Friday, May 4, 2012

Addendum: Consumerism

“Consumerism” is set of very modern philosophical beliefs. It can be summarized in two sentences: “Happiness comes from consuming more and better things. What you consume defines you.” The implications of these, though, are wide-reaching.
First off, consumerism makes a radical ontological argument. If what one consumes defines one, then one is what one consumes. Right there, consumerism dismisses bundle theory (David Hume), soul theory (Socrates), and bodily continuity. This is a theory of identity tied entirely to the concept of physical possessions.
I'll admit, that's a bit of a jump in logic. Let me explain where I went from “what one consumes defines one” to “one is what one consumes.”
In a consumer market, there is always the quest to find and fill a niche. There are always new and different products available with wide degrees of uniqueness and/or customization. By this I mean, there are products which, increasingly, can define any aspect of a person on a finer and finer scale. So it's easier to define one's entire personality with what one consumes.
We have to pull in “happiness comes from consuming more and better things” here in order to go any further. If one consumes more and better things, one more accurately and thoroughly defines oneself. And so one is happier. Better-defined and happier seem to go hand in hand here.
Naturally, the best existence – the happiest life – is also totally defined. The things consumed in this happiest life have ceased to be a Platonic image of the real thing (the person living the life). Actually, the consumed goods may come to better define the natures of such people than the people themselves. At this point, I feel confident in saying that Consumerists aspire to “one is what one consumes.” The self is totally defined by consumed goods.
This ontological conjecture is wildly different than any other I'm aware of. As I said earlier, what people consume can describe literally anything about them, according to Consumerist philosophy.
For instance, let us break down my last purchase at the supermarket. I bought a bag of day-old rolls, four cans of pineapple in juice, a bag of cereal, and a pint of bourbon whiskey. The rolls and pineapple were both store-brand, and the cereal was a low-cost bulk brand. Clearly, I have a relatively low income. More specifically, though, the cereal was relatively unsweetened, whole-grain, and high in fiber. And the rolls, though from the discount rack, were whole wheat. This indicates that, despite my income, I am conscious of my health, and I eat food that will help me stay healthier and fitter. My decision to buy pineapple in juice rather than syrup reinforces this. Also, I purchased quite a lot of pineapple, so it's clearly a fruit I very much like and something I plan to eat in quantity. However, the bourbon I purchased was a higher-end brand. This indicates that I tend to consider hedonism a worthwhile investment. The small volume of the bourbon I've bought reinforces my financial state, yes, but it also indicates that I intend to thoroughly indulge in this little luxury.
You can tell a few things about me from this list. First, you can tell that I am quite poor, have a hedonistic streak, and am somewhat concerned about my health. It's not surprising that I'm a college student. This is a good example of how, to a consumerist, reading what is most important to any given person is as easy a reading a bank statement. Certainly what I or anyone spends money on says something about them, but it isn't them, not as much as Consumerism says it is. The map is not the territory.
So I think this covers the ontological side of High-Culture Consumerism. Let's look at the ethical side. How should a consumerist live their life?
At this point, I'd like to drag the first part of my initial definition back. “Happiness comes from consuming more and better things,” specifically. We've established that Consumerism dictates that better-defined means happier. But does this mean that consuming better things makes a person better?
Yes. Yes it does.
If things define a person, then mediocre things define a person as mediocre. Cheap things define a person as undesirable – either their tastes are something to be scorned, or they haven't done enough to improve their stations. Consumerism espouses and enforces class elitism in a very serious way.
This is high-culture symbolism at work. Expensive things like lobster, caviar, steak, and wine are all “good,” and store-brand or unbranded things are “bad.” What you can't consume defines you as much as what you do consume.
So, ethically speaking, the way to live best is to consume more and better things, and to make that life's goal. Ontologically speaking, one is what one consumes. This philosophical conceit doesn't really address metaphysics or epistemology in any meaningful way. It's the default philosophical setting for a capitalist society, at least in some measure.

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