Friday, April 15, 2011

Things come between us

First let's talk about category 3, which refers to the relationship between ourselves and commodities as they are produced under capitalism.

In the United States, capitalism has developed to the point where everyone is a "consumer": everyone is identified as a potential buyer of something which contributes to capital accumulation. Even if you can't afford health insurance, or a cell phone, the government will purchase these for you, so that no one is denied their right to contribute to capital accumulation in these spheres. As Marx writes, the purpose of capitalist production is not producing what people need, but rather the production of surplus-value, or profit, for the owners of productive wealth. Marx located the source of such profit within the industrial process itself, where people are compensated for one part of their working time, while uncompensated for the rest. Because this happens within production, capitalism has every incentive to produce lots of things -- and as many people as possible to buy them -- quite irrespective of the particular needs which are met: Those needs best met will be whichever best meet the need for profit.

Once this becomes the status quo, a big part of how we understand ourselves culturally stems from distinctions arising out of the different commodities we "consume."* We are implicated in consuming some things, like food and other necessities, if we want to live; and even more things the more we want to participate in mainstream social life, since few social experiences are left which don't also serve as a mode of commercial transaction. We are always buying something -- so how we understand each other comes in large part from the meanings attached to the things we buy.

As a commodity, the Jersey Shore imparts its own cultural stamp on the audiences who watch it. That this is so has been made clear to me in the high emotions everyone I know brings to any discussion of it. Even the people who like it are sort of embarrassed by the fact; and the people who don't like it really don't like it, seeing in it something sinister.

Within the predominantly professional circle of my friends and family, this all makes sense, since watching the Jersey Shore does not communicate what they would prefer to communicate about themselves via the things they consume. Watching the Jersey Shore might be the TV equivalent of shopping at Wal-Mart -- it's bad!

But the cultural baggage of universal commodification goes both ways. If you try to read a book like Marx's Capital as a route to understanding between yourself and other working people, inevitably you are pegged as the consumer of a particular kind of commodity. This tells other people everything they need to know about you: namely, that you are either extremely smart for "consuming" philosophy; or that you are a poseur who is working really hard to be seen this way!**

Consequently, people seeing me the way they do are doubly eager to declare their position on something like the Jersey Shore; for example, because their expectation of someone who reads a lot is that I wouldn't be interested in commodities that don't promote this, or which appear to go against it. So let me just reassure everyone that, much like my good friend Marx, I am indeed very interested in commodities of every sort, and much for the same reasons: because my relationships with other people are so profoundly shaped by them, and because for my purposes I have no choice but to engage.

* Network television shows aren't strictly something we buy, but for simplicity's sake I will treat them as though they are; people relate to something like the Jersey Shore as they do any other commodity, by "consuming" or not consuming it depending on their preferences.

** A friend once assured me that while she regarded me as the first type, anyone else she saw reading Capital in public must surely be the second.


Justin said...

I am getting a kick out of how Jersey Shore is fast becoming the LadyPoverty Rosetta Stone.

What you say about mediating our relationships to one another through consumption, but a related aspect of how we mediate our relationships to ourselves is what people find so off-putting about consumer capitalism. What I mean by that is that we define ourselves in relation to others by what we consume, and the strategy of advertising is to link our inner desires and emotions to the purchase of some good. Advertising tries to program within us as a precondition for emotional experience the purchase of good X. What I mean is that consumption is not just how we relate to one another, but how we relate to our inner emotions, esteem, thoughts and identity.

Justin said...

I should say what else people find off-putting, I am not at all contradicting your point or saying you are on the wrong path, but building on it.

drip said...

A month or so ago a friend told me that I was the only person he didn't pay or support that he talked to regularly. That made me laugh until I thought about it some more.

I have never read Capital in public for fear of being seen (or exposed) as a poseur. Possession of literature of any sort is dangerous to us and frightening those around us.

JRB said...


Once self-expression gets reassigned to "purchase," we all start buying a whole lot more to prove we still exist!


I will also try to conceal the cover, or put the book away altogether, in unfamiliar social settings.

biggayslut said...

So let me just reassure everyone that, much like my good friend Marx, I am indeed very interested in commodities of every sort, and much for the same reasons: because my relationships with other people are so profoundly shaped by them

Is it fair to say you also like Jersey Shore for some of the reasons that its intended audience likes it?

I am just asking out of curiosity.

I am surprised your friends look askance. Intellectuals consuming junk culture smartly and knowingly have been part of the cultural scene at least as far back as the early 90s.

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