October 31, 2004 at 11:16 pm | In yulelogStories | Comments Off on Commenting

It is Hallowe’en, and I don’t feel like blogging anything at all. But I did just spend a bit of time responding to Brian‘s comment to my Oct. 27 entry on Heath & Potter’s book The Rebel Sell. Now I’m written out, though. Go read the comment(s).

Consuming distaste

October 27, 2004 at 9:44 pm | In yulelogStories | 3 Comments

If you live in Canada, you can buy a recently published book, The Rebel Sell, by Torontonians Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter. In the US, it will be published under a different title: Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture. I like the original title better — it makes me feel cleverer, and that’s what marketing is all about, isn’t it? Me-me-me, the consumer? Seriously, though, this book seems worth a read. Heath and Potter did spill most of the thesis in This Magazine earlier this year. Their guiding question is, How can we all denounce consumerism, and yet still find ourselves living in a consumer society? They suggest that we aren’t critiquing consumerism at all: instead, we are critiquing mass society while telling ourselves that this critique equates somehow with a critique of consumerism. It doesn’t, according to the authors:

In fact, the critique of mass society has been one of the most powerful forces driving consumerism for more than 40 years.

That last sentence is worth reading again. The idea is so foreign, so completely the opposite of what we are used to being told, that many people simply can’t get their head around it. It is a position that Thomas Frank, editor of The Baffler [hint: current issue (nr.16) has an essay by Dubravka Ugresic, yea!], has been trying to communicate for years. Strangely, all the authors of anti-consumerism books have read Frank—most even cite him approvingly—and yet not one of them seems to get the point. So here is Frank’s claim, simply put: books like No Logo, magazines like Adbusters, and movies like American Beauty do not undermine consumerism; they reinforce it.
This theory [of mass society] acquired such a powerful grip on the imagination of the left during the 1960s that many people still have difficulty seeing it for what it is—a theory. Here are a few of its central postulates:

1. Capitalism requires conformity in the workers. Capitalism is one big machine; the workers are just parts. These parts need to be as simple, predictable, and interchangeable as possible. One need only look at an assembly line to see why. Like bees or ants, capitalist workers need to be organized into a limited number of homogeneous castes.

2. Capitalism requires conformity of education. Training these corporate drones begins in the schools, where their independence and creativity is beaten out of them—literally and figuratively. Call this the Pink Floyd theory of education.

3. Capitalism requires sexual repression. In its drive to stamp out individuality, capitalism denies the full range of human expression, which includes sexual freedom. Because sexuality is erratic and unpredictable, it is a threat to the established order. This is why some people thought the sexual revolution would undermine capitalism.

4. Capitalism requires conformity of consumption. The overriding goal of capitalism is to achieve ever-increasing profits through economies of scale. These are best achieved by having everyone consume the same limited range of standardized goods. Enter advertising, which tries to inculcate false or inauthentic desires. Consumerism is what emerges when we are duped into having desires that we would not normally have.>

Heath and Potter continue to dissect the film American Beauty, dismantling its hero’s supposed rebel stance and showing that it is, instead, simply a more competitively savvy stance:

What we need to see is that consumption is not about conformity, it’s about distinction. People consume in order to set themselves apart from others. (…)

They proceed to skewer No Logo‘s Naomi Klein; she had written disparagingly of the condo-fication of her factory-loft neighbourhood, a movement that threatened her directly: “Her complaints about [real estate] commercialization [in downtown Toronto] are nothing but an expression of this loss of distinction.” (Here I was reminded of John Lennon’s murder, which Cathy, one of my really hard political friends dismissed, literally within hours of its occurence, as a media event designed to manipulate the masses emotionally. Ouch, I remember thinking, I liked John Lennon. But I saw Cathy’s point, and Heath and Potter’s point holds just as well.)
Their distinction (ahem) between conformism and distinction is useful, sharp:

Once we acknowledge the role that distinction plays in structuring consumption, it’s easy to see why people care about brands so much. Brands don’t bring us together, they set us apart. Of course, most sophisticated people claim that they don’t care about brands—a transparent falsehood. Most people who consider themselves “anti-consumerist” are extremely brand-conscious. They are able to fool themselves into believing that they don’t care because their preferences are primarily negative. They would never be caught dead driving a Chrysler or listening to Celine Dion. It is precisely by not buying these uncool items that they establish their social superiority. (It is also why, when they do consume “mass society” products, they must do so “ironically”—so as to preserve their distinction.)

