energy.

Intimacy is defined by ineffiency -- is that a consequence of capitalism, or has it always been so?

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