Saturday, September 17, 2011

White Walls, Consumerism (A Conclusion)

Consumerism's carrot and stick: Jobs vs. no jobs.
This summer, as I watched the DSK prosecution stall and collapse, Right-wing ideologs turn the debt ceiling debate into a crisis that cost American tax payers billions, and the riots in England, I found myself experiencing far more than my usual level of disgusted with capitalism - but perversely defensive on the part of consumerism. Capitalism is nothing more than a bundle of mechanisms for distributing wealth: markets, property and financial instruments are a part of a group of technologies that have been developing over the pst few hundreds of years. Proponents of capitalism like to think of it as a meritocracy, but capitalism only promises enormous wealth to the lucky few and that is because it is a creature of Malthusian economics - the bedrock of its logic is scarcity. Capitalism favors the creation of mega-wealth and super-elites. Consumerism meanwhile, is a creature of the Industrial Revolution, and more particularly of Postwar America - it is an ideology built on the experience of post-Malthusian economies of scale - it's bedrock is abundance: the very modern promise of wealth that increases the more it is shared.

Critics of consumerism have the same sorts of complaints that critics of civilization have always had: "When the state was drowned in decadence and luxury and donned the garments of calamity and impotence" the fourteenth century philosopher Ibn Khaldun explained, "because the people of faith, sunk in self indulgence, preoccupied with pleasure and abandon to luxury, had become deficient in energy and reluctant to rally in defense." And although Khaldun was defending the peculiar institution of military slavery, it is not hard to imagine Pat Robertson voicing nearly identical sentiments about today's consumer culture. 
Boys devoutly studying the simpler technology of The Book; Pat Robertson enjoying at least one facet of soulless hightech.

Nor is it too far from the sorts of contempt for decadence and luxury one might expect to hear from a libertarian follower of Ayn Rand - who idealized a small-r-republican brand of self-discipline and personal austerity. Critics from the left can be expected to voice nearly the same strain of complaints - either for ideological reason, like orthodox Soviet-era complaints against Western "decadence," but more contemporary strains of environmentalist contempt for decadence abound. The drawbacks of consumerism are all failures of excess - obesity, alcoholism, porn and kipple. These are real problems, but compared to starvation, plague, and slavery, they're great problems for a society to have. 

Additionally consumer culture is, and always has been, soulless; and why not? It is an entirely secular endeavor. Given the choice most of us would prefer to opportunity to struggle with the temptation of over indulgence and the danger of addiction, rather than be ruled by religious fanatics who would protect us from ourselves. Only a vanishing-small percentage of us would abandon the high-tech white of consumer culture (modern healthcare, hygiene, communications, comfortable footwear, neat stuff) for any reason. The austere white of self-denial and austerity within a religious, libertarian or a communist utopia are nowhere as near attractive as the decadence of high-tech whiteness.
Students at a Madrasa; dickhead dream of Galt's Gulch on an oil rig; and Kim Jong Il looking at rice.

This summer, as the richest consumers are denying themselves nothing and contributing less, I find criticisms of 'compulsive consumerism' suspect, calls for spiritual renewal, for discipline and austerity self-serving - serving the interests not of consumerism, but of elitism, and elitism at its most predatory. One definition of technology is something that doesn't quite work yet. High technology is, by its very nature then, aspirational; as much something that we want to work, something that we want to have, as it is something that does work or that we can have. It is an image of the future we are projecting on the present. Consumerism evokes images of obesity, giant shopping carts and endless parking lots. But Animals raised in materially rich surrounding have clear cognitive advantages over those raised in austere environments.

