Stoic shopping

by Rob Horning

7 October 2005


I’ve always been bothered by the concept of buyer’s remorse, because it seems to suggest that to be anything other than delighted with a purchase is a pathological condition, a symptom of psychological imbalance. In The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz discusses the decision-theory personality type of “maximizers” who, because they are never content with anything but the absolute best, are always disappointed with their purchases, even after they have agonized over them for far too long. The implication is that these people are perfectionists with unrealistic expectations, and that’s probably true; but isn’t their attitude the consequence not of some personal weakness but of cultural propaganda that insists that a “best” option exists, and that the integrity of one’s identity is at stake with every purchase? Buyer’s remorse seems to me a part of the “scoreboard” phenomenon, in which shopping is a zero-sum competition: if you didn’t get the best deal, you have lost and someone else has won, and that calibration of one’s pride matters much more then the actual utility of whatever was purchased, which becomes nothing more than a trophy. This is why people get into useless buying, into collecting; it affords a competitive field on which to bolster ego. Buyer’s remorse is the agony of defeat. It’s also the necessary risk to taste the unambiguous joys of scoreboard. Shopping is a central ritual in a democracy to resolve status anxiety, then, and that might be behind the remorse: the sense that the purchase has done nothing to resolve the staus uncertainty. But then remorse is inevitable, because one’s status always remains uncertain. It’s always in play, and requires constant efforts to maintain its momentum in one direction or another—advertising sees to it that one never loses a sense of anxiety. In order to shop stoically, one would have to remove oneself from the social hierarchy altogether, and that seems unlikely to bring happiness either: Commodities are always proxies for social relations, for connections to other people, for integration and belonging.

Is there any escape from this? Can commodities simply be commodities again, as they were before they were branded (and brands are simply the code of aristocracy remade for market democracy)? Say one spends freely not to construct identity and maintain status but simply to destroy one’s attachment to such trifles, to transcend them: Stoic shopping as a matter of Bataille-style expenditure. But the potlatch destructiveness and waste is always competitve, is the essence of status consumption. A commitment to generic buying? Can one buy oneself into deindividuation, and thereby escape into the margins and become truly free? Can one find freedom in perfect conformity? the chameleon’s freedom? I don’t know.


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