Monday, February 28, 2005

Consuming poor

In the most recent New Republic, G. Pascal Zachary has an excellent critique of the crackpot ideas of C.K. Prahalad, who thinks we can end poverty by making the poor more inveterate consumers and by making corporations realize how much profit can be made by catering to them. Zachary points out the obvious: that it's hard to make a profit from people with no money, and that making the poor consumers prohibits them from saving, the one thing that might help the end the cycle of poverty. What the poor need, Zachary argues convincingly, is good jobs, not more consumer junk. They certainly don't need any more marketing pressure to consume; these pressures already fall on them disporoportionately, leading to the paycheck-loan phenomenon I was lamenting about last week. Who are the early adopters of flashy and largely unnecessary consumer goods? Who buys the giant TVs and the gas-guzzling SUVs and the tacky leather furniture? The poor, because the only tenuous stake they can claim to society's admiration, the only thing within their reach and educational scope, comes through these goods. (I apologize if that's patronizing, but empirical evidence would seem to back it up.) Having the loudest stereo may be the only way they are able to think of themselves as a somebody, and get an emotional lift. Isolated from social support networks and poorly educated, they are defenseless against marketing, which is one of the prime forces for setting them on the path of reckless consumer spending and measuring self-worth in square-inches of flat-screen plasma.

Corporations already employ the best ways to make money off the poor, the time-honored method of exploiting their weaknesses and gouging them with prices unheard of in suburbia. The poor can't choose where they shop, therefore they must suffer the absurd prices at convenience stores or rent-to-own centers. The poor can't secure cheap credit, so they have to accept paycheck loans. They can't go to the bank in their neighborhood, because there isn't one. So they have to pay 10 percent for the privelege of having their checks cashed. These methods are thriving, and free-market profit remains high as long as the poor's options are kept limited and their education remains bad. Which is why cynical Republicans love destroying government -- this assures that the poor will have no recourse and will constitue an evergrowing populace from whom easier and easier money can be made.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Vacation spending

According to historian Gary Cross, working people endorsed and embraced the consumer society as it took its current shape in the early to mid twentieth century because it promised to a group used to being driven by the threat of hunger a positive outlook on the future, of a widening scope of wants fulfilled. Providing the complementary fulfillment to work time is free time, divided into domestic time, spent fondling the accumulated goods whose ownership was made possible by easy credit and slavish work commitments (Cross refers to households as "museums of domesticity"), and holiday time, during which workers experience the "magic of uninhibited spending."

You can probably tell I find this a bit dubious, but only because of the positive spin put on the structuring of leisure time, which in reality can often play out as an equally stressful para-employment wherein one is desperate to consume not for enjoyment but for identity and social significance, compelled by the needs of a mass-market system that requires great amounts of by and large pointless consumption. And the celebration of work/leisure bifurcation reinforces capitalist assumptions of work as an inherent disutility, something you do because you have to and not because it gives your life productive purpose and meaning. Capitalism requires deskilled workers who are complacent about the meaningless work they must do to eat, because the deskilling makes it easier to exploit their labor and makes productive processes more efficient. With meaningful work, workers would likely be less inclined to express their identity through consumption (meaningful work would provide them with a more stable identity imbued with a proud sense of competence), and would be capable of doing more than simply decompressing in their leisure time (passively watching television or passively acquiring objects, etc.) if they were engaged in something personally compelling throughout the day. In other words, a lack of meaningful work leads to a compulsion for compensatory meaningless distraction during non-working hours. Or it leads to working in leisure time at something one does find meaningful: Writing a blog, organizing massive collections of DVDs, building home additions, yard work, et cetera. This creates a time-squeeze, as time committed to work doubles, leaving little time for more casual social interaction.

But Cross is certainly on to something when he notes the experience of "the magic of uninhibited spending." Spending, we are constantly reminded, is the best way, the most appropriate way to exhibit power in our society -- it lets the market arbitrate as it naturally should, since as we all know the market is the best way of regulating all things human. We vote with our dollars and thereby have true, perfect democracy, right? It makes perfect sense that those with more dollars have more votes, since they have more of a stake in society and have worked harder for it, of course. Anyway, when we relax our grip on reality and decide to spend impulsively on vacations, we experiece something like unlimited power in our unlimited spending. We get an intimation of godlike immediacy and omnipotence, fulfilling desires as fast as we can generate them, destroying the difference between thought and action. But this is a sham power; it relies on our desires being only those things the market can readily supply -- it requires our deepest wishes be for owning those things that are ready at hand. But because we like the fantasy of omnipotence, especially on vacation, the point of which is to feel the power denied us at our drudge jobs, we bend our desires to be those things that money can buy, and we end up struggling to maintain the pretense as we throw our money at lowest-common-denominator tourist traps and mass-produced faux luxuries. We end up buying things we don't really want because we feel like we aren't really having a good time otherwise. This is one of the reasons why souvenir shops can thrive. The truly luxurious things, the positional goods of uncrowdedness, uniqueness, unspoiledness, etc., remain out of our reach no matter how much we are willing to spend, no matter how good our credit is, because they had been locked up long ago by old money.

Cross suggests that these spending vacations replace the seasonal and religious festivals that once gave meaning to the passage of time. It seems appropriate that we should enshrine unrestrained spending as part of our yearly rituals -- the free-spending summer vacation mirrors Christmas buying bonanzas and both celebrate spending as power and pleasure divinely melded into one and the same gesture, the quintessential expression of cultural participation.

My recent mini-vacation to Arizona started me thinking about this, because I realized that I had been saving up a lot of purchases I needed to make in order that I could make them during the trip -- I ended up buying new boxer shorts and a big tube of Tom's of Maine toothpaste in Tucson, as well as a full complement of sweaters and shirts at various regional thrift stores. I just naturally associated vacation with the need to be spending copiously, as a time when my natural reluctance to spend money on clothes and things is relaxed, as a time when I have the leisure to be contemplating choices in underwear and so on. This seemed very strange to me, that I needed to take a vacation in order to buy toothpaste, that my relation to spending had become that pathological. I've so thoroughly internalized the idea of vacations as free-spending times that I am loath to spend when not on vacation. Vcations now cue spending for me rather than arising organically out of it. Vacations have ceased to be about relaxing for me, and have become about acquisition. Or, more scary, I've simply made acquisition the only way I know how to relax.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

The Tempe breakfast conundrum

No, that's not the name of a hippie jam band. That's just what I've been calling this phenomenon in my head that I experienced while on vacation. And I know that the following will be a specious argument based on anecdotal evidence and imperfect information, but I want to know why the hell it's so hard to find a place to eat breakfast in Tempe. In Tucson, there are literally hundreds of little restaurants, privately owned, that exist solely to serve you breakfast -- Don's, Robert's, Jerry Bob's, the Egg Connection, Bobo's, Wags, Molly G's, et cetera, et cetera. There are so many that one woman I knew when I lived there made it her quixotic quest to methodically rate the breakfast at each one on a number of often idiosyncratic criteria of her own devising in a meticulous little notebook she carried. She was already years into her task when I met her, and was nowhere near completion. In Don's, there was a chalkboard charting the restaurants that had failed in Tucson in the time that it had managed to survive; the names included such corporate-owned chain diners as Village Inn, JB's, Carrows, and Cocos.

