Work harder at consumption

by Rob Horning

3 March 2009


Commenting on British reality-TV contest shows, Chris Dillow makes a great point about what he labels “consumption deskilling”:

The X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing also reflect the fact that once-basic skills such as singing and dancing have become specialist tasks performed by professionals and merely passively consumed by the rest of us. What’s going on here is a form of deskilling. But it’s a different from the one brilliantly described by Harry Braverman, who showed how workers were robbed by capitalists of their production skills. What we’re seeing here is the decline of consumption skills. Which raises a question. How can capitalism have achieved this? After all, the capitalist might have control over production - and is thus well-placed to deprive workers of productive skills - but he doesn’t have control over what we do in our own homes. So what’s going on? ...Scarce time… needn’t displace consumption skills. I suspect something else is going on. That something is the spread of purely instrumental rationality - the idea that utility maximization consists solely in maximizing consumption for minimal expenditure of time and money. Many of us take it for granted that it’s rational to spend as little time cooking as possible, and that music should only be a consumption good. What this ignores is that many things are worth doing for their own sake.

Exactly. Consumerism tends to encourage us to think of “doing things” as work and touts vicariousness as superior to actual participation. Watching and imagining become the convenient short-cuts to mastery —“rational” ways to save time and maximize consumption, which we have limited time for, after all, in this era of free content and attention deficits.

What makes instrumental rationality spread is advertising discourse, which conveys that ideology regardless of what specific product it touts. Consumer-goods manufacturers obviously have a vested interest in promoting vicariousness: If we find little meaning in our work and prefer consumption to concentration and collecting things to hobbies, they obviously benefit to a far greater degree than they do if they are merely outfitting us for activities other than shopping.With marketing to remind us of all the goods we are missing out on, the pressure to conserve time is always growing; and consuming instead of doing lets us save time while working through our leisure to-do list. (It’s apropos here to cite my favorite Minutemen song, “Shit From an Old Notebook”: “Let the products sell themselves; fuck advertising, commercial psychology, psychological methods to sell should be destroyed because of their own blind involvement in their own conditioned minds.”)

Vicariousness lets us evade that supposedly dismal slough of practice necessary before the “rewards” begin to come in—before our guitar playing or cooking or whatever is professional grade. That is what Dillow is talking about with “instrumental rationality”—the idea that only the ends justify the means, which must be kept minimized. The end result of anything we do is reified, in the sense that it becomes a kind of object we add to our collection of accomplishments. That feat of collecting such end results outweighs, or even obfuscates, the pleasures of having experiences themselves. (This is also why the “buying experiences” idea bothers me.) Dillow notes that happiness research suggests this is actually happening—people are finding it hard to identify what will make them happy and make systematic mistakes.

Losing touch with the desire to pursue pleasure through doing things, the pleasure of the sheer fact of being alive and humanly productive, is a fundamental sort of alienation, and, as Dillow notes, Marx’s critique of capitalism pivoted on this idea. “Marx’s gripe with capitalism was that it transformed work from a means of expressing one’s nature into a force for oppressing and demeaning people. So great has been capitalism’s triumph that many of us don’t even appreciate the possibility that Marx could have been right. It’s just taken for granted that work must be alienated drudgery.”

So it is vis-a-vis consumption deskilling: Consumption should take work; it is not work’s opposite. We must be actively engaged for consumption to be meaningful, or life-affirming or some such slop. If we instead look for short cuts to accelerate our processing of leisure goods, we, ironically enough, succeed in making consumption more work-like—at least in terms of how work is falsely conceived under capitalism, as disutility.

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