Prophecies of the Present

In his novel The Savage Girl (2002), Alex Shakar introduces the concept of trans-temporal marketing (15f, 277). Marketers from the future have traveled back in time to “advertise their products” to us in the present. They have brainwashed a supermodel to sell things for them: “her every action sends powerful messages and brings about massive shifts in worldwide patterns of production and consumption, and correspondingly in the patterns of people’s private thoughts, fantasies, needs.” The future marketers’ products are not “limited to physical objects but rather include all manner of less tangible things such as gestures, opinions, desires, locations in space, and times of day.” None of these products actually exist yet, but the demand generated by the advertising will allow them to be made. The enormous profits from their sale, in turn, will permit the future marketers to pay the cost of a trans-temporal advertising campaign. And so the circle is closed.

Trans-temporal marketing is a good example of how, as I wrote in my book Connected (2003), “science fiction is about the shadow that the future casts upon the present” (250). This phrase, I now realize, is an unconscious echo of Shelley’s claim, in A Defense of Poetry, that poets are “the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present.” The shift from poetry to science fiction may perhaps be explained by the difference between Shelley’s time and ours. Two centuries ago, at the dawn of the industrial revolution, lyrical subjectivity could be mobilized as a force of resistance against the emergence of capitalist mass production. Today, such a protest is scarcely conceivable; it could only take the form of a Tolkienesque nostalgia for a pre-industrial past that never was. And lyrical subjectivity has been entirely subsumed within the marketing mechanisms of informational capitalism, for which image is everything. The lyrical voice today is the one that asks, along with Ed Norton’s anonymous protagonist/narrator in Fight Club, “What kind of dining set defines me as a person?”

Science fiction is better suited than poetry for the age of globalized informational capitalism, because it is prosaic, obsessed with technological change, and focused on socio-cultural dynamics rather than subjective interiority. Rather than starting from some bedrock sense of subjectivity, it asks questions about how subjective experience is generated and altered by new technologies (meaning both technologies in the engineering sense, and “technologies of power” or social technologies). In exploring these questions, science fiction does not literally predict the future; but it registers the ways in which we are already haunted by futurity, or by change. Just as Foucault described his project as a “history of the present” (in contrast to the redundancy and false objectivity of histories of the past) so we can describe science fiction as a prophecy of the present (in contrast to the vacuity and ironic short-sightedness of prophecies of the future). William Gibson remarks that “the future is already here; it’s just unevenly distributed.” The task of science fiction is to make this uneven distribution visible, and to work through its consequences. Not just in its narrative, but also in its work of world-building and in its strategic use of details and background assumptions, science fiction generates new concepts, which can help us to understand our social world differently, and to see the potentials for change locked within it.

The concept of trans-temporal marketing calls our attention to several things. Most obviously, it points to a claustrophobic saturation of the social field by commodity logic. It’s not just physical objects that have become commodities. But also impalpable qualities, like affects and atmospheres; or mental, subjective phenomena like moods, dreams, and desires. Adjectives have been commodified, as well as nouns. Traditional categories, like “reification,” are no longer adequate to describe this situation. For it isn’t quite accurate to say that living, human relations have been turned into dead, abstracted things. It’s more the reverse: that “things” have been energized, enlivened, de-reified. This is the deepest sense of what Marx meant by the fetishism of commodities. The mythical “naive” consumer, who sees commodities as animate beings, endowed with magical properties, is not mystified or deluded. Rather, he or she is accurately perceiving the way that capitalism works, how it endows material things with an inner life. Under the reign of commodities, we live — as William Burroughs said we did — in a “magical universe.”

The whole process of trans-temporal marketing is mediated by a schizophrenic supermodel named Ivy, one of the main characters in Shakar’s novel. Ivy’s body works as a kind of switching point, or transformer. It receives commands, or advertising suggestions, from the future, and broadcasts them to the present. The future marketers “are continually feeding her stage directions, telling her to cross or uncross her legs, to toss her hair, to keep her eyes focused on certain colors or shapes or parts of people’s anatomies” (15). And Ivy’s actions are relayed to the world on television and the Internet, on billboards and in the advertising spreads of magazines. “Apparently Ivy can sell just about anything, and she’s a terribly influential force in the world” (16). In translating messages from the future to the present, the supermodel’s body also translates inner feelings into outward expressions. That is to say, she communicates the incommunicable (which is Kant’s definition of the paradox of aesthetic judgment), or creates an equivalent for that which is singular and unsubstitutable (which is Pierre Klossowski’s formulation of the deadlock behind both modernist aesthetics and capitalist economics).