Yet in Tempe, when Bonnie and I wanted to get something to eat in the morning, we patrolled back and forth along the blocks and surveyed shoppinng center after shopping center in vain. No breakfast places to be found, generally, and those chain restaurants -- the aforementioned Village Inn, IHOP, Denny's, we did find were so crowded that people were waiting outside for the privilege of eggs. So what is going on? One theory I came up with (based on nothing but personal prejudice and observation) is that this reflects the different demographics of Tucson and Phoenix. Tucson has more than its proportion of drifter-types, that's for sure -- just stand on Fourth Avenue and watch as the gritty desert rats walk by shaking their tambourines and dreadlocks or grooming their copious underarm hair. But it also has its population of stagnant semi-deadbeats, people who drift in to go to college or find like-minded misfits or hide from bill collectors and then stay on forever when they discover how cheaply one can live there. It's like the desert version of Hotel Caliifornia, check out anytime you like, but you never leave. Tucson has the illusion of enlightened, progressive culture without its accompanying expense, which makes it a magnet for every weirdo from West Texas to El Centro, and which means those who settle, stay, and develop off beat routines to accomodate them. Hence the pleathora of idiosyncratic breakfast restaurants, often owned and staffed by these selfsame oddballs. Phoenix's eastern suburbs, on the other hand, seem populated entirely by middle-managers relocated by their corporations to Phoenix's cheap and plentiful and tax-beneficial office space, and Mormons, whose suspicious swearing off of coffee and penchant for raising large families (and thus cooking at home) makes them enemies of the small breakfast place. And relocatees, wrenched from their comfort zone in New Jersey or Witchita or wherever, crave familiarity; hence their preference for chains, even when they prove inefficent and inconvenient (and lousy -- which you know if you've ever eaten a chicken-fried steak at Denny's). What results is one of those lose-lose situations that nonetheless make corporations happy: the prevelance of chain restaurants keep small proprietors out of the breakfast business, so no one steps in to correct the market and alleviate demand. So those looking for an idiosyncratic breakfast experience, or just an edible one, are thwarted, as are those looking for something comfortably familiar, who are now forced to wait unreasonably.

The mystery, then, is why the slack isn't picked up by the same corporate concerns already profiting. This may be a matter of profit margins. Breakfast is just simply not profitable enough to make it worth a corporations while to get into it wholeheartedly -- its a perfect business for the small-time proprietor: modest margins, smaller overhead, etc. So, contrary to the received wisdom of our nation's ideologists, the market fails the consumer here and the invisible hand satisfies no one.

Paycheck loans

I've just come back from Arizona, where I spent a few days in Tempe and Tucson. There's a general air of poverty to these places, not only because public process and civic accomplishment is measured in how many new miles of freeway have been built, but because there are paycheck-loan kiosks just about everywhere. I'd think they were simply the next generation in check-cashing storefronts, those enterprising replacements for actual banks in neighborhoods where banks won't open, catering, as Victor Ozols suggests, to illegal immigrants who must live a cash-only life, but often there'd be a paycheck-loan place in the shopping center with several banks, where you'd think competition between them alone would make one of the legitimate lenders take up the riskier trade. There were even paycheck-loan places that innhabited former Weinerschnitzels and old Filiberto's restaurants. I used to think that Mexican fast-food was the king of all hermit-crab businesses, but these paycheck-loan stands prove that on the scale calibrating the lowest common denominator with the highest profit margin, it stands as king. That business model is so exploitative that it can thrive where poverty, blight, or just plain common sense have driven out all the other bottom-feeders.

To be honest with you, I don't know how it works, and I have a hard time fathoming a life so hand to mouth that I would need an advance on my paycheck, which comes every other week. Presumably you get some large lump sum up front and then have your wages garnished like a deadbeat dad for the rest of your adult working life. I do know that in most states in the northeast, predatory lending is outlawed by usury laws, perhaps to protect the thriving loansharking racket for organized crime.

Is it simply that those living in Arizona are more indebted than the res tof the country, or is it that economic and social relations make the pervasive debt more overt? Perhaps there is a lingering stigma to being a debtor felt in the northeast, whereas those in the southwest boast of the size of their car payment as they would the horsepower of their Hemis. Maybe it's that the hodgepodge of new arrivals that characterize any Western city creates an environment where everyone's a stranger and shame isn't possible in the same way it is where your family is known. Part of becoming that ultimate consumer citizen, that untethered individual with maximum autonomy, unconstrained by tradition or duty, is becoming completely vulnerable to the pressures of paycheck loans -- in the absence of some community-based identity and its accompanying safety nets, one must do whatever he must to get the money needed to project the kind of identity he imagines for himsef, and if that means mortgaging everything, then so be it.

I am in absolutely no position to judge and my utopian imagination of a Mister Rogers universe of cooperative neighbors might be a bit naive, but the prevalence of these loan places conjures a Infernoesque atmosphere of demons devouring devils, of an ethics-free zone of bad decision-making, rampant hedonism, desperation, predation, and pitilessness. Some apocalyptic mixed metaphors for you: This paycheck-loan landscape is ground zero for consumerist fantasy gone totally amuck, the Baseline (Road) of a society that promotes competetive acquisition over communal values, barn burning over barn raising, daydream desires and impotent flailings after them over more constructive and achievable projects shared among neighbors. The pathetic need to consume in order to be somebody can generate no more searing critique than these flaming yellow kiosks in your neighborhood, reminding you how desperate your fellow humans can become, and how our culture affords the poor so few avenues to dignity that it seems worth it to them to mortgage half their weekly wage in order to buy a huge plasma screen TV or a shiny new pickup truck. When these paycheck-loans places thrive in a neighborhood, along with the Rent-to-own furniture outlets and the 99 cent stores, it's an unmistakable badge of shame that an entire community should (but doesn't) feel the sting of.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Commodifying time

Time is the most precious thing we have. It's the only thing that's absolutely scarce, and always will be. In a sense, it is the measure of all value, and in another sense its value cannot be measured. Attempts to commodify time are thus inevitable -- those commodities which appear to deliver more time is invaluable -- and yet doomed to fail, serving only to remind us how mastery over time eludes us. (The repeated fantasy of the time machine, which has probably been a human dream since clocks were invented, testifies to this.)

Goods promising convenience and efficiency are most profitable when consumers feel the pinch of a time squeeze. But one's perception of a time squeeze is itself the product of an overarching concern for efficiency. Efficiency makes one aware of time only in the guise of its being wasted, spent. Efficiency makes one wish to cheat time rather than exist within it; it's an attempt to remove oneself from the very medium in which life occurs. It is alienation from life itself.

We are only squeezed for time when we are aware of our being removed from within it, when we are alienated from life experience, when we fail to understand the logic or purpose of the work we're doing. When working life makes us feel dead, out of time, we become acutely concerned with efficiency (as our bosses are during this dead work-time) -- the imperative to save time only occurs to us in those moments when we are at our furtherest remove from it, when it seems to us an abstract quantity with theoretic value. When we are alive within it, its value never occurs to us -- it receded back into an a priori, a pre-conceptual category necessary for us to be.

So time is something whose value we only note when we are wasting it, hence we tend to waste more and more time to remind ourselves continually how valuable the unknown quantity of time we possess is. We make an abstraction of time, separate ourselves from it, and seek to possess it as material thing, in the form of commodities that promise convenience, efficiency, organization, et cetera. But the more those commodities commodify time for us, the more acutely we feel the need to commodify more of it, seek more convenience, more efficency. We remove ourselves further and further from being in time.

Paradoxically, one of the ways management makes workers aware of the value of time is by making them waste it at work, maintaining inflexible work schedules that, as Juliet Schor points out in The Overworked American, prevents people from choosing leisure when they've accumulated suitable income on a week to week basis. Real choices about how many hours one needs to work would restore one to time in a way that would deprive capital of the profits to be had in commodifying it. So the artificially long hours keep us aware of convenience (of time as thing) and makes us long for convenience, make us see it as more and more valuable to us. And convenience becomes more and more profitable.

