Tag Archives: Consumerism

Black Mirror and the Culture Industry

I’ve just got around to watching the Charlie Brooker scripted Black Mirror on Channel 4 and I have to say it’s just brilliant.  Dark, warped, frequently nightmarish tales befitting an age of hyperconsumption and the collapse of meaningful social and cultural exchange.

I won’t take either programme to pieces here, don’t worry.  I was compelled to jot a couple of notes down regarding the inspired climax of the second piece Fifteen Million Merits, where Bingham, played wonderfully by  Daniel Kaluuya (recently seen in BBC’s The Fades) tricks his way onto an X Factor-style talent show in a dystopian (not so distant) future where the whole population appears to inhabit digital media cells and must cycle on exercise bikes every day whilst watching the crass, empty, pornographic output provided by said talent show.

Holding a piece of broken glass to his throat to prevent his interruption and ensure attention, Bingham launches an extended, “Networkesque” rant against the nightmare world he finds himself trapped in.  The “judges”, far from dismissing his speech, declare themselves impressed Not, of course, with the content or meaning of Bingham’s diatribe, but rather its “heartfelt” and “true” nature.  The lead judge then offers Bingham a show doing exactly what he’s just done, twice a week, for half an hour.

Isn’t this exactly the essence of the culture industry in late capitalism, as expressed so devastatingly by Adorno & Horkheimer?  A mass culture so truly omnipotent that any capacity for resistance to it becomes impossible by dint of its capacity to absorb, sterilise and commodify anything which might approach such a thing, even the anguished, fractured scream of an individual driven to the brink of sanity by the mere awareness of this vacuous culture.  “Something is provided for everyone,” they wrote in 1947 “so that none may escape”.

Adorno and Horkheimer did not live to see the birth of reality television, youtube or facebook, but their writings cast a long (fore)shadow across the 20th Century, persistently relevant to the degeneration of culture in mass society.  That you, the individual, may despise the culture industry is no reason for you to leave,

You can’t anyway,

Come back, we could use someone like you,

Or research has shown that a lot of people feel empty and unsatisfied to the point of suicide by what we produce.

I think you could do great things in that market…

“What is decisive today is the necessity inherent in the system not to leave the customer alone, not for a moment to allow him any suspicion that resistance is possible.  The principle dictates that he should be shown all his needs as capable of fulfilment , but that those needs should be so pre-determined that he feels himself to be the eternal consumer, the object of the culture industry”

(Adorno & Horkheimer, The Dialectic of Enlightenment)

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Coltan, Consumerism and Irony in Sub-Saharan Africa

A huge slap of irony hit me square in the face just now and I had to share it.  It may well have been pointed out elsewhere but if so, I genuinely haven’t seen it.

The world’s seemingly unquenchable thirst for consumer electronics such as laptops, iphones etc… has led to coltan and other rare earth metals achieving a status rivaled only by diamonds as the world’s most lucrative minerals.  Large artisanal and conflict mining operations for coltan are based in the Democratic Republic of Congo, contributing to the immiseration of the local populous and the hampering of development, environmental degradation and calcification of war-economies.  This is all well reported and, it must be said, certain efforts are being made to regulate against the unscrupulous sourcing of coltan and other rare earth elements in a similar manner to the halfhearted attempts to regulate the murky networks of conflict diamonds during the cataclysmic (and ongoing) African World War of the mid 1990’s which has killed, by some estimates, up to 5 million people.

At the other end of the chain, once Western (and now emerging market) consumers have drained, broken or upgraded their devices (often as a result of consumer capitalism’s masterstroke of planned obsolescence) they abandon them to the vast circulatory system of over 50 million tons of Electronic waste produced every year.   Vast quantities of this waste, much of which can be highly toxic, is then transported back to…..(you guessed it)  Sub-Saharan Africa to be broken down and scavenged for valuable parts (including, one presumes, rare earth minerals) .  The reality being that much of it is burned, causing (once again) environmental degradation and significant harm to the local population (photojournalist Pieter Hugo has exhaustively documented these toxic e-waste dumps and selections can be viewed in the Permanent Error section of his site here)

Neo-Colonialism has always been possessed of many faces.  It seems hard though, to imagine an example as cruel, cynical and vicious as this.

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Rioting and social meaning.

Without wanting to add to the enjambment of talking heads filling the airwaves, proffering immediate reactive grist to the 24hr news mill, I would say a couple of things.

That roaming, swarms of teenagers and young people, male and female, and, crucially black and white (despite the shameful, racist attempts by the right wing press and commentators to paint this as exclusively “black” behavior) should rampage through large swathes of London engaging, primarily, in the looting of shops for private gain, is instructive of the nature of the events themselves.

