Bodies of the West: Part 2. Consumer Culture and Happy bodies
By Greg Scorzo –
We’re in A Lot of Trouble
As an adult of the modern West, it’s assumed you have the moral compass and self-control to hear falsehoods you contest; that you can see bad behaviour you won’t mimic; that you can see people you envy without either wallowing in self-hatred or pathological jealousy; that you don’t have to be something you’re not and that people don’t have to see you the way you see yourself. It’s assumed you have a sense of self which acts as a shield, facilitating the self-love that allows you to both appreciate and cherish your specific talents, fortunes, and limitations. When you’re an adult, you can grow while still accepting the constraints of who you are.
This is why the West allows you to experience the diverse messages, ideas, and images that constitute its consumer culture. You can’t expect the consumer culture of the West to hand you your sense of self. That’s not what it’s designed for. Western consumer culture is about taking desired products of the human imagination (everything from coffee bars to barbie dolls) and making them (mostly) cheap and accesible to large amounts of people.
It’s often said that the content of Western consumer culture is determined by a capitalist media which tricks a helpless horde of consumers into buying empty and reactionary frivolities. This was the anti-consumerist message of the Frankfurt School, the Beatniks and then much of late 20th counter-culture. You can hear it in so many of the cool rock albums from the 60s and 70s; everything from Absolutely Free to Never Mind the Bollocks. And let’s not forget Dark Side of the Moon.
It’s even the ideology of Howard Beale, the crazy anti-hero of Sidney Lumet’s 1976 film Network.
Now, this has become a kind of go to ideology of intellectuals and middle class writers. You can see it in Guardian editorials and Russell Brand Vlogs. One can view this fact (like Howard Beale in Network) as the ultimate irony; the capitalist system selling and regurgitating even its most trenchant critiques. I don’t see it this way. I see it as evidence of how open and free Western consumer culture is. The more Western consumer culture produces the sort of products that Frankfurt School theorists, 60s rockstars, and Howard Beale view with disgust, the more those angry voices become part of Western consumer culture.
I don’t generally agree with those voices, but the fact that I can think about them, have them delivered to my door, pick them up in shops, and download them cheaply is a testament to the intellectual openness of the culture they bemoan. Nevertheless, there is one point on which me and Howard Beale are in complete agreement: If you want to know the truth, you need to think for yourself. You need to go to your own mind rather than the right-on opinions of mass media demagogues, when trying to get a sense of how best to explain the world.
Where I disagree with Beale is that I think the current media of the 21st century can be used to effectively do just that. You can be a wise and intelligent person who uses mass media to help you think for yourself. In fact, the mass media of the 21st century makes it far easier for you to do that, compared to the media of earlier times. If course, you can be an idiot, and use mass media in a way which supplements your idiocy. But that has more to do with you than with the media.
Before you complain about the vacuousness of films like Hot Tub Time Machine 2, remember that it came from the same system that brought you nearly every great art movie that made you feel like strange and wonderful people were blowing your mind. Those transcendent experiences of film happened because you could consume video cassettes and DVDs. They didn’t cost a grand and you didn’t have to travel across the country to see them.
Or what about the fact that you know so much more about music than your parents ever did? You no longer have to imagine what music sounds like before you buy it. You don’t have to guess whether an album is something you should spend money on, using only the name of the musician or how fascinating its album cover looks in the fucking store. You don’t have to buy books you happen to see in the physical bookstores you haunt. You don’t even have to buy books because of the author or what’s on the back of the cover. Before you purchase any collection of text, you can read what dozens of other people have already thought of it. You can do that with porn too.
Of course, it’s easy to complain about the junk food, crass and expansive gadgets, and carbon spewing SUVs, not to mention the annoying SJWs who clutter your twitter feed. In the West, there are always legitimate things to moan about. Housing should be cheaper and more readily available to everyone. No one should be threatened with poverty or homelessness because they can’t get hired doing a job that ruins their life. Western consumer culture can allow people to drown in ostentatious materialism, where consuming expensive items for it’s own sake is confused with the good that comes from purchasing items that enrich one’s life. People can bask in extreme luxury, becoming too stingy to give what amounts to pennies of aid to the most vulnerable in society.
So yes, it’s obvious that Western consumer culture has its dangers and drawbacks. It can make us conflate luxuries with rights. It can encourage us to confuse deep seated insecurities with actual disfigurements of the body. It can induce us to believe that whatever money can’t make feel better, society must make feel better. If we live on a comfortable income and still feel insecure, we can get penis or breast implants. One day we may demand them, using civil rights language. Men with smaller penises and women with smaller breasts may claim they were born in the wrong body. We can imagine a future where vaginoplasty operations are consumed the way tanning lotion is today.