And the time squeeze we experience also encourages us to use commodities in general as shortcuts to experience. Lacking the time to experience the meaningful production of things through our own decisions and effort, we buy things that imply that effort, and content ourselves with that -- we even begin to think we are somehow "beating the system" through this shortcut, though we are actually burglarizing our own lives of substance and active engagement.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Desire management

Early critiques of consumerism from the left and the right would typically point to its destruction of traditional forms of association (which were all replaced by market-arbitrated competition) and to the new kind of selfish hedonistic personality it tended to foster. Consumerism promised instant gratification, and consumers became nothing but pleasure (i.e. utility) seekers who forgot all about God and country and true love and the fate of the poor and so on. But if Colin Campbell and Jackson Lears are right, advertisements and consumer culture don't instill an unfettered hedonism and the consumer culture doesn't promise an endless surfeit of pleasure. Instead consumer culture offers the illusion of control: control over desire, control over emotionality, control over oneself. Campbell argues that consumer culture urges people to daydream about commodities and master desire through the elaboration of self-told stories that elicit the expected emotions, stories whose efficacy are calibrated by the purchase of goods upon which they're based, the disappointment of which stokes desire and makes it new, gives it fresh impetus. In his view, the modern person's greatest perceived threat is boredom, and commodities and the fantasies they inspire allow consumers a mastery over boredom by giving him an array of potential desire with a Rubik's cube worth of permutations. Through this system of desire management, we're reliant on goods to stabilize the amount of stimuli we receive, to maintain the life-giving rhythm of excitation and relaxation. It also constrains us to living the bulk of our intellectual life, to expend the lion's share of our mental energy on private fantasy worlds that exclude others and isolate us, making our lives that much more impoverished and make us that more susceptible to fears of boredom. Pre-consuemr society, people relied on other people to manage their stimulus flow; now we rely on goods and our lonesome selves.

Lears makes a similar argument, elaborating his thesis that American consumer culture evolves out of a quasi-Protestant self-help, therapeutic ethos gone awry. He argues that advertising promotes the idea of discovering yourself, and thus your happiness, through goods, situating your identity in a parallel world of consumerist fantasy as opposed to the actual world in which you live (Baudrillard might say that these worlds have irrevocably collided). This quest for self through goods, through wholly individual striving leads to "an empty pursuit of efficiency that impoverishes personal as well as public life." This corresponds with my argument about the pursuit of convenience for its own sake; it's efficient consumption for no reason, and it leads not to satisfaction but an even more desperate need for more efficient consumption. And this striving for a fantasy of self-control (which is only possble in the limited but hyperbolized universe of goods) preempts one from developing the kind of social skills that might lead to an enriched public life, from developing the mature coping skillls to deal with the reality of social interdependence (which is a good thing, not the evil thing that consumerism/convenience fetishism leads you to believe it is).

(A note on efficient consumption: Kelvin Lancaster, in his discussion of consumerism as a matter of characteristics rather than goods, charts how the pricing of goods rather than characteristics and states of imperfect information can lead to inefficient consumption. There is no competitive pressure on the individual consumer, no bottom line for his to meet, to make him maximize satisfaction. So he might never choose the best bundle of goods to yield the satisfaction he seeks, and his waste is the producers gain -- these are the profits of confusion, and make maintaining an atmosphere of confusion to the producer's benefit. This is bourne out by media oversaturation, which produces confusion, and has the unpleasant side effect of making people feel over stressed, overwhelmed and depressed in unprecedented numbers.)

In short, as William Leiss argues, ads/consumer culture promote one particualr myth about how to achieve the good life (buying stuff) and does it so vociferously that it blots out our awareness of other possible routes (through personal relations, through meaningful work, etc.). The market promises happiness but it provides goods. And it always changes the rules about what bundle of goods are supposed to give happiness. We lose well-being combating the dissonant disinformation piped at us via ads at all possible moments, and we grow anxious wondering if they are right and we are wrong; after all the ads seem to have a lot of money behind them, and what's behind our way of thinking? The greater our anxiety the more likely we turn to the market, to its expediency, to its apparent efficacy for relief, but the cure only exacerbates the disease.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

On Storm King

In a shameless act of intellectual recycling, I've dusted off this essay about the sculpture park Storm King in upstate New York and posted it here, to capitalize on the buzz about large-scale public art Christo's Gates has generated around here.

Storm King promotes itself as an “unusual museum,” one which turns nature into a kind of enclosing space, that turns landscape into a backdrop, that changes the natural into a design element. This remaking of nature may be more audacious, finally, than the monumental sculptures, which are generally banal. They all seem to strive for the sublimity of size; they seek to cow and awe their spectators, dwarf them, humble them with sculpture whose construction is inconceivable to the average person. The sublime is always about the unknowable, but the mysteries conjured by these giant metal monstrosities are not the spiritual questions that the moody landscapes painted in the 18th century inspired. Those paintings tried to imitate natural wonders, remind the viewer of things he can know first hand; they sought to remind their viewers of God’s creative work, and its inherent beauty. This could be seen in mountain views, in cloud formations, in the play of sunlight across a brook or batch of trees. I was thinking about this lying on the grass beneath a work called “Suspended,” by Menashe Kadishman, which consisted of two large box shapes, each about 30 feet tall, balanced precariously against each other. These were far less compelling than the clouds crossing the sky, which lent themselves more readily to the active shaping of my imagination – I sought to give sense and order to the natural forms, sometimes seeing representations of faces or things, sometimes seeing unlikely symmetries and harmonious formal congruities.

I assume one is supposed to respond similarly to these large abstract sculptures, but they seem more like intellectual exercises to me. They make me consider questions of what constitutes art: what differentiates these piles of metal scraps from something one might see on a construction site, for instance? Is it the artists’ intention alone? Is it the designation of museum space for these things? Should one leave inspired, as I was, to see the sculptural aspects of random man-made piles and of striking natural scenes?

I felt there was something inhuman about the scale of these works, something hubristic and off-putting. They seemed like monuments to evil, sites to conduct rituals intended to make people feel like robots – all of these sculptures testify to modern techniques of industrial design, and these things inevitably call up notions of dehumanization through mechanization. The titles of some of these works tell the story: “Gox #4,” “Parenthetical Zero,” “Five Open Squares Gyratory Gyratory,” “Volton XX,” “Expansive Construction,” “Petaloid,” “Eight Positive Trees.” It can’t be a coincidence that birds refuse to perch on these sculptures. No amount of careful placement can make these objects seem to belong in the natural environment. Their function is to undermine the beauty of the natural environment, make the natural environment appear incomplete, blank, devoid of significance without humankind’s radical intervention. It has the eerie feeling of a golf course, where the flags on the greens have been replaced by these crazy sculptures, and the quiet, white couples walking to and from them are chasing some imaginary idea rather than a golf ball. What are they after? A feeling of being “there” in a transformed space? A reminder of how we can dominate nature? I don’t know – it seemed to me that all the people there were hypnotized; they had all taken part in some awful ceremony at the foot of one of these contraptions where they worshipped the spirit of welding or something. These are engineering feats, and perhaps people want to worship such things that make modern life possible; maybe these abstract functionless engineering feats purify those feats, make them available only as wonders rather than as practical notions that allow tasks to be accomplished. As wonders alone, they can touch us spiritually they way we want them to, so that we can feel some kind of harmony with the world we have created for ourselves – this reminds me of another idea I have about Las Vegas as a modern American shrine (not a new idea, I guess, but I’m not interested in the supposed freedom of Vegas as much as I am interested in the remaking of a desolate, “blank” landscape into an environment only Americans can appreciate as natural, inviting).

