“All the games have to go, man.”
In the 1968 hippie exploitation film Psych-Out, Jack Nicholson plays Stoney, a San Francisco rock musician caught up in the competing forces of hedonism, commercialism, idealism and sentimentality. Stoney has uncomplicated desires: He wants to do his thing, play his music, earn a little bread, and get some lovin’ whenever and with whomever he can. Being part of the San Francisco hippie scene seems to grant his wishes while supplying a self-congratulatory veneer for his behavior — by pleasing himself, he can believe he is changing the world, is making a stand for personal freedom.
While “Rainy Day Mushroom Pillow” by the Strawberry Alarm Clock plays on the soundtrack, Stoney pays a visit to his curmudgeonly, AWOL band mate, Dave (Dean Stockwell), who apparently lives in a rooftop lean-to built against a giant billboard overlooking Haight Ashbury. Stoney wants to convince Dave to play a gig that might secure them a recording contract. Dave proceeds to challenge several of Stoney’s articles of faith (clip): free love is nothing but a choice, he contends; selling out is irrelevant to “feeling good”; the truth is a matter of what works; common sense of the kick-a-stone variety refutes all forms of idealism. “All the games have to go, man,” Dave tells Stoney, “because it’s all one big plastic hassle.” To which Stoney retorts, “So live in a jelly jar?”
Stoney’s is a fair question. Dave wants to chastise Stoney for seeking to express human creativity within a system that is essentially hostile to the notion of spontaneous freedom that hippiedom ostensibly represents: Stoney would just be adding another consumer object to a culture already overstuffed with them, would just be reifying another creative impulse into a profit-seeking product. But how can a person opt out of consumerism and commercialism without ending up leading an antisocial and needlessly uncomfortable life?
The scene seems a parable for a dilemma which confronts us all. How do we divorce ourselves from the system of consumerism without consigning ourselves to live in a jelly jar? Everyone we know is implicated in consumerism in some way. And so are we. We all use goods that have social meanings above and beyond their use value; we all want to send messages at some point about what sort of person we are by the things we collect around us. Complaining about it seems only to put others on the defensive and invite accusations of hypocrisy. Nevertheless, the de facto compulsion to speak the language of objects, to be cornered into thinking about what identity we are signifying to the world through choices we would rather have be neutral, can seem like a curtailment of our liberty, an abrogation of our ability to be spontaneous, an imposition to be something other than ourselves.
So is it better to go Stoney’s way? Should we dive into the counterculture in order to extend the range of our expression, but not so deeply as to lose sight of the mainstream and all of its conveniences and luxuries? Or should we take Dave’s route, and perch ourselves outside of culture in defiance? Is there no middle way?
In a 1995 paper, marketing professors Julie Ozanne and Jeff Murray explore this last question. Following Baudrillard, they acknowledge that consumerism, by layering sign value over the use value of goods, establishes itself as a way of stratifying society to replace older, more explicit modes of caste making. As a way of thwarting consumerism’s “domination,” they advocate for the creation of “reflexively defiant consumers” capable of “forming a different relationship to the marketplace in which they identify unquestioned assumptions and challenge the status of existing structures as natural.” These “informed consumers” would pursue a “conscious estrangement from ‘normal’ consumption” which allows them to “define themselves” outside the sign system of consumer culture. Dave in Psych-Out in some ways anticipates this sort of “informed consumer” who aggressively critiques the consumption practices others go along with or champion as meaningful.
Defiant consumers become pioneers bringing consumerism along to colonize new realms of experience.
But at the same time, Ozanne and Murray suggest that the reflexively defiant consumer can use “clothes and various forms of body adornment … to signify opposition to establishment values.” Such “oppositional consumption,” they contend, “develops the critical imagination.” That sounds a lot like Psych-Out’s Stoney. In a key scene in the film, he indoctrinates his new girlfriend, Jenny (Susan Strasberg), into the counterculture by having her dress up in a variety of different costumes in a thrift store until she ultimately settles on a look that’s consonant with his social circle. The scene emphasizes the fluidity of external identity and how it may be harnessed to express freedom and belonging simultaneously. Here, the code of meanings in objects appears as a language that “informed consumers” can speak more fluently than the dupes who show less imagination with it.
Neither Dave nor Stoney believes he is a consumerist stooge conforming to a narcissistic and materialistic mentality imposed from above, yet each suspects the other of being in bad faith. Who’s right? Are they both wrong? If one’s goal is to be troubled by consumerism less rather than more, Ozanne and Murray’s recommendations for reflexive defiance would seem to fail, as they demand a perpetual vigilance over one’s relation to the market, an endless state of rebellion in which one must “seek new consumption styles” or constantly define oneself in opposition to current trends. The expression of identity is still confined to consumer practices, and one’s defiant gestures may actually serve to further elaborate the code and enrich it, extending its general grip on society. Direct attacks only seem to strengthen the system, as it assimilates the energy of those efforts and redirects it to the reproduction of consumerism on a broader scale. The defiant consumers become pioneers bringing consumerism along to colonize new realms of experience.