I have yet to mention the most important aspect of trans-temporal marketing, which is of course its temporality. Capitalism is oriented towards the future, in contrast to the ways that “archaic,” or pre-capitalist, modes of production and social organization seem to be bound ritualistically to the past. For us — the subjects of capitalism — the future means openness, potentiality, uncertainty, and risk: the production of novelty: what Bergson calls élan vital, Whitehead creative advance, and Bloch the Novum. And the present, the now, is not self-contained, because it is shot through with this futurity. (This is precisely why science fiction has the privileged role it does in “late,” or postmodern, capitalism.) But if capitalism is the great generator of novelty, it is also a system for taking possession of potentiality, managing uncertainty, and foreclosing risk (at least for the propertied classes; what this usually means in practice is that “risk” and “uncertainty” are foisted upon the poor). Trans-temporal marketing manages risk or uncertainty — just as financial instruments like derivatives are supposed to do — by establishing a closed temporal logic, a feedback loop between the present and the future. This means that the present is already captured and determined by the future, thanks to a sort of inverse causality. Time itself has been exhausted, because it has been so thoroughly exploited, mined for its surplus, and commodified. Francis Fukuyama (1993) accurately represents the project of postmodern capitalism (if not, I hope, its full actuality) when he proposes that the end of time, or of history, is not the apocalypse, but the ubiquity of the market, and the continuation of business as usual.

Trans-temporal marketing is the logical business strategy for our world of flexible accumulation: a regime of “flexibility with respect to labor processes, labor markets, products, and patterns of consumption,” that is “characterized by the emergence of entirely new sectors of production, new ways of providing financial services, new markets, and, above all, greatly intensified rates of commercial, technological, and organizational innovation” (Harvey 1990: 147). Businesses increasingly forego the old vertical model of organization, and instead embrace a “web of strategic alliances, of subcontracting agreements, and of decentralized decision-making” (Castells 2000: 185). With such a networked form of organization, “new technologies allow for the transformation of assembly lines… into easy-to-program production units that can be sensitive to variations in the market (product flexibility) and in the changes of technological inputs (process flexibility)” (167). All this networking and flexibility means that one size no longer fits all. Product lines are increasingly differentiated and diversified. Corporations now aim to cover an entire spectrum of niche markets, and to “create the maximum number of permutations out of the minimum number of parts” (Olins 2004: 41). And as a result of these changes, “brands [have] migrated from household products to retail to service to corporations themselves, and the media [have] migrated with them so that now brands have become — whether we like it or not — part of the very air we breathe” (63).

In a world defined by flexible accumulation and trans-temporal marketing, we — by which I mean, of course, the more affluent portion of humankind — are faced with an overwhelming “menu” of consumer options, or lifestyle choices. In The Savage Girl, visionary trendspotters foresee the coming of what they call the Light Age (sometimes spelled Lite Age): “a renaissance of self-creation,” when, thanks to the wonders of niche marketing, “we’ll be able to totally customize our life experience — our beliefs, our rituals, our tribes, our whole personal mythology — and we’ll choose everything that makes us who we are from a vast array of choices” (24). The free-market economist Virginia Postrel makes similar claims in her book The Substance of Style (2004), a delirious text that is ostensibly an argumentative essay, but that reads more like science fiction. Postrel announces the coming of a rapturous Age of Aesthetics, “a new economic and cultural moment, in which look and feel matter more than ever” (39). In the Age of Aesthetics, Postrel tells us, everyone is free to express their own sensibility and taste. “We have replaced ‘one best way’ with ‘my way, for today,’ a more personal and far more fluid ideal” (9). We know, she says, that “people are different” (149); and now we have an abundance of marketing choices to match these differences. “Instead of a single dominant standard… we see aesthetic fluidity. Individuals recombine styles that please them, and those combinations in turn create ever more ideas and categories that can be further recombined” (64).

Today, Postrel says, beauty is everything; products are differentiated by style, far more than they are by functionality. We take it for granted that the things we buy will work acceptably well; we base our actual buying decisions on aesthetic considerations, on how pretty and cool the products are. We care passionately about the sensory pleasures we get from our surroundings: our home furnishings and clothes, our automobiles, the places where we shop, and even our technical devices. This is why we go to Starbucks, and why we listen to music on iPods. Even bathroom cleaning, Postrel enthuses, is now imbued with beauty: “Every day, all over the world, designers are working to make a better, prettier, more expressive toilet brush for every taste and every budget. The lowliest household tool has become an object of color, texture, personality, whimsy, even elegance” (56). Social critics often condemn upscale buying as a mere expression of “the status-craving drive to impress the neighbors.” But since toilet brushes are not objects of display, Postrel says, we cannot write off our desire for cloacal beauty as being merely a matter of keeping up with the Joneses. Rather, we must conclude that “the toilet brush is an unusually pure example of aesthetic demands” (57), a disinterested liking in the classical Kantian sense.

For another example, Postrel urges us to consider the case of Starbucks. “Every Starbucks looks like Starbucks, yet every Starbucks is unique, combining in a singular way elements of the company’s language of colors, finishes, materials, lighting, and music.” By developing mix-and-match elements, Starbucks maintains its aesthetic personality while still suiting different tastes” (104f). And so, Postrel concludes, “if you don’t like the green-dominated Starbucks, you can go to the blue-dominated Starbucks two blocks away” (147). There’s a Starbucks for every color, every taste, and every identity. Such is the glory of consumer freedom of choice; such is the power of branding, combined with niche marketing. Multicultural diversity is no impediment to profit. We can all identify happily with the Starbucks brand, while maintaining all our individual differences.

