The Not So Sweet Buy and Buy

The Not So Sweet Buy and Buy (can a consumer culture consume a culture?)

            This is a different question than ‘can a consumer culture consume itself’? We have seen quite evidently, especially in popular media, that this is in fact not merely an outcome thereof but a way of maintaining its dominance upon consumption in general. One views a situation comedy, especially an animated one, and if one has not viewed many years of similar programming as well as following the popular culture news, one is immediately lost. Such media constitute one long in-joke, and their satire is disingenuous at best, since it serves also as an ongoing advertisement for everyone else in the same game. Humor is itself tied to the consumption of a specific kind of media, and this also has the convenience of saving the hack writer’s time imagining innovative scripts and characters. Similarly, retreads of film and television, upshifts to streaming etc. from video games and comic books, exhibit the same symptomatology, and one might even wish to cast the older but continuing sourcing from the novel as the beginning of this self-absorbed and auto-absorbing manner of production.

            But for all this, has our contemporary consumer industry been able to reach its wider goal; that of the consumption of the entirety of the culture in which it is ensconced? This is a more difficult query and the response appears at once more nuanced. In order to take it up, we must begin with the most perceptive analyses of consumption, those of Marx and Durkheim. For the former, the well-known understanding of commodity as fetish may serve, for a moment, as a starting point. We have seen elsewhere how the religious overtones of the original fetish item, a vehicle for, and representation of, Mana, which is otherwise quite an abstract power, turns what is mere force into a usable forcefulness. It is a more focused legerdemain that can also be associated with the difference between magic and sorcery. In the most value-neutral sense, sorcery is simply magic in use. The fetish quality of a commodity turns it from a mere use object into a representation of power redefined by capital, but the much older aura of status retains its hold over the consumer, even if the source of such status has shifted from heaven to earth, as it were. Marx’s own example is pedestrian, likely purposely; a table. Unlike Heidegger, who later uses the same item to illustrate the phenomenological intimacy of dialogue amongst other such aspects of ‘closeness’ and ‘alongsideness’, Marx offers us not a whiff of old-world paternalism. Instead, he is didactic in the extreme. And a piece of furniture is not a terrible example given that such a genre of commodity had been coopted by industrial production in a manner that accosted the senses used to cottage-style craftsmanship. Furniture could well have been called ‘fine’ or even ‘beautiful’, and we pay a homage both archival and ironically fetishistic, genuflecting perhaps somewhat ludicrously, to handcrafted antique furniture in art galleries and museums. I have seen such objects placed adjacent to paintings and sculptures, as if we were to place ourselves, in our mind’s eye at least, in some Mannerist domestic scene, replete with paternalism aplenty and this time with no Heideggerean insight in sight.

            So for Marx, the table was a good mark. Now mass-produced, what could the buyer expect regarding possession and status, which prior to industry could be borrowed from the artisan, just as one would borrow status from having a Gainsborough paint one’s wife’s portrait: ‘Hmm, she’s hotter than ever I thought. Now that’s artistic genius!’ For more plebeian items, Marx desired to show that the same fetishistic display of status markers remained available. In our age, however, it was not to be associated with the ability to command ethereal forces, but rather quite material ones, and those through wealth. In pre-modern modes of production, from horticulture through the late-stages of agrarian organizations, one’s own status was linked to the procurement of status items or services. For capital, the accumulation of wealth shifted from an ‘in-itself’, or a ‘for its own sake’, as if it were either a kind of aesthetic endeavor, or indeed an esthetic one, associated with some lineage hagiography. From this the Protestants developed the idea of assignation through worldly success; wealth was a sign of soteriological favor. Especially well-evidenced in the Netherlands, this idea spread forth through Puritanist longings and Anabaptist communitarianism. A Spartan lifestyle belied a very productive lifeway, and it was not long in generational span before considerable accumulations of wealth were built up. To this day, such ethnic enclaves that remain, including those Mennonite and Hutterian, display such in-typical advantages.