And don’t we all know a bunch of people exactly like that: countercultural types, drop-outs, people who sneer at people who shop at big box stores, listen to commercial radio, or feel sad when John Lennon gets murdered. How can anyone, these “aware” people contend, think that mass-produced and mediated products or events can have any authenticity?

As Pierre Bourdieu reminds us, taste is first and foremost distaste—disgust and “visceral intolerance” of the taste of others. This makes it easy to see how the critique of mass society could help drive consumerism.
We find ourselves in an untenable situation. 0n the one hand, we criticize conformity and encourage individuality and rebellion. On the other hand, we lament the fact that our ever-increasing standard of material consumption is failing to generate any lasting increase in happiness. This is because it is rebellion, not conformity, that generates the competitive structure that drives the wedge between consumption and happiness. As long as we continue to prize individuality, and as long as we express that individuality through what we own and where we live, we can expect to live in a consumerist society.

Meanwhile, don’t start thinking that you as an individual can drive lasting or meaningful change all by your lonesome, however. You’re not John Lennon (or Princess Di), after all. Read Heath and Potter’s take on SUVs, for example, and read, especially, this bit:

At this stage of late consumerism, our best bet is legislative action. If we were really worried about advertising, for example, it would be easy to strike a devastating blow against the “brand bullies” with a simple change in the tax code. The government could stop treating advertising expenditures as a fully tax-deductible business expense (much as it did with entertainment expenses several years ago). Advertising is already a separately itemized expense category, so the change wouldn’t even generate any additional paperwork. But this little tweak to the tax code would have a greater impact than all of the culture jamming in the world.

Of course, tweaking the tax code is not quite as exciting as dropping a “meme bomb” into the world of advertising or heading off to the latest riot in all that cool mec gear. It may, however, prove to be a lot more useful. What we need to realize is that consumerism is not an ideology. It is not something that people get tricked into. Consumerism is something that we actively do to one another, and that we will continue to do as long as we have no incentive to stop. Rather than just posturing, we should start thinking a bit more carefully about how we’re going to provide those incentives. [More… ]

Somehow, I think this prescription (and critique) dovetails nicely with George Lakoff‘s analyses of reactionary-conservative agendas to hijack moral issues and policy. On the left, we’re so busy arguing about individual piety (giving up this or that, making our footprint tinier, being [competitively] more radically chic than the next guy, etc.), eschewing consumerism (evil, evil) and mass society (bad, bad) that we’ve left the terrain of political action — legislation, small acts of democratic intervention (when was the last time you called your Member of the Legislative Assembly or your Congressman?), and all sorts of other systems-work to the rightwingers. Yeah, so we’ve got our “meme bombs,” but the problem is that they’ve got the tax code. Time to restrategise. Incidentally, I was sad when John Lennon was shot, and I did resent being told by my Leninist (not Lennonist) girlfriend that my sadness was merely reified bourgeois sentimentalism. That’s the other problem with being cool beyond brands, including drop-out drop-dead politically radically cool: you’re not supposed to allow yourself to feel anything, unless it’s been approved by the party line. In that sense, individuality is a conundrum: maybe you can’t buy it, but don’t try to deny it..

One pill makes you larger….

October 25, 2004 at 8:17 pm | In yulelogStories | 3 Comments

Here’s a great article about sex worth reading. It sort of describes the White Rabbit‘s fall * into a third hole…

Speaking of drugs: I had my flu shot last week.

I usually think of Victoria as an end-point on a rock in the ocean: we’re on an island, and this is not exactly the easiest place to leave because you can only go so far by car before hitting the water. And once you do, you must pay handsomely to cross that water. But it seems that quite a few people are lured to coming here these days, as per the strange stories on radio: both KPLU and CBC report that the Victoria Clipper is experiencing a huge increase in traffic from Seattle to Victoria. Why? Well, the ferry service is offering a package deal: for US $105 you get a round-trip cruise from Seattle to Victoria, and a flu shot in the Belleville Terminal (once you’ve cleared Canada Customs and Immigration). It seems that people from as far away as Arizona are flying to Seattle to take advantage of the deal. Normal traffic on the Clipper at this time of year: about 100 passengers. Normal today? Well over three hundred.

