Sunday, January 31, 2010

Mandatory beauty (6 October 2005)

The Advertising Report in The Wall Street Journal typically appalls me, probably because the ad executives interview show no shame over what they do and talk openly about how they'd like to bamboozle unsuspecting victims who are sucked in and exposed to their pitches. They ordinarily make sweeping and ludicrous generalizations about what drives people and reduce individuals to two or three fairly base motives -- vanity, boredom, anxiety. If advertisers had their way (and they pretty much are having their way; they fund most of the public sphere we see and are in contact with, they underwrite the arena in which our lives play out and subsidize the symbols we use to make meaning for ourselves) we would all be in a perpetual state of anxious boredom, worrying about what others think of us and how we can trick them into thinking we are something more -- just as the ads attempt to fool us.

Yesterday, the Report featured an interview with Silvia Lagnado, who devised the Dove soap campaign that uses "average" women in their underwear to hawk the product. This is tantamount to high treason in the advertising world, because it might actually serve to reduce the anxiety some women feel about their appearance. The Journal's interviewer rightly gives her the third degree: "Do you believe that by embracing full-figured women in your advertising you may be sending the wrong message to address the obesity problem?" It boggles the mind that this question could have been asked. Think of the absurd assumptions built into it: a. that the cause of the obesity problem is that too many fat women are being celebrated in the media. b. ads aren't sufficiently "aspirational" to motivate women to lose weight. c. soap manufacturers are making people fat. d. advertisers are serving as the nation's moral police, advocating useful and laudatory behavior except in the rare instances like this immoral Dove ad. (Hell, advertisers probably believe this, that they perform a moral duty, and in a sense, in a consumer society, buying stuff you don't need is one's civic requirement.)

It seems like Lagnado wanted to do something progressive and distinctive with this ad campaign, but her answer to a previous question shows what she is up against, in the corporate environment and in her own mind. "People thought we were trying to say 'be ugly, be happy,' but that's not what we were trying to do. We are not disputing the fact that women are hard wired to want to feel beautiful." Fact? Hard wired? Where's Judith Butler when you need her to call bullshit on this kind of gender essentialism? There's probably some dubious evolutionary psychology behind such a claim, trying to universalize something that's widespread in our current era. People want recognition, and attractiveness is the main women are recognized in our culture -- that's not hard wired, that's carefully contrived by a patriarchal order that is always evolving to maintain its dominance. And what would be wrong with a message of happiness, by the way? Well, happiness doesn't sell snake oil. Hence, it jeopardizes the whole economy. Anyway, this anecdote hopefully illustrates the folly of the idea that advertising could be reformed from within to support a more progressive culture or be used as a tool to promote social good. The content of ads can't redeem their formal function -- to exploit unhappiness -- nor can they redeem their purveyors, who are already lost to its ideology.

The cunning of bad art (5 October 2005)

Here's yet another link to a Slate article, this one a conversation between the New York Times art critic and Steven Metcalf, a regular Slate writer. Asked about his gallery-going, Metcalf writes, "If I avoid galleries and museums, it's because the cunning of bad art only redoubles our own boredom with ourselves back on ourselves, while making us feel excluded. No amount of air-conditioning and people-watching can make up for that."
Not only is that eloquently phrased, but it's exactly how I feel about contemporary music, which is redolent with the "cunning of bad art." That phrase perfectly captures that sensation that a lot of energy is being wasted trying to trick you into thinking some band is doing something important and original -- the facile cleverness, the oblique snobbery, the fallback on commercial tropes of "youth" and "energy" and "cool" -- well honed by marketers and immediately palpable to any audience -- to compensate for the lack of any insight. And the feeling I have at the few shows I bother to attend anymore, wondering if the crowd really likes what they are hearing or if they are even paying attention and are instead making the scene and "people-watching." And all of this does indeed make me more aware of my boredom with myself, seeming to constrict the possibilities of my life, curtailing them by justifying every cynical instinct I have.

Perhaps this boredom is ideally transformed into a restlessness, a critical frame of mind, and that the boredom provides a necessary backdrop to appreciate those things that truly reward our attention, to make them stand out with the appropriate amount of contrast. What an astonishing sense of relief one has to discover that some band doesn't suck, or that some artist is calculating not how to impress and dazzle you and be immediately accessible but how to push further toward articulating some notion that can find no expression in any other way but what they are struggling to make. As an observer, to be able to sense those difficulties, retrace the questions and choices the artist must have faced, is exhilarating. But when the choices you perceive reveal only that cunning, that marketer's sensibility, it's crushing, alienating. It makes one feel liike an elitist, and that's a lonely feeling.

Return the gift (5 October 2005)

Is the new Gang of Four album some sort of subversive commentary on the lameness of retro nostalgia, as Simon Reynolds proposes in this article? If you don't know, the band has decided to re-record some of their classic songs from Entertainment! and Solid Gold (Surprisingly, nothing from Hard made the cut) and issue it as a new album. Why? Here's Reynolds thesis:
Return the Gift places in plain, unavoidable sight the redundancy and reconsumption involved in rock's nostalgia market. When fans buy new albums by reformed favorites of their youth, at heart they're hoping for a magical erasure of time itself. They're not really interested in what the band might have to say now, or where the band members' separate musical journeys have taken them in subsequent decades; they want the band to create "new" songs in their vintage style. Such consumer bad faith is precisely the kind of phenomenon that the old Gang of Four enjoyed skewering. Could it be that Return is saying, "You want a Gang of Four resurrection? Here you are, then, exactly what you secretly, deep-down crave: the old songs, again."
I truly hope Reynolds is right about this, but it's more likely his humdrum alternate explanation -- that they want to reissue songs in a format that will be more profitable to them, as when Neil Sedaka and Paul Anka remade some of their own hits in the 1970s -- is the more accurate one. This is, after all, the band the recorded Hard, one of the most craven sellouts in rock history. But was it? i suppose one could make the case that that album too was some big ironic joke that no one was hip enough to discern, much like Bob Dylan's Self-Portrait could be considered a brilliant commentary on the status of his own notoriety and influence.

I admit to the strong desire to concoct clever rationalizations that excuse my musician heros for their more perfidious releases, want to evince the faith that no matter what they've done, it's somehow worthy of careful attention and illustrative at some level of their far-reaching genius. (Much like Bush loyalists must take it on faith that there's some noble purpose behind his putting a crony on the Supreme Court.) This is what makes the worst Dylan album and even the worst Gang of Four infinitely more interesting to me than, say, Franz Ferdinand. Perhaps squandering credibility is far more fascinating to listen to than a band struggling to earn it in the first place, trying to disguise and transcend their obvious indebtedness to the bands before them and trying to navigate the Scylla and Charybdis of hyperbolic press hype and noncritical fans. That is part and parcel, I suppose, with my paean to negative thinking -- a band's failures, in eliciting criticism and idealized thinking of what should be, point the way to utopia far more successfully than a band's successes, which tend to reinforce what already is, smoothing further the well-worn path to success that society already sanctions. In retrospect, a band's successful work is that which reified its image and put them in the static firmament of celebrity, nothing can be found there but what has been mythologized, and what has been mythologized has already been smoothly integrated into the culture machine's method for institutionalizing the status quo.

When Entertainment! was first released, and when it was just anther deleted album by a little-known British band, it fully retained its power to subvert and startle. But as it's slowly adopted into the pantheon of the "50 Most Important Albums of All Time" it becomes a hallowed relic, a canonized icon to revere rather than the incendiary blast it's reckoned to be. That album in particular seems to have been made to make one recognize the deleterious effects of pop music, the variety of ways it smooths over contradictions and forwards consumerist ideology. If it is instead heralded as a brilliant instantiation of pop music, then it has become moribund, and no number of re-recordings of it will make it live again.

Cell-phone tanka (4 October 2005)

Tanka is not a off-brand of toy truck sold at 99-cent stores but rather a traditional form of Japanese poetry that dates back to the eighth century, when poets somehow managed to write the brief verses without the aid of a cell phone, whose tiny screens, today's Wall Street Journal informs us, "are just right for 31 syllables in 5 lines dashed off on the run."

Call me a Wordsworthian, but I have always generally believed that the composition of poetry took place ideally in moments of repose when the "spontaneous flow of emotion could be recollected in tranquility" as opposed to idle moments on the subway or in a grocery-store line. Perhaps such moments have been extinguished from modern life, along with the idea that any sort of artistic production can take place without some form of technology authorizing and legitimating it, shaping it with the restrictions it affords. Viewed in that light -- that contemporary art requires technological limits to dictate its form and make it seem socially relevant -- it makes perfect sense that Japanese teens would compose poetry exclusively on their cell phones.

The limitations and eccentricities of the new medium afforded by technology lets poets feel liberated by the new constraints, which they eagerly adopt to seize on society's most routinely celebrated phenomenon, new communication gadgets. "The tanka I write on my cell phone feels closer to me," explains one poet trained in the traditional cloisterlike poetry schools called kesshas. Here we see the real crux of the story, the intimacy between an individual and her phone enabling her to draw more out from herself, to learn herself better, to understand more about herself. Earlier in the piece, another teenager interviewed noted that "it's summer break now, so students are probably close to their phones." Maybe this was an odd translation, but it struck me as an extremely telling turn of phrase -- "close to their phones." I wasn't really sure what it meant until I began to think of the intimacy with which one is expected to relate to the gadget, as if it were an extension of oneself, the crucial portal that allows one to dock with others and communicate. It is becoming a requisite conduit to reach the intimate spaces of one's mind. Conversations on one's private, personal phone become inherently more intimate, specific as they are to you and not the location where the phone may once have been connected.

