Competitive individuality

by Rob Horning

23 January 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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