I also sent in my absentee ballot this week. It felt like a flu shot: you know you should do it (vote, I mean), but you wonder how effective it will be (there always seems to be some way the bastards — viral bad guys — get in anyway). My ballot goes to Massachusetts, where Kerry presumably will win regardless of whether my vote gets added to his pile. Too bad I couldn’t pay $105 to vote in Washington State….

Customer on strike

October 20, 2004 at 12:03 am | In yulelogStories | 7 Comments

The following is something I wrote in response to a bunch of posts at Shelley‘s, which I first thought I’d post as a comment here, or maybe here but when it got longer and longer, seemed too overbearing for a comments board. But please, read these entries at Burningbird if you haven’t already. This topic has a history.

I am distressed by the drive to turn *everything* into a matter of marketplace. When Dave Winer wrote — apropos of the recent Jon-Stewart-on-Crossfire event that Shelley noted a few entries back — that “we” are customers of journalism, I was repelled. When he claimed that academia has learned this “lesson” because academia now treats students like customers (see comments), I knew that he didn’t understand academia *at all* — not at all, even one little bit — and I had to conclude that his citizens-as-customers analogy was just as misguided. The impetus to drive teaching at universities via a student-as-customer model has contributed more to grade-inflation and student “shopping” than to critical thinking. It has contributed to a general dumbing down, even though it hasn’t slowed down competition at the very top of the heap, because the really bright kids still understand that it takes elbows to carve out a position. But it has done not much at all — and please, ask the people in the trenches, the ones who get “rated” by all those dumb student evaluations and who have to adapt their content to this market — for conveying a critical, difficult, or challenging content. Aside from those few “top” students who excel because they’re smart enough and because they have to get into the right graduate programs, content — for the majority of “customers” — has to be fun, otherwise the “customer” (formerly known as “student”) will get upset.

Here’s what’s wrong with the emphasis on “customer” in situations that aren’t made for consuming: The “customer model” is conducive to peer-controlled thinking. The fatal error in advocating it in journalism, politics, academia, civics — any area that used to be “controlled” by ideals and/ or belief in authority — is that peer-controlled thinking doesn’t necessarily contribute to making those (previously authoritarian) areas more open or egalitarian, it just makes them more susceptible to peer pressure. It is reckless to think that authoritarianism could be challenged by a peer-controlled model of “the customer.”

You have to ask yourself how you feel about peer pressure.

Is it a good thing? Is it a liberating force? Is it a force that makes you conform?

Another thing we all know, at gut-level, is that peer pressure is incredibly intimate: it gets you here, right here. And I think that somewhere in the tension between the desire for intimacy and its rejection (as a means of survival, as a means of staying distinct), we can also find some of the descriptors of why and how women participate / compete in this weird blogging environment. We are constantly being told that our voices are supposed to be “unique” or “individual,” while at the same time we feel the peer-pressure to be just like blah-blah [fill in the blank]. Those who manage to square that circle in their pointy little heads win first prize. How else could anyone (an A-lister man, for example) have the gall to write entries on how to be successful in blogging, for example? And how else could that same (male) voice — which isn’t really all that unique or individual or interesting, because, like all his peers, he’s following a cookie-cutter pattern for popularity — consider himself “unique” and “individual”?

Sure, it’s more comfortable to talk about “customers” instead of “authority,” but that doesn’t mean you’re going to get around the latter. If you’re a parent, ask yourself how having kids-as-customers makes you feel. Perhaps — if you’re really modern — you’re already nearly completely there, or should I say: nearly nowhwere, as in: non-existant as a parent. C’mon, ‘fess up: aren’t you merely a content-provider to your kid’s needs? Isn’t your kid just a customer of your services? Yeah, that’s right. That’s where we’re going. Your kid has been in a peer-controlled environment ever since s/he entered school, which is why you’re feeling superfluous, too. So get on down, join your kid on the floor.

See? It’s uncomfortable when you really think about it, isn’t it? You have no real authority in your life or in your dealings with anyone, your kid knows that, and that is the way of customers: it’s a total peer-universe.