Composing poetry on the phone is just an evolution from this fundamental recognition of the mental space carved out by one's own personal phone being extremely private, personal, intimate. Cell-phone technology is essentially taking the space in which intimate exchange can happen and making it virtual, unreal, dependent on satellites. And as the phone becomes the fetish of intimacy, it suffices to conjure the feeling of intimacy, so that other people, once a humdrum, troublesome requirement for close relationships, can be at last be done away with altogether.

The branded life (3 October 2005)

When a consumerist society funds technology, the resulting developments should be expected to further consumerism and the mind-sets, the assumptions, that enable it. Thus much technology allows us to expedite our consumption, a process labeled convenience. One would also assume it would be directed toward making us view more advertising, as advertising is the primary vehicle for reproducing the consumerist ideology. But much of the latest home entertainment technology seems driven by the power it gives consumers to circumvent ads. This would seem to foil my little argument, however the technological screening of overt ads has had the effect of pushing ads deeper into the fabric of our entertainment and our society, thus if anything, enhancing their ideological potency (if not their selling power of a specific product).

This development is chronicled in yesterday's New York Times story "When the Ad Turns Into the Story Line." Because the independent ads are tuned out, advertisers have partnered with television production companies to integrate the ads directly into the narratives of the programs. Whenever this sort of change is reported -- and it happens often; it's a business-section evergreen -- advertisers are usually depicted as "scrambling" to keep up with consumers, struggling to "adapt" to those ever more crafty consumers, who are remorseless and ever resourceful in their drive to thwart Madison Avenue. It's a flattering enough rendering of the situation for consumers, making it seem as though they have all the power. But it flatters advertisers too and plays into their industry's rationalizations that they somehow serve the public or are consigned to chasing after them in our "consumer-driven society." And it grants a preposterous air of inevitability to the infiltration of ads deeper into all forms of social space. This absurd statement illustrates what I mean: "Network, advertising, and production executives say that this season, more and more brands will venture outside the confines of 30-second ads. They may have no choice: As technology and clutter blunt the effectiveness and reach of commercial spots that have underpinned the business...the various players are scrambling to adapt." They have no choice? Consumers, in fact, have no choice but to have their entertainment come packaged with brands. Advertisers are choosing to seize upon technological innovations as an excuse to penetrate further and insinuate marketing messages into areas that individuals have become increasingly desperate to protect from such exploitation.

But TV execs and advertisers have one specific message for you if you don't happen to like this infiltration: tough shit. "If people get insulted they can go watch PBS or go rent an independent movie. Seriously, this is the real world," says one advertiser, again drawing on the "ads are inevitable/we have no choice" ruse. The "real world" is one in which everything must be commercialized in order to be legitimate, in order to survive. The real world is branded with the product names that this flunky pimps to the world. The world of PBS and independent movies is not "real" -- insignificant and underfunded, reduced to mere alibis for consumerist expansion, they are bogus alternatives that allow the commercial hegemony to present itself as a free choice made by individuals. If you don't like that hegemony, not only are you being naive and unrealistic, you are also failing to avail yourself of your freedom of choice, and are thus irrelevant and anti-democratic. Never mind that the either-ors of how you entertain yourself personally has nothing to do with a desire to see commercialism's infestation restrained by some counterveiling force.

With the extension of advertising into the fabric of narrative, advertisers hope we'll just accept the presence of brands in entertainment as a given, as an entirely natural part of any given universe -- "The fact is brands are part of our why not showcase them?" Again, don't blame advertisers, they are just trying to see that the existing reality is reflected. The underlying result of these product-placements is not merely to expose us to more ads but to wear down our collective resistance to the idea that there is a difference between marketing and entertainment. Advertisers must hope that eventually we will see them as the exact same thing, part and parcel of one another. It's already happening in consumer magazines, which are harder and harder to distinguish from catalogs.

It may seem like advertisers merely want to convince you to buy whatever specific product they're implanting in these shows, but in fact it's more insidious than that. They are hoping that you'll begin to structure the episodes of your life around brands, just as the TV shows are, to see them as major life events, like the narrative hooks of typical episodes past wherein the relationships of the characters are transformed in some specific way. The presence of brands commercializes those rituals, and leads us to expect them to be commercialized to be "real," or it may make our relationship to brands equivalent to our relationship with others, something that develops our trust and evolves through various crisis moments that these shows can depict in placing products. Without brands our lives become increasingly unreal, unverified, unauthorized, invisible to others, who have become more and more accustomed to gauging brand relationships in attempting to integrate others into their lives. So we must adopt the appropriate brands or else risk disappearing.

The vanity pitch (29 September 2005)

A brief article in the WSJ's Advertising Report today rehashes a familiar conundrum. The piece identifies a recent trend in advertising aimed at women that uses tropes drown from beauty-product ads to sell non-beauty items such as cars and sleep aids and fast food. The gist of these ads is that these non-beauty products can have the same effects as beauty products are alleged to have -- smoothing awawy wrinkles, making one seem more youthful-looking, that sort of thing -- thus women should of course want them. Whether you interpret them as ironic takes on cosmetic ads or mere facsimilies of them depends on where yu are coming from -- this is likely part of their appeal; they play to different market segments for different reasons.

Ironic or no, the ads posit women as creatures desperate to have wrinkles removed above all else, so much so that the actual function of any given object is secondary to this primary goal. The car should make you beautiful first, and transport you second. In some ways this is not different from associational advertising in general, ads that attempt to link a brand or a commodity with qualities that have nothing to do with its function -- the way liquor ads try to conjure sophistication or fragrance ads try to glom on to images of sexual potency and charisma. But these are slightly more offensive in the way they construct gender roles and aspirations. And they seem to be indicative of a shift in the audience, that the only appeals we understand and respond to are one's related to surface beauty -- rational appeals don't matter anymore, we may have reached a point where our imaginative lives are so irrational and fantasy-based and youth-driven that rational appeals simply no longer work. Ad agencies won't even try them. The ads suggest the only thing we recognize as valuable (women especially, it seems) is how we look, and everything else -- whether we can move, sleep, eat, etc. -- flows from that, relies on that prime desire.

The conundrum lies in the way cultural evidence of women's presumed preoccupation with vanity is seen both as a sign of cultural oppression and female liberation simultaneously: "There is no reason to apologize because we are doing it all," says one of the female executives whose company is running one of these ads. The idea apparently is that women have achieved enough power to talk about their concerns in a more public way, to have it saturate the culture more visibly. But for critics, that these are women's concerns is precisely the problem -- real gains in power would have allowed women to transcend such trivial preoccupations. Men rest most comfortably in power when they know that society cannot emotionally manipulate them over something so trivial as how they look -- society tries certainly to suck men into the vanity game, but it also affords them sources of psychic well-being and social leverage that allows them to ignore the calls to be more worried about being attractive and young. Women, alas, have no such recourse; hence these ads, which agencies know will still play on women's very real fears of becoming irrelevant with age.

This evokes another conundrum: ads like these are made because they work, and critics complain these ads work because ads have laid the groundwork and perpetuated the kind of gender constructs that enable them to be so efficacious. This cyclical sort of argument leads to nothing being done about the situation, as something as basic as who would have to be responsible for the doing is unresolvable. Then these unresolvable dilemmas are naturalized -- either we argue they can't be resolved because the are naturally obscure, connected to innate drives that can't be adjusted or accessed, or we say there is no problem because we are simply acting out of instinctual desires that are then reflected in the society we have fashioned for ourselves.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The power of negative thinking (28 September 2005)

I'll admit it: My first impulse when confronted with the celebration of "optimism" or "fun" is to cringe and then to mount a skeptical attack on whatever subject is basking in that warm and fuzzy glow. This may seem to be a pretty stupid, contrarian thing to do, and I'll also admit it often seems that way to me, too. But Jameson's account of Marcuse's philosophy in Marxism and Form offers a highly dialectical and erudite-sounding defense of negative thinking (which I find very reassuring).

According to Marcuse, we are on the far side of postindustrial capitalism, in which greater freedom and access to culture have become mere smokescreens, or worse, have become the surreptitious means for implementing inescapable social control -- inescapable because we volunteer to subject ourselves to it (it operates on us without our knowing), because it caters to our vanity (we are unique individuals, our pleasure is more important than society, etc.) and because it has effaced through the media and advertising and rampant hedonism all "sense of the negative" (abundance means one should simply shut up and be happy, even if that also means a mechanistic trudging through life while dogged with a sense of emptiness). In this situation it becomes harder to imagine any alternatives to what already exists. As Jameson explains, "thus it is that the happier we are, the more surely we are given over, without even being aware of it, into the power of the socio-economic system itself." In order to break out of this hermetic system requires the ability to imagine something different, but lacking the material to even fashion such an imagining, to posit such a utopia (our deeply internalized "reality principle" makes it impossible to imagine a world not driven by consumer capitalism -- instead we think we've achieved the End of History, and alternatives range from wildly "impractical" to plain absurd) we must make recourse to straight negation of what is. "It is only when individual happiness, subjective contentment, is not positive (in the sense of ultimate satiation by the consumer's society), but rather negative, as a symbolic refusal of everything which that society has to offer, that happiness can recover its right to be thought of as a measure and an enlargement of human possibilities." In other words, being happy by this society's terms is to shut off the human species' chance to develop and enlarge itself, to broaden the terms of happiness and extend it to everyone. How utopian is that?

What matters are acts of resistance, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant -- not laughing when the laugh track cues you, not saying "have a nice day" when you don't mean it, adopting a stubborn literalism in the face of "witty" ads trying to win you to their snarky side, etc. One can help but be implicated in the consumerist system -- one can't simply stop shopping unless one has survival resources that extend beyond what the typical American habitus equips one for. But one can begin to seek out the sorts of tactics Michel de Certeau writes about in The Practice of Everyday Life, the subversive moves wherein the producer's intentions are subverted by the consumers in an effort to manifest a sense of life outside of the market hegemony. Debord advocated cultural detournement, taking cultural artifacts and parodying them, using them in ways opposite to how they are intended. Sontag called it camp, approaching culture with an incisive irony that turned the consumer society's soporifics and stupefiers against it. All of these are semi-idealistic, optimistic ways to be negative.

