Thursday, August 26, 2010

Cathedrals of Consumption
The apparent enemies may change, but this is the real religion that is so persistently and vociferously defended in America: the one true Church of Buying and Selling.

Through lofty times and fearful times, from the 50s onward, people have looked to the mall for excitement and solace, adventure and surcease, novelty and reassurance--and they found it all.

By the 1980s, Americans had come to believe in consumption as salvation: shop till you drop, spend till the end, buy till you die. Buying was the new time religion, which links adherents of all other religions and seems to transcend all other faiths. And the shopping mall was its cathedral of consumption.

There were the votive candles of neon, the altars of Atari, the icons of Calvin and St. Liz (Claiborne.) Like the cathedrals of Europe, the malls made their magic through the senses: the swirl of products' colors and textures, the smiles of clerks and waitresses, the soft splash of fountains and the dance of mirrored light in the Church of Buy Now, Pay Later. As psychologist James Hillman suggested, "Maybe that's what consumerism and advertising are all about, unconsciously, compulsively: a way to rekindle our desire for the world."

The needs and fears hidden in the human shadow were also expressed with their usual shocking power. The desire for comfort became raging greed and the addict's apathyt: the need for peace and identity within a community of worshippers became the walls of denial and exclusion.

What became most obvious during the 1980s was that the new religion of consumption had become organized and dogmatized. It had become the true church: one, unholy and apocalyptic. It was filling the world with waste, devouring its resources, exhausting society and the planet. But buying as a value above all others became a dogma and those who disagreed were heretics.

So the Church of Buying and Selling transformed everything into a product or the means to sell a product. The activities we call art, science, sport, inquiry (from scholarship to journalism,) public discourse, politics and government, weren't of this nature. But beginning in the 80s, they were embraced and adjusted, assimilated and converted.

The Church of Buying is also the Church of Selling, of advertising and public relations. Today these activities determine the form and content of information in all popular media and most of cultural life. To offend the Church of Selling--the advertiser--is to commit a mortal sin punished by banishment, the casting down into the pits of poverty and irrelevance.

The Church of Buying and Selling tolerates no rivals. There is no separation of this church and state. Politics and government have been commodified through corporate special interest lobbying and campaign contributions (which, by the way, we all involuntarily pay for, every time we buy something or even pay a bill.) Independent, disinterested or critical voices supported by the public are not permitted: even so-called public television is starved of public funds, and in the U.S. must rely on corporate funding that selects what it supports and therefore defines what gets seen.

Today the growing consumption industries are fast-food and discount shopping (where the new servant sector grins and spins for minimal wages), entertainment (which turns the beauty of sport and art into no-fault showbiz)and tourism, which pollutes and desecrates places of natural beauty and cultural or even religious significance (such as Native American sacred sites.) But how could that matter when there is only one true religion?

Doth not the Earth exist only to be consumed? And if we use it all up, we will still have our Cyberspace-Graven Images. Everything in nature, culture and history is turned into simplistic reverberate icons, emotional buttons for advertisers to push. Beyond that, they are useless and expendable.

Do not the Faithful work two and three jobs, and push themselves beyond the speed limits of life--sacrificing family, health, reverie, craftsmanship and civility, just to afford all the sacraments and indulgences the church can sell?

Do not the people exist solely to serve the Church of Buying and Selling? Does not all talent, energy, feeling, intelligence and belief belong to it? Are not all relationships secondary to our relationship to this Church? And have not our lives and souls become the ultimate consumables?

See now the congregation assembles for the service. See thge eyes flickering with bliss at Junior Miss. Hear the moans of devotion at Just Pants. Let us all gather by the bank machine--But wait, who is that whispering? Is that heresy we're hearing? Turn the sacred Muzak louder, post a photo of your redemptive purchases on Facebook, and keep moving, from one station of devotion to the next.

The screed above is mostly a piece of mine I'd just about forgotten, published in Adbusters Vol. 2 No. 3 under the title "Graven Images."

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