I am reading a little book entitled, The Anarchist Revelation. It has me thinking about a number of things concerning the kinds of selves we are shaped to be under capitalism. In one passage, the book’s author, Paul Cudenec, discusses television and the role of advertising (as forerunner and adjunct to our “screen culture” today). What he says is familiar; you have heard this critique before. But if we can stand to hear the tv ads repeatedly, surely we can stand to hear an alternative view more than once. It is the capitalist system that praises novelty above every other criterion, never once asking if new is always better.
Television, Advertising, Capitalism vs. Our True Identity
Elements of Cudenec’s critique include the following. When we are engaged, if that is the right word, with television, we are lost to ourselves. Citing Guillame Carnino, it is that “we become what we watch.” It is either an escape from ourselves or the active prevention of our becoming our true selves. The default position is immersion in a television (and now more broadly “screen”) culture, and opting out is no easy struggle.
In addition, television is 100% advertising, the shows being only a draw to the commercials, meant to make our minds receptive to the message. And what is that message? You need things. But capitalism works in a way opposite to the natural relation between needs and good. The system first produces the goods, and then it generates the needs. In fact, the system functions on the proviso that it can generate wants that it can turn into needs.
We thereby are molded into selves that are a function of external objects and stimulations – the objects and stimulations generated for us by the system. Cudenic complains that there is a lack of “real individuality.” What passes for individuality is just another persona produced by the marketplace. We are, as Cudenic puts it in the words of Joseph Campbell, “men who are fractions (who) imagine (our)selves to be complete.”
The market promises to satisfy all our wants, but in fact it operates on the principle of creating an infinite series of desires (masquerading as “needs,” of course) that cannot be satisfied. The satisfaction of desire would be the end of the capitalist system.Cudenic cites, as two examples of the absurdity of the generation of false needs, the fact that advertisers have convinced girls and young women to spend massive amounts of money for skin products meant to counteract the problems (if that’s what they are) of much older women, as well their having sold the notion that simply to take a walk one needs expensive gear in order to do it “properly.” All of this puts us on a never-ending treadmill of ultimately meaningless busyness and acquisition that prevents us from coming to be our real selves. Gustave Landauer (cited by Cudenic) put it this way:
Progress, what you call progress, this incessant hustle-bustle, this rapid tiring and neurasthenic, short-breathed chase after novelty, after anything new as long as it is new, this progress and the crazy ideas of the practitioners of development associated with it…this progress, this unsteady, restless haste; this inability to remain still and this perpetual desire to be on the move, this so-called progress is a symptom of our abnormal condition, our uncultured.”
There is an ever-expanding distance between ourselves and the reality of the world around us. Our meat simply “comes from the store” — we have no awareness of the process by which it arrives at our table. This disconnect doubles back on us, preventing us from having a true sense of our own identity.
There is much to be sympathetic with in this passionate critique — and I have only touched the surface, reflecting on just a few pages of this book. It is difficult to argue with this analysis, yet I wonder if there aren’t some subtleties that need to be brought to light. It is always tricky to try to sum up either human nature or the times in which one lives. Attempts often end up as caricatures, capturing some core truths but lacking a comprehensive balance. I found myself reflecting on a number of points:
What does it mean to say we have a “true” self that is being suppressed or blocked by the world system? What is that true self and how are we to discover it? If the capitalist system is truly totalitarian, as François Brune puts it, how is one ever even to recognize that one’s true self is in peril of being submerged? There must be some “space” for critical reflection, even in this all-pervasive capitalist system (or any other totalitarian regime). This also implies that we can at least catch a glimpse of or have an intuition about what one’s true self must be like, even under the conditions of the non-stop onslaught of advertising.But is it right to say that that self is an individual? There is a tendency for Cudenic (and maybe for most of us) to equate who we really are with a unique individual. But I wonder sometimes whether the idea of the “unique individual” is not, itself, a creation of the capitalist system. Does this idea not smack of that obsession with novelty that is elsewhere criticized in Cudenic’s account? If there turns out to be truth in that possibility, then we human beings are in a more complicated position than this account lets on. For what then is our true self? Is it really something unique? And, if not, how will we distinguished between a mass-marketed self foisted on us by the world system and a self-in-solidarity, a self-in-communion that inevitably draws its identity from others and which is, therefore, not unique? What if the anguish of the soul longing for uniqueness is not a revolt from consumer society, but just another manifestation of it, perfectly poised to be sold yet another solution-for-profit?I am simply raising the question. I am convinced that much of our identity is an off-the-rack model and that we are missing the chance to get at the marrow of life because of it. But I am concerned that we have uncritically adopted either a typically modern or post-modern view of the self. The former would see us first of all as isolated individuals. As such, the distinguish mark of each one of us is how we are different from each other, i.e., unique. If the latter, we see ourselves as an infinitely malleable “text” whose “true” nature is that it has no nature at all. Both views leave us well-open to the siren calls of the marketplace. There is nothing within either view that provides us with adequate resources to critique and resist. I could put it this way: this particular critique, which is by no means Cudenic’s alone, may, itself — despite its best intentions, have bought into the capitalist arch-criterion of novelty.
