Shopping for a Change: The House of Mirth and Paris is Burning
Issue #11, January/February 1994
Edith Wharton is a well-known name within the canon of American literature and is famous for, among other things, her desire to be respected as a writer, not only of quality fiction but also of best-sellers. Although she has remained a popular writer for most of this century, the most recent resurgence of interest in Wharton's work seems to date from the release, two years ago, of the film version of Ethan Frome. However, it was the 1993 release of Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence, a box office success, that seems to have secured her position as a best seller once again, a fact that she would no doubt relish. Sales of the re-issue of the book (a movie tie-in with a sultry Michele Pfeiffer on the cover) placed it last fall for 11 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, with 4 weeks at number 1. Her unfinished book The Buccaneers has been posthumously completed by another writer and released this year, and her other novels and short stories currently claim prominent positions in many bookstores. However, the novel that first made Wharton famous, and remains the most widely read of all her works, is The House of Mirth, published in 1905. From the start it was a critical and popular success. It was the fastest selling book in her publisher's history, selling over 140,000 copies in 2 months, and it was the book that finally gave Wharton the kind of attention and sales she so desperately wanted.
Since Wharton's own sense of identity as a writer was so intimately bound up with the buying and selling of her books (as opposed to her merely having an artistic urge to write), I want to use The House of Mirth, and Wharton's career as a writer, to explore the implications of an identity organized around the marketplace. Also, since the novel represents a group of people whose shared identity is self-consciously organized around consumption, I specifically want to question what kind of individual and collective politics are possible from such an identity. In contrast to The House of Mirth, I will discuss Jennie Livingston's film Paris is Burning to suggest that it is not only what is consumed in acts of identity formation that needs to be problematized, but the very act of consumption itself. Despite many differences between the two texts, the kinds of consumer behavior enacted in contemporary New York drag balls and in The House of Mirth are not so different and are, in fact, I will argue, two versions of the same thing. I therefore want to challenge the idea that 'alternative' consumption habits are any more progressive than 'normal' ones, and suggest that at the end of the day the most a consumer identity can ever provide is pleasure and escape, not social change.
The House of Mirth follows Lily Bart as she lives among the 'new rich' in New York City at the turn of the century, a world in which, because of her modest income, she can only ever vicariously live, but a world of which she is desperate to be a part. Lily is a woman whose identity is entirely constructed through the commodities she surrounds herself by, and she is unable to define herself except through the perceptions of others. She is also a woman caught within the prevailing cultural attitudes about middle-class femininity which embraced the idea of women as passive and beautiful, and she is perceived by all around her as no more than a beautiful work of art, a person whose outer shell is stunningly crafted but who lacks any interiority. This world in which she lives is informed by, and organized around, the operations of the marketplace. Business and social relationships alike are discussed in terms of costs and payments, credits and debts, and returns on investments. Lily is a self-acknowledged piece of human merchandise that she goes about marketing in order to find a husband. Her 'assets' include her good taste and perfect manners (both things that supposedly cannot be bought) but it is her beauty for which Lily is known and admired. Lily is in love with, and is loved by Lawrence Selden. However, his financial status is as modest as her own and thus she cannot marry him, since it would mean (for her) social death, and so she continues on her quest. Lily's attempt to find a rich husband comes to a sudden, and scandalous, end when she is accused of having an affair with a man from whom she has borrowed money. Exiled from the world to which she has become accustomed, Lily unsuccessfully tries to support herself by having a series of jobs, each one further and further down the social scale, until finally she is reduced to a pathetic existence, too proud to ask for help, and she dies (possibly intentionally) from an overdose of chloral.
A few years before Wharton wrote The House of Mirth social theorist Thorstein Veblen identified the idea of 'conspicuous consumption' (the precursor of today's 'keeping up with the Joneses') and critiqued the way in which the middle classes spent excessive amounts of money on highly visible, though often 'useless', goods, the sole intention of which was to advertise wealth. The division of labor within middle-class marriages was drawn along gender lines; the husband invested his energy into business and accumulating money, while his wife was the family shopper and bought ostentatious clothing, jewelry, furniture and ornaments. Therefore, although both men and women attained their sense of identity via these visibly ornate goods, and were equally invested in consumer culture, men tended to be 'producers' while women were 'consumers'. As a young woman raised in this era, Lily fully understands that without the trappings of wealth she would have little value to the people with whom she mixes. She has been brought up to believe that middle class women were indeed the consumers of luxury goods, and so her unreflecting and excessive desire for clothes, jewelry and other items are more than individualized greed. Instead, it is an expression of a society that encourages people to define their identity and create a sense of value, through luxury goods. In other words, the sense of collective identity that Lily and her milieu have is constructed via the commodities that they purchase and display.