Frankly, I find it a bit creepy. I am a woman of a certain age who has sacrificed (yeeuw!, what an old-fashioned word!) a lot in the name of a certain project (parenthood), which, as far as she can tell entails the transmission of countless details of wisdom, insight, experience, tradition, and even a certain professional parental “je ne sais quois,” and I’ll be damned if I’m joining my kid on the floor for just any old reason. I want some distinction, some power of discrimination, between my life as a customer, my life as a sexual woman, and my life as a citizen or parent or teacher (authority figure). For example, I won’t ever be a customer of my husband’s sexual services (or vice versa). (That’s another thing Kant got wrong, by the way. And since Kant said something to that effect, you can see that the logic [of the market] is inherent in the whole rationalist project, can’t you?)

In whose interest is it that you should be a customer? That’s what you have to ask yourself. There are areas in life where it doesn’t make any sense to think of yourself as one. Even though it’s terribly uncool, it might be a better bet to think in other ways about authority. In terms of your own dignity, for starters. This is where we women have an historical insight, because we’ve traditionally been subjected to authority. Today, the logic of the market is the highest authority in the western world, with the ability to liberate as well as enslave. Perhaps the enslaving aspect of the logic of the market is going to succeed in levelling every single human activity to one common denominator (“customer”), but just for now, I don’t want a journalism that treats me as a customer –I’m a reader and a citizen. I want to fight to keep some areas of public or civic life (or sexual life, for that matter) distinct from market logic.

Remember that, Mrs. Shopper, next time you’re out there shopping (cue Monty Python). The Market wants you, but remember, too, that Mrs. Shopper is a man in drag.

Hypocrite parents

October 15, 2004 at 4:14 pm | In yulelogStories | Comments Off on Hypocrite parents

It’s clearly of a piece that Dick Cheney and his wife would be indignant over Kerry mentioning their daughter’s homosexuality on the one hand, and that George Bush and his wife on the other are dead-set against stem-cell research. That piece is called double standard. I wish that more members of “first families” in the US would speak out publicly against the hypocrisy their families and their class typically support. Patti Davis did, in this commentary on Christopher Reeve’s death. Mary Cheney, what do you think? Do you think it’s ok that your parents are “indignant” and “angry” because someone pointed out that you’re a lesbian? Who’s being “political” and “tawdry” here?

Better late than not at all

October 13, 2004 at 9:18 pm | In yulelogStories | 1 Comment

It’s taking me longer to get around the blog neighbourhood these days, and so I missed Doug‘s terrific pointer to Sarah McLachlan’s World on Fire video earlier this month. McLachlan and friends spent one tenth [correction: one tenthousandth] of a typical high-end music-biz budget to make this video, and gave the other nine-tenths (in a poetic reversal of tithing) to charities [correction: nearly nine ten-thousandths]. You can see how much was donated to what organisation here. Check out the video — it’s visually and aurally beautiful and smart, something to think about, and maybe act on, too.
[edit, 10/14: I must have been brain-dead last night, so caught up in the image of tithing that I managed to drop a few zeros… Must get more sleep!]

Go Lilith.

Jacques Derrida — Ghost Dance

October 9, 2004 at 11:55 pm | In yulelogStories | Comments Off on Jacques Derrida — Ghost Dance

Jacques Derrida died of cancer in Paris during the night from Friday to Saturday, Oct. 8; he was 74.

Since it’s not a very well-known film, I decided to dig out a couple of paragraphs I wrote nearly 20 years ago about Ghost Dance, made by Ken McMullen in 1983. Among others, it starred Jacques Derrida as himself. I saw it in 1985 at a Vancouver Film Festival — I must have seen dozens of films that May, many of which were “French” in terms of being fully in the ebb and flow of post-structuralist tides. And, judging by what I wrote, I had all the time in the world to indulge those waters, too.

