CONSUMPTION

Giordano Simoncini

from NERO n.09 april/may 2006

There I am. Seated on the bus, fairly well packed in. Let’s say it’s raining outside. The day’s going so-so, punctuated more by chores than pleasures. Since I don’t want to know about humanity, I use the paper as a curtain between my fellow man and me. I read Zucconi from Washington: “[…] perhaps it was the vapours […] or the multitude of shopping bags but in that moment Judith Levine felt nauseous and with the nausea, a decision potentially more catastrophic […]: the decision to no longer buy”.

JUDITH

Taking stock of the situation. Judith Levine is an American journalist that, nauseated by the umpteenth day spent spending, decided to renounce shopping for 12 months. She boycotted the cinema and restaurants, she denied herself skirts, tops and shoes, and then she wrote a book about it: Not Buying It, a year without shopping. A book that intones the paean for every Saturday boxed into the SUV, moving at a snail’s pace on the bright path that heads straight for the relevant Mall. A book that proves that yes, with obstinacy, one can yank one’s life away from the abyss, towards Being rather than Having.

The book, of course, is for sale. In the sense that you need to buy it, it’s not distributed for free.
Contradiction? Hmm.
An American wrote it.

ME

Let’s see how I fair: and me, what did I buy today? Nothing. Or rather: there’s been no need to buy anything yet. I could have bought a bus ticket, e.g., but since I gatecrash in protest… out of the question. Oh, I wanted to get some blank DVDs before going home: I didn’t pay for the films I downloaded, but then TDK demands money! I’ll also pick up a couple of beers, go on… seeing as I have the films.
Seeing as I’m here.

Superfluous to inquire into the effective necessity of my consumer profile; temperate, continent… “virtuous”. In spite of this, unnecessary. Yes; because a) man is made of water, he doesn’t need to drink anything else, and b) if the motive for the films is recreational, they can be substituted with a chat with my housemates. If, instead, it’s cultural… do I need culture or, rather, do I want it?

ROUSSEAU

Rousseau, who wasn’t stupid, distinguished the borderline between need and will in terms of vanity. The no-longer-quite-primitive man discovers that it’s worth his while to live in a village; this way strangers help each other out. Time passes and that man, needing only to eat and save energy, discovers self-love: in the common spaces among the huts, it’s no longer about the mating ritual, about distinguishing oneself by good looks, as if it was the visible side of fertility. Reproduction, nature, immediate drives have got nothing to do with it. Instead, it’s about esteem and appreciation – and it’s about the search for esteem and appreciation, recognised in pairs with their opposites, affront and insult, things that are avenged. Vanity, desire, violence, a frightening entirety that begins to be, simply, “guy stuff”. Unfortunately, the indigenous pattern takes hold, remaining the same during centuries of, let’s put it like this, “progress”. Backed continuously by Techne, man learned to desire. In the tireless search for fulfilment, he invented new things, which demonstrated the new desire that justified their invention; to whoever had never foreseen that desire, it made itself desirable. When “self-production” proved to be inefficient, man bartered; when bartering became inadequate, man coined money. Money, an instrument for transactions and a “new thing” in itself, became the aim instead of the means, since it was conceived by Techne. From the desire for money, therefore, was born production, whose functionality was maintained with difficulty by the desire of the request; industrialisation, surplus and the emergence of Politics as we know it today (parties + economic policy), an ever faster race to who knows where, until arriving at advertising. Which was able to take away man’s ownership of desire by imposing it upon him; making him the definitive slave. The same Rousseau bestowed sardonic advice on the rulers of every age: “give money and you will get chains”. Owing to historical data, however, he didn’t see just how unfinished the slaves were before the accession of advertising on the means of mass communication. He didn’t realise how heavy the chains would become for the citizens of democracies from the “end of history”, free only to carry out an atavistic craving that, perhaps, is no longer even theirs.

What Rousseau couldn’t see then is seen now by millions of people, including Judith. I’m thinking back to her repulsion, which is often also mine: the bags, with things inside that I don’t need, becoming entangled with those of my neighbour, inside a humid, smelly bus, which ferries individuals from the shop to the hypermarket to the shopping centre; to give them a way, to give us a way to “move the economy”, to exercise the freedom to spend our wages from work – ever fascinating, evergreen, the combination of the headwords work and freedom. For having felt what I also feel, and by following it up with a reaction, Judith has my esteem. Her reaction, however, was only an action: with great practical spirit she cut up her credit cards and stopped buying. Therefore, when I have the chance to speak with her, I’ll immediately ask her: “But you didn’t conceive a method? A concept, an idea to cling to in order to escape for another day the yoke of the commercial forces that erode us existentially?” Because I’ve happened to think about it sometimes: what could radically free us from the anxiety of acquisition? What would make me recuperate the use of adverbs in place of nouns, as Fromm would say? Difficult to resist, when the cadence of arms is “today I don’t buy because no”. More is needed!

