If you get The New Yorker you might have noticed that discount retailer Target bought all the ad space this week. Seems like as good a method as any for the retailer to buff up its middlebrow bona fides. Bryan Curtis was inspired to write this account of Target’s rise on Slate, detailing how carefully it cultivated its upscale image and its dedication to pointless stylization of mundane household objects, the kind of thing that gets shills like Virgina Postrel all excited. They basically cajoled celebrities into promoting the store on TV and managed to get Style sections of newspapers to run fluff pieces about their stores under the guise of trendspotting, a la the current fascination with the iPod.
It’s interesting to read how an ideological ediface is built and interesting to consider how commonplace it is for people to pay to participate in ideology, the idea that there is some mark of distinction to buying toilet paper at Target rather than Wal-Mart or a bodega. In a consumer society, buying in is the only socially recognized way to exhibit your values, so it makes sense, I guess. But Target’s popularity also suggests the sheer pleasure of participating in ideology—people are willing to pay for the privilege of duping themselves about their social status. (One of the problems in marginal utility theory seems to be its inability to account for a shopper’s pleasure in wastefulness. People are eager to spend, not reluctant, because they are led to believe that spending is the best way to exhibit power and have fun.) Ultimately the problem I have with Target is that it promotes the idea of destination shopping, investing consumption with even more ephemeral symbolic resonance than it already has. Target would like you to believe that coming to its store signifies more than the fact that you need socks and a saucepan. Social symbolism may very well be a zero-sum game, and the more resonace various aspects of consumption have, the less potency is left for non-commercial aspects of culture; in fact, when Target openly cannibalizes fine art for its commodities, its destroying the arts’ ability to stand independent of consumption—what happens is the only reaction to art and design we have is, Wow, I’d love to own that.