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Regarding "Channels of Desire"

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Tuesday, Sep 9, 2008

A few ideas derived from the Ewen’s Channels of Desire, a look at the history of using images to stoke consumerism.


1. The core thesis: “The mass media and the industries of fashion and design, through the production and distribution of imagery, have reconciled widespread vernacular demands for a better life with the general priorities of corporate capitalism.” In other words, consumerism becomes the solution to the political threats that might have otherwise arisen from inequality; consumerism deals primarily with images, the goods end up being somewhat secondary to what they are purported to represent—i.e. the good life.


2. Images can be disseminated widely and cheaply, and technology assures that they are never scarce. Access to such images comes to stand in for actual lived experience of the life represented in the images. Digitization of culture allows more of the world to function as images; in fact, “image” in the Ewens’ usage may be reinterpreted to mean “digital culture,” which has become as cheap and ubiquitous as images were in earlier decades. We can all possess the symbolic representations of things that prompt satisfying fantasies of the good life, of a richer self with a greater range of reference points through which to express itself. Tallying and cataloguing the images/digital cultural goods we possess becomes a shorthand way of conducting our life. We gather ersatz experiences, and then we struggle to defend these experiences as authentic. The consequence of this may be that we see the presentation of self as image as the essence of life—life is a project in which we attempt to perfect our user profile.


3. The book hints at the role of consumerism in healing the wounds of hegemonic rationality—the disenchantment of the world by scientism and industrialism and the cash nexus. The gist is that capitalism tends to make money the measure of all things, eroding the sentimental value of things and traditions. But consumerism works to reenchant the social realm in a manner suitable to capitalism—reviving magical thinking in a commercial context. (The recent series of posts at 3 Quarks Daily about philosopher Akeel Bilgrami’s “Occidentalism, the Very Idea: An Essay on the Enlightenment and Enchantment” explores the fate of enchantment in Western culture at great length.) To reduce the argument to a platitude, shopping functions as secular religion. What we end up with after our shopping pilgrimages are just souvenirs of our spiritual quest, with little inherent usefulness in and of themselves. Of course, these goods have objective, practical functions, but those functions—usually a matter of helping us get on with everyday life, or enabling us to have some type of experience through their use—are being degraded or occluded by the spiritual, identity-fashioning aim. So the depth and breadth of our everyday life and lived experience is suppressed in the very acquisition of the goods meant to facilitate it.


4. The Ewens cite soapmaker Benjamin Babbitt as an innovator in the creation of branding. Babbitt figured out that you sell the soap wrapper, and the soap itself is ultimately incidental. “Babbitt—and other innovators like him—wrought massive changes in the daily life of Americans. Taking a staple of home production and turning it into an attractive marketable commodity, he established a basic principle of American marketing—masking the ordinary in a dazzle of magic.” This tends to be the thrust of the Ewens’ critique throughout, which seems to unduly champion the drudgery of home production and the dignity of what’s “ordinary.” They acknowledge that Americans may have embraced brands to escape ordinariness, to spend less time making things at home that bear little stamp of individual creativity. Consumerism thrived on the promise of beauty and ease—the “substance of style.” The trouble is that the pendulum swung too far, or worse, the pendulum metaphor doesn’t apply, and we have shifted permanently into a world where passive consumption and perpetual self-branding through goods are the default life experiences for most Westerners.


5. A few 1890s-era quotes from Simon Patton, whom the Ewens describe as an “apostle of industrial consumerism,” captures the logic behind why consumerism is basically an addiction to images, not things in themselves:


So cheap are many kinds of pictures that they are largely distributed as means of advertisement. Everywhere the homes of the poorest people are full of beautiful objects, many of which have no cost; and when their taste is improved by contact with these objects, others more suited to the new condition can be obtained at a slight increase in cost.


Consumerism hinges on this question: Is it possible to enjoy the implications of the images without their being activated by acquiring the objects advertised? One of the promises of the internet is to keep our supply of images teeming without our being subjected to the slight increases in cost. If the functions of objects are made irrelevant by the enhanced accessibility and functionality of images, will we be able to do away with material possessions altogether? That probably makes no sense, but I’m thinking of how I no longer have a physical music collection; chances are I won’t have a book collection once they are digitized and portable electronic-book readers become more prevalent. At that point, the space I inhabit will have about 90% less objects in it. Will there be a counter-trend that emerges to preserve our physical habitat? Will my apartment come to resemble a museum of self even more, when the objects seem to have even less practical necessity? If I got rid of things I don’t really use (but only fantasize about being the sort of person who uses), how much would be left?


The other Patton quote: “The standard of life is determined not so much by what a man has to enjoy, as by the rapidity with which he tires of the pleasure. To have a high standard means to enjoy a pleasure intensely and to tire of it quickly.” An odd definition of standard of living, in that it’s based on opportunities to shop rather than the usefulness of what is owned. If you can consume something faster, it’s better, because then you can move on to the next thing. Something that must be understood slowly is less “intense”, and bogs consumers down. This sets up the justification of convenience as a virtue—convenience increases consumption throughput, which allows for more shopping, which is where the real pleasure lies. But isn’t increasing consumption throughput a defensive measure—a desperate and futile attempt to keep up with new things that is then reconceived as pleasurable? Increased throughput only serves the positive interests of manufacturers. The quote also speaks to the consumerist ideology of novelty as a virtue in its own right, and the pressure that places us under to refuse to return to familiar things. The assertion that novel pleasures are “more intense” seems purely ideological. It seems just as valid to argue that familiar pleasures are deeper because our past experience with them enriches the possibilities in them. Novelty and boredom are the key concepts of consumerism; any effort to beat back consumerism must invalidate boredom and repudiate novelty for its own sake. The arbitrary fashion cycle would have to be a fundamental target. We follow the fashion cycle to keep up with what people around us seem to know; we don’t want to fall behind and into irrelevance. But what pleasure is to be had in the cycle itself? It just imputes boredom to a populace and then offers its arbitrary variations as the cure. But people aren’t bored; they are worried boring others by being conversant in what’s happening now.

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