Conspicuous Consumption & the Falling Rate of Enjoyment
January-February 1990By Patrick Murray and Jeanne A. Schuler
Patrick Murray and Jeanne A. Schuler both teach in the Philosophy Department at Creighton University in Omaha. Murray is author of Marxs Theory of Scientific Knowledge.
Family life was once characterized by labor; the products consumed were also crafted and maintained in the household. Even with the decline of the household as a production site, it was still common for a variety of activities to occur at home: baking bread, mending clothes, polishing shoes, upholstering furniture, washing windows. But the shift in the larger economy from manufacturing to services has carried over into the domestic economy.
Increasingly, home is a food and entertainment center where services are consumed, rather than skills taught or activities performed. The scarcity of time and the relative cheapness of commodities and services make our labors in the home seem either pointless or luxurious. Housework becomes management rather than production: we make appointments, schedule events (including conversations), contact repair people, collect estimates, keep records and warranties, pay bills, and choose the colors for walls that are painted by others. At an extreme, someone is hired to mow the lawn, clean the house, wash windows, fill out tax forms, watch the children, walk the dogs, send thank-you notes, and plan birthday parties. Decisions, even regarding children, are regularly calculated in terms of costs and benefits. (The harried quality of domestic life is accentuated when both parents work outside the home.) This conversion from production to service and management in the domestic economy has been engendered by an expanding consumer system that touches us all.
While the management mode prevails in the home, many activities are transferred outside. Work, entertainment, culture, exercise, spirituality, shopping, education, and eating occupy different zones between which we commute constantly. Our neighborhoods are rarely home to good friends and family. The zoning principle for every activity a separate time and space gives an apparent rationality to this scheme. (The burdensome task of nurturing a sense of wholeness may seem possible only when certain divisions merge e.g., when childcare occurs in the workplace or shopping doubles as exercise.) A fictional quality adheres to these zone transitions, as if persons were capable of instant reorientations when repeatedly crossing borders. The vitally important need to reflect upon experiences must often be suppressed due to the crush of a commuting schedule, leaving experiences neglected. Events may be checked off a list, but experiences demand a different attitude.
The crisis in personal life begins here with the tendency of abundance to choke off rather than open up the field of meaningful experience. Households may be emptied of sustaining activities, but our needs for deep sustenance remain. A decisive feature of a consumer society is the funneling of all life through the marketplace where, as the clerk tells us, Youll find what you want on the shelf. Images that sell products, media that color the hours, and malls that mimic neighborhoods engage and distract us. Given an absence of time for imagining alternatives, our humanity is increasingly defined in terms of consumption. Scarcely any ritual or activity from birth to death is untouched by the status values associated with products. Indeed, hardly any activity is so lowly or routine that it hasnt been targeted for a sales promotion. A card for every occasion reflects this saturation, indicating the uncanny resourcefulness of an economic system that continuously grafts new needs onto old ones.
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