            But all of this has been analyzed in detail by Weber, who is our usual third wheel in thinking aloud about modernity and capital. For Marx, wealth was to be displayed by and through the purchase of commodities, which for him, meant any object that could contain a value surplus to its own autochthonous use-value. This constitutes an extension of ipssissimosity, and such a sleight of hand can only be maintained, he felt, through consumption itself. In this, Marx’s sense of things proved incomplete, for we now understand modern advertising to be the chief vehicle of the production, not of the object or commodity, but rather of the fetish surrounding it. Its advent in 1925, the year of John Watson’s Theory of Modern Advertising, occurred almost simultaneously with the first overproduction, wherein the means of production outstripped the actual material needs of consumers. For almost a century then have we lived in this odd situation; we make more than we use, so we must make mere needs into desires. This, in a word, is the meaning of marketing.

            In the decades just prior to this seismic shift in the definition of value in capital, it was Durkheim who detailed and augmented Marx’s analytic to include the sensual and sensitive aspects of fetish in general. For Durkheim, the aura of the commodity had less to do with  a borrowed status hung up upon material outlay and rather more about the character of awe. Just as the collective conscience could be offended by a perceived injustice, so too could it recognize itself in a culture’s higher self-expressions. Beauty, in this view, still made sense as a representation of its traditional siblings; truth, the good, and the spirit. Marketing would soon learn how to exploit this sensitivity by engineering quite artificial outbursts of the ‘collective effervescence’, to use Durkheim’s phrase. In one of his most famous epigrams, if ‘religion is society worshipping itself’, then one immediately can understand the wider scope of what is at stake in modern mass media. The commodity fetish in our day must transcend the object in order to take into itself the whole of culture.

            What then would it mean to worship ourselves in this more material manner? Certainly there are collateral clues – signage, rather than truer signs, perhaps – in the cult of celebrity, the esteem of marque and logo, the esthetic purity of fashion and modeling, or yet the mystique surrounding the founder or CEO of this or that ‘revolutionary’ enterprise. All these and others no doubt foster a sense that not only is our culture a visionary one, holding in its own breast the heated breath of distant stars and with its eyes reflecting their eternal light – all the while whilst bathing in a bathos of self-stultification, mind you – but that it is also of the value that we may indeed sincerely worship it and not feel anything of either the larger narcissism which must be involved, or, more damning, of the anxiety which must drive such collective preening. Here, we must allow Durkheim to take us back to Marx in order to read again, with a fresh set of frames, the critique of capital itself. Now the rhetorical term ‘bathos’ traditionally suggests a lack of intent, and while it may not be central to the goals of advertising and marketing to create this slide from what we take to be the historically sublime to what can be taken as trivial – almost everything within the ambit of popular media is at least this, if not actually ridiculous or yet absurd – in any calculated manner, the mere fact that it has the power to manifest the nothing much as something and even something great suggests to its latter-day sorcerers that magic, at least of a sort, is yet extant in our otherwise disenchanted world.

            Yet this cannot be a conclusion, for it begs the implication that our culture is, as a whole, trivial. I would like to think that this is not the case, even if we are often turned in the direction of the valueless by the fetish of status-value and that of the marque. One might go so far, without being overly vain, and suggest that for some of the legendary marques, whose brand-value has distinguished itself consistently over many decades, that the actual quality of the products in question do merit some respect, if perhaps not outright adoration or yet worship. Ferrari, the brand with the most current admiration of this sort, could serve as an example of a product which actually is what it claims to be, at least in its actual use. Whether or not its aura is transcendental is not really at issue; all it needs to do is transcend its general genre of commodity. In this, a keenly-crafted and daringly-designed machine can carry a near-primordial torch; the shaman accomplished his tricks ad hoc. Sorcery, unlike magic, is always directed to some specific purpose.

