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Unchained Melody: At Home in the Consumerist Funhouse

Getting and spending we lay waste our powers — which we didn’t want much to begin with.

Melody, a temp hired to cover a regular staffer’s maternity leave, worked in my office for nine months, and she loved animal crackers. Every morning she would pad in Nine West loafers into the office, an oversized pink Kate Spade bag slung over her shoulder. She’d then sit down at her desk, unzip her purse and remove a small Ziploc bag containing about two dozen Barnum’s animal crackers. Sometimes they were frosted and spangled with pink and silver candy pearls; sometimes they were plain, like the kind used to placate teething infants.

Melody cheerfully munched those tigers and elephants and seals at regular intervals, washing them down with instant hot cocoa in a canary yellow mug that sported the title “Princess.” She was a happy woman. She had a face as round and rosy as a Braeburn apple. And she liked children; her desk sported four pink picture frames each displaying a niece or nephew’s cherubic visage.

When it came to shopping, Ann Taylor was her store of choice. She looked to each new season as an excuse to update her wardrobe. Fall’s crisp mornings saw her in denim jackets of taupe and mauve; winter’s glowering skies, fluffy gray wraps and polka-dotted snow boots. Yet even the most fearsome nor’easter couldn’t get Melody down. Regardless of the weather forecast, her moods oscillated unfailingly between cheerful and ebullient.

It must be said, however, that autumn enjoyed particular power over Melody’s affections. During this season, her mood’s needle was buried in ebullience. She would use the crisp temperatures and falling leaves as an excuse for Burberry merino sweaters and lambskin gloved hands with which she gripped her daily lunchtime indulgence, a Starbuck’s gingerbread lattè. Her soul would burble and bubble, steamed like so much milk foam to bliss by autumns’ magic wand, and not an hour would go by when her laugh would float over the rows of gray cubicles like the sound of perfume bottles clinking together.

Sometimes Melody would ask me for advice, usually about graduate school or “long books,” the latter of which she wanted, but didn’t have the time, to read. She dreamed of earning a master’s in “business or something fun like that” and needed to know how one got into such a program, needed to know if it was matter of just showing up one day with tuition check in hand, or if the process was more involved. My advice she would transcribe onto hot pink Post-It notes in that looping cursive characteristic of ambitious yet borderline illiterate young women. She festooned an entire wall of her cubicle with those notes—so she wouldn’t forget what to do, she said.

Melody’s choices brought her into conformity with a type — a socially acceptable, banal type — whose ubiquity meant she need never feel alone.

At such moments I remember thinking that if the contents of my head could so easily be transcribed onto pink sticky notes in such airy, inconsequential handwriting, then perhaps I too had what it took to be a happy woman content to mark time’s passage with sunglasses, sweaters, and diet-cheating sweets. For, at least on the surface, Melody made happiness seem only a matter of cultivating particular tastes. Her consumer choices most likely made her happy because they made her feel like she belonged to a group of women (and perhaps men) who liked  similar things — a legion of smiling, apple-headed, twenty-something bookkeepers snuggled up in Gap hoodies and sipping bowel-warming blends of artificially flavored coffee. Her choices brought her into conformity with a type — a socially acceptable, banal type — whose ubiquity meant she need never feel alone.

The pleasure and meaning Melody derived from her consumer choices went beyond matters of taste. She inhabited a world that, though enveloped in and dependent on the natural realities of the physical world, was strangely removed from those realities. Banana Republic’s fall line signaled the season, not vice versa, and the sere leaf of autumn existed only to coordinate a particular blouse with a particular pair of wellingtons. Her consumer choices not only transformed her into a certain type of woman, they also transformed the world she inhabited. She knew the passage of time only by what consumer goods happened to be available; changing foliage and temperature drops were mere epiphenomena. The “real” world simply occasioned the need for those goods. The frost would not come without merino sweaters being on display first. The winter wind blustered only to blow the pages of J. Crew catalogs into her path.

Those consumer goods imbued the world with a meaning more seductive — at least for someone with no ties to community, culture, or history — than the meaning originally occulted by consumerism. French postmodern theorist Jean Baudrillard considers this phenomenon in his book, Fatal Strategies. “What fascinates everyone is the debauchery of signs, that reality, everywhere and always, is debauched by signs,” he writes.

