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Wednesday, Aug 10, 2011
Why now? Why riots in London all of a sudden, if this sort of exclusion has been persistently present? Is it just random when one of the land mines Zygmunt Bauman sees littering consumer society gets stepped on?

Is rioting an expression of envy, or something more political, or something that is ultimately inexplicable? From Zygmunt Bauman’s response to the London riots:


We are all consumers now, consumers first and foremost, consumers by right and by duty… It is the level of our shopping activity and the ease with which we dispose of one object of consumption in order to replace it with a “new and improved” one which serves us as the prime measure of our social standing and the score in the life-success competition. To all problems we encounter on the road away from trouble and towards satisfaction we seek solutions in shops. From cradle to coffin we are trained and drilled to treat shops as pharmacies filled with drugs to cure or at least mitigate all illnesses and afflictions of our lives and lives in common. Shops and shopping acquire thereby a fully and truly eschatological dimension. Buying on impulse and getting rid of possessions no longer sufficiently attractive in order to put more attractive ones in their place are our most enthusing emotions. The fullness of consumer enjoyment means fullness of life….


For defective consumers, those contemporary have-nots, non-shopping is the jarring and festering stigma of a life unfulfilled – and of own nonentity and good-for-nothingness. Not just the absence of pleasure: absence of human dignity. Of life meaning. Ultimately, of humanity and any other ground for self-respect and respect of the others around.


Supermarkets may be temples of worship for the members of the congregation. For the anathemised, found wanting and banished by the Church of Consumers, they are the outposts of the enemy erected on the land of their exile. Those heavily guarded ramparts bar access to the goods which protect others from a similar fate: as George W. Bush would have to agree, they bar return (and for the youngsters who never yet sat on a pew, the access) to “normality”. Steel gratings and blinds, CCTV cameras, security guards at the entry and hidden inside only add to the atmosphere of a battlefield and on-going hostilities. Those armed and closely watched citadels of enemy-in-our-midst serve as a day in, day out reminder of the natives’ misery, low worth, humiliation. Defiant in their haughty and arrogant inaccessibility, they seem to shout: I dare you! But dare you what?



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Monday, Aug 8, 2011

I have a old-school-style post at the Jacobin’s blog today based on the newspaper actually arriving at my door this morning. I look at the WSJ’s labor coverage with a jaundiced eye and note with displeasure the increasing use of Facebook by employers looking for job candidates. And I make some tentative remarks about the so-called wage premium of college education. Please read, if you are interested!


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Friday, Aug 5, 2011
In a consumer society we have this sense that you have to put your money where your mouth is to "prove" your taste.

An article at the AV Club by Sam Adams looks at the implications of Netflix’s streaming service and the growing popularity of Spotify, a music-streaming company. He begins with an observation that seems unassailable to me—“Convenience and choice are the watchwords of the digital era, in which content must be instantly accessible and as quickly digested, lest consumers flit off to some more welcoming destination”—but I was confused by the analysis that follows, which didn’t really explain why consumers are so susceptible to novelty and what he calls the “convenience trap,” the willingness to consume what’s available as opposed to what is presumably good for you. Adams fears we may be “unconsciously downgrading anything that isn’t so ready at hand.”


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Thursday, Jul 21, 2011
We collectively participate in the idea of customizing our consumer goods, but finding a unique angle on this common culture is the main avenue for hipster distinction.

To mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Canadian media guru Marshall McLuhan, Megan Garber has an extensive post about his ideas at the Neiman Journalism Lab site, pointing out, somewhat cryptically, that “McLuhan’s theories seem epic and urgent and obvious all at the same time. And McLuhan himself — the teacher, the thinker, the darling of the media he both measured and mocked — seems both more relevant, and less so, than ever before.” I think that means that we take McLuan’s useful insights more or less for granted even as they shape the contours of the debate about the impact of mediatization. McLuhan certainly wasn’t afraid to make sweeping, unsubstantiated generalizations, which definitely makes his account of history occasionally “epic,” but almost unfalsifiable as well. So sometimes it seems like McLuhan is just relabeling phenomena (this is a “hot” medium, this is a “cold” one) without performing much analysis, translating things into jargon without necessarily developing arguments.


Garber notes a recent essay by Paul Ford about the media’s role in imposing narratives on the flux of events and regularizing time and points out that “If McLuhan is to be believed, the much-discussed and often-assumed human need for narrative — or, at least, our need for narrative that has explicit beginnings and endings — may be contingent rather than implicit.” That is, the norms of our reading, or rather our media consumption generally, are shaped by existing levels of technology and how that technology is assimilated socially. We don’t come hardwired with a love of stories, as literary humanists sometimes insist. Narrative conventions are always part of what society is always in the process of negotiating—they are political, ideological, like just about every other kind of relation. McLuhan believed that new media forms would retribalize humanity, undoing some of the specific sorts of freedoms market society (which he links specifically to books and literacy) guaranteed and introducing different ways to construe it. The danger, as Garber implies, is that we will get swallowed by real time, which old media broke into manageable increments but which mew media has redissolved. This opens up possibilities of deliberate disorientation and unsustainable acceleration of consumption.


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Wednesday, Jul 20, 2011
Do people want less stuff and are thus willing to work less? Do they choose unemployment over drudgery and better appliances? Are we all eager to take our share of the economic surplus in leisure?

When the financial crisis began in earnest, lots of articles began appearing about the “new frugality” and the inevitable change in values that would occur in the absence of easy debt financing for consumer spending sprees. Financial analysts like David Rosenberg were pushing the argument that we would experience “secular changes in attitudes towards credit, savings, discretionary spending and homeownership” (original link broken, I cited it here) that would prevent a return to a consumer-driven economy. Apparently that’s exactly what’s happening, judging by this column from Sunday’s NYT by David Leonhardt: “Consumer spending will not soon return to the growth rates of the 1980s and ’90s,” he avers. “They depended on income people didn’t have.” The evidence:


The Federal Reserve Bank of New York recently published a jarring report on what it calls discretionary service spending, a category that excludes housing, food and health care and includes restaurant meals, entertainment, education and even insurance. Going back decades, such spending had never fallen more than 3 percent per capita in a recession. In this slump, it is down almost 7 percent, and still has not really begun to recover.


 


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