In 1965, on the cusp of the counterculture movement, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) organized the first “teach-in” at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. In contrast to a lecture or symposium, the teach-in was oriented towards action; indeed, SDS’s goal was to teach about Vietnam and organize students against the war. Remarkably, thousands attended the teach-in, yet this paled in comparison to the tens of thousands who turned up a few months later at Berkeley for an anti-war teach-in that included a range of intellectual luminaries, including Norman Mailer, I.F. Stone and Alan Watts.
When I relocated from The Netherlands to Silicon Valley, I was invited to an “ice-cream social” in a cul de sac of Eichler homes. We got talking about the environment—a popular topic in Northern California—and one professor proudly announced that this was the street with the most Priuses in the country. It was also a street that, despite the constant sunshine, did not boast one clothesline; clothes dryers, along with a vehicular commute to the local supermarket, were, it would seem, the most convenient option. Conspicuous consumption is also convenient; it is much easier to buy coffee in a 60% recycled cardboard cup or pay luxury money for a Prius to rack up some nice middle class enviro-points than it is to make arduous lifestyle adjustments. Lifestyle is what you buy, not what you do.
After this experience, conspicuous environmental consumption and absolution by-product became something of an obsession for me living as a tourist to this squeaky-clean dream. I had come to study—or “scrape the fat,” as I like to refer to it—at the prestigious Stanford University, which entailed a generous stipend to fund my voyeuristic fascination with American culture. On my first day I was dumbfounded to find the waste bins full of biodegradable corn starch forks and brown paper cardboard plates. It seemed that having to wash up was too much to ask—as was a functioning compost system to facilitate the actual biodegradation of food and forks.I figured that since I was going to be living without any money for the next six weeks while waiting for my scholarship to come through, I could at least make a meal of the cutlery. Unfortunately, they didn’t taste so good and turned out to be surprisingly unsuited to the microwave.
Long before Tim & Eric made a career out of avant-garde parodies of commercial culture, American video artist Michael Smith cultivated an alternative persona to do just the same. Meet “Mike,” the lovably simple, middlebrow hero of Smith’s ongoing (now decades-long) series of art videos, “Mike’s World.” In Smith’s own words, “Mike” is “a modern-day Candide,” perennially confused and overwhelmed by technology, glued to routine and infinitely suggestible. He is, in other words, the perfect consumer, naïve enough to be molded by whatever advertisement or scrap floats his way.
In the inaugural (and my favorite) video from the “Mike’s World” series, “Secret Horror,” we are treated to scenes of Mike whining over spilling his bridge mix (his favorite snack), being overwhelmed by appliances that gnaw at his attention, and getting abducted by sheet-wearing ghosts—themselves manifestations of the ghosts in the television to which he is addicted. Continue reading →
With a wallet freshly fattened by my first commission check, I proudly marched into my place of employ for the first time not as a salesperson, but as a customer. My feet springing on the buoyant surface of the socioeconomic level to which I had ascended, I readied myself to at last engage in the ritual to which my newly heightened stature earned exclusive participatory rights. In so many words, I prepared myself to make a purchase. But this wasn’t just any purchase. For I wouldn’t return to the grand threshold of Barneys New York with eggs or bread, pots or pans, socks or underwear. My purpose at this moment was singular in its irreverent flouting of necessity for the sake of paying worship to its opposite. Luxury, a quality that I saw living and breathing in the seams of that Fall 2010 Balenciaga dress. A design roused from the house’s storied archives, it was classic, it was modern, it was fabulous. It was most definitely worth $1,395.
The concept of such an object’s value, ensconced as it is within the artificial structures of production and consumption that gird the tenuous constructs of the capitalist economy, is necessarily divorced from the reality of its utility. Rather, the value assigned stems from a collective illusion, internally generated and externally sustained, of the worth of that object’s possession. Such worth is illusory because the desire to own an object is preceded by the desire to acquire the object. In other words, the desire to have obscures the more pressing desire to shop. Continue reading →