|Zadok : Papers : The Abuse of Consumerism|
Zadok Paper S101 Winter 1999
Losing the plot
ULTRA SHORT TERM NOSTALGIA: Homesickness for the extremely recent past: "God things seemed so much better in the world last week."
I mentioned earlier consumer culture's lack of historical sense. That was, however, a broad description on a cultural level. But let's look at the implications of this for an individual's sense of narrative identity. We begin with a fictional passage which captures this lack of historical sense for a proto-typical Generation X individual.
. . . the nice thing about driving a car is that the physical act of driving itself occupies a good chunk of brain cells that otherwise would be giving you trouble overloading your thinking. New scenery continually erases what came before; memory is lost, shuffled, relabeled and forgotten. Gum is chewed; buttons are pushed; windows are lowered and opened. A fast moving car is the only place where you're legally allowed to not deal with your problems. It's enforced meditation and that's good.
Middleton and Walsh state that "postmodern people have come to experience themselves more and more as storyless". To elaborate on this 'storyless' existence they cite the cult hit movie Bladerunner. It is set in a future time when technological skill has reached the point where biological robots, 'replicants,' can be made so similar to humans that it's almost impossible to tell the replicant from the real. The unexpected plot development is that the replicants, sensing their vacuum of authentic memories (the ones they have were falsely implanted), embark upon their own quest to discover memories in order to construct a history that they can call their own. The establishment of a sense of history becomes for them their greatest felt need. The analogy is suggestive: Postmodern people or, in our language, consumers, are like the replicants: For those increasingly without story, devising a sense of history is their greatest need.
Debord characterises the lack of history as a function of the spectacle's swamping the consumer with 'pseudo-events'.
The pseudo-events which vie for attention in the spectacle's dramatizations have not been lived by those who are thus informed about them. In any case they are quickly forgotten, thanks to the precipitation with which the spectacle's pulsing machinery replaces one by the next . . . Such individual lived experience of a cut-off everyday life remains bereft of language or concept, and it lacks any critical access to its own antecedents, which are nowhere recorded.
Christopher Lasch offers a helpful depiction of the frighteningly arbitrary nature of experience which has been stripped of its temporal context.
The propaganda of death and destruction, emanating ceaselessly from the mass media, adds to the prevailing atmosphere of insecurity. Far-flung famines, earthquakes in remote regions, distant wars and uprisings attract the same attention as events closer to home. The impression of arbitrariness in the reporting of disaster reinforces the arbitrary quality of experience itself, and the absence of continuity in the coverage of events, as today's crisis yields to a new and unrelated crisis tomorrow, adds to the sense of historical discontinuity-the sense of living in a world in which the past holds out no guidance to the present and the future has become completely unpredictable.
Although it is clear that consumer experience lacks a deeper sense of history, it is less clear how, psychologically, this lack of history affects identity. Lasch's proposal, that the rejection of history derives from a "narcissistic impoverishment of the psyche" , is less than satisfactory, especially given the wide range of meanings he attaches to the term narcissism. A more interesting psychological explanation is found in Lacan's work on Schizophrenia.
Lacan describes schizophrenia as a breakdown of the temporal signifying chain in which "the subject has lost the capacity actively to extend its pro-tensions and re-tensions across the temporal manifold and to organise its past and future into coherent experience". This loss of signifying chain can be best understood, he argues, by analogy to the operation of language. Just as a sentence composed as a series of signifiers can break down if the proper relations between the signifiers, the relationship which constitutes meaning, is broken, so too can the meaningful nature of experience be lost in the schizophrenic moment if the temporal chain of past, present and future is broken. The a-historical 'consumer moment' which "ruthlessly disintegrates the narrative fabric that attempts to form around it" can be equally well understood by analogy to the 'schizophrenic moment' in which "the breakdown of temporality suddenly releases this present of time from all the activities and intentionalities that might focus it and make it a space of praxis; thereby isolated, that present suddenly engulfs the subject with indescribable vividness, a materiality of perception properly overwhelming, which effectively dramatizes the power of the material-or better still, the literal-signifier in isolation".
This emphasis of the "signifier in isolation", the temporal blinkering which looks only at the present moment, precludes any attempts to place experience within any narrative context. When identities exist only in the present moment they cannot derive meaning from their narrative embeddedness. The consumer located within the unhistorical consumer culture is thereby stripped of any deeper sense of identity. This can be stated in broader terms: the story of consumerism is a story with little sense of history; any identity drawn from this story must necessarily share this lack of a sense of history. As a result the consumer is unable to emplot a historical story from which to construct their identity because the dominant consumer culture from which they draw fictive resources lacks a proper sense of temporal continuity.