How sad that Brittan was judged to be the least pleasant of industrialized (ie consumerist) nations to be a child by UNICEF, but how striking then that it is also Brittan where the steady climb of IQ scores, known as the "Flynn Effect," has, according James Flynn, faltered among teens for the first time in any industrialized nation in the postwar years. (Again what is really meant here by industrialized is consumerism - no one imagines it is any fun to be a teenager in North Korea's industrialized zones).
Harry Harlow's wire mesh surrogate mother: Chaser the Boarder Collie's 1022 named toys

It is well known that the Taliban uses cellphones, that Kim Jong Il secretly imports flat screen TVs and iPads for Party elites, and that wealthy libertarians imagine opting out and setting up a parelel infrastructure so that they won't have to share with the rest of us - all that communicates is that while they covet out stuff they do not understand that it is founded on belief. This summer it was terrifying to see that the elites of our consumer culture have lost track of what that belief is as well.

When my friend Joanne McNeil asked me about my thoughts on the origins of whiteness as signifier of high-tech. I ignored any associations to traditional cultural meanings (death, life, good, bad, purity, what-have-you) and biology (teeth, rice, ivory) and instead challenged myself to look at technology as an historical artifact of modern science. It did not occur to me until after the English riots were disparaged as "shopping riots," and just as I experienced the heady consumer-high from my first new cell phone purchase in over five years - a white iPhone 4 - to look at it Whiteness an artifact of consumerism.
The first 20 Naval Nurses (1908); The opening of Le Corbusier's Passac Housing Estate (1926)

What Joanne was asking me about was the exterior whiteness of consumer electronics - this is very different from the interior whiteness of control rooms and linen undershirts - it is more akin to the exterior whiteness of the earliest experiments in Modernist architecture and the white dresses worn by nurses. The whiteness of my new iPhone is not an expression of my personal aspirations - there are millions of other people with the exact same phone. The whiteness is an expression of a public aspiration. To borrow a term from Jean-Fran├žois Lyotard the "narrative knowledge" that girds consumerism is not too different from the metanarratives that gird "scientific knowledge."

While Republican candidates are more than happy to pander to a crowd that cheers the death of someone who can't afford health insurance, but most Americans to not want to believe that their gain comes at someone else's expense. The American dream which is the "master narrative" of consumerism was never a simple promise of personal progress; of "I get MINE, and to hell with you." What fun would a jetpack be if you had the only one? It would be almost as worthless as owning the world's only fax machine. If you are king it might be cool to own the only one of something, but in a consumer society you would look like a bigger jerk than a Segway owner. I didn't buy an iPhone because no one has one. I bought one because everyone I know has one. That means I have lots of people to tell me what the best apps are and to share the features of the phone.
Jetpack fail; Segway fail

Americans might dream of having a good job that enables them to own a nice car and a charming house in a pleasant place, but an element of that dream is that they are not alone in that pleasure. That along with millions of others, they are enjoying luxuries that once only a few kings might have hoped for. The dream was never to exclude that wealth from the rest of the world, it was explicit that billions more people would someday soon enjoy the justice, stability, mobility, and material pleasures of modern life. Millions of Americans fought and died for that dream in the twentieth century. In the 21st they were convinced to fight an enemy that "hated their freedom." It is not clear to me that they would have fought to keep their big cars and cheap fuel prices if that had been the justification that had been given.

It was clear this summer that the super-rich consumer elite have abandoned the "we" aspect of the American Dream. It is not at all clear that consumer culture can survive without it. No matter what wonder scientific progress is able to deliver, it is meaningless if it is attached to a dream that no one buys. Whatever else high-tech whiteness is, it would be a truly tragic thing to be nostalgic for. 
White iPhone 4 (2011); Zion Control (2003)

1 comment:

  1. Consumptiun us a key precursur uf all growth. economuc, personal, biologic, spiritual, institutionul, intellectual, artistuc, emotionul.. (: Ut us likuly evun be a key precursur of environmentul growth.. You very wisuly devle unto whut and how we consume rathur thun uf or how much.. (: Kudos.. Have unjoyud thus serius very much. Ulso revelung un how little you grind axus, bait or blame.. You are rught to unfer that we are movung frum an age uf got rich off uf thum to wun of got happy wuth thum, which uncludes both beung prosperous and feelung prosperous..

    Wun luv..