Indecent Consumption

Confronted with the mountains of consumer products in the windows of the discount stores I walk by every morning on the way to the train, I often find myself hubristically thinking, Who in the world wants all this crap, and what the hell is wrong with them? Unfortunately, economists’ answers to these questions are notoriously inadequate. Generally, they believe that supply creates its own demand (a piety known as Say’s law), but this is belied by those dumpsters on the ass-end of the shopping centers, full of spoiled produce, rotten eggs, and unsold paperbacks with the covers torn off. Veblen and Simmel, and later Bourdieu, advanced the theory that evolving fashion and the need to display status drives consumer demand. While this might explain the Hummer-driving halfwits on Northern Boulevard, it does little to explain why, say, a person would eat a Slim Jim, which is devoured before it has a chance to impress anyone, assuming a person who’d be impressed by that even exists. Also, the theory does little to explain how relieving status anxiety translates into the sensual pleasure consumption usually affords. And it seems naïve to assume that ads simply beguile passive consumers into thinking they need Slim Jims and Hummers.

Cultural critics’ traditional lament, liberal or conservative, is that consumerism fashions selfish, hedonistic people who have destroyed the good old traditional ways of life, which have all since been replaced by market-arbitrated competition. Defenseless in the face of relentless advertising promising instant gratification through consumerism, citizens have become nothing but self-centered pleasure seekers (i.e., utility maximizers) who forgot all about God and country and true love and the fate of the poor and everything else the truly righteous would spend every waking moment fretting about.

In The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism (Basil Blackwell, 1987), Campbell agrees that early mass-consumer markets gave birth to a new hedonism. But this isn’t an unfettered hedonism promising an endless surfeit of pleasure. Instead, consumer culture offers the illusion of control: control over desire, control over emotionality, control over oneself. This he calls “autonomous hedonism,” the ability to control pleasure by attending to the emotional rather than material aspects of experience. The modern person “comes to possess the ability to decide the nature and strength of his own feelings.” At this point, modern self-consciousness appears: We become acutely aware of ourselves as managers of our own consciousness, and we become anxious to keep that consciousness engaged. Confident of our supply of food, clothes, shelter, and our basic creature comforts (but deprived of meaningful work, thanks to the industrial revolution that made such confidence possible), our greatest threat becomes boredom. What we come to really need are daydreams.

According to Campbell, the key to consumerism is teaching people how to daydream about commodities, telling ourselves fantasy stories about goods that elicit specific anticipated pleasurable emotions. Consumer culture’s absorbing array of commodities and the fantasies they inspire allow us to master boredom by offering a Rubik’s cube worth of permutations of potential desires. Echoing economist Kelvin Lancaster, Campbell claims we seek to consume bundles of “characteristics” rather than goods themselves: “Individuals do not so much seek satisfaction from products, as pleasure from the self-illusory experience which they construct from their associated meanings.” It’s long been held that it’s pleasant to have things (we live in the “ownership society”, after all), but Campbell argues that its equally pleasant to want things. And the more things we can think to want, the more feverish our brains become with consumerist fantasies of potency and ease and comfort, the more pleasant life will be. And because the daydreams are ultimately more pleasurable than actual consumption, the deferred gratification that Max Weber saw as part of the Protestant ethic that made bourgeois productivity possible can pay dividends on the consumption side as well, resolving the capitalist schizophrenia that would require people to be disciplined and productive worker bees on the job and spontaneous spendthrifts at home.

Far from being a detriment, the protracted delay between wanting and having is actually the site where imaginative pleasure is generated. Desire itself is what’s pleasurable (just read Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”), and the moment of consumption is the moment of disappointment, the point at which the carefully tended daydream disintegrates. Once that happens, we contrive new wants, and new fantasies. Thus desire becomes as happily insatiable as the capitalist mandate of perpetual growth requires.

If pleasure is predicated on ever more detailed daydreams, entertainment’s function is to encourage those daydreams, urge passivity and vicariousness, and more important, stock our imaginations with sumptuous and plausible detail. So in the eighteenth century, just as the “autonomous hedonist” emerged, entertainment as a commodity industry began, with publishers printing books for developing national markets. Because novels force readers to practice at deferring gratification, suspending disbelief and skepticism, and re-creating elaborate experiences in their heads, Campbell argues, they make readers develop muscles of imagination. They tutor neophyte consumers in the art of preparing alluring daydreams for themselves in which to find inexhaustible pleasure, stocking nascent imaginations with flexible formulas for inventing self-aggrandizing stories.

