Of the trouble with consumption and its pleasuresPosted: March 20, 2012
I am a Marxist living in contemporary Los Angeles. I also happen to be a Marxist with a taste for caviar and nice red wine, oysters and the general revelry that is always fomented by consumption (not ‘shopping’ so much as out-going–to dinner, to bars, to see movies with boats of overpriced popcorn in tow). I am also (like all humans) a social creature, and the spaces of consumption are all too frequently also the places we gather. If you too are a Marxist or a Post-Marxist or any kind of reasonable, left-wing social critic, you will have already formed a clear response as to why this is not a particularly new conflict, nor one which requires a long-winded defense of position. But you’re reading this so probably you aren’t any of those things, or not comfortably situated as such. So, here goes:
The fact of the total surrender to commerce as the site of both pleasure and resistance, to play and to purchase, is–to put it mildly–an engaging problem. Not just for me but for scholars and activists and those (perhaps fantastically) nostalgic for a public space that belongs, instead of a public space that belongs to. It is also the source of considerable anxiety for the average person. If the present political discourse in the U.S. doesn’t convince you of this, think of the places you long to be and think of what it will cost you, in hours of labor, to get there, to visit, to stay.
One is rarely sure how to ethically engage in the world if the dynamics of global capital find one vexed. The thing about such problems is that they are always simultaneously economic and political, global and local, personal and social. Or, at the very least, I am not the only one who has to think “oh how I long for that lounge chair on the far-off white, coastal sands,” while simultaneously thinking about said sands as exclusive, expensive, impossible, troubled…
There is something to be said for desire being, ultimately, the near-perfectly harnessed fuel of late-stage, global capitalism. The problem is, of course, that desire is also what frightens the shit out of those of us whose shared desire (among many and conflicting) is to believe that capitalism is, in fact, late-stage; that the small spaces of resistance left to us, even if they too are the spaces of consumption, are still charged with meaning and possibility. We are terrified that our desire, as it turns out, is just as functional to keep this weird, post-modern version of abstraction moving mechanically forward. And–even more than that–we, despite such fears, continue to feel like we have to believe in such possibility. Because otherwise, wouldn’t we just give in and invest?
I don’t claim to know with certainty, one way or the other, whether such spaces or those of us who inhabit them have revolutionary potential. Nor do I feel I should apologize for the very obvious fact that the system is the system we live in and that my own desires are conditioned and in many cases entirely manufactured by that system. It allows me to eat oysters and love commodities which I know are built, very specifically, to sell themselves to me. It even gives us Marxist critics a handful of bars and restaurants to meet in. But, if Marxism has any say in the world today, desire may well be also how capitalism builds within and against itself the very contradictions that will ultimately make it unsustainable. People love things. This is true. But they also, even when they’re not so good at it, love sharing things with each other. They are biologically predisposed, in fact, to love. Mirror neurons. Facial recognition. Gestural cognition. We are animals who desperately need other animals, who need shared environments. We are only always in an ecology. There is no vacuum, no subject sans milieu.
Is this an excuse for the pleasures afforded us meager subjects by commerce? By caviar and Pinot Noir? The short answer is yes. The long answer is no. Otherness and exclusion always, even if just a little bit, also always excludes and others us. Me. You. And all those somewhere, fictionally, in between and outside.
I’m not joking when I say I love love. It might be the last space that really does belong. But it can easily belong to too. So what of pleasure? One eats and drinks and is merry, I suppose. But it’s worth thinking about what such eating and drinking and merriment might be if it were, legitimately, a communal affair. Speculation, of the sort not quite done by capital, goes a long way. What did Marx do, after all, if not desperately imagine a future? His did not, alas, come into being. But if we’re not careful, our own imagined futures will become advertisements for Corona and private, polluted beaches. And, what’s more, beaches onto which we will never be able to wander.
There’s no opting out. So eat your oysters. But with that slithering sumptuous little creature, swallow down as well what kind of creature you are.*
P.S. The joke of the title image for this post should be clear enough: Capitalism can’t kill love. Even if it can often co-opt it.
*I do not normally engage in such politically charged exposition on this blog. But I believe it. So, read and be warned or scoff, but know where I stand.