Sometimes when I am feeling frustrated with not knowing enough about anything, I get overtaken by a wild urge not to immediately start reading one of the many books piled up by my bedside but to order a bunch of books from Amazon.com, which strangely relieves my agitation. I haven’t learned anything by buying the books, but I feel like I’ve made a date with knowledge in the future and put a little down payment on it, providing instant comfort and relief, which is really all I wanted in the first place: instant comfort more than knowledge or understanding. And when the books arrive, I know that whether or not I read them, their presence on my bookshelf should suggest to anyone who sees them that I’ve read them even if I haven’t, and that’s almost as good as reading them in the meantime, anyway, right? Since everyone around me in America seems to be getting away with similar pretenses, my joining in won’t even be noticed, I can tell myself. I’m not telling anyone any lies, so what’s the harm? I really do intend to read them eventually, maybe after the next raft of books I just ordered comes in.
This is how therapeutic shopping works, obviously; a good becomes associated with a quality we long to exemplify, skills we wish we had mastered but are too unfocused, incompetent, lazy or harried to truly put the time in and master them. Aware of the wished-for quality and our inability to have it immediately, as the monolithic voice of society suggests the case should be with everything, we yearn for instant gratification, even if it amounts only to a distraction. So we let the instantaneous finality of a transaction replace the drawn-out process of struggling for mastery. We start buying things instead of doing things. And when we still discover we can’t do the things we wished we could, we buy more.
This is a powerful engine for moving commodities and locking individuals into cycles of consumption despite their being largely unsatisfying. So it’s no wonder that it is routinely promoted in virtually every nook and crannie of the estalished culture industries—in films, when montage scenes imply effortless progress toward some goal, in the myriad ways style is championed over substance in media that linger on the implications of surface appearance without ever deigning to analyze any events or suggest any hints of causality in our society. Of course The Wall Stret Journal routinely pitches in to help perform this crucial ideological work, the most important in a consumer culture like ours. Today in the recurring “Style and Substance” feature on the front page of section B, an article about yoga clothes essentially reiterated last week’s article about sexy aprons. The crucial point: in the words of Danskin CEO Carol Hochman, “You don’t have to do the activity to wear the clothes.” In a nutshell, that is the purpose of this piece, which masquerades as trend-spotting but is in fact an advertisement for a certain approach to life, the approach that holds that you can wear yoga pants without caring a lick about yoga, that you can own a shelf full of books by Bourdieu and never read them through, that you can wear sexy aprons and have no intention to cook, you can wear a T-shirt with Che Guavara on it without knowing what he did or a kitschy shirt with Soviet propaganda on it without caring what it implies.
A related point: when something gets seized upon by the trendy in this way, when yoga pants are separated from yoga, does it imply some ultimate failure in the activity being cannibalized? It’s okay to wear Lenin shirts now and think they are campy because communism failed and is therefore funny, nostalgic. Yoga, domesticity—have these too failed to have any real cultural impact, or is ther potential impact being dissolved into empty, stylistic gestures and trends—the status quo’s old trick of coopting threats and neutralizing them into harmless trends. I guess that is really what these trend-spotting stories are about; not only do they encourage style over substance, but they reduce all substantive things to empty poses. This unfortunately was the effect Schor had on “downshifting” anti-consumers y identifying their practices as a trend. Even if the trend is hopeful, the grammar of trend-spotting trivializes whatever it is.