I wrote this essay expanding on an essay a few years back; I believe it still rings true.
I taught AP English for 15 years, and each year I would pass around a wonderful editorial by Stephen Bayley regarding the futility of what the great thinker Thorstein Veblen called “conspicuous consumption. Blayley’s writing is upscale and challenging for AP students more accustomed to tweets and Facebook photo captions.
His message is, however, quite powerful, and I include his essay piece by piece, to suggest how the consumerism of things has become the consumerism of ideas, with all the shallow, ‘musturbatory’* self gratification intact.
COMMENTARY Los Angeles Times April 1, 2004Thorstein Veblen2
_Deep-Fat Fryers in Deep-Seated Desuetude_
Ultimately, all this stuff we buy is a waste. By Stephen Bayley
It’s time to revive Thorstein Veblen, nowadays a neglected figure.
His “Theory of the Leisure Class” (1899) is in that strange category of books both unreadable and immensely stimulating. Veblen established the notion of conspicuous consumption — the process of social climbing by buying things. Chapter Six is about the “pecuniary canons of taste,” or how money describes us. As Bob Dylan said, it tends to swear rather than talk.
I would posit that our current political climate creates much the same behavior. The thin veneer of our civility is becoming as translucent as our façade of wisdom. We have adapted the age old tradition of showing off with stuff, into a Ben – Hur chariot race of pretentious political pontification. Our thoughts no longer speak well of us, instead, grandmothers and young people swear at each other online in ways that would make both blush if uttered in person.
A political economist, Veblen was called the last man who knew everything. He spoke 25 languages but understood best consumer desire and the perverse commercial logic that powers it: “Invention is the mother of necessity” was his marvelously cross-wired coinage.
Indeed, we are led to believe that our polarization was of necessity, yet why now? Why not fifty, or a hundred years ago? Young people have always joined a cause; it is part of claiming autonomy over one’s schema; it is identification with ideas that will elevate your status with peers and separate you from those unfashionable ‘others’.
Teachers and professors have always yearned to mold young minds into copies of their own egos. Yet over the last twenty five years, professors particularly, have sought to redefine their vision of utopia into the social imperative. They do this through exaggerating, or even inventing injustices, defining them as causes, then as necessities. The second technique is to use individual events as not just emblematic, but as the all encompassing definition of the issue. A questionable police shooting must mean all cops are racist. etc.
We all have a guilty secret about the things we buy but never use. They inhabit a dark part of our imaginative lives — not F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dark night of the soul where it is always three o’clock in the morning, but the space under the stairs, where possessions consumed in the passionate delirium of cupidity accumulate to mock us. Sex has its post-coital tristesse1, consumerism has its post-purchase melancholy. A recent study showed that the majority of machines emerge from the chrysalis2 of their four-color polysealed packaging only to retreat into wretched desuetude3. All subjective experience shows that deep-fat fryers, bread machines and ice-cream makers, to offer only a few examples, are quite literally useless for the purpose intended. They sit redundant in cupboards, telling stories about us, like 19th century servants chattering about their masters above stairs. Perhaps, one muses, this treachery is their true function.
Like the “delirium of cupidity” we call impulse buying, people glom onto ideas that may be quite questionable indeed, especially when friends have similar ideas. It’s a quick life lesson that an open display of agreement ensures a seat by the warm fire, with friends and various possible gratifications, while questioning, much less disagreement, means banishment to the outer darkness of cold, and pain…. Social media ensures that such an exile includes hounding by former friends and even strangers. Such “treachery” may not be intentional, but it is there.
Our poverty of abundance originated in the 1950s. The idea — then novel — was that continuing acquisition of supposedly ever-better-looking, ever-better-performing material goods made life perfect. Anyone who has actually driven a ’57 Thunderbird knows the pitiable fragility of this vision, but for a moment Detroit defined this version of the American Dream with industrial thoroughness. The carmakers introduced the annual model year, a travesty of “progress” because the changes were superficial. Social critics, including Vance Packard, whose “The Hidden Persuaders” (1957) and “The Status Seekers” (1961) picked up where Veblen left off, called it “planned obsolescence.” A General Motors executive said, “We have not depreciated last year’s cars, we have appreciated your mind.”
This is the heart of the matter. Political arguments today are not of ideas, so much as the individual events I alluded to earlier. Each event is elevated into a metaphor, with scope Shakespeare would envy. These metaphors, these memes, these rants, both confirm our views, and our biases.
They are clear, simple, and wrong. The faults of the other side are generated anew with each new event, and web sites both decry the wrong, and describe how the faithful must think and act in response. Even the mind of the reader is now ‘appreciated’ by the conspiratorial arrogance of the author- ‘you are better; you are one of us.’
Hence the fateful appointments we have all made in car showrooms or appliance megastores. Here we can see consumer behavior that is wonderfully odd — entirely predictable and utterly irrational. There is a tragic poetry about all of this. We buy things and anticipate happiness, but the truth is the merchandise cruelly ridicules us. Cars equipped with “performance” that cannot be (legally) used. Home computers with memory sufficient to run the economy of Luxembourg. Deep-fat fryers we cannot be bothered to plug in after one failed experiment with tempura. The things we want are weapons in our struggle for psychological survival — absurd, sometimes beautiful, almost always wasteful, sad.
Subjective experience shows that deep-fat fryers, bread machines and ice-cream makers, to offer only a few examples, are quite literally useless for the purpose intended. They sit redundant in cupboards, telling stories about us, like 19th century servants chattering about their masters above stairs. Perhaps, one muses, this treachery is their true function.
We can predict with some certainty that children raised on indolence, structured sports activities, video games, and schooling designed to prevent any but positive, ego building experiences – will fall for any idea that suggests their own superiority. We have bought into ideas that look ever so sexy, and as any are adopted, their failure must be from some external cause, like any failure in childhood was a result of some unfairness, or perhaps ‘oppression’.
How to deal with this terrifying trap that objects lay for us? Eliminate as many of them as possible. My favorite method is a test: the Absence Factor. It was devised by Jeremy Bullmore, former chairman of the London office of the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency. You consider any object and give it a value from 0 to 100, depending on your estimate of how much you would miss it in a crisis. Thus, the giltwood chinoiserie Louis XVI harp4 in the drawing room, to say nothing of the deep-fat fryer in the kitchen, scores very low, while an ample supply of Kimberly-Clark’s signature product — if in a gastroenterological crisis on, say, a train in Gujarat — scores very nearly the maximum possible points. Simple pleasures rarely disappoint.
Indeed, simple ideas, though as bland as a baked potato, tend to work. Those spicy ideas like ensured equality of outcome, and wealth redistribution burn like Venezuelan Pabellon Criollo going in, but a look at the starving populace of Caracas tells you – they also burn coming out.
*Psychologist Albert Ellis coined the phrase for peoples’ tendency to expect a perfect life.
1 chrysalis: a cocoon; a tadpole- relative to a frog
2 tristesse: sadness
3 desuetude: A state of disuse or inactivity
4 giltwood chinoiserie Louis XVI harp – an antique harp with gold plated ornate wood carvings.