In her enthusiasm, Postrel seems to be uncritically embracing what Wolfgang Fritz Haug (1986) calls aesthetic innovation, a process that “detaches both sensuality and meaning from the object acting as a carrier of exchange-value, and makes the two separately available… The beautifully designed surface of the commodity becomes its package: not the simple wrapping for protection during transportation, but its real countenance” (50). Haug sees aesthetic innovation as a cynical effort to stimulate wasteful or superfluous consumer demand: “in order to shorten [the product’s] useful life in the sphere of consumption and generate further demand prematurely, this technique starts with the aesthetics of the commodity. By periodically redesigning a commodity’s appearance, it reduces the use-lifetime of the specific commodity, whose models are already functioning in the sphere of consumption” (40f). But he also suggests that such innovation “continually changes humankind as a species in their sensual organization, in their real orientation and material lifestyle, as much as in the perception, satisfaction, and structure of their needs” (44). For commodities “breed modes of behavior, structure perception, sensations, and power of judgment, shaping our language, clothing, and understanding of ourselves, our attitudes, and above all our relationship to our bodies” (96). This sinister physical metamorphosis is the underside of the “free choice” celebrated by Postrel; we don’t so much express ourselves through commodity aesthetics, as we become what we behold.

It’s easy enough to ridicule Postrel’s enthusiasm for consumer choice, to ironize over her toilet brushes and differently-colored Starbucks. But as Slavoj Zizek frequently reminds us, our ironic detachment is the very thing that allows us to continue doing the things that we are being ironic about. No one literally believes that their selfhood is defined through brand identification. But my self-conscious disavowal of such a possibility, my distancing of myself from any overzealous identification with Starbucks or Apple, is precisely what enables me to identify with these brands in practice. The aesthetic suspension of disbelief is not just something that happens when I go to the movies; it’s the way I make sense of my everyday life. Watching a zombie flick, I go on an emotional roller-coaster ride, jolts of fear coursing through my nervous system like caffeine. I allow myself to let go, secure in my background awareness that, after all, it is only a movie. In the same way, my underlying assurance that Apple and Starbucks are only brands, and that I don’t really “believe” in them, is the alibi that permits me to purchase and consume their products as if I did. Irony doesn’t undermine belief; it is rather what allows belief to continue undisturbed, only transported out of my subjective consciousness, and projected into the material world. Postrel’s cheerleading only makes explicit what you and I are already doing, under a veneer of disavowal.

Shakar invents the term postirony for this conjunction of irony and effective belief. According to the trendspotters in The Savage Girl, “our persistent irony, which fills us with doubt about the validity of our relative truths” is “the last barrier” standing in the way of attaining the Light Age (24). In our hypermediated society, of course there can be no return to any supposed earlier time of sincerity and earnestness. But the consumerist utopia of product differentiation and infinite lifestyle choice gives rise to a new sort of “postironic” consciousness. Postirony emerges on the far side of the smarmy David Lettermanesque irony that has been so pervasive in the media for the last twenty years or so. “Our culture has become so saturated with ironic doubt that it is beginning to doubt its own mode of doubting.” And so we no longer need to apologize for our beliefs by disavowing them. Instead, “postironists create their own set of serviceable realities and live in them independently of any facets of the outside world that they choose to ignore… Practitioners of postironic consciousness blur the boundaries between irony and earnestness in ways we traditional ironists can scarcely understand, creating a state of consciousness wherein critical and uncritical responses are indistinguishable. Postirony seeks not to demystify, but to befuddle, not to synthesize opposites but to suspend them, keeping open all possibilities at once” (140).

Postirony sounds a lot like the official attitude of the George W. Bush White House. Bush and his “faith-based” followers, by their own proclamation, are not concerned with the “judicious study of discernible reality.” They claim, rather, that “when we act, we create our own reality.” They see themselves as “history’s actors,” freely choosing to ignore those aspects of the outside world that they are not interested in. And they have nothing but contempt for what they call the “reality-based community” of liberals who still put their trust in “enlightenment principles and empiricism” Suskind. But is anyone truly “reality-based” any longer? Shakar suggests that postirony is the universal attitude of the contemporary consumer. None of us can evade it. Postirony is our most basic form of belief, our American religion. As such it straddles both sides of the divide that defines American culture today. Regardless of whether we live in red states or blue, and whether we follow Jesus or Darwin, we all ground our belief — which is to say, our suspension of disbelief — in a religio-aesthetic, “mystical relationship with consumption” (140). Commodities “are magical things in our lives… Products are the fruit of the human imagination! The supersweet, magical fruit! And we need that magic” (78). It is only through the products we yearn after, and purchase, that we can maintain a relationship with the Infinite.

