Friday, January 30, 2009

Consuming vs. Living

Just when I thought I was successfully pulling myself away from reading so much news after the election, this class has sucked me back into it.  I've already posted a few links, but this seemed to relate well to class.

I've been thinking about what Greg said to start our class discussion of the readings : "Is this important?"  I'm not sure if I'm getting that exactly right, but it was something like that.  It's an interesting question, because it can be taken in so many different ways.  And it's fascinated me for a while.  Since we're in a recession, it seems like the question of what is important is beginning to creep into more and more conversations.


  1. This article makes a very good point. We've come to place so much real, genuine meaning on material objects in our culture.

    Speaking of conversations, I find that outside of academia, it's very hard to talk to people about current social and political ideas. People are very reluctant to acknowledge the situation we're in. It's a sensitive topic and it puts people on the defensive. I usually try to trick people into talking about something by sidestepping or coming around to it in a backwards way, so they don't even realize they're saying something concerning social or political topics, or that I'm secretly interpreting it that way.

  2. People living in a consumerist society, buying too much crap on their credit cards, etc. and endemic class issues, financial crises at an international scale, etc., are really two different things. I really can't see the connection.

    In fact, I feel like this is the flipside of the "just pull yourself up by your bootstraps" argument that people like Andrew Sullivan and other self-styled L/libertarians promulgate in economic good times.

  3. When did "self-styled" become a pejorative?

    Thinking about consuming vs. living is a philosophical question, or as Sullivan puts it, a "spiritual" question. What makes a society or an individual satisfied/content/happy?

    The connection is that we should think about this so that we have an idea of where we want to go and how we want to change (both as a society and as individuals). People aren't just how much money they make. For example, if we look solely at economic indicators and class issues, we might view two lower-middle class parents getting jobs that pay much more money as a sign of progress. But if those parents are working ten hours a day and their relationship is suffering and they don't spend much time with their kids and are generally unsatisfied with their lives, is that progress? It's progress if economics and class are all that we use to determine our lives.

  4. Anonymous3:38 PM

    I fail to see how Sullivan's analysis of consuming vs. living has any relevance to the reference of "two lower-middle class parents getting jobs that pay much more money, etc." Sullivan is placing the blame for our societal ills on the individual and her/his choices rather than looking at the issues at an institutional level.

    Unfortunately, quality of life is often directly related to the amount of income and wealth that people have. Not in the sense of having a summer home and HD TV, but in the sense of providing their kids with medical coverage, affording to pay their bills, and not having to worry about putting food on the table.

    I think a person should have the luxury of being able to buy a book that s/he enjoys, especially after working a long week. I think the culture of consumption in the U.S. needs to be reexamined but we can't do that just by chastising a person for indulging occasionally.

  5. He's not chastising indulgence. He's saying that we need to have some historical perspective.

    A family that worries about paying its bills, getting health care, or buying groceries is going to have a harder time being happy. These are necessities for living. But there are more than two types of people. It's not like people either can't afford their bills or they're wondering how to decorate their vacation home.

    So I would ask you: If a family makes $40,000 a year and is able to pay its bills, buy groceries, afford health care, and indulge every now and then, what else does it need to be happy? If we have an idea about what makes us happy, then it's easier to lay the plans to make it happen.

  6. "A family mak[ing] $40,000 a year" is a family likely struggling financially to a significant extent in just about any part of this country you care to name. Perhaps you'd like to set a higher income threshold for the sake of your argument.

    You do seem to be likening economic hardship with existential crises around how to be happy. If that's not what you're doing, then I'm not sure what you're talking about or why you would have linked to the Sullivan piece.

  7. Anonymous5:36 PM

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  8. Anonymous5:37 PM

    I can't offer you the solution for what makes another family happy. Based off of my lived experiences, I can tell you what I personally need and what my family members need to be happy.

    Opening up a dialogue with others helps to broaden our understanding of this issue but it's futile to assume that we can offer a concrete solution to this problem. The breadth and complexity of people's needs is constantly evolving and no two people's needs are exactly the same.

  9. I didn't think that Sullivan was trying to blame consumerism on the individual, but rather that as a society, materialism has gained an enormous emphasis and many people believe that if they just had 'this or that' they would be happier. Of course, this isn't true (I'm not talking about meeting basic needs). In the modern world we can't count on things like religion to give our lives meaning. Materialism has taken it's place. It's not wrong. We legitimately place meaning onto objects and this act has been going on throughout human history. It's just been exaggerated in our consumer society. Instead of religion or other 'higher' philosophical ideas to hold us together and provide a basis that we can all people can agree on, we can all share that fact that we always want more stuff.

    Does this make sense? I can't perceive how well I'm getting my point across, I'm already anticipating the criticisms from mis-interpretation.

  10. Pause button.

    I'm glad that we're starting off the semester with a lively weblog conversation, but I want to caution folks that the weblog format can often make statements meant as critiques of particular ideas sound like blanket criticisms of individuals. Whether engaging with the words of an outside author (like Andrew Sullivan, whose ideas and record defy easy, singular classification, in my estimation) or a fellow classmate, let's keep the tone cool and civil so that we don't have to worry about "criticisms from mis-interpretation" before we even participate in an conversation in which we're all trying to learn.


  11. The problem that I have with Sullivan's argument is that it only reads well if you are talking about someone with a middle-class or upper middle-class existence. It comes off as pretty offensive to someone with an impoverished background.

    When I was growing up, we rotated which bills were payed, always just a couple of weeks ahead of being shut off, we drove old cars that were broken almost as much as they ran. We ate beans and rice, because meat was too expensive. We heated with wood cleared from our property, because the electric heat was just too expensive. Telling families like that to just 'tighten their belts' and 'stop consuming so much' is idiotic.

    And all in all, I think we had it pretty good compared to a lot of the working poor. But it breaks my heart to see how hard some people work and how little they earn for it. Now that I'm in more of a safe, white collar existence, I still can't justify to my conscience why I should earn 3 or 4 times the amount of a farm worker who labors 10 hours a day in the full summer sun. Shelving books is not that radically different, is air conditioned and generally doesn't carry the threat of exposure to pesticides.

  12. But then again, (to bring it back to the topic of the class) one could argue that the majority of the readers of online content are going to be of middle and upper middle class background, given the educational and technological investment it requires (on the part of the reader) in order to be at a point where one could readily access a blog such as Sullivan's.