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“Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production”*…

Television fueled the second stage of modern consumer culture, “democratizing” luxury on a scale previously unimagined

The notion of human beings as consumers first took shape before World War I, but became commonplace in America in the 1920s. Consumption is now frequently seen as our principal role in the world.

People, of course, have always “consumed” the necessities of life — food, shelter, clothing — and have always had to work to get them or have others work for them, but there was little economic motive for increased consumption among the mass of people before the 20th century.

Quite the reverse: Frugality and thrift were more appropriate to situations where survival rations were not guaranteed. Attempts to promote new fashions, harness the “propulsive power of envy,” and boost sales multiplied in Britain in the late 18th century. Here began the “slow unleashing of the acquisitive instincts,” write historians Neil McKendrick, John Brewer, and J.H. Plumb in their influential book on the commercialization of 18th-century England, when the pursuit of opulence and display first extended beyond the very rich.

But, while poorer people might have acquired a very few useful household items — a skillet, perhaps, or an iron pot — the sumptuous clothing, furniture, and pottery of the era were still confined to a very small population. In late 19th-century Britain a variety of foods became accessible to the average person, who would previously have lived on bread and potatoes — consumption beyond mere subsistence. This improvement in food variety did not extend durable items to the mass of people, however. The proliferating shops and department stores of that period served only a restricted population of urban middle-class people in Europe, but the display of tempting products in shops in daily public view was greatly extended — and display was a key element in the fostering of fashion and envy.

Although the period after World War II is often identified as the beginning of the immense eruption of consumption across the industrialized world, the historian William Leach locates its roots in the United States around the turn of the century.

In the United States, existing shops were rapidly extended through the 1890s, mail-order shopping surged, and the new century saw massive multistory department stores covering millions of acres of selling space. Retailing was already passing decisively from small shopkeepers to corporate giants who had access to investment bankers and drew on assembly-line production of commodities, powered by fossil fuels; the traditional objective of making products for their self-evident usefulness was displaced by the goal of profit and the need for a machinery of enticement.

“The cardinal features of this culture were acquisition and consumption as the means of achieving happiness; the cult of the new; the democratization of desire; and money value as the predominant measure of all value in society,” Leach writes in his 1993 book “Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture.” Significantly, it was individual desire that was democratized, rather than wealth or political and economic power…

From Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays (and his pioneering of modern propaganda and advertising), through Alfred P. Sloan and General Motors (and the proliferation of choice), David Sarnoff and radio (then television), and now the internet– over the course of the 20th century, capitalism preserved its momentum by molding the ordinary person into a consumer with an unquenchable thirst for more stuff: “A Brief History of Consumer Culture.”

[Your correspondent highly recommends Land of Desire, and as a video “chaser,” Adam Curtis’ remarkable Century of Self (on YouTube here).]

* Adan Smith, The Wealth of Nations

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As we consume consciously, we might spare a thought for Thomas Crapper; he died on this date in 1910.  Crapper popularized the one-piece pedestal flushing toilet that still bears his name in many parts of the English-speaking world.

The flushing toilet was invented by John Harrington in 1596; Joseph Bramah patented the first practical water closet in England in 1778; then in 1852, George Jennings received a patent for the flush-out toilet.  Crapper’s  contribution was promotional (though he did develop some important related inventions, such as the ballcock): in a time when bathroom fixtures were barely mentionable, Crapper, who was trained as a plumber, set himself up as a “sanitary engineer”; he heavily promoted “sanitary” plumbing and pioneered the concept of the bathroom fittings showroom.  His efforts were hugely successful; he scored a series of Royal Warrants (providing lavatories for Prince, then King Edward, and for George V) and enjoyed huge commercial success. To this day, manhole covers with Crapper’s company’s name on them in Westminster Abbey are among London’s minor tourist attractions.

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“I’d ask, ‘Is this dish good enough to come downtown and wait in line for’ If not, it’s not what we’re after”*…

 

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We’re in the middle of a global crisis of extraordinary proportions. This is a memo we started writing months ago. It was meant to be a sort of elegy to the economic and cultural cycle in which we were living, which was clearly coming to an end – the experience economy in particular. However, that cycle came to a rapid conclusion before we managed to hit publish. We’re publishing it now, knowing things are likely to get far worse in the coming days, making the reality during which it was conceived feel increasingly distant. Nonetheless, we hope it will be entertaining to you during quarantine….

We believe that umami has been both literally and figuratively the key commodity of the experience economy. Umami, as both a quality and effect of an experience, popped up primarily in settings that were on the verge of disintegration, and hinged on physical pilgrimages to evanescent meccas.

We also believe that the experience economy is dying, its key commodity (umami) has changed status, and nobody knows what’s coming next.

What do we mean by umami? Not only the meatiness of the French dip sandwich at that restaurant, but also the light as it refracted through the amber liquid of the cocktails, the reflection off the back bar, the quivering of the cake, and, most significantly, the way those elements read in a photo. Umami was the quality of the media mix or the moodboard that granted it cohesion-despite-heterogeneity…

Umami could have been anywhere, but we smacked our lips in the moment. It was liquid in the sense that it flowed from place to place, airy in the sense that it was ungrounded, and earthy in the sense that it might have been in your mouth.

“Advanced consumers” became obsessed with umami and then ran around trying to collect ever-more-intensifying experiences of it. Things were getting more and more delicious, more and more expensive, and all the while, more and more immaterial.