What is it about commodities that sustains our desire, and compels our belief? Shakar says that the commodity is defined, not by its utility (use value), nor by its monetary equivalence (exchange value), nor even by its symbolic prestige (Baudrillardian sign value), but by its paradessence: a “paradoxical essence”, a conjunction of contradictory qualities. “Every product has this paradoxical essence. Two opposing desires that it can promise to satisfy simultaneously.” The paradessence is the “schismatic core, [the] broken soul, at the center of every product.” Thus coffee promises both “stimulation and relaxation”; ice cream connotes both “eroticism and innocence,” or (in more psychoanalytic terms) both “semen and mother’s milk” (60f). The paradessence is not a dialectical contradiction; its opposing terms do not interact, conflict, or produce some higher synthesis. Rather, the paradessence is like the Freudian unconscious: it affirms everything indiscriminately, for it does not know negation. The paradessence is a matter of “having everything both ways and every way and getting everything [one] wants” (179). This is a promise that only the commodity can make; it’s a way of being that can only be sustained through the artificial paradise of consumerism. Paradessence is what makes consumption into an aesthetic experience, or even a religious one. Paradessence is quintessentially postironic; and “postirony, in its purest paradessence… is schizophrenia” (141).

But if the unconscious does not know contradiction, then neither does the free market. That is why “the market… is a theological notion and as such is a matter of faith,” as postmodern theologian Mark C. Taylor (2004) argues in his book Confidence Games (89). Taylor traces what he calls a “quasi-dialectical relation among religion, art, and economics” (29). This relation is a matter of both theory and practice. It encompasses Weber’s thesis on the origin of capitalism in the “Protestant Ethic,” as well as the fact that money is a social convention, which only works as a medium of exchange, and a universal equivalent, to the extent that we accept it and believe in it. “Gold and God are valuable only because of our ungrounded confidence in them” (124). Such faith is all the more necessary today, when money is increasingly virtualized, and dollars are no longer even notionally backed up by gold. Taylor argues that art is a crucial part of this picture as well. Adam Smith drew the idea of the “invisible hand” straight from Calvinism: “before it is a social scientific metaphor, the invisible hand is first a theological and then an aesthetic metaphor.” This means that Smith “recast[s] the theological doctrine of providence in terms of aesthetic sensibility”; his vision of capitalism as “a balanced and harmonious system” is informed, not just by Calvinism, but also by eighteenth-century Scottish moral philosophy, with “its consistent effort to interpret morality through aesthetics” (85-89).

In the terms I’ve been using, religious belief survives in an ostensibly secular climate, because it gets relayed and repeated by the aesthetic suspension of disbelief. Aesthetics preserves faith, by affirming it under cover of irony and disavowal. It has often been observed that, through the nineteenth century, art increasingly took the place of religion. Thus, for Nietzsche, “it is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified” (1967: 52). Such aestheticism continued to be our social faith at least through the period of high modernism. Taylor argues, however, that, just as art displaced religion, so — starting in the late twentieth century — economics has come to displace art (31ff). The self-consciously heroic Abstract Expressionists give way to Pop artists like Andy Warhol, who cheerfully designates what he is doing as business art: “Business art is the step that comes after Art. I started as a commercial artist, and I want to finish as a business artist… Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art” (Warhol 1975: 92). Today, Warhol’s playful suggestions have become axiomatic. When Jay-Z gives up rapping to become a corporate CEO, we accept this move as the logical culmination of his career in hiphop. “Postmodernism is the unexpected realization of the modern avant-garde’s dream of transforming the world into a work of art,” says Taylor; “far from resisting market forces, art becomes a commodity, and artists in turn become businessmen and entrepreneurs skilled in the art of finance” (329).

Now, in the twenty-first century, the circle is being closed, as economics leads us back to religion. For Taylor, it is no accident that “the spread of global capitalism has been accompanied by the rise of global fundamentalism” (306), since capital on the one hand, and church and mosque on the other, ground their authority upon “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Faith in God is no more difficult, or unlikely, than faith in the virtualized money flows of global finance — and the one may serve as a hedge against the terrors of the other. Of course, as Taylor notes, there’s a great difference between the different fundamentalisms: “outside the U. S., religious fundamentalism often provides a way to resist the expansion of global capitalism and American power, while within the United States, religious fundamentalism tends to legitimize market fundamentalism and sanctify American power” (306). But in both cases, the fundamentalist upsurge is a quintessentially postmodern phenomenon, a response to the ubiquity of the market and the displacement of all other sorts of values by economic ones. Osama bin Laden and his associates may see the workings of the devil where Bush and his evangelical allies see the “invisible hand” of God; but both sides are alike in seeing signs of the supernatural, or the sacred, in the “autotelic, autopoietic, or autoaffective” (89) workings of the market economy.

Is it possible for secularists to escape this “faith-based” logic? Of course, American evangelical Christianity has never given up on the Calvinist doctrine that material success is an infallible sign of divine favor. But on the other side of the American cultural divide, evolutionary theory is equally beholden to a “faith-based” economics. It’s simply a matter of replacing “divine favor” with “the survival of the fittest.” The neo-Darwinian synthesis of mainstream biology uncritically adopts the equilibrium models of neoclassical economics. But these idealized economic models have almost no relation to reality; they are only the result of a strange misunderstanding, an unwarranted extrapolation from nineteenth-century (pre-quantum) physics (Mirowski 1991; see also Stengers 1997). The evolutionists’ assumption of adaptive optimization, like the economists’ assumption of market efficiency from which it derives, is entirely a matter of faith, a theological proposition rather than an empirical one. We can all say, with Tertullian, credo quia absurdum (“I believe because it is absurd”). The market is the one thing that we all — Republicans and Democrats, Christians and Darwinians, alike — unequivocally believe in. And in a real sense, this faith is mandatory; thinking against it, or outside it, is not so much forbidden as inconceivable. Today, any alternative to the market is the unthinkable itself.

