Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Culture of the Market

Some earlier observations.

Social and cultural critics often write about how the "market" subverts humanity and its deeper values.  On one hand, market is simply about the exchange of value.  The freer the exchange is from state intervention, with effective regulations to deter malfeasance and exploitation of the environment, the more liberated is the society.  On the other, being subject to market forces with deep pockets can wreak havoc on smaller communities and individuals.

If the essentials of an economy are in elite hands, who have special access to the legislature, media and the army, what does such an economy do to individuals?

But that is at the macro level, what does market do at the micro level?

In what fundamental ways is a market society like modern-day urban America different from a society where money and the overt-ness of value exchange is not all-pervasive?

There are societies, or at least sections of societies, where people invite each other for no good reason.  Where people share home cooked food.  Where gifts are not bought but made.  Where artists and writers practice their craft without an expectation of a reward.  Where gadgets and branded personal items are not talked about.  Where, in essence, there is no expectation of an immediate pay-off or ego-stroking.

I remember an anecdote told to me by an old neighbor from India.  He had gone to the US to meet his sons.  While he was being driven in his son's car, they both noticed a man trying to load a big chunk of lumber into his pickup truck.  They both stopped to help him and lifted the weight into his truck.  As they were about to leave, that individual offered both of them five dollars each.  They were not only shocked, they felt bad at being offered money and vehemently refused it.

It is not my case that India is less money-minded.  Probably the big cities in India are much worse when it comes to helping a stranger.  Even the small towns are getting infected by the virus of "What's in it for me?".

The culture of market can be summed up as: I don't care about you, or have no space to care about you, as long as you don't give me something, now or in the future.

The culture of leisure is opposed to the culture of the market.  The culture of leisure involves doing things just for the inherent pleasure.  To read a book not because it will lead to self-improvement, but because... There is no because.  One just reads a book that one finds in one's hands because somehow something about it speaks to oneself, and one feels that it is a book that one has to read. 

The culture of leisure might be somewhat spartan, but we all understand that a long conversation and a cup of tea with friends is somehow far more valuable than a housewarming party where everybody is stressed about whether their gift will be considered suitable. 

The difference between an act of leisure and an act of exchange is in its lack of expectation.  To do a thing without expectation is to do it without the market driving it.

When was the last time you were at leisure?  Without an awareness of time being "wasted"?

The market finds a home in us when we cannot seem to have leisure and when we cannot relate to other people without an agenda or an expectation of something in return.

It can be said that love can truly exist only in a culture of leisure.

To really get a feel for the culture of the market, read an airline magazine while on your next flight.  Even a holiday is described in a manner which is less of a travelogue than a sales seminar.  Eat this seafood at this restaurant,  have this margarita at this nightclub, scuba dive with this company, try that local handloom market for gifts to take home.  Even if that magazine describes a walk along the beach, it will narrate it in a manner almost as if they are trying to sell nature to you.

Leaf through the magazine, and you might see some doctors who look and dress like models under the heading "The Best Doctors in America".  Everything in that magazine is to sell something to you.  And that is a pity.

Turn your gaze to the small screen in front of you, and you will see singers who are more interested in looking good than in singing well.

"You have to market yourself".  "You have to create an attractive package".  Adele cannot just sing "Hello".  She has to wear make-up, fake eye-lashes, and wear clothes which hide her weight.  The entire notion of a "music video" is for you to divide your attention between the sound and the spectacle.  The music is "packaged" for you.  If even one of the package's contents is a hit, the thing sells.  The package will include auto-tune, beautiful locales, skimpy models, tight choreography, acrobatics, time lapse photography, the latest fashion, sculpted muscles, chic homes and interiors... What does that have to do with the quality of music?  The music will suffer because it is no longer of primary importance. 

Because sale-ability is paramount, packaging has become important.  The creation or product in itself might be simple, but it is glamorized because you have to be bewitched.  Because you are not trusted to just enjoy the music on its own.  You can definitely enjoy the package too, but a sensitive individual cannot help but feel that too much effort is being made for him to deliver his applause and acquiescence.  And that it is somehow impure and almost vulgar.

The logic of the market is that something is worthwhile only if others are willing to give you something for it.  Intrinsic value is nil.  Inherent happiness is not the goal.  Unconditional love is considered medieval.

When art, writing and philosophy get infected by the market, they suffer the most.  At their best, an artist or a writer creates for a future, potential human.  A marketing specialist, though, creates so something will sell now.  A lack of regard for compensation makes for transcendence, while a focus on how much money we can make makes for manipulation of the present and pandering to the baser instincts in us.

I always had a feeling that Jagjit Singh prostituted himself when he used to crack dirty jokes in front of drunk audiences just so he could keep them entertained.  Nusrat corrupted himself toward the end of his career when he, wanting market share, produced the atrocious "Mera Piya Ghar Aya" and "Afreen".  (The latter has been the subject of a short film: "Nusrat has left the building")

Even the rich in a culture of market are not rich because they continue being obsessed by the means of living.  Consider an artist who has internalized the logic of the market.  For such an artist money, status, fame, instead of being organic effects of the artist's creation, will become primary and the work of art or literature is then cunningly designed to achieve money, status and fame.  So the work becomes the means, and what should have been secondary achieves primacy.

