Tuesday, February 6, 2007

In the Presence of Things, Part II

Consumption and Our Fragmented Communities

Our desire for more and more commodities has lead to not only a fragmentation of wild places, but of our communities as well. As the consumer culture places greater and greater emphasis on the individual as the prime consumer of goods and services, less and less attention is given to the value of public life. Charles Taylor notes that a major issue in modern times is the emphasis on private consumption to the detriment of civic responsibility; he sees consumer culture creating individuals who possess “an outlook that makes self-fulfillment the major value in life and that seems to recognize few external moral demands or serious commitment to others (Taylor55)” Furthermore, the result of such an outlook is that people will “will prefer to stay at home and enjoy the satisfactions of private life, as long as the government of the day produces the means to these satisfactions and distributes them widely (Taylor 9).” Given the rapid decline in voter turnout, the disappearance of many fraternal and service organizations, and the advent of “gated communities” which seek to separate the homeowner within his castle from the larger community, Taylor’s observations are sensible. The continued growth of suburban sprawl is driven by the desire to escape the intimacy of urban life for a larger house, greater privacy, and space to fill with commodities.
Taylor’s observations then are critical to those of us who value not only community, but a free society as well. After all, democracy is contingent on the participation of the people. Without such participation, democracy either collapses completely, or becomes the tool of a few who remain interested. Either way it fails to be a reflection of the population at large. Therefore, we have at hand a fundamental paradox in a democratic society that is a byproduct of the narrative of technology--we have come to define freedom not as self choosing, self making, or even the ability to develop what is most unique about ourselves, instead we have come to see freedom as the ability to choose among a vast number of commodities and enjoy them unemcumbered, free of any cultural, social, or environmental context. However, that very notion of freedom is undermining our most basic principles of democracy, which is the necessity of participation. As Langdon Winner observes,

“Material abundance would make it possible for everybody to have enough to be perfectly happy. Eventually, Americans took this notion to be a generally applicable theory: economic enterprise driven by the engine of technical improvement was the very essence of human freedom. Franklin D. Roosevelt reportedly remarked that if he could put one American book in the hands of every Russian, it would be the Sears, Roebuck catalogue (Winner 45).”

But by placing such an emphasis on private enjoyment or personal pleasure, we subvert more than just democratic participation. Winner also notes that,

A belief common in writings of ancient Greece and Rome that civic virtue and material prosperity are antithetical. Human nature, according to this view, is easily corrupted by wealth. The indolent, pleasure seeking habits of luxurious living tend to subvert qualities of frugality, self-restraint, and self-sacrifice needed to maintain a free society. By implication, any society that wishes to maintain civic virtue ought to approach technical innovation and economic growth with the utmost caution (Winner 43)”

As Winner sees it, it is not only electoral politics that suffer, but also the very virtues that allow for even small communities to exist such as self-restraint and self-sacrifice. Consideration for the good of neighbors and communities is subverted.
Juliet Schor sees that in competitive consumption--acquiring visible goods as a means of establishing status--uses up resources that could otherwise be used to strengthen and build communities. She writes,

“A second problem with competitive consumption is that the pressure to keep up with acquiring visible, private status goods crowds out other, competing uses of income. The four major competing uses of income are leisure, savings, public goods (including the environment), and non-visible private consumption. The experience of the past two decades in the United States suggests the plausibility of such a dynamic (Schor 49-50)”

The use of income primarily on the acquisition of status goods has pushed the other uses to the side, and as private consumption rises, community investment declines.

Consumption and the Impoverished Self

In addition to our public life, we have on a personal level become impoverished as well. Alex Kotlowitz sees consumption as a process of replacing or compensating for things we lack—not only the love and support of others, but also a means of defining our self. Kotlowitz notes that “it is as consumers that inner-city children, otherwise so disconnected from the world around them, identify themselves not as ghetto kids or project kids but as Americans or just plain kids (Kotlowitz 67).” Consumption being far from the pleasure of the wealthy or even middle class, is really a source of identity for those who live within paler circumstances—circumstances that consumerism actually exacerbates. Ironically enough, Kotlowitz sees that affluent suburban kids purchase the same clothing as those in poor urban areas as a means of emulating and identifying with a different socio-economic group. Identity among people from these two widely divergent backgrounds is inextricably entwined with consumption, but lacking in any real ties to reality. Above all else though, it may also be quite damaging, for as Kotlowitz writes,

...in lieu of building real connections—by providing opportunities or rebuilding communities—we have found some common ground as purchasers of each other’s trademarks. At best, that link is tenuous; at worst, it’s false. It lets us believe that we are connected when the distance, in fact, is much farther than anyone cares to admit.” (Kotlowitz 72)

Instead of seeking out connections to things that are very real, such as friends, neighbors, and communities, consumerism has given us an impoverished notion of self that is based merely on purchasing power and the surface appearance of belonging to something.
But there is even more to the problem than just superficially defining one’s self. At the core of the problem is the nature of commodity itself, which is the aspect of disburdened enjoyment which has brought to the forefront a degraded understanding of individualism. Albert Borgmann traces the decline of our sense of individualism from the first rugged individualist who shaped our nation, to the beneficiaries of that effort. He writes of the rugged individualist,

The image of the rugged individual conjures up people who, facing up to a wild continent, were provoked to superhuman feats of ingenuity and endurance and bespoke in their weathered faces and plain behavior the grandeur of the land they had prevailed against. (Borgmann, CPD 38)

These were people of great courage and discipline. Placing aside for now any criticism of their will to dominate and control nature, we see that these people earned their place and name through a great deal of intelligence and hard work. However, Borgmann sees that that brand of individualism has given was to a degraded form of individualism which he calls “commodious individualism.”

