work in progress in social theory and cultural sociology

Consumerism as End of Eternity (In Defence of the Unhappy Consumer’s Pursuit of Infinity)

06.17.2011 · Posted in Uncategorized

As this will sound like an all round defence of consumerism, I should start by saying that this is not my aim. So straightaway: consumer capitalism is a problem in terms of its ecological consequences and if those consequences can be mitigated by more social control over the production of consumer goods (aka socialism), I’m all for it. Also, consumer capitalism is linked to inacceptable levels of social inequality. These are very clear challenges which need to be tackled. What I will be arguing against is that consumerism as culture is a major problem, too. I think anti-consumerism as “resistance” against a “hegemonic culture” is misguided. Both inequality and environmental problems cannot be eliminated by an attack on consumerism – they are rooted in property relations and the distribution of political power. [end of disclaimer]

In a previous post I have expressed my doubts about the whole happiness craze (new science, new movement…). But if not happiness, then what? My answer puts me in between chairs. On the one side we have the anti-consumerist promoters of happiness, such as recently the Archbishop of Canterbury who sees consumer culture as a major threat to happiness and conducive to melancholia and worse:

When our culture is so full of the language of relative values and so obsessed with consumerist patterns of behaviour, where is it that people get the motivation to act for the sake of others or simply to value things that are not of immediate economic use? Until fairly recently, the inequalities of society were made less stark by the many networks of voluntary agency and charity that looked after those who were overlooked and damaged by wider social processes. But our age is one in which the spirit of volunteering is less in evidence. What is more, if society has no moral orientation by which to guide younger citizens, what will fill the gap? As stable patterns of family life are undermined by the same short-term consumerism that prevails in economics, as people become less and less willing or psychologically able to make the long-term and unconditional commitments of marriage and parenting, we cannot assume that children will grow up with clear moral priorities. And the effect, as recent studies in the UK have shown with alarming clarity, is not a generation of free spirits, but a generation of young people who are often bored and unhappy in a new and worrying way, vulnerable to mental illness as never before. (Christianity: Public Religion and the Common Good, Lecture at St Andrew’s Cathedral Singapore, 12th May 2007)

On the other side we have the a firm rejection of “happiness” and celebration of melancholia – spearheaded by Eric G. Wilson in his pamphlet Against Happiness, which given my gut reaction against the Action for Happiness, was pleasant reading. Why I’m between chairs then? Well, Wilson is as anti-consumerist as Williams.

‘What, then, is America becoming? It is turning into a nation of true consumers, people bent on taking in huge mouthfuls of Happy Meals, hoping too for the special prize, earned just for eating an imitation of a real hamburger.’ (Wilson 2008: 20)

So I think that the Archbishop of Canterbury is wrong on happiness – and the Professor of English is wrong on consumerism. Or to put it the other way round: I will argue that Wilson is right to argue against happiness, and Williams is right to argue that consumerism prevents happiness. I think that makes consumerism as a culture quite likeable (but remember the disclaimer above!).

So, if not outright misery, what is the alternative to happiness?

I would like to start by translating the issue of happiness from one of well-being and contentment – from the emotional aspect – into a temporal one. Fully aware that emotions are all the rage now, I take refuge to a category I find easier to handle because it strikes me that both sides in the argument around happiness employ metaphors around time and eternity (and of course because Asimov’s The End of Eternity was an inspiration for me here). On the happiness side, people tend to be fond of the concept of flow (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) which transforms temporal experience into eternity – the Sufi experience is a good illustration for what ultimate flow means – to reconnect the moment in human existence with the eternity of divine being – to defeat time. It is the Platonic longing to leave the imperfect world of Becoming and Time behind and access the perfect world of Being and Eternity.