Science fiction plays along the edges of this unthinkability. A novel like The Savage Girl emphatically refuses to offer us any utopian vision, any alternative to the ubiquitous reign of the marketplace. This is because articulating such a vision would mean, precisely, commodifying it and marketing it, making it available for capital to appropriate. This is intimated at the very end of the novel, when the protagonists visit the Amazon rain forest — or what remains of it. There, they collect the DNA of insects that are about to go extinct, because their habitat is being relentlessly destroyed. Soon the last tree in the Amazon will have been cut down, but the DNA will be used for a theme-park re-creation of the rain forest somewhere else in the world: perhaps in “a climate-controlled North Pole” (268). Meanwhile, white people from North America and Europe have moved to the Amazon and taken up a simulacrum of the tribal life and religious rituals of the native Yanomama people, while the “real Yanomama” themselves are reduced to living in shantytowns, “the men and boys… hunting for free pornography on the village WebTV, while the women and girls hang out by the logging road all day, begging for money and prostituting themselves to the loggers” (270).

This scenario marks the dead end of the utopian imagination. Today, utopianism is a marketing scheme; utopia is the promise that every commodity holds out to us. In Shakar’s Lite Age, or Postrel’s Age of Aesthetics, we are lulled and enticed into a nearly infantile sense of “polymorphously perverse” self-indulgence. Consumerism becomes an experience of postironic paradessence, or of what Freud called the “omnipotence of thoughts.” Shakar’s trendspotters tell us that “people will be able to use consumerism to create their own ideal ‘realities’” (134). These realities are perfectly “flexible” (134), for commodities give us “total imaginative freedom… total fidelity of outer fashion to inner self” (78). Similarly, for Postrel, the new “aesthetic abundance” (171) empowers us to “alter our outer selves to match our inner selves” (187). We have long suffered, she says, from the fact that “our bodies impose definitions and limitations that falsify our identities and frustrate our purposes” (182). But now, I can fully subject my body to my will. I can force the outside to match up with the inside. There are no more limits to self-expression; whatever I can pay for, I can become. Plastic surgery is widely available today; in a few decades, “cosmetic gene surgery” will be similarly “affordable and effective” (187). In the long run, “rising incomes and falling prices mean we can buy more of everything, including aesthetics” (43).

In the Age of Aesthetics, Postrel says, the object’s form is liberated from its function, so that it may instead reflect the whims or preferences of its buyer: “no longer subject to the constraints of internal mechanisms, product surfaces have enormous freedom to follow their owners’ pleasures” (51). Postrel also dismisses the old modernist concerns about alienation and inauthenticity. She redefines “authenticity” to mean “what[ever] ‘seems right’” at the moment, cheerfully remarking that this makes it into “a decidedly subjective and changeable criterion” (116). In this postmodern world of surfaces, it’s always a matter of “decisions on the margin: what do we value next?” (168). As far as our money allows, we move on frenetically from one pleasure, one “preference,” to another. Surface now matches substance, outer appearance corresponds to inner essence, because — as Shakar puts it — “surfaces [are] all people [have]… Look around you. How many of these people do you think ever get to experience a great passion, a great love, a great cause? A product can stand in for those experiences. A surface can stand in for the depths most people will never know. That’s what it all comes down to: surfaces” (63).

Postrel presents her vision of aesthetic plenitude as being inherently democratic and egalitarian. But of course it isn’t, really. Some people have more money than others, which translates into more latitude to express their taste. Postrel concedes that “poverty still leaves its marks” on certain people; but she consoles us that “even those [marks] are often reparable” by plastic surgery (186). All you need is a sufficient infusion of cash to afford the procedure; but this, of course, begs the whole question of poverty. The distribution of income and wealth is something that free-market enthusiasts generally ignore, of course; it would violate Pareto optimality, after all, to take $100 from a billionaire, and use the money to save a starving child from otherwise certain death. Free-marketeers commonly display a deep contempt for democratic process; they enthusiastically advocate making “revealed preferences,” as expressed by purchasing and investment decisions “at the margin,” the sole mechanism of social decision. This amounts to replacing “one person, one vote” with “one dollar, one vote” — or, more precisely, “one more dollar, one more vote.” To the extent that we all today — like it or not — have faith in money and markets above all else, we are all complicit in such a judgment. Democracy and the “free market” are incompatible: we can’t have both. The choice between them, however, is one that we already seem to have made — because we have already accepted, a priori, the market as the locus, and the mechanism, of choice itself.