Instant souvenir (27 September 2005)

Now, according to today's Wall Street Journal, you can order online recordings of concerts you are planning to see, thanks to a new service the music industry is testing in hopes of recouping revenue lost to filesharing and consumer indifference. With the help of concert-venue czar Clear Channel, you can arrange through something called Instant Live to have a CD of a concert you are planning to see sent to you. Another option gives you a chance to purchase a copy of a show immediately after its over on your way out of the venue. Now, I can almost understand the latter, how one, in a state of postshow euphoria, might think one ought to pay $20 to have forever preserved the memory you just collected (even though you would be better off with just the memory, letting it become embellished and magnified and mythologized over time in your mind). But I can't understand at all buying a copy of something before hand. It's as though one can't wait to turn the experience into a souvenir -- one is so impatient to reify it that one commodifies it before it's even happened. Sure, these arena shows are pretty much ossified from the get go a devoid of much spontaneity or variation, but still, that's no reason to be memorializing it in advance as though you were licensing merchandise rather than hoping to enjoy the experience. (A Journal caption reads "Beyond the Concert T-shirt.") If one can have the souvenir beforehand, one may as well skip the show; that might involve untold inconveniences -- those annoying other fans, the whole "crowd" thing. Who needs that?

Souvenirs like these are paradoxical, because you want to commemorate your presence at some event that many found significant, but by elevating your own presence to the primary reason the event should be remembered, you nullify the significance that others may have found in it. "I was there" negates all historical relevance while trying to exploit it.

Technology and fashion (27 September 2005)

Not to sound like a Luddite or a Devo record, but it seems that a lot technology serves the function of introducing choice in arenas previously ruled by necessity, for its own sake -- it has allowed us to have greater choice in what and when we eat, where we live and work, how and when we communicate and so on. Before, many of those things were dictated to us by circumstances that were beyond our control. So it's common to assume that technology enhances our individual freedom by affording us more choice. But freedom shouldn't be conflated with choice. Most choices our society offers are meaningless in terms of utility while being afforded all sorts of arbitrary social significance. Once things are governed by choice, they are also subject to the cycles of fashion. Once you can choose, your choice is held as a status signifier, and that aspect of the choice eradicates any pleasure the sheer act of choosing from personal whim might have provided.

Technology thus serves to make goods positional. The freedom reveals itself as a new kind of constraint, a new influx of anxiety, a new way for society's predilections to infiltrate your defenses. Only relentless consumerist propaganda from the advertising industry allows us to mistake it for liberty. Technology is basically a kind of branding, creating fashion dilemmas where there once weren't any. The diversity made possible by technology is immediately circumscribed by a more pernicious kind of necessity, worse because we submit to it voluntarily.

Stock screens for pop music (27 September 2005)

I was paging through one of those independently published rock magazines that seems to have a few thousand record reviews in it each month and it was making me enormously depressed. The bands blur together on these pages of solid gray blocks of print and merge into a collective anonymity. And when I break out my magnifying glass to read the reviewer's prose, their desperate attempts to sound singular themselves while dismissively comparing the bands to other more-famous bands or glossing over the bands' efforts with a hundred words of copy only makes the whole endeavor of making and consuming new music seem that much more pointless. One's increased access to music can generate this enormous sense of unfulfilled responsibility that can result in one's feeling simply indifferent to all new music, preferring instead to retreat into old classics, or the stuff one listened to in college. One can't hope to keep up so one simply gives up. These magazines with the scads of reviews are engines of this kind of resignation. Above all else they seem to communicate that you shouldn't even bother.

I'm ambivalent about reviews in general, since I think the criteria most reviewers apply are irrelevant -- idiosyncratically personal, or worse, straining toward some bogus objectivity in reference to canonized works. But much of what makes people enjoy music is the sense that other people are enjoying it and understanding it, that it is communicating feeling among a group of people. (The rest is a sense of nostalgia, enjoying music that reminds you of yourself at some other point in life.) Pop music defines subcultural identity, and it allows listeners to feel as though they have been invited into other cultures they ordinarily feel excluded from. It allows for the illusion of community in the absence of one, like sharing a TV show with millions of anonymous viewers, and having a sense its being talked about, whether in celebrity gossip magazines or at the proverbial water cooler. A review of a record would serve more of a purpose if it tallied what sort of people were listening to it. This is why most people don't bother reading reviews at all and are content to learn about music from the radio or their friends. Who else is listening to it is at least as important as what it sounds like.

The sheer amount of music has become akin to the vast number of businesses in our economy, and perhaps what is needed is something akin to a stock screen that filters what's out there to a list of few names. Perhaps as digitally distributed music catches on, statistical qualifiers can be attached to music and different songs can begin to be defined numerically in relation to their audiences. Relational databases like those that serve up Amazon's recommendations can be leveraged, using iTunes sales data, to produce statistics that can permit one to screen music in terms of genre, audience, regional popularity, longevity, bass/treble ratio, and so on. You can request songs with the same data profile as one you already like, and have iTunes produce a list for you on your cell phone. You can't tell me that this isn't already being beta tested somewhere.

Nostalgia and history (26 September 2005)

I'm looking forward to watching this evening's Dylan documentary on PBS. But there will be at least a tiny grain of salt in my viewing thanks to this interesting article by David Greenberg, who sees the worship of the sixties' Dylan as emblematic of the baby-boomer inspired nostalgia for the sixties in general, when they were young and "changing the world" rather than padding their nest eggs and watching JAG.

Yes, cultural conservatives love to evoke the 1960s as a lawless time that unleashed rampant individualism which destroyed the foundations of society, providing rallying cries for right-wing politicians who subsequently exploited for votes that "silent majority" who missed out on all the sex, drugs, fun and student revolution. But that doesn't mean we as wise liberals should defend the 1960s in those same terms, praising the same hedonist excess that masqueraded as a kind of egalitarianism. That's the same sort of thinking that holds purchasing power to be a proxy for existential freedom. And the generation that adopted "alternative lifestyles" only to abandon them has done more than any other generation to reinforce the notion that it's inevitable that as we grow up, we get "realistic" and stop worrying about changing anything about the status quo.

As Greenberg points out, what we should be alert to is the ways in which we sentimentalize the 1960s and cover it with a mummifying patina of nostalgia. "Nostalgia is also sentimental and thus meshes well with the machinery of mass culture, which, as Dwight Macdonald wrote years ago, tends to produce prepackaged cultural artifacts not dissimilar from chewing gum. More than any individual historians or critics, it's the leveling tendencies of mass culture that are really to blame for perpetuating our flattened, idealized images of the 1960s." Greenberg makes it sound a bit inevitable, but this leveling is not an accident; it's what our society specifically is calibrated to do, it's what keeps our particular configuration of the social relations of production going. In other words, consumerism relies on nostalgia depoliticizing and defusing any potentially troublesome visions of a different kind of society, making them ultimately as unreachable Utopias that only silly daydreamers would work to achieve. Much less silly to try to get a bigger car or TV set.

Anyway, this Dylan documentary caters to those impulses, to lionize the upheaval of the 1960s as something unique and lost -- something that inspired individual artists rather than critiqued society -- and not a flawed work that could still be in progress. It's as ahistorical as any status-quo-loving corporation could want. And who needs to be told yet again that Dylan was a genius (an "American Master" -- the great-man theory of history in full flower) working at an unparallelled level in 1965? Wouldn't it be far more interesting to have a documentary about what in the world he was doing by converting to born-again Christianity in 1979? We can only hope that film is in the works.

Diminished marginal utility and collecting (25 September 2005)

Does the "law" of diminishing marginal utility apply to collectors? It seems that each additional unit to the collection makes it more valuable and would therefore be more satisfying to the collector. Each additional unit to a collection manages to be both an additional unit and a unique artifact -- the beer bottle collector wants each bottle he collects to have been used for beer, and he wants each one to be slightly different in some way than the rest. So in that respect, marginal utility goes immediately to zero for a specific make of bottle, but extends to infinity undiminished for bottles in general. Thus in order to circumvent marginal utility, manufacturers need to convince all consumers to see themselves as curators of their own collection of commodities. One of the means for this is to promote the idea that precise constellations of goods can communicate your identity authentically, and that one becomes a deeper and more interesting person the more goods one has collected.

