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Rent to impress

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Tuesday, Oct 25, 2005

A week ago the WSJ had a trend piece (ie, take it with a grain of salt, since there is no effort to substantiate any of these claims) about people renting status goods rather than purchasing them, citing eBay’s slogan “Buy it, love it, sell it” as a kind of proof. (It begins with a flip reference to Marx as a kind of shorthand way to dismiss anyone who would resist the dynamic world of postindustrial capitalism, but that’s fodder for another post.) Allegedly, “shoppers care less about whether things are truly theirs and more about whether they can get the latest and best” because more of them buy things and then immediately flip them on eBay for something else, and more of them uses services like Netflix to rent DVDs and games and books and music, etc. This seems to lump unrelated phenomena together: There are those who enjoy eBay because it allows one to consume capitalism itself as a product, the thrill of buying and selling commodities for profit as often as possible, to experience capitalism as a game in which one is a real player rather than a pawn. And then there are those who are using the Internet as a more efficient way to turn goods (DVDs and games and whatnot) into purchased experiences rather than products. You buy something to do for a specific time rather than a product to own for life—the Internet becomes a circulation library for a whole host of commodities. The latter development seems as though it could be a good thing; it undermines the notion that ownership is a species of experiential pleasure all its own, a collector-mania mystification induced by capitalism and its fetishization of private property. And it focuses the consumer on the moment of actualizing use value, whether that be the pleasure of showing off a handbag you’ve rented or the moment you are watching that Degrassi Junior High season two DVD, rather than allowing the usefulness to remain a theory or a myth. It militates against having things one doesn’t use. But it at the same time accelerates the rate of change for fashion cycles, and urges one to use things up faster—the sheer cost of possession, budgetary discipline, is one of the few factors remaining that retards the spinning of the fashion wheel, now that technology has removed so many of the others. What something had cost u is one of the few motives we have for consuming something intensively rather than shallowly—it’s what made me listen to the same Zeppelin 8-Track over and over as a kid; I couldn’t afford to go out and get another one, and there was no Internet on which people were willing to rent me music (or give it to me for free). And it’s what made me listen to Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s ridiculous double album far more times than it deserved. The $10.99 or whatever I spent on it made me want to milk out as much enjoyment as possible out of that record (alas, no blood could be squeezed from that stone). Renting consumer goods, and the potential to flip them on eBay, allows one to never have to own one’s shopping mistakes, which has the effect of removing some of the productive labor out of consumption—you never have to work at integrating something you’ve bought into your life if it doesn’t immediately fit, and you need not develop such consumer-based identities very deeply, because these new tools allow you to quickly change them and reconfigure your surface. This could be liberating, but it could also mea one lacks the integrative capacity all together, and then behind that surface of rented status items is nothing but an empty shell, a mannequin on which culture advertises its latest goodies.

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