Pleasures of Scoreboard

by Rob Horning

9 December 2010

Competitive consumption nicely mirrors the competitive aspects of production in capitalism, making that ideology holistic and naturalizing the idea of a zero-sum society.

This Wired article about “retail hackers”—people who try to turn companies’ price discrimination techniques against them—offers this useful distinction:

According to Donald Lichtenstein, a professor of marketing at the University of Colorado at Boulder, super-couponers have learned to ignore “acquisition utility,” the pleasure and value one obtains from, say, a box of cereal. Instead, they peg their shopping decisions to “transaction utility,” the difference between what they’re getting the cereal for and what they think the cereal is supposed to cost. In other words, super-couponers don’t perceive a grocery item as food, at least not until they exit the store and serve it for breakfast. On the shelf and in the cart, the super-couponer evaluates products with the cold-eyed calculus of a trader.

This is another way of saying that these people are after exchange value rather than use value—they are beyond use value, as Baudrillard liked to say. Or in other words, the utility they are after is what radio host Jim Rome and his devotees used to call scoreboard—the sheer irrefutable fact of winning, of beating someone else. This old column of mine about “thrift-store gentry” discusses the idea in terms of obsessed thrift-store shopping—I defined scoreboard there as “an ethical Occam’s razor, a pitiless pragmatism that relentlessly transforms all situations into zero-sum clashes with clear winners and losers.” My conclusion was that “beating the system” by scoring retail triumphs was not really beating the system but reinforcing it. You’re still shopping and reckoning your identity in terms of acquiring stuff.
I think that we are encouraged to fall back onto such pleasures as scoreboard in shopping for a number of reasons. First, competitive consumption nicely mirrors the competitive aspects of production in capitalism, making that ideology holistic and naturalizing the idea of a zero-sum society—that there should be winners and losers in the great game of making and distributing useful things. Of course, cooperation with others would be an illusion and off course there should naturally be vast inequality.

Also scoreboard is compensation for discovering that use value is a mirage, an alibi. Or to put that differently, the pleasures of zero-sum scoreboard are infinite, whereas our organic human needs are quite limited. Satisfaction is anathema to both our growth-oriented economy and our sense of limitless self-potential, of endlessly expanding identity, so fixating on exchanges for their own sake as the source of new pleasures makes sense. That is an inexhaustible well.

The problem with this—the reason retail hackers seem more crazy than enviable—is that focus on the pleasures of exchange blocks our access to the pleasures of the things acquired. We don’t want to accept that use value isn’t more real than exchange value. So we believe that the hackers don’t really taste the cereal, in a way, if they ever even get around to eating it. It’s akin to collecting mania, where managing the collection replaces enjoying the things collected—you enjoy buying albums more than listening to them, if they ever get played. We become, if the article is to be believed, “cold-eyed”  and dispassionate—which, presumably, is inherently bad.

Baudrillard seems to argue that no one can ever really taste the cereal, that this is always already an ideological illusion necessitated by consumer capitalism. His position seems to be that you can’t “really” experience anything within capitalist social relations (if ever)—sensory experience is always mediated, and the mediation becomes the focal experiential point. To beat those conditions, you need to upend all of society, not aggressively clip coupons.

I wouldn’t go that far, but I often find myself falling into the collector/scoreboard trap of fetishizing the triumph of winning the exchange, or completing the series, or whatever it is that makes me lose sight of the goods themselves in light of some other goal that seems like it should be subordinate. Then I generalize from my experience, wonder if there are structural aspects to consumer society that encourage us to fall into those traps. (Since obviously it can’t simply be my credulity or weakness. Obviously.) The looming question is whether these derivative pleasures that come directly from capitalism’s structure are actually less pleasing to us than the authentic pleasures of enjoying objects and non-exchange-oriented experiences.

Further complicating things, capitalism tends to makes us think that all experiences and goods can be understood as exchange-oriented, as trades in which a measurable status outcome is at stake. Scoreboard everywhere, all the time.

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