What’s wrong, then, with connecting to eternity, finding inner peace in a completeness which is beyond time, in short: happiness? I will be frank: I find it boring. But that’s a typical consumer reaction. Our lot tend to object to the flatness, lack of excitement, lack of movement and action – all the things that, literally, keep us going. Because eternity/happiness is complete – it is also empty, closed. Wilson brings it to the point:

‘To be against happiness, to avert contentment, is to be close to joy, to embrace ecstasy. Incompleteness is the call to life. Fragmentation is freedom. The exhilaration of never knowing anything fully is that you can perpetually imagine sublimities beyond reason. On the margins of the known is the agile edge of existence. This is the elation of circumference. This is the rapture, burning slow, of finishing a book that can never be completed, a flawed and conflicted text, vexed as twilight.’ (Wilson 2008: 151)

What this boils down to is the difference between eternity and infinity. At the end of Asimov’s novel the protagonist finds himself at ‘the final end of Eternity. – And the beginning of Infinity.’ (Asimov 2000: 189), in a potentially better, less predictable world. True: in his novel “Eternity” did not refer to what Plato meant or what the Sufi stretches into. It is just a tube that allows time-travel from the point in time of its establishment a couple of millennia into the future. The “Eternals” use it to engineer Time so as to prevent major upheavals, prevent wars, unrest etc. by inserting small manipulations that would prevent major undesired events but also to make the century in question a generally happier one. So not really happiness, but (more realistically) a pursuit of relative happiness. But the principal problem is the same – eternalist pursuit of happiness aims for stasis, smoothness, roundness… And as mentioned in the earlier post on happiness: there seems to be a link between the degree of happiness and the avoidance of the unusual (a tendency to mono-culturalism, ethno-religious homogeneity). There is nothing unusual in eternity – it’s all there.

Against happiness/eternity, consumerism pits excitement/infinity. And, with Campbell, I would argue that this is a Romantic inheritance (although, unlike Campbell, I think that the fact that this heritage persists is to be explained, following Marx and Simmel, through the infinity of money rather than the continuation of a cultural tradition – see here). Romantic consumerism certainly is not about happiness/satisfaction as the romantic consumer goes for ‘the fact that the desiring mode constitutes a state of enjoyable discomfort, and that wanting rather than having is the main focus of pleasure-seeking.’ (Campbell, 1987: 86), i.e. they ‘do not so much seek satisfaction from products, as pleasure from the self-illusory experiences which they construct from their associated meanings.’ (1987: 89). In relation to health consumerism as pursuit of a version of a consumer-romantic salvation I have suggested that this is

‘salvation not in the traditional promise of serene beatitude in eternity, but in the romantic promise of exhilarating infinity, endless, restless excitement by the always new. With death and ageing bracketed out and afterlife no longer self-evident, such infinite excitement is no longer, as the Romantics believed, available in death (Ariès 1976: 57) but to be sought in this world already. [This explains the obsolescence of the original Romantic glorification of illness to death as analyzed by Sontag (1979)].’ (Varul 2011: 244)

Contrary to this, in his new book on Blake, includes a small chapter about the Blakean experience of eternity as an essentially Romantic pursuit:

‘To sacrifice life for art is to embody the “Eternal Great Humanity Divine.” This is Eden, where ceaseless mental battle produces aesthetic concords – “Wheel within Wheel [which] in freedom revolve in harmony and peace” – that run counter to the ugly machinery of insitutionalized ratio: “wheel without wheel, with cogs tyrannic moving by compulsion each other.” When you are fully engaged in this creative warfare, lost in robust activity, you forget all about your temporal limitations, your burdensome past and disquieting future. You get so involved in what you’re doing, that when you look up at the cock, hours have passed, though you feel that you’ve been at work only minutes. This is Eternity – not endless time or static timelessness but the “Period the Poet’s Work is Done,” the “Eternal Now,” the “pulsation” that “Satan cannot find.”’ (Wilson 2011: 70).

Although Wilson here speaks about the loss of a sense of time, fading of past and future in the act… “flow” in a way, I don’t think that this can be understood as Romantic commitment to Eternity as opposed to Infinity (“endless time”). I would say what he calls “eternity” here is a far cry from the Platonic Being or the Sufi unification with god – this eternity is about activity and excitement… Of course this is in time as there is change – only if you think that the only adequate experience of passing time is in boredom can you declare “forgetting time” in the sense of not knowing what the time is or how fast the minutes are passing “eternity” instead of “infinity”. Activity only happens in time – if you want to remove yourself from time: meditate.

