Sunday, January 6, 2008

Stuff, can't live with it, can't throw it out

Two years ago at a dinner party, some friends and I were having an impassioned conversation on what we could do to improve conditions in our country. I stated at that dinner party, to the great dismay of my friends, that the most patriotic thing one could do at this moment in time, is to buy second hand. I have made a life of, and often considered making a career of, thrift. My friend Amy and I toyed with the idea of a TV show on how you can create the latest looks, not at Macy's or Bloomingdale's, or Nordstroms, and not even at Filene's, but at your local thrift stores. Imagine my shock, when I was chosen to pose for a piece in Lucky magazine. That day I was wearing many of my thrift store finds, so I thought they liked my look. I went to the shoot, though, only to find that they wanted nothing to do with my thriftiness, and instead dressed me to the nines in clothes I could never afford--wait, I thought they wanted me for my innovative style? Nope, turns out I was just a dummy, a placeholder for REALLY expensive things.

And I knew that other gals like me, who get paid decently, but not well enough to afford all the things they put me in, will read that magazine, and maybe even feel a little behind because, hey, that girl can afford those clothes, why can't I? Trust me gals, better to be wanting than to be a dress up doll for overrated advertising (a.k.a., fashion magazines).

But, I digress, verily. Let's forget for a moment the feeling of inadequacy that modern advertising, and now ALL the media rely on, and get back to buying second hand. Two years after my statement, a friend of mine directed me to this video called The Story of Stuff.

It is a shocking tour through the journey of the stuff we buy. The little cartoon images of people working around the clock to buy the things they are working around the clock to make, gives you a keen insight into the hamster wheel we are all on. But who is going to stop this hamster wheel? What, pray tell, can we do about it? Because, if we join the Reverend Billy, and The Church of Stop Shopping, won't we take bread from the hands of our fellow down-and-outers? People will be quick to blame you for taking the jobs of the little man, because we all know that when profits are down, the CEO's salary is not.

Well, I don't have an answer yet, but I can tell you this much. We need to stop living in denial of the slavery of stuff. Which leads me to my utter annoyance with the media and the mind control game that has been played on us for many years now. If you think this is just the way human kind is, think again. This mentality, though easy to create, has nevertheless, been created. Let me give you two examples of people who have directed our economy this way:

1. Victor Lebow: He was a retail analyst in the 1950s. I am not sure, but I imagine that Victor Lebow was one of the first retail analysts, because there was a time when marketing a product meant marketing the product. Our current marketing aim, is to market the need, not the product. Let's take for example, an advertisement for an antidepressant. I don't know about you, but every time I see one of these, I think, "Oh, maybe I DO need that. Life is hard, and I can't always seem to keep upbeat. Perhaps that little blob of a guy with the cloud over his head is right. I am depressed." Well, our friend Victor Lebow said it pretty succinctly, when he put it like this:

"Our enormously productive economy ... demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption.... we need things consumed, burned up, replaced, and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate."

In other other words, we need to make sure that the consumers can keep up with the manufacturing. We must keep this hamster wheel spinning. It is very important that we, the people, believe we need all the things these guys have us spinning our wheels to make, in order to make more money, in order to buy more stuff. Hamster wheel. Need I say more?

No, but I will.

2. Interesting marketing guy #2, the invention of mind control. If you haven't seen this, make sure you watch it. This is the tale of Edward Bernays, the American nephew of Sigmund Freud, who is considered the father of marketing as we know it. Check this video out. Suffice it to say that almost all the work Freud was doing to CURE human misery, was later used by his nephew to CONTROL human misery, and direct the consumer to the store, or the ballet, or the whatever it was they called Edward Bernays to sell.

Watch this BBC documentary The Century of the Self for a quick lesson on Freud's id, uh, I mean nephew.

Point is, we need to wake up a bit. Perhaps not shopping seems harsh or drastic. Perhaps it may seem to some like these uppity folks are trying to take away their one joy in life. But, I am telling you that you were made to believe that consuming things was your only shot at joy. This was and is the intention of marketers. Stop watching T.V. for one week (episodes of The Wire excluded, as it is art not T.V.), stop reading newspapers and magazines (listen to NPR and read trusted blogs for the news, watch YouTube for presidential debates), and just experiment, just see how you feel about yourself when one week is through. I hope that after the anxiety about what to do with your time passes, you will feel like you are enough, like you are complete without these shoes or that purse, without this gadget or that. Like you are okay as you are, and the medicine, vacation, gym equipment, or subscription will not fix everything. Like some of it is nice, and some of it is important, but not all of it.

Try it, see what happens...


Marie London said...

Also, if you find yourself needing to get rid of some of that it responsibly, here is some great advice:

Living In A Toxic World:
What to do with your old stuff:

ConqueredMind said...

That was a great post. Isn't interesting that the "hamster wheel" of consumer products is so prevalent in modern society? I wonder if this stems from the first civilizations. The farmer brings his crops so he can get the tools he needs from the blacksmith, while the blacksmith makes tools for the farmer so he can eat. Is the consumer Hamster Wheel really that bad? Or are you specifically referring to the "luxury" consumer wheel?
On another note,(mind that this post is only a counter to your argument, I actually wanted nothing for Christmas this year except food and totally agree with your view point) the "Hamster Wheel" could be a necessity for society to even work. Because not everyone can be the "Blacksmith" helping the "Farmer" make food in that simpler cycle, People create new cycles so that they too can get food. The "Farmer" also wants clothes so he goes to the "Weaver" to buy cloth and then to the "Tailor" to make clothes for him. The "Tailor" and "Weaver" aren't necessary to the basic equation, but through the needs put in by society, become so.
Deux ex Machina
God from the Machine
Just because it's not necessary doesn't mean that it can't be there.

Marie London said...

of course, I agree, we all have skills to offer that someone else needs, but we have bloated that system to demand skilled workers for things we don't need. It may create more jobs also, and the solution is not merely to stop making things and therefore stop employing people. I don't know, I'm presenting the problem. I wish I knew a solution. Meanwhile, I can only afford the thrift store anyway...

A. said...

Nice post.

We live in what the anthropologists call a "gift economy," and when combined with a sharply stratified social hierarchy and some degree of social mobility, we are easily convinced that we can consume our way to status. Capitalism is really quite primitive in many ways.

When Kristofferson wrote "freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose," most people took it to mean something negative about poverty. But I've always thought that the opposite of "rich" was not "poor," but "free."

One wouldn't want to romanticize it too much. You can be too poor to be free. And you can't live off the grid in the modern world unless you are a hermit and very skilled at subsisting off the fat of the land, such as it is.

Anxiety rules. People are afraid to be free, so they buy more stuff.

"Kill Your Television" was always the best advice going.