This kind of art, as its starting point, rejects organicism, rejects representational realism; perhaps those are qualities that affirm “humanity”, at least affirm a scale of human action that makes it appear meaningful – some art celebrates small, slight gestures, gestures of which we are all capable, and dignifies those acts. These sculptures mock such activity; they intend to stun one into a feeling of sensory futility. One literally cannot see all there is of these pieces; one is constantly approaching them, looking all around them, trying to integrate different views – this links them to cubist art, another art form that rejects an integrative vision. Cubist painting, if I understand it right, presents multiple points of view on a subject simultaneously – the object seen from different angles, and in different conceptual ways (as object, as symbol, as metonym) at the same time. This underscores the impossibility of knowing a thing completely, of placing its relevance in some context with any certainty. This may be the sad truth, but art needn’t necessarily provide unpleasant truths to qualify as art.

The Watts Towers provide a useful contrast to this sort of art. The Watts Towers are in a ghetto in the Los Angeles area, built out of concrete and shiny trash by an immigrant mason with no formal training. Driven apparently by some inner compulsion, the builder let the towers grow organically, spending his spare time collecting bits of colored glass and broken ceramic and porcelain to add to his construction. So this work is in harmony with its environment, made out of found items, and built organically without a master plan. As such, it seems human in scale despite its size – one can see the artistic obsession behind it in its meticulous detail. No patina of formal training, or formally trained ways of seeing impede themselves between an observer and the work. Usually I would never make this kind of anti-intellectual argument, but I love folk art, I love the absence of pretension, and self-centered thinking that consumes the modern avant-garde artist, who is sure of her own relevance and cultural capital as taste-maker for the bourgeoisie. It maybe that Storm King reeks of the art business, of the construction of public-sized works of art with little input from the public they are designed to accommodate. There is something crass about the attempts at taste making at that scale – it is not the scale created by obsession, but instead a scale created by egotism.

Ultimately, I think those large sculptures are about distance and distancing. They appropriate to themselves the space around them, and make it hallowed, daunting, silent. They discourage the kinds of activities one would like to associate with public space: conversation, debate, thoughtfulness. One feels they can never be close enough, or far enough away from these things. They are sculptures for a society that has collectively rejected the notion of public space, and they stand a monumental mockeries of the idea of community.

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.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Christo, the Big Nothing

These pronouncements were culled from the wall cards that the artists were unfortunately encouraged to write for an exhibit several months ago at the ICA in Philadelphia called The Big Nothing. All of them have helped me understand better the challenging vacuity of The Gates.

"Photography was my landscape; it was my reality."

"Absence is graphic."

"My art involves a vast personal cosmology of styles of being. Among these are pure materiality (the melted telephones) and pure subjectivity."

"These diaristic black paintings may be considered abstract portraiture."

"As surrogates these works insert blanks into the exchange economy of art."

"By filling her frames with signs of anti-material persistence, she effectively deflates art's much-vaunted aura."

"For me, art is a lack of power."

Normalized taste

Being a good citizen molded by capitalism, I feel compelled to write today, to produce, to create novelty, even though much of my mental energy has been already spent in writing a music review that I'm thoroughly ashamed of. Good pop music often aspires to avoid attention; it seeks to seem as if its always been a part of your life's soundtrack, mirroring your emotional highs and lows, adapting fluidly to suit your personal dramas. It seeks to be transparent, so its lens magnifies the listener and not the people who made it. But when you review pop music, you go against the grain of all of this: you listen very carefully and pay close attention to the music, you look for signs of the performers' specific talents and peccadillos, you are acutely aware that the album is new to you, not yet integrated into your life and most likely never will be. It's an extremely artificial condition under which to appreciate pop music, which really isn't meant to be appreciated so much as tolerated, deployed, used as an extension of self. There is no objective point from which to assess pop music, since its function is to bridge the personal to the social, to give your private thoughts some kind of clearer expression, and feel that they are shared by others, legible to others in music form. So the review is a futile exercise in disguised publicity, since what you write about it typically matters far less than the fact that its simply being covered. This is why reviews are being supplanted by lists, because all readers really want is a cribsheet for things they should be aware of, and perhaps a sentence or two of why.

These lists are especially emblematic of American culture because they epitomize the quantitative nature of it. American culture is about managing quantities, about maximizing our cultural throughput; this allows our consumption behavior to match our production behavior -- we are maximizing utility, consuming the most amount of stuff we can in our cherished leisure time. But most of us sort of hate these lists even as we feel compelled to read them. I had this feeling reading the Village Voice Pazz and Jop lists, those irresistible annoyances; I need to see the list to have some context for my own preferences, which are then subtly altered by the list itself, which works to bring me in line, normalize my critical tastes the way essay-test graders must be normalized, trained to agree the other graders what consititutes passing or non-passing. Criticial criteria has to be social to have any kind of relevance to anyone besides yourself, I suppose. But well-trained in the supposed supreme autonomy of our tastes, we struggle against this, balk at the creeping sense that our tastes are not ever formed in a vacuum. Our tastes are always deriviative, regardless of capitalist propaganda celebrating our unique preferences as signs and expressions of the blessed pure freedom it grants us. We know we need to read lists like the Village Voice to develop our taste and hone it, bring it within the realm of acceptable, yet we also stubbornly believe that our tastes need no shaping, no normalizing, and are absolutely ontologically perfect they way they were born into us. Encouraged by consumer-capitalist prerogatives to believe our tastes, our consumption preferences, reveal our true inherent selves, we feel our soul being robbed from us when we read these lists and become aware at how they are molding us -- suddenly the true self is muddled, cluttered with "inauthentic" socially influenced preferences.

But lists also seem to utterly misrepresent our experience of culture, which is always qualitative. We treasure deep cultural experience because it lifts us out of the rationalizing, taxonomizing mindset that treats experience as so much data to be counted and organized and returns us to the sensuousness of experience itself. Something worth listing on a best-of list actually impedes the list-making imperative altogether. While we are in its sway, it makes us forget the need for the novel, for more; it's not on a list, it is the list, the only necessary thing. It is somehow enough, just to be hearing that song, and we don't think while its on of all the other songs we should be aware of.

It may be that critics are duty-bound to have their tastes normalized, once they decide to write for others -- it's a quasi-contractual obligation between writer and audience to be within the socially accepted range of taste. Only then is your criticism relevant to readers, who are looking for some kind of distillation of non-idiosyncratic opinion from what they read about culture. Idiosyncratic opinion they can get from their friends, and then they can decode its relevance through the prism of their personal familiarity with the opinion-giver's quirks. Presumably if you are a talented enough writer you can force an audience to get to know you as well as that, to teach them to filter your pronouncements through those quirks, open their eyes to a new perspective and expand the horizons of recieved opinion -- but writers with that sort of talent usually find something better to do than write about pop music. And if you want to write merely to demonstrate how unique and unfathomable your tastes are, how way outside the mainstream you've labored to be, you may as well be writing in your diary (or on your blog).

Friday, February 11, 2005

Christostrophe

I was prepared to ignore Christo's monumental ego project in Central Park, but enough people I know seem to be coming to New York specifically to see it, which has started to piss me off. Isn't there enough interesting things, things a jillion times more interesting than sheets blowing in the wind, to see in New York every day of the year? Shouldn't people come up just because they're showing noir films on the big screen at Film Forum, or because you can get Chinese food like nowhere else on the east coast, or because you can protest the Republican convention, or because virtually every square inch of the place is haunted by American history. But no, these are all inadequate, but some charlatan with a name like casino floor-show magician decides to build $21 million laundry line in one of the few treasured and truly public spaces here, and everyone in suburban Pennsylvania starts clearing their calendar.

Most New Yorkers are predicably blase about this, but they seem like they should be pissed off on principle. Public space should not be coopted for one man's pursuit of personal notoriety. Christo's desire to blot out nature in Central Park reminds me of The Simpsons' Mr. Burns and his quest to blot out the sun (as man has longed to "since the beginning of time," he explained). And the colossal waste of money being made manifest in one of the places where the itenerant and the homeless are sure to be is like a tremendous "fuck you" to the poor of this city, an exclaimation point on all the other ostentatious signals of contempt that already punctuate the streets.

