Sunday, November 20, 2005

Americans try to shop their way to fulfillment

Americans try to shop their way to fulfillment
{zen and the art of culture}
By Zen Naylor
November 15, 2005

In this capitalist society, our function is consumption. Everyday, thousands of advertisements bombard our senses, validating our lives with a higher purpose. Whether it is an event or a product, these ads strive to convince us that our lives are incomplete without their product.

Ironically, some of these products are pharmaceuticals aimed at remedying a neurosis immaculately conceived by our commercialized culture. Maybe it would be more appropriate for cheerleaders to strut around with Zoloft written on their behinds instead of Abercrombie.

Ultimately, we are all walking advertisements. We don’t have to sport name brands in order to tell the world who or what we are endorsing. Even our words and actions have become commodities.

In our commercial culture, each of us lives our own “Truman Show.” Our religions and belief systems are commodities endorsed by our culturally choreographed behavior. Consumerism becomes an important social mechanism connecting us to one another and, paradoxically, disconnecting us from one another.

With more than 1 million Americans filing bankruptcy in 2004, our political leaders keep urging us to spend money when our country is faced with social crises. Suggesting we are indeed the magnified reflection of our socio-political circumstances, Americans’ $9 trillion personal debts exceed the U.S. $7 trillion national debt.

Credit is a wonderful thing. In the past, it was nearly impossible for individuals to create the appearance that they were a part of an elite social class. But now all we need to do is acquire a debt payable in two lifetimes, and voila, we can look and live like celebrities.

Consumption itself has become America’s primary cultural commodity. Many of us actually buy that buying is therapeutic and an essential part of this human existence. Mottos such as ‘the one who dies with the most toys wins’ and ‘shop till you drop’ epitomize our materialist paradigm.

Shortly after Hurricane Katrina ravished New Orleans, the world watched as impoverished looters ran around carrying valueless physical commodities, such as shoes and stereos, in a literally flooded market. In these instances, the images and news articles displayed in the mass media became a form of ‘Adbusters’ exposing our consumerism that continues to sell even when our own lives are threatened.

For those who don’t know ‘Adbusters,’ it’s a magazine exhibiting articles and imagery that depict the global impact of a consumer culture. Images of the appalling living conditions provided for foreign laborers who work sometimes 16 hours a day just to make enough money to survive are shown aside the name brands propagating these atrocious circumstances.

What we as Americans fail to realize is that our forefathers once endured these same conditions. This is what inspired the establishment of labor unions and eventually reshaped the laws that protected previously exploited workers.

Just as we seem to think we’re doing Iraqis a favor by securing their freedom, why can’t we become conscious consumers and influence the creation of labor protection regulations for foreign workers?

The answer is that our own cultural images of celebrities, smiling and holding marketable commodities, make more of an impression than the images of social oppression overseas. Advertising has taught us to detach from reality and embrace a pseudo-reality. Inevitably, we spend money on superfluous products to enhance our pseudo-reality rather than to face the true reality.

Ultimately, consumerism becomes a form of escapism, somewhat like a drug. Popular slogans such as “just say no to drugs” or “drug-free” are ubiquitous, but a “just say no to consuming” or “consumer-free” campaign just wouldn’t work in our society.

Consumerism does create jobs, locally and globally. In fact, our “more for less” motto is playing an important part in building the next economic empire, China. Ironically, most American flags are made in China, a metaphor for our unconscious consumption.

Ultimately, our consumerist habits can’t be abandoned; they are an elemental part of our culture. However, in order for our society to progress economically and socially, we will inevitably have to legitimize conscious consumption. It’s interesting how we see Mexico, India and China as developing countries when they are all an essential part of our own development.

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