This is to say that these riots differ fundamentally from the riots in Brixton, Toxteth and Broadwater Farm in the 1980’s which were clearly identifiable as caused by an antagonistic and racially toxic relationship between the police and impoverished urban communities.  Where those riots involved the communities at large and of all ages, whereas these seem to involve, almost exclusively, the young.

The economic dimension of the trouble cannot be overlooked, although the simplistic “liberal/underlying social causes/deprivation” vs “reactionary/lazy shiftless criminality” binary does little to illuminate and everything to obscure.  The overriding visual trope of the events has been of young people looting goods/money etc… that would be inaccessible to them normally.

To escape this kind of binary, addressing the riots on a systemic level may be more fruitful.  This is to say, that the economic paradigm which Britain has wedded itself to since the dissolving of the post-war settlement in the early 1980’s, promotes and enforces one single frame of identity, behavior and measurement above all others:  Consumption.

This is to say that one’s primary identity is that of consumer, the country’s economic success (and that of it’s politicians) stands and falls on levels of  consumption and consumer confidence.  When consumption falls, we are, de facto in a state of crisis.

The individuals engaging in the mass looting of electrical outlets, sports shops and jewelers are engaging in behavior which is reinforced by the culture in which they have been surrounded throughout their lives.  This is not as those on the right fantasise, the “black gangster” culture, rather the culture of capitalism itself.

This outbreak of violent, acquisitive psychosis is not an aberration, rather an entirely foreseeable consequence of a society and economic system which teaches, above all, that one’s entire social role, achievement, life as such is defined by one’s role as consumer;  by what, how and the extent to which one can consume.  When the means (capital) to achieve, what Veblen termed Conspicuous Consumption is placed out of reach either by lack of educational or employment opportunities, economic depression etc.. and yet the cultural drive to consumption, perpetuated by the advertising, marketing and media industries persists, the inevitable  dissonance which follows always has the potential to turn violent.

Unfortunately, all that this seems to have achieved is to provide the reactionary Right with precisely the excuse they need to further step up surveillance, militarization of urban space and retrenchment of civil liberties.  The worrying trending of #sendinthearmy over the last couple of days is, likewise indicative of this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Complex answers to multifaceted problems. In microseconds.

Coming home from work this evening, I stopped at my local store-lets call it The Co-Operation store-to do a spot of food shopping. The store had been recently (in like the last 4 months or so) renovated, brighter with more stock and space. I’d noticed this cosmetic change in the same way you might notice a co-worker’s change of hairstyle: a brief interest, possibly feigned, whilst you accommodate this alteration into the relevant cognitive schema before moving on and forgetting all about it.

One thing about the change in the store however, had stuck with me, albeit in a minor way, only compelling me to notice it properly today, when its total incongruity was shoved, right in my face.

I should explain. Like in most stores, but usually every grocery store, you can pay by putting your debit or credit card into the chip machine at the register, which instructs you to “insert card”, “enter pin” etc… The machines at the Co-operation store, since its makeover, taken to soliciting information from customers, by way of having pre-set questions pop up on the display, before you can begin any transaction. Responses to the question can be made by pressing a keypad button indicated “Yes” or “No”.

The questions are, and have been, for the most part, almost entirely innocuous ranging from basic, staff training type fluff: “Was our store clean and tidy?”; “Were our staff well presented?” to market research oriented “Did you know you can bank your money with us now?”. I mentioned earlier that I had noticed these captive audience questionnaires during previous visits, and I had, but they had never seemed worthy of afterthought, a simple harnessing of new technologies to target consumers.

Today however, as a glanced down to the screen prior to paying for goods supplied, the question staring back up at me took me aback so much that for a second, I just stopped and stared back at it. It read:

“Do Co-Operatives help to narrow the gap between rich and poor?”

YES<                                                                                                                  <NO

Market Research and Consumer Studies are, for all their protestations and fantasies to the contrary, an inexact science. This is precisely due to the fact that individuals, groups and societies are similarly inexact in their beliefs, desires etc.. It would seem though that a special kind of hubris, ignorance or simple carelessness bears responsibility for believing that this question could be formulated in this way, presented in this form, in that context and believe that anything whatsoever could be gained from it, commercially, ethically, politically or otherwise.

I gain no joy from picking apart minutiae, (although I think that this is somewhat more) or trying to reconstitute it as something bigger. But to see such a question, which is not, in itself a question so much as on proposition or premise (and an incredibly important one at that) amongst many others in a complex ethico-political series of arguments and counter arguments about justice, economics and human autonomy, distilled by persons unknown, into a one line “push-button-text-vote” in a grocery store line in the micro-seconds before a commercial transaction is…well…I don’t know, something.

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