Volume > Issue > Conspicuous Consumption & the Falling Rate of Enjoyment

Conspicuous Consumption & the Falling Rate of Enjoyment


By Patrick Murray and Jeanne A. Schuler | January-February 1990
Patrick Murray and Jeanne A. Schuler both teach in the Philosophy Department at Creighton University in Omaha. Murray is author of Marx's 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, “You’ll 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 hasn’t 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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