This was the fifth time I had seen the ad in two days, a white sign featuring Ben and Jerry’s new Greek Yogurt: there’s peanut-butter banana, some sort of fudge flavor, but most significantly to me, blueberry vanilla graham. I’ve been living in Brooklyn for the past two weeks, so travelling by subway I’m exposed to many of these sorts of ads. Everything from AIDS awareness and online colleges to the newest attempt by Adam Sandler to recover his goofy-kid glory days. I find myself wondering, after having experienced this daily deluge of advertisements, how effective they really are, and why. We all know that advertising works, as the screeds against its pernicious influence are wont to remind us. But I’d like to think that most people aren’t the dupes they’re made out to be by these polemics and academic studies and, in New York, it seems to me that, with so many people with so many interests and concerns, the last thing that many on the subway are thinking about is imbibing the faux mountain scene constructed from blueberry frozen yogurt and graham cracker pieces. Though, I certainly was.
On going into a bodega a few days ago to buy a snack, a healthy and oh so bourgeois container of prepared quinoa salad, I noticed the ice-cream cooler as I was in line to check out. I walked over to it, and there it was, the blueberry graham cracker mountain scene contained in a compact pint I could take back to my apartment, presumably to devour in solitude with a romantic comedy. I had to buy it, and did, and the experience of eating it lived up to the expectation the mountain scene provided; it was delicious, exhilarating, somehow, even scenic. Not too sweet or sugary like most ice creams, not terribly heavy, the tart blueberry was offset by the sweet crunch of graham cracker swirl. Ben and Jerry’s had done their job. The flavor had gotten into my head like a virus, only to be cured by the compulsion of frozen dairy consumption. It felt great.
I thought, in the midst of my enjoyment, of how cliché the whole thing was. Seeing the advertisement enough times had led me to buy without thought upon confrontation with the frozen pint, beckoning to me as if it knew I was coming. Maybe it did. The act was exactly what the advertising department had intended. To have been acted upon by persuasion was a strange feeling, though in many respects this was no different than having been told about a book or a movie to look into, maybe even to buy eventually. “Try our new ice cream flavor kid, you’ll love it!” is what I imagine the old-time Ben and Jerry’s traveling salesman would say. And I did. I did love it. “Thank you sir, and thank Ben and Jerry when you see them!”
But what’s the psychological import of this sort of persuasion? My desire for sweets was activated by a corporation (albeit a more or less ethical one); I paid to fulfill that desire. I don’t think of this hedonistically, and I think of the camaraderie often engendered by such exchanges in bars, restaurants. (The fun-time ads for TGI Friday’s come to mind, though I’ve never been there).
“But can this be truly fulfilling?” asks my good friend Mike Fisher. Having thought about the implications of James Livingston’s provocative and incredibly intelligent new book Against Thrift: Why Consumer Culture is Good For The Economy, The Environment, and your Soul, he’s led to wonder if consumer culture is all that we have left in modernity for the fulfillment of solidarity and emotional communion. Tough question. Can we be fulfilled by consuming? Can we exchange our desires together, in such a way that the togetherness outweighs the medium, where the medium of consumption is somehow irrelevant? And if we can only do so through the stultifying constraints of the work-leisure cycle, working to consume to escape work, then will these joint or collective exchanges prove to really be so fulfilling, or rather just collapse in on themselves in an endless cycle of repetitive consumption, as Hannah Arendt pointed out in her critique of Marx, subject to the psychology of diminishing returns?
First, perhaps we’re wrong to set erect such a stark dichotomy between the pleasures of consumption and those of communion, being with and for another. I’m not suggesting that my desire for ice cream is equal to my desire for other human beings (though it’s been suggested). What I mean is that our desire for others is, initially, the desire to consume them, and that the emotional dynamics that go into our being with others, our social discourse and acts of communion, are laden with acts of persuasion that act on this desire, at both conscious and unconscious levels. When we’re attracted to someone at any level, they act upon this desire, and we become persuaded by them to the extent that our desire to consume them transforms into desire to lose our self in them, as a sort of transcendental fulfillment.
At work in advertising, the acting on our desires through persuasion in those enticing ice-cream mountain scenes on subway walls, is a similar process. Of course, when we wind up in endless cycles of consumption disguised as permanent fulfillment, transcendence even, then we lose the initial significance of desire contained in consumption, a significance, I think, that points to our separateness, and perhaps to our own mortality. That is, if we cannot realize the significance of human desire contained in consumption, the fact that we all long to be “whole” yet can never be, then we’re blinded to the absence of heaven on earth, something we so deeply yearn for in our longing to be more than human, and forget the mark of our mortality that is the mark of separateness. But if one could come to recognize and appreciate the significance of this limitation, and appreciate the “place of reach” in our desire to consume, our perpetual yearning for fulfillment and its inevitable unattainability, if we could come to recognize this in our yielding to advertisements, then might we come to rethink the uses to which we put consumption, the purposes and goals to which we attach its name?
What I have in mind here is something like what Lyle Rubin seems to hint at in his excellent piece on James Livingston at Dissent when he writes, “I’m unwilling to issue a cheerful endorsement of our buy-and-sell predicament. What I’d like to see is a better consumerism, a better corporate America, a better modernity.” What this better consumerism, this better corporate America might look like, I’m not so sure. But it seems to me that one of the first steps in realizing it might begin on a psychological and philosophical level, realizing that we consume for many of the same reasons we desire others, the most significant of these being our imperfection.
The sheer sensory enjoyment I receive from eating ice-cream, I think, is a mark of this imperfection because, as Norman O. Brown put it, embracing our desires (even the small ones) means dealing with death, recognizing its place in our psychological landscape. Blueberry graham cracker frozen yogurt is a synecdoche for my wanting to “get on with it” (life, that is) in the best way I know how, but also a recognition that such desires, a common fact of humanity, should bind us, attune us to those around us (We can all eat ice cream together!). It’s an attunement, I think, which, if collectively articulated, could channel our desires into something greater, more ethical, something that might change the nature of our stultifying “buy-sell-work” predicament which keeps us isolated and tethered to the imperatives of the middle class and the nuclear family. We might think of it as a secular way of coming to grips with dependence and limitation, an acknowledgment of finitude as “separation” that might allow us to see in our personal concerns with work, school, and consumption, a sense of the brokenness and isolation our current political and economic climate fosters.
Such an attunement might begin, paradoxically, by recognizing the commonality in our desire to consume “things” and “others,” both of which so often end in the routine of over-consumption and addiction, like the valorization of romantic love as transcendence, because we lose our ability to recognize our separateness from these “things” and others, and so unconsciously assign to them a divine mandate that they simply don’t, and can’t have. Recognizing this limitation, even more paradoxically, should form the basis of solidarity, political and otherwise, channeling these too often unacknowledged desires toward greater social goals.
What a better consumerism might look like, bearing this in mind, could be a boon to cooperative ventures, localism, and corporate accountability because these collective efforts entail a mutual recognition of dependency and limitation, an appreciation of the fact that we mortal creatures want something ineffable out of life that will never come, but in the meantime we defer to our stuff and to other people, a deference that meets in the nexus of our Keynesian economy of consumption that, for better or worse, isn’t going anywhere.
In this deference, however, as we find ourselves in the mire of desire that is communion and consumption, finding the place of desire in both, as a recognition of separateness, could arguably be exactly what is required from us to break free from the restraints that turn this “separateness” into alienation and isolation, instead of cooperation.