            Yes, but in capital we also have magic itself as a commodity of sorts, for a Ferrari accomplishes its specific engineering purpose in it remaining an automobile, and nothing else. But if it were perceived in capital as only a car it would lose most of its value all along the line. So, marketing has, in addition to point-of-sale, the deeper and more sophisticated task of maintaining aura ‘after-market’, so to speak. The fact that a new auto loses about a quarter of its ticket value when driven off the lot – it is now a ‘used car’ or, in a marketing lingo perishingly close to that Orwellian, ‘pre-owned’ – must not impinge upon its value as a status item, a commodity in the Marxian sense. And indeed, the exotic car’s new owner cares not a jot that they have been stiffed however much cash on the barrel upon getting behind the wheel of such a vehicle. Even my relatively quite staid and stoic Lexus sports sedan was able to overcome any such hint of regret on my part when I purchased it new many years ago. But less mystically, its truer value has manifest itself in the fact that though now 16 years old, it still drives like a new car. Surely such testimonials from the ‘consumer’s themselves’ would be of the greatest value to any marketer. But even here, the suasion of worship is present; a testimonial is suggestive of a testament; but then again we are today not recording the irruptive Mana of a messiah, but rather the manufactured mimesis of the forces of nature and cosmos, ever aloof to the Babel of humanity’s vainer desires.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 59 books in ethics, aesthetics, religion, education, social theory and health, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

This is not about Golf

This is not about Golf

            I played golf for thirty years. Sadly, neither my back nor my budget allows me to do so today. It’s a wonderful mind game. At once you against the course and against yourself, golf epitomizes the elemental expression of consciousness and world. Not that such philosophical musings occur inside the ropes. No, there, you’re talking to the ball, to yourself, to your club, the wind, or to the motley topography at hand; ‘give it a bounce right, hard bounce, come on!’. Golf is also engrossing to watch, with the added value of admiration for a shot well played, a miraculous save, a lucky break, mixed in with the less noble emotions of a voyeuristic Schadenfreude; ‘this guy’s one of the best players in the world and he just shanked it worse than me!’. All in all, golf is both the most outwardly genteel sport and the most inwardly intense.

            So when the abrupt news of a merger amongst the three largest professional men’s tours broke, I was momentarily stunned. Aside from all of the rhetoric, for a moment, there really did seem to be an ethical difference between the PGA and the LIV, the latter being solely funded by Saudi Arabia’s public investment fund. But the idea that this difference, actual and defensible, had suddenly collapsed with the news of the merger, is incorrect. There was never quite that difference, given that in an average fiscal year, the corporations who front the PGA events do about 4.4 billion dollars worth of business with that same nation and its affiliates. And before I borrow from Carl Sagan by calling attention to the ‘B-word’, any way you slice it, that’s a lot of money.

            Which is why, even if we will now be all the more riveted by the second season’s broadcast of ‘Full Swing’, none of this is about golf. Once back outside the ropes, in fact it is about those two very elements of our experience, as primordial as they are contemporary; consciousness and world. We are dimly aware that in wealthy quarters life proceeds quite differently than in most other places. Those of us who are in possession of such privileges consider ourselves fortunate, certainly, but as well, provide for ourselves a suite of highly rationalized validations that allow us to continue to live in such a way whilst our fellow humans suffer. It is one thing not to know, and when I was a child, I did not. But it is another to be an adult and not want to know. And this is the condition that I find myself negotiating on a daily basis, whenever I have enough presence of humane conscience for it to raise its reproachful head at all.