Regardless of the quality of my observations then — they manage to be superficial and obtuse simultaneously, no mean feat and perhaps quite fitting to the subject — I have to admit that I miss not having that sort of time now. I haven’t seen anything that made me get philosophical just for the hell of it in far too long. Now, it’s all rush and tear, with passion likely to focus on anger and frustration over politics and social conditions. That was there then, too: we had the Solidarity Movement in BC/Vancouver in the 80s, Women Against the Budget, and so on, but somehow it was so fruitless. BC politics was always like treading water, which made a slow, deep, powerful tide of interesting philosophical discourse seem all the more compelling. At least it felt like one was going somewhere, even though it was all in one’s head after all. Rest in peace, Jacques Derrida…

14 May 1985: Last night’s film, L’amour par terre, was really good. Maybe it’s because I just finished reading Mark Poster‘s book on existential marxism in postwar France, especially the chapter on structuralism’s response to existentialism, that I really related to this film in terms of a structuralist project. The author, although present in all the scenes, is completely decentred if not downright absent. In fact, all the characters’ intentions, that is, their subjective attempts to function within the set up of the story as autonomous individuals, are thwarted in favour of the structure, which articulates itself through them without their being able to influence events through conscious volition. I wonder what tonight’s film will be like? It’s about two women, one a Marxist, the other a student of anthropology (shades of structuralism’s genesis and Levi-Strauss, no?) who go through all these “Derridean” stages of rituals, all of course within the actual presence of Derrida himself.


15 May 1985: Last night’s film, Ghost Dance, was like an illustrated version of structuralism, of Derridean deconstruction, and even of Georges Bataille’s writings on sex and death. I liked it a lot — the film was decipherable for me and I actually felt ritually purged at the end — but W. was a little sceptical, and S. and T., true to their Marxist allegiances, didn’t like it much because it was too esoteric, not direct enough, didn’t advocate “action” or “praxis,” etc. I gave S. a ride home and explained to him why I liked the film even though I per se do not like the formalistic aspects of deconstructive theory, its inability to connect to praxis, its dangerous (in my view) proclivity to deconstruct man only in order to return to discourse some sort of transcendental signifier (i .e., God, horror of horrors), etc., but that I also felt that a continued — and falsely naive — belief in the possibility of an autonomous subject capable of determining history in a conscious manner, including and especially the assumed belief in the proletariat as the carrier of that collective subjectness, that consciousness, was to me bafflingly stupid. Hence, an exploration of those theories which decentre the concept of “man” are necessarily to be taken into account, even though they can at this stage be accused of advocating a position which clings to “theory only” and “fear of praxis.”

In Ghost Dance there is a pronounced emphasis on myth, its return even in our “technological” and advanced age, and on myth’s ability to assert the existence of something beyond the ken of conscious intellect. Hence an emphasis on a discourse about sexuality in this film, which to me seemed straight out of Bataille’s notion of the extremely close linkage between sex and death — that is, that sex brings you to that edge beyond which is the continuity which exists outside of your discontinuous being. There’s a great “birthing” scene in the film, toward the end: the two women watch a man crawl across the inch-deep watery surface of a shaft-like and raftered room. They are moved, one weeps at the sight; it is the recognition of their discontinuity brought about at the time of birth, which can only be broken through death (the return to what was before birth) or approached through sex (the extreme ecstacy of which can bring one to the edge of death via self abandonment). Actually, it’s the kind of film I’d like to have on video and really dissect.

For those who can manage German, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung has a good article here.

How soon is now?

October 7, 2004 at 9:38 pm | In yulelogStories | Comments Off on How soon is now?

In March 1990 I saw a tv commercial, which I wrote about as follows in my journal:

A group of noble and frisky children are trying to “liberate” a good
cereal that is hidden away in a dark, impenetrable castle, guarded by a
dangerous, huge man dressed in black.  All black, including a
hood: he’s the black man, in effect.  The guardian tries every
trick to keep the kids from the treasure — the product that’s being
advertised — but of course the children win out against him, partly
through luck, partly through Yankee ingenuity and plenty of
technology.  Finally, the last barrier between the little hero (a
boy, of course: did I have to say it?) & the cereal is smashed, and
as the little boy rips open a box of the precious cereal — to enjoy
the fruit of his imperialistic conquest — the black man looms up once
again in front of him, in one last-ditch effort to squash the little
intruder.  What does the little hero do?  He doesn’t use one
of his magic tricks — some gimmick of technology — to kill the big
black man, no, he co-opts him: he disarms him by asking him if he would
like to join him in partaking this wonderful yummie cereal.  And
what does the black man do?  He becomes white: he’s disarmed,
surprised by the American child hero’s kindness, and he smiles, becomes
all friendly, and pulls the black hood off his head, revealing a blond
& blue-eyed being underneath.  Perfect transformation.

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