By David Cain
When a friend of mine inspected the damage from a fender-bender, what upset him most was the discovery that his bumper was nothing but a brittle plastic husk supported by three pieces of styrofoam. The vehicle was new and probably cost about $35,000.
In the documentary Minimalism, on Netflix, sociology professor Juliet Schor articulated something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. Essentially she said our society is drowning in needless possessions and consumer debt not because we’re too materialistic, but because we’re not materialistic enough, at least in the true sense. (Direct quote is here.)
In the everyday sense, the word materialism is used interchangeably with consumerism, a preoccupation with buying and consuming goods. We hear all the time that Western society is vapid and materialistic, meaning that it cares far too much about things, and not enough about spiritual or interpersonal values.
But using the word “materialistic” that way implies that the things themselves are what we value most, as though we consumers are connoisseurs of fine handiwork, attention to detail, and inspired design.
Looking closer, it’s clear our rampant buying has little to do with a taste for nice things. Our shopping culture does not suggest a close relationship with the physical and concrete parts of our lives. In fact we have very low standards for what physical objects we trade our money for, and for the quality of the sensory experiences they provide.
So much of our stuff is so crappy. Seams on brand-name clothes undo themselves under normal wear. Our grocery store vegetables are bland. We drink coffee that was roasted a year ago. Everything that can conceivably be made of plastic is made of plastic. (Seriously, who wants to sit in this?) We might be in love with buying, but we are not in love with things.
If we were things-lovers we’d have better things, and few things we don’t use. Market competition would drive products to become better and better, instead of just more plentiful. The typical item produced by the most productive economy in history is a plastic piece of crap. I remember having to buy four standing lamps before I found one whose dimmer switch lasted a full calendar year, and I wasn’t buying the cheapo ones.
Good material things are available, but they’re the exception. Increasingly, if you want something durable and well-designed, something that feels good in the hands and is a joy to use, you’re looking into the high-end boutique market.
Last year I bought a stapler at an artsy gift shop for $63, and nobody I’ve disclosed that to hasn’t laughed at me for it. But I enjoy every single act of stapling, it’s made of thick gauge steel, and it will still be operational eight or ten presidents from now. How many flimsy mass market staplers had I gone through before I made a point of buying one whose physicality I actually respect? And how few things like that do I own?
I’m not sure when people started saying “They don’t make them like they used to”, but it is certainly true today. Something happened at some point that left us preferring more things over better things, and acquiring over using or owning.
Selves for Sale
Part of it has to do with a big shift in marketing that happened in the mid-20th century.
Ads used to be straightforward appeals to material needs: the product does this, it costs this much, and you can buy it at these stores. Products were marketed as solutions to acute material problems: dirty clothes, itchy feet, unruly beards.
Taking inspiration from wartime propaganda, advertisers began pandering to a different set of their customer’s needs—not straightforward material desires for a cleansing product or a smooth brandy, but their deeper psychological desires.
The modern truck commercial isn’t offering trucks exactly, it’s offering manhood. Ads are typically set in the badlands or on construction sites, or some other manly domain. The narrator is deep-voiced and talks to you like a knowing fellow man, and at the end a truck performs some act of heroism, dragging a tree out of a blocked roadway or something.
Laundry detergent ads aren’t offering laundry detergent, they’re offering the identity of a suburban mother who’s on top of her household. Booze ads are offering inclusion into a group of attractive friends. Vacation ads are selling rekindled relationships and a spell of freedom from adult responsibility.
Marketers began to sell products in a way that suggests you are buying something deeper and more abstract than a material thing: a sense of freedom, belonging, security, virility, popularity—any of the non-material qualities we perpetually seek and never have enough of. They sell us what we want to be, not what we want to have.
Unlike the practical needs of a working family, our desire for self-actualization is bottomless, and so when we try to buy it, we buy endlessly.
(This topic is fascinating and horrifying, and described in detail in the documentary The Century of the Self.)
The materiality of the product—what you physically receive from the transaction—is often an afterthought. Because most of us have lived our entire lives being sold products based on their symbolic value, we don’t find it that unusual or offensive when the item itself is cheaply put together and doesn’t evoke our respect or gratitude.
Even big expensive things, like my friend’s (briefly) new car, are as plastic and shitty as the customer will tolerate, and we tolerate quite a bit. A three-quarter-million-dollar “McMansion” isn’t a Nice Thing. It costs a lot but it’s still cheaply made, the product of numerical calculations made by some distant development firm. It represents nobody’s artistic vision, nobody’s best work. But it does come with status, and probably a sense of arrival at a particular socioeconomic rung, or stage of adulthood.
A lot of the stuff we buy we don’t even use, which would strike our pre-consumer ancestors as very bizarre. Almost everyone reading this owns clothing they’ve only ever worn in a fitting room. Why? Probably because what was purchased was the glowing feeling of moving up, of improving the self, and that feeling was generated by the shopping experience rather than the item itself. The sense of improving one’s personal image a little further is probably a bigger motivator of most clothing purchases than the physical virtues of the garments themselves—the material quality, the tailoring, and the design.
Living on solid ground
There are other factors in our disconnection with the material world. The information age has given us too much to think about, too many abstract places to put our attention.
Today many of us work very abstract jobs, requiring little bodily awareness, and much mental effort tracking abstract things like processes, policies, formulae and schedules. More and more occupations emphasize an awareness of personnel rather than people, production rather than craft, maps rather than territories.
Contrast this with an agrarian life of plowing, chopping, knitting, gardening, cooking, building. These are all highly sensory experiences that require ongoing attention to your body, tools and other material aspects of the world around you.
It is normal now to spend most our lives preoccupied with what’s going on in places we’ve never been and will never go, and the actions of people we’ll never meet. That kind of “global” awareness may have its uses, but we’ve certainly never been so out of touch with the materiality of our experience—the concrete, the physical, the present.
The shoddiness we tolerate in our material goods is a symptom of our extreme preoccupation with the abstract and symbolic side of life. The hallmark of stress and unease is rumination—unconscious, uncontrolled thinking about things you aren’t really doing and conversations you aren’t really having.
The remedy is to make our relationship with the material world our primary concern, as it once was. We should be animals using abstract thinking as a tool, putting it down when we’re not using it purposefully.
Buy less, buy better. Notice the materiality of the things you use. Live in your body. Feel the ground when you walk. Chop wood, carry water.