This is the interesting game, and this is what happens in the media, in fashion, in publicity … in the spectacle of anything at all, because the perversion of reality, the spectacular distortion of facts and representations, the triumph of simulation is as fascinating as catastrophe — and it is one, in effect; it is avertiginous subversion of all effects of meaning. For this effect of simulation, or of seduction, as you please, we are ready to pay any price, much more than for the “real” quality of our life.

But supposedly the simulation of reality brought about by consumerism makes the consumer quite miserable. In his 1957 essay “Of Happiness and Despair We Have No Measure,” sociologist Ernest Van Den Haag writes,

Nothing can be more tiresome than the tireless, cheerless pursuit of pleasure. Days go slowly when they are empty; one cannot tell one from the other. And yet the years go fast. When time is endlessly killed, one lives in an endless present until time ends without ever having passed, leaving a person who never lived to exclaim, “I wasted time and now doth time waste me.”

The deep yet latent unhappiness of the individual whose true desires have been supplanted by bland, consumerist impulses is something that also concerned historian and critic Christopher Lasch. “Twentieth-century peoples have erected so many psychological barriers against strong emotion, and have invested those defenses with so much of the energy derived from forbidden impulse, that they can no longer remember what it feels like to be inundated by desire,” he writes.

They tend, rather, to be consumed with rage, which derives from defenses against desire and gives rise in turn to new defenses against rage itself. Outwardly bland, submissive, and sociable, they seethe with an inner anger for which dense, overpopulated, bureaucratic society can devise few legitimate outlets.

The individual subjugated by consumerism is an inchoate amalgam of desires sublimated into actions that do nothing to relieve those desires. She is a melancholy hedonist who cannot even luxuriate in her melancholia, so alienated is she from her authentic wants and needs by the empty pleasures of getting and spending.

Paradise regained: consumerism’s untroubled sleep of reason.

Melody never seethed with anger or lamented time’s wasting effects. Her pursuit of pleasure was authentically cheerful, and days emptied of their significance only seemed to her like so many shopping bags to be refilled. Indeed, time could not move fast enough. Rather than being wracked by guilt and anger that she could not feel the natural tug of the seasons, their eternal ebb and flow marking life’s heavier or lighter moments, she internalized the discourse of capitalism and saw in the shorter days and longer nights only an excuse to buy longer pants or a shorter coat than last year’s. It was perfectly natural for Melody to see the world this way. She wasn’t unhappy. She sensed no impending catastrophe. The simulacra of consumerist society seemed as natural and right to her as the “real” quality of life, which didn’t even get a foot in the door as far as she was concerned. It could have only been a catastrophe had she known something else, had she tasted of an outside before being locked inside the existential Macy’s to which contemporary existence sentences us.

Melody’s pursuit of pleasure was authentically cheerful, and days emptied of their significance only seemed to her like so many shopping bags to be refilled.

Once Melody mentioned she kept a blog. I tried not to overhear this, but being in the cubicle behind her made it difficult. So I googled it, half hoping to find confessions of Prozac washed down with Wild Turkey, a stint in a mental institution, or just a few sad reflections on life. But what I found was just more of the Melody I knew from work. Each entry celebrated one consumer item or another. October was the “happy, happy month for tan corduroys” and June brought dreams of “Pottery Barn cutlery for fun, fun grill-outs.” Sometimes the entries were color-coordinated, sometimes themed by season. But they all looked out upon a vast expanse of joy that found expression in pale pink, sixteen-point font and oodles of emoticons.

Consumerism can make you happy. It has rectified the age-old problem of the self’s division from the world. For in consumerism’s simulated world, in the constant stream of advertisements whose narratives have become as familiar and comforting as bedtime stories, the gap between life and essence is closed. This gives some of us a peace of mind that hasn’t been enjoyed since antiquity when, as theorist Georg Lukács writes, “the fire that burns in the soul is of the same essential nature as the stars.” The world created by consumerism is a world where meaning is once again immanent, and the devoted consumer need never wonder how in purchasing a certain item she can make reality conform to her desires and her desires conform to that reality.

Yet this world is not so much a universe as a house of cards. And as too-big-to-fail banks, their hands on the Ace of Spades, threaten to topple the whole edifice, I wonder what will become of Melody once her Visa comes back declined. What then will bridge the gap between being and nothingness? Will time stop for her? Will the color palette of her life still coordinate, or begin to clash? Will we only then see the impotent rage of thwarted desire as it chokes on animal crackers and cocoa?

Ylajali would love to hear from you. Drop her a line at hansengenbub [at] gmail [dot] com.

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