[3 November 2009]
PopMatters General Features Editor
Lane Kenworthy linked to this NYT article by sociologist Arlie Hochschild (pioneer of the concept of “emotion work”—the often uncompensated labor of managing emotions to allow for social relations and market exchanges to transpire). The article offers an explanation of why Americans rank marriage’s importance so highly yet divorce more frequently than citizens of other nations.
Why are Americans on this marriage-go-round? Is it the “restless temper” Alexis de Tocqueville observed 175 years ago? It is true, Cherlin observes, that more than people elsewhere, we move from job to job, city to city, and even church to church. Could this be linked to a missing government safety net and family-protective policies? Cherlin gives little credence to this idea, but he leaves us with another useful notion — that more than we realize, we’ve become accustomed to a move-along life-go-round world.
That is of a piece with the theory that technology has made possible the marketing-driven acceleration of the pace of consumption at all levels of social life. Hochschild cites Juliet Schor who “shows in her research on ‘fast fashion’ that we consume and discard dresses, shoes, toys, furniture and cellphones at a quicker pace than we did in the past.“Spouses are just another product we are encourage to consume quickly and move on from—after all, think of all the associated consumption that is driven by courtship and wedding rituals. Why not cycle people through those as often as possible? It’s a win-win, right? Everyone enjoys the whirlwind of romance, being the center of their own drama that climaxes with a big party.
Hochschild supplies some context for that idea:
Could this “fast-fashion” culture be filtering into our ideas about human connection? On Internet sites and television shows, we watch potential partners searching “through the rack” of dozens of beauties or possible beaus. Some go on “speed dates”; others go to “eye-gazing parties” — two minutes per gaze, 15 gazes — to find that special someone. If advertisers first exploited the “restless spirit” by guiding consumers’ attention to the next new thing, a market spirit now guides our search for the next new love. The culprit is not the absence of family values, I believe, but a continual state of unconscious immersion in a market turnover culture.
It does seem that this is so, though the key idea here is that market turnover has become identity turnover, and that identity turnover proceeds whether or not it remains a market imperative. As I’ve been arguing in the past few posts, impersonal cash markets have given way to embedded markets in which subjects try to maximize their selfhood in a public forum, commanding resources to serve that end and turning attention, status, etc, into more explicit forms of currency.
The problem is that we have shifted retail consumption into the public sphere, when markets once were making it private. The cash economy democratized consumption, but social networking,etc. is resocializing it within a commercial matrix. Our self-publicized consumption is more susceptible to fast-fashion acceleration, as the signifying power of consumption gestures is relative to who else has made similar gestures and so on. The meaning in the gestures therefore have only brief shelf life. Identity needs more and different things to consume and display more rapidly—it needs more things to share. Yet the alibi of sharing hides how voracious the appetite for novelty has become.