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Love and shopping

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Monday, Aug 8, 2005

The way passionate love is sold in novels and films and pop music has a lot in common with the way shopping is celebrated by the more narratively inclined forms of advertising. I used to think about this alot when I read 18th century novels as a graduate student, tracing the connections between a nascent consumer-goods-advertising industry and the organization of one of the first national culture industries in England, the book-selling business. Not only did early advertising appear in front and backs of novels published then, but they frequently borrowed rhetorical strategies and tropes from the novels, which were fixated on ill-fated love. Why the connection? Once a society shifts to a capitalist consumer culture, consumption becomes a matter not of satisfying wants but of maximizing profits inherent in branded goods. A branded good derives its value from an implicit story about the brand; its value is literally a matter of well chosen words. (This is why branding experts are paid thousands of dollars to name deodorants and fruit punches and the like.) At the same time, as goods become more widely available, they become a means of self-definition, so that we consume them not for their inherent usefulness but for what they can communicate about ourselves to others. So acquiring the right goods becomes a way of showing the world who we are, and ultimately, of revealing to ourselves who we want to be. Consumption becomes a kind of quest for identity, for fulfillment on a much different level than keeping one’s belly from grumbling. In this way, it mirrors what the myth of romantic love. Romantic love often appears as a quest for a soul mate who will complete us, who will allow us to become who we truly are. A lover is presumed to complete us the way we expect goods to also complete us; the two often end up competing for that role as we balance our private obsessions and collections and compulsions with attempts to integrate a partner into our lives. A lover can seem like a possession (trophy spouses) and possessions can become like lovers as both are carefully honed to make for the best display of how one sees oneself.


But viewed through Denis de Rougemont’s assessment of the myth of romantic love in Love and the Western World, one can see another similarity. Rougemont argues that the essence of passionate love, as it’s delineated in the West, is its self-created obstructions. One loves not the beloved but the idea of being in love itself, and all the obstacles that prolong that feeling. He quotes a piquant passage from Chretien de Troyes to illustrate: “My ill is what I want, and my suffering is my health…it is my willing that becomes my ill; but I am so pleased to want thus that I suffer agreeably, and have so much joy in my pain that I am sick with delight.” Such desire seems comparable to the desire advertisers seek to instigate, the pleasure of wanting that is never sufficiently satisfied by the pleasure of having. Sociologist Colin Campbell argues that the “spirit of consumer capitalism” turns on just this dynamic, on daydreams inspired by wanting goods that are inevitably disappointed by ownership. That disappointment returns us to the market to daydream about some new goods, to buy some other ultimately disappointing thing, and thus we keep the industrial growth machine moving. So the twin myths of love and shopping work symbiotically to promote a mutual ethos: It is more pleasant to want than to have, that love and shopping are fun for their own sake independent of the relationships they achieve, that disappointment is actually more satisfying than satisfaction, that daydreams are always better than real-life activity. When we live in daydreams, shopping can work as an acceptable proxy for actually doing things. Not getting your money’s worth, viewed in the glow of thwarted romantic passion, becomes glamorized as a kind of romantic disappointment, just another necessary intermediate stage on the quest for the ideal, for that moment (that only comes with death, de Rougemont argues) when you truly feel like you have it all, that your collections are all complete and you are truly, finally loved.

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