The West Texan philosopher Rick Roderick once remarked that “mass culture is enlightenment in reverse.” The more TV shows you watch, the more advertisements you take in, the more products which you let stand in for personality traits, the less you you become. But what does it mean, in 2020, to be anyone? Does the self exist? Erving Goffman would’ve said no, that the self exists much in the way an onion has no core. And yet, we tend to think of ourselves more as apples — that beneath a shiny gloss and some meat lies a store of seeds, which no one sees, but which we know, nonetheless, is there: the real me. If you’ve ever peeled an onion, you might understand what Goffman was trying to say. As each layer is pawed off and cast aside, it starts to become increasingly clear that this bright bulb of heft and life is little more than its composite layers. There is no core; just that last fleshy ring. Think of each layer as each relationship you have or have had that has made you who you are today. Apart from those relationships, you’d be nothing, no less any part of an onion.
I do not think it is a stretch to say that today’s human being has been almost totally hollowed out, made into a safe and reliable vehicle for capital. When not working, we consume. When not consuming, we work. There is no activity, in either of these modes, not tethered to the commodity. You can no longer take a walk into the country without photographing it, uploading it to Instagram. Even if you leave your phone at home, no leisure activity would be complete without stopping for an ice cream, seeing an advertisement on a billboard, having a drink at a bar. As such, our selves grow twofold: we are our jobs, and we are what we do outside of our jobs. I am a person who works at this type of place, who drinks this kind of wine, who watches these TV shows. In a highly advanced capitalist economy, what you do outside of your job should help to make a profit for someone else; if not, you are simply, in the eyes of big data, waste. As the next paragraph will illustrate, even the realm of the political comes down to where you choose to shop (“support small business”; “support black-owned businesses”) or where you choose not to shop (“Amazon exploits its workers”; “Whole Foods uses prison labor”). There is neither injunction nor time to become who you really are independent of your relationship to the commodity.
Even the seemingly political comes down to consumer choice. A common characteristic of the American liberal is their affinity for voting (and their smug dismissal of all who do not vote). Get out and vote; Don’t boo, vote; Pokemon Go to the polls! The vote is the fully realized activation of the consumer-political identity: Today I will go to the voting store and pick this candidate. Nevermind that this candidate is a pleasant version of the candidate they oppose. Nevermind that “if voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.” Today, the only way to enact change (whatever this means) is to alter one’s consumption habits. I am a liberal; I wear Patagonia, I shop small and local, I drink craft beer. Or I am a conservative. I drive my American car, I watch football and drink domestic beer. Because it is vulgar to tell people whom you voted for (nevermind convincing others of voting for a candidate, which presupposes political consciousness), we have to signal our political identities through purchasing even more products — and avoiding certain others. The interrelation between the commodity and political identity can be seen in the recent Goya scandal, which was not dissimilar to the Equinox thing a year or so ago, both of which centered around public outrage at finding out that a corporation or CEO donated money to the Trump campaign, as if every American corporation was not secretly or openly happy about tax cuts, weakened unions, the gig economy. These brands, operating in a capitalist economy, are not significantly more or less virtuous than any other brand — they just didn’t consider the consumer blowback from doing partisan PR.
Jean Baudrillard, in his 1968 book The System of Objects, seems to have predicted the subjugation of the human to the object, which has now taken on mythical dimensions, as well as the supremacy of the sign, its standing in, now, for almost nothing at all:
Indeed a genuine revolution has taken place on the everyday plane: objects have now become more complex than human behavior relative to them. Objects are more and more highly differentiated — our gestures less and less so…objects are no longer surrounded by the theatre of gesture in which they used to be simply the various roles; instead their emphatic goal-directedness has very nearly turned them into the actors in a global process in which man is merely the role, or the spectator (59).
