Consuming The Illusion 


The symbolic world and consumer culture's war on the self. 


By Nick Baxter 


We are constantly confronted with the loss of ourselves in our daily lives under the conditions of this post-everything era of advanced capitalism. So advanced has it become, that literally everything is now a commodity, an object to be bought and sold based on a symbolic value or 'worth.' Not surprisingly, this has led to ever-increasing standards of material wealth and expectations of instant physical gratification. These phenomena, coupled with the proliferation of mass media and encoded visual stimuli such as advertisements, are resulting in the exaltation of images and things, and the degradation of human fulfillment and real life experiences. Slowly yet steadily, we are replacing the actual with virtual, the real with signs and symbols, and the self with external objects. Internet chat-rooms take the place of intimate talks around a bonfire, rings and diamonds mean 'I love you,' the hours of our daily lives are exchanged for money at a job, and the list goes on. 

After the infatuation with this fantasy world subsides we often find ourselves bored and strung out, apathetic and confused, atomized and isolated, which materializes in a number of mental and physical ailments. All culminating in the loss of that intangible sense of self and the creation of an internal emotional and spiritual* void. All too often, in this weakened state we attempt to replace the intangible with material--adopting capitalism's mindset that everything must be counted, ordered, quantified, physically seen or possessed, or else it is not valid nor worthwhile. 

Experiencing this void, or lack of self, we turn our focus onto physical commodities and material goods, which of course goes hand in hand with an all-encompassing exchange economy based on the fetishization of 'things.' Therefore we learn to actualize ourselves and validate our own existence--indeed, prove to ourselves that we are alive--through the acquisition of material possessions, and through seeing images of ourselves reproduced for others (i.e. being 'famous'). We transfer our sense of self onto the physical objects and symbols of the world around us--the innate and esoteric state of being is transformed into three-dimensional material objects and two-dimensional images. The internal becomes external. The fluid, natural, visceral and intangible becomes static, manufactured, deliberately mediated and measured. 

Hence we 'look for life in the image of life' and satisfy our yearnings for fulfillment through consumption. Things that are seen or bought become more important and real than moments that are actually experienced or lived firsthand. Similarly, moments in which we are buying things often seem more pleasant and important than moments lived without tangible consumption. Our instincts as social creatures take this phenomenon one step further: the greater number of people who see something or someone, the more real and important that thing or person becomes; fame and celebrity status are sought after and cherished. The more we identify with or possess that thing or person, the more real and important we thus become, by way of association. In many of these instances, what we consume isourselves. 

Very often, our process of (over)consumption comes to resemble a downward spiral or running on a treadmill--we never truly get anywhere good because one can never replace spiritual with material, or trade the internal for external. As much as we've been socially and culturally trained to find happiness outside rather than inside of ourselves via commodities and images, the two realms will always be incongruent. This is the dead end we have come to in the waning era of this civilization. This is how material consumer goods and mass media images have come to be placed above the unique self and personal spiritual fulfillment--or rather, this is how material consumer goods and mass media images havebecome the unique self and personal spiritual fulfillment. 

Of course, solutions are plentiful, and there are none so important as your own. But in case you need a jump start, here are just a few suggestions: Turn off your TV. Smash your TV. Don't listen to corporate radio stations. Find quiet places to cultivate original thoughts, unprompted by mass media slogans and advertising. Make something creative with your hands. Live creatively. Dream up ingenious solutions to common problems and try them out. Reclaim your identity from advertisers. Deface billboards and all forms of invasive advertising. Destroy or deface corporate property, or use it for things other than it was intended--mutually beneficial, community organized or spontaneously creative things. Steal from large corporations. Give away all your possessions, or the ones you do not use frequently. Share everything with a small trusting community, or with complete strangers. Make a list of everything that makes you unique. Make a list of all the ways you are connected to a community around you. Separate the life-nurturing from the soul-draining, so you can learn to recognize your own best interests--and those of others. Ponder the meaning(s) of life and the uniqueness of your own experience and perception. Write it all down and share it with others. Travel somewhere. DO something... anything. 

* The word 'spiritual' as it is used in this passage does not refer to common misperceptions of the 'spiritual,' such as organized religion. Nor does it refer to any strict and dogmatic belief system not originating from one's own mind and experiences. Instead it refers to any and all deep-rooted emotional, psychological, intangible and unquantifiable attributes of human existence.