Rana Dasgupta on Mon, 19 Aug 2002 18:04:29 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Imagination and consumer culture

A recent essay, written for a less "expert" audience
than this one, but still, I hope, of interest.

Consumer culture and: rules, systems, norms, freedom,
religion, iconography, imagination.


And consumer culture

"How can you tell if you are happy?"

It is a difficult question; but answers are at hand. 
The man at the fair says, "You *must* be happy.  We
have a catalogue of unhappy people – and you are not
in it!"  

"Show us!  Show us the unhappy people!"

He opens the book of drawings.  There are people who
live under the horrible burden of Islam.  There are
people who are not allowed to vote.  There are people
who have to share a television with their neighbours. 
And there are all the people, so many millions of
them, who were unfortunate enough to live before now. 
They always had to do what society said, lived
primarily in black and white, and never knew any of
life’s simplest pleasures – like driving home to
irresponsibly loud, CD-quality Britney Spears.  

It is true.  Those people must be incurably sad.  When
you think about it, their lives must be hell.  By
simple logic, we must be happy.  Blissfully,
infinitely happy.

The question is answered.  At first it seemed to
require introspection, but luckily it requires none.

Can we extract a definition of happiness from this
inversion of unhappiness?  

Happiness is freedom.  And freedom is consumer

The conclusion is paradoxical in one respect. 
Consumer culture has been built by the greatest
project of social engineering ever undertaken by human
beings.  The homogenisation of many hundreds of
millions of lives under a more-or-less uniform social
and economic framework that is not markedly different
whether your shopping mall is in Sao Paulo or Los
Angeles.  It is a framework that is built on vast
systems that require an intense ordering of every life
that is to comply with them: the system of credit, the
system of advertising, the system of highways...

That is not how consumer culture presents itself.  It
presents itself as a constant Mardi Gras with no Lent,
an unending cocktail party of glamorous, self-made
mavericks.  Consumer culture loves its myths of excess
and dissent.  Those that dared to be different.  How
important is the icon of the brilliantly
unconventional pop star who cares only to play his
music – society be damned! – and seek out his
idiosyncratic gratification.  (Or *hers*.  Female pop
stars have the added benefit of a cleavage, an
important symbol of liberty.  Cleavages signify that
we have broken all barriers and prove to those who
doubted that consumer culture is one big fiesta, a
never ending carnival of sexual promise.)

But most of us do not experience life like this.  The
alter ego of the pop star, and his precondition, is a
much more telling icon of consumer culture: the
business manager.  Consumer culture is managed
culture, and the behaviour that is encouraged in most
individuals is not the reckless abandon of all norms
but a deep psychological attachment to them.  If we
were to try to map consumer culture onto medieval
Catholicism, pop stars would be the angels who supply
the image of bliss that is the rationale for our daily
routines of abstinence, prayer and repentance.  

This deep attachment to norms manifests itself in a
hypersensitivity to the abnormal, in the self and in
others.  It is among the middle classes of the United
States, where the dream of a self completely liberated
by the perfection of consumer culture is strongest,
that this fear of non-conformity is most heightened. 
(A study of the use of the word "weird" as used in
that milieu would yield interesting results.  "Am I
being weird?"  Or simply, as a way of categorising and
distancing oneself from behaviour that has no
archetype within consumer culture, "That’s weird!") 
Americans are particularly prone to detecting
psychological pathologies within themselves precisely
because they feel that in America happiness should be
automatic.  "I have education and a job and CNN.  And
I am not happy.  I am clearly not normal."  Naturally,
the way to eradicate all abnormalities is more
consumption – this time, of psychoanalysis.

This intolerance towards "weird" behaviour makes
consumer culture – and consumers – rather
unsympathetic towards scenes like these:

--A group of people find an empty house and decide to
live in it together.  They do not want the house to go
to waste and they do not wish to compound the
loneliness of city life by living on their own.

--A group of unemployed friends shares a single CD of
Microsoft Windows 98.  They cannot each afford to pay
for it, but neither can they afford the social and
professional costs of not having it.

--A woman discovers that her local supermarket throws
out a huge container-load of food every day because it
has reached its sell-by date.  The food is fresh and
sealed.  Since she never has the money for groceries
she starts to visit the container every evening to
stock her fridge with meat and vegetables.

--A man likes the feel of smooth stone under his bare
feet.  He walks around for some time in a big shopping
mall with his shoes and socks in his hands paying
attention to the feeling of the stone on his soles. 
Then he becomes tired and sits on the ground in front
of the window of Gap.  He looks up at the other people
walking by.

These are humdrum, everyday kinds of behaviour.  None
of these scenes presents characters that could be said
to be fanatical or irrational.  And yet I am sure we
can imagine that they might in real life arouse
suspicion or hostility from observers.  They might
receive charges of madness or criminality.  Some of
them could even end up in jail.

It is no surprise that a supermarket would try to
prevent people from stocking their kitchens with its
waste.  In that way it will lose revenues from those
who otherwise would have had to pay for their food. 
What is surprising is the extent to which ordinary
people who have no stake in the supermarket's profits
feel equally suspicious of people like our imaginary
woman.  I see her as furtive, operating after dark,
hoping no one is about.  No one is thanking her for
reducing the mountain of the supermarket's waste.

Consumption, and the lifestyle it necessitates, has
become the number one social duty.  There are
penalties for those who wish to live other lives,
penalties that are not only financial and legal, but
also social.  The delight that consumer culture takes
in all that is forbidden elsewhere – "Imagine,
children, a place where men and women may not even
look at each other" – is a diversion from the fact
that here such traditional regimes of prohibition have
been replaced by new ones that are less brutal but
also more profound, for they do not deny our libido
but rather harness it for other ends.  

This profound experience of consumer culture, this
exhilarating and also draining experience, is one that
seems to have the effect of evacuating the reality
from everything that happens outside it.  That the
word 'consumer' is so often used, particularly, again,
in the United States, as a synonym for 'human being'
is an indication of the fact that people in consumer
culture often do not feel very much in common with
those who may be human beings but who are not
'consumers'.  A sense of solidarity with others arises
through a shared experience of consumer culture, not
through the recognition of things that are more
universal: the need for food and shelter, the need for
relationships and stability.  A middle-class
Londoner's relationship to a middle-class Berliner is
one of shared culture inflected by national
difference.  His relationship to a slum dweller in
Delhi is bewilderment.  He cannot enter this reality,
and can only mutter words of pity that this creature
is not like himself.

This is why the rape, in broad daylight, of a woman in
Manhattan, is a human tragedy, whereas the death
annually of millions from malaria, cholera or simple
diarrhoea is a vague, insubstantial statistic.  The
people who try to communicate the severity of such
things speak a language that most people cannot

Much of what passes for ethics these days is actually
nostalgia.  Nostalgia for when consumerism was good,
everybody shared the profits, nation states were
generous, and there were no Indonesian sweatshops. 
But there are people who are beginning to understand
what an ethics of the global economy might look like. 
They are hampered in their search by the fact that
there are not words to express some of the concepts
that are crucial for their arguments to make sense.  

There is thus a need for imagination.  Not just:
Imagine an airy new kitchen with the latest in
Scandinavian design!  Not just: Imagine a world where
wireless Internet is a reality!  There is a need for
an imagination that will turn the clichés of consumer
culture inside out and bring new perspectives.  

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