In Campbell’s view, mastering pleasure is a matter of mastering the ability to suspend disbelief: “In order to possess that degree of emotional self-determination which permits emotions to be employed to secure pleasure, it is necessary for individuals to attain that level of self-consciousness which permits the ‘willing suspension of disbelief;’ disbelief robs symbols of their automatic power, whilst the suspension of such an attitude restores it, but only to the extent to which one wishes that to be the case. Hence through the process of manipulating belief, and thus granting or denying symbols their power, an individual can successfully adjust the nature and intensity of his emotional experience.” In other words, since suspending disbelief is the key to happiness, skepticism becomes the bar. If you can cease being a skeptic, you can go to a movie like Million Dollar Baby and revel in its emotional manipulation. This is pleasure; having one’s emotions exercised in a carefully contrived fashion. Skeptics senselessly deprive themselves this pleasure; they lack the imagination to go along, to vicariously project into the film. Skeptics lack that kind of “creativity”.

In sculpting the scenarios that foster our imagination, early entertainment prefigures modern lifestyle advertising, laying out the emotional topography mass marketers would later exploit. And just as it’s counterproductive to be skeptical of entertainment, it’s pointlessly self-defeating to resist the seductiveness of ads. With their ambiguous depictions of glamour and well-being, these ads avoid detailing the products they’re ostensibly meant to tout — this would only interfere with their primary function, to promote consumption in general as an all-purpose panacea. The nebulous images of personal happiness supply shapes our dreams and provides ephemeral, magic solutions for our dilemmas. Hardly a nuisance, ads are, from this perspective, raw material necessary for us to build our own happiness. This explains why people can buy magazines for the ads and why some do away with editorial content altogether and simply read catalogs.

Early popular fiction presented scenarios in which one could experience emotion at a safe distance, manage it, treat it as an object. Often its plots consisted of attempts to overcome ever more intricate difficulties to finally possess that beloved object of affection. Early commercial novels, the forgotten anonymous works with titles like The Myrtle; or the Effects of Love and The Delicate Embarrassments that stocked the shelves of circulating libraries, the video stores of their time, promoted the “cult of sensibility”, which celebrated one’s ability to imaginatively reconstruct other people’s feelings and feel them even more deeply than they had. As the boundary between the delicacy of feeling and delicacy of taste blurred, owning tasteful commodities becomes equivalent to demonstrations of refined emotion. Luxury, once viewed as a dangerous sap on the economy, becomes redefined as praiseworthy connoisseurship. But at the same time, eighteenth-century pundits never tired of condemning this same sort of novel as licentious trash, and it was widely held that the market for them, much like today’s Harlequin romances, was made up of women looking for erotically titillating material. After all, the bourgeois innovation of solitary reading was suspiciously similar to masturbation: you do it alone, in private, in order to have your feelings aroused, entering into an intimate relation with people who aren’t really there.

On the surface it might seem that consumer culture, by enriching our imagination and enabling us to develop deep interiority, is enhancing our quality of life. But in fact it reduces imagination to escapism, tricking out the life of rote shopping with commodity-based fantasies that only temporarily ease the pain of alienation and the dearth of social interaction. This sort of imagination is at odds with thought and conversation, tending instead toward privacy, toward the inexpressible. As society has prompted us to develop these rich inner lives it has also enforced rampant competitiveness and acute detachment from social groups that once provided and defined pleasure. Whimsical worlds of private fantasy are no longer restricted to social misfits, malcontents, and the irretrievably childish. One has no recourse but to take refuge in daydreams. And this system of desire management makes us utterly reliant on goods to control the amount of stimuli we receive and maintain the life-giving rhythm of excitation and relaxation, and it consigns us to investing the bulk of our mental energy in isolating fantasy worlds incomprehensible to others, making our lives that much more impoverished, making us that much more susceptible to boredom.

Consequently, modern popular entertainment is designed to foment permanent states of desire. Its stock plots (love stories, especially), model an instrumentalist vision of self-satisfaction that transfers well to the consumer experience, promising a correspondence between pursuit, possession, and pleasure. Sensibility systemizes emotions, making them into collectible objects, interchangeable with the commodities that provoke them, that we can master through careful connoisseurship; and at the same time, commodities evoke private, elaborate, carefully orchestrated fantasies in our imagination in which we fastidious control ever detail to expedite our pleasure. So we collect objectified emotions and we’re intimate with emotionalized objects. If masturbatory fantasy lurks at the heart of consumerism, then the commodity that perfectly epitomizes capitalist values and prerogatives is modern mass-produced pornography.

Pornography coincides with the animating principle of most contemporary advertising: “sex sells”. Each extends the efficacy of the other: masturbation to porn reinforces the payoff implied in sexualized ads, which in turn promote imaginative control over objectified sex as the most epicurean of consumer pleasures. Pornography, then, is the prototype, the übercommodity, the commodity that enables all other commodities to be granted an aura of sexual appeal.

