You work to buy the perfect gift, but you don’t get the satisfaction of knowing your work made another human being happy. Unless you were given direction as to what to buy, which would have made your work infinitely easier, more likely than not the receiver of the gift is not going to like it. The very surplus of goods we enjoy has allowed each one of us to develop needs so idiosyncratic that only certain brands, and the stories they tell, can satisfy any lack we might happen to feel. We are as finicky as house cats, turning up our noses as everything that doesn’t fit the idea we have of ourselves, an idea made as superficially complex and arcane as a volley of text messages.
Though Facebook’s “Like” button may be good news for big business, it’s dreary stuff for people who actually … well … like things, because watered-down liking has changed our relationship to the world in the way that marketing, a few decades earlier, changed our relationship to consumer items. With marketing’s advent, the world suddenly fell in love with the idea rather than the utility of things; with a stroke of the ad-man’s magic pen, an automobile, that greasy machine with four wheels intended to get man (or woman) from point A to B, turned into a means of orgiastic celebration, and a carton of orange juice, the sweet fluid of squashed citrus pulp, magically transmogrified into an elixir capable of curing everything from cancer to crabs.
It’s hard not to think that my silliness and mindless consumerism and joy stolen from artificial scarcity at the time had something to do with Esteban’s lack of decent prospects. Yet now I search for what I helped in part to destroy with that particular brand of American generosity that blights instead of nourishes — a bit of cultural authenticity in a world that becomes more and more homogenized with each passing day. I’ve found it in strange, but not surprising places — an Alpine hut, a Cretan farm, a bottle of pear schnapps smuggled on board an L-1011. I’ve become a veritable fetishist of cultural authenticity. Perhaps that’s because I know that I can never fully inhabit that authenticity, that I will always be like the museum goer who stares at the historical artifact desirous of understanding (but who remains unfulfilled), and the best I can hope is that in the eyes of someone like Esteban I’ll appear as something approaching human.
By facilitating the process by which goods cycle through meanings, we start to function like little advertising agencies, sending out marketing messages of our own, with our personality as the medium and our friends as the audiences whose attention we broker. We consume the identity that we hope the goods will convey in the process of broadcasting it to others. The greater the scope of our broadcast, the quicker the goods exhaust their signifying potency for us. We then need a new message to send, new consumer goods to send them with.
The social hierarchies reproduced by consumerism are also engineered to suit capital, naturalizing the sorts of ritual consumption that suit its perpetuation: rather than potlatches and festivals, we orient our consumption through such ideas as invidious comparison, competitive conspicuous consumption and self-presentation as branding. Rather than use consumption to stabilize identity and render it secure, we end up using consumerism to chase the impossible dream of unfettered individuality, of identity that is entirely free of contingencies, of finding the goods that represent us and no one else for only those rare soul mates who can interpret them. We search and search for these people, destined never to find them, no matter how many fleeting glimpses of them we catch in the mirror.
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.
Consumption is not a process of using something up but instead is an act of communication, a kind of immaterial production enhancing the meaning of goods, provided we are confident that our gestures are being received by an audience that recognizes and comprehends them. This immaterial production, and not the consumption of the goods themselves, provides us with satisfaction, such as it is, particularly when the code of signs is richly elaborated, as it is in consumer societies. That is, the various sensual satisfactions that goods might supply have all been supplanted by the overarching satisfaction of having our identity, as expressed through a particular consumption act, recognized and validated. Then we know it mattered, that it meant something. Without that recognition, it becomes harder to consume at all.
Were we to turn off our computers or throw our smartphones in the river would the resulting isolation serve to neutralize us as thoroughly as participation in the new technologically mediated social system promises to? The technology itself, its propensity to capitalize on network effects, inevitably becomes coercive, reshaping the sphere in which identity can appear, in which vital recognition can occur. Our situation with social technologies is akin to that we face with consumerism. It’s difficult to resist consumerism because the resistance itself can so easily be transformed by the very system it wants to reject into a signifying product to be consumed for identity purposes. Something similar is happening with social media: we are left Twittering our paranoia about what twitter is doing to us.
Unfortunately for radical revolution, political and counter-cultural activists open-source innovators were most likely the sort of people the Invisible Committee were expecting to mount the insurrection, to seize upon the general atmosphere of crisis to reconstitute life on a different footing. But the Committee fail to grasp that entertainment and labor have been merged: “Gains in productivity, outsourcing, mechanization, automated and digital production have so progressed that they have almost reduced to zero the quantity of living labor necessary in the manufacture of any product,” they claim. “We are living the paradox of a society of workers without work, where entertainment, consumption and leisure only underscore the lack from which they are supposed to distract us.” This is not all that paradoxical either. The “living labor” is no longer bound up in the goods as in their meaning, as in the process that animates their circulation. And that labor manifests as entertainment or self-fashioning — the authors point out that “producing oneself is becoming the dominant occupation of a society where production no longer has an object” and argue that “it now becomes possible to sell oneself rather than one’s labor power, to be remunerated not for what one does but for what one is, for our exquisite mastery of social codes, for our relational talents, for our smile and our way of presenting ourselves.” The crucial difference is that this effort is paid for not in wages but in attention.
The apotheosis of consumerism is where our identity is entirely implicated in market-mediated sociality. This fact can’t be buffered by the anonymity of money and market exchange. Rather than entering into an exchange with a stable identity, we become ourselves through the public transaction, which provides us with a self only for as long as it is approved in the interaction process. The exchange is “singularized,” its uniqueness supplants that of the people involved. They fade into the communal backdrop, waiting to emerge again in another dramatic moment of “sharing.” And every effort at sharing will be judged, fixing our place within a status hierarchy. We can fantasize about finding the status hierarchy we could dominate — maximizing our “subcultural capital.” But this involves doubling down on personalized exchange, moving further away from the capital that circulates with no questions asked (money) and reinforcing the value of contingent capital that has worth only in particularly circumstances. So at that point, we would be dealing in an even more obscure personal currency, begging for people to accept it, exchange it into acceptance and attention. Even if we were fortunate enough to find people to accept it, would we be willing to sacrifice the ability to trade with anyone else? Or would we be content to be the big fish in a ludicrously small puddle, without worrying about the size of everyone else’s ponds?