Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Mulling The World of Goods

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.

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