Better Living Through Consumerism

Discussion of Black Friday this year focused around two talking points: the sensible but obvious (it’s a corporate scam and you should all be ashamed of yourselves) and the howlingly stupid (Black Friday shoppers are poor! You don’t hate poor people, do you?). They both have their uses, but I would like to add a small point of my own to stake a modest claim on the debate.

***

Things that are no longer true:

  • I am resigned to having wet, cold feet for five months of each year.
  • The only dress shirts I own are black and white. When members of my chamber group want to coordinate colours, I tell them it’s not a musical theatre ensemble and they can’t expect me to own anything colourful.
  • The sole black “dress” shirt I own is ill-fitting and now a rather unappealing shade of grey.
  • The only “dress” shoes I own were hastily bought at Wal-mart the day of a band concert years ago.
  • I own only one pair of black socks and have to do a whole load of laundry in the event that I have concerts two days in a row.

***

I have, in a sense, been Black Friday shopping. I qualify the statement because Black Friday shopping was not my intention. I needed some stuff and that was the only weekend I had some free time. I live in Canada, and I have only the vaguest idea of when Black Friday is. Although we have failed to prevent it from becoming a thing here, we don’t observe the holiday it’s anchored to, so there is nothing to signal its arrival to people who are not obsessively waiting for it. I usually don’t find out about it until days later, and I did not actually realize it was the weekend of Black Friday till halfway through my trip when it struck me that the mall was awfully crowded.

In short, you can rest assured that I did not do anything so vulgar as bargain-hunting at a “shopping event”. But I was there, it was the Black Friday weekend, and I did blow an irresponsible sum on bullshit.

Contrary to the usual trope, my life is in some small measure better as a result. I look less absurd on stage, which makes me feel less absurd on stage. I have less laundry and less decision-making to do. Owning a proper pair of winter boots does wonders for your commute when you take the bus in one of the coldest major cities in the world. I have not found happiness or meaning or serenity, but in my restless meaningless unhappiness I am marginally more comfortable. Marcus Aurelius would not approve, but he never faced a Winnipeg winter.

***

One thing that particularly strikes me about the Meditations is that Marcus repeatedly uses the word “social” to describe virtuous actions.1 This is not something we see much today. “Social” has two senses in current colloquial speech: the insipid (social media) and the pejorative (social butterfly). Insofar as we wish to discuss the sober, temperate benevolence of Marcus Aurelius, there are other words we would use to label it.

Our interactions are becoming increasingly shallow and mindless. In this environment, enthusiasm for social activity seems like the mark of a lesser mind, and by extension the person who retreats into himself must be very deep indeed. As with so much else, I suspect we have the 19th century to blame for this. See Schopenhauer:

Rascals are always sociable—more’s the pity! and the chief sign that a man has any nobility in his character is the little pleasure he takes in others’ company.

(Aphorisms on the Wisdom of Life)

By contrast, the Meditations have this to say:

If you ever saw a hand cut off, or a head, or a foot lying anywhere apart from the rest of the body—this is what a man does with himself who is not content with what happens, and separates himself from others, or does anything unsocial.

(8.34)

I could cite corroborating passages from figures as diverse as Gracian and Kierkegaard. These views seem more sensible to me. Man is a social animal, and he needs his fellows in order to live a full and rich existence. Oliver Sacks’s book Seeing Voices, which I have just recently started reading, emphasizes the importance of social interaction (especially between mother and child) for linguistic and, ultimately, intellectual development. Deaf children, who are artificially cut off from the usual mode of social interaction, are at risk of growing up without developing this linguistic and intellectual competence if they are not exposed to sign language at a young age.

Certain emotions, too (love, for example), presuppose certain roles for other people (lover, confidant) and cannot be realized in isolation. To be asocial is to some extent to be inhuman.

***

In my first year of university I wrote a short story about a shopping trip. It was of course semi-autobiographical—all the events of the story were things that had happened to me, though not in the same order on the same occasion. It concerned a character named Daniel in the summer before university, trying to buy a black wool coat—the university student’s uniform—in an effort to fit in. As he moves from store to store, he is continually stymied by small obstacles. Interacting with a cashier almost gives him a nervous breakdown. He constantly feels like retail employees are watching him, suspecting him as a thief. He keeps running into people he knows, representatives of his family and high school friends.

This was around the time I started haunting shopping malls for a similar reason. I grudingly admitted I should start caring about my appearance, but all my clothes dated from a time when I emphatically did not, so I was locked in to looking like a bit of a tool during the transition period. Like blogging, clarinet practise, writing short stories, and other self-defining activities, I considered purchasing clothes (which, after all, is about defining your ideal self, the self you would like to present to the world) to be shameful, something to be done in secret and never talked about.2 Running into someone you know during the proceedings would make everything real. It was a horrid embarrassment that jeopardized the entire endeavour.

The short story, unfortunately, is a non-starter. I will never be able to properly illustrate Daniel’s recursive mental death spiral in text. I discovered a month after writing the story that I didn’t have to. The works of David Foster Wallace captured what I was going for with startling aptness. If you’re not sure what I mean, go read “The Depressed Person” and “Octet” and, if you’re feeling ambitious, Infinite Jest. I’ll wait.

***

David Foster Wallace was a critic of consumerism and the unbridled pursuit of personal happiness generally. He likens it to addiction, which erases other people and sends us off on our own personal death spirals. You might call him a modern-day Stoic. At least, there are large swathes of Infinite Jest that Marcus Aurelius might have written.

I don’t know if Wallace would have approved of Daniel’s story arc, either. Daniel’s neuroses and personal flaws and weaknesses are focused in his inability to participate in society as a consumer. The desire to do the shopping in secret (which entails some pretty cumbersome evasive manoeuvres) reflects a powerful self-loathing that will not allow him even the most modest claim on the world. The simple interaction with the cashier is fraught with anxieties of class (she’s forced to affect servility, which makes me uncomfortable, especially because I’m unemployed and she’s probably wealthier than I am) and gender (she’s attractive and I don’t know how to respond to that authentically without being creepy or frightening) that make the whole situation almost insurmountable.

These anxieties make him impossible to be around, and in his isolation he becomes the worst person he can imagine others might imagine him to be. If he were better at buying things, he would be a better person.

***

As Sacks points out, once deaf children are exposed to sign language, they absorb and integrate it at an astounding rate. The sad truth is that there are limits and cutoffs—earlier is always better—but the damage can always be mitigated to some extent. For those wandering through shopping malls like helicopters circling an uncertain landing zone, fearing that their innocent conduct will appear criminal to an observer, afraid to enter one of the smaller stores where the staff sees you as an individual rather than one more grain of humanity, there is a way out. Practice makes perfect.

Image credit: Jacob Jose, CC Attribution 3.0.


  1. Beyond an ill-fated attempt to learn koine Greek, I am not a classicist. This is in George Long’s translation, chosen because it is the one I happen to have a copy of.
  2. To this day I am uncomfortable when someone notices new clothes that I am wearing. The trick is to wear new purchases for the first time on a day when you will hardly see anyone for long. No one will say anything that day because they won’t get a chance, and once you’ve worn something once it is forbidden for people to comment on it.
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