Part of this critique challenges the idea that our identities are best formed by the things that we have — more accurately, the things that we buy and consume. Aristotle already challenged this notion a couple of millennia ago, noting that happiness (which for him is not an emotion or a feeling but the fulfillment of what it means to be a human being) must be something other than the fleeting pleasures afforded by external goods. But Aristotle also noted that in order to be happy — even in his profound understanding of the term — one had to have a share of external goods.
Human beings are, among other things, creators. We make things. We use things to enhance our abilities to do more things. Thus it ever was. Cudenic criticizes, not without justification, the idea that we have to have superfluous things (preferably expensive things) in order to engage in the most simple, natural activities. Do I need expensive walking shoes, an expensive hat, an expensive walking stick simply to take a walk? Do I need them? No, of course not. People are walking all the time without them, and I can (and do), too. But is it not really more comfortable walking in a good pair of walking shoes? May I not walk much further in good shoes? Might that not keep me outdoors and away from the television? Wouldn’t a good hat protect me from sunburn, thus keeping me less likely to get skin cancer? Might a good walking stick take a little pressure off these aging knees? Is there not something in — dare I say it? — true human nature that seeks such improvements? Are we not naturally tinkerers and experimenters? I ask these questions because I wonder if the capitalist generation of infinite needs is as artificial, let’s call it, as the critique makes it out to be. Again, there is definitely something to the critique, to the insight that we are fooling ourselves if we think that accumulation of material things equals genuine happiness. We are wrong if we think we are solely what we own. We are not solely what we own, but we are in part what we possess.There is a sense of this critique which somehow sees us as disembodied. I am certain, of course, that neither Cudenic nor the cloud of other critics of capitalism would admit this. Still, I think it should be considered. There is an undercurrent in these critques that see us as somehow poluted, disfigured, and falsified by consumer goods. Consider this passage:
The possessions in which we invest so much value, from cars to washing machines, are, as scientist and writer Kit Pedler sees, ‘symbols of despair and failure: surrogates for achievement, which encourage us to live on the outside of our senses and actually diminish the quality of life.’ Carnino points out that ‘having, and no longer being, is the sole source of our desire,’ and there is a horrible sense of us having abandoned our own selves, our own destinies, under the hypnosis of mass exploitation.
Is my having a washing machine to clean my clothes a sign of my despair? Would I be more my true self if I took my pants down to the river, soaked them in the running (and no doubt at this stage polluted) waters, and beat them on a rock to clean them?I think we need to look at ourselves as materially extended beyond our own bodies. I am certain that there are risks involved in such a self-conception, but only because I am certain there are risks involved any time one tries to pin down what it means to be human.
None of these questions should be construed to constitute a gainsaying of Cudenic’s critique. I find him to be, in fact, a kindred spirit (at least so far in the book). And, on that note, I remind us that this is not actually a review of this book (maybe later…). I was simply provoked to thinking this morning by some of the insights of this particular chapter in The Anarchist Revelation. In any case, I still am struggling with what is really going on in the capitalist culture, the system in which I am thoroughly implicated and enmeshed.