Monday, February 03, 2014

Consuming ambivalence

Do a Google search on "consumer culture ambivalence," and you will get "about 245,000 results." So, apparently, this is an issue.

But perhaps I don't need to tell you that. Because there seems to be something deeply ingrained in the experience of buying anything--other than, perhaps, food--that induces discomfort. At least for me. Do I really need this thing? I mean, really, really, need it? Or am I just adding to the stuff that surrounds me, separating me from a more authentic experience of life? I desired this thing, which is why I bought it, but now I kind of hate it, because it tricked me. I wanted it, but I didn't really, really, really need it. The thing made me confuse want with need.

Thoreau, of course, was quite the scold on this topic:

I used to see a large box by the railroad, six feet long by three wide, in which the laborers locked up their tools at night; and it suggested to me that every man who was hard pushed might get such a one for a dollar, and, having bored a few auger holes in it, to admit the air at least, get into it when it rained and at night, and hook down the lid, and so have freedom in his love, and in his soul be free. 

However, we know Thoreau was kind of a nut. Admirable, but impossible to imitate; in fact, not even he could really walk the talk. As Paul Theroux says of his near-namesake

During his famous experiment in his cabin at Walden, moralizing about his solitude, he did not mention that he brought his mother his dirty laundry and went on enjoying her apple pies.

Did he also occasionally buy some snappy new boots in downtown Concord? But I ramble. My point, or my question, is: how do we decide when our consumption has gone overboard?

A book called The Ambivalent Consumer: Questioning Consumption in East Asia and the West, says the decision is cultural:

People believe consumption has become excessive ... when it threatens a culturally understood "balance" with morality, citizenship, production, saving, or the environment.

I'm at the point where any consumption feels like too much. Yes, deep inside, I'm Henry David. And yet, under these circumstances, buying feels somehow gleefully naughty, like an act of defiance, or a piece of apple pie. There's just no way out.

The things will always get us in the end.

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1 comment:

apsterian said...

Wanted to be sure to thank u for ur work on Sue Lyon on one of ur blogs back in 2006--a very interesting story.