            And contrary to the revolutionary, this is also not about capital per se. No, Marx himself was the first to state that the bourgeois mode of production, as he called it, was by far the greatest achievement of human history. This is likely why Engels and he, hypothesizing communism as an inevitable end to capital, itself proceeded simply by a change in the relations of production and not the means, which remained industrial-technical. Thus, ‘Star Trek’ communism originates in the thought of the authentic voices of the revolution; it itself is not a rationalized version thereof, but in fact the real thing. The shame of geopolitical disparity lies not so much in wealth itself, for it is often the engine for progressive change worldwide – wealth allows its holder to ‘do what thou wilt’, in classic Crowleyan fashion, and thus to slough off mere custom and with that, often antique bigotries as well – but rather in its patently pre-capitalist distribution. Wealth has replaced God, but it still owns an equally divine hand. The elites of the world, now polyglot and cosmopolitan as never before, nonetheless share that singular assignation.

            Professional athletes and all the more so, entertainers, only appear to be wealthy simply because their holdings outstrip our neighbour’s and our own by orders of magnitude. But they themselves carry no weight. They are but the window-dressing of a decoy culture that ‘manufactures’ our consent to inequity, and speaking of the Saudis – and many others, to be fair – iniquity as well. Chomsky’s political writings, repetitive as they are, bring out the more or less subtle guises of a social system that must keep its own citizenry loyal through bread and circuses, and the less bread, the more circus at that. Golf, in its role as an entertainment device, is meant to fulfill this function alone. This is why there is no real difference amongst leagues. Complaints of any specific nation engaging in ‘sportswashing’ are naïve at best, at worst, part of the very decoy that insults both consciousness and world while denying to both their respective birthrights. It is another instance among many where the canny capitalist understands the stakes and the rationales and the canned anti-capitalist does not. The minstrel mass of entertainment, with its facts of sporting ‘drama’ and attendant OCD-oriented statistics, with its fictions of mediocre melodrama and tepid allegory, is the chief means of maintaining not an otherwise unmasked mode of production as a whole but rather its ever-masked relations.

            Inasmuch as we are self-created agents of action in the world, we must come to grips with the equal condition of being historical constructions; in many cases, built for inaction, for lack of conscience, for the absence of reflective consciousness. This is not, nor ever, solely a personal fault. It is not a weakness of character, nor is it an authentic Zeitgeist. We are the bit players, without truly gifted, if trivial, skills, or the simple but all the more gifted nerve of pretense in their absence, whose role it is to witness the decoy drama unfold itself weekly. And each week I do so, cheering on my favorite golfers and mostly silently deriding those who, for whatever intolerance of my own, are to be shunned by any rational mind, whose consciousness of the world around him begins to blur and mute in the presence of the exciting action of a contrived moment which itself, in our shared contemporary culture, has replaced both grace and love.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 56 books in ethics, education, social theory, health and aesthetics, as well as fiction, and was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

Poiesis and Untruth

Poiesis and Untruth

            Lying is a privilege of the poets because they have not yet reached the level on which truth and error are discernable. (Santayana, 1954:338 [1906]).

                Speaking into being that which heretofore did not exist is a narrowing of the Greek term, for ‘poiesis’ originally refers to anything that is ‘made’, or even to the act of ‘making’ itself. That it has come to be associated more specifically with language alone, and yet even poetic language, is a function not of any etymological ellipsis, but rather of industrial production, which makes effortlessly and seemingly without being. At the same time, it creates a kind of violence, both against the process of making but also against the idea of creation. Creation, in the modern day, might then be more aptly referred to simply as production, even reproduction. Benjamin’s famous essay about the status and nature of the work of art in our own age, that of ‘mechanical reproduction’, is still a lynchpin of understanding our common lot vis-à-vis art. What then can be an aesthetics of industry, a poetics of production, a lexicon of l’art pour l’art?

