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Thursday, Jan 26, 2006

Another sobbering article about MP3 players and hearing loss, last week from the Washington Post: The iPod and the Fury.  Along with the amazing sales figure for Apple’s audio toy, Gregory Mott notes that hearing loss has been on the rise even before the I-Pod, most likely not just because our ambience has become louder but also because we had plenty of time to play with Walkmans before that.


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Wednesday, Jan 25, 2006

A really disturbing story: Motown Center Torn Down.


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Wednesday, Jan 25, 2006

Is cultural permission—- it’s okay to have plastic surgery, it’s okay to have sex, it’s okay to flaunt your wealth—really just a transmogrified form of repression rather than the liberation it’s purported to be? Are the forms of liberation consumerism promises typically “false” liberations, or is the experience of freedom always authentic in the mind of the person experiencing it? When retailers aren’t promising you the opportunity to be an individual, they are often promising you some form of enhanced freedom—freedom and individuality being the twin pillars of post-war American ideology (just ask Milton Friedman). These promises often take paradoxical forms; they assuage the anxiety they simultaneousy provoke, like all successful ads must: stir up a dilemma and then offer the solution to it, a la Listerine’s brilliant discovery of “halitosis.” The idea of freedom, of individuality as well, are easily detatched from the experience of these things, especially when it’s alleged to be available in reified form, with no active participation by the consumer required. These reified forms of the treasured values may function as their opposite in practice—an object that symbolizes freedom instead of freedom itself, a consumer choice that represents individuality instead of personal fulfillment itself. And pursiung these objects instead of the values keeps us searching in the wrong arena—in the buyosphere instead of the public sphere, in the mall rather than city hall. The effort it requires to realize freedom and individuality may in fact be beyond many of us who have been raised within a consumer culture: We are bred to prefer convenience and celebrate laziness and doing nothing rather than the difficulties that come with perpetually testing reality and questioning authorities as one must to realize freedom and individuality. Freedom at an individual level seems less a matter of entrusting to the magical invisible hand of the marketplace and passively reaping its reward than accepting that the absence of any mitigating factors hemming in the competitiveness unleashed by market worship requires one to be always alert, always defensive, always paranoid, always negating (being happy is not being free), resisting the attempts made to gull you or worse, cater to you and produce ersatz experiences for you. In the creepy marketing book The Experience Economy (which I don’t recommend anyone read—it’s about as exciting as a PowerPoint presentation and written in that deranged tone of bogus optimism that reeks of cynicism that is common to all management tomes) the authors encourage retailers and maufacturers to concentrate on pitching their products as experiences—the brand should conjure a lifestyle, it shouldn’t be a mere guarantee of quality or distinctiveness—in hopes of extending the power of brands into consumers’ memories and thus make anything we can remember a branded phenomenon. If people are going to remember things, someone should be able to profit from that and if memory is a form of media playing inside one’s head,  advertisers should be able to capitalize on it and embed promotional materials there. But these phony experiences, the latest manifestation of what Daniel Boorstin in >The Image dubbed pseudo-events, make the effort required to have any other sort of experience that mush greater. By packaging experience, the unpackaged variety becomes rarer, more elusive; it becomes more and more tempting to accept what is alreadt prepared for you whether or not it corresponds to your inclination. You are much more malleable than the world around you, so you change to suit what’s there. Interaction with the commercial world of “experiences” thus pulls us further away from whatever ontological self might have existed while all the time promising to actualize that self. What happens instead is that the self most convenient to the operation of the experience economy is produced in all of us.


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Tuesday, Jan 24, 2006

Now here’s some advertising I heartily endorse. Today’s Wall Street Journal has an item on England’s social engineering campaign to encourage people to throw their chewing gum in a trash can rather than spit it out ignorantly on the sidewalk. I know it is merely a nusiance crime, hardly comparable to the atrocities being committed all over the world on a daily basis, but when I some slack-jawed moron spit her masticated wad of gooey gunk out on the ground I grow livid—it literally ruins my day, as I spend hours imagining the hell I want to see them consigned to. If it takes a nanny state to get the gum off the sidewalk and off the soles of my shoes and out of my mind, then let the nannying commence.


The article seems to imply this is trivial and wasteful. But if it truly is a replacement for the banned political TV ads, as it also suggests, then I can only dream that I lived in such a society that replaced lobbyist-funded hate speech and truth denigration with campaigns to stop people from littering. This is precisely the kind of advertising for government that seems needed; rather than the message of political-campaign ads—that government is full of ill-mannered, back-biting politicians who will say anything to get elected and that it makes no difference who you vote for, really—these campaigns send the message that government exists to provide a civilized public sphere where the selfish and indolent behavior of some isn’t allowed to ruin it all for everyone. They posit a government that’s intent only on meddling in the small things, the everyday hassles we’d like addressed—not one that’s spying on us, sending us to die in cryptic wars, legislating our sexual and religious behavior and taxing us unjustly and so on. Even if it merely supplies a smoke-screen, it at least mitigates quotidian misery. Does it make people forget about the larger issues or free them to confront and consider them? An open question.


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Monday, Jan 23, 2006

In the comments (thanks!) a reader linked to this article, which succinctly makes many of the points I’ve been clumsily dancing around recently. The thing is, it’s nearly impossible to remove the buyosphere from one’s life—we’re embedded in it and in many ways we wouldn’t know how to get along without it. Chances are we wouldn’t be able to know ourselves without it, and that’s what is so scary. That is what fuels my impulse to try to resist it, or adopt this contrarian semi-contradictory stance toward shopping. But Heath and Potter, the authors of the article, have (like Thomas Frank, whom they acknowledge and borrow a great deal from) perfectly pegged the more smug aspects of the attitude exemplified by the previous post: “Once we acknowledge the role that distinction plays in structuring consumption, it’s easy to see why people care about brands so much. Brands don’t bring us together, they set us apart. Of course, most sophisticated people claim that they don’t care about brandsa transparent falsehood. Most people who consider themselves ‘anti-consumerist’ are extremely brand-conscious. They are able to fool themselves into believing that they don’t care because their preferences are primarily negative.” And they explain the uselessness of the non-conformist psuedo-anti-consumerist stance well: “We find ourselves in an untenable situation. 0n the one hand, we criticize conformity and encourage individuality and rebellion. On the other hand, we lament the fact that our ever-increasing standard of material consumption is failing to generate any lasting increase in happiness. This is because it is rebellion, not conformity, that generates the competitive structure that drives the wedge between consumption and happiness. As long as we continue to prize individuality, and as long as we express that individuality through what we own and where we live, we can expect to live in a consumerist society.” That seems to me exactly right, exactly what is so annoying about ostentatious non-consumerism. It’s self-aware in the wrong way—in a satisfied rather than slightly insane and paranoid way. And it sums up my suspicions about the “consumers are really producers/users of culture, not its dupes” line of thinking favored by consumer caapitalism’s apologists. If you use consumer goods to manufactrue distinction, it doesn’t matter how creative you are about it—you have accepted consumerism’s fundamental value—what Baudrillard calls “the code.” But to resist this value system in a society such as ours you must have it in your mind always, which achieves almost the same effect as accepting it unconsciously. It’s like being in a band and trying not to have an image. We know how well that works.


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