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by Rob Horning

27 Nov 2008

Should we be thankful for the economic turmoil? Recently Drake Bennett wrote a speculative essay for The Boston Globe about what life in the U.S. might be like if a new Depression really took hold. He makes it sound like an anti-consumerist paradise:

two of the basics of existence - food and clothing - are a lot cheaper today, thanks to industrial agriculture and overseas labor. The average middle-class man in the late 1920s, according to the writer and cultural critic Virginia Postrel, could afford just six outfits, and his wife nine - by comparison, the average woman today has seven pairs of jeans alone….

I wonder about this comparison, since we now have so many new social contexts that invite different rules about what dress is appropriate. Because I don’t have to wear a suit to work, I have only one. I have about five nice shirts and maybe five pairs of pants that are not shabby or casual. Maybe we have more casual, disposable clothes—a way of chewing up our accursed share. But we probably don’t have much more than people from the 1920s did in the way of adult clothes. Beyond a certain point, more clothes is more clutter, creating unnecessary optional paralysis. (Then again, I am an advocate of the stealth uniform.)

Bennett continues:

If we look closely, however, we might see more former lawyers wearing knockoffs, doing their back-to-school shopping at Target or Wal-Mart rather than Banana Republic and Abercrombie & Fitch. Lean times might kill off much of the taboo around buying hand-me-downs, and with modern distribution networks - and a push from the reduce-reuse-recycle mind-set of environmentalism - we might see the development of nationwide used-clothing chains.

These already exist, especially if you regard Goodwill and the Salvation Army as franchise for second-hand-store brands. And I’ve been to Savers from Seattle to Phoenix to Providence to Montreal. The thrift infrastructure has been building up for years, but it is premised on other people not valuing their belongings and giving them away for nothing. When people replace perfectly useful things with new versions out of a sensitivity to fashion or a burning itch to spend, this is even better for thrift stores. But such luxury spending would be cut first, if we are truly rational about cutting back. The fashion cycle could, in theory, slow down. People may suddenly discover all this extra use value in goods they might otherwise have discarded, and only the truly worthless junk would make it to Savers. So it may be that second-hand stores thrive in flush times and stand to be depleted in a downturn, from an initial surge of customers and then a drying-up of quality donations. (In other words, I would no longer be able to find a vintage IBM buckling spring keyboard for $6.)

Bennett addresses the return to use value as it relates to technology.

In general, novelty would lose some of its luster. It’s not simply that we’d buy less, we’d look for different qualities in what we buy. New technology would grow less seductive, basic reliability more important. We’d see more products like Nextel phones and the Panasonic Toughbook laptop, which trade on their sturdiness, and fewer like the iPhone - beautiful, cleverly designed, but not known for durability. The neighborhood appliance shop could reappear in a new form - unlicensed, with hacked cellphones and rebuilt computers.

The underlying idea here is that gadgetry fulfills our need to express our identity more than anything else. The alleged functionality improvements usually prove detrimental, at least initially, as reliability is surrendered to style. Bennett cites anthropologist Grant McCracken’s “surging vs. dwelling” explanation of consumer behavior:

the difference, as he wrote recently on his blog, between believing that the world “teems with new features, new things, new opportunities, new excitement” and thinking that life’s pleasures come from counting one’s blessings and appreciating and holding onto what one already has. Economic uncertainty, he argues, drives us toward the latter.

The impact of a depression, then, will be gauged in terms of how expansive our identities can become. Consolidation, “dwelling,” is a matter of retreat to more traditional self-definitions—family, religion, etc.—what McCracken dubs “homeyness” and what others would call domestic suffocation. On the other hand, “surging” is embracing the material richness of capitalism as a means to do some freelance self-fashioning along lines dictated by our dreams, or more likely, by what seems to be endorsed in the larger world of mass media. This subjects us to various forms of media manipulation, but at least we are fooled into thinking we are autonomous.

So, the danger in a depression now is not so much that people will starve but that we will be deprived of the usual consumerist tokens we have come to depend on to express our identity. We won’t be able to afford to spend on brand distinctions and will in effect feel declassed. Chances are we wouldn’t get “homey” or immediately snap into those virtuous behaviors I occasionally tout as replacements to consumerism—being more active and creating things for ourselves, etc. More likely we just feel disoriented, transformed from a somebody into a nobody without the trinkets that grant us self-knowledge, the things we are accustomed to that let us make manifest and material what we want to believe about ourselves. We would have to learn to make those things for ourselves, and this would be a painful adjustment.

