The Polls and the Polis
In a really crackerjack post, Mr. Dierkes, writes:
“The hallmark of the liberal procedural republic according to Sandel is that citizens are treated as consumers. The market becomes the dominant form of thought and practice in the polis. Beings become instrumentalized and utilitarian ethics is the only (meager) form of ethics/morality left in such a market-satured universe.”
Hopefully, I’m not pivoting too far from this in writing about something I’ve been interested in for a while now, namely what it is that the market actually measures. I’ve often complained about the increasing tendency within academia to see students as consumers (the internal term for student is actually “basic income unit”) because I think it gives a very narrow picture of the experience of education, and thus of the experiencing individual. The market measures only a small corner of that experience, generally defined as “satisfaction”, but understood more specifically (via the questions asked) as a very immediate experience of Delight.
What I want to argue here (and most of this I’m still thinking through) is that the market measures both Need and Delight for most products, but only Delight for cultural products. Furthermore, since Delight is a narrow sliver of human experience, judging our “thought and practice” by market measurements tends to greatly limit our participation in civil society. Our officials, in all spheres, seek our applause, or high polling data, and otherwise we are asked not to participate in the discussion. Therefore, looking at us as consumers in some sense negates looking at us as citizens, scholars, ethical individuals, or members of the community.
I hear often the argument that the market is the best judge of the value of things. People will say “let the market decide”, as if they were talking about the Delphic Oracle. And for most consumer items, it works well. If I go buy a tee-shirt, for instance, I will pay what I think it is worth to me. Even if $2.50 in material and labor and twenty minutes of time went into the product, if I am willing to pay $20, and enough people are willing to pay $20, but not $25, then the market value of the product is $20.
But what emotional experience does the fairly limited practice of consumption really correspond to? Mr. Kain has suggested, via email, that a major experience measured by the market is Need. Clothing satisfies a basic material need. I can’t go skyclad. On a secondary level, however, I think consumption corresponds to the emotional experience of Delight. I need to brush my teeth in order to maintain health, but I like the way Aquafresh makes my mouth taste: Need and Delight.
Cultural products are unique in that they satisfy no material need. I don’t need music to live, although it often feels that way. Instead, culture responds to a wide range of emotional/spiritual needs. This is an important distinction. I suspect that the market really only measures Delight, because consumption-as-such is primarily an expression of Delight. In other words, designating something as a “product” already orients how it will be experienced. And the reason I emphasize Delight is that we have all sorts of emotional states, many of which have nothing at all to do with consumption.
This gets at the problem I have with judging culture solely by market value. In actuality, cultural items correspond to the full panoply of emotional experiences: delight, sorrow, curiosity, lust, love, fear, anger, transcendence, wisdom, and so forth. However, when we deal with culture only as product, the market really only seems to accurately measure the delight engendered in consumers. This is the only way I can possibly understand the fact that Transformers II sold 100 times as many tickets in general release as did Persona: the market tells us that it clearly engendered more widespread and easily accessible Delight. Should this be the only way we understand the relative value of those two films?
This model certainly works fine for, say, toothpaste. But it doesn’t tell us everything we need to know about culture. What about larger influence? The old line about the Velvet Underground: that only about 20 or 30 people ever went to see them, but every one of them formed a band: would tell us, in market terms, that they were a total failure. By fairly short term market metrics, Moby Dick was a failure; Wild Strawberries was a failure; we can all think of these examples.
And what about personal resonance? At age sixteen, I saw the films Persona and The Hunt for Red October; to the market, each viewing had roughly equal value, although one film is now forgotten and the other had a profound impact on how I look at film, identity, and selfhood; where’s the market metric for that? If I go to Mass on Sunday and Father Paul gives a sermon that illuminates a passage from scripture in a way that furthers my own spiritual growth, what is the market value there? If I buy one volume each of Harry Potter and Proust, can the market tell the difference in literary value? In the long run, measuring the full range of human experiences by market preferences gives a diminished picture of humanity, which suggests why so many culture products seem to be aimed so low. Art tries to evoke a full range of emotional experiences; consumer culture aims to evoke Delight. A “consumer” is a pitiable human.
In terms of education, I’ve already discussed the ruinous results of adopting the consumer model. At Mall University, we now judge the “success” of a course largely on “student satisfaction” surveys. “Would you recommend this course to a friend? Did the instructor hold your attention?” Currently, we’re restructuring the general education requirements. A committee has been set up with an 800 number so students can call in and say what they dislike about the gen ed courses. The press release says something like “Tell us what YOU want!” We’re here to serve our customers. But there’s something disconcerting about a university asking its least-educated to inform its most-educated as to what education will now consist of. One might talk about an inversion of values; or simply the replacement of an authoritative and structuring vision of the good life with a withered image of “customer satisfaction”. Perhaps the same will happen to churches next. Priests will start asking their parishioners to fill out surveys as to how they’d like to be saved.
In terms of citizenship, the danger of replacing the polis with the polls is reducing all of political participation to mere assent. Citizenship is something like passive audience approval: clapping at the advertising slogans that have replaced political programs: “The surge worked!” “Obama is a transformational President!” “American health care is the envy of the world!” At some point, one would imagine Homeland Security and Consumer Preference researchers to start swapping information about us. And when you consider the growing corporatist managerial state and its attendant consumerocracy, it’s hard not to think of J.G. Ballard’s prophetic comment that “the totalitarian systems of future will be subservient and ingratiating, the false smile of the bored waiter rather than the jackboot.”
And what of the soul of man under consumerocracy? What is the psychological makeup of someone who grew up steeped in a society that valorizes the character traits of “the consumer”? A bit glib? Shallow and self-absorbed? Impulsive? Unable to think of the future, reflect deeply, or take anything too seriously? An ideal CNN viewer? Something in between a child and a sociopath? Will this type become the norm in postindustrial societies? Has it already? If you want an image of the future, imagine a human face being lovingly stroked forever.