Wednesday, December 30, 2015

On Desires and Commodities

I've just been reading books and watching films lately. I'll write again soon. But check out this passage from The Obsolescence of Man by Gunther Anders, first published in 1956:


The mere fact that I had no car and therefore could be caught in flagrante not buying anything and, ultimately, of having no needs, was the cause in 1941 of the following embarrassing incident in California:


Yesterday, in the Los Angeles area, while I was walking along a highway, a police car pulled over in front of me with its siren wailing and blocked my path.

The policeman shouted at me: “Say, what’s the matter with your car?”

“My car?”, I asked him, not understanding what he was talking about.

“Sold her?”

I shook my head.

“At the shop for repairs?”

Once again I shook my head.

The policeman paused in thought, since it seemed to him to be impossible that there should be a third reason for not having a car. “Then why aren’t you driving it?”

“My car? But I don’t have a car.”

This simple piece of information also went right over his head.

To help him understand, I explained that I had never owned a car.

Now I really stuck my foot in it. A clear case of self-incrimination. The policeman stared at me with his mouth hanging open. “You never had a car?”

“Look, no”, I said, pondering his powers of comprehension. “That’s the boy.” And then I waved to him in a friendly and innocent way and attempted to resume my walk.

But he would have none of that. To the contrary. “Don’t force me, sonny,” he thought and pulled out his citation booklet, “don’t tell me any stories, please”. The pleasure of interrupting the dull boredom of his job with the capture of a vagrant almost gave him a friendly, innocent air. “And why haven’t you ever owned a car?”

I thought for a second about what I should not say in response. So instead of saying: “Because it never occurred to me to get a car”, I responded—and for added emphasis, I shrugged my shoulders and assumed a distracted look—“Because I never needed a car.”

This answer seemed to put him in a good mood. “Is that so?”, he then exclaimed, almost with enthusiasm. I sensed that I had committed a second, even worse mistake. “And why don’t you need a car, sonnyboy?”

Sonnyboy shrugged his shoulders, afraid. “Because I had more need of other things.”

“Such as?”


“Aha!”, the policeman said thoughtfully, and he repeated the word, “books”. Evidently he was now certain of his diagnosis. And then: “Don’t act the moron!”, which is how he made it clear to me that he had discovered that sonnyboy was a “highbrow who was faking imbecility” and that, in attempt to simulate an inability to understand that offers were orders, pretended to be an idiot. “We know your kind”, he thought, giving me a friendly poke in the chest. And then, with a sweeping gesture that indicated the distant horizons: “And where do you want to go?”

This was the question that I most feared, since I still had sixty-four kilometers of highway until San L; and once there, I had nowhere to go. If I had tried to define for him the absence of a goal for someone who is on the road, I would definitely have seemed like a vagrant. God knows where I would be sitting now if, at that very moment, L. had not arrived, truly like a deus in machina, if he had not pulled up alongside us with his imposing six-seat sedan, if he had not stopped suddenly and gestured to me, inviting me to get into his car, something that not only left the policeman flabbergasted, but also seriously challenged his philosophy.

“Don’t do it again!”, he snapped, as I got into our car.

What is it that I am not supposed to do again?

Evidently, I must not refrain from buying what is offered in the form of a command to everyone.

When in these offers you recognize the commandments of our time, one is no longer surprised that even those who cannot afford to do so also end up buying the commodities that are offered. And they do so because they are even less capable of affording not following orders; that is, not buying the commodities. And since when has the appeal to duty [Pflicht] respected those without resources? And since when has duty [Sollen] ever exempted the have-nots from its commands? Just as, according to Kant, one must comply with one’s duty even when, or especially when, it is contrary to one’s inclination, so today one has to comply even when it is contrary to one’s own “responsibility”. Especially today. In the same way, the mandates of the offers are categorical. And when they announce their must-have, to appeal to one’s own precarious situation of duty-and-responsibility would be pure sentimentalism.

Of course, this analogy is a philosophical exaggeration, but it nonetheless contains a kernel of truth, since it is no metaphor to truly claim that today there is hardly anything in the spiritual life of contemporary man that plays as fundamental a role as the difference between what one cannot afford and what cannot be afforded; and this difference furthermore becomes real in the form of a “battle”. If for the man of our time there is a characteristic conflict of duties, it is none other than the no-holds-barred, ferocious and exhausting battle that takes place in the hearts of customers and within the bosom of the family. True, “no-holds-barred, ferocious” and “exhausting”, because the fact that the object of the struggle can make us stupid and the battle itself could take place as a comical version of real conflicts, does not at all detract from its bitterness and must suffice as the fundamental conflict of a contemporary bourgeois tragedy.

As everyone knows, this tragedy usually ends with the victory of the “mandate of the offer”; that is, with the acquisition of the commodity. But this victory is dearly bought, since from that very moment the customer begins to experience the servile compulsion of paying in installments for the acquired object.


Anders goes on to explain how we become slaves to our things as we harbour a belief that if we don't use them regularly, then all that money and time spent working to get the object has gone to waste. So we use it even when we no longer get pleasure from it just to avoid wasting our hard-earned things. Which is nuts. And if we could just think a bit, we could rise above this mess of things.