This is because nearly anything you want is just a click away, whether it’s cheap accessories, spicy food, modernist literature, french cinema, electronic music, BDSM masks, or nice middle class people who will have a cuddle party with you. We live in the first age of human history where if you want to have casual sex, you don’t have to endure the noise of an alcohol fueled social ritual. You don’t have to make friends by going out in public, doing your best to impersonate a slick and well oiled extravert. You don’t have to rely on random circumstances to meet someone who is cool enough to fall in love with. There are apps for all those things. You don’t even have to be middle class to use them.
We Need Insiders to have Outsiders
Our consumer culture is a system that ultimately allows citizens the opportunity to exchange necessities, luxuries, experiences, and ideas. It’s a mechanism that’s fueled in part by luck and exploitation, but also by intensely human creativity, hard work, and ingenuity. The harder the system works, the more output it creates. The more output it creates, the more diversity it creates. The products that sell the most will predictably be the ones that cater to the most simple universal needs and pleasures – things that are either useful or fun; nothing terribly deep or complex.
The deep and complex products will be the exception to the rule, but the greater output of western culture ensures that this exception will have its own audience for whom these products are simply beloved. This is what you would expect, given what human beings are like. Washing machines and X Factor episodes are going to appeal to a wider crowd than a copy of Plato’s Dialogues or a DVD of Bergman’s Persona (1966).
Nearly everybody wants to be alive and enjoy simple pleasures. A smaller group of people crave edgy culture: literature, comedy, music, theatre, cinema, poetry, dance, visual art, prose, fashion, youtube vlogs, blogs, food, and interior design which is complex, challenging and provocative. If these people were in the overwhelming majority, I wouldn’t be using adjectives like “complex, challenging, and provocative” to describe this culture. This culture is what it is, because it is not for everyone. It’s the vanguard of what western culture can produce and distribute to its masses.
The eccentricity and depth of this culture is a result of it quite self-consciously presenting itself as distinct from whatever cultural artifacts are the equivalent of the bland sitcom or mindless blockbuster. This is why, among its fans, edgy culture is so much more obsessed over and revered than the more widely consumed mainstream culture that is typically forgotten, shortly after it’s experienced. The popularity of mainstream culture is often bemoaned by anti-capitalists and connoisseurs of edgy culture.
Starting with Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer, intellectuals and bohemians have suspected that the capitalist system makes people prefer to consume shit which is vapid and forgettable. When it’s so vapid and forgettable, it’s normally also covertly brainwashing you into believing you have false, capitalist inspired needs.12
What kind of shit, you may ask, are they thinking of? Probably something like this.
The idea here is that the evil capitalist system conditions helpless citizens to desire cokes and iphones over Phillip Glass operas, Beckett plays, and Ella Woodward’s vegan cookbook. It makes families choose Disneyland over museums that contain exhibits on the horrors of slavery. It makes people who should know better happy to walk around with cotton candy and balloons in their hands. It’s supposedly why people enjoy Strictly Come Dancing or laugh at re-runs of Friends. It’s why people indulge in celebrity culture, the very horror that killed princess Diana and was responsible for the birth of the Kardashian franchise. It’s even why parents abuse children, allowing them to watch films that haven’t passed the Bechdel test.
Within this critique, there’s often a collorary assumption that’s made: if you consume non-edgy culture, you’re either completely depoliticised or a sponge for Rupert Murdoch’s propaganda machine. You’re worthy of scorn and derision. You couldn’t possibly be a nice person with sophisticated, politically informed views if you watch ITV, TMZ, or listen to Katie Perry. You can’t even be a nice person with sophisticated, politically informed views unless you also hate Western consumer culture.
And it doesn’t stop there. You need to feel guilty about your guilty pleasures; or at least the ones that don’t help you become a more environmentally friendly, conscientious, pissed off (and humourless) do gooder. You know, the kind of do gooder that hates consumerism (and consumes plenty of stylish products that exude this hatred). You need to become educated. You need to consume stuff like Banksy.
There’s no contradiction in consuming Banksy and being humourless. Banksy is funny so you don’t have to be.
I don’t hate Banksy, mind you. Some of his work is interesting. But what I dislike about his more recent work (Dismaland, in particular) is its sneering utopianism. There’s a presumption in it that if society would relinquish itself from the shackles of capitalist consumerism, we would all be a little bit more like Banksy.