The individual is the author of the enterprise [the rugged individualist] and the beneficiary of its fruits. The former of these two functions has been fixed in the American consciousness as rugged individualism; the latter leads a more surreptitious life in commodity consumption. I will call this second function commodious individualism. (Borgmann, CPD 38)

This commodious individualism is impoverished because the commodious individual has not out forth the discipline or effort. But commodious individualism is not merely a problem of buying things or having this or that without really earning it, it is a fundamental problem of self.
Commodious individualism is the final step we take when our way of defining our self is no longer what we are capable of, what is unique about us, or what we have accomplished in our lives. Instead, commodious individualism comes when we surrender everything that is uniquely defining about us and acquiesce to the call of consumption—I am me because of what I own. Uniqueness becomes ironically enough a function of one’s ability to associate oneself with a particular style or fad. Wendell Berry writes,

“There are, to begin with, two radically different, even opposing meanings of style: style as fashion, an imposed appearance, a gloss upon superficiality; and a style as the signature of mastery, the effervescence of long discipline. It is obvious that the style of mastery can never become the style of fashion, simply because every master of a discipline is different from every other; his mastery is suffused with his own character and his own materials. Cezanne’s paintings could not have been produced by a fad, for the simple reason that they could not have been produced by any other person. As a popular phrase,” life style” necessarily has to do only with what is imitable in another person’s life, it’s superficial appearances, disciplines, or devotions…An essential recognition is thus obscured at birth by the old lie of advertising and public relations: that you can alter substance by altering appearance. “Alternate life style” suggests, much in the manner of the fashion magazines, that one can change one’s life by changing one’s clothes (Berry 175).”

Berry is correct that life style is a popular phrase, and that there are indeed two ways of understanding it; the first is as the “signature of mastery” and the other as a “gloss upon superficiality.” Modern culture is consumed by the fallacy that to alter appearance is to alter substance, and that to change one’s clothes is to change one’s life. This fits under the umbrella of the technological narrative because it is indicative of our expectation of disburdenment. Self realization requires effort, and self actualization requires even more effort, sometimes stretched out over decades (such as the skills of an artist or craftsman). However, in the age of instant gratification, we have been lulled by the promise of technology and the availability of commodities into thinking that self making should be like other forms of consumption—fast, without burdens, and disengaged from a larger social and ecological context.
The culture that values superficial self defining and self gratification leads to a degraded moral sense, and makes the individual the last source of moral appeal. In his book The Ethics of Authenticity, philosopher Charles Taylor makes such an observation. Taylor notes that one “malaise” of modern culture is a relativistic “flattened and narrowed” sense of individualism. This is not to say that individualism is bad in Taylor’s view, for quite to the contrary, he sees modern man’s ability to be self determining and self creating as vitally important. However, Taylor’s critique of modern individualism is that it has been diverted from the ideals of self determination and co-opted by a radical and disconnected subjectivity based almost exclusively on self gratification, or as Taylor puts it, “the spread of an outlook that makes self-fulfillment the major value in life and that seems to recognize few external moral demands or serious commitment to others” (Taylor 55) This is reflective of the disengagement with culture and community that Kotlowitz observes. Taylor also writes,
“The worry has been repeatedly expressed that the individual lost something important along with the larger social and cosmic horizons of action…People no longer have a sense of a higher purpose (Taylor 4)…”

He further writes that,
“This loss of purpose was linked to a narrowing. People lost the broader vision because they focused on their individual lives…The sense that lives have been flattened and narrowed, and that this is connected to an abnormal and regrettable self-absorption (Taylor 4)…”

What Taylor acutely locates here is the division between the ideal of the self creating yet intimately connected individual, and the disconnected and radically subjective “flattened and narrowed” individual that is the product of the modern consumer culture.
Thus, we see that within the framework of the technological narrative and its associated consumerism, the self becomes increasingly disconnected from community, while the cultural value of disburdenment brings about a situation wherein the self is defined superficially, and the demands placed on us by external moral obligations are marginalized or simply done away with in favor of a purely self gratifying approach wherein the self is the final moral authority. Having looked at all of these issues concerning modern culture in light of the technological narrative, we will now turn our attention to a reform of the technological narrative via a rediscovery of the importance of things.

1 comment:

TJS said...

This is rather long...