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Desire as craftsmanship

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Sunday, Jan 23, 2011

I wrote an essay for the New Inquiry about traveling. I argue that we travel to try to get away from the ease with which we can want things, a modification on Guy Debord’s point that traveling can make consuming the same mass-produced goods seem fresh and exciting. “Tourism — human circulation packaged for consumption, a by-product of the circulation of commodities — is the opportunity to go and see what has been banalized.”


With consumerism, the goods themselves are often a pretense; what we want is to consume ourselves in some new posture, absorbed by some new desire. (This is one of the dimensions of what Debord calls spectacular consumption.) In consumerism, consumption is a production of the self, not simply a matter of using up some utility-supplying good. In The Culture of New Capitalism Richard Sennett suggests that “for the consumer, stimulation lies in the very process of moving on”—of finding something new to desire. This energizes and involves our imagination, and thereby seems to increase the dimensions of ourselves. The more we can think to want, the bigger a person we are by consumer society’s terms. Expanding the capacity for desire builds the personal brand of the consumer, whose job, after all, is to consume well.


Our selfhood seems bound up with the ease with which we can desire the right things—a facility that travel takes away from us, forces us to rebuild from guidebooks, instinct, conversation with strangers, and so on. That rebuilding process, I suspect, is what hard-core travelers enjoy most about the experience. But tourists, who lack such improvisational skills, get something else out of travel: the sublime pleasure of having that high-functioning consumer self destroyed—knowing all along, of course, that it can be safely readopted and even cherished with invigorated appreciation when one gets back home again. How wonderful it is to know what to want, and to know where to be taught to want more. Never mind that this institutionalizes discontent at the very core of our self, thus making it hard to truly love anything. Committing to a particular desire, to nurturing and growing it rather than replacing it, finds little cultural support.


Marketing discourse works not only to make generating new desires easier, but also, crucially, to make the experience of new desires pleasurable, as an increase of personal possibility, as a paradoxical kind of freedom. Desire may seem like bondage, as if one is controlled by need. Consumerism instead makes it appear as the escape from monotony, from the iron cage of ordinary life—the boldness to imagine alternatives. The consumerist utopia! Here’s how Sennett, who’s ultimately skeptical, limns it:


What I’ve described are pleasures which consumers make in things, imposed pleasure which a sober utilitarian would and doubtless should suspect. And the declaration that the “sky’s the limit” could be defended on political grounds: people might be set free by dreaming of something beyond the routines and confines of everyday life. In the same way they might be set free by feeling they’ve used up and exhausted these perfectly workable ways of getting by. Aren’t people set free when they transcend in spirit what they directly know, use, or need? The consuming passion might be another name for liberty.


Desire becomes an expression of the craftsmanship of consumption. And consumption itself becomes, as Sennett argues, theater.


The rise of connoisseurship makes this plain; we become proud of knowing how to consume better, how to refine desire to the point where it is never quite satisfied and we are always still hungering for the more exquisite experience. But this refinement doesn’t represent the overcoming of restlessness; it becomes a way of perfecting its expression ans a positive quality—I am restless, thus I am vital. Connoisseurship changes from being a deep, almost selfless knowledge of a subject that one has submitted to, and instead appears as a deep commitment to elaborate the self.


The ethic of connoisseurship seems to militate against convenience, but it’s more accurate to say that convenience fuels connoisseurship, making us unimpressed with things simply working, with goods simply satisfying us. The inconvenience of travel makes this dynamic obvious for the tourist, who wants to consume for self-aggrandizement, but suddenly finds it hard to merely consume for sustenance. Sennett notes how convenience divorces us from how things actually work, freeing up that energy to be rechanneled as marketing (and human-potential psychology) encourages us, into the further fashioning of the self.


So connoisseurship no longer is an elitist matter of mediating “good taste” to heathens. It is instead within every consumer’s reach; connoisseurship has become the craft of making a perfect self within consumer society’s constraints—namely how automation and capitalist relations have stripped away most other sources of craft knowledge in our lives. Sensual enjoyment falls by the wayside of performing desire—having a food blog, say, rather than tasting food. Of course one can do both, but they are in constant tension; as fiction writers have always know, it is hard to observe life and live it at the same time. Consumerism tends to make us all life at a meta level, since the self is never given but always being constructed—the self can never simply experience things but must be watched for what its experiences say about it. Social media is the platform for this metaconsumption of our identity and those of our friends. There, we share well-groomed information about ourselves the way old connoisseurs would have shared it about their particular ruling passion. Social media remakes the idea of “being useful to others”—that is, of socially necessary labor that we all want to perform to feel recognized— in its own image in terms of its peculiar version of sharing: sharing details about oneself first and foremost. Narcissism can then masquerade as utility.

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