Jameson, in one of the free-ranging chapters of Marxism and Form, draws on Freud to argue that commodities (like language itself) are necessary to express desire or drive, to mediate them into something that can be tangibly manipulated and understood, which is a modification of Schiller's dictum that "beauty is the form freedom takes in the realm of sensory appearances." Beauty, as the consumer culture has entrenched itself, now takes the forms of goods, so access to goods can be perceived as a greater scope to be free -- this in turn brought on the post WWII emphasis on expanding purchasing power rather than making permanent the redistributive policies the war necessitated. Purchasing power can be seen as freedom itself once goods are seen as the primary field in which beauty/desire can be realized. (I'm sorry if this seems ot be going in a circle -- maybe that means that under Jameson's spell my thinking has become especially dialectical.) It seems that the key question is to figure out how we are encouraged to mediate our instinctual drives and desires in the form of collections of goods rather than in the form of activity or social connection or any other way the inner drives could be made tangible in the image of something outside ourselves. Jameson writes "So it is that some chance contact with an external object may 'remind' us of ourselves more profoundly than anything that takes place in the impoverished life of our conscious will" -- what impoverishes that will? Is it that social reality becomes so complex that individual agency becomes insignificant, that social activity seems pointless because we cn never now what butterfly effect our little deeds end up having? Jameson continues, "For unbeknownst to us, the objects around us lead lives of their own in our unconscious fantasies where vibrant with mana and taboo, with symbolic fascination or repulsion, they stand as the words or hieroglyphs of the immense rebus of desire." So then objects become repositories for collective ideals and organizational schemes, they become the means by which we conduct social interaction in the absence of actual interpersonal contact and intimacy. We become intimate with objects instead and try to solve their mysteries by trying to organize them around ourselves in such a way that they will admit us to that storehouse of social significance embodied within them in coded inscrutable form. All the while, our energies directed thus, social relations become ever more mediated and indirect, to the benefit of those industries that supply the goods in ever more branded and mystified forms.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Placebos and ads (24 September 2005)

I've just taken a few ibuprofins for my headache, and now I'm indulging my magic faith in medicine, expecting the headache to go away. It isn't. Perhaps if I watched a few ads for a branded placebo I could take, my headache would be more responsive. The placebo effect has always fascinated me because it seems to me the essence of advertisements. The psychological methods to sell goods flow directly from the placebo effect. The placebo effect shows that there's a raw power in simply believing what we read or hear; it underwrites and vindicates a faith in the face of rationality for the sensational claims advertisers make for sham products. The history of consumer capitalism is closely bound up with that most durable and profitable of commodities, the patent medicine. I've recently argued that pornography might be the commodity ne plus ultra of modern American society. The patent medicine was arguably the quintessential commodity of the nineteenth century, the commodity that consists of nothing but what ad copy attributes to it; it literally doesn't exist as commodity without its marketing component. It's the anti-durable good, it preys entirely on ignorance, credulity, and desperation on the consumer's part.

I used to wonder if the efficacy of placebos was reliant on the activity of one's imagination. In other words, does having an active imagination makes placebos work better for you, or make you more susceptible to believing marketing promises? I sometimes think that entertainment's function is to strengthen the imagination to make ads work better, to make us more willing partners in constructing ad discourse's fantasy world of perfectly efficacious and emotionally nourishing products. Imagination becomes the alibi for our being duped -- we like being duped (as PT Barnum knew) because it has worked the muscles of our imagination, because in being fooled we broaden our inner world even as our scope of action in the real world is curtailed. Because we like being duped, because this enables our placebos (the gizmos and tchotchkes of consumer culture) to make us feel better, we embrace ad culture and invite it to structure more of our lives and identities. (This is sort of what James Twitchell argues in his books, but he gives it all a positive spin.)

Ads posit a person we want to be, not merely a rich, attractive, forever youthful person, but a person who is open, optimistic, trusting, not cynical, susceptible to spontaneous warm feeling, and quick to accept intimacy. Our culture works hard to make those traits that make one vulnerable to ad exploitation seem desirable traits, to be signs of our "feeling heart" -- this is why 18th century sensibility, the discourse of spontaneous warm feeling and trust, of imagining another's feelings, was so critical to kicking off ad-driven consumer culture. By not being skeptical of ads, we can demonstrate our feeling heart, our good nature. If we're bitter, skeptical, resistant, we prove how deviously calculating we are, how miserly and suspicious. Irrational behavior is made, via entertainment, to be seen as pleasurable, de facto. Rational behavior is on the other hand suspicious. Eighteenth-century sensibility first codified these oppositions (with its key tropes that become proto-brand-names capable of evoking a predictable emotional response that bypasses reason), which were extended as commercial entertainment developed. Advertising adopts the function popular entertainment thinks it has to itself, providing the medium through which people comprehend their own feelings and desires.

Customarily we celebrate the imagination in our culture as this unquestionable force for good, as if more imagination automatically equals a richer life, a healthier culture. But the broadening imagination tends to be in the service of making us adapt ourselves to consumerism, to make more of what mass culture serves us. Niche marketing and "productive" consumption ruses expand our imaginations but along what seem like the wrong channels. The expansion of our mental world through consumer goods and what we can do with them inhibits our ability to imagine alternatives to consumerism, to conceive of alternate pleasures to shopping, pleasures that afford richer and more lasting satisfaction.

Concentration as diversion (22 September 2005)

An economy driven by consumerism relies on a culture's ability to associate human qualities and capabilities -- elegance, ease, joy, perceptiveness, etc. -- with goods and brands, and then to obfuscate that association, turn it upside down so that it appears to people in the culture that you can't have the qualities without the goods, that the qualities rest ontologically with the goods themselves and are not produced through orchestrated relationships, the human manipulation of things. (Marx's description of ideology as a mirror which inverts the world in reflecting it seems to apply.) I tend to focus on the way convenience is associated with goods, because convenience is an especially appropriate engine for consumer capitalism, sanctifying as the highest human values those qualities which do most to further more consumption: intellectual laziness, impulsiveness, passivity, rapidity, accessibility. These ideals crowd out pleasures to be found in slowness, thoroughness, redundant effort (such as solving math problems without a computer), privacy, concentration. Nevertheless the process of associating states of mind with goods doesn't leave these qualities out. We have many goods that facilitate and embody concentration, pretenses to concentration like the suddenly ubitquitous sudoku puzzles and crosswords and immersive novels and the complexly plotted TV shows so beloved by Steven Johnson. Concentration is becoming less an approach to the world, a way of processing information or investigating situations, and more like something akin to the suspension of disbelief, an entertaining state that we're prodded into by cultural artifacts. Concentration is becoming just another form of diversion. Concentration required for work has been spun off and given a new name, "detail-oriented," which less a deliberate approach to problems and more a fastidious rule-following. Drugs for attention deficit order -- Adderal, Ritilin -- may be the ultimate concentration products, a pill that forces you to become fixated whether you wanted to or not. The pill can then moderate the alternation between concentrating and not concentrating, making it seem as though humans should not really be expected to adjust their levels of thought on their own. Concentration may become a kind of euphoria, may be understood as an unnaturally elevated state, a kind of hysterical trance, and the mindlessness of the stereotypical TV watcher will settle in as the expected state of mind, the way one is normal.

Tax code (21 September 2005)

In the course of making a semi-controversial point in this New Yorker column about gas taxes, James Surowiecki makes a far more radical one: "Of course, in political terms the gas tax's virtues -- simplicity, transparency, immediacy -- are vices. Politicians prefer complex systems that allow them to satisfy particular constituencies, reward supporters, and disguise the true costs of things. And, strangely enough, voters implicitly prefer indirect taxes to direct ones." This seems to imply that the current tax system allows fat cats to shelter most of their money while the average Joe gets stuck with the costs of keeping the state running and performing such functions as pumping trillions of gallons of water out of a major coastal city and making sure old people don't die for want of medical attention. Another case of the habitus -- tax dodges are an upper-class entitlement that doesn't even resister with them as an ethical quandary. Of course you find whatever ways you can to minimize your burden. Of course you hire accountants to cook your returns with deductions and dubious business expenses. Of course charity matters only as a write-off.

But why is it, then, that the wealthy are always pimping ultraregressive flat taxes, which are nothing if not simple? The danger is mistaking simplicity with fairness. That which is simple may seem democratic, in that anyone can understand it, but it is rarely fair. In a society as complex as ours, justice, it seems, will always require elaborate and near arcane systems of adjudication. Just as transparent, simple, readable prose may have the effect of simplifying and stultifying thought, so a simple tax system may have the effect of legitimizing an unfair social structure in the name of ease.

Blissful nowhere (20 September 2005)

At airports, the security check is now a rite of passage so elaborate as to assume metaphoric resonance. After shedding one's garments, after elaborate preparations, after difficult decisions regarding what must be left behind, after saying goodbye to the loved ones who cannot share the voyage, after much wailing and gnashing of teeth, one crosses over and sails beyond the horizon, passed the point of no return, and emerges reborn on the other side (where, if one is fortunate, one can put on one's belt before one's pants have fallen down). This powerful sense that there's no going back might be one of traveling's most exquisite thrills, and that feeling is strongest for me when I'm squatting on the tiles, putting my shoes back on, wondering what kind of magazines I'll look at in the newsstand, wondering how much will be extorted from me for a bagel and coffee. For me, when I finally make it to the hermetic space beyond the X-rays and metal detectors, it seems I've already arrived at my true destination, the blissful nowhere, that place where I'm definitively severed from all my ties and cares. I've escaped the quotidian of my life, and entered into the quintessential liminal space, where everything is provisional and where no one is truly home (that silly Tom Hanks movie notwithstanding). Because when we travel, the specific place seems to matter, but what we're really searching for may be that particular state of mind, that disorientation that comes from being separated from your known routines and conveniences and thrown upon your own wits to make do, to be free from the responsibility for choices -- what Schwartz goes on about in The Paradox of Choice -- and be free to enjoy limits, limits on what you know to do or eat, limits on where you can go. Traveling seems to be a way of going beyond one's limits, but it's actually a way of artificially imposing them on yourself, of making yourself ignorant again after all the accumulated knowledge and strategies of everyday life begin to clutter and stifle one's mind. These strategies -- where to find breakfast and lunch, where to park a car, what to read in the newspaper, etc. -- are ultimately imprisoning even as they enable us to function; they function by closing out the myriad possibilities that confront us at every turn. The whole point of the quotidian is to prevent things from happening.

Ideally, traveling opens all the possibilities while simultaneously lowering standards, making us tolerant and thus open to new experience. This expansive mood strikes me once I'm reborn beyond the security wall. (I suppose this happens to others as well, and this is what makes them talkative when they sit beside you on the plane or at the little airport bar.) This is why it makes no sense to me when people plan trips meticulously, and try to take the security of their everyday life with them on their journey. You surrender precisely that feeling of security the moment you pass through the security check point -- that's the meaning of that rite, which transforms the meaning of security to something quite different.