Umami is what you got when you didn’t get anything…

The recent historically long market expansion began with the recovery from the 2008 global financial crisis – and its inevitable end seems to have arrived via virus. Your impression of these high times might vary. You might remember the period for austerity, the Arab Spring, Trump, Brexit, Yellow Vests, the rise of the far right, rising costs of housing and health care, the student debt bubble, youth unemployment, and to top it all off, an accelerating climate crisis. But if you worked in finance, received tech compensation or VC money, or just happened to be rich in the first place, you’ve had a pretty sweet decade.

But now, amidst market turmoil and a public health crisis which much of the world – in particular the US – is fully unequipped to handle, it’s a flaming question mark whether any real growth occurred during this period, or if the high times were merely a fantasy created mainly by capital injections (or “money printing”) from central banks in the US, China, and Europe. What was actually happening was the enrichment of financial assets over the creation of any ‘real wealth’ along with corresponding illusions of progress.

As very little of this newly minted money has been invested into building new productive capacity, infrastructure, or actually new things, money has just been sloshing around in a frothy cesspool – from WeWork to Juicero to ill-advised real estate Ponzi to DTC insanity, creating a global everything-bubble.

With interest rates approaching zero, or even going negative, it simply means capital is having difficulties finding profitable places in which to invest itself. Or, to phrase it differently, those in charge of capitalist societies were failing to see worthwhile futures in which to invest. The market expansion of the past 12 years has felt like a very inappropriately timed self-congratulatory party, situated at the end of a much longer period of stagnation and decadence.

Value, in an economic sense, is theoretically created by new things based on new ideas. But when the material basis for these new things is missing or actively deteriorating and profits must be made, what is there to be done? Retreat to the immaterial and work with what already exists: meaning.

Meaning is always readily available to be repeated, remixed, and/or cannibalized in service of creating the sensation of the new.

How has this manifested? For example, by calling things that were actually old → new; mediocre → premium; bad → good; low value → high value etc. This was Premium Mediocrity. Or by taking existing meanings and mixing them into increasingly novel, bizarre and random combinations and calling them new. This was creative direction. Or by putting people into proximity with newly created meaning of dubious status, and selling it as an experience. This was festival season.

The essential mechanics are simple: it’s stating there’s a there-there when there isn’t one. And directing attention to a new “there” before anyone notices they were staring at a void. It’s the logic of gentrification, not only of the city, but also the self, culture and civilization itself.

What’s made us so gullible, and this whole process possible, was an inexhaustible appetite for umami…

Cultural umami is the vague sense that yes, for some reason, it is. ““This shouldn’t be good but it is” “this doesn’t seem like what it’s supposed to be” “I shouldn’t be here but i am” “this could be anywhere but it’s here” If you tried to unpack your intuition, the absence of the there-there would quickly become evident.

Yet in practice this didn’t matter, because few people were able to reach this kind of deep self-interrogation. The cycle was simply too fast. There was never time for these concoctions to congeal into actual new things (e.g. create the general category of K-Pop patrons for Central European arts institutions). We can’t be sure if they ever meant anything beyond seeming yummy at the time.

Let’s take an example. The luxury sector, fashion in particular, has increasingly become a key theater for umami. Throughout the history of human civilization, luxury was premised on being expensive, meaning it resulted from investing an unreasonable amount of work, material or other scarce resources into the making of a thing.

But today’s rich don’t generally wear the 2020 version of royal purple, something like parametrically fitted garments made of nanofibers embellished with synthetic mother of pearl (which might be the results of real growth). Instead, they wear $500 cotton t-shirts with inscrutable references and visual motifs pulled from a smörgås-moodboard that makes little “sense” in any generalizable way. The t-shirt’s price clearly isn’t a function of its material makeup, but rather a result of some form of manipulation of meaning associated with it. But because meaning (or its substrate information) is infinite, it can only become a luxury once it carries the illusion of scarcity.

Meanings that only a few have access to are secrets. In the absence of meaning, the illusion of a secret is created by imposing a subcultural barrier to entry where only through an opaque process of scene work can one ‘get’ it (or, if you’re unlucky: if you gotta ask you’ll never know…). Alternatively, they are wrapped in the veil of an elusive X-factor, to which only a privileged few, i.e. the creative director, have direct access.

The key referent of luxury brands used to be one thing they made really well at great cost. But today they have gentrified themselves by discarding any fixed material basis: the only referent that does any work is the price, and the wealth associated with it.

By combining the traditional symbols of wealth with a pool of meaning that was made to seem scarce but was in fact infinite, brands created the umami equivalent of free energy. Everyone wanted money and everyone wanted umami. And there was more money around than ever before. What could go wrong?…

Excerpts from a fascinating essay by Emily Segal (forecaster, writer, and former principal at the pioneering K-Hole) and Martti Kalliala (architect, musician, and designer), the partners in Nemesis; do read it in full: “The Umami Theory of Value: Autopsy of the Experience Economy.”

* chef David Chang (Momofuku, et al.) in his 2016 essay on umami

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As we contemplate consumption, we might recall that it was on this date in 2005 that police descended on a Clovis, NM middle school after a report of a concealed weapon (a student carrying something “long and wrapped” onto the premises).  The force posted armed shooters on nearby roof-tops and cordoned off the classrooms.

The lock-down was lifted when an eighth-grader realized that he was likely the source of alarm.  He approached the principal and explained that he was carrying a 30-inch, foil wrapped burrito, part of an extra-credit assignment to create commercial advertising. “We had to make up a product and it could have been anything. I made up a restaurant that specialized in oddly large burritos.”

20060827-School_huge_burrito_weapon_1 source

 

Written by LW

April 28, 2020 at 1:01 am

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