Friday, November 29, 2002

Tim Dunlop's latest takes us neatly to the issue of consumerism. Having made mention of JK Galbraith's notion of 'demand management', I thought it might be worthwhile taking a cultural view of ourselves in that light. 'Commodity-as-magical-totem-in-ever-so-modern-society' sorta stuff.

'Commodity fetishism' was what Marx used to call this integral aspect of capital-organised society.

I justify such tangents on the grounds that (a) the commodity never quite meets the magical demands made of it; a problem we seem to address by aspiring to new improved commodities (buying stuff can feel beaut, but the having of it often less than life-transforming or void-filling), and (b) in a time of HUGE excess capacity in so many sectors and worrying debt levels in so many boardrooms and households (yes, blogsurfers, I remain most dismarrhoaic as to the world's short-to-medium-term economic future) we shall see ever more of our social wealth committed to ever more witchdoctors proffering ever more magic. Anyway, some thought-organising words from Raymond Williams:

"It is impossible to look at modern advertising without realising that the material object being sold is never enough: this indeed is the crucial cultural quality of its modern forms. If we were sensibly materialist, in that part of our living where we use things, we should find most advertising to be of insane irrelevance. Beer would be enough for us, without the additional promise that in drinking it we show ourselves to manly, young in heart or neighbourly ... it is clear that we have a cultural pattern in which the objects are not enough but must be validated, if only in fantasy, by association with social and personal meanings, which in a different cultural pattern might be more directly available. The short description of the pattern we have is magic: a highly organised and professional system of magical inducements and satisfactions, functionally very similar to magical systems in simpler societies, but rather strangely coexistent with a highly developed scientific technology.

This contradiction is of the greatest importance in any analysis of modern capitalist society. The coming of large-scale industrial production necessarily raised critical problems of social organisation, which in many fields we are still only struggling to solve. In the production of goods for personal use, the critical problem posed by the factory of advanced machines was that of organisation of the market ... "

So we are organised into squandering ever more of the sweat of our brows (ever more of our TIME, hence ever more of LIFE itself) on the (inevitably) false promises of our witchdoctors and the accumulation of definitively obselescent goods. And if we step off this daft train to perpetual frustration - this life-wasting environment-draining cupboard-filling imperative - why, then we bring our whole social system to a shuddering traumatic halt.

Another dose of lose-lose scenariorrhoea, brought to you by the commodity form via its constant heralds (advertisers) and its periodic manifestations (excess capacity, declining profits and untenable household debt) ...
Sunday, November 24, 2002

You may have noticed that worship of whatever 'the individual' is fairly festoons Blogistan. Individualism - epistemological, methodological, religious and political - has come a long way in the last twenty years. Anything done in its name is just dandy these days and many a scoundrel sees it for the refuge it has become. 'Freedom of the individual' distinguishes us from our enemies, the triumphant President of the 'Free World' tells us. 'Freedom of the individual' is what the subordination to capital is all about, the triumphant Mont Pelerin mob tell us.

So off we go, killing and buying our way to freedom …

Yet no-one ever tells us what an 'individual' is. This is problematic because absent a coherent notion of 'the individual' we don't know what would constitute its freedom. Missing both contingent object and defining subject, Blogistan's brave battlecry is left a rather uninspiring thing.

'Of!" just doesn't cut it, battlecry-wise.

So let's make a small start at yanking this 'individual' out into the light of day, eh?

Well, for one thing, 'the individual' is an abstraction insofar as it never exists outside a social setting (that much meets with the approval of philosophers like FH Bradley, anthropologists like Marvyn Harris, sociologists like GH Mead and Kenneth Burke and critical political economists like Karl Marx, Karl Polanyi and Robert Cox). We are all of us born into an already-there symbolic order and mode of production. So whatever 'hard-wiring' or 'instincts' or genetic particulars we carry into society at our birth are at once and forever mediated by the community into which we are born.

Our conception of ourselves does not come from within. We are, rather, who we think others think we are (Cooley's 'looking-glass self'). So, to a significant degree, we construct ourselves, and this we do out of the clues we get from others within a particular symbolic order that promotes certain categories and priorities and forecloses others.
"I know of no way," argued GH Mead (Mind, Self, and Society 1934), "in which intelligence or mind could arise or could have arisen, other than through the internalisation by the individual of social processes of experience and behaviour, that is, through [the]
internalisation of the conversation of significant gestures, as made possible by the individual's taking the attitudes of other individuals toward himself and toward what is being thought about. And if mind or thought has arisen in this way, then there neither can be nor could have been any mind or thought without language; and the early stages of the
development of language must have been prior to the development of mind or thought."