Five-blade razors (19 September 2005)

Marginal utility (the concept, not this blog) be damned! According to last Thursday's Wall Street Journal, Gillette has a lot riding on its newest "shaving system" set to debut next year. The groundbreaking innovation? This new razor, the "Fusion," will have five blades, besting the Schick Quattro by one. Why cut the same beard hair once when you can pretend to cut it five times? Five razors would seem to mean that you're five times more likely to cut yourself, but apparently Gillette is expecting most men to be going with the "more is inherently better" sort of thinking. The law of diminishing marginal utility suggests we'll be less interested in paying more for the next unit of something, since it will be that much less useful to us. So an entirely unnecessary fifth blade should have little success in attracting consumers. But never underestimate the power of marketing. Marketing manages to shift things by making the utility of a razor come not in the form of a close shave (that would be pretty unimaginative, like thinking the utility of a car is in its getting you from one place to another when everyone knows its a lifestyle signifier) but in selling an enhanced form of manliness or novelty. And it also phases out its old razors and leaves you with little choice: "Each launch is underwritten with a huge advertising campaign, and Gillette rolls out the new blades at a hefty price premium to its predecessors. The company then gradually raises the prices of its older razors to persuade men to switch to the new model." So the ploy is right out there in the open. Gillette uses ads to create the illusion of a product improvement, then makes everything else more expensive to dupe men into making the leap to a new product whose only real difference from the one they already used is that it is more expensive. This kind of calls the notion of the autonomous consumer into question as well. Many men will buy the Fusion out of their own "free will" after seeing a barrage of ads during the Super Bowl and the NCAA Final Four and after noticing that it's not such big leap in price from the Mach 3, especially since you're getting 2 more blades -- a 40% increase in shaving power! Free will is experiential, a pleasant sensation for us to reinforce our sense of ourselves as unique and important, but it has nothing to do with reality, when much of our marketplace behavior, in the aggregate, is anticipated well in advance. Shopping is largely our chance to consume "free will" as a kind of product while fulfilling those "needs" industry has set out for us. Shopping is the magical procedure by which conformity becomes a sublime exercise of our autonomy.

The tattered teddy bear (19 September 2005)

Perhaps it's time for a moratorium on the tattered teddy bear photo from disaster sites. I can remember seeing several different tattered teddy bears in the photos from New Orleans, culminating in the moldy stuffed animal on the cover of the Sunday New York Times. The image has become a visual cliche, a lazy way of pointing out the harm done to children in their innocence -- that is, children fortunate enough to already have begun their life's work of collecting objects made precious by personal emotional investments. While it seems to be a way of eliciting sympathy for children, it's more a way of normalizing the child's (and our own) love for property. It dramatizes and eulogizes the destruction of property whie masquerading as a memorial for shattered innocence. The image highlights the emotional content that's presumably been transferred to the stuffed animal, reinforcing the normality of having deep emotional attachments to commodities, while shielding us from the real tragedy of human loss of life. The tattered teddy bear is in some ways a substitute for photos of dead children, a visceral tragedy that we both couldn't bear to see and wouldn't be able to take our eyes away from.

Convenience as quantity (16 September 2005)

We are prone to thinking of convenience as an expansion of our capabilities: We become more efficient at identifying and fulfilling our needs, therefore we fulfill more of them, and therefore we are more happy. By this logic, convenience maximizes a quantity of satisfaction. But actually convenience is a reduction -- it alters our wants and needs to only things fulfilled expediently, coarsening our desires and leading us to neglect needs requiring a more complex effort to fulfill. Those complex needs provide much a greater quality of happiness, satisfaction that resists quantification because the effort to pursue them can't be separated from their reward. Like meaningful work, these activities are their own reward, and they gain nothing in satisfaction by being made more efficient or convenient. Convenience turns qualitative experiences into quantitative ones; that's its function. It provides consumers with a rationalization for why all experience is becoming commodified.

Quantifying happiness and maximizing convenience go together, complementary strategies for forwarding an ideal of happiness that suits not individuals but corporations,entities that make a profit from efficiency. It is in the interest of corporations that we elide their interest in efficiency with our own interest in happiness. Our personal well-being becomes a product, something we are trying to manufacture like a commodity through the most efficient means possible. We think of our well-being as the sum of desires, all basically ephemeral, fleeting and trivial, rather then as the investigation and development of the intensity of a single will. Better to love someone deeply and inconveniently than to buy a series of consumer goods that ultimately add up to nothing.

As a utility, convenience is parasitic, it claims as its own some of the pleasure originally afforded by what has been now made convenient. The result is that the original activity loses that much of its ability to give pleasure, while convenience has become that much more central to one's existence. In this way the iPod becomes more important than whatever you happen to play on it. Music is diminished by whatever joy you take in its delivery system (the novelty of having so many music choices at your disposal makes all those choices more meaningless, and makes the substance of those choices that much less important). So the speed of life, and its attendent stress, continually increases, all in the name of pleasure.

Induced indecisiveness (15 September 2005)

In Central Park in New York there's a large open yard called the Sheep Meadow where people play frisbee and lay out in the sun. It's a place where people apparently decide to meet, but because it's bereft of permanent landmarks, this prompts many absurd cell phone conversations: "I'm near the fat guy in the blue shirt with a bike," "Do you see the black guy with a poodle?" "I'm waving my arms, do you see me? I've got shorts on." "I'm near the boy blowing bubbles." Because I don't have a cell phone, I am not ordinarily privy to such conversations, though I'm told a cell phone makes everything easier. From my perspective, it seems to make everything harder, because no one ever has to commit to any plan; everything becomes contingent and open to last-minute modification. "I'll call you when I get there, and then we'll figure it out." This way calls multiply themselves, to the delight of the carriers who are paid both by the minute and by the call. Companies profit by the indecisiveness their devices promote. Just one of the many small ways in which tech companies profit not by making your life easier or better but by complicating it needlessly while catering to your dormant bad habits. Cell phones enable bad habits like rudeness, indecisiveness, vagueness, irresponsibility, etc. Rather than facilitate better communication, it promotes wasteful inexplicit communication, wasted words; it complicates communication by making it seem inordinately easy, by making us confuse accessibility with mutual comprehension. The very premise of the technology seems to demand that you become more indecisive to take advantage of the "convenient" flexibility it provides you. You have to become more irresponsible to justify carrying one, and this pattern reinforces itself until you are blabbing about your every move to someone as you're walking down 57th Street.

The two people try to rendezvous in the Sheep Meadow, both on their phones, both moving, both narrating their movements as they try to navigate their way nearer to each other, but neither getting any closer. The freedom of movement always them to speak to each other without ever really reaching each other. This seems to epitomize our society, the way we foil intimacy with technology. The cell phone inscribes an implacable distance between us -- the distance from the earth to those satellites orbiting above us and back -- no matter how close to each other we may seem to be.

Prose style and ideology (14 September 2005)

Journalistic and academic prose styles seem fundamentally at odds, an antagonism that crops up, for example, when magazines cover some "Bad Writing" contest or wrench some theoretical point about current events made by an academic (usually in the humanities or social sciences) out of context. Often they'll point out how needlessly arcane academic writing is, how turgid and wordy and portentous it sounds, inferring that, since most people can't make out what it means immediately, that it actually in fact means nothing. The implication seems to be that academics are lazy writers; they stubbornly refuse to express themselves clearly and are too wrapped up in their fanciful ideas to bother communicating them clearly to an audience. They mask the simplicity of their insights with all sorts of jargon that performs a gatekeeping function, which makes academics the enemy of the free transmission of ideas; they purport to teach but really they are guarding their turf, trying to inflate that turf's perceived value with fancy doubletalk.

But what that perspective ignores is the idea that complex ideas necessitate complex prose, that in order for a reader to come to the same sort of insight that the writer is trying to convey, she must be thinking as hard while reading as the writer was while writing. The burrowing, tail-chasing intricacy of social theorists' sentences demands a reader concentrate in an entirely different way than a newspaper article does. It retards the flow of ideas, it forces careful consideration of language, not its efficient consumption. Fluid readable prose may well discourage the kind of persistent, critical thought that would ultimately be required (and be widespread throughout a populace) in order to challenge the status quo. Frederic Jameson, who writes sentences as dense as anyone's, makes the case that such writing mirrors dialectical thinking, its abstractions necessary for placing idea in the context of the totality of society in all its complex intertwinings, and poses this question, which is even more pertinent now than when he asked it 35 years ago: "What if, in this period of the overproduction of printed matter and the proliferation of methods of quick reading, [those ideals of clarity and simplicity] were intended to speed a reader across a sentence in such a way that he can salute a ready-made idea in passing, without suspecting that real though demands a descent into the materiality of language and a consent to time itself in the form of the sentence?"

Technology has enabled us "to overproduce printed matter," to print more ephemera today than ever (this blog, as always, included). And the methods for speeding consumption of information have become only more and more refined. This serves two ends: It permits people to consume more, allowing for more consumption, and by extension, more economic growth for its own sake. And it discourages deep thought, reinforcing the notion that any thought worth having is immediately clear and accessible, is spontaneously felt. This is why certain poetry can be so reactionary, especially when it demands an immediacy of thought and feeling, and a spontaneous interconvertibility between the two. Practice allows thought to become feeling, an instinctual response, but it then also shields thought from analysis, and thus from change. Ideas critical to the established notions, the "common sense" so carefully achieved by the effects of power by those in position to control the social forces of production and the institutions that preserve and reproduce it, will always require difficult convoluted sentences to express them. The powers that be always work, Orwell-style, to efface ideas hostile to them from received language, from everyday expression, from what we immediately respond to as accessible and clear. What is "clear" is a careful production, is built into to a reader's habitus, which is itself the product of all the existing prevailing powers under which one is raised, whose ideological premises ones absorbs deeply precisely because we are unaware we have absorbed them. Long, thorny sentences, full of codicils and corrections and conditions, force us to think outside of those premises, or to at least dredge them out of our unconscious and into view for questioning, a difficult process that we subjectively register typically as boredom or incomprehension or frustration at language's sudden opacity. If we surrender at those symptoms, we'll never attain a perspective from which we can be meaningfully critical of the conditions we live in. Boredom is the status quo's best defense. It will always appear to be dull and boring to mount the efforts to dismantle it. Just ask any labor-beat reporter.

