“What is at stake is the meaning of life; the illusion of sustainability, the mirage of organic farming, or bathroom taps plated with imitation gold. Around this central vacuum turn the various forms of consumption in the most privileged societies, in lands that seem like hell.”
This essay opens the 2014 Prix Pictet catalogue, a photographic exploration of consumption patterns in different parts of the world. Reproduced with kind permission of the author and Prix Pictet.
THE IMPASSES OF CONSUMERISM
BY SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK
During my recent visit to California, I attended a party at a professor’s house with my Slovene friend, a heavy smoker. Late in the evening, my friend became desperate and politely asked the host if he could step out on the veranda for a smoke. When the host (no less politely) said no, my friend suggested that he step out on to the street, and even this was rejected by the host, who claimed such a public display of smoking might hurt his status with his neighbours … But what really surprised me was that, after dinner, the host offered us (not so) soft drugs, and this kind of smoking went on without any problem – as if drugs are not more dangerous than cigarettes.
This weird incident is a sign of the impasses of today’s consumerism. To account for it, one should introduce the distinction between pleasure and enjoyment elaborated by the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan: what Lacan calls jouissance (enjoyment) is a deadly excess beyond pleasure, which is by definition moderate. We thus have two extremes: on the one hand the enlightened hedonist who carefully calculates his pleasures to prolong his fun and avoid getting hurt, on the other the jouisseur propre, ready to consummate his very existence in the deadly excess of enjoyment – or, in the terms of our society, on the one hand the consumerist calculating his pleasures, well protected from all kinds of harassments and other health threats, on the other the drug addict or smoker bent on self-destruction. Enjoyment is what serves nothing, and the great effort of today’s hedonist-utilitarian “permissive” society is to tame and exploit this un(ac)countable excess into the field of (ac)counting.
The first lesson to be drawn from this is that one should reject the common sense opinion according to which in a hedonist-consumerist society we all “enjoy”: the basic strategy of enlightened consumerist hedonism is on the contrary to deprive enjoyment of its excessive dimension, of its disturbing surplus, of the fact that it serves nothing. Enjoyment is tolerated, solicited even, but on condition that it is healthy, that it doesn’t, threaten our psychic or biological stability: chocolate yes, but fat free, coke yes, but diet, coffee yes, but without caffeine, beer yes, but without alcohol, mayonnaise yes, but without cholesterol, sex yes, but safe sex … We are here in the domain of what Lacan calls the discourse of University, as opposed to the discourse of the Master: a Master goes to the end in his consummation, he is not constrained by petty utilitarian considerations (which is why there is a certain formal homology between the traditional aristocratic master and a drug-addict focused on his deadly enjoyment), while the consumerist’s pleasures are regulated by scientific knowledge propagated by the university discourse. The decaffeinated enjoyment we thus obtain is a semblance of enjoyment, not its Real, and it is in this sense that Lacan talks about the imitation of en-joyment in the discourse of University. The prototype of this discourse is the multiplicity of reports in popular magazines which advocate sex as good for health: the sexual act works like jogging, strengthens the heart, relaxes our tensions, even kissing is good for our health.
So, what is going on here? In the last decade or so there has been a shift in the accent of marketing, a new stage of commodification that the economic theorist Jeremy Rifkin designated “cultural capitalism”. We buy a product – an organic apple, say – because it represents the image of a healthy lifestyle. As this example indicates, the very ecological protest against the ruthless capi- talist exploitation of natural resources is already caught in the commodification of experiences: although ecology perceives itself as the protest against the virtualisation of our daily lives and advocates a return to the direct experience of sensual material reality, ecology itself is branded as a new lifestyle. What we are effectively buying when we are buying “organic food” etc. is already a certain cultural experience, the experience of a “healthy ecological lifestyle”. And the same goes for every return to “reality”: in a publicity spot
widely broadcast in the US a decade or so ago, a group of ordinary people was shown enjoying a barbecue with country music and dancing, with the accompanying message: “Beef. Real food for real people.” The irony is that the beef offered here as the symbol of a certain lifestyle (the “real” grass-root working-class Americans) is much more chemically and genetically manipu- lated than the “organic” food consumed by an “artificial” elite.
Stoned jeans also provide a nice example of how ideology imaginarily resolves the class antagonism: they are worn by those who are “down” as well as those who are “up” —the upper strata wear stoned jeans in order to express solidarity with popular strata, while members of the popular strata wear them in order to look like members of the upper strata. So when members of the lower strata wear stoned jeans, the appearance of direct coincidence with their social status (poverty) and their clothing (used torn jeans) masks a double mediation: they imitate those who imitate an imagined popular working class look. The ultimate irony is here that the company which specialises in such products destined to blur the class gap is called precisely Gap.