WHAT’S NEEDED?

E.g. Love is needed: falling in love transfers its desiring to the “sex appeal of the organic”. For this only, Thank God! Better to desire Love than Gucci sunglasses. The liberating power of love appears in grand conflagration with adolescence, putting a stop to the desires of children – elected target of the advertising imposition. As long as it seems like this, good, it really helps. But then, with the passing of the years and love contingencies, we become aware of a grim detail: that for lovers, lovers are those who kiss in the park, who don’t produce and don’t consume, happy, absolute, senses, freedom; and for those not in love, lovers are those of gifts for invented anniversaries and of furniture to the sound of loans… But the Last Judgement doesn’t enter the houses and angels don’t take appointments (Gaber), and from a distanced position one fully sees how love has also begun to run on the tracks of the logic of acquisition, mediated by the advertising Spirit. Barthes understood this, saying it with demoralising clarity with that fateful figure of the Fragments, which is the “love induction”. More uninspiredly, we all understand it in the presence of an acquaintance who is troubled by his being single, when what he misses is not a special person, which can not be one but only that one, but rather the mere having someone. Maybe we introduce him to people, hoping to play matchmaker, and it means throwing him into the buy-sell river with a rock around his neck. Market, commerce, it’s every time that people fall in love AFTER having dated for a while more uxorio, to the detriment of any principle of logical consequentiality. Liberation is, therefore, only a coup de foudre; vintage stuff, by now.

More: Aesthetics are needed. Until one creates art in order to live by art, we act like businesses: the acquisition of factors of production, work, surplus value, sale, income. There are those who introduce a little more conscientiousness into the process and already feel revolutionary: the people at Adbusters, e.g. Critical consumers and critics of consumption, creators of the super-famous Buy Nothing Day (sponsored, in Italy, by Terre di Mezzo). They’re creative revolutionaries as long as it’s not about price-marking their magazine, which is sharp, enchanting…merchandise. Of course, you pay what the magazine’s worth, but it remains well entrenched in the bosom of the enemy. The point, rather, would be to aestheticize the consumerism-o-nomy, transforming it and, therefore, cancelling it for as long as one can. Because aesthetics, like love, is another logic. Perniola tells a story in his “Against Communication”: an artist proposes 12 works for 50,000 Euro to a buyer. The buyer, a sensible businessman, refuses to buy because they’re outside his range of preferences. The artist reacts by throwing 6 works into the fireplace, and the buyer, taken-aback, offers 25,000 Euro for the remaining 6; but the artist passes another 3 to the flame, saying that the remaining 3 are still worth 50,000 Euro. The buyer, at that point, buys. There was consumption, certainly, but outside the rules of consumption; if one is able to violate those, one alters consumption, de-systematising it and retaking it in hand. In the end, the problem is all there: to take consumption in hand, to rescue it from the mania that dominates it with the aim of controlling it. Only through the control over consumption passes the eventuality of laying down the theoretical foundations for non-consumption, prolonged in multiple ways. There is only this: prolonged how much?

RESOLUTION AND FAREWELL

The story of Judith doesn’t have a happy ending. After the umpteenth laddered stocking, the journalist took money and fighting virtue and threw them among the coat hangers of a boutique. It was to be expected, she was missing theory. However, I wasn’t the least bit better in my errors committed in my burning desire for purification. In fact, would I really be capable of not buying anything for 12 months? That an American should reveal herself to be tougher than me?

The emergency exit from the “hypercube” of consumption is at the end of the corridor of an immense upheaval of Western civilisation. In the most profound sense, that upheaval is a logical as it is existential, not at all economical. The only value of critical, ethical, fair-trade consumption is that it takes aboard the global market’s castaways into the lifeboat of enslavement. Its systemic functional character is certified by the multinationals, from Nestle that produces Partners’ Blend, Virgin trains that serve Fairtrade tea, to Starbucks that sells Ethos water. The real challenge for a decent future (it’s fashionable to say “sustainable”) is neither to consume better nor to consume differently: it’s to consume as little as possibile. In order to make it a quotidian concern, however, handholds are needed. I’ve thrown out a couple, that are OK for a while, then they collapse.

At this point every contribution is very welcome.