Friday, May 09, 2008

we buy, we sell, we make society around us

I saw this photo while thinking about a review in Spiked Online of a book on shopping: Con$umed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults and Swallow Citizens Whole, by Benjamin Barber.
(Click image to view full size.)

The photo is by Rachel Leow, who is "a fledgling historian trying to understand herself and the world." It appears in an entry of hers on a blog called a historians craft. Here's the link: bookporn #32: NYC bookstore (I): somewhere on broadway.

The book review is an unusually good review essay not just of the one book but of the whole topic it covers. It's by Josie Appleton, who is identified as convener of the Manifesto Club, a humanist campaigning network and is found here: The cultural contradictions of consumerism.

Appleton says there's much to like in Barber's book. However she questions its basic thesis that the US economy "infantilizes" Americans as mindless consumers who throw their money away on frivolous purchases instead of using it wisely to help solve the world's problems. She admits that "the biggest trouble with consumption is that we really are consumed by it – we can’t see beyond it, but can only push it away in disgust."

But she goes on to point out:
It is not so much that we have an ethic of consumption, but that – by default – it remains as one of the few meaningful experiences in our lives. There is a tangibility and satisfaction to buying – to picking out a new shirt or a new album and taking it home – that means that shopping remains for individuals a confirmation of their power to make things happen in the world.

The power of consumption has been usefully theorised by the Marxist sociologist Georg Simmel. In The Philosophy of Money, he looks at how buying an object is an act of individual subjectivity, the person stamping himself on a thing and claiming his right to its exclusive enjoyment. Simmel cited the example of a friend he knew who would buy beautiful things, not to use them, but to ‘give an active expression to his liking of the things, to let them pass through his hands and, in so doing, to set the stamp of his personality upon them’.
This thought brings me to my contemplation of the bookshop photo. I think there's something wrong with the theses pushed by both Barber and Appleton. Yes, we're participants in a consumerist culture and yes we're manipulated by advertisers and victims of our own primitive, acquisitive greed to acquire more and more stuff. But there's more to us, more that's good, than this broad overview makes plain.

First, individual expression exists in selling as well as buying. Notice that the owner of the shop has obviously set a personal stamp of personality on the place. And consider how many sellers the world now has, especially all those of us who participate in online markets, not just eBay and Craigslist, and, but also give-away sites such as bookmooch and freecycle.

Second, consider the long tail of retail. Wal-Mart may inhabit the top in terms of sales volume and numbers of customers, but niches predominate: some are upscale, glossy, and high-tech; others mall-oriented ranging from haut-bourgeois to teeny-jeansey; and many exist to satisfy hobbyists, craftspeople, do-it-yourselfers, and all who buy to make rather than just to wear or display. And of course many cater to those of us who suffer from book-lust, particularly lust for books that are passed-by and long-forgotten. All this under-market consumerism isn't evidence of the Marxist ravages of rampant end-stage capitalism, I don't think, but a positive cultural phenomenon. We engage in buying and selling to express ourselves and the expression isn't all bad. Appleton and Simmel suggest this but don't appear to give this social effusion its full due.

So, here's to the contribution made by second-hand bookstores to make the world a more livable, humane, and maybe even civically-engaged place.

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