What we are witnessing today is the direct commodification of our experiences themselves: what we are buying on the market is fewer and fewer products (material objects) that we want to own, and more and more life experiences – experiences of sex, eating, communicating, cultural consumption, participating in a lifestyle. Material objects are more and more here just to serve as props for this experience, which is more and more offered for free to seduce us into buying the true “experiential commodity”, like the free cellular phones we get if we sign a one-year contract. The tendency is thus from “Buy this DVD player, and you get 5 DVDs for free!” to “Commit yourself to regularly buy from us DVDs (or, even better, buy the access to a cable which allows you free access to digitalised movies), and we’ll give you a DVD player for free!”, or, to quote the succinct formula of Mark Slouka: “As more of the hours of our days are spent in synthetic environments …life itself is turned into a commodity. Someone makes it for us; we buy it from them. We become the consumers of our own lives.” We ultimately buy (the time of) our own life. Michel Foucault’s notion of turning one’s self itself into a work of art thus gets an unexpected confirmation: I buy my bodily fitness by way of visiting fitness clubs; I buy my spiritual enlightenment by way of enrolling in the courses on transcendental meditation; I buy my public persona by way of going to the restaurants visited by people I want to be associated with.
The anti-consumerist ecology is also a case of buying authentic experience. There is something deceptively reassuring in our readiness to assume guilt for the threats to our environment: we like to be guilty since, if we are guilty, it all depends on us, we pull the strings of the catastrophe, so we can also save ourselves simply by changing our lives. What is really difficult to accept (at least for us in the west) is that we are reduced to the impotent role of a passive observer who can only sit and watch what his fate will be – to avoid such a situation, we are prone to engage in a frantic obsessive activity, recycling old paper, buying organic food, whatever, just so that we can be sure that we are doing something, making our contribution – like a soccer fan who supports his team in front of a TV screen at home, shouting and jumping from his seat, in a superstitious belief that this will somehow influence the outcome… It is true that the typical form of fetishist disavowal à propos ecology is: “I know very well (that we are a threatened), but I don’t really believe it (so I am not ready to do anything really important like changing my way of life).” But there is also the opposite form of disavowal: “I know very well that I cannot really influence the process which can lead to my ruin (like a volcanic outburst), but it is nonetheless too traumatic for me to accept this, so I cannot resist the urge to do something, even if l know it is ultimately meaningless…” Is it not for the same reason that we buy organic food? Who really believes that the half-rotten and expensive “organic” apples are really healthier? The point is that, by buying them, we do not just consume a product – we simultaneously do something meaningful, show our caring selves and our global awareness and participate in a large collective project.
One should not fear denouncing sustainability itself, the big mantra of ecologists from the developed countries, as an ideological myth based on the idea of self-enclosed circulation where nothing is wasted —sustainability is effectively our version of the (in)famous juche idea of North Korea’s founding leader Kim Il-sung, vaguely translatable as “spirit of self-sufficiency/self-reliance”. The problem is that nature is definitely not “sustainable” but one big crazy process of producing waste where, sometimes, this waste is “exapted,” used in some locally emerging self-organisations (like humans using oil —a gigantic waste of nature —as the energy source). Upon a closer look, one can establish that “sustainability” always refers to a limited process that enforces its balance at the expense of its larger environs. Think about the proverbial sustainable house of a rich, ecologically enlightened manager, located somewhere in a green isolated valley close to a forest and lake, with solar energy, use of waste as manure, windows open to natural light, etc.: the costs of building such a house (to the environment, not only financial costs) make it prohibitive to the large majority. For a sincere ecologist, the optimal habitat is a big city where millions live close together: although such a city produces a lot of waste and pollution, its per capita pollution is much lower than that of a modern family living in the countryside. How does our manager reach his office from his country house? Probably with a helicopter, to avoid polluting the grass around his house …
Recall the “architecturally correct” opposition between pure authentic func- tion and vulgar display of useless material wealth exemplified by the image of a simple water pump alongside a gold tap: a simple object satisfying a vital need versus the excessive display of wealth… However, one should always be careful in such cases to avoid the trap signalled by John Berger in his The Success and Failure of Picasso where he tartly notes that Picasso’s Blue Period, “because it deals pathetically with the poor, has always been the favourite among the rich”. Upon a closer look, one soon discovers that this opposition is overdetermined by a much more complex and ambiguous background. Anyone who knows real slums (like the Latino-American favelas) couldn’t help noticing how the improvised slum buildings, even if made of remainders of corrugated iron and wooden patchwork, are full of often ridiculous excessive kitsch decorations, up to (fake, of course) gold taps. It is (mostly) poor people who dream about gold taps, while rich people like to imagine the simple functionality of household equipment –a simple lean water pump is how Bill Gates sees the way to help poor Africans, while the real poor Africans would probably embellish it as soon as possible with “kitsch” decorations. It is like the ironic remark of an observer of the Yeltsin years in Russia that ordinary women who want to appear attractive dress like (the common idea of) prostitutes (with heavy red lipsticks, excessive cheap jewels, etc.), while real prostitutes prefer to mark their distinction by wearing simple expensive grey “business” suits. Indeed, as a saying popular among the poor who participate in carnival in Brazil goes: “Only the rich like modesty; the poor prefer luxury”.