I suspect people are drawn to huge ephemeral projects like these out of some primeval atavistic sense of potlatch, an eagerness to see tremendous waste. That's what differentiates this from the permanent works of public art, which while typically oppressive and ugly, at least make some kind of permanent transformation of human environments. But this Christostrophe is all about seeing great sums squandered in ways we could never imagine, and in some way vicariously parrticipate in that ultimate power, indeed to walk through it, to wander about in a wonderland of calculated profligacy.

Managed superficiality

Call me a Maoist if you must, but I've always romanticized the idea of a non-descript uniform that removes appearances from the evaluation of social position or competence, thinking with utopian naivete that such an arrangement would usher in a more perfect meritocracy. Of course the image of the masses in bland, sterile matching jumpsuits is a staple dystopian image, a staple of science fiction movies depicting advanced races who have lost their soul, the perfect picture of dreary conformity that we've all been trained to believe is the height of oppression -- "I can't wear my anarchy T-shirt? Man, our principal is a fascist!" But isn't it just as oppressive (if not more) to be compelled to advertise one's individuality, to have such a large investment in the being recognized as irreducibly different from other members of your species, and effort always already destined to fail? And isn't it worse, a far more dispiriting turn of the screw to find that your gesture towards being seen as unique has been anticipated by thousands of others who've done the same thing? That a higher conformity dictates every effort at originality?

One of the Internet's seemingly unhappy effects is to reveal how many people have simultaneoulsy hit upon your neat idea for something, to disabuse us of the idea of our own creativity. But there's an upside to this -- we can have instant confirmation that our idea was a good one, that we have solidarity with other people out there who've paused to think about whatever subject your idea dealt with; also, it demystifies creativity and discourages us from valuing an idea simply because its unique to us, because we feel we've coined it. It seems to promise to remove ego from our aesthetic.

I know there's a value to the sheer expression of difference (I've read Virginia Postrel's noxious book), and that strict uniformity is not the best solution to entrenched and unfair hierarchies of appearance. Perhaps I'm just trying to imagine how one could develop a personal style independent of those positional, relational pressures. Or maybe I'm just nauseated by the truth of Robert Frank describes in "The Demand for Unobservable and Other Nonpositional Goods," the tendency of people to judge your ability based on your consumption and appearance in situations of limited information. When your ability is not observable directly, Frank surmises, employers (prospective or otherwise) or potential mates or new friends or business partners draw conclusions about your ability based on your appearance. Because ability is correlated with income, and income is presumably correlated with the ability to wear expensive polished shoes and well tailored clothes and expensive watches, people are right to use your appearance as a quick guide to your overall competence. In economic-speak, the more positional consumption you exhibit, the more productive ability you demonstrate under conditions of imperfect information. This, Frank concludes, makes it personally imperative to consume positional goods individually, even though its clearly a waste of domestic product, as the host of demonstration-effect theorists have amply proven.

The way to defeat this appearance bias is to find ways to make clarify information about ability, to obliterate those situations of imperfect information that leads people to judge by appearance. But this seems impossible, as decisions are required immediately, and ability only manifests itself over time. In reality, the drift is in the opposite direction. If appearance begins to signify ability, eventually it starts to trump it, or redefine what the nature of ability is. "Ability" starts to mean the capability of presenting a coherent, impressive appearance, of having mastered the visual cues of success. "Ability" will soon only outfit you to be an adman or a fashion editor. Those hired to positions of power because of their appearance will naturally redefine the meaning of their positions and their power to correspond to their valued skill -- managed superficiality -- and the power in inherent in manipulating appearances will continue to loom larger and larger in our world. The point of all power willl be the control of appearances -- just think of the televised politics of spin. It will become harder and harder to remember another definition for ability other than a knack for tours de force of theatricalizing power. The idea that ability could have anything to do with critical thinking or the ability to disregard appearance for some Platonic reality beyond it will seem utter quaint and naive, just like my dream of levelling Mao suits for all.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Defensive consumption

A common mistake in economic reasoning is to assume that an increase in national income/productivity will automatically lead to an increase in national welfare -- that more GNP equates to a happier populace. There are lots of problems with this assumption, from the inequalities in income distribution to the inadequacies of equating consumption with satisfaction. The supreme sources of satisfaction may be precisely those that come from outside the market, things like work satisfaction and social connectedness, things the market can facilitate -- parasiticallly profiting from these desires, and perhaps throwing up tollbooths on the way to one's being able to satisfy them -- but not supply.

Extrapolating from the demonstration effect, Fred Hirsch, in his analysis of positional goods, and their zero-sum nature, sheds some light on this solecism. Because positional goods (like leadership jobs or vacation property) are inherently scarce, treasured almost purely for their very scarcity. Producing more of them would destroy their value, and producing more necessities only makes more people elegible to compete for the scarce luxury goods, making them more scarce, and leading to more dissatisfaction. Increasing productivity, in this scenario, actually has the opposite effect than expected, leading to more misery.

The point is that not all consumption can be treated the same, as the household production of a quantifiable utility equivalent to a commodity's price. But in fact, much consumption takes place not to yield satisfaction or pleasure or even comfort, but to ward off loss. If we consume to maintain a position in society, we gain no satisfaction from being forced to consume more and at a higher rate because those beneath us have caught up to our previous level. Fulfilling new and greater desires yields the same net pleasure. (Another scenario where a nation consumes more with no gain in satisfaction). Tibor Scitovsky, in The Joyless Economy, proposes distinguishing defensive commodities (which prevent discomfort, are satiable) and creative ones (which provide pleasure). But as he points out, most commodities exhibit qualities of both. The idea of defensive consumption leads me to think of shopping as a potentially pathologically negative act, expressing more fear than desire. Think of conformity consumption: one feels both desperate and self-annihilating.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

‘If you want to make a junction safe, you want to make it dangerous’

I was astounded by a sentence in a Wall Street Journal story about traffic problems in Houston that claimed that the Dutch were "pushing a radical idea" to do away with traffic signs and signals altogether, to create chaos so dangerous that drivers would be forced to be more careful and more aware. I thought it couldn't possibly be true, but sure enough, I came across this link that gives some details. It some ways the idea of making things more dangerous to make them safe is so insane that its brilliant. It seems at first to be extremist libertarianism in action: People don't need the government telling them what to do at an intersection; they can figure it out themselves and learn important lessons in personal responsibilty. It's entirely in keeping with the "individuals are responsible enough to make their own choices about recreational drugs" position as well. But as the link explains, the strategy "is rooted in the idea that the social nature of the town street should be emphasised above its highway nature; that people should be encouraged to interact with each other, rather than be aggressive or rail against those who have not obeyed the traffic laws. As Monderman [of the Friesland Regional Organisation for Traffic Safety] says, “the biggest mistake that we as traffic engineers can make is to give people the illusion of safety”.

Anyone who has commuted in a car through rush hour traffic knows how anti-social driving is, and can make you feel. A car isolates you and implies that you are above the average Joe sharing a bus ride or waiting for a train; its whole ideology suggests that a car is so crucial to own because you make the decision of when to go anywhere, and nothing stands in your way. Except, of course, for all the other drivers, equally isolated and expecting total autonomy. To the American driver, other cars aren't people, they are impediments, stubborn intrusions that were not part of the advertising dreamworld of open highways and freedom. It's difficult not to resent these cars and their inexplicable, unwelcome presence, and it's hard not to think that there ought to be a law against them. The demand one feels for total priority is as irrational as it is irresistible as your driving a car in the suburbs. So it makes good sense to force people into recognizing other cars as being piloted by people, and to require some sort of civil communication with them, and not to have the system rely on non-contextual rules imposed from above, often with very little application to local snafus. Rather than have a Byzantine set of laws to negotiate conflicting claims of rights, do away with the abstract notion of right-of-way altogether, and force it to be haggled on an ad hoc basis. Driving could become more like negotiating 57th Street on foot, with the host of gestures and signals you must put out to other people so that they don't run into you.

