Purchasing decision

by Rob Horning

15 March 2006


Continuing where I left off in the previous post, regarding our rich inner lives. When we buy something, some piece of culture especially—choose a song to hear or a show to watch or a film to see or a magazine story to read—what we are getting is not only that thing but all the decisions that went into making that thing the way it is. What we pay for, in part, is the “freedom” to be out of the loop of those discussions. We pay to opt out of what once constituted the essence of public debate, we pay to acquire that debate in commodified form, already finalized. We possess it rather than experience it. We pay for editors and designers and marketers and executives and their many meetings to determine what form a thing must be in to be most sellable, most attractive to whatever niche has been targeted. We pay for the privilege of being that niche and having our tastes determined for us. We pay to avoid the burden of critical thought and get to relax with our choices instead. These choices then reflect the decisions that once determined our selfhood, choices we no longer have to make in detailed, nitty-gritty terms, hashing them out with our social peers, but instead can now make in broad strokes with a single shopping act.

Culture (if Habermas’s assertions are right) once consisted of the conversation. But now this critical debate has become a commodity itself; it is built in to the things that once prompted it and also it is packaged in a series of parallel entertainments—criticism coming to us in word-count-squeezed reviews, in news bites, as PR. It once demanded participation, but now has become a passive solitary activity; one is part of the zeitgeist through consumption rather than conversation with other people. Debate, which once built character, is now administered to us through what’s sold to us. And this becomes our only option for participating in public debate—since most of it has already taken place and produced our consumer goods and our culture, we can only register a belated assent as our contribution. (It’s either that, or claw your way to a job in one of the “glamor” industries.) Criticism is reduced to a fruitless ex post facto discussion of tastes and preferences, none of which make much substantive difference.

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