To recapitulate, we thus primarily buy commodities neither on account of their utility nor as status symbols; we buy them to get the experience provided by them, we consume them in order to make our life pleasurable and meaningful. Consumption should sustain the quality of life, its time should be “quality time”- not the time of alienation, of imitating models imposed by society, of the fear of not being able to “keep up with the Joneses”, but the time of the authentic fulfilment of my true Self, of the sensuous play of experience, of caring for others, from ecology to charity. Here is an example. Here is an exemplary case of “cultural capitalism”: Starbucks’ ad campaign “It’s not just what you’re buying. It’s what you’re buying into.” After celebrating the quality of the coffee itself, the ad goes on:
But, when you buy Starbucks, whether you realise it or not, you’re buying into something bigger than a cup of coffee. You’re buying into a coffee ethic. Through our Starbucks Shared Planet programme, we purchase more Fair Trade coffee than any company in the world, ensuring that the farmers who grow the beans receive a fair price for their hard work. And, we invest in and improve coffee-growing practices and communities around the globe. It’s good coffee karma. … Oh, and a little bit of the price of a cup of Starbucks coffee helps furnish the place with comfy chairs, good music, and the right atmosphere to dream, work and chat in. We all need places like that these days. When you choose Starbucks, you are buying a cup of coffee from a company that cares. No wonder it tastes so good.
The “cultural” surplus is here spelled out: the price is higher than elsewhere since what you are really buying is the “coffee ethic” that includes care for the environment, social responsibility towards the producers, plus a place where you yourself can participate in communal life (from the very beginning Starbucks presented its places as the ersatz community place). And if this is not enough, if your ethical needs are still unsatisfied, if you continue to worry about the Third World misery, there are additional products to buy –here is Starbucks’ self-description of their Ethos Water programme:
Ethos Water is a brand with a social mission— helping children around the world get clean water and raising awareness of the World Water Crisis. Every time you purchase a bottle of Ethos Water, Ethos Water will contribute US$0.05 (C$0.10 in Canada) toward our goal of raising at least US$10million by 2010. Through The Starbucks Foundation, Ethos Water supports hu- manitarian water programmes in Africa, Asia and Latin America. To date, Ethos Water grant commitments exceed $6.2million. These programmes will help an estimated 420,000 people gain access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene education.
(No mention here of the fact that a bottle of Ethos Water in Starbucks costs much more than 5 cents more than in other similar places…) This is how capitalism, at the level of consumption, integrated the legacy of ‘68, the critique of alienated consumption: authentic experience matters. A recent Hilton hotels publicity ad consists of a simple claim: ‘Travel doesn’t only get us from place A to place B. It should also make us a better person.’* Can one even imagine such an ad a decade ago? The latest scientific expression of this “new spirit” is the rise of a new discipline, “happiness studies” —however, how is it that, in our era of spiritualised hedonism when the goal of life is directly defined as happiness, anxiety and depression are exploding? It is the enigma of this self-sabotaging of happiness and pleasure which makes Freud’s mes- sage more actual than ever.
Slavoj Žižek is a world-renowned philosopher and cultural critic. He is the International Director of The Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities. Žižek has published over 50 books on topics ranging from philosophy and Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis, to theology, film, opera and politics, and he regularly contributes to The Guardian. Žižek achieved international recognition as a social theorist after the 1989 publication of his first book in English, The Sublime Object of ideology, which disputed a Marxist interpretation of ideology as false consciousness and argued for ideology as an unconscious fantasy that structures reality. He was a candidate for, and nearly won, the Presidency of his native Slovenia in the first democratic elections after the break-up of Yugoslavia in 1990.