Thursday, August 7, 2008

Consumerism as An Art

I am writing from Covina, a proletarian suburb in Los Angeles county, where my immediate family immigrated and where my parents still live (along with all my maternal uncles, aunts and their children). In the past few days or so, I have been re-introduced to the great consumerist culture that is such an integral part of American life, which, to her credit, my mother and her sisters have mastered with incredible virtuosity. Since I am often the beneficiary of her activities, my critique of it is not and cannot be a complete condemnation. Here are some tricks that my mother, my eldest aunt and her daughter (my eldest cousin) have mastered:

1) Regular visits at stores such as TJ Max, Marshall's, Home Goods, which might be the most interesting sector of American retail culture, as they collect unsold merchandise from high-end stores and re-sell them cheaply. Some observations about TJ Max: even in Chicago (which cannot compete with L.A. in terms of racial and ethnic diversity), it seems to be frequented by an enormous number of foreigners, especially Italians, the French, Poles and Russians. Here in southern California, TJ Max stores are populated by Filipinos, Hispanics and Chinese/Taiwanese. I myself find that these stores magically embody several locales in one: you find, displayed in the format of the Ye-She (night market) in Taipei or the "brocante" in France, merchandises that belong to proper department stores like Nordstrom's or Galerie Lafayette. In other words, one hunts for bargains, and sometimes one even bargains, that is, verbally, because the goods are often unlabeled that prices are assigned to them randomly. It is, however, shocking to find items abstractly priced at $150 marked down to $19.99, suggesting that all these numbers are more fiction than anything else. Often, there is no material aspect in the item that tells us what its real value is, a very disturbing thought. (Footnote: I came to the realization that, for many sellers, the difference between $20 and $19.99 is that the latter marks the status of the item as being "on sale" - namely, even the price does not refer to the monetary value but to the "status." Mind-boggling.) At the same time, as my mother and aunts claim, it is the best value to shop there, and I am afraid that they are right.

2) The use of coupons: sometimes even expired ones, sometimes even one coupon per item to get the maximum dollars off. Seriously, why does it make sense for stores such as Bed Bath & Beyond to aggressively send off coupons to all its potential customers? Might it not be more efficient to simply lower the prices? Or is the point to encourage visits? Also: apparently it is possible to buy coupons on e-bay (totally mind-boggling for me).

3) e-bay: where my mother and her sisters shop for their favorite brand of Italian bags and purses, which is not on sale in the United States. Since they are all devoted e-bay checkers, my eldest cousin Charlene always courteously informs the rest if she plans on bidding for an object, thereby avoiding competition and price-jacking. But again, it seems virtually surrealist to me that one could "buy" coupons on e-bay, meaning that one is buying a discount. Is the stock market this complicated? The latest masterpiece: My mother gave someone a penny on e-bay for a secret (we are literally back in the world of Indo-European fairy-tales, aren't we, when secrets have to be bought), namely, how to get a discount coupon from Crate & Barrel. In other words, the man did not sell her a coupon; he sold her the advice as to how to obtain one. Now should I speak, or perhaps I will save this secret to sell on e-bay?

All in all, it would seem that shopping in the US is quite an art, the way it is not in the Old World. Paris, for example, is a tempting city, a city filled with beauty that can be purchased. Although I could resort to the excuse that I am an art historian and therefore in the business of beauty, I wonder if there isn't something much more primitive at work, something that drives species of bower birds to collect blue objects or rats to take home shiny buttons - in short, it is difficult (for me) not to follow the trace of a glimpse of shiny stones, lovely tea pots, enticing book titles, pretty dresses, etc. But shopping in the Old World is also old-fashioned: one goes out with a purse, takes money out of the purse, buys the object and goes home. Since one is likely to have tried on the dress, discussed it with the salesperson, looked at it together in the mirror for half an hour, commented on whether it looks alright, perhaps being offered to tailor the dress to one's size (if you are difficult like me), one is likely to be pleased with the purchase - they don't take returns any way.

Things are hardly this simple in the United States. The first week after my repatriation, during that week of my ecstatic reunification with Chicago, I strolled into Macy's/old Marshall Field's since I thought that my perfume is nearly out, I could get a second bottle. As soon as I came up to pay, I was bombarded with an "option": Would you like to apply for a Macy's credit card to get 20% your purchases today and tomorrow? I was dumbfounded - how could I say no? The lady, with her very heavy Polish accent and beguiling smile, asked me if I liked shoes, since the store is having a big shoe sale upstairs... Thus, the irresistible Sirens of Sales lured me into the labyrinth of consumer goods, and though I slayed the Minotaur and accomplished the task that brought me there (that re-charge for the perfume) I also came out with other victims. The incredible thing is that the episode is not over. Macy's has my address now and has started aggressively to court me by more sale's coupons and offers in the mail. The long psychological battle between me and Macy's has begun, until I take that inevitable initiative to break up: by canceling my credit card.

My feeling is that consumerism in the US is truly an epic battle, and it is no longer between the merchant and the buyer. My family, as old-world people tend to be, were good at verbal bargaining, and now with immigration to the US they have transformed that skill into different kinds of tricks in order to out-smart the consumer's market. If capitalism is clever and manipulative, let us try to out-smart it by its own poison - seems to be their attitude. And it is this obligatory engagement in the epic battle of buying that is the predicament of middle-class life in the US. It is mentally exhausting and sometimes morally humiliating - why on earth should I occupy my mind with such matters as calculating pennies? But we have just had a discussion about race in America, and to turn the discourse slightly, doesn't it seem that consumer culture is what brings whites, blacks, Asians, Filipinos, Hispanics and the rest all together? Never mind slave-holders and slaves, Catholics and Protestants, indigenous or colonials, English-speakers or non-English speakers, we all understand that it is good to pay $400 for something that is sold elsewhere for $800.

I don't think that I am being cynical, only realistic. From the point of view of a capitalist society, to get different people to shop in the same shops might just be the communitarian feat. This is not to say that they actually understand each other; only, from the point of view of the social, what ELSE would count as a sign of them having understood one another? What ELSE is there for Asians and whites to understand about one another, for example, that would actually be meaningful to American society? I don't think Asians and whites "understand" each other - they don't need to. They shop at the same places, and the new immigrants aspire to a vulgarized version of WASP lifestyle. (Thanks, Gale and Jeremy, for illuminating me to the fact that I've been living in a nest of WASPs!) All this is pointing to something like an internal leveling mechanism based on income and consumer habits. What I would find interesting is if the topic of race can actually put some pressure on this way of conceiving the American life, because, from the point of view of consumerism, the only excluded group would be the group that does not purchase and has little purchasing power, skin color matters not.

1 comment:

gale said...

Just a quick note - historians often find capitalism and the market to be a great leveler. This puts a left-leaning academic in the awkward position of showing how the market economy can actually break down sexism, racism, etc.

One example: a vibrant market in Charleston in the 1700s allows enslaved people (especially women) to obtain capital and feel a sense of personhood in a society that would otherwise see them as property. They owed their masters a portion, but not all, of their earnings.

I think it's dangerous to label consumerism or the market or what-have-you as a universal evil, as many are wont to do. These complex systems have all kinds of unexpected effects, good and bad.