To paraphrase another Baudrillard quote, in the way that a human raised by wolves becomes more like a wolf, a human raised by objects becomes more like an object. In a world where our identities no longer relate to the commodity, but stem from the commodity, there is no place for differentiation, as differentiation might make a person incompatible with their role as a global consumer; their job, of course, being to consume as much as possible. Why should I buy this expensive wine? Why am I having all these packages delivered to my house? If one could ask these questions, one might ponder their lack of usefulness vis-à-vis a society where the citizen exists solely as a consumer. Much in the way the nonvoter is shunned by the liberal, the nonconsumer is shunned by all, for not participating is a marr on the individual, who now takes on the label of pessimist, conspiracy theorist, skeptic, or heretic. The global marketplace, as we know, has no room for negativity. Like the proliferation of fast food, ours is a world overrun by positivity, leaving no room for the individual to have thoughts or ideas which might impede his quest for maximum consumption.
The implications of the depoliticized citizen-turned-consumer have an impact on both the intra- and the interpersonal. @Jesuselpacifo, in a post on Twitter, makes mention of this, invoking our reliance on dating apps as a lackluster replacement for a formerly social experience:
Everyone [in their profiles] puts some bullshit joke about how, “if you think pineapple belongs on pizza, then swipe left.” Or, if it’s not that specific phrase, it’s some variation of it. The joke pokes fun at the idea of finding something so tiny and innocuous offputing…But the thing is, it isn’t a joke. It’s real…online dating reduces people down to bullshit like that…those things actually are deal-breakers now…
This tweet could not be closer to the truth. Because there is no encouragement, no market demand for individuals whose lives do not fully revolve around bare life, where the preoccupation of living supersedes living well, the sating of corporeal needs and wants takes precedence over the desire for spiritual fulfillment, belonging, actualization. Ultimately, all subjectivity is drained from us; we have become pod people, empty vessels for the slick flow of capital. There was a time (not sure when) when the individual could enjoy a complex range of emotions, strong political opinions and social bonds, and all the attendant pizza preferences. Now, only pizza preferences have survived, for consumer opinions are the only safe opinions left. (One need only consider what it means to be “employable” to figure out which ideas are safe to share.) Of course, it is easy to love an object, for an object always smiles back, reflecting the predilections and good taste of the consumer. Don’t like pineapple on your pizza? Neither do I. We’ll make a good team.
At the end of a different Rick Roderick lecture, this one on Nietzsche, the philosopher evokes the final scene in Blade Runner, where Roy Batty, one of the replicants, smashes his palm on a nail, jamming it through his hand. He recoils in pain but also revels in it. Roderick tells us that this is a reference to Sartre’s Roads to Freedom, that one of that book’s characters “slams his hand onto a nail to prove that he is free:”
…because he chose to do it! It hurt like hell, but he chose it. I put my hand on that nail, and that shows I am free, because just as a calculus of deterministic pleasure I would never have done it. It’s a philosophical demonstration…by the time we get to Blade Runner, the replicant slams his hand onto a nail just to feel anything. Just to feel anything.
Why do we — those of us who choose to have negative thoughts — desire to feel a similar type of pain? Is it that pain, unhappiness, and negativity are so enjoyable? Or do they constitute a range of emotions not available for purchase, not in the lexicon of advertising. Seamless delivers food; it doesn’t deliver frowns. Amazon can sell you whatever you want, but you can’t buy a critical thought. Roderick boils Roy Batty’s act down to the desire to feel something, anything, which is how he ends the lecture, and which I often think about, implore my friends, family, and students to consider. Neoliberal capitalism feels impenetrable. It is everywhere. And while we have to live in it, as a fish swims through water, we don’t have to let it be the totalizing encumbrance that it seemingly is. Man is distinguishable as an animal in that he can apply past and present to the shaping of his environment; he is a subject who can act on the world. I don’t know for how much longer this will be the case, but I’d like to think that the rebirth of a collective critical consciousness is coming. I have to think this, otherwise nothing else in the world will be possible.