That is, if we were less distracted by amusement parks, tabloids, and patriarchy, we’d be a more humane civilisation. We’d solve the migrant crisis, stop polluting the earth, and stop encouraging small children to think beating up strippers is fun. It’s not enough, say, to redistribute wealth, vote in good political candidates, or solve agricultural problems. We have to feel guilt over our base and childish pleasures, seeing our affordable little joys of consumption as nothing more than ways we bend over for the man. The man, in this case, is the bogeyman of capitalist consumerism, with its mind numbing gadgets, trivialities, and waste.
When I look at Dismaland, I also can’t help but sense a subtle hatred of children. Or maybe childhood. It feels like Banksy’s sarcasm is directed at the naive fantasy worlds that delight a child. His work reminds me of my teenage self; the teenager who hates being given children’s toys, not merely because he believes he is no longer a child, but because he is incapable of comprehending why any adult would have the slightest fascination in a child. It’s as if there’s no worse insult than being childlike – to be delighted by games and princesses and merry go rounds.
Those things, after all, distract people from being more aggressive in their political commitments. They’re frivilous. They promote inequality. They cause pollution. They revel in simplistic bad taste, and require lots of money that could be spent on more worthy causes (like starving children). One wonders if Banksy hates capitalist consumerism because he hates the carefree joy of well-fed children; the joy that makes them unconcerned with the dangers of neoliberalism, or completely disinterested in being thought of as “radical” or “subversive.”
In Western consumer culture, Banksy sees something of a rude, crass, oblivious and havoc wreaking child. I’m almost sympathetic to this, as I too, can see the ways the West is often like a moody pre-adolescent. And as someone who has never wanted children, I understand what it’s like to find children far less interesting than adults. Yet I still find it hard to sneer at children or the delights of the child-mind. Those delights are perhaps the source of all the things I find most lovable in adults – particularly things like mischief, humour, and a little bit of hubris. I also find those delights in the very Western consumerism Banksy wants to thumb his nose at.
The truth is, without the capitalist consumerism of the West, it’s unlikely there would be a Banksy. There would be no “artist in disguise” who takes ironic jabs at capitalist consumerism, an artist whose work is affordably consumed by millions of people through the mass distribution mechanisms of the market. In fact, it is Banksy (working within Western consumer culture) that makes Western consumer culture a little more like Banksy. He wouldn’t be the the thriving success he is if he had to launch his career outside the West. In many non-Western countries, he’d be in prison.
However, it’s understandeable to me why Banksy’s perspective has such traction among the educated classes of the West. It reinforces the very 20th century suspicion that people having a good time is the reason things are so rotten. Guilt may play a part in this suspicion. But there’s also something else at work here: fear of the freedoms that the West gives us. To put it bluntly, Western consumer culture gives you unprecedented oppurtunites for self-destruction. You can easily indulge in social media addictions, gambling addictions, alcohol addictions, drug addictions, sex addictions, and yes, food addictions. You don’t have to fight to survive, as much as you have to fight to survive yourself.
Because so many things are at your finger tips and life is (relative to most of human history) so cozy, it’s quite easy to slowly kill yourself. You have few of the pre-modern incentives to survive that would have been pushing you towards self-care. The one incentive you can still easily retain is a sense of global altruism; the desire for a better world.
If you can blame the problems of the world on the capitalist mechanisms of joyful consumption, that gives you an incentive to consume in a less self-destructive way. It’s easier for you to cut down on fast food if you imagine evil CEO’s flooding the media with fast food advertising that subliminally makes you crave cheeseburgers. It’s harder to cut down if you merely believe that too much fast food clogs your arteries over time.
If you imagine all the world’s wrongs are the result of evil and powerful people making you do things that are never your responsibility, it’s difficult to have a useful conception of self-destruction. In fact, your understanding of your freedom to be self-destructive easily transforms into a belief that your self-destruction should be a cherished civil right – a right that must be tolerated, respected, and treated without any social disapproval. Your unhealthy addictions can even become things you want to lecture others about, telling them how they should think and speak to you when they so much as mention them. If you then add to this a fetishizing of any and all forms of equality, you can start to see any criticism of your self-destructive habits as oppressive. You can start to see equal treatment and legitimacy as something your worst habits are entitled to.
Everything will need awareness raising. Everything will need a hashtag. Everything will become much like what Nicole Arbour described in “Dear Fat People.”