Of course Americans will never have such a system, because it implies that you must be thoughtful and considerate and aware of other people, all things that the ethos of personal convenience and selfish individualism (the pillars of the capitalist consumer economy) militates against. If you have to approach intersections with caution and awareness, how can you still talk on your phone?

But drivers in my neighborhood in Queens have thoughtfully taken on this Dutch program of their own accord, flagrantly disregarding all signs and signals while freely sharing their opinion (usually in Greek) of your pedestrian shufflings.

Sanitized language

In yesterday's Wall Street Journal I happened to notice in the jump this headline: "Cruise Ships Battle Virus Issue." I presumed that the article was about the mysterious "norovirus" that rears its head anywhere large groups of leisure tourists or old people or both congregate -- Las Vegas hotels, cruise ships, nursing homes, and so on. And to a degree it was, though the real "battle" the cruise operators were fighting was against language, as they are hoping to have the word "outbreak" stricken from the Center for Disease Control lexicon because they feel its an unfair way to describe hundreds of people on a boat becoming ill from a virus. If the CDC "used the words 'increased incidences,' it wouldn't be misreported by the media," said the cruise operators' trade group president, who has apparently been learning carefully from the U.S. president, who wages his own war on language vis-a-vis his efforts to gut the Social Security program and turn it into a handout to investment-fund managers. (The word private is verboten; members of the press corps who dare defy the party line are repremanded.)

Of course, conservatives are quick to heap ridicule on college crusades for "politically correct" language in describing minority groups, on the grounds that these strictures needlessly inhibit critical thought, unfairly persecute people for honest mistakes, and divert attention from the study of root causes of discrimination by applying a patronizing linguistic band-aid on the matter. And all that may well be true. But their current, highly hypocritical Newspeak campaign suggests they know full well the power and legitimacy of the argument proponents of "politically correct" language proffer, and they combat it because they prefer having discrimination and inequality and short-circuited reasoning embedded at the level of everyday discourse. (Indeed, the term "politically correct" is a perfect example of pejorative language from the right acquiring a kind of everyday utility, of the war of ideas being won at the meme-level.) Of course, political spin is nothing new. It's just the overt strong-arming and policing of it, the recruitment of the press to conduct it -- these are things more commonly associated with Pravda than The New York Times. It's strange that these governmental efforts to control not just the flow of information but the meaning of words themselves are now safely conducted right out in the open. Perhaps such efforts have always been made, and its the new reach of media that is making these totalitarian efforts more overt.

But what the cruise ships are trying to do reminds me of what I hoped my doctor would do for me when I was nebulously ill in December. I wanted a reassuring story line that made sense of my symptoms, I wanted illness described away by comforting language. In a way, this is what the cruise-ship operators want to do too -- unable to eradicate the virus by sanitizing bathrooms and buffet lines, they want to eradicate it by sanitizing language.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Shopping for porn

During the tech boom of the late nineties, a friend of mine who was a programmer used to insist that pornography drove innovations in efficency and technology on the Web, since it constituted an enoromous percentage of Internet traffic and proved to be one of sure-fire ways to use the Internet to make money. He suggested that it was one of the main reasons people wanted in-home Internet access. There may have been some self-justification in his claim, since he was working in IT, assuring server space and secure connections for a huge porn conglomerate, but it seemed believable enough to me. The history of book publishing shows a similar phenomena, as racy material helped publishers secure profits early on. Many of the early successes in book publishing were works known for their licentiousness, and it was received wisdom in the eighteenth century that the market for novels was mad eup of women looking for masturbatory material. Reading privately (as opposed to aloud), was a bourgeois innovation, and was typically likened to masturbation -- you do it alone, in private, in order to have your feelings aroused, and you enter into a fictional intimate relation with people who don't really exist.

Pornography is sex as consumption, it's sex as convenience and possession. Pornography turns sexual desire into something serviceable by goods rather than people. It helps transform libido into a desire to own rather than to share or connect. Porn, which is a commodity that exists in space can be collected, taxonomized, autonomously manipulated the way real sex, an experience that exists in time, cannot. All the pleasures that capitalism relies upon -- collecting mania, individualization, ownership, making shopping choices -- are exemplified in pornography while being culturally proscribed in real life. As sex between people becomes more and more complicated, more and more idealized and freighted with more and more psychological weight, masturbation (capitalism's preferred mode of sexuality, since it is explicitly commodified) becomes a more and more viable option. In the Internet-ready universe, masturbation via pronography has less to do with sex and more to do with shopping -- one can troll around the dark side of the web, looking at hundreds and hundreds of naked women, searching for just the right one to choose to get off. The moment of choice, the autonomous nature of that choice (no bargain must be made with the woman in the photo, none of her needs have to be considered, there is nothing social or reciprocal in the pleasure, there is no respect or love in it), the picking itself, is what ultimately provides the pleasure. It is what capitalism offers as the sweetest of pleasures, the exercising of free choice in a market rich with diverse options. And no pornographic niche market exists that is not being readily and lustily exploited.

I've been making this argument for a while now, that convenience for its own sake is what we experience as pleasure in a capitalist world driven by growth and novelty and a hedonistic/vulgar utilitarian/quantitative notion of satisfaction. And masturbation with pornography makes sex amenable to the convenience model, allowing for a series of novel moments of passive, purely individual, totally uncircumscribed choices amongst an inexhaustible wealth of options. Sexual pleasure ceases to be a spontaneous possibility created by and between people, it becomes something that can be manipulated to create scarcity, it becomes subjecet to supply and demand of images.

Masturbation to visual pronography is merely an extension of the animating principle of most contemporary advertsing -- "sex sells." Each extends the efficacy of the other -- masturbation to porn reinforces the payoff implied in sexualized ads, reinforces the idea that sexual satisfaction can be bought and can be manipulated like a commodity. Pornogrpahy then is the prototype ├╝bercommodity, the commodity that enables all other commodities to be granted an aura of sexual appeal.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Yield management

When corporations sell the same exact thing to one person for $100 and another person for $1000, you might call that "evil" or "exploitative" or even "crooked." But businesses call it "yield management," and it's becoming more and more routine as computer tracking systems become more pervasive, global inventories become more networked, and marginal profits become tighter and tighter. This kind of thing has always been a part of the service industry -- it's why you can't get a straight answer about what it will cost you for a hotel room or a rental car or an airline ticket. It always depends on how desperate the business figures you to be. There isn't a place where the iron correlation between profit and desperation is more explicit. The more desperate someone else, the more money can be made from him. But the chaos of desperation leads to unpredictable yields, and buisnesses crave stability. That's why computer-based yield management is so attractive:it contains chaos so that only the consumer experiences it; it implements a certain kind of chaos for the consumer to experience, so that the consumer can never know how much a bed for a night in Wichita is really going to cost.

Long endemic to travel industries, yield-management is now making its presence felt in retail, so that a shirt in the Charlotte Russe at the mall in Glendale might cost more that the same shirt at a Charlotte Russe in Scottsdale. Yield-management software is able to determine what micro-markets will bear (based on income, seasonal factors, popularity of specific goods, cost of shipping and labor and so on) and implement new price schemes almost instantaneously. In the yield management dream world, goods would have no labeled price, and would be determined by the software at the point of purchase. This could lead to the risible scene of consumers trying to haggle with a computer, while cashier/functionaries stand idly by.