Spending heroically (13 September 2005)

As America's national savings rate approached zero percent, commentators pinned the blame on consumers and their frivolous desires, their insatiable appetites for goods. But this appetite doesn't come from nowhere of course, it's scientifically stoked by the various tentacles of the media through advertising and entertainment that sings the pleasures of novelty and consumption, and reinforced by fiscal policy and interest rates that discourage saving. While savings is associated with miserliness, and dangerous hoarding that could be economically harmful, spending is typically framed as an opportunity to demonstrate one's savvy, through timely investments, perhaps, or through successful negotiation of a complex market to achieve the best deal. Spending provides the playing field on which one can rank oneself in terms of the criteria our society values: do you own the right things? have you spent wisely? Even reckless spending is seen as a kind of daredevil courage, a laudable willingness to take chances, to forge ahead, to shake off the nebbishy timidity of thriftiness and make bold new purchases of consumer goods that have not yet proved their essentialness. Sure, anyone can buy an iPod now, but were you there five years ago? Everytime we celebrate ourselves or envy someone else for being into something or aware of something before someone else, we play into this notion of heroic consumption, into a notion that spending is a kind of doing that's equal if not superior to making things, and we condone the idea that we discover things about ourselves by discovering things in the store, things left there for us to find.

The final frontier of consumerism (12 September 2005)

Ordinarily Lee Gomes, who writes The Wall Street Journal's Portals column, is a pied piper for techology, reporting enthusiastically in a positivist vein on whatever gadgetry the electronics and communications industry dredge up. But he seemed a bit irritable in today's column, titled "How Many Gadgets Do You Have to Carry to Shop Nonstop?" in which he lashes out at consumers of ringtones and iPods, dubbing them hopeless shopping addicts hooked on immediate gratification and brands, and the iPod itself, which he sees as the greatest enabler of piracy since Napster. He goes so far as to call the cell phone the "final frontier of consumerism" -- the market's invasion of personal space can go no further. With a cell phone, one is theoretically always shopping.

His main contention is that the new iPod cellphone is irrelevant because it doesn't provide what consumers expect, the ability to use the phone to buy, store, and play the music without the need for a computer to facilitate. This way you could have a whim to hear "Midnight at the Oasis" and own it a few moments later, before you return to your senses. What is so surprising about this is that Gomes basically admits that technology is driven not by the unrelenting march of humankind toward their ultimate utopian destiny but by consumer frivolity and the pursuit of new frontiers of self-branding. He seems on the verge of admitting the gadget consolidation serves no good purpose at all; technology now fosters instead narcissism and waste rather than enlarged personal potential. If even he recognizes it, could we be nearing a turning point?

Social capital and the New Orleans evacuation (12 September 2005)

This New Republic story by Noam Schreiber illustrates perfectly the implications of the habitus. Poor people aren't middle class people without money. They develop an entirely different approach to life because of the conditions under which they are raised. Schreiber, citing a New York Times story about the very different evacuations of a white middle class family and a black underclass family, illustrates it thus:
What's fascinating are the ways in which the two families navigated, or failed to navigate, the crisis. The matriarch of the middle-class family, a local court clerk, tapped a cousin to secure a low corporate rate at the Lafayette Hilton. She paid for it with her American Express card. The woman then worked connections in local government and churches to land a scarce rental property. She even won a dispensation from local authorities to sneak back into her abandoned house in a quarantined area so she could rescue some televisions and furniture.
Needless to say, the poorer family had no such advantages. The husband had never been out of New Orleans before; the wife had never flown on a plane. Neither appeared to have contacts capable of assimilating them into another community; in any case, the concept of doing so seemed altogether unimaginable to them. And, while the family had $2,000 in savings, they didn't have a bank account. Their money burned up along with their apartment in a fire that followed the flood.ʊ
Clearly, a lack of money is far from the only handicap afflicting the poor. They lack the basic life skills, social networks, and general sense of agency that even the slightly more affluent--working-class people--take for granted. The poor black family in Wilgoren's piece certainly could have benefited from a car or a few hundred dollars in aid. But much more valuable would have been instructions beforehand on how to open a bank account. Everyone else learns these sorts of things by following the example of relatives, friends, and neighbors. The problem with acute concentrations of poverty is that they afford few such examples.
What Bourdieu calls social capital, the competence to operate within society so it works to your advantage, and the access to connections to facilitate your moves through it and buffer you in emergencies, is what middle class people have and poor people do not. What remains unclear is how to shift social capital to those who need it to literally survive in emergencies, especially in the era of Bush's compassionate conservatism. Ideally, redistributing social capital would not be a zero-sum game -- one doesn't need to give up what another acquires. But underlying social capital is capital of the more basic sort, the cold hard cash that allows one to meet certain levels of social acceptability. Social capital gains part of its value from positionality -- networking connections are valuable because they are restricted; the more people someone knows, the less those people can help each of their acquaintances. Social capital is ultimately concentrated, transmuted hard capital -- it's value is money multiplied by time and convention and tradition; to inculcate a population with the sense of entitlement that comes with money is much more expensive than simple cash transfers. Which is why FEMA was down on the Gulf coast handing out $2,000 debit cards.

The sincere fiction of disinterestedness (12 September 2005)

Forgive the broad-strokes history here: The rise of capitalism enshrined calculating self-interest as the governing principle of rationality, elevating it to an almost invisible and always operating social principle, raising it to the level of unquestioned common sense. This created an opportunity to define some behaviors extra-economically, giving an easy way to demonstrate that some things are not contingent but permanent, and operate out of motives that transcend immediate self-interest and calculation. Such behavior was held to reveal the individual's emotional core, and when it first appeared in the late 18th century in conjunction with capitalism's stirrings, it went by the name of sensibility. Sensibility is what enabled people to feel pity for others and to burst out with spontaneous fits of emotion and grief when confronted with various events -- basically it was ostentatious emotion, the first hint that capitalism was going to make everyone stop taking mutual, communal sympathy for granted -- it had become something that required calculated display, and it had become a status signifier, a means to communicate to the world that you are at luxury to feel. (Mackenzie's The Man of Feeling, an 18th century novel, is a good place to start to see sensibility in action -- Mackenzie seems to have been purposefully exploiting the vogue while codifying it formally via cultural entertainment.) Sensibility becomes the antithesis of interest but is at the same time reified as a precious positional commodity. As it is refined as a concept, it also helps to sharpen the notion of interest dialectically and expand its usefulness (leading in a direct line to the current prevailing idea that all behavior can be understood as an analysis of incentives).

The notion of sensibility morphed into the romantic conception of the artist as someone who rises above the money-grubbing fray as an elevated man who can speak poetry for all, who can see the eternal truths that people in their petty quotidian lives are blinded to in their daily hustle to get by. Unlike mere mortals, people like Wordsworth can exhibit "disinterested interest" in things -- the workings of nature, the magic of childhood and other junk like that. At this stage, the common sense starts to separate material interest from cultural interest, and one is used to define the other in a neat tautological package. As Bourdieu points out in Outline of a Theory of Practice, artists and writers become more and more invested in the production of this "disinterested interest." But "practice never ceases to conform to economic calculation even when it gives every appearance of disinterestedness by departing from the logic of interested calculation (in the narrow sense) and playing for stakes that are non-material and not easily quantifed." Bourdieu is anxious to justify his approach of analyzing "cultural capital" and "social capital" or "symbolic capital" in economic terms -- his case is that we blind ourselves to the way economic calculations guide behavior we find to be "unthinkable" in economic terms, that the rise of rational self-interest forces a split between economic and symbolic capital, things which were integrated and inseparable in pre-capitalist economies. (In his view, this leads to ethnocentric distortions when we attribute artistic aims to pre-capitalist "artists.")

One of the strongest proofs for this lies in the way people who marry for "love" also manage to marry people in their class and replicate the existing boundaries to social mobility through intermarriage (a la that other quintessential 18th century fiction, Richardson's Pamela. Bourdieu regards this sort of thing as an "institutionally organized and guaranteed misrecognition which is the basis of all the symbolic labor intended to transmute, by the sincere fiction of a disinterested exchange, the inevitable, and inevitably interested relations imposed by kinship, neighborhood, or work into elective relations of reciprocity." Indeed, "the labor required to conceal the function of the exchanges is as important as the labor needed to carry out the function." In other words, the ability to mask the interested motivations of love requires as much energy as loving itself, and is love's prerequisite. The ability to make art is contigent on the ability to suspend one's awareness of the art market shaping one's creativity, an ability that requires as much effort as the art-building itself. We expend a great deal of mental effort invisibly in sustaining this ideology, that love and art are autonomous, that they function independent of the economy in general. Perhaps this is one of the strains marriages buckle under, the invisible and unacknowledged work of supporting the relationship's unmotivated purity in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, which merely builds as the relationship lasts. It may be that as marriages progress, people stay in them for reasons other than magical soul-mate love for their spouses, namely reasons that correspond with the existing order of society as one comes to appreciate it with maturity. And artists too may squander a great deal of productive energy unawares in creating the conditions in which they can make art, in carefully detaching themselves from the market and from the ideology of economic incentives and so forth so that they can inhabit what capitalist society dubs as the authentic artistic space.

