I wonder if I am alone in this, but I am always surprised at hard it is to want things, how much effort it takes to manufacture desire. Of course, in our ordinary lives, it seems easy because the marketing infrastructure is there to serve us, to prompt us to impulsiveness. But I am in Madrid right now, and I don’t understand the language or the culture at all really, and I have this nagging sense that I should want to go shopping or something but it all seems pointless and tiring. I don’t know what I am supposed to want in part because I can’t decode what is even in the stores half the time. I find myself trying to interpret the fonts, find some temptation in them. But combined with the language barrier, the absence of marketing that targets me specifically has left me feeling oddly and disturbingly bereft. Who knew that advertising was so critical to my knowing who I am? Maybe Judith Williamson was right about the interpellating force of advertising discourse—they call out “Hey, you” to me, and when I respond, I know just who I am.
Without my being aware, I think that consumer culture has persuaded me that shopping is a natural way to conceive and express not only desire but creativity—the ability to know what to want, how to want it, and how to daydream and fantasize through it, and ultimately how to put it to use. Whenever I travel, I realize that I rely on marketing for those sorts of ideas to a degree that makes me ashamed. I’m discovering that without comprehending ads, without understanding why certain things are being sold and who they are supposed to be for, I’m without desire, and without desire, I don’t seem to exist. Suddenly it seems as though there is no place for me; suddenly I must make an enormous effort to make places my own. I suppose experienced travelers are adroit at that; they know what sort of experiences they wish to have because they emanate from within them, from the well of their prior experiences.
But I’m not used to making that sort of effort and have been deprived (or have deprived myself) of such experiences by the sensorium of marketing that I typically exist within. So as I wander the streets here, I float around with no particular drive to accomplish anything. I look at things without understanding at first, seeing them as though for the first time.Since I’m used to seeing the commercial world through the lens of my own desire, it is odd to see it from a different perspective, to have to place its meaning on a different register. “Wow, so that’s a children’s shoe store,” I’ll think to myself, and wonder why it is there, in that particular location, and who might go to it, and who might own it, and what sort of childhood it implies, and so on—all questions I think I know the answers to intuitively and instantly when I am in the U.S. (But what do I really know? The ideology embedded in common sense.)
And since I am less distracted by the meaning of objects, the temptations of desire for things and their meanings, I notice people more, which is good I suppose, but it intensifies the feeling of loneliness. I don’t know how my set of signifers registers to anyone, so I feel invisible.
I suspect I could get used to it, this blank naivete, and even embrace this particular and peculiar form of alienation as a traveler’s euphoria, or even more, as a return to some authentic self, but I would have to learn how to generate impulses for myself again. Maybe these would seem more real and true to me, even though there would most likely be far fewer of them, and I would still probably interpret that void as a lack of creativity. Would I be able to relearn how to desire before I began to understand the foreign marketing materials better? Probably not.