Choice, of course, implies dissent and dispute; and Postrel spends a whole chapter (122-163) discussing how aesthetics “inevitably becomes a source of conflict” (121). Some people prefer variety, for instance, while others prefer consistency (123). Because of those pesky market “externalities” that are the torment of every economist, “aesthetic choices create spillovers,” that “impose costs on people with different sensibilities” (140). Think of what happens when my neighbor builds an addition to his house that is appallingly ugly, and I have to look at it every day. The solution to aesthetic disputes, according to Postrel, is to realize that “the problem is one of trade-offs — costs and benefits, not good and evil” (141). Therefore, “if we consider all costs, all benefits, and all possible remedies, it turns out that the least costly way to deal with aesthetic conflicts” is simply “to look away from the stuff we don’t like” (143). You can go to the green Starbucks and have your caramel macchiato, while I stick with the blue Starbucks and a skinny latte. If you don’t like the homogeneity that’s imposed by the restrictive building codes and homeowners’ association bylaws of one gated community, you can always buy your home instead in that other gated community down the road, with different bylaws meant to appeal to a different sensibility.

All this comes down to saying that, in a world governed by the market, the only meaningful sense of choice — or of freedom — is an aesthetic one. It’s not that the realm of Freedom has replaced the realm of Necessity, so much as that the two have been definitively sundered, in space and in consciousness. Necessity is Out There, in the world of menial work and industrial production, and in Third World countries most Americans don’t want to know anything about. Freedom is In Here, in our gated communities, our entrepreneurial strivings, and our lives as consumers devoted to brand names and exquisite surfaces. Shakar suggests that the “relativistic array of lifestyle choices” we as consumers create for ourselves “will consist not of realities but of illusions, beneath which a far grimmer, absolute reality will remain” (134). Not that this really matters to any marketers, or to the consumers themselves. If anything, since “consumerism thrives on dissatisfaction” (139), and “nihilists make for fairly avid consumers” (63), the illusory, artificial, and compensatory nature of aesthetic-consumerist gratification is precisely its best selling point. We have art, as Nietzsche said, lest we perish of the truth. “As a citizen you are trapped in hell, among other citizens… The only escape from… a dystopian society is into the audience, the position of absolute exteriority. Only insofar as you choose to be purely a consumer, limiting your expressions of freedom to acts of consumption, do you remain free” (133).

Consumer culture, then, is the realm of utopian freedom, in contrast to the harsh necessity otherwise enforced by the “discipline of the marketplace.” This means that consumerism really isn’t about pleasure, or self-fulfillment, or satisfaction at all. It is about desire, which is a different matter altogether. Desire and satisfaction cannot be reconciled; they imply entirely different material and psychological economies. Satisfaction is the obverse of need: I feel satisfied when one of my needs is fulfilled. The model of need and satisfaction is basically homeostatic: a need is a kind of tension or stress, and satisfying the need returns me to a state of equilibrium. Needs in this sense are not limited to biological necessities. Abraham Maslow (1987) posits a whole “hierarchy of needs,” leading from the basic requirements of mere physical subsistence all the way up to the ultimate “growth needs” of Self-Actualization and Transcendence. In Maslow’s scheme, the satisfaction of any one level of needs makes it possible to advance to the next. But the hierarchy is flexible, not rigid. Postrel even suggests a marginalist modification of the theory, so that “the value of the next increment of what we consume changes depending on what we already have” (45). Of course this involves the additional assumption — made by Postrel but not by Maslow — that what makes us happy and fulfilled can be equated with “what we consume.” All in all, Maslow’s theory provides a comforting humanist narrative that is missing from cruder versions of utilitarianism. But it fits quite well with the basic assumption of neoclassical economics that each individual has a stable and well-ordered set of “preferences” that he or she brings to the marketplace. Indeed, it’s no surprise that today Maslow is taken more seriously in business schools than anywhere else.

But if neoclassical theory assumes an economy of calculable needs, actual marketing practice works in quite a different way. Advertisers and marketers know — even if free-market economists don’t — that capitalism is not really about the satisfaction of needs. Rather, perpetual dissatisfaction is the motor that keeps the market economy running. Even Postrel admits that “the identities we express with our aesthetic choices are not those we have but those we desire… Aesthetic aspirations inevitably fuel some sort of dissatisfaction, a longing for a different sort of life, perhaps even a different self” (117-119). But this is already an axiom of advertising theory. Shakar cites the 1950s marketing theorist Ernest Dichter, for whom “the purpose of American-style marketing” was precisely “to create discontent, to ensure that citizens were never happy with their lot, inciting them to crave more money, more property, newer cars, better clothing, better bodies, younger and more beautiful spouses” (136). Where traditional political propaganda (like that of the old Soviet Union) tries to convince people to be satisfied with the way things are, American advertising does the opposite. Shakar suggests that consumer discontent, incited by advertising in the later twentieth century, “ensured progress, technological innovation, and a fully stimulated economy” (137), and eventually “won the Cold War” (139).