            This sudden violence, betraying its potential for evil within its very subito, taking us unawares and blindsiding us with its thief in the night, is yet only possible if we ourselves are unrefined, produced rather than created and especially, self-created: “Only the weak are obliged to be violent; the strong, having all means at command, need not resort to the worst. Refined art is not wanting in power if the public is refined also.” (ibid:324). Santayana cautions that in this industrial and technical age, escape through any form of art disorients us in our intent; we would become distracted, even entangled, rather than approaching art as one would a respected lover. Here, desire is present, but not lust. The will to Mitsein overtakes anything ulterior. The ‘companionate marriage’ is a social poiesis in this sense, but so is the genuine mentoring relationship, which is, at its best, what parenting also is or becomes. And in each and all of these variants, art is attached to both reason and rationality through the effort that must be made to create it, to bring it into being as a manifestation of poiesis. Perhaps it is too pat to simply declare the mechanism to be a lie and the creative force which has ever and always a poetic nature to be equally within the truth of things. For the object of reproduction, in its minions and in its millions, speaks its own kind of truth after all.

            The issue is rather that we tend to take this truth for both objectivity and rationality, as if the object of production, in a word, the commodity, is the epitome of human reason. In so doing, we have divorced the artistic process which is poiesis from the ‘bringing into being’ of something not extant beforehand. One response has of course been to deny such objects any relation to being, preserving this existential term for either animate and sentient objects such as animal life or more grandly, only for human beings themselves. But this too is both premature and a kind of untruth. However mundane and mass produced, the commodity is nevertheless a product of the human imagination, and to the nth degree, at least in its numbers, efficiencies, and technicalities. A second response has been that the very intent of producing the object, though a creative act, sullies in a final and fatal manner the creation itself, thus through its purpose it loses its connection to being. This too cannot be entirely dismissed but I feel that along with the first response, such a criticism is over-ripe and hurried. Objects are after all placed in use, and persons, once concluding the commodity contractuality that is the vulgar goal of all capital, often use such objects in creative ways not predicted by their manufacturers. In this, the consumer is herself a being who only exists momentarily, and thenceforth becomes rather a creator or an imaginer.

            Thus it is too easy to engage in a critique of an entire series of events and eventualities by hanging it up on a singular point, whether it was at this moment that the particular series began or ended, changed its timbre or upshifted itself, perhaps even in a dialectical movement. The commodity as fetish does of course extend the half-life of such critiques, but even here, the fullest intent of how this or that produced item is to be venerated by us is, as often as not, not followed through upon. And the rationale that is issued from the producer which might run something like ‘all we want is for you to buy it, you can use it however you want.’, comes across as more of a rationalization. A most picaresque example of such a thing came during the first Iraq conflict when France was critical of the American invasion and working class Americans bought expensive French champagne only to break the bottles in ditches. One could imagine a tradition-minded vintner objecting but not a contemporary capitalist.

            Poiesis is not abandoned in the commodity fetish. This may appear reactionary, for how then could one explicate the problem of the contrived power of the fetish itself? Perhaps we should return to Marx’s sources. The religious fetish had no power of is own, but rather was first a receptacle for Mana, then a vehicle for it. That it had to be propitiated in a primitive sense – the fetish is not after all an icon, temple, or other space of oblation and genuflection – which involved more ululation than anything else, tells us that it as an object was quite useless. In short, the fetish item was ever a source only of potential energetics. This being so, how could one compare a mass produced object meant to be sold at a profit and used in a specific manner, to a unique object whose use was absolutely undefined until the moment it is, ‘poietically’, spoken into being?

            Let us pause just here, and double back to Santayana’s plaintive call to poetic conscience. Instead of merely nodding in a Platonic cum Nietzschean manner to the idea that art is beyond truth and lie just as love is beyond good and evil, and that there is some sort of ‘madness’ in both, the madness that speaks of the death of God amongst other mad, and angry, things, we can docket these facticities for a moment and suggest that the artist, since he has no reasoned conception of truth, can dally with untruth in the very being of creation; that is, through poiesis does what could not be true come into being in the world. For industrial production, for mechanical reproduction, for technical process, this means reiterating the truth through an ongoing lie; the idea that the commodity contains no being and is born of no art: “The man who would emancipate art from discipline and reason is trying to elude rationality, not merely in art, but in all existence. He is vexed at the conditions of excellence that make him conscious of his own incompetence and failure. Rather than consider his function, he proclaims his self-sufficiency. A way foolishness has of revenging itself is to excommunicate the world.” (ibid:363).

