I Buy, Therefore I Am

C onsumerism. The very mention of the word inspires images of Andy Warhol's gigantic Campbell's Soup cans and vacuous shoppers
By Charles C. Matthews

Consumerism. The very mention of the word inspires images of Andy Warhol's gigantic Campbell's Soup cans and vacuous shoppers shuffling down the alleys of Copley Place.

Most aspects of consumer culture are sparkling clean. That's the scary thing about them. Lies, libido manipulation and other casual assualts, however, are usually just beneath the surface--as in the $15 billion TV advertising industry. From sprouty liberals to basic anti-materialists the buying ethos has received its blows.

Critics began popping up alongside college radicals who opposed U.S. intervention in Vietnam. Jabbing commodity fetishism and impersonal TV advertisements, Warhol painted goods larger than life to parody their vaulted importance in the minds of a commercial public.

Punk rock and its musical variations ad infinitum brought harsher and smugger critiques into the arena of commercial bashing. Social commentating punkers, The Gang of Four, made their point quick: "He fills his head with culture. He gives himself an ulcer."

With America now a good 25 years into its shopping mall era, even the mass media is taking stabs. In a recent Boston Globe feature/editorial on TV commercials, Steven Stark reworks for the 1980's Descartes' original thesis on the human essence: "Over the years, television's programs and commercials have changed, but one thing has remained constant: the message: I buy; therefore I am."

Consumers spent $618 million on personal items in 1970. More than doubling their expenditures in a decade, American shoppers expended over a billion and a half dollars in 1980. In the past five years U.S. consumption has easily surpassed the $2 billion mark.

And the market ethic can spring up anywhere. You can go to the combat zone for commodity sex, bid for a career at college, or purchase an experience at an upbeat New York nightclub.

About 4000 ads race across an average TV channel in one week. Now, with more actors appearing in commercials than in film and television shows combined, the industry is trying to cut the normal 30-second ad down to 15. This move wouldn't just cut corporate advertising budgets. It will also strike a blow at the public by promoting shorter attention spans. Says Stark,"...the things move, the more images there are, and the harder it becomes for viewers to differentiate one pitch from another...The point is not to force the audience to think, but to simply pay attention."

What is to be done? Refusing to eat Whoppers or to skip that headache-filled stroll through Downtown Crossing simply translates into moral purism. Such acts might also lead the quasi-veggie to join a commune tucked away in a Vermont forest or isolated on a northern California sea-cliff. But a seclusion without frozen Swanson's brownies or the pulpy grease of Quarter Pounders also loses out on the potentially progressive parts of an often despicable society.

Shopping malls, for example, despite their policy of sensory warfare, successfully manage to attract hordes of people. Thousands of shoppers pass through Copley Place on an average weekend day. Imagine the recruiting potential for social action groups attempting to gain support for a protest against investment policies in South Africa or another piece of imperialistic legislation against a Central American country.

Unfortunately; the flourescent-lit commodity havens turn what must otherwise be real humans into something less than human. Transformed from person to buyer, the consumer is a veritable vacuum cleaner, inhaling commodities. While shopping for goods and services, we forget the cornerstone of being human lies in creative activity--production--rather than consumption.

Shoppers could be kicked out of their buying delerium. Malls, even if not used for political recruitment, could serve as centers of some form of organized political debate. These attempts were unfortunately quelled in the mid '70s. A string of law suits surfaced against groups like those who campaigned to boycott Nestles, when the political groups became too vocal.

If cultural radicalism against consumerism were to spring up as it did 20 years ago, it would have to be less isolationist. Capitalism has helped build industries which increase human lifespans while at the same time promoting major social inequalities. Likewise, consumerism drags along a lot of dehumanization, but it also forces people to interact with each other. The choice is ours: to bash consumerism or to use the opportunity for progressive ends.