To move from fictional characters in a movie that is more than 40 years old to the behavior of real people, consider the case studies Harvard Business School professor Douglas Holt presents in his 2002 paper “Why Do Brands Cause Trouble?” (gated). In an effort to understand why anyone would hate brands, reject corporate marketing and be persuaded by books like Naomi Klein’s No Logo, Holt sets out to talk to some reflexively defiant consumers and distill their logic. He introduces us to “Paul,” a paranoid-seeming man on disability who purports to be, as Holt explains it, “only interested in those properties of consumer goods that serve functional purposes,” that is, in their “authentic utility” rather than their symbolic uses. Much like Dave in Psych-Out, he sees “brand propaganda” everywhere, has “adopted a solipsistic worldview, and lives as a hermit in the basement.” Because Paul is so intent on beating the consumerist system, he is hyper-conscious of his behavior in the market. “Ironically, Paul’s adamant quest to control market influences leads him to routinely enter market competitions with great dedication and zeal,” Holt notes. Paul, in other words, gets caught up in the quest for what my friends and I used to call “scoreboard,” saving where others have squandered, trying to be on the advantageous end of price-discrimination measures, exploiting sales and bargains — generally anything that might prompt one to think “Score!” to oneself in a store. But the pursuit of scoreboard means spending far more time worrying about retailers and consumption than the ordinary people who he scorns as consumerist dupes. Paul is, Holt notes, “a shopping engineer,” who supports his sense of self by “winning” in the marketplace, thus becoming a reliant on shopping for identity as any trend-following tool.
Unlike Paul, Holt’s second case, Don, doesn’t posture as though he is above consumerism. Instead he adopts hobbies with the all-consuming, nondiscriminating zeal of the connoisseur completist. As Holt puts it, he “has trouble resisting merchandise that might advance his pursuit of the optimal experience” and “believes his purchases are essential because they allow him to enjoy his chosen activities to the acme of their possibilities.” Like Paul, Don is “a scavenger,” but not for deals. Instead he is forever “scouting for the right goods,” which he then “hordes.” His consumerism would seem to be subordinate to his hedonism, yet it is more accurate to say his hedonism is enabled by the promiscuity of the market.
Holt notes that “both locate their identity work within the market place rather than other organizing spheres of social life such as family, religion, community, and work.” That is what it means to live in a consumerist society. Ideology makes it seem more and more like common sense to solve the problems of the self through consumption, as if that what consumption was for. The approaches Paul and Don have to consumerism typify the options for the “reflexively defiant consumer,” the self-conscious consumer who is reluctant to be dominated by the consumerist code of meanings but can’t recognize any alternatives. Consumerism (partaking in the meanings attached to goods to fashion a public identity for ourselves) become harder to differentiate from simple consumption (meeting a basic set of human needs with goods and services); at this point the two may be inseparable.
Consumerist ideology encourages the belief that becoming a “nonconformist” with an idiosyncratic personal style equates to a kind of social success.
Is it possible to live a fulfilling life without participating in and elaborating the code that, according to Baudrillard and Bourdieu and all the countless other social theorists, serves to supply us with our sense of ourselves? Holt argues that postmodern marketing has succeeded in establishing the idea that meanings “must be channeled through brands to have value” — the meanings that might otherwise have been derived from other spheres of social life are nullified and lose legitimacy. Meanings from those areas of our lives, powerful though they may be, seem to lose validity in their transience; they immediately become memories, nostalgia. They lack the staying power to shape our social identity for the long term, as they no longer can demarcate social rank.
Consumerism has the capability now of fixing us in a particular position in a class hierarchy while stifling any discontent we might have had at being so fixed. Social class remains palpable and lived in, everywhere obvious yet at the same time elusive and implicit, deviously flexible. Because its meanings are always changing, because our own identity becomes so fluid within it, the code permits us to believe that we are always on the cusp of inclusion, or perhaps worse, that we are where it’s at rather than right where they want us. It serves up so many modes for making distinctions for ourselves that we can always believe we are atop the pile that matters specifically to us, allowing the fact we are at the bottom of other piles that matter more broadly to society to seem less troublesome.
In a post from a few years ago, Will Wilkinson, a research fellow at the libertarian think tank The Cato Institute, puts a positive interpretation on the promiscuous proliferation of status hierarchies.
The obvious point to make about status, then, is that it is domain relative, and that the number of domains does not seem to be fixed. (My example may tempt you you to confuse status for fame. Don’t.) One of my favorite documentaries, Word Wars, goes inside the fascinating world of competitive Scrabble players. Naturally, this being a human endeavor, there is a ladder of status among Scrabble players, and for the people who devote their live and energy to the game, this is the kind of status that matters. Now, it may seem to you that Peyton Manning is a bigger deal than Joe Edley, but it doesn’t seem that way to Joe Edley.
And Edley is certainly entitled to think that, of course. There is always consolation to be found in continually narrowing and tailoring the criteria for success to what we have already uniquely accomplished, but this also entails a retreat from the shared norms of what constitutes success in society. It’s not about money or power or influence or fame (as Wilkinson helpfully notes).
Such tailoring is ultimately indistinguishable from the process of identity making, and the processes have begun to merge. (The internet’s social networking tools have come to provide a material basis for this formula of personal success through individuation.) Consumerist ideology encourages the belief that achieving a highly attenuated identity, becoming a “nonconformist” with an idiosyncratic personal style, equates to a kind of social success. Individuation becomes an end in itself, a transcendental basis for value. As long as we are at once legible and inimitable, a carefully curated collection of significations, we can imagine ourselves being “read” and appreciated, recognized but not effaced and assimilated in the recognition. But doesn’t that mean we are now all just living in a different sort of jelly jar?
Rob would love to hear from you. Drop him a line at horninggenbub [at] gmail [dot] com.
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