Thursday, November 12, 2009

Failed Cultural Escape Hatches

In the November 2009 Harpers, Mark Kingwell winds down a review of The Language of Things: Understanding the World of Desirable Objects as follows:

Nor will consideration of our own place in the consumer economy necessarily lead to changes in what we value: this is theory, not therapy. Meanwhile, various inventive cultural escape hatches -- hi-lo cultural slumming, the dandyism of camp -- seem jejune if not flatly contradictory. There is nothing outside the system, and attempts at escape are always just higher-order versions of distinction. You can't win, and you can't stop playing.

Here's some advice: stop worrying about it. The point of analyzing desire is neither victory nor freedom; it is, instead, to indicate an alternative scale of value, according to which idleness and play -- the everyday gift of detournement -- are cherished as the most divine, because least encumbered, dimensions of human life. If we could see that, maybe the closed promises of consumption would give way to the open invitation of thought itself.
As a meditation on consumerism and its inter-nested traps, this has plenty to recommend it: I can attest to the futility of trying to use camp and irony to circumvent the charms of consumerism. It doesn't work, certainly it doesn't work to roll back the desire for the the new, the more, the better, whatever presents itself as the next to supersede and surpass. Nor does thinking about the shallowness at the base of it dissolve it. Focusing on the distance between the shallowness and any higher ideal does not close that distance, but maybe it qualifies as thought anyway. The unexamined life is not worth living?

So whatever. The real reason I reproduced that passage is that it's an instance of found prose that could almost serve as a precis of this precious, precious blog. Almost.


DP said...

Still, we must not think that the man who is to be happy will need many things or great things, merely because he cannot be supremely happy without external goods; for self-sufficiency and action do not involve excess, and we can do noble acts without ruling earth and sea; for even with moderate advantages one can act virtuously.

. . .

Anaxagoras also seems to have supposed the happy man not to be rich nor a despot, when he said that he would not be surprised if the happy man were to seem to most people a strange person; for they judge by externals, since these are all they perceive.

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics Book 10, Chapter 8.k

Dale said...

DP, I was really hoping you'd translate that into dumbass for me, since there's something about the writing style in which Nicomachean Ethics has come down to us that melts my brain -- and not in a "fun" way.

Anyhoo, I'm never quite sure where the mean, golden or other, lies along the spectrum. I can tell you that the entire home theater setup I've assembled in my mind's eye (and partly in my den) will cost less than the third cheapest *amplifier* on this list:

Idleness and play.

DP said...

According to philosophy, Aristotle's ethics teach us that "genuine happiness lies in action that leads to virtue, since this alone provides true value and not just amusement. He also held that contemplation is the highest form of moral activity because it is continuous, pleasant, self-sufficient, and complete."

I wish you luck in acheiving "genuine happiness" without the benefit of that amp. :)

I will try to find genuine happiness without the benefit of this practical transporation device:

Samuel John Klein Portlandiensis said...

So, no matter what I do, Im'ma going to want stuff, and I'm going to be happier if I get the stuff I want. And people will judge me my my stuff.

As I'd always thought.

I think God wants me to be an existentialist.

@ DP: If the idea of that Bugatti being yours will enable happiness, then this will cause you to curl into a foetal ball and cry:

And you know what else? Just as I was reading your reply above, I checked my Twitter feed and found that. Almost simultaneously.

Coincidence? Yeah, most likely. But what a coincidence.