Tyranny of criteria (9 September 2005)

It may be that we want a class of people who are famous for absolutely no reason -- the Paris Hilton phenomenon. If a person is famous for some specific accomplishment, then to appreciate that person requires some understanding of the criteria. You need cultural capital. You have to understand something about music, or at least pretend to, to be interested in the doings of a person famous for making music. But to be interested in someone famous for no reason requires comprehending no criteria, no prior knowledge or understanding -- instead it requires a suspension of such things, a willingness to put aside questions of merit to be fascinated for no good rational reason at all. So the Paris Hiltons of the world offer an escape from technocratic reason, rationality and calculation perhaps? Not for those who profit by them, but perhaps for those who are just inexplicably fascinated.

The ability to do something for no reason at all is extremely attractive in our society, the ultimate luxury, which naturally attaches to the extremely wealthy -- Paris Hilton -- who simply manifest that capacity, the ability to exist beyond criteria, beyond evaluation, to simply exist at the level of pure impulse. Meaningless activity, as commentators all the way back to Mandeville have pointed out, is the ultimate positional good, the surest proof of one's class status. If our work and leisure time are subject to equally rationalized calculation, it's only natural that our dreams would be haunted by these visions of unwarranted, uncalculable celebrity; if we are oppressed by merit and injustice, we would naturally seek escape in things with no merit, before which the logic of justice withers.
In a society over saturated with manipulative symbols, it must come as a relief to become preoccupied with one that seems filled to bursting with its own emptiness, with its own magnificent insignificance.

Pure celebrity, celebrity for no reason, allows for pure fascination, fascination with no criteria and no limits and no expectations or explanations. This is pure freedom, pure the way a page is blank.

Rebuilding demographically (8 September 2005)

The always excellent Billmon has a post here that touches on both the upcoming David Brooks column, perhaps the most sensible thing I have ever read by him, in which he touts his love for the kind of habitus-building neighborhood splicing you'd expect him to call quasi Stalinist social engineering, and the extremely noxious Wall Street Journal report of some true American fascists, the bigots who hope to rebuild New Orleans as an essentially white-only gated community, a playground for wealthy Republicans. (I don't blame The Journal; in fact give them credit for a piece designed to stoke the kind of indignant outrage at upper class selfishness that conservative shills ordinarily call "class warfare.") For these Louisiana plutocrats, the hurricane and the massive amount of human suffering it exacted has been the answer to their prayers, a long-wished-for boon that has driven all those pesky poor people out of their beloved city. If they have their way the city will be rebuilt in "a completely different way demographically" -- i.e. it will be cleansed of the poor people who will now burden other cities not fortunate enough to have a natural disaster hit during an incompetent presidency to annihilate or displace most of its working-class population.

We can scowl at these moral monsters, but they are not so different from all those people in my family who moved out of North Philadelphia to live in "safer," aka whiter, suburbs in the 1960s. They are not so different from yuppies who move out to the country when their kids reach schooling age. It's not accidental that the political party that basically advertises its contempt for the poor maintains a stranglehold on power in America. It keeps its grip on power by marketing an air of respectability for the racist/classist notions we've already absorbed, that are intertwined into the very fabric of what we perceive as common sense. They vindicate class apartheid that few are willing to make the sacrifices required to dismantle. We'll send money to the Red Cross, but that's like a protection payment to keep "those people" out of our neighborhoods. It will only be a matter of days before we go back to forgetting about this de facto apartheid and children dying in poverty and go back to worrying about more important things, like teaching "Intelligent Design."

Machines for forgetting (8 September 2005)

At TPMCafe, a French tourist posted an account of his week in New Orleans after the hurricane hit and the levees broke. In the midst of it, he expressed hope that the coverage of the event might change the way Americans think about the need for a social safety net, but then added, "I'm afraid that the medias, especially in this country,are also a very efficient machine to make people forget." This seems like the fundamental problem with the media, and why it can't ever serve as a means to prioritize a culture's ethical commitments. For all the huffing and puffing about journalists' responsibility to their audiences, the media's fundamental reason for existing is not to pay appropriate attention to things, to communicate a sense of what deserves what amount of public attention, but to perpetuate its own production schedule, which means producing news and stories according to a prearranged calendar. That is the only ethos it can communicate, that it is important to keep moving, to keep producing, that one should never pause for too much reflection. Hence, Bush's bullshit talking points about not wasting time to look back and assign blame work so effectively; they correspond with the press's own mandate. Overwhelmed with the new and trained to appreciate "originality" as inherently impressive we have many incentives to forget what just happened in pursuit of our constitutional right to happiness.

In my minuscule way, by writing daily in this blog, I do my part to reinforce the notion that new content trumps all other concerns, that nothing is worth lingering over for longer than a day and that the only messages that bear repeating are ones that can be repackaged as something fresh and new. As more people create their own blogs, perhaps more people will internalize this compulsion even more deeply, and novelty will become further entrenched as the only value anyone gives a damn about.

Proliferating satisfactions (7 September 2005)

I came across this quote from Susan Sontag in an otherwise unenlightening appreciation by David Denby in this week's New Yorker: "Art is now the name of a huge variety of satisfactions of the unlimited proliferation, and devaluation, of satisfaction itself." Denby cites it as evidence of Sontag's unfortunate disillusionment, which led to her rejection of the practices of film criticism; he can't seem to understand why you wouldn't want to shill for the medium forever. But Sontag always seemed interested in pointing out the moral implications inherent in form itself, regardless of content; that form and content weren't easily separated without marring both in the analytical surgery. That's kind of what I had in mind when I attacked fiction the other day (which led a coworker to declare me "a fascist," and led her to tremble for the day "when I was in control of things"). Fiction as a form, as a practice, prompts ethical questions worth asking, particularly since the form is changing in response to pressure from a market-driven society.

Anyway, Sontag's remark seems right on to me: In a consumer society, most art necessarily those predominating social ends, to encourage the kinds of pleasures that suit the economy -- serial, facile pleasures that are easily substituted for one another and easily multiplied, pleasures more suitably measured in quantity rather than quality. What we end up with is the paradox of devalued satisfaction, of more becoming less, of pleasure that has been reduced from a state of being, jouissance, to a countable thingёa purchase, property, collectible moments, souvenirs. The ability to appreciate art in terms of its quality and not some quantifiable aspect of it has always been restricted to the classes with leisure and resources and intellectual heritage necessary to develop the faculty. As art mediums have been democratized, these class restrictions have not abated, rather they have solidified, now the distinctions are built into the works themselves, and art now works even more as an agent in the reproduction of class inequity, not its pretty by-product.

Theses on commercial fiction (6 September 2005)

Since I had aired some contrarian and rashly unqualified thoughts about the whole fictional enterprise recently in this blog, I thought I'd follow that with a reprise of a few propositions I formulated in my graduate student days:

1. Commercial fiction exists to justify the status quo and allow such justifications be experienced as pleasure, either through flattering the reader for his ability to predict what will happen or dignifying his typical circumstances or positing fantasies that dovetail with what commercial markets profess to offer.

2. Commercial fiction thrives on the reader's isolation, which allows one's fantasies to develop unchecked in the channels provided by the fiction and provides for a more absorbing suspension of disbelief (which is in itself one of the chief pleasures the form can afford). This corresponds well with how the consumer society relies on isolated and uninformed consumers who prefer to pretend rather than comprehend -- this permits a wider array of unnecessary purchases and to allow unsubstantiated claims about products and the lifestyles they purport to provide go unchecked. Resistance, even to the flimsy premises of genre fiction and advertisements, requires social organization -- you need a network of communication outside of mass media to set up a discourse counter to it. Isolation, on the other hand, streamlines acquiescence.

3. Vicarious participation is a prerequisite of both commercial fiction and commercial societies. In both instances we must be prepared to enjoy our emotions more thoroughly through proxies than through direct experience of nature or society. We must be prepared to choosed mediated forms of experience, because of the illusion of control it affords us, over direct, spontaneous, unpredictable "natural" experiences.

4. Plausibility may be redefined within the realm of commercial fiction to suit the consumer society's requirements. Reading commercial fiction reconfigures the plausibility threshold so that only matters inconsequential to commerce and consumerist fantasy are rejected as "unrealistic."

5. The question of the commercial novel's form may best be seen as a problem of industrial design.

6. The commercial novel, one of the first commodities, popularized the notion that acquiring goods constitutes a story itself. The dream world we enter in fiction is akin to the dream lifestyle a branded commodity hopes to posit for us via its ads. A story unfolds, closure is obtained (the good is purchased) and a new story must begin. Commercial novels, in being worthless after they are consumed once, are emblematic of ideal consumer goods generally, which become beside the point of pleasure once acquired. Acquisition trumps even ownership itself as a species of pleasure.

7. Our facility for enjoying commercial fiction, adopting to its conventions and enjoying its foreshortenings and its illusions, makes us able to enjoy shopping more -- its necessary pre-purchase fantasizing, its metonymic ads, etc. Familiarity with commercial fiction allows us to perceive the dramatic arc in our shopping experience. It dignifies shopping as a kind of personal mythmaking.

8. Connoisseurship in the market -- the quest for distinctive goods -- has roots in the connoisseurship of feeling, experienced vicariously through the earliest commercial novels and the taste in reading it allowed to be expressed.

9. Pleasure does not preexist systems of distribution and consumption. It manifests itself through those systems; the shape pleasure can take is defined by those systems. The 18th century commercial novel is an artifact of first forms of pleasure enabled by capitalism. (Needs are "set free" by economic growth.)