Kenneth Burke (in (Language As Symbolic Action 1966) compressed all the social philosophy of the Chicago School (ie Dewey, Cooley, Mead, Park et al - all of whom took much from a particularly clever foreigner called Simmel, of whom more later if conversation ensues) into rather poetic form:

"Being bodies that learn language, thereby becoming wordlings, humans
are the symbol-making, symbol-using, symbol-misusing animal, inventor of
the negative, separated from our natural condition by instruments of our
own making, goaded by the spirit of hierarchy, acquiring foreknowledge
of death, and rotten with perfection."

There's a lifetime's work in unpacking that lot and I've got five minutes. I'm just popping it in to buttress a point for now (if we must obey the convention of quoting dead white males to support our points then at least let us choose intriguing and poetic DWMs with which to do it, eh?) Here's another interesting DWM, with a 143-year-old riff on the historical role and specificity of these instruments of our own making, not to mention those of the hierarchical spirit:

"In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces … It is not the consciousness of men that determines their social being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness." (Karl Marx, in his Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy

The point I'm trying to support is that the mass media, and the commercial nature there-of, are a big part of the symbolic order in which, out of which, and through which we make ourselves. Uses and misuses indeed.

So is the market relation in general, of course.

The latter affords us a mode by which we may value and stratify ourselves (our wealth and income) and the former affords us a mode by which we may express our relative values (our public consumption - from Homo Armanirolexicus to Homo AccaDacca-T-shirt-and-Winfield-Redsae - from Homo Bollingerae to Homo VeeBee - or Homo Beemer to Homo Falconae etc).

'Tis passing strange that so many rugged individuals may be so neatly pigeon-holed into so relatively few sub-species, eh? If rugged individuals we are, our desires are rigged rather than rugged, produced and reproduced for constructed market niches (or indeed production schedules, in an age not as far removed from Fordist mass production as some like to make out) rather than for individuals - 'demand management' Galbraith called this simple refutation of 'consumer sovereignty'.

There are a lot of places we could go with this 'construction-and-representation-of-the-self-by-way-of-consumption' stuff (indeed, I have it in mind to prattle a bit about the nature of 'the individual' from time to time, if anyone's interested).

As for now, and as it seems I'm talking exclusively to boys, let's talk about girls - and the winter of 1971, when first thoughts such as these entered my adolescent head.

The scene: a steel-grey, ear-numbing, scrotum-wrinkling bastard of a Yorkshire winter, incongruously lit up, I could not help but notice, by tens of thousands of the new micro-miniskirts I'd been reading about in the London tabbies. The second thing I remember thinking about was how strange it seemed that these smooth lithe lasses should reveal, inter alia, a preference for marking their skin with chilblains and carrying themselves in the rigid semi-foetal posture that marks the victim of nascent hypothermia. No doubt, these unfortunates felt very individual indeed as they bought and wore what social (and commercial) forces would have them buy and wear.

2002 was little different, as the thoroughly modern Ms faced the Canberra winter with a stoic expression and a halter top that wouldn't wrap my sandwiches …

Tyranny from without sold as preference from within, I reckon. And a mightily mediated individual as a mightily regulated 'sovereign consumer', too.

The killing, dying, bereaving and hate-mongering is gonna happen, folks. If you're less dismarrhoeaic than I, you might think it less inevitable that Australia's gonna be part of it ... and that the return of our Special Forces from a still tragic but already forgotten Afghanistan has nothing to do with a commitment already quietly made ...

These confirming words, from the mouth of Senior US Security Adviser Richard Perle to your eyes courtesy of Paul Gilfeather, Whitehall Editor for the London *Mirror*:

" ... Dr Richard Perle stunned MPs by insisting a "clean bill of health" from UN chief weapons inspector Hans Blix would not halt America's war machine. Evidence from ONE witness on Saddam Hussein's weapons programme will be enough to trigger a fresh military onslaught, he told an all- party meeting on global security.

Former defence minister and Labour backbencher Peter Kilfoyle said: "America is duping the world into believing it supports these inspections. President Bush intends to go to war even if inspectors find nothing. "This make a mockery of the whole process and exposes America's real determination to bomb Iraq."

Dr Perle told MPs: "I cannot see how Hans Blix can state more than he can know. All he can know is the results of his own investigations. And that does not prove Saddam does not have weapons of mass destruction." The chairman of America's defence policy board said: "Suppose we are able to find someone who has been involved in the development of weapons and he says there are stores of nerve agents. But you cannot find them because they are so well hidden.

"Do you actually have to take possession of the nerve agents to convince? We are not dealing with a situation where you can expect co-operation" ...
political economic and cultural observations in the register of dismal dilettantism

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