Posts Tagged ‘Consumption’

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Two years ago, at about this time of year, I asked a group of my Freshmen students what traditions they looked forward to most during the holidays.  Not surprisingly, I got a good number of responses centered on the food and feast of Thanksgiving.  Some were most excited to be home with their families.  Still others were just looking forward to relaxing during their couple days off of work and school.  I expected about as much.

But, then, a couple young ladies shocked me. They stated with great excitement that they could not wait to go shopping on ‘Black Friday’.  I think I frowned, mentioning that this was not really a holiday ‘tradition’, in the purest sense of the word.  Of course, I was wrong to doubt the traditional basis of their shopping excursions. As many additional students pointed out, at 18 years old, they had been participating in ‘Black Friday’ madness for as long as they could remember. All traditions are invented at some point in time,  and for these folks, ‘Black Friday’ was timeless.

I will admit, this was upsetting to me because, I, like many others, despise ‘Black Friday’.  Now, I don’t hate the idea of shopping for presents on the day after Thanksgiving.  I actually enjoy Christmas shopping for, and with, my family.  But, I think what happens on Black Friday is a different exercise altogether, corrupting the meaning of gift buying.

Holiday shopping should be about spending time with family and friends, and thinking about how to make them happy. For example, in the couple weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, my wife and I use a few Fridays to meander our local shopping community, searching for gifts for my daughters and friends.  We take our time to think and discuss long and hard about what gifts would make those we care about most happy. There is not much in this world better than finding that perfect present that will make your youngest daughter yell for joy on Christmas morning (to be honest, it is pretty easy to make her yell for joy); perhaps the only thing that can beat that is discovering a stuffed hamster that your oldest daughter will proudly exhibit for her 1st grade, wholly self-created, hamster club. The purpose of such shopping is to enjoy the shared thoughts of our loved ones’ future happiness.  We are consuming to give, not consuming to take.

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Black Friday has another purpose altogether, and it is a symptom of a larger cultural disease in American life today. Friday’s storm of shopping is not really about finding a gift that will make others happy (of course, some shoppers have this intention). For the majority of consumers, Friday’s shopping madness is more about competition. Storming the ramparts of our local big box store  in order to win the holiday.  Who will be the first one in line at 2AM?  Who will be the first into the store?  Who will grab the best deal?  Who will fight hardest for the latest toy/electronic gadget that their child/husband/wife can’t live without?  The winner walks away with the cheapest merchandise, at whatever the human cost.  In order to win, contemplation towards what would be a wonderous gift is unlikely; action is the most important response. It seems ‘Black Friday’ enjoyment comes not from the thoughts of Christmas morning joy, but from an individual, selfish desire to defeat other consumers. Not surprisingly, the competition can get nasty.  We see it each year when mobs of consumers break down doors, stampede workers, and sometimes attack others that stand in the way of store-crowd-black-friday-blur-615cs112212their material victory.

This is why it should come as no surprise that Black Friday is now being moved back 24 hours, into what retailers and media have dubbed ‘Brown Thursday’ (Thanksgiving, of course).  Since consumers will line up at 4AM, 2AM, or 1AM to win the shopping world series, it only so obvious that they will take any advantage they can get. If that advantage is leaving our homes and families on Thanksgiving, then so be it. We want to win, whatever the cost to our families, or to the families of those who must serve us at our retail palaces.

There is no shortage of tragic irony that our individualistic desires of consumption and victory are encroaching onto one our diminishing  sacred days of community.  If ‘Black Friday’ is all about desire and struggle, then the ORIGINAL Brown Thursday holiday was created to symbolically overcome wrenching strife.  In 1863, during the height of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving as a national holiday, obviously intending the day’s spiritual message of reconciliation and togetherness as a counter to the death and Henry_David_Thoreaudestruction scarring the nation. With this in mind, the idea of ‘Brown Thursday’ reeks of sacrilege.

And so, as we sit down this Thursday to enjoy family and friends, and our mind wanders to the flat screen TV on sale for only two hours at Wal-Mart,  it may be good to pause and reflect on Henry David Thoreau’s words:

I am grateful for what I am and have. My thanksgiving is perpetual. It is surprising how contented one can be with nothing definite – only a sense of existence. My breath is sweet to me. O how I laugh when I think of my vague indefinite riches. No run on my bank can drain it, for my wealth is not possession but enjoyment.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

Folks, brace yourself.  I’m going to make a statement that will blow your mind.  The internet is revolutionary! BOOM!…In reality,we all understand that the internet has, and is, radically transforming our lives. Information transmission, social networking,  international trade, finding significant others; the internet has changed these central aspects of  human experience.  For some cultural commentators, the internet is the best thing that has ever happened to humankind; for others, it is absolutely the worst.  But, there is no denying on either side that it is here to stay, and it is only going to become more transformational as years go by.

A couple weeks ago, Peter Stern and I were having a discussion about the internet’s effect on film.  Peter asked me my thoughts on streaming movies and television shows. I let him know that I have Netflix streaming, and I generally enjoy the service, save a few annoyances.  For instance, I can’t stand Netflix’s 5 star-rating system, and yet, I have a hard time ignoring it.  After pondering what bothered me so much about this rating system, I realized it is indicative of a larger dangerous trend that the internet has brought about: the digitalization of viva voce, or word of mouth.

