Confessions of a Guilt-Driven Consumer

Father and SonI’m rather relieved that Father’s Day will soon be upon us. After it’s over, I won’t have to purchase any gifts for the next 3 months; given the present strains on my bank account, this is helpful. However, between here and there, I am going to have to find something suitable, write a thoughtful note, and have it shipped. This is a ritual which I’ve been going through repeatedly since Christmas. Once one occasion has been addressed, another follows in its wake: birthdays follow Christmas which are then followed by “greeting card” holidays for Mothers, Fathers and even St. Patrick. I recall standing in a New York mall shortly after New Years Day: while the Christmas lights were still aglow and bright red ornaments adorned plastic pine trees, the displays of various shops were already implying that it was not too soon to make purchases for Valentine’s Day.

Much has been said about consumption built upon the manipulation of desire through marketing; what is less often discussed is the consumerism which is constructued upon a foundation of guilt. The direct implication is that if one does not acquire a certain set of material goods, then one is somehow lacking in appreciation or affection for the individual who should be honoured. All other considerations go out the window at that point. For example, prior to Mother’s Day, my father sent my sister and I the following note:

My Dear Children,

Just wanted to remind you that Mother’s Day (US) is on 9 May.

Dad

There are subtle messages embedded in this jotting. My father was not just reminding us of the date, he also was telling us to get her something. In the case of my family, the gift need not be dramatic. Regardless, there must be some token of affection in order to remember the day, which is itself a gross construct upon a noble foundation. The first suggestion of a “Mother’s Day” in the United States came from women’s peace groups after the Civil War; the event was supposed to be one of reconciliation between mothers on both sides who had lost their sons. We do not question the monstrous distortion that has taken place since, we just scramble to fulfil the requirement, in other words, we are acting in performance of a consumerist ideology. As Marx suggested, this occurs when “We are not aware of this, nevertheless we do it.” My mother has no need to doubt my affections towards her, nor does my father need to question the fact that I hold her in high regard: this is evident in the consideration, affection and kindness I endeavour to show her on a constant basis. Yet, the slate is wiped clean as per the strictures of this “holiday”; by this process, familial affection has turned into an act of material consumption, and lest one thought be lacking in love, one trundles down to the shops.

I wish I could say that I am free of ideology in this regard; I’m not. My last birthday was a particularly traumatic example; upon my awaking, my girlfriend wished me a happy birthday, but had not gotten me a card, nor a gift, nor arranged anything for us to do on the day (fortunately, I had bought theatre tickets). I am not so removed from our present culture as to not have been hurt by this and to question her affection for me. However, perhaps my study of philosophy and political economy came to my aid: they may have granted me a sense of proportion. I was much more hurt by the fact that she blamed her inability to give a gift or a card on my supposed lack of appreciation for any previous gifts she had given me; in contrast, I truly cherished a handmade card given to me by my sister. However, later that day, I operated in performance of the ideology again by getting my girlfriend a bag of chocolate buttons to break her out of a deep sulk: I wasn’t aware, but nevertheless I did it, I bought her something so that her mood would lighten. It worked.

Some may sigh at this point and ascribe this situation to being “the way of the world”. This is false: there is nothing written into the fabric of our DNA which suggests that we have to buy a gift on Mother’s Day. It’s a construction made by people, society and productive relations, and like any edifice, it can be altered. But at this point, the link between consumption, guilt and affection is so deeply embedded it may require a detonation of some of our more rock solid pre-conceptions.

If we must give gifts, perhaps we ought to decouple them from holidays provided by Hallmark. Or perhaps we should try to imbue tokens of affection with meaning; this has been an aspiration of mine, perhaps linked to a writer’s desire to “make words say more than words can say”. For example, a long time ago, I loved a young lady whose favourite book was Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway”. The novel began as a story entitled “Mrs. Dalloway on Bond Street”, which appeared in the Dial magazine in 1923; I secured an original copy for her. The thing was not the thing in and of itself; it was an attempt to say in something other than words, “I hear you”, which perhaps meant more than “I love you”.

Come to think of it, it may be time to get rid of the phrase “I love you”, as it has been undermined by consumption and perverted by what it doesn’t necessarily mean. One can say “I love you”, but while our overall concept of the emotion may betoken trust, intimacy, compassion and forbearance, it is also so nebulous as to be able to exist in the absence of what it implies. There are couples who say “I love you” but don’t trust each other, indeed, on a fundamental level, may not even like each other. “I love you” is also well in evidence after 10 PM in many dance clubs and bars throughout the British Isles, but its sole meaning is “I want to sleep with you” or “I’m very drunk”. Because the term is so debauched, it may be a more meaningful act to skip over “I love you”‘s soggy wretchedness and go directly to “I trust you”, “I want you”, “I understand you”, and “I forgive you”. Unlike “I love you”, the measurements of these expressions are much more direct: love is amorphous, trust is demonstrable. Furthermore, this approach may overcome the consumptive barrier: you can buy a gift on Valentine’s Day, true forgiveness rarely has a price tag.

But then again, I could be wrong: perhaps the Hero (or Heroine) of our age is the one who can imbue “I love you” with direct meaning once more, and can separate out emotional life from material life. I do not present myself as such an individual, nor would I suggest I am anywhere near it. However perhaps one positive instance of “we are not aware, but nevertheless we do it” arises from the hope that still continues to arise from utterances of the phrase “I love you” in spite of the accumulating evidence that it is merely a cover for a transaction or series of transactions (or worse, nothing). We are not aware, but we individually hope for the Hero or Heroine to come, to break the chains which bind both mind and soul, and imbue life with something more meaningful than shopping. The hope may be forlorn, but it suggests that we are more than just consumers: it’s a start.

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