Yield management also determines the mix of product you'll find at the more convenient retail outlets -- it's why your neighborhood Blockbuster won't have a single Godard film, yet will have 150 copies of, say, Collateral, on any given evening. Yield management computes the lowest common denominator, translates that into specific goods, and then combines that with the kind of sucker-friendly goods that have the largest profit margin to yield what you'll find in your suburban shopping center, where retail space is limited -- every square foot is expected to yield a certain amount per hour, and continually tracking this statistic leads to decisions about what can be stocked at what cost. All this should make markets more efficient and responsive, more fair if you believe capitalist propaganda. But the whole thing is philosophically grounded in a vulgar utilitarianism that reduces satisfactions to quantities of throughput, and equates bare, begrudging purchases with eager enthusiastic ones: a dollar spent is a dollar spent; a preference recorded, a satisfaction presumably yielded.

Yield management, even if it does ultimately grant the consumer a better deal by extending lower prices over longer (non-optimal) periods, ultimately undermines the common sense notions of fairness that underwrite the otherwise obviously unfair system of capitalism. Things like static, predictable pricing give the customer an illusion of autonomy, making him think he can bargain hunt in a meaningful way while intimating that there is a use value to the things he wants that's stable, natural and fair. It masks the profit component of all goods. Once customers see yield management tinkering with commodity prices, they immediately understand that there is no natural use values determining cost, and that their economic solvency is at the whim of some powerful forces way beyond their control. And that makes people depressed.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Buy it again, it's the ownership society

When I used to look for albums at thrift stores (the heyday was in the early 90s, when vinyl was refuse to most people) it often happened that I would come across albums I already owned, and I would want to buy them again, so delighted I was that I found them and that they were such a deal. A quarter for Gene Clark with the Godsin Brothers? Fifty cents for Nick Lowe's Labour of Lust? Somebody really ought to buy that. I really ought to buy that and give it to somebody. I'd end up with several copies of the same album because I wouldn't want to pass up the discovery. I buy my favorite albums over again. There's an element of insane compulsion to this (having an emergency backup), and of historical preservation (resucing the albums before they're composted), and of sheer scoreboard (the margin between cost and expected utility irresistibly large). Consequently, I started to think I enjoyed the thrill of the chase with music, the thrill of the hunt and the purchase, at least as much as I enjoyed hearing the music itself. It seemed like capitalism's way of perverting my psychology, so that I enjoyed spending money wisely and shrewdly more than I enjoyed actually doing something (listening to the music, in this case), thinking that the moment of choice in purchasing was a more satisfying exercise of my musical taste than the moment of hearing the songs I treasured.

I thought of this when I saw the Kinks Village Green Preservation Society had been re-re-reissued. Completist collector types are going to feel compelled to buy it again, just like they bought the previous two issues of it. I used to think these CD collectors/superfans were being exploited by the record companies, who keep refining releases and holding back extras to ensure obsolescence of each iteration of an album. I used to think the obligation to buy the same album again was an onus. But really its probably a pleasure, a joyous opportunity, a treat to have a legitimate reason (other than insanity) go vote with one's wallet for a favorite album again, and exercise one's taste in that way, which feels so much more significant expression of it than simply listening to the record. Buying something, owning it, is more integral to consumer pleasure than the use of a thing, whatever it is. The endorphin spike comes when I finally decide to walk out of Virgin Megastore with this re-re-re-reissue of Live at Leeds, not when I hear, for the seventeen-thousandth time, "A Quick One While He's Away." This is the reality of life in "the ownership society"

Buying a record once, amidst all the choices now available, signifies a commmitment, a real sign of personal approval, a staking of (and establishment of) identity. The moment of consumption, of making that choice, as I've argued before, is now the critical moment of pleasure -- dollars need to be invovled to make us understand its real, socially recognized and legitimized pleasure. So the chance to buy something twice lets you show that you love the record twice as much.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Ideas derived from Lipstick Traces

I was surprised by the heady intellectualism of Greil Marcus's Lipstick Traces, (I wouldn't have thought someone so enamored of the Band would have so much sense) which interprets punk rock as the last gasp of a situationist counterculture whose roots Marcus traces back to the surrealists. I was only seven at the time punk rock hit, so I can't judge whether Marcus overrates the antisocial, confrontational aspects of punk. Perhaps in twenty years someone will reveal that crunk, the most antisocial, confrontational music I've ever heard, is really Maoist insurrectionalism or something. Marcus highlights, though, all the potential that was there in punk -- the celebration of amateurism, the rejection of culture-industry programming, the resistance to commercialism and the commodification that depletes the meanings of all things -- and depressingly relates how these ideas collapsed under their own revolutionary weight. The lesson seems to be the old vulgar-Marxist saw: You can't change society only by overturning culture, no matter how thoroughly you reject all of its constraints. You can't change the base by manipulating the superstructure. Capitalism eventually catches up and adapts to the new cultural rules, finds ways to derive profit from them. And then revolutionary cultural innovations are reduced to Coke or Pepsi.

Punk and its antecedents posited life lived as spontaneous art, as a utopian realization of pure freedom, with no moment continuous from the previous one, a commitment to perpetual reinvention at every instant -- who wants this as a permanent state, even as an ideal? Isn’t this better experienced convulsively, in carnivalesque fits that surprise us, or are even planned -- it may be that this is all we can tolerate, that to live like that is insane.

Now, ads routinely conjure a desire for this kind of unknowable spontaneous freedom, this kind of eternal retransformation at every instant in the name of maximum happiness, and diverts it to commodities, urging us to take solace in goods when we realize that that freedom can’t be realized, that we can’t live up to the daring of our own dreams (planted by the ads, of course, but we don’t recognize it). So we blame ourselves and not the ads for the impossible desires we come to posess, and consume the ads even more eagerly as wish-fulfillment dramas for those dreams of metamorphosis.

This desire for rampant, unbounded freedom is related to Bataille’s notion that humanity wants to act with no end in mind, to commit free acts of “destruction” not linked to civilized utility. Man, instinctively wanting to act destructive, is made by a civilized society to feel alone in his destructive impulses. But others share this repressed urge, which expresses itself in society’s dark vices: gambling, incest, prostitution, drug addiction, wasted potential of all kinds. The bourgeoisie have forfeited this kind of open pleasure (which once formed the potlatch, the humiliation that can’t be returned). Marcus sees punk as a kind of potlatch, an eagerness to destroy for no reason, and assert a primal sense of being alive as opposed to dead, rationalized bourgeois culture. I suspect that ads took over punks role as spur to this kind of spontaneity, because such impulsiveness is a prime shopping state of mind.

Marcus quotes Hannah Arendt on the price paid for following the rules and being thwarted by the dismal dollops of dignity society doles out (wow, that's almost Spiro Agnbew-worthy phrase-making) for its managerial class: “The transformation of the family man from a respectable member of society, interested in all public affairs to a ‘bourgeois’ concerned only with his private existence and knowing no civic virtue, is an international modern phenomenon. . . . Each time society, through unemployment, frustrates the small man in his normal functioning and normal self-respect, it trains him for that last stage in which he will willingly undertake any function, even that of a hangman.” That's powerful stuff.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Stupid generosity

I don't want to beat this Wall Street Journal thing into the ground, but today's front page had something on it that demands comment. You're probably thinking I'll refering to something from the president's State of the Union address, which featured a plan to overhaul the government's entire relationship to pensioning and seemed to promise more international military intervention in the future. You might assume such matters would take up all the space the front page has to offer. But you'd be wrong. I'm talking about this critical breaking story: "Sri Lanka Is Grateful, But What to Do With the Ski Parkas." The subheading reads "Well-meaning donors send heaps of useless stuff; pajama tops, no bottoms." What is this doing on the front page? It seems like the intention is to send that all-important and highly reassuring message to regular WSJ readers that charity, while well-intended, is really a waste of time and a mess and a muddle. Really, aren't people who donate and give things away hopeless meddlers? Aren't they kind of silly? In fact, their actions are a bit harmful, as they make things much harder for those who are suffering, as the "mountain of unusable stuff" makes it harder to keep track of useful cargo, like medicines. The lesson? If you want to help in a situation, do nothing, let the market sort things out, because after all it is the only thing that can guarantee efficient distribution.

