Thirteen years ago, when I began my collection of seventies-era cookbooks, how-to guides, and life manuals, the economy was bustling along, nourished by the manna of dotcom stock jobbing profits. This manna also fueled the dullest undergraduate’s daydreams, which danced through his head enrobed in all the finery a salary in the high five figures can command. Today, however, these books sitting around my apartment seem documents from a vanished world — Work and Leisure in Ultima Thule, perhaps, or Homemaking in Atlantis — one which was pried away by force of massive low-interest leverage, or was patiently ladled out of the ship of state during various bailouts. These tomes represent a collective memento mori of a variety of prosperity and equality that is not likely to return in my lifetime.
Unemployment in Desert City hovers at nine percent. What jobs exist are mostly temporary and lacking benefits. Some 11,000 houses huddle empty, having been foreclosed or never occupied. Vast portions of the population sit idle. They have given up on the very idea of employment. The state legislature, its carving knives sharp and poised, stands ready to scrape the bones of already spavined public sector.
Not to be outdone by the boys, Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi, The Jersey Shore‘s sample-sized sexpot renowned for bitch slaps given and received, has gone decidedly more highbrow than Pauly or Sitch, penning A Shore Thing, a roman à clef detailing the Jersey shore’s many sweaty pleasures. Author Snooki’s protagonist is one Gia Spumante, a café au lait party girl on the prowl for “gorilla juiceheads” and good times.
State parks, national monuments, public libraries — these spaces ask nothing of us save that we enjoy them in a respectful, sensible manner (sadly, universities are already lost). The keepers of them do not try to pry into our psyches and hearts to discern how to better manipulate our covetousness. The spaces themselves do not beckon us to consume for consumption’s sake, to sicken and impoverish ourselves in an attempt to satisfy desires that do not originate in our hearts and minds but from the innumerable screens and billboards that surround us at any given moment.
Even Mr. End-of-History himself, Francis Fukuyama, admits (albeit in a cautious, highly qualified manner) that the great political experiment our founding fathers set in motion has essentially devolved into a plutocracy. This means goodbye social mobility, liberty, sovereignty, and just about everything else Idaho militia men find so sexy about the constitution. Money obeys only one imperative: to make more of itself. On its way to doing so it will trample everything you and I hold dear.
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.
Veruca Salt existed only to consolidate the triumph of their indie predecessors as the latter came to savor the awareness that they had become the icons of the music-industry establishment. Their imitators now drove press coverage; A&R people now sought their avatars. Their backstage banter had now taken on the trappings of lore. Veruca Salt’s inevitably insignificant career was always already a footnote to the bands that managed to break out of obscurity and redefine “alternative” as a wholly integrated market segment. Even before they got national distribution, they were already destined to be that flash in the pan that signifies the complete reification of a once vibrant and organic artistic style, which afterward lives only in memory, in legend, even for the performers who have been therewith made legendary. Veruca Salt meant that from that point onward, the alt-rock vanguard could only go through the motions of their petrified genre.
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 of 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.
Richman co-opts the function of ads and turns it inside out. He’s offering an endorsement that does no one but himself any good (I like them because they fit me) , and he’s undermining the premises of ordinary ads’ endorsements, showing that a product need not make you feel superior to others to satisfy — that a product should make you gloat about it, not about yourself for buying it.
Crowdsourced reviews ensure we don’t get duped. They thus provide a modicum of regulation in a far too laissez-faire milieu. But they also confine our lives to the wan pleasures of the predictable, to the safe wagers we’re sure to receive a return from, rather than allowing us to tempt fate or bet the house.