It makes me think of one of my favourite lines of poetry, published the same year:
"What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?"
Anders comes to the same conclusion as Epicurus, Epictetus, Plato, Lao Tzu, Jesus, and many others: We can have greater pleasure in life if we reduce our desires for things instead of getting sucked into an endless battle to fulfill every desire. But it's not just about desire for commodities. We have strong desires for progress and perfection. We can't fall for that either. Life is messy, and we will always be flawed and ever unfinished. Epictetus in particular advised recognizing what's within our control and not bothering much about anything else. Reputation, honour, status are not within our control. It's just an illusion that if we work hard enough, we can get them. Once we can accept that fact, then we can let go of expectations and striving for something we might never achieve.

I don't see it as cut and dry as Epictetus does, however. To me, those things are just a greater gamble with a lower probability of success than what we can control with certainty. Instead of resigning myself to what's out of my control, I just get better at playing the odds. But imagine a life with fewer goals, with fewer expectations, like Anders' contentious walk to nowhere. That's not allowed in our age that glorifies progress at any cost.

I thought of this as I watched The End of the Tour followed by several interviews and speeches by Wallace.

And way down here, way below the fold, I've been thinking a lot about the "sudden deaths" of three male teachers from my board, ranging in age from 36 to 55. One at FHCI, one at my school, and one at SSS. All within a year. The absences of any evidence to the contrary leads me to believe they took their own lives. At our school, we were instructed to shut down that discussion out of respect for the family. And I don't understand that. So I'm whispering this here because it's begging to be cracked wide open.

ETA: And now a fourth, a female breaks the pattern a bit.  And now there's a fifth.

Our schools are all about working to reduce the stigma around mental health. Caz, my departed colleague, and I worked on a mural in honour of Clara Hughes' struggle with mental health.  But we're not to discuss his condition or speculate about possible contributing factors with an eye towards improving the odds for others. We're supposed to wade in the ambiguities of yet another 'sudden death.'

If all three were hit by a car, students and teachers would rally and petition to make the streets safer. If all three were victims of assault or cancer or lyme disease or any other single cause, we would join together to raise money and awareness to prevent similar deaths in future. But as it is, we sit silently, in anguish, trying hard to ignore the pattern of cases.

As teachers, we're afraid to get in trouble like never before, acting to avoid punitive measures rather than for the love of teaching. We have new mandates that are unclear and the dictates continue to waver with each administrator, yet teaching reviews can be labelled unsatisfactory and jobs lost if these fuzzy rules aren't followed accurately. It's a time of profound chaos leading to a general state of anomie. We have a professional organization that focuses on teacher error, from the mundane to the profane, and publishes them regularly with names and details in a magazine that we are obligated to fund, rather than discretely and respectfully working with teachers to resolve concerns and to restore professional relationships. One disgruntled student with a parent willing to go the distance can end a career.

And criticizing any of it can lead to termination. Shhhhh..... This is but a minor act of embarrassingly cowardly rebellion.

The reality right now is that keeping a job by working hard is no longer within our control. I've had more student complaints about me this year than in all the previous 24 years combined. Every time I've been supported by my administration, but the complainants are undeterred insisting they should be able to re-submit projects endlessly to get a mark that shows their best ability. There's a belief that we should mark work repeatedly until the end of term, and I will quit if I'm made to mark each piece of work several times over until they each have 100% in the course. The absurdity of the situation requires us to accept that we shouldn't expect to be able to retire in good standing regardless our dedication to the craft.

This is not to say that careers were a driving force in these deaths, but I imagine they were at least a contributing factor. We spend a third of our lives at work, and, for people like me, under the new conditions, it consumes a majority of waking hours. But these tragedies are also a piece of a new statistic that the suicide rate of middle age white males has risen by 40% in the last seven years.

Some think this increase is due to the expectation of the stoic male and the "gym culture" that has foisted unattainable goals on men. Others focus on a similar split between dual expectations of being strong and being vulnerable. Others look to the singleness of most of the men in the study, others on how coping skills fall apart with age, on alcohol use, and on our glorification of youth.  Some think it's simply a factor of the economic downturn as suicides peaked during the depression as well. And others note that it's highest in those without a high-school education.  Economic insecurity is certainly a stress too much to bare for some, but Durkheim's research found that suicide rates rise during positive changes as much as negative changes. "Even fortunate crises, the effect of which is abruptly to enhance a country's prosperity, affect suicide like economic disasters" (203).  Too much change that creates upheaval in a society affects the desire to take a quick exit. We are in a point of increasingly frequent and hurried disruptions, and we can't settle in. We can't feel secure in what we're doing to improve it before we have to change it.

The school board seems to recognize that it's causing some problems as evidenced by one perk of our new contract being a promise of no new initiatives for a year. We used to get a rush of changes at every provincial election, then those ideas would be overruled by the next government before they were ever fully implemented. Now it seems like new changes bombard us for the sake of change, as if they believe that constantly moving is the same as progressing.

Granted Epictetus would advise that the expectation that our colleagues will live full lives to their natural end is unreasonable to hold as it's not at all within our control. And yet...  An urge to act, to do something to prevent others' misery and loneliness and fear and desperation bubbles up uncontained and rudderless. Impotent.

No comments: