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Wednesday · December 15 2004

The Rebel Sell
“If we all hate consumerism, how come we can’t stop shopping?”

Because it's mass society that we are sneering at. Extricating ourselves from consumerism is near impossible. When the bands and brands we think of as cool become known to all, we move on to the next thing, something Dan likes to call “the latest hot slice of indie pie.” The joke is on us, because evading mass taste means following the taste of something else, lapping up the advertising and buying all the way.

For many people, it's not about the object, it's the cachet the object carries with it. A good example of this is white iPod replacement ear buds. Their whiteness has nothing to do with their quality or comfort; they are white because they are the visible part of your music hipness. If you're sporting white cords from your ears, you might be using the headphones included with the product. Or you might be wearing them to represent the values that Apple has paid millions of dollars to convince you you share with them. Or you found the included earbuds very uncomfortable like many others and you bought a better set, but a white set. We are all bold, imaginative, and unique with our white earbuds. Possibly, but white earbuds don't make it so.

All pronouns here refer to me, you, and anyone else they apply to. We know who we are.

Lots of stuff to discuss out of this article.

What you had to say:
December 15 2004

I think you hit the nail on the head more than that article did, Jason. I was curious about the fact that it failed to address WHY we consume. I've always attributed consumerism as the void that fills and binds our otherwise very new and very diverse society. What common language but advertisements, brands, and jingles does the whole, constantly evolving US society have? I won't argue that these forces, this common form of communication through buying stuff, benefited from human beings who thought they can earn a buck by encouraging the behavior. We consume things like some ancient cannibals used to consume their enemies: we believe we will acquire the powers and attributes of the thing.

December 15 2004

By coincidence, I've been giving this a lot of thought lately. It turns out that Thomas Frank has written a few books on the subject, so I plan to read those.

In the mean time, the best one can do, I believe, is to try to be aware of the product-image-cachet relationship and think critically about it, and if we decide to go with the white earphones (or whatever) anyway, then maybe that's ok.

As you suggest, I don't think it's much of an improvement, aesthetically or emotionally, at least, to do the punk adbusters thing and just go anti-commercial for its own sake (there may be ethical or political reasons to not buy something, but I think that's a different issue).

December 15 2004

Also, the author of that piece seems to be conflating status goods that people consume *because* most others can't get them and status goods that may have intrisic worth, but are rare, and therefore expensive, and therefore associated with some status.

For example, it's clear to me, that some stuff, particularly high end luxury goods, have a market simply because they're rare and expensive. Fur coats, $400 shoes, Bentleys, food at some restaraunts, etc. There are plenty of examples of things that, if anyone looks at it honestly, are no better from either practically or aesthetically, then their cheaper substitutes. Their only value is they are expensive.

On the other hand, some things - apartments downtown or near the Metro, hikes where you can find some solitude, a great show in a small club - are only available to a few people at at time, but the have value beyond just seperating one from the rabble. An apartment near work and the shops means one doesn't have a long commute, its nice to be alone sometimes just to hear yourself think, a small club provides a better atmosphere for music than a big arena, etc.

December 16 2004

Consumerism is sort of like a really comfortable jail. We have an inkling that we want out, but really, we like the jail. In the end, the escape is simple. It's just that most of us don't have the guts or strength to own up to it - including myself. If you want to be a rebel, opt out. There are people who do it, like my "client" for the mobile farmstead. He grows his own food on city-owned vacant lots and he is happy without having a lot of stuff. He lives comfortably and he does it, I would guess, below the poverty line. The only real way out of the consumerism trap is to want less, and that is really hard - particularly when you have it and try to give it up. Don't look at me, I just bought a surround-sound receiver and some Ikea furniture; I opted in.

Ken Dunn is a fascinating guy. He is a rebel. If you want more info, check out the September 2004 issue of "Chicago" magazine. The title of the article is "Somebody Give This Guy a Genius Grant." This month's issue of "Dwell" magazine also has a short piece about him.

December 16 2004

This is the least appropriate (or maybe the most) post to say this, but you're going to love 5.1.

© 2004 Jason Keglovitz