In actual practice, capitalism is an economy of desire, rather than one of need. Needs are finite, immanent, and capable of being satisfied. But desire is insatiable; it is infinite and transcendent. It always implies something beyond itself. The economy of need and satisfaction is homeostatic; but the economy of desire is dynamic and unstable, continually exacerbating its own imbalances. The Lacanians understand these dynamics quite well. In desire, Alenka Zupancic (2003) writes, “the subject is separated from the object by an interval or a gap, which keeps moving with the subject, and makes it impossible for her ever to catch up with the object” (178). Indeed, this separation is what desire really “wants.” Desire posits its object as impossible, in order to sustain itself on this very impossibility: “the Real (Other) of desire remains unattainable,” and “must remain inaccessible” in order for the desire to survive (179). Were I ever actually to attain the object of my desire, the whole desiring-fantasy would short-circuit and collapse. Rather than extinguish my desire in fulfillment, then, I prefer to preserve it in its unattainable distance, like “a precious object that one puts into a jewel-box… From time to time, one opens the box and finds great pleasure in contemplating this jewel that glitters by virtue of the impossibility it embodies” (178).

The commodity is this jewel, this object of beauty. Its aesthetic value goes beyond any utility it might have, or any satisfaction it might afford me. I contemplate this jewel, and get pleasure from it, independently of any benefit I can extract from it. My liking for it is in this sense disinterested, as Kant (1987) says an aesthetic judgment must be (45-53). Such is the true meaning of “commodity fetishism.” The commodity is an object of desire; which is to say, it is a supplement, a substitute, a stand-in. It glitters with a promise that it cannot itself redeem; and this promise of something better is precisely its value. The commodity points me to something else, something beyond itself, something “new and improved”: another commodity, which is also only a stand-in, and with which the whole cycle begins again. That is how it embodies the impossible. Lacan (2002) says that “man’s desire is a metonymy,” the endless substitution of one signifier for another (166). And Levinas (1996) says that “the Desirable does not gratify my Desire but hollows it out, and somehow nourishes me with new hungers” (52). Aren’t these both really descriptions of shopping? Buying doesn’t satiate my longing, but sharpens it, inciting me to buy still more. Shopping is a process of perpetual substitution, the movement from one commodity/signifier to the next, the frantic, endless pursuit of a goal I can never reach. All this follows from the very nature of commodities, as objects produced in order to be exchanged, rather than immediately consumed. Immediate satisfaction would put an end, not just to my own desire, but to the very process of economic circulation, and hence to the capitalist mode of production itself.

The logic of desire is circular. We usually think of desire as being linear and teleological; that is to say, as having a goal. Desire is supposed to come to an end in satisfaction, if and when it reaches its goal. But of course this consummation never happens; the goal of desire is endlessly substitutable. Even when I do get what I want, I realize that I didn’t really want it, that it was only a stand-in for something else. And that “something else,” in turn, is just a stand-in for yet another thing, and so on, ad infinitum…” Desire restlessly moves on from one object, one commodity, to another, in a process of substitution — or circulation — that has no end (short of my death). This is Lacan’s logic of the signifying chain and the objet petit a: the inaccessible cause of my desire, defined by Zizek (2004) as “an excessive object, an object that lacks its place in the structure” (92). My desire circulates restlessly around this excessive, impossible object, without ever being able to attain it. And it is by sustaining such a desire that capitalism works its magic, which is to transform abundance into scarcity, and satiety into deprivation, so that “too much” is literally “never enough.”

We should not forget, however, that this logic of desire is also the logic of the capitalist mode of production, precisely as analyzed by Marx (1992). “The circulation of money is the constant and monotonous repetition of the same process” (210f); and this monotonous repetition is “the reproduction process of capital” itself (975). Commodities are exchanged, by means of money, for other commodities (C-M-C); and money is transformed, by means of commodities, into more money (M-C-M’). The source of profit, according to Marx, is the “surplus value” extracted in the process of production. But the realization of this surplus value can only take place in circulation. It requires the mediation of a magical middle term: the commodity as fetish. The commodity-fetish serves the reproduction of capital in the same way that insects serve the reproduction of flowers.

In The Savage Girl, the cause of desire, or the ideal commodity-fetish, takes the form of a product that promises everything, precisely because it is nothing. This product is called diet water (43) or Litewater (145). It’s “an artificial form of water… that passes through the body completely unabsorbed. It’s completely inert, completely harmless,” and has no effect on the body whatsoever. It doesn’t actually quench thirst; but as a result, it also doesn’t add to the drinker’s weight, and doesn’t make her feel bloated. If you still feel thirsty after a drink of Litewater — and you will — all you have to do is “buy more.” Consumers needn’t worry about the consequences of imbibing; they “can drink all they want, guilt-free” (44). Litewater is the ideal commodity, then, precisely because it “is, in its very essence, the opposite of consumption. Consuming [it] is like consuming nothing at all” (98). This means that it is a figure of pure desire, scrupulously detached from any use or need. All it does is make sure that circulation continues: the circulation of money through the economy, and of fluids in and out of the body. Litewater is the perfect product for a world beyond scarcity, beyond irony, and beyond guilt. No matter how abundant it becomes, the demand for it is never satiated.