Never forget: when you give something away, you are announcing its worthlessness, which makes it a stick in the mud impeding and diverting the flow of legitimate goods and services. So stop trying to selfishly make yourself feel like a better person than you are by giving things away that you clearly don't want and that have no value to you in the first place. (But all you Pioneers out there, don't forget to make your PAC contributions!)



Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Real (estate) Tragedy

It's always helpful to have The Wall Street Journal around to put things in perspective. This from B4 in today's edition, a story called "Paradise Could Be Lost for Foreign Home Builders in Sri Lanka"

"The tsunami, which killed more than 155,000, including 30,000 in Sri Lanka, also battered this country's nascent market for vacation property."

Sincerely

I wanted to develop further something from the last post while again exploiting the media frenzy over Conor Oberst. Oberst is someone who is regularly lauded or mocked because of his sincerity, which nicely illustrates David Reisman's prediction that popular culture will become preoccupied with personalities rather than performances -- that is, fans care more about who they think the performers are (celebrities, they're just like Us) than what they actually do. We want to live vicariously the experience of celebrity or the experience of overwrought emotion celebrities are licensed to exhibit more than we want to enjoy music or film or whatever on its own terms (and please, don't ask what those terms are -- that;s a whole other theeoretical can of worms). Emo, which has finally found a standardbearer in Oberst to carry it into the mainstream, into this week's New Yorker for instance, is obviously the culmination of this sincerity fixation. Everyone knows what "real" sincerity feels like, thus everyone feels qualified to judge and/or enjoy the work of someone whose main achievement is conveying sincerity. Being sincere is an art that anyone can understand, teenagers (who are morbidly fixated on the problem of how to be honest in a capitalist world of institutionalized dishonesty) especially. But what is "sincere" is similar to what is "real" -- it seems universal and fixed, it seems ontological, but in fact its always contextual, always a matter of what is being rejected in favor of it. And thus any sincerity/reality purveyor has a brief shelf life, as some new way to signify sincerity or realness will come along on schedule and obviate him. This suits the people who make money on music just fine; it keeps the wheels of novelty spinning. When what one wants out of music is sincerity of feeling, one will always have to keep buying new records, because old ones will inevitably begin to sound conventional, formalized, and thus false.

If Oberst is truly the great songwriter his touters claim he is, he will start to undermine his own image with a vengeance, and betray and confuse his teenybopper exegetes. This may eb the only way for people to hear his songs as songs and not as documentary exhibits of his feeling heart. Right now he's attracting a lot of attention that is clearly in bad faith -- he's praised for his talent and his writing, but clearly this is only because he's handsome and he so readily symbolizes a newly marketable component of youth as its presently reconfiguring itself. He is the new "young" and he must certainly be coming to realize that this is what the whole "voice of a generation" bullshit is all about. He's not saying anything for them, but he's affording a stylistic language marketers can use to speak to them and about them to those older generations who desperately want to cling to what it felt like to be young, the very thing Oberst so compellingly conveys.

Musical taste

We have all grown up trained to consume, and our consumption is thoroughly socialized, that is, we consume for others (to be noticed consuming by others) at least as much as we consume for our own sake -- our identity is bound in what we consume and what others think of how we do it. As one of the primary things one consumes, popular music is crucial. The music’s intrinsic quality is almost always a mirage, at best superfluous if it can even evr be established by any credibly objective point of view. Whether or not a song is intrinsically "good" is beside the point of whether a person likes it. As Reisman points out in The Lonely Crowd, “tunes meant people: roads to people, remembrances of them.” He argues further that one’s preferences in songs is more important then the songs themselves -- in other words, our opinions about music matter more to us than music itself in its sensuous quality, in its theoretically intrinsic capacity to please. “Preferences in consumption are not viewed as a development of the human ability to relate oneself discriminatingly to cultural objects." -- i.e. one doesn’t learn about music to appreciate it more, one learns about it to talk about it with others, to relate to others, to rank oneself against other consumers -- "For the objects are hardly given meaning in private and personal values when they are so heavily used as counters in a preferential method of relating oneself to others." --i.e. music is only important insofar as it makes others think certain things about you. The song means that to the listener, a relation with a peer not a relation to the music itself or the artist. The songs are “mementos that somehow remain unhumanized by the force of a genuinely personal, idiosyncratic attachment” (77-78). This is why faddish music is so shallow, its very popularity puts it in play in the sphere of arbitrating relationships and removes it from one which could be private. The songs can be readily abandoned when they no longer foster or signify or concretize any kind of relationship or any kind of sense of how one wants to be identified -- that is, when it no longer buys one admission into a certain group, when it no longer signifies a certain identity. One’s relation to popular music is already mediated by the time one discovers it -- what it means is already assigned, so no “humanizing” or lasting relation to it can be formed; the songs can’t really become meaningful to you (as songs, as music, as personal discoveries).

Regarding hyped, gimmicky music: Reisman claims that “wherever we see glamour in the object of attention, we must suspect a basic apathy in the spectator.” Glam rock is a reaction to listener apathy, to the presumption that listeners should be apathetic. It therefore doesn’t seek to eradicate that apathy but to flatter it into knowing cynicism, into a proud, transcendant, kitsch sensibility. It preesrves boredom as a state of alleged camp fun.

Whether or not they'd admit it, most music fans are trained not to be too impassioned about the very music they are interested in. They don't have the technical understanding of music to have a passion for music as music. Again, they are passionate about their preferences, but not the music itself.

The interest in the sincerity of the performer. Reisman thinks it might have to do with attracting the audience’s sympathy for the performer’s vulnerability, or that the performer is allowing the listener to experience emotions vicariously that the listener is generally too apathetic or guarded to feel for real. But more than that, he believes it indicates the shift of evaluation from what is performed, the music itself, to the performer and his personality -- something we can share or excel the performer in. After all no one is more sincere than ourselves when we choose to be, our own truth is inevitably the truest, and the measure of all other sincerities. So we shift the ground of judgment to something we believe we have mastered, and something we can’t ourselves be judged on -- sincerity being subjective, musical skill theoretically objective.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

The convenience treadmill

Another interesting kernal from yesterday's Wall Street Journal, this from the industry trends section, page R3, an explanation of new developments in the credit-card industry. American Express is apparently developing an RFID device called "ExpressPay" that would go on your keychain, and that you would wave a tthe appropriate place to be charged for whatever you purchased. Why are they going to this trouble? you might ask. Isn't using a credit card already pretty effortless? But American Express really doesn't care about your convenience per se: The article reports that "the company says ExpressPay users typically spend 20% to 30% more than when using cash." It seems for a minute that AMEX might be interested in customer comfort, but really they are interested in customer spending, naturally. Perhaps the relevant statistic here would be how much more they spend than with ordinary credit cards. But with cards or RFID, the principle is the same as with casino chips. It masks the value of money and extends the fantasy that we can have everything without having to pay any consequences. (The utopian egalitarian dream -- we can all have everything in our abundant, superproductive world -- made private, individual, isolated from the social interdependence that could actually make it possible, with easy credit disguising the true unfairness of income distribution.) The ruse of making easy things easier conceals the degree to which customers are being pressured by the force of technology, by the form that shopping takes itself, to consume more. We are encouraged to confuse convenience with impulsiveness. This, of course, is what is at the bottom of all conveniences; convenience is always a matter of expediting more consumption, not of providing more comfort or leisure. This is why convenience always necessitates more convenience, and things can never be convenient enough.