            Just so, the most finely crafted objects of capital, the great auto marques, the vintage wines, haute couture, even memorable and time-tested popular songs, are still and always still commodities. Does this epithet make them less creative, less a part of being, less close to poiesis? The untruth of poiesis is that it can create only the once, and for its next trick must differ its creation and defer its creativity. Mechanical reproduction is a merely more efficient means of disciplining the reason of and for copying. One might write the same manuscript, prior to the Incunabular phase of early printing, once a month say, for a year. Then there are a dozen hand-made copies of what is essentially the same object, the same work. Yes, the writer or illustrator might make intentional alterations for the sake of uniqueness, increasing, as per the going rate the idea that it is not merely a copy but each its own work of art, but what if these alterations are only mistakes uncalculated and unintentional? Amphorae were mass manufactured, even vessels of trade and war, in antiquity. And how many clay pots would it take for the post-war critic to admit that the productive-commodity relation existed side by side, nay, as a very part of the point of creation and construction, recreation and reconstruction, at the very moment of poiesis?

            It is no simple task to place the mute and dormant fetish into the vibrant and vivid commodity. That they both contain expectations of themselves and of their use can be understood as one point of contact. That they both elicit anticipations in their would-be users, whether ancient or modern, both consumers of the ‘to be created’, the ‘to be enacted’, is another. But the vague desires with which our ancestors approached the fetish were, unlike those later in the temple or in front of the oracle, as unlike anything the modern consumer brings to the commodity as could be imagined. Perhaps Marx got hung up on the apparent likeness between them, feeling that the both the fetish object and the commodity in themselves did nothing. This too is a piece of poietic untruth, for a table, to use his own example, has in itself and standing alone outside of any aura, a precise set of functions that can be enacted or interacted with, without any sense of veneration. Indeed, it is the sheer lack of fetishism in the commodity relation that marks consumption as an often vapid venture. That brand logos take on the mantle, though not the mantra, of Mana – each month there is a competition amongst them to gauge the most valuable branding – in capital presents something more akin to the original fetish. But even here, the logo is not the thing itself. The prancing horse is not the auto, the one is a mere sign for the other and not its signature. No such disconnect, no such distance, was to be found in ancient societies. And the fact that it is only amongst the elite brands do we find any hint of fetish strongly suggests that it is poiesis itself which is being hyper-valued and not any specific creation thereof.

            And this in turn points to the error of disassociating on the one hand, poiesis from mechanism, and on the other, untruth from rationality. The first relationship remains, though in impersonal form for much of the production process. Even so, one cannot have a commodity without a creator bringing something into being that was not extant beforehand. The second relation is more complex: certainly, rational organizations seek to level truth and lie through anonymous dynamics and reducing persons to roles alone. At the same time, the movement from right and wrong to correct and incorrect is not quite enough to convince us that there are still proper ways to go about one’s business, that there are still rules, laws, and consequences for transgression. ‘Truth and lie in a non-moral sense’, by no coincidence the title of the most important short essay of the 19th century, does not by itself propitiate a world which is beyond morality, only a way of being that sees beyond the moral gloss that veils and manipulates what is and what is not, as well as calling into question any absolute definition of either. It cannot be used as a means by which to critique the supposed disenchantment the ‘pure’ commodity relation has brought into that self-same world.

            In sum, poiesis lives on. Its scope has been magnified, its precision codified, its powers purified, and at both ends of the living spectrum of existence. Its untruth of inexistence, its ability to utilize becoming as a way of speaking into being and then naming this odd miracle ‘creation’ rather than ‘production’, is a piece of sophistry which is unworthy of even the lies of the poets themselves.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of fifty-five books in aesthetics, ethics, education, religion, health and social theory, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.