After Consumerism: Through a Glass, Darkly

In Japan they are dropping currency from planes. Consumption was supposed to be hard-wired into consumers, but at the moment not even money from heaven and zero interest rates are stimulation enough to move these people into renewed desire for smaller mobile phones. The assumptions of the market — that it should colonise all corners of life, that it is rational, and that it can sustain stable meaning — appear to be coming into question. Disenchantment bubbles up in a Japan where some people go to work, even after their job has disappeared. These ex-employees spend their days staring out of office windows. While in some quarters there is continuing excitement about the new economy, it is not so for those displaced by a new twist in the market. As they stare out the window they face a transparent version of themselves floating on the glass. As the illusion of secure stability slips away, they are left with a see-through self-image.

This should give us pause. However those who too easily predict a coming collapse of capitalism leave themselves vulnerable to its seemingly eternal delay into a series of chronic crises and renewals. As Boris Frankel points out in his essay in this issue of Arena Magazine, left intellectuals who insist that capitalism’s collapse is around the corner debilitate themselves. This kind of apocalyptic hope cannot deal with the shape-shifting capabilities of this form of life. The market may have a terrible precariousness, but at the same time it is being constantly readjusted and reproduced.

To respond adequately we need to understand these processes. Its periodic convulsions are constantly smoothed over through new expressions of legitimation, and as these expressions wear thin, the ensuing crises have to be locally contained and smoothed over. In Australia we have seen the electoral consequences of re-using an exhausted language to reassure voters. John Hinkson argues here that the technological extension of the market into people’s lives pushes to the margins all those who are less than techno-savvy. A significant section of the public is now, in turn, rejecting the current expressions of a world from which they have been progressively excluded.

In response, other forms of control are called upon to give the sense that the nation is more than an administrative node for trade’s global flow. This control is exerted on the bodies of those who make the mistake of thinking that the ideal of security and mobility applies equally to all — for example, the figure of the refugee. For the moment, treating refugees as ‘illegal’ queue-jumpers works well to re-legitimise the idea of stable control. It is a strategy that for a time will have popular appeal, and it is a strategy that gets strange support from a new genre of television. The state in the role of vigilant regulator of the country’s borders has its popular-culture parallel in the taste for surveillance, administration and discipline in ‘reality TV’. As Simon Cooper asks — who stays on the island?

Just as the categories of ‘economy’, ‘nation-state’ and ‘society’ are presented through images under reconstruction, the sense of the ‘self’ is also being de-stabilised. Like the Japanese watcher at the window, there is now occasion to confront a less than solid vision of the self. As the market becomes an increasingly shifting glass of refracted images the consequences for us are devastating. The depression epidemic, argues Guy Rundle, is a manifestation of this kind of deep-felt ‘framelessness’. Individuals are left to re-construct themselves from a fragmentary psychological model or through the binding properties of drugs.

Alternatives to this atomised condition require seeing politics as a sustained project across every aspect of life, but possibilities could also emerge in areas that do not offer a typically political program of resistance. Despite the ubiquity of dislocation, the communicative aspect of art as a point of potentially shared meaning is one small area in which to reclaim some stability. Here we might glimpse a beginning of more thorough social change beyond art. The works of Colin McCahon and Rosalie Gascoigne (featured on the front and back covers respectively) display the way a formal cohesion can be gleaned from otherwise disparate social particles. In McCahon’s work we see older, religious frameworks restructured for newer problems of place and self. Gascoigne’s work manages to inject newly framed possibilities into life’s ephemera and detritus. It is not spiritual retrieval that is the key here, but rather the process of collecting what is left behind, the process of capturing meaning in the context of a shared and co-operative sense of the future. It is a process that might benefit the Japanese office-sitter — and the rest of us too — that is, if we can bear to drag our gaze away from the false security of the corporate window.

Matthew Ryan

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