Early in Land of Desire, William Leach’s history of the rise of advertising and retailing in America, he argues that “brokers”—his term for people with no fixed convictions other than the righteousness of profits who facilitate the flow of money on its circuitous route through the economy—have fostered a “new amoralism essentially indifferent to virtue and hospitable to the ongoing inflation of desire.” Ordinarily I would have simply said to myself, Amen, and rolled right along with my reading, but instead it became a stumbling block for me. What is the “virtue” that he’s talking about here? Is it defined tautologically as that which is not profitable of self-interested? Brokers are often parasites, yes, but you could almost argue that they spend all their energies pimping other people’s desires, catering and fomenting other people’s pleasures, stimulating other people’s desires. Is this really selfish? It seems like a lot to sacrifice for cash. The implication that desires are manufactured suggests that there are “natural” desires that are inherent to us all and only these are appropriate to satisfy—it seems more likely that all desire is socially produced, and the “inflation” of desire is simply an expansion of the field of motivation, giving people more incentives for more aspects of their lives. Inflating desire gives people a reason to do things; it gets people out of bed. It makes things in life seem worth doing for their own sake—the very thing brokers have extricated from themselves and sold off.
My objection to inflated desire has hinged on the notion of some “bad” desire, inherently unfulfillable, that leads to dissatisfaction and depression, feelings of hopelessness. Possibly desire can be inflated to a point past what people can tolerate, and they start to break down from an excess of longing. The economy as a whole grows as desire expands, but perhpas each individual is strained to the breaking point carrying the restless burden of keeping up with one’s hyperstimulated dreams. But the “moral” aspect of this perhaps begins with a rejection of hedonism but soon corrodes into a subjective disapproval of other people’s priorities, a contempt for what gives them energy. I wonder if the existence of that energy, no matter what has prompted it, is not a blessed thing. The real problem is when that energy is robbed from us, when industry profits from our laziness or from an instigated desire for oblivion.
Scarily enough, marketing guru Clotaire Rapaille says something in this Salon interview that gets at the benevolence of manufactured desire. He contends that American culture is “adolescent”—that we have juvenile ideas about sex and money and a teenager’s impatience and attention span. But he prefers this to “senile” cultures like those in Europe. “I don’t want to know what I’m going to do when I grow up even if I’m 75 because I don’t want to grow up. I want to have fun, to be rich and famous now, to play. Now, I choose to be American because I’d rather be part of an adolescent culture than a senile culture.” There he reflects the at times imbecilic immaturity and hedonism typical of Americans, and fomented by American capitalism—get what you want now, have paradise here now via material goods, via this great car, this HD television or this ultraefficient egg poacher. Fun is made to seem synonymous with media attention and the cultivation and gratification of whims. For example, my leisure can lead me to idly read about yerba mate in some lifestyle magazine (the drink of Che Guevara!), and then I can go out and immediately buy some at Whole Foods and brew it for myself and have a revolutionary beverage experience. But this same adolescent mentality is imbued with energy: “To be an American you have to have a big dream, for you, for your family, for the world. In some other cultures, this is just ridiculous: Save the world? I just don’t want rain tomorrow. On the other hand, because we don’t know it’s impossible, sometimes we do it.” This smacks of the insoucient crypto-optimism I generally complain about, but these big dreams might be more credulous than cynical and that seems to redeem them a bit. That credulity activates hope and obviates the force of truths that inevitably push us toward indifference. It may be that capitalism’s effect is to make credulity the necessary prerequisite to energy and enthusiasm, to make cluelessness synonymous with happiness.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. We need your help to keep PopMatters strong and growing. Thank you.