But then, Wilson’s Blake does seem prone to Infinity anyway:

‘“If a thing loves, it is infinite.” All of Blake is here. To love anything, from a daughter to a speckled wren to a sonnet, is to respond enthusiastically to its unprecedented particularity, irreducible to any one representation, boundless in its relations to itself and to others, in the ways it metamorphoses and unendingly divides. Exposing ourselves to a creature’s abundant possibilities, we in loving realize our own infinite potentials for connection, for change, for involvement.’ (Wilson 2011: 83)

This very much chimes in with Doug Brown (1999) sees as the contemporary version of conspicuous consumption: a display not of financial wealth, power – but authentic potential and self-realisation: to be all you can be… and of course were it not for mortality, the possibilities would be endless.

It is a curious development that Infinity came to push Eternity from the throne of desirable states of things – and I leave it to the literary critics to find out what was behind this shift from eternity to infinity in poetry, but the Romantic predilection for infinity over eternity is well documented. According to Abrams (1971: 216) it

‘became a prominent Romantic norm: the elevation of the boundless over the bounded, the setting of man’s proper aim as a Streben nach dem Unendlichen, and the measure of man’s dignity and greatness by the very discrepancy between his infinite reach and his finite grasp.’

Barzun sees the attempt to realise the infinite in through finite action as the common denominator of the Romantic movement:

‘What matters here is the interconnection of all these faiths through their roots in the double problem of making a new world and making it in the knowledge that man is both creative and limited, a doer and a sufferer, infinite in spirit and finite in action.’ (Barzun, 1975: 17)

As I have argued earlier, Kierkegaard gives adequate philosophical expression to this double problem – and it is that the fact of the money economy impresses on the affluent consumer.

Even if Wilson is right and consumers are confronted with recurring promises of happiness – these are the false promises of individual marketeers which are belied by the denial of happiness that is inherent in consumerism as a culture that is inexorably enmeshed with the money economy. It is not because of the surviving Romantic spirit that all our pursuits of happiness are frustrated and we fall back on longing as the experience that we are really after – it is because all pursuit of completeness (which is the minimal condition for eternity/happiness) are so obviously futile while our central medium of exchange so strongly suggests the infinity of possibility. Any happy serenity and tranquility can only be bought by closing off that limitless horizon. But the romantic pull of consumerism is towards occasionalism – and as, in the anticonsumerist footsteps of Carl Schmitt, Rowan Williams observes and deplores, any notion of commitment and specific reality is denied: ‘the rhetoric of consumerism (the arts of advertising) necessarily softens the elements of commitment and risk’ (Williams 2000: 23). This is of course a bad thing inasmuch it affects the ability to make economically sound decisions… and also if one is committed to heroic action (i.e. the sort of action that commits one to one path to be followed through to the bitter end). In terms of intellectual stimulus and wealth of experience the consumer-romantic pursuit, however, seems superior. One thing, at least, it is not: spiritually impoverishing.

Abrams, M. H. (1971): Natural Supernaturalism. Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature, London: Oxford University Press.

Barzun, J. (1975) Classic, Romantic and Modern, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Asimov, Isaac (2000) [1955]: The End of Eternity, London: Harper Collins

Brown, Doug (1999): ‘Be All You Can Be: Invidious Self-Development and its Social Imperative’ in: Doug Brown (ed.) Thorstein Veblen in the Twenty-First Century. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, pp.49-69.

Campbell, Colin (1987): The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism, Oxford: Blackwell.

Varul, Matthias Zick (2011): ‘The Healthy Body as Religious Territory: Health Consumerism as New Religious Practice?’, in: Catherine Brace et al. (eds): Emerging Geographies of Belief, Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, pp.239-54.

Williams, Rowan (2000): Lost Icons. Reflections on Cultural Bereavement, Harrisburg/London/New York: Morehouse Publishing

Wilson, Eric G. (2011): My Business Is to Create: Blake’s Infinite Writing, Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

Wilson, Eric G. (2008): Against Happiness. In Praise of Melancholy, New York: Sarah Crichton Books.

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