Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Insanity of "Black Friday"

Watching the hordes of 'Black Friday' shoppers captured pummeling each other for x-boxes on one Saturday night news clip segment, I wondered what all the hoopla was about. Why had so many Americans been reduced to out of control cattle as if on cattle drives - instigated by cynical retailers who knew damned well they didn't have the merchandise in adequate quantity to deliver the goods.

Recall that it was Erik Larson (The Naked Consumer, Henry Holt & Co., 1992, p. 181) who first noted:

"No one ever notices. Ever. Consumers shop like in a trancelike state like 'idly grazing animals"

So that by extension, if "consumers" are packed into relatively small retail spaces with limited amounts of desirable merchandise, it is inevitable they will act not in "trance like states" but like wild herds careening into each other for the limited water in the water hole. This is why Larson and others regard consumption in itself as an inhuman activity, not fit for any whole person or citizen to do in any excess. It is also discomfiting that the term "consumer" has been applied indiscriminately, as much to a citizen who merely seeks to purchase to fulfill a need (e.g. buy a first home, a car for transport, or food to eat) as to someone who merely seeks to satiate material wants. (LCD TVs, HDTVs, X-boxes, ipads, etc).

This is germane to some of the over the top Black Friday phenomena, including: one woman pepper spraying 20 others in the eyes and faces to keep them away from a cache of x-boxes, another shopper tasering those close by so she had first dubs on a dvd-player, and in New York, wild crowds looting a clothing store in Soho.

One observer of all this, Theresa Williams - a marketing professor at Indiana University, has observed:

"These are people who should know better and have enough stuff already. What's going to happen next year? Everyone gets tasered?"

Well, maybe, or maybe stores will resort to the new "subsonic" weapons to inflict mass visceral discomfort on rampaging mobs --- inducing mass diarrhea and vomiting. Well, hopefully not that far?

But the question is: Why this unhealthy obsession over some choice material items? In a poor economy, one hovering on a new recession, one explanation is that with nothing much left many view any item of material desire to confer some form of value. No items, equals no value. If one then enters a store at midnight, and is already sleep -deprived but comes away with nothing, well then there is an overpowering need to compensate for the lack of power. Or perceived power.

The sad fact, however, is that in a capitalist culture that prizes money and material goods above all else, those items will come to be valued over all else. Thus, we have the multi-millionaires (such as featured on one CNBC special last week) bragging that although they already have 14 Lamborghinis, and 10 Lexuses, with 8 Bentleys, they still want more. They have over $125 million, but also want more because they are "scorekeeping to mark their success" and "money or goods is the way to do it".

This is pathetic. But it gets to the heart of the persistent American neurosis in obsessing over money and consumer goods, such as trotted out on Black Fridays. (And again, never in the quantities to deliver the goods to all who may want them).

An interesting take on this material shopaholism is provided by Buddhist Philosopher Alan Watts (Does It Matter?, Vintage Books, 1971. He writes:

"The commonly accepted notion that Americans are materialists is pure bunk. A materialist is one who loves material, a person devoted to the enjoyment of the physical and immediate present. By this definition, most Americans are abstractionists. They hate material and convert it as swiftly as possible to mountains of junk and clouds of poisonous gas."

Certainly he likely has a point if typical Black Friday shoppers do collect much more extra stuff than they need (and already have) and it merely ends up in a storage bin someplace. In this case, the shoppers are as neurotic as the multi-millionaires and merely collecting or buying stuff for the sake of score keeping.

"Well, uh, I got two x-boxes and a dvd-player and a 42" flat screen LCD TV last year, and I uh three x-boxes and two 55" HDTVs this year!"

But with no extra space, the earlier purchased stuff ends up in a storage rental. Meanwhile the person maybe lost ten hours of sleep or more, and possibly received a black eye and pepper-sprayed nose for her trouble.

Another perspicacious quote by Watts (p. 35):

"In a civilization devoted to the strictly abstract and mathematical idea of making the most money in the least time, the only sure method of success is to cheat the customer, to sell various kinds of nothingness in pretentious packages"

This is noteworthy, because he's basically saying all that stuff being fought so intensely over, is basically crap when all is said and done. There are only so many games one can play on an x-box before getting bored, and only so many hours one can watch the flat screen TV. What about real life?

This morning while eating breakfast at a local restaurant, my wife noticed a father and his obviously visiting college daughter (she wore an 'LSU' sweatshirt, like most frosh do on their first trips home during 1st semester) sitting across from each other. The dad had his nose in a book, the daughter was totally detached and wired up: an ipod with headsets to her ears, and her face gazing at a laptop computer screen. They were in two different realities (my guess is that the dad brought his book because he knew in advance his offspring wished to be on Facebook.)

I thought to myself: This is the most pathetic sight I've ever seen. What if this is the last get together for these two, and this is how they spend it? What if something happens to the girl on her way back to college, an accident or something else? Will she regret not spending quality time with dad?

Whose fault is it? I don't know but have noticed many young (e.g. Gen. Y) people now when they return home "tune out" the old farts...errr...folks, and simply stay wired to their artificial contraptions and hooked up to Twitter, Facebook or whatever. Again, this is pathetic. When families are together they ought to BE together. Not merely physically, but communicating.

The problem with too many Americans is they've lost their outward communication skills and now are reduced to doing it within limited, artificial social circles online, as opposed to real life. The effect is to render millions socially retarded, and also in terms of their communications levels (e.g. lingo interspersed with lol's, 'how r u's' etc.) Young people, for whatever reason, are particularly prone to this but I don't know why. A new standard for 'cool'?

Several years ago, a niece - from Clarke University -came to visit my wife and me for a week. But it was as if she wasn't here, because every time we'd look for her to converse or take a walk outside, she'd be hooked up to her laptop (or rather our laptop) and in another (Facebook)world. She was with us, but she wasn't. I suppose she figured that being at least in our home was being with us, and that's all that counted. But if that's the standard for young people in communicating with their peers, or more likely elders, then they have a lousy standard.

In this regard, Watts' Buddhist point is that we are living in a culture that has been hypnotized by symbols- words, numbers, measures, quantities, and images – and that we mistake them for and prefer them, to physical reality. This, indeed, is the essence of false consciousness: to be so distracted by the ephemeral material trappings of being, one neglects to partake of the real, inner being....especially that which makes us human.

In the case of Gen-Y youngsters' virtual solipsism and closed circles of communication, they believe that the proof of the pudding is in their blinking monitor screens , cells or ipads and the truncated text messages left on them, and not in any real human voices converging beyond or the sunlit blue skies that may beckon them to rouse themselves from their virtual stupor.

In the case of the Black Friday shoppers, they believe the proof of the pudding is in their recent buys, never mind that they already have three of each at home, and not in actually communicating with the people they have found themselves with in instant social congregations.

But since those others are now competitors for the same toys - and it is 'he who has the most toys wins'- they cannot also be fellow beings with whom actual, meaningful communication is feasible, or desirable.

The Buddhist recipe for happiness, as delivered by Watts?

"Reduce all your material wants to nothing!"

No comments: