Wednesday, November 3, 2010

In response to John Berger and Adam Curtis

          In his book “Ways of Seeing”, John Berger asserts that women’s self has been split in two, that a woman is “…almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself.” Today this concept can be seen as short-sighted. He later states that “Glamour cannot exist without personal social envy being a common and widespread emotion.” The majority of people in post-modern society not only watch themselves at all times, they visualize versions of their potential selves and are envious of them.
          In Adam Curtis’ “The Century of the Self” ( , he describes many of the political motivations behind various schools of social thought. The overarching theme is that of powerful men in a post-industrial society doing whatever they can to gain more power, utilizing new psychological techniques as ways to increase revenue and control society. One of the biggest changes in human civilization came in the 1960’s, when the idea first appeared with some authority that with regard to pursuits and happenings of life, “It’s empty and meaningless that it’s empty and meaningless.” Society changed from conformist to non-conformist. This overthrew all the preconceptions held by the world’s capitalist structure, which was built on a society of limited potential needs which, when met, would mean the end of a seller’s ability to offer them their products. As Daniel Yankelovich states in the Part III, “Products have always had an emotional meaning. What was new was individuality, the idea that ‘This product expresses me’… in 1970, [the self actualizing individual] was a small percent of the population, maybe 3-5%. By the 1980’s it was a majority of the population, maybe 80%.” John Berger’s book, “Ways of Seeing” was first published in 1972, before capitalist interests had fully established post-modern techniques. Beforehand, it was feared that supply would outstrip demand. As Yankelovich says, we went from a conception of “…a market of limited needs, and if you filled them they’re filled, to a market of unlimited, ever-changing needs dominated by self-expressiveness: that products and services in an endless variety of ways, and ways that change all the time. And consequently, economies have unlimited horizons.”
          Necessary to this new economy is the concept of glamour, and intrinsic to glamour is the state of being continually accompanied by one’s own image of oneself. For centuries it was almost exclusively women that were subject to this form of manipulation; a society ruled by men had long-established cultural standards which reinforced the need for women to ‘survey themselves continually’ and maintain themselves as objects of value to the men under whose keeping they had been born and led. Post-modern society has taken advantage of this idea and inflicted it on all people regardless of gender in order to increase the power of those who hold it, through revenue and political manipulation.
          Ronald Reagan’s campaign of taking government off the backs of the people, appealing to the self-actualizers and nonconformists led them to believe that by giving him the most powerful position in the world, it gave them power over their own daily lives. This idea is also seen in advertising, which continually proposes a liberated self to the viewer, capitalizing on this newly popular school of thought that one’s individual happiness is what is most essential in life rather than the old protestant view exemplified by buying life insurance, a monthly personal sacrifice made in order to ensure one’s ability to support their family even in death. The new cornerstone to individual happiness was self expression through selective purchasing according to one’s lifestyle. This idea was reinforced by the many entrepreneurs seeking ways to get their products into people’s homes. Their assertion was that by purchasing their product, one was displaying to the world whatever it was that made them special. In order to sustain this form of economy people must be unhappy with their current self, and continually strive to be more.
          The supposed American dream of a stable living, comfortable with your spouse, a couple kids and a dog in a home out in the suburbs, had been uprooted by a constant need for improvement, a never-ending desire for a better way of life. There was no individual architect for this movement, it was continually prodded and shaped by those marketing their goods in order to create an ideal environment for them to make money and gain power. As this new economy created an unlimited set of desires for the consumer, it theoretically had an unlimited potential for growth. However, early in the new century we have started to reach that limit.
          According to Charles Fishman of FastCompany, Walmart has a policy of offering the lowest possible price to the consumer, which has bankrupted many of the companies whose wares it sells, notably Vlasic, whose profits fell as much as 25% after Walmart started selling a gallon jar of their pickles for $3. ( Because people have a limited supply of money to spend, these new corporations are trying every conceivable way to get what little they can regardless of the consequences to those supposedly working for and with them. In the mad grab for power that has been increasingly built up by those seeking power themselves, the list of victims becomes higher and higher as the income gap between the super rich and everyone else has multiplied over the last few decades. The last time the income gap reached this level was in 1928, just before what is considered to be the start of the Great Depression. (
          As we weather through one of the worst recessions in post-industrial history, it is imperative that we root out the cause of this financial crisis and try to compensate for it by restructuring our civilization once again. As we gain greater insight into the methods by which people are influenced, and in order to benefit the majority of people we must handle the responsible use of these methods. We have already spiraled into an endless fight for an intangible betterment of one’s individual status. Perhaps the most important question of the 21st century is, “What must we do to regain a sustainable way of life?”