PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Featured: Top of Home Page

Thick and thin

A recent Economist post reports on Will Wilkinson's rebuttal to the familiar thesis put forward by Benjamin Barber in a new book, Consumed. Barber, following Galbraith's general idea in The Affluent Society, argues that consumer society requires the manufacture of false needs and a populace desperately fixated on trivialities and frivolity and the immediate satisfaction of shallow desires -- convenience for its own sake. In his response, Wilkinson, the post notes,

theorised that on the veldt, we developed strong collective preferences in order to enforce the solidarity necessary for survival. Those preferences were "thick" -- binding, and enforceable by those around you. The farther we get from those small communities, both demographically and economically, the more we are free to develop our own preferences. Those preferences are "thin"--less strongly reinforced--but they are in some sense authentically ours in the way that "thick" preferences never can be.
Not surprisingly, the Economist writer draws the conservative lesson from this that the allure of the "thick preference" world needs to be acknowledged in order to make the defense of consumerism stronger --
it concedes that something has been lost in moving away from tight communities with binding norms. There was something unique and joyful about that kind of community. My grandfather died surrounded by friends and family, bathed in a network of social relations impossible to replicate in this day of economic, social, and geographic mobility.
A defense of consumerist dynamism must start with a gesture of respect toward the lost world of stable social roles and conformity and the palpable ability of a community to keep its members in line in part through the rigorous control of the availability of material culture. Then one can argue that consumerism takes the repression away and allows people to explore their true individuality.
Those small communities were brutal to many of their members. The outliers in taste, intelligence, or almost any other metric except beauty and charm, could be brutally punished for their deviance. People worked harder at their friendships, because ties gone wrong in a small town are hard to bear; but they had to work harder at their friendships, because they were less likely to be compatible.

But I would take away a different lesson, that the critique of consumerism can't look backward to a lost totality, a lost community, a golden age that precedes the vulgarities of MTV and the 24-hour news cycle. This is the conservative solution to the trap that postmodernity springs on us in a consumer society: the erosion of the ability to experience authenticity and the injunction to discover who we "really" are through various shopping-oriented quests for a comfortable lifestyle. A progressive critique would have to look forward, away from the lost conformist community and the dispersed conformity of lifestyle seeking in varied but formally identical niches. Hence the viability of a critique of consumerism that centers on the sheer ecological destruction boundless consumption wreaks (i.e.a new solidarity necessary for survival) , but this needs to be complemented with a critique of the postmodern subject, of the supposed problem of identity that prevents self-realization from becoming beside the point.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.


20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.


Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.


The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.


Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).


Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.


Aalok Bala Revels in Nature and Contradiction on EP 'Sacred Mirror'

Electronic musician Aalok Bala knows the night is not a simple mirror, "silver and exact"; it phases and echoes back, alive, sacred.


Clipping Take a Stab at Horrorcore with the Fiery 'Visions of Bodies Being Burned'

Clipping's latest album, Visions of Bodies Being Burned, is a terrifying, razor-sharp sequel to their previous ode to the horror film genre.


Call Super's New LP Is a Digital Biosphere of Insectoid and Otherworldly Sounds

Call Super's Every Mouth Teeth Missing is like its own digital biosphere, rife with the sounds of the forest and the sounds of the studio alike.


Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.


Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.


Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.


Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.


The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.