The internet is radically democratic.  This is the best and the worst thing about it. Anyone can write anything.  Information is ubiquitous and generally free.  Such a radical democratic nature seems wonderful, but it becomes troubling images (11)when it is combined with two other calling-cards of the internet: user anonymity, and instantaneous info transmission.  Behind a relative veil of secrecy, any person can state a crude, uninformed, ridiculous opinion, and, on the web, it can flourish. Often, the loudest, most sensationalist ideas prevail over more reasoned argument. This is obvious in the political realm, where a man like Alex Jones can spread his lunacy far beyond what might be expected because of tools such as youtube and twitter.  Digital word of mouth politics is often based upon hearsay and conspiratorial theory.

However, the digitalization of word of mouth goes far beyond fringe politics.  This novel form of communication influences anyone who buys, sells, or watches goods and entertainment on the web: In other words, almost everyone with a computer. Of course, prior to its digitalization, word of mouth had historically been central to entertainment and consumption.  The great change with digitalization is the user anonymity mentioned previously.  Traditional spoken word of mouth is based upon trust and understanding between two people. If your best friend, who has a great sense of the hippest new music, tells you how great an artist is, what do you do?  Likely, listen to the friend and check out the artist.  Or, imagine if your uncle with an incredible palate tells you about how poor the food is at the neighborhood’s new restaurant. What do you do?  Probably avoid the place.  Viva voce has always been influential in the decision-making process because it is based upon mutual respect and understanding between two consensual parties. Word of mouth traditionally empowered an individual by helping him/her make an informed decision.

By digitalizing word of mouth, the internet has greatly increased the quantity of viva voce, but at the cost of quality.  Though the star rating system is obviously simplistic, it is quantifiably influential. It is hard to look past 300 separate itunes reviewers panning the album your friend told you was great, or 100 yelp reviewers giving that neighborhood restaurant 5 stars that your uncle hated.  Such is the power of peer pressure that I inevitably take into account when a book I want has only 3 of 5 stars on Amazon. Of course, sites such as Amazon, Netflix or Yelp don’t depend only on the star-rating system; they also want to provide supposedly qualitative digital word of mouth by providing comment sections for the user.  Ironically, such attempts at qualitative digital word of mouth also fail since comment sections often illustrate the absurdity and humor of anonymous viva voce. To see what I mean, check out this video.

Though silly, I think we should not look past the upsetting nature of the original critic’s message. The actual reviewer was practicing nothing short of reputation assassination; he provided an unjust assessment of a restaurant based upon what most people would consider absurd standards. Nonetheless, in the quantitative realm, his ridiculous review carries the same weight as a fair critique of  the restaurant.  Such anonymous, word of mouth ‘hit and runs’ are standard fare today. Arguably the oddest example of such smear tactics occurred in England in 2010, when a famous historian of Russia named Orlando Figes anonymously wrote a vicious Amazon.com critique of his fellow historian Robert Conquest’s most recent work.  Figes did this in an attempt to stop consumers from buying Conquest’s work.  By doing this, Figes illustrated the absurd downside of digital viva voce.  The anonymous critic now holds a position of far-reaching power, and that power is corrupting.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

As summer nears, my wife is outside in her garden all the time.  I have no idea what she is doing out there.  Well, that is not actually true; I know she is ‘working’ in the garden, but I don’t know what that really entails.  She comes inside with her hands, apron, knees, and shoes a mess.  But, she also walks through the front door with a sense of contentment on her The means of production. face.

Creating a vegetable garden is not my bag and I don’t have much desire to work out there. But, I am excited that the whole of our back and front yard will be used for a productive purpose. Though not as interested as her in urban farming, I do recognize the importance of her motivation.  She loves planting seeds, watering them, watching them grow, pulling weeds, and eventually, harvesting her rewards.  I appreciate that by doing this, she is fomenting rebellion.  By being a producer, she is opposing the ubiquitous life of the American conspicuous consumer.

Think about this for just a minute.  How many Americans today actually produce a physical object?  Unbelievably few.  I think you could perhaps say painters, writers, poets, playwrights and other artists. How many of these people make a living from their production?  Even fewer.  If we think artists are rare, that is nothing compared to the lost class of artisans that once marked the Western world.  Artisans were expert producers of goods for the commonweal. They fashioned an artifact through all the steps of creation. The loss of the artisan is due to our mass-produced society, and modern service economy.  People working in cubicles, both management and employees, ‘produce’ essentially nothing.   America’s biggest employer, Wal-Mart, produces nothing but self-proclaimed low prices. Their employees specialize in our most ‘revered’ trait, customer service.  Even those few Americans who still work in a factory setting produce few goods individually.  Sure, as a team, they may manufacture a product, but as one individual, each man and woman on the line has his/her own specialized role.  Not one person produces an end in itself.  Not one person even knows how to produce something as simple as a graphite pencil. Production as an end in itself is what my wife practices in the garden.

Though there are so few producers in America, there is a glut of consumers.  Actually, there are 300 million consumers in America.  This is unavoidable in today’s economy, but some of us take consumption far too far. Americans have made ‘Consumer’ our personal identity. Self-worth is based upon consumption.   Consumption becomes our spiritual path.  Americans are bombarded by the government, businesses and our peers to buy, buy, buy.  Americans are told we will find the “good life” by consuming.  Inner peace, happiness, wisdom are no longer searched for in work, learning, or meditation; we can simply get these virtues for $14.99 at the local big-box megastore.  Consumption then, affects our mental-health.  As 16th century French essayist Michel de Montaigne so wisely put it, “Poverty of goods is easily cured; poverty of soul, impossible.”

And so, this is why my wife loves to work in the garden. She is producing food, by herself.  A poverty of goods in her life is not her concern; the production of food ensures that her soul is bursting with riches.  Complete production as an end in itself leads her to self- fulfillment.  The question then becomes, what do you produce?