10. For commercial novels as well as consumer societies, anticipation is far more important than satisfaction.

Disaster photos (6 September 2005)

Because of the disaster on the Gulf Coast, Americans have been treated to a great deal of disaster photography, and many platitudes about "unforgettable images" have been trotted out to try to rationalize the extremely disturbing experience of wiitnessing something so awful at such a comfortable distance. Most photos require captions to instruct us how to feel; in fact, many photos are mere pretenses for the captions, which supply the all important context that allows us to actually see something. The captions cue us to what is supposed to be visible, what we are supposed to see in this frozen, inert moment, this dead, empty image. Because meaning in general is in the way things progress and interact, the way things collide and change and evolve, a frozen image is inherently meaningless. For it to have meaning it must be supplied with a context, which itself is slippery, shifting, enmeshed in various dialectics -- editors would like to help you to derive context with the caption they supply, but often the context is a matter of your own habitus, or what literally surrounds a photo, or what photo you just saw a minute ago, or some personal experience, or whatever. But the image can't mean independently of whatever frames you bring to it. Every interaction with an image affords an opportunity for those ideological frames we bring to modified or reinforced. This is probably pretty self-evident, but photos present a temptation to ignore context, ignore the fluid nature of reality and attempt to see into the essence of things in an isolated frame. The immediacy of an image lends itself to the foreshortenings of reality by common sense, which limits us to the narrow ideological perspective with which we're most comfortable. What is so shocking about the disaster photos is that they don't seem to permit the common sense perspective, we can't read them intuitively and find reassurance in the immediate and soothing interpretation that usually results.

Against fiction (2 September 2005)

This may be a personal shortcoming, a failure of my own imagination, but I no longer understand the purpose of fiction. I'm not sure what is significant about someone's making up events that happen to made-up people and lead to made up denouements, especially when it is so easy to research events that actually happened to actual people. Isn't much fiction, especially the sort that eschews formal innovation or stylized word play just lazy reporting, wherein writers draw on information they've gathered without bothering to verify it?

Fiction at its most basic provides a vehicle for escapism, a world the reader may enter and feel like the all-knowing master of that universe's simplified, obvious rules for cause and effect; such fiction offers the illusion of power along with the escape into a more comprehensible and more orderly world. These simplified rules for how the world works provide the much trumpeted moral instruction that novels are sometimes held to provide, but the moral instruction is usually the pleasing celebration of values and formulas for living that readers already hold (This seems especially true of genre fiction, which indulges preordained fantasies that correspond with power balances in the actual society such fiction services.) Researched accounts of actual events seems much more likely to reveal alternatives to the status quo, paradoxically, than made-up fictions which are circumscribed by the habitus of its writer, which reflects all the biases of class and the imposed limits made by common sense of what is even possible. Imagination is actually more circumscribed than the real, whose capability to astonish only increases as one devotes energy to investigating it. Fiction seems to me a kind of abdication, a retreat from the possibilities that trouble the delicately balanced worldview that perpetuates the status quo.

Reality programming on television seems to be a reflection of the threat technology levies against fiction, whose flimsy justification once may have rested in the difficulty of gaining information about other people's lives. But obvioulsy these programs impose the formulas derived from fiction on hours and hours of raw material; it reveals more of the process of the fictionalizing of reality; these are our social novels. Literary fiction seems to be a product with increasing snob appeal; the fundamental result of reading such books is reveling in a kind of moral superiority to the people who one imagines is missing out on such edifying experiences, reading such books is a way of consuming an image of oneself as "wise, perceptive reader," capable of appreciating subtle nuance and whatnot like the writer whom one imagines as a peer, a fellow soldier in the war to preserve Culture.

Pleasures of politeness (31 August 2005)

By their nature we tend to take manners for granted and notice them only when they are absent. For most people manners reside beyond the realm of judgment; they simply exist, they aren't optional or subject to criticism or refinement. This is precisely why Bourdieu sees manners as one of the ways in which the arbitrary features of a society are preserved and reinforced, made to seem natural. If something can be made a matter of manners, then that thing is removed from the world of contingencies and placed in the realm of eternal truths, given facts of social life: Writes Bourdieu in Outline of a Theory of Practice:"The principles embodied in this way are placed beyond the grasp of consciousness, and hence cannot be touched by voluntary, deliberate transformation, cannot even be made explicit; nothing seems more ineffable, more incommunicable, more inimitable, and therefore more precious, than the values given body, made body by the transubstantiation achieved by the hidden persuasion of an implicit pedagogy, capable of instilling a whole cosmology, an ethic, a metaphysic, a political philosophy, through injunctions as insignificant as 'stand up straight' or 'don't hold your knife in your left hand.' " This line of reasoning leads him to conclude that "the concessions of politeness always contain political concessions." In other words, the point of politeness is always politeness itself, a kind of symbolic social tax that must be paid in order to make social behavior possible; each specific culture will produce the "taxes" that will allow it to continue in its current state, with the same imbalances in power and influence, which are in turn built in to the various obsequities of politeness. Every enacted instance of politeness may, in some obscure and necessarily inarticulable way (if we could explain it, we could reist and alter it, redefine politeness as something else that serve ends we consciously wanted to serve), reinforce the status quo.

That's not to say we should reject politeness. But it does put a different spin on the pleasure we derive from polite acts. Usually we congratulate ourselves for doing a good deed when we hold a door or smile at a stranger or let someone go ahead of us in line and we leave it at that; we don't inquire into what makes a deed good, or whose criteria we are importing into our most intimate system of values, or how our own pleasure is related to it all. Society, like the human species, is able to reproduce itself by making the actions required to reproduce it deeply pleasurable on a personal level. The pleasure we get out of our polite acts stems from this and serves to induce us to participate in perpetuating the status quo. That it would feel so wrong to reject these acts, to resist being polite to make a political point, demonstrates how integral and effective politeness is in performing its social reproductive functions.

Small courtesies seem to mean more in the city than elsewhere, maybe because so many opportunities for them are missed and because they are so little expected. In cities there is a sense one must aggressively pursue one's own interest as there seems a scarcity of time and space, or at least a frustration at having to share so much of it with people who are much less like you than they would be in small towns. But this frustration is also the source of the city's sublimity: this ability to connect, however ephemerally, with total strangers, with people whose lives you can't imagine, is a chance to enlarge yourself, to seem to be without a social horizon. Of course some prefer social horizons, some like the idea that they'll never meet a person who can teach them anything. Small courtesies seem to transcend the different habituses that separate groups from each other, but in fact they may reinforce those differences. What the tiny little drama of politeness enacts is a mini celebration of the existing order of things, the established rules that put us in the place where we can readily dispense social niceties.

Hard discounters (30 August 2005)

At TPMCafe a few weeks ago, a writer posed this question: Why hasn't it proved economically feasible (and thus inevitable) that grocery store chains move into poor neighborhoods and exploit their desperation for better quality produce and lower-priced food. The real estate is cheap and the customer base is more or less assured. Some respondents opined that insurance and security costs would make it unprofitable, others pointed to "it ain't broke, don't fix it" business model of most retailers. The most interesting reply pointed to the rebranding of the same goods, groceries, to appeal to different class demographics, the way Gap/Old Navy/Banana Republic does. As much as the Republican hacks whose campaigns they fund hate "class warfare," big corporations love to differentiate by class and exploit class differences for the different sources of profit they yield. Corporations perceive profits in the habitus-driven lengths to which many consumers will go to maintain their sense of themselves and the class inn which they feel comfortable. It's interesting, though perhaps obvious to anyone who's shed their "America is a classless society and shopping is where we are all equal" blinkers, how different classes have different vulnerabilities and can be flattered in different ways. If you have ever strayed into one of the "hard discounters" that The Wall Street Journal profiled on today's front page -- Save-A-Lot, Grocery Outlet, Aldi -- the differences in the way middle-class and poor consumers are treated will become stark and obvious. If you are middle class, you will feel as though you have entered some kind of grocery store of the damned where there are few shelves and most everything is stacked in cardboard boxes. There are no real brands, only dubious house brands, and all the specialty items you expect are nowhere to be found. It's like a surreal nightmare when you walk down the cereal aisle and see none of the familiar brands you expect. And it's depressingn to realize how much our comfort and security in our everyday life depends on the familiarity of the brands all around us. (This is why tourists in New York City seem to like to stay in midtown, where everything is adequately branded with national names.) You'll marvel at the interminable lines and you'll gasp when you are not asked if you want paper or plastic, but rather whether you're willing to pay 10 cents per bag in order to pack your own groceries. And if you decide not to buy anything, good luck getting out. When I went into Aldi once in South Philadelphia, just to see what it was after hitting the Front and Oregon Goodwill store, I was horrified to discover that I was trapped inside. A huge gate barred my exit through the way I came in, and the only way out was through the checkout aisles, which were, naturally backed up til doomsday because of the chronic understaffing and the laconic work ethic of the minimum-wage-making employees. This fire-trap is obviously by design in order to prevent theft -- one of the fundamental operating hazards for businesses choosing to cater to (i.e. exploit) the poor. In order to escape I had to literally climb over a barricade of cardboard boxes that had been piled up in an vacated check-out aisle.

What was even more striking than my Great escape was that the people in line hardly even noticed me, even as I was scaling the wall. As far as they were concerned, this was perfectly normal, a routine consequence of deciding not to buy anything. As far as they were concerned, being made to feel like a criminal by entering a store was totally natural. Waiting in line twenty minutes to check out was nothing to complain about either. It was the habitus at work: what was real, common sense, natural to the other shoppers waiting in line, was ghastly and unreal to me, an surprise detour from reality into an alternate universe of misery and implied humiliation. What's really frightening is that the theory of habitus implies that the typical Aldi customer wouldn't enjoy it being any other way; it would be alien and disconcerting to be treated the way middle-class people are accustomed to be treated in stores. (It's more likely that a middle-class environment would make poor people expect the harsh treatment they ordinary receive in such places.) The regular Aldi customers were used to be treated as though it was a favor to them that the grocery store even existed. A few posts ago, I argued that anti-customer service would be a good wake up call for pampered consumers, could shake them out of the mindset that shopping is the primary life experience to be had. But Aldi perhaps goes too far. It's doing the dirty business of reinforcing class difference as commonsense business practice.