Conspicuous Consumption

Consumer culture's success is most assured when we signal our rejection of consumption by consuming our way to individuality.

When I was younger, I thought it my duty to separate myself from everybody else by adopting ascetic, quasi-intellectual tastes, even if that meant sailing beyond the edge of my comprehension. I often didn't know what was going on in Godard's films, or in Ezra Pound poems, but I knew I liked them.

That isn't to say I enjoyed them. What was pleasure anyway? Relative, ephemeral, a distraction, probably some sort of trap — proof that you are colluding with the powers that be in the construction of consumerist desire. Better to challenge oneself, to pursue intellectual mastery through discipline. I thought conformity and the culture industry that nurtured and exploited it could be defeated by adamantly rejecting the accessible present. So I sought private respite in the obscure and abstruse: foreign records from thrift stores; randomly chosen seven-inches from the back of the record store (this was the 1990s); the forgotten sounds of bygone eras on barely audible AM radio stations.

The half-understood words of Adorno were my guide: "Bombastic triviality, superficiality seen as apodictic certitude, transfigures the cowardly defense against every form of self-reflection." I saw in that argument — from "Perennial Fashion — Jazz," in Prisms — authorization to pursue a self-consciously and unapologetically elitist tack. I wasn’t going to make excuses for having ill-considered tastes; I wasn’t going to embrace popularity as a virtue. Instead I would seize on difficult, idiosyncratic works on the grounds that they had not "renounced the right to be different" and manifested the possibility of art as embodied critique, as utopian possibility. I wasn't going to fall for those "old accustomed modes of reaction." I would escape from marketed tastes and pursue a defiantly individual course, toward true self-knowledge free of cultural determination. True hardcore.

Not that there was anything truly individual in the tastes I tried to adopt. They were painfully derivative, and required copious amounts of bluster and self-deception. But my consumption nevertheless seemed authentic to me as long as it was not dissolved in immediate satisfaction. Wrestling with the inconvenience of difficult art elevated me above consumerism's lubricious appeals; refusing pleasure meant refusing complicity. But that perverse rejection of pleasure, that niche I thought was so distinctive because so unpleasant, merely masked from me the fact I was actually squarely at the heart of consumer capitalism. I saw myself as its enemy, but I served to reproduce its mechanisms at a deeper, more fundamental level. Consumer culture's success is most assured when we signal our rejection of consumption by consuming our way to individuality.

Pursuing difficulty for its own sake masks the status symbolism, the sanctified identity, that we are really after—from ourselves if no one else. But considering the social hierarchies that flow from tastes, what sort of ethics should govern cultural consumption? Does it even make sense to say that there is a wrong way to consume? Who's in a position to judge? And should we hold ourselves accountable for skirting difficulty—or for pretending to deep knowledge of a subject when all we have done is browsed the Wikipedia page? Stymied by these questions, I have let my tastes go lazy. For instance, after I read this essay about Joanna Newsom at Hilobrow by Erik Davis—who wrote

In the past, I tried Newsom’s Milk-Eyed Mender and couldn't stomach it; a few years later I copied Ys from a friend and didn't make it through once. This time, I think, I should resist. Instead of seeking out the mp3s, I am trying to preemptively accept the new truth about my lazy self: I don't want to hear difficult music played on unconventional instruments. I don't want to listen to ten-minute songs without verse-chorus structure. I don't want music to meander. I want highly structured, short songs that have worked within the established constraints and tried for transcendence through them. I want them to both be accessible and represent some sort of ideal of accessibility. Perhaps this makes me a "poptimist" (though no one should be comfortable self-applying that word).

At stake is the approach we take to near-inescapable cultural abundance. Do we stay on the shore from fear of drowning in vulgarity, or do we wallow in it, trusting it can buoy us? Should we limit ourselves to the Newsoms of the world, or just turn on the radio? I want to reject the idea behind this claim of Davis's: "Ys was a masterpiece by any measure of sense or soul, an ornately organic webwork whose emotional and thematic control fully justified its difficulty and rewarded its many exegetes." But what if this were mystification? Difficulty may be intrinsically rewarding, but it may serve primarily as a way of converting culture into cultural capital—asserting a correct way to consume that ties into class background. The basic motivations available to everyone regardless of class background—things like immediate, spontaneous pleasure – get lost.

In responding to some Newsom song I hope never to hear, Davis writes, "Faith is a corny move, even if sometimes it’s the only jimmy crack you’ve got. But there’s the rub: the second you sink your teeth into it, you must do more than feed. You must taste as well." Davis is describing how art can serve as a placebo for emotional pain, but the passage made me wonder about how placebos function. Do they trick us into engagement with what ails us, relaxing our despair, or do they prompt us to let go and thereby let ourselves heal? In consuming art, we are not supposed to be able to get away with sitting back and letting it heal us; our passivity would seem to negate a work's affective power. Art presumably "works" because it engages us in a reflexive way— we notice ourselves noticing the art. Passive consumption, as Davis says, is merely a way of "feeding" on culture that holds us back from truly "tasting" it.

But if what it means to “taste” is to insert class prerogatives into our mode of appreciation, then perhaps feeding indiscriminately, with no concern for difficulty or deep engagement, can rescue pleasure from the teeth of cultural capital and strike a blow at status hierarchies sustained by what are ultimately arbitrary tastes. Without the pretense of artistic difficulty, maybe there can be no naturalization of class status through aesthetics. This line of argument makes it harder and harder for me to believe that difficulty in consumption can ever be justified. But at the same time, it becomes harder not to see even that as a rationalization, as distinction-seeking raised to the next power. Could ambivalence be the last temptation of cultural capital?

The problem is that there seems to be no place to hide our tastes, to remove them from scrutiny. And the thrust of technological change has exacerbated the situation. Our depth of engagement with any given work could once remain a private matter; now it is much easier to publicize how and what we consume, which has implications for the sorts of things we might choose. At the same time, the benchmarks for ordinary social participation are changing, so that a failure to disclose in real time what we’re reading or listening to, or a failure to elaborate our likes and dislikes online in an archived space, may come to be considered peculiar, suspect behavior. Moreover, the surfeit of easily accessible digitized culture currently overwhelming us has affected our relationship to cultural difficulty, as Nicholas Carr argued in his Atlantic article about Google making us dumb. Intuitively, I know what he means: With songs (and everything else) so abundant and accessible, I have naturally begun to put a premium on those artifacts that allow me to conserve attention. Carr argues that

as people’s minds become attuned to the crazy quilt of Internet media, traditional media have to adapt to the audience’s new expectations. Television programs add text crawls and pop-up ads, and magazines and newspapers shorten their articles, introduce capsule summaries, and crowd their pages with easy-to-browse info-snippets.

With the Internet promising access to everything at once, it's hard to sustain focus, to want anything in particular. Accordingly, for consumption purposes, I find that I want easy things because I can absorb them more quickly; with my attention span sufficiently hollowed out, I can pass effortlessly on to the next thing. That gliding feeling of moving on has become at least as satisfying as pouring over the same thing, drilling blindly into the depths.


You probably want to read Potter and Heath's The Rebel Sell (aka Nation of Rebels) if you haven't already.

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