Two Related Observations: The Consumerist Mind

Not really in the office today as my good friend who teaches debate in the U.K. (as well as around the world) is staying with me. He's catching up on his jet lag and we are about to hit the bar in an hour or so. Can't think of a better way to spend an afternoon of thunderstorms. But what I want to talk about is some tentative evidence of the importance of ideology and place to rhetoric, conceived of in this case as perhaps tactics/Strategy (like Michel de Certeau talks about the crayon lines on the paper).

1) Last night my friend who works at the University described in great detail how she reads books for free by going to the Barnes & Noble, special ordering what she wants, and then when it comes in deciding she doesn't want it. The book stays in the store and she goes there to read it until she is done. She found this quite clever, until I pointed out the library (a 3 minute walk instead of 20) will ILL anything for free and you can keep it for 2-4 weeks. She said, "I forgot about the library."

2) My wife worked part time at a pet store for a while. People would "drop off" or abandon their unwanted pets at the pet store, or persuade the staff to take unwanted animals for cash. The free shelter is less than 2 miles away from the pet store.

Unrelated stories? Not likely. They are evidence of the transformation of options brought about by the ideology and rhetoric of consumer capitalism. These two examples indicate the decline of the potential to imagine any alternative to a consumer capitalist model, and force the imagination to work hard to develop tactics within consumer capitalist strategies. The space, if there ever was one, of imagining an alternative to this ideology is nearly gone (if it ever existed) at the point where someone walks thoughtlessly by the library on their way to "scam" the bookstore. The better "scam" is to use the facility dedicated to an anti-consumerist model of books - no longer "commodity," they can be re-imagined as "resource."

The lack of imagining an alternative to a shop of animals is even more disturbing. The farthest people can reach is to trade "sideways" within the same grammatical case to rhetorically "solve" their problem - a "shop of animals" becomes a "shop for animals" with a rhetorical "squint." The effort is to change the vision, not to "turn away." There is no other place to go that can be thought of, well no place outside of the model of the consumer oriented business. If the staff refused to take the animals, the rhetoric of "customer rights" is invoked or blackmail - "I'm just going to kill it if you don't take it."

de Certeau discusses rhetorical options within dominating rhetorical systems in his book The Practice of Everyday Life. A "tactic" is distinct from a "strategy" because a "strategy" depends on "the proper" in order to operate. Words like "competitors" and "customers" are part of the vocabulary of strategy because they are force-relationships which do not require (as I interpret it) a lot of thought or effort on the part of the consumer or competitor (in business) to occupy them. "Tactics" depend not on the "proper" but on the "timely." De Certeau argues that propriety as a value is a "triumph of place over time." So a tactic can be read as "seizing the moment." The example that de Certeau gives is the woman at the market planning a dinner party where the force-relationships (guest, size of fridge, ingredients at home) are taken advantage of by her shrewd purchase of sale items and ingredients that might be cheaper but not within the "proper" items for such a meal. (all of this is on page xix in the introduction of the book). Tactics are timely and are created, strategies eliminate time from the decision and are placed upon.

So what's the payoff here? What we see is the "tactical" being limited in its application under the crushing force of consumerism. Perhaps de Certeau does not believe that it can operate outside of strategy (although it is a question what it's oppositional stance is because it is the "Other" - in the French sense then, it would require strategy to exist in order to be, so it would never be Archimedian). He links it to the Greek sense of metis - "ways of operating" or perhaps "getting by in the world" or something like that.

I would say that our "tactical" moves are especially restricted in the dominance of the role of the consumer and the increasing unintelligibility of rights outside of a customer service sensibility. This can perhaps go toward explaining the intense anger and crazy outbursts of people at health care town meetings. They cannot imagine an alternative outside of a consumer-capitalist sensibility, where health is a product, and even more threateningly, the tactics they have discovered within the health care strategies that work for them would be wiped away if there were an alternative system. This is the motive for the behavior, and suggests a response where instead of telling people that they will not be turned away for insurance, explain that they will still be considered the customer, which diffuses the fury at the loss of such moments of triumph that people have discovered within the current health care system.

At once both disturbing for the lack of imagination left in our relationships, but a good discovery I think since it suggests a new way of "lining up the ducks" when ordered to "get your ducks in a row" within the dominant consumer-capitalist ideology.