Identity as byproduct

by Rob Horning

24 July 2007


Jon Elster’s Sour Grapes: Studies in the Subversion of Rationality brings together a number of my favorite topics, all of which I tend to see as connected to consumerism: the importance of the public sphere, the problem of trying to will authenticity or naturalness (the sprezzatura conundrum), the ways in which collective and individual rationality are at odds, limitations of Pareto efficiency—i.e. the argument that optimal rational equilibrium is achieved only when no one can be made better off without making any other individual worse off—and the possibility of altruism. Consumerism sets forth a set of values that hinge on a blindness to these issues; it thrives on a ideological belief—easily disproved—that there is no society, only individuals and their preferences, that can be sated in the market through goods, independent of the actions of others. After all, even our consumerist desires are dependent to a degree on what other people want, or have wanted, or will want. What’s available depends on what others want and are willing to produce and sell. The value of things to us often depends on how others view them, and how scarce they are due to how much others covet them. And then there are status goods and positional goods, which can only be valued in terms of excluding others from having or using them—things like beach-front property and limited-edition luxury goods and artworks. We are not in total control of what we want and whether we can have it, and this undermines any simplistic assessment of what our rational behavior should be in such terms. Rather, our desires are always affected by the sort of decisionmaking processes studied by game theory—if they want that, then I should want this, unless they know I know they want that in which case I should want this and not that. And so on. And such strategizing makes us hopelessly self-conscious, and by some standards, inauthentic, at one remove from what we are brought to regard as our “natural” desires. Consumerism exploits this problem—offering to return us to our naturalness through a fantasy evoked by heavily-advertised goods while exacerbating the inauthenticity that comes with a feeling that we are calculating our identity. COnsumer products seem to provide us a signalling language to express real selves, but our real selves don’t speak that language, and are actually byproducts of other activities—perhaps of being lost in what productivity gurus like Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi call flow.

In other words, consumerism chooses us to consciously, rationally, plan out what we desire as a means to achieving a better sense of who we are and how we want to live. This very act of willing makes the goal—selfhood—impossible. Elster cites Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit on this point: “Desire and the self-certainty obtained in its gratification are conditioned by the object, for self-certainty comes from superseding this other: in order that this supersession can take place, there must be this other.” The process of desiring is central to the self, not what is desired—consumerism tends to make us confused on that point and we wonder why the objects alone continue to disappoint us, or satisfy us only temporarily, or leave us fundamentally unfulfilled. Once we set out to pin our nature down, it eludes us, becomes contrived, feels wanting. At this point, the machinery of the consumer society intervenes to remedy that lack, reinforcing the faulty premise that conditioned it.

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