Political critique of consumer culture is too easy: ideology inculcates an imaginary relationship with a real mode of production, blah blah blah. There's a Lacanian "lack" in ourselves that ideology tries get us to fill by buying stuff. Old news for my academic friends. For others, here's a Clif's Notes version from recent pop culture:
Joe Strummer's take on this critique is equally accessible:
"I'm all lost in the supermarket / I can no longer shop happily / I came in here for that special offer: / a guaranteed personality." The speaker either won't or can't assent to the idea that what we buy helps configure our subjectivity. Brands don't make us who we are. But maybe we're so deep in the ideological maze that we can't see any other way of defining ourselves.
Some of us try opting out. Romantic / progressive / back-to-land / hippie / punk / hipster aesthetics have all been about abstaining from consumerism. But always, that act of abstention gets co-opted: see American Apparel's capitalization of the dirt-bag, DIY vibe of current hipsterism. See Proctor and Gamble making "green" cleaning supplies. We still buy shit to show who we are--it's just that we buy different shit to show that we're different.
I do it, too. I've written here before about how I rationalize my cycling. Yes, riding a bike instead of driving a car to get somewhere is a subversive act that might help free us from expensive health insurance premiums and high gas prices. Both outcomes are anti-corporate. But biking is still an act that says "Hey, look at me on my cool new / retro metaphor for alternative thinking! Yipee!" And I still sometimes drive places in order to ride my bike.
I rode my mountain bike alone through Swanson Park yesterday. Swanson's where I first rode with my friend Miah all those years ago. I had gone to Ireland and rode all over the island for six weeks, but after I came home, I put the bike away and rarely got on it again for two years. But once Miah got me riding it at Swanson, I was hooked, and I've ridden a bike at least 5-6 times a month ever since.
Here's where the Clash song "Lost in the Supermarket" comes in: I got lost in Swanson yesterday. Cue laughter. For you non-Omahans, Swanson is a municipal park with about 5 miles of tightly looping single-track running through second-growth, deciduous hardwood forest. Dense foliage and underbrush surround very narrow and twisty clay trails that frequently double back next to themselves.
I've ridden there scores of times, but only once or twice since I've been back in Omaha. And they've changed some stuff. One loop is completely closed off, the entrance / exit trails have been moved, the climb up to Tetanus Ridge--where exposed iron and steel scrap juts up out of the ground for 50 yards and threatens an eponymous shot if you crash--has been closed. All those changes are pretty easy to figure out, but somehow I missed a turn in the deep woods. See, there are new little signs at most of the forks in the trail: A1, B1, etc, with directional arrows pointing the way. But I somehow went from C1 or D1 to J1 and skipped a whole bunch of stuff. I tried to backtrack and figure out where I went wrong, but I got caught in a loop starting and ending at the long bridge that leads to the J1 and the climb up and out of the woods to the fire station road.
After a few minutes trying to figure out the route, I found the road crossing and entered the switchbacks through the prairie grass and sumac. I found the new exit trail, too. But during my second lap, I paid more attention to the letters on the signage, and I found the trails marked D, E, F, and G that I'd missed the first time. But I have no idea how I'd missed them. I couldn't find the bad turn I took during my first lap, with one exception: during the second lap, I followed a "difficult" arrow instead of an "easy" option at a fork in the trail. I dropped down a really steep hill toward a creek bottom and then popped up a sharp rise 200 yards later. Taking the "easy" fork must have led me to the wrong turn. Hmmm.
I always knew where I was and how to get out of the woods. Only that missing fork eluded me. So I wasn't lost so much as ... displaced. But I marveled at how I could get so turned around, even in deep woods, on a piece of land I'd ridden so many times before. The world just felt askew. Trees loomed larger, grass radiated deeper. Swanson's grown more wild since I've been gone, and that wildness might be what disconcerted and displaced me. Of course, without the new signage assigning an alphabetic symbol to each of the loops, I might not have noticed that I missed a turn. Maybe the park's new civility is what disoriented me. That's what ideology is made of, after all: language and metaphor.
But for a sense of self partly constituted by the act of riding of a bike, getting lost on familiar territory was a revelation. "Home" felt "away." If Ulysses is right when he says "I am a part of all that I have met," then finding the new where I expected the old might mean that I'm not exactly who I thought I was.
And sometimes, that is a comforting thought. Being lost someplace as familiar as Swanson--or the supermarket-- might mean that I'm not so dependent on habits and patterns. That I am not, after all, my khakis. That I'm not consigned to repeating the same choices and following the same patterns that got me into this mess. That it's still possible to take a different fork.