Because pornography has always made up an enormous bulk of Internet traffic (up to 80 percent in the Web’s early days) and has proven to be a sure-fire model for moneymaking on the Web (As early as 1999, Forbes rated it a billion-dollar industry), it has long driven Internet innovation: better servers, faster connections, clearer and more fluid video transmission. Arguably, porn is a main reason that in-home Internet access was initially desirable. It may be that few men can resist the promise of access to an endless and ever-more-perverted stream of porn from all corners of the world without ever having to park around back of an adult book store or look a 7-11 clerk in the eye.

But as the scandal surrounding eighteenth-century novels shows, new forms of media have always been associated with pornography, an association which has given political cover to various anxious censors, particularly as information would begin to reach new classes of the oppressed: women, children, the colonized, the poor. As a result, media access itself becomes sexualized and, as Foucault explains in The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, (Vintage, 1990) greater sexual freedom of expression is mistaken for political liberation. So all the revolutionary potential inherent in new media technologies — all the new possibilities for organization and dissemination they promise — is stymied once simply consuming porn seems a sufficiently subversive threat to the status quo. Why try to form a labor union at your local Wal-Mart, for instance, when you can strike an equally seditious blow against the system by jerking off to photos of women in latex underwear?

Though pornography is proscribed by mainstream morality, capitalist culture relishes such strictures because they drive the pleasures underground, where they gain more imaginative potency from being furtive and private. Looking at pornography, no matter how explicit or weird it might be, is never actually subversive. In fact, the more bizarrely specific the porn is to one’s sense of his unique sexuality, the more it indicates one’s conventionality. The more precise the porn predilection, the more atomized the individual, and the more he will be forced to rely on porn (i.e., commodities) rather than people for his fulfillment, which is precisely the state of affairs that helps capitalism thrive. If you require three women in baby-doll peignoirs pretending to spank each other to get off, it’s highly likely you’ll be forced to content yourself with purchasing pictures.

In fact, all the pleasures that capitalism depends upon, the pleasures elaborated in the daydreams Campbell regards as integral, are exemplified by pornography: the collecting mania, the pseudo-work of categorizing one’s possessions, the excitement of ownership for its own sake, the opportunity to making shopping choices. Whether they are meticulously collecting issues of Playboy or filing their favorite JPEGs into a detailed folder hierarchy on their laptop, men amass pornography because it promises the same sort of mastery over women that commodities promise over emotions. We can use pornography to regulate sexual stimuli, to have sexual satisfaction on our own terms. It affords total autonomy over libido, transforming it into a desire to own rather than to share or connect. Never mind that striving for a fantasy of self-control (which is only possible in the limited but hyperbolized universe of goods) preempts one from developing the kind of social skills that might lead to an enriched public life, from developing the mature coping skills to deal with the reality of social interdependence. As sex, that delicate negotiation between actual people, becomes more complicated, more idealized and freighted with more psychological weight, masturbation becomes a much more preferable option. Hold-outs for actual sex are akin to those killjoy skeptics who insist on realism in Hollywood movies, or subject advertisements to critical scrutiny. They hate empowering dreams; such dreams are enemies of the pliable, consumerist imagination.

By turning sexual desire into something serviceable by goods rather than people, pornography makes sex into consumption. In the Internet-ready universe, masturbation via pornography has less to do with sex and more to do with shopping — one can troll around the dark side of the web, looking at hundreds and hundreds of naked women, men, or any variation thereof, searching for just the right one. This mirrors the gap between wanting and having that Campbell sees as the wellspring of imaginative pleasure. The moment of choice, the autonomous nature of that choice (no bargain must be made with the woman in the photo, none of her needs have to be considered, there is nothing social or reciprocal in the pleasure), the picking in and of itself, ultimately completes and perfects that pleasure. It is what capitalism offers as the sweetest of joys, the exercising of free choice in a market rich with diverse options. And no pornographic niche market exists that is not being readily and lustily exploited.

Above all, porn transforms sex into convenience. I’ve argued in previous columns that in a capitalist world driven by growth and novelty and a utilitarianism convenience for its own sake becomes more significant than whatever activity its supposed to be streamlining. And masturbation with pornography allows convenience, our true passion, to trump actual sex, permitting an endless series of novel moments of passive, purely individual, totally unrestricted choices amongst inexhaustible options. Though using commodities as shortcuts to experience basically burglarizes our own lives of substance, we’re usually convinced that by doing so we are somehow “beating the system,” getting more out of life because we are getting it quicker and with less effort.

The debate over pornography is usually muddled with concerns about obscenity and indecency. But these are merely canards to steer discussion away from what’s truly scandalous about it, how its model of exploitation and alienation (for the people in the pictures and the people looking at them) conforms so perfectly to how consumer societies operate in general. No matter how much we label its users “addicts” or “degenerates” and tout religious values, porn is not an immoral anomaly; it’s a capitalist inevitability.

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For more Rob Horning, visit the Marginal Utility blog.