Saturday, February 16, 2019

Buy, Buy, Baby! : A Meditation On Your *very Own* Superpower

by L DeSilva-Johnson (writer), Brooklyn, NY, May 06, 2009


From the moment we leave the womb, we know to consume, consume! All witty rhymes aside, from the teat to the toy to the trouser, consumption is essential to our way of life, giving truth to "value."

Growing up in New York City, one's pressure to keep up with the eponymous Joneses is amplified by that to keep up with the Ramones, the Rothschilds, and a whole slew of ever-morphing tribes. Beyond the trend, however, and beneath those changing tides of tastes in tile or tulle is a deep politics.

On the surface this appears to be clarified by the retail outfits' own self-appointed titles as green, organic, free trade, union, and the like: allowing the consumer, still, to participate in the transactions only semi-consciously, by simply entering and exiting through different doors.

Yes, yes - it's an old saw. The song of consumer responsibility has long been sung... and yet, the lesson has far from sunken in.  Quite the opposite: exhausted by systems that oppress them in various ways, otherwise lovely intelligent people skulk around making entirely unconscionable purchases, in a modern variant of "don't ask, don't tell." When pressed about such issues, friends and family have responded with a range of reactions from feigning indifference to hurt expressions to even outright anger at my having broached such a subject. Yet I know that personally, I am haunted by such decisions, in multiple realms of consumer activity, and the less than subtle nature of these reactions suggests that I'm not alone. Also, that it's a bit of a taboo, isn't it -- to discuss our complicity in the baking of the systems cake on which our shopping is only the frosting?

But WHY? Why are we so hesitant to even have open conversations with ourselves about something so clearly crucial? When how and what we buy, as a collective, clearly has such enormous impact?

As a hint, consider this familiar scenario: I feel pressure that my own wardrobe is inadequate and/or out of date and/or inappropriate -- this last because of work, family, age, etc -- and since making clothes is now more expensive than buying and/or tailoring is nigh impossible to have done with the way clothes are now made and/or I cannot fit into the ones I have, I feel as though it is necessary for me to buy new clothes.

Given that I make about enough to pay my rent and feed myself (and honestly not too much else) when something needs purchasing, price is the primary issue. This is true for most people, even those with considerable discretionary income -- especially if they are of the "financially responsible" type. A low price on items like clothing or housewares will allow someone with little to no money be able to buy such things once in a while, and those more fortunate put the balance away for a secure future, or perhaps a house made out of ticky-tacky.

From my depression era family I have learned the traditional "value of a dollar" -- which, at further inquiry, I have found the be at the crux of this issue. The idea of "VALUE" -- and how deeply it is ingrained to monetary prices.  Engrained in many of us from an early age is the idea that frugality is equal to wisdom. In considerations of "value," therefore, the lesson is plain and simple: If one apple costs $1 and the other apple costs $2, the apple of better value is the cheaper apple. Now, of course, if the apple that costs $2 is a designer apple, one is also purchasing a certain amount of symbolic currency, and the value system has changed remarkably. The depression era great aunties and my mother besides would scold you for even caring about the label -- though the 50's made brand name groceries standard in the household realm.

But I digress -- the point is, "value" remains in the realm of the object. I could go off on Marx now but that would be obvious and painful so I won't. However, I will say that there is a direct connection to the effort exacted from and by a laborer to every single commodity out there for purchase -- and that, by extension, when we are consuming a commodity, we are playing into a larger system of "value" than the one that puts the price tag on an apple: one that puts a pricetag on ourselves.

The conclusion of the story begun above is that -- in such a bind -- the exhausted, overworked consumer considers the clothing made humanely out of fabrics manufactured and processed humanely, and has sticker shock. Ruminating over "value" and feeling sufficiently abused already, with the choice in front of one of perhaps purchasing a single new item, made well and humanely, or perhaps being able to rotate a few new things bought at -- oh, I don't know, Old Navy? -- ends, with some guilt, at Old Navy.

For there are multiple things to consider. How would one explain the fact that one is wearing the same item every day for several months because one didn't want to contribute to child labor in East Asia? One is concerned about the public, the workplace, and cannot bear to complicate one's life more.

And yet? We have just made a value judgement, as we do with every such decision. And it was not one that said, "this shirt is a better value than that shirt" but one in which our own comfort (or lack of discomfort) is more important to us, on a daily basis, than the fate of those who suffer so that those prices can be so low.  We are saying, your labor is not worth more. You are not worth more.

It is not easy to do otherwise. For those of us in financial diress -- as I have so often been, and have even more often been on the brink of -- it can appear a nondecision. But how many things in our lives will we give the power over to others in? Are we that afraid of our co-workers, and what they will think? Sure, even if we don't shop that way, millions of others will. But if enough "individuals" choose to value labor, and life, over their own comfort, those individuals may too add up to millions. We have more of a voice than we've ever chosen to speak with. With every purchase, we have the power to assign value, to assert what is important to us, to stand up for what we believe in -- and what a super power that is.