Consumerism lets us participate in a far vaster world than our household by sharing the brands and designs that function as a language of distinction. It’s one thing to buy a set of designer measuring spoons at Target and feel classy, another altogether to try to make something equally as polished, with the same immediately apprehensible ability to serve as a social signifier. The spoons tell people you have never met just what you are trying to be; the homemade knickknack speaks a private, most likely incomprehensible language. The sphere into which we can project our identity contracts. Enter domestic suffocation.

Much of a modern depression would unfold in the domestic sphere: people driving less, shopping less, and eating in their houses more. They would watch television at home; unemployed parents would watch over their own kids instead of taking them to day care.

There’s no guarantee that this would be transitional—that the isolating retreat from a society grounded in the shared ability to spend won’t totally unhinge us and that a richer vocabulary of selfhood would eventually emerge to supplant brands and hype and gadgets and gear and whatnot. But that’s the wager in praising the sunny side of economic stagnation.

by J.M. Suarez

26 Nov 2008

Undoubtedly, the word used most often when describing Pushing Daisies is whimsical, an apt choice to be sure. The series revolves around Ned’s (Lee Pace) ability to bring living things back to life (with conditions), including childhood sweetheart Chuck (Anna Friel). However, Pushing Daisies is more than pure whimsy, it is: a drama of long-lost family members and secrets, a mystery-of-the-week, a sweet and strange love story, and a very funny series—thanks in large part to a wonderful supporting cast headed by Chi McBride and Kristen Chenoweth. For those who enjoy their television shows to be a little off-center, Pushing Daisies is highly recommended.


by Karen Zarker

26 Nov 2008

You don’t have to be a comics lover to delight in this slice of American pop culture history—Depression era entertainment, anyone?—but the comics lover in your life will totally geek out on this collection of artwork (from sketches to full, gorgeous renditions), depictions of products (Superman undies for boys, decoder rings), and events (Superman Day and Valentine’s Day, 1940), and DC trivia (25 accessible archivale pieces stored in clear plastic cases). Billed as a “museum-in-a-book” with rare collectibles, a modern reader will feel the ghosts of enthusiasts past looking over their shoulders—oh, wait, that’s your kid, scooching in next to you to get a look. Best make room on the couch when you open this one.


by Mike Schiller

26 Nov 2008

The battle between Rock Band 2 and Guitar Hero has a clear winner this year, and to nobody’s surprise, it’s been won by the people who’ve been with this genre from the beginning.  I actually enjoyed Guitar Hero 3 last year because it was more of a game than a toy; now that Guitar Hero has added the instruments that Rock Band has, its focus seems muddled while Rock Band‘s remains clear: Rock Band (and by extension, Rock Band 2) simply wants to create the most fulfilling social experience possible. With over 80 songs on the disc, another 55 that you can import from the first game, and over 300 that you can download, the song catalog alone makes Rock Band 2 something that just about anyone could have some interest in. A refined and tweaked career interface, the inclusion of a “no-fail” mode, and a “drum trainer” then push it into Ultimate Party Game territory. The Rock Band 2 bundle is not cheap—almost $200 is a lot of coin to drop on a game—but what you get out of it is one of the only gaming experiences out there that truly has unlimited replay value. [$179.99-$189.99]


by Zeth Lundy

26 Nov 2008

U.S. Singles Collection: The Capitol Years 1962-1965 is an aesthetically ambitious new box set that reissues the Beach Boys’ first singles as 16 CD replicas of the original 45s. It collects both the mono and stereo versions of most of the songs, along with a handful of previously unreleased mixes and outtakes and one live track (“409”, from 1965). The box set is a beautiful thing, no doubt—the discs come in cardboard sleeves with original artwork and are accompanied by a hardcover book of great photos, all housed in a “surfboard-inspired” carton with wood veneer inlay—but it is, admittedly, a fetish object for the collector. (It’s worth noting that all of the music spread out over these 16 discs could, in fact, fit onto two discs—but then, the music is not the sole reason for one to own this set.) So it’s a fetish object, yes, but one that has a lot to say about just how innovative the band was prepared to be as it came out of the gate protected in its surf and hot-rod metaphors. [$132.98]


//Mixed media

Here Comes the Bloom: Timothy Bloom Takes Hip-Hop to the Sock-Hop

// Sound Affects

"More sock-hop than hip-hop, soulster Timothy Bloom does a stunning '50s revamp on contemporary R&B.

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