That is corruption of the artist's soul.  That is when a writer starts writing "Ph D" on the cover of the book.  That is when a music album contains coupons for the artist's future tour.  That is when a painting makes the news only for how much money it made in the market. 

When was the last time a painting was discussed in a newspaper, unconcerned with its "record breaking auction price"?  What matters for books these days is if they make the "best selling" list, not if they are works of outstanding originality or depth. 

To sell, you have to have your ear to the ground to know how the masses are gravitating.  To create, you only have to listen to your own voice.

Can it be said that true art is unconcerned with its reception?  That true philosophy is not about a TED lecture?

An artist, if he hankers after awards and endorsements, is not an artist but an entrepreneur.  Of course, one could be both, but the desert and the sky and the stars do not need endorsements.  They stand alone.  You can admire their beauty, without a billboard asking you to look up or look further.  It is not a question of money, but of dismay, when I find that a natural landmark has been commercialized.  It is not that I have to buy a ticket to be close to it, but that it is somehow no longer untrammeled nature.

One of the greatest mathematicians of our times, Grigori Perelman, was disinterested in accepting the Field's medal, because his proof of Poincare's conjecture stands taller than any certificate honoring him.  On the other hand, a politician will accept honorary doctorates or a Peace Nobel without even the least bit of self-doubt.  Though we are all subsumed by the market to varying degrees, something in us still marvels at the pure mathematician, and is somehow repelled by the politician.

We admire the freckles on the face of an old woman, and the wavy hair of a child in a very different manner than when we get impressed by an airbrushed Rihanna in People magazine.

That deep light within us, that the market constantly tries to extinguish, recognizes an instance of its nature and reflection quite easily.

The challenge for a sensitive human these days to be in this world, and yet remain un-corrupted by it.  That does not mean a spiritual detachment, but an understanding and awareness of the high and the low, of the silent versus the noisy.  To find oneself in a shopping mall, and yet understand that there is nothing there that one needs or wants.  To find oneself listening to music, and to put the noise of its marketing aside.  To read a piece of news, and to disregard the sensation and outrage of the journalist.  To be silent in the midst of the cacophony around oneself.

It is easier to be silent when in nature, and it is no wonder that those whose souls need healing go to the mountains and to the sea.  Is it not obvious that the primary joy of being in nature is that of being away from civilization and its groping of your spirit?  It does not matter that the landscape be beautiful.  Anyone who tells you that you must visit "those falls" which are "so awesome" does not understand silence.  They regard nature as yet another article of consumption.  You can know them because they will plan their day when in nature, instead of recognizing that what their soul truly needs is that sense of leisure and non-seeking, non-acquisition, non-greed.  Just silence.

For silence, mere wilderness, desolation, solitude is enough.

The market has become more powerful than ever, and so the struggle is harder than ever.  One could say that one is more free to be oneself these days, and choose one's own path, but is it easier or more difficult these days to remain free from influence?  At every turn there is bombardment.  It is an illusion to believe that modern man is more free.  In essentials, when it comes to his life and relationships, he is on the highway of civilization, patrolled by helicopters and cop cars.  He has the freedom to change lanes and choose the color of his car, perhaps.

This has been a meandering essay, but I needed to write this.


gugga said...

Capitalism produces well clothed well fed beggars.

Jack said...

I loved reading this, Harman. When so much of our common humanity (and the time we spend together) is reduced to commodities and transactions, I worry that more and more people will eventually know no different. The market-driven ideology you describe is so pervasive as to be almost invisible until someone points out the extent of its reach. And even then, unless we've had enough experience of simply being together (or alone) in a different way, there's nothing to compare it with, hence no way to really see it.

I especially feel for people to whom this system is deeply alien and alienating but aren't articulate enough to explain why, or whose voices aren't heard even if they try. I'm thinking especially of some of the (Australian) aboriginal people I know who are caught between two worlds. A return to traditional ways is not viable for all sorts of reasons, but the prospect of joining and even thriving in "this" world is just so unattractive that it's not worth the effort of beginning. Sitting around in the park and sharing the 'goon bag' and forgetting the whole fucking thing is not a great way out, but to them it seems better than any of the alternatives.

The system isn't going to change any time soon (barring catastrophes). Meanwhile, any two people under roof or sky can *be* the answer as much or as little as they wish.

Thanks for the essay. Really nice.

Surender Baswana said...

It was a very nice and inspiring article.

Teacher 1 said...

It is funny to read this, (nice to read this tho) when I have always/often felt, each time to my surprise, why your heart seems small when it could be big given all that you stand for and believe in and care about. My answer is prbly because your notion of self is so strong...That it prevent you from seeing self spread about a bit. Glad you wrote this.

Unknown said...

Nice powerful writeup. I enjoyed it. Clears some of my ambiguities.