About the Writer

L DeSilva-Johnson is a writer for BrooWaha. For more information, visit the writer's website.
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6 comments on Buy, Buy, Baby! : A Meditation On Your *very Own* Superpower

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By Lady D on May 06, 2009 at 12:28 pm

I recently quit a job that made me feel like a criminal, only to get a job that is a job that helps people, but that the pay is seriously low.

I know that my true source is the energy of the universe (that seems so vague) and it does make me feel better.

I would rather have a few good items than lots of crappy ones.

Good article, may we all think before we buy.

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By L DeSilva-Johnson on May 06, 2009 at 01:26 pm

Julian, of course one doesn't have to -- and clearly I more often than not do NOT do this -- but the article is intended to be a meditation on societal pressures and motivations that often affect even those of us who do not believe "the lie" as you say. One's loved ones, business associates, and friends, however, may deeply believe that same lie -- and sometimes one's ability to support oneself and one's relationships get affected by our choice to stop believing it -- because not everyone is ready to distance oneself from the herd. This struggle -- between the choices I have made and been making and the fears and beliefs of those around me -- has really been the hardest aspect of stopping being  a consumer.

In my best year, I netted far less than 30,000, and have often made less than 20. I barter, pick wild greens, and have items I've been wearing since junior high. Nonetheless, weakness effects all of us -- the Dalai Lama writes about his weakness and desire to eat meat on occasion or want to keep a gift or item of tribute -- there's no shame in the concern that we may not be loved or understood, which is different from being "in." It's what we do with that weakness and how we turn it into an opportunity for dialogue... (hence, this article?)

the point about NY meant more that in some places where there are layers of trend and various social currencies associated with a range of symbolic worn or owned items, the job of the consumer/actor/visual conversationalist is more complex than in a place with less people, less groups, less semiotic complications.

for also -- we may choose not to participate, but our visual choices on our persons speak for us constantly. we may say "I do not care what I have on" but it is still speaking loudly to a perceptual, semiotically-minded public. we must negotiate how to operate differently accepting that we may have silenced ourselves in that way with some of these choices.

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By L DeSilva-Johnson on May 06, 2009 at 01:27 pm

oh, and YES, lady d. I'm absolutely on the universe train with you -- I've been having incredible experiences channelling quantum energy -- but this is part of the story. when you check out of the above, and into these, how to bring others along?.... sigh.

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By L DeSilva-Johnson on May 07, 2009 at 09:39 am

JG, I am with you 1000 percent. (yes, that's a thousand)

In keeping with previous article (avatar age) I do think that these self-projections continue to be semiotically charged with cultural signs and symbols, more and moreso, in ways both consumer and not. While it is ideal to want to be judge and judge by "who we are, not what we own" the other is embedded deep in cultural mythology OF the self and society -- do you agree? Wherein certain things, colors, fabrics, and yes, objects, are demonstrative of a collective of people -- be they anarchists or housewives.

These symbols are an ancient way of showing allegiance to social tribes -- unfortunately now these are more often than not *purchased* these days. Do you not agree?

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By L DeSilva-Johnson on May 09, 2009 at 10:20 am

Thanks for the interesting commentary, Garry. I think from both your comment and my dialogue with Julian, several questions have begun to loom large....

I agree with you said above, on multiple counts:

Even those who consider themselves completely independent of the fashion "trends" have been influenced in some way. The choices we are given in stores are themselves an influence unless people are going to start making their own clothes, which some do of course.

Absolutely -- it is impossible to have not been influenced at all, because you've been dressing in the shapes and fabrics of this century and this place for your whole life. You're unlikely, as a man, to start wearing skirts, despite their comfort or ease. Some men do, of course, but these men are usually extremely aware of the statement they are making, even if they say (as is commonly the case) "I don't care what people think." It's more accurate that they are aware of what people think and have discovered it is ok or even desirable for them, or, that it is politically desirable to shine a light on whatever untoward judgement it suggests.

I would add, that even if we make our own clothes, we cannot lose the influence of what we know and have been surrounded by all our lives. Even if you are to choose to only wear togas, or other such nontailored items, there is a reason for this (informed by historical and/or material habits) as well as a commentary against what one is thereby choosing not to do.  The larger question, of course, that this is only the hem of (ahem) is that of "free will" and how much we are conditioned, even when we think we are making "our own" choices "outside" of societal/cultural influence.

Or not? The other question, as I keep bringing up with Julian, is that of "semiotics" of visual/clothing "conversation" -- that is, that we offer ourselves visual as a text to be read, as we move about through culture. Our decision NOT to be a la mode is as much of a statement as not, and will be read as such.

I'm not saying that everyone consciously sits around thinking about what their tribe is wearing and designs it in terms of fashion, and yet even with those who claim to be outside of such considerations there is congruence, similarity with other "non"participators. Also, I'm not entirely suggesting that it is bad that we continue to be alike, textile-wise, with people who "tribally" ascribe to the same ideas -- this is an ancient, ancient practice that I heartily endorse...conceptually. But now our visual affects are purchased, by and large, changing this tendency and habit into something more socially and politically charged...

...Clearly, I could go on and on. And frequently, do.

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By Theresa H Hall on November 06, 2009 at 02:19 am

What an interesting article and I especially enjoyed all of the discussions. NIce.

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