We shouldn’t take the story of Litewater as merely a satire on capitalism’s incitement of “artifical desires.” For of course all desires are artificial, in the standard social-constructivist sense that they belong to culture rather than nature, that they aim for something more than mere subsistence, and that they are irreducible to “reproductive strategies” or other forms of biological need. Of course, this really means that we should say, together with Philip Pullman (1979), that “nothing is natural any more, and nothing is artificial. It’s a false dichotomy, and we should forget about it” (287). In fact, when people denounce capitalism for instilling artificial needs or desires, what they are really objecting to is not artifice, so much as wastefulness. This sort of criticism ought to give us pause, however. For the drive to reduce or eliminate waste is itself intrinsic to capitalism, and only to capitalism. Managers and neoclassical economists are the only people to be obsessed with “efficiency.” As Bataille (1985) pointed out long ago, part of what makes capitalism unique is that it is the only socio-economic system to regard waste as “shameful,” and the only one whose ruling class refuses the otherwise universal “obligation of functional expenditure” (124). Of course there is sumptuous waste in capitalism nonetheless: mostly in the form of what Veblen (with his own curious aversion to waste) called conspicuous consumption. But it seems misguided to reproach capitalism for wastefulness, as if the problem with it were the abundance that it provides, rather than the scarcity that it counter-produces in order to rein in this abundance.

The language of capitalism is the language of desire, and utopia, and salvation. And that is the secret of its success. The market always leaves us unsatisfied; but for that very reason it always gets us to come back for more. In the last analysis, there is no arguing against desire. You won’t get very far by urging people to live within their means, or telling them to settle for what they need instead of what they want. But also — and this is the most difficult part — you won’t get away from the logic of commodities and the market by appealing to utopian yearnings and hopes of redemption. For these longings are the very ones that motivate us to go shopping. They have been subsumed, all too successfully, within the circuits of commodity consumption. The only way out, I am tempted to say, is the way through. The only answer to capitalist desire’s constant cries of “more!” is to up the ante still further, as in Blake’s aphorism: “More! More! is the cry of a mistaken soul, less than All cannot satisfy Man.”

There’s a stubborn strain in 20th-century Marxist thought — especially in the writings of Walter Benjamin and Ernst Bloch — that finds kernels of hope in the strangest places: in historical experiences of catastrophic failure and defeat, in all those old practices that the relentless march of capitalism has rendered obsolete, and even in the most debased and “ideological” moments of life under capitalism itself. I’ve just said that utopianism culminates in the suburban shopping mall; but in Bloch’s terms, this means that we can in fact discover emancipatory elements in the mall, just as Bloch found them in the fashion and advertising of his own day. And science fiction points us in this direction too, when it prophesizes the present, and discovers the seeds of futurity already immanent within it. Alex Shakar concludes The Savage Girl with a wistful reflection on how “consumption is a kind of love… the only kind most of us happen to be any good at” (272). He wonders if, in spite of everything, “maybe consumerism also has something to teach us,” so that it might help nudge us towards “the day when humanity is filled with enough love and imagination and responsibility to become its own god and make a paradise of its world, a paradise of all the right choices” (274).

Dubious as I am about this vision of enlightenment — since I believe, for one thing, that, if it is not to destroy itself, humankind must come to better terms with Bataillean expenditure than either capitalism or the utopian tradition has done — I think that Shakar and Bloch are at least looking in the right places. It’s like Philip K. Dick (1991) decoding subliminal subversive messages in dog food commercials on late night television (226); or Tricia Sullivan, in her “science fiction novel of sex, shopping and terrorbugs” Maul (2003), finding emancipation in a story — actually a video game — of teenage girls with guns, rampaging through the Garden State Mall, trashing the cosmetics counter at Lord & Taylor, locking hostages into the oven at California Pizza Kitchen, and hiding weapons caches in the prom dress display at Laura Ashley.

I’d like to end by suggesting that we look for a way out from the market — and even (dare I say it?) for Bloch’s “good future” — in the most debased and ideologically loaded realm of all: that of aesthetics, and particularly that of the Beautiful. Free-marketeers like Virginia Postrel equate beauty with product design, cosmetics, and “look and feel”; while neoconservative critics like Hilton Kramer and Roger Kimball equate it with eternal values that transcend all social and political considerations. In such a climate, it seems entirely sensible for Fredric Jameson (1998) to say that “all beauty today is meretricious and the appeal to it by contemporary pseudo-aestheticism is an ideological manoeuvre and not a creative resource” (135). But it is precisely because, as Jameson argues, it cannot be disentangled from “the logic of commodity production,” that beauty deserves another look. In the “Analytic of the Beautiful” of the Third Critique, Kant steps back from the legitimizing, universalizing project of the first two Critiques, in order to problematize universalization and legitimation themselves. The question of the Third Critique is how to reconcile singularity with communicability: how to find a universal equivalent, as it were, for something that is entirely unique and inexpressible. The problem of beauty is thus formally identical with the problem of the commodity, which hinges on how the institution of money, as a universal equivalent, allows for the commensurability and exchange of qualitatively distinct objects, and allows also for the extraction of surplus value from what nonetheless formally remains an equal exchange. The point of singularity, introduced by Kant in his discussion of Beauty, is where the logic of the commodity, and of the market, meets its limit.


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