Before discussing the implications of defining one's identity in this way, I want to first, as an aside, draw attention to the distinction between use-value and exchange-value that underlies this discussion of relationships in The House of Mirth. Marx identified the basis of capitalist exchange as being when first, a non-owning need coincides with a not-needing ownership; and second, when there is the possibility of expressing the equivalent value of these two items via a third value (money). When these conditions are met exchange in the marketplace can then occur. Even though the two items must be of equivalent exchange-value the desire to have the item is, in fact, based upon its use-value. However, as W.F. Haug has pointed out in Critique of Commodity Aesthetics (1971), the item must not only have use-value, but it must also have the appearance of use-value, and thus, what the use-value appears to be is liable to be no more than an illusion (this idea has been utilized to the extreme in contemporary advertising). Since there is so much importance on the aesthetic quality of the item, the appearance of use-value becomes detached from, and as important as, the commodity's being itself.
It is no wonder then, that in The House of Mirth Lily places so much importance on appearing to be wealthy by wearing expensive clothes and acquiring costly habits such as gambling. For Lily, any cost of participating within the community of New York's middle-class is a 'capital investment'. By investing money on her appearance, Lily hopes to get a return on her investment and acquire a rich husband. Early in the novel she says to Selden that a woman must marry to escape a drab life, whereas a man can do so if he chooses. Selden's clothes are worn and dingy, but as she points out to him, it doesn't keep people from asking him to dinner, whereas if she were shabby no one would be interested in her, 'a woman is asked out as much for her clothes as for herself'. Lily perfectly understands that it doesn't matter whether or not she is financially solvent, so long as she can give the appearance of being so. Indeed, toward the end of the novel it is the fact that Lily 'appears' to have been compromised, despite the claims being false, that leads to her downfall and ultimate death. Her appearance, and the appearance of everything and everybody, becomes 'reified', in other words, the qualities associated with visual appearance are abstracted and objectified from people and activities, so that they become commodities in their own right. However, Lily simultaneously embraces and criticizes this process of reification. She is perfectly aware of her class status and the kinds of appearance and behavior she is required to enact and embody in order to sustain her social position. But she is also critical of the necessity of doing it. She participates in 'conspicuous consumption' but also seeks to transcend this role forced on her and she yearns for a more meaningful form of existence.
This is most powerfully demonstrated in the novel during the 'tableaux vivants' ('living pictures') at the Brys' party. Tableaux vivants were a popular form of entertainment at the turn of the century and involved the creation of scenes presented on stage by costumed actors who remain silent and motionless in an attempt to recreate famous paintings. In her re-creation of Joshua Reynolds' 'Mrs. Lloyd', Lily makes a final attempt to present her 'real' self to Selden, and creates an image of herself as both beautiful and virtuous. Indeed, Selden himself perceives that he has finally glimpsed the 'real' Lily Bart. But if this is the 'real' Lily then, despite her good intentions, she is once again reduced to merely an object of visual beauty. The fact that she has misplaced her intentions is, however, not her fault alone, but also the fault of the society in which she lives. Lily's mistake is in trying to demonstrate her use-value though a constructed image, rather than through human acts and qualities, and she longs for a position in society where she does not merely 'appear' but 'acts'. My formulation of Lily's project in this way clearly echoes John Berger's statement about western art, that 'men act, women appear'. However, I want to suggest that this gendered division of labor is problematic when taken in the context of capitalism, where the distinction is often less a question of male/female and more one of producer/consumer. Producers act in the world, while consumers appear. Thus, it doesn't matter that the image she tries to present is a virtuous one, because appearing or feeling virtuous (via the identity she has constructed) is not the same as acting virtuously or being virtuous.
I want to move now from New York City at the turn of the century, to New York City in the 1980s, and to another group of people whose shared identity is self-consciously organized around consumption, and where the appearance of wealth is reified to almost hyperbolic proportions: and that is the sub-culture of drag balls represented in Jennie Livingston's 1991 film Paris is Burning. In this film the desire to make oneself into the perfect object of beauty is to become, like Lily, part of the wealthy middle class. The connection made by late capitalism between wealth, beauty, social privilege and power has been criticized by many as being one of false promise. But the drag balls of Paris is Burning suggest that there is actually an element of truth in this connection, since to at least 'appear' to be rich and beautiful is to have power and social prestige, albeit merely for the duration of the ball. Thus, the 'reality' of such power and prestige remains precarious, and the utopian aspect is only derived from the possibility of briefly escaping the disempowered social positions of the participants, who are working class, mostly black and Latino, gay men. Once in the ball, these men live (for a moment) the middle class lifestyle they all want. As one of the men comments, all they have to do is 'capture the great white way of living, or looking, or dressing'. The assumption is that all you need to be white and wealthy is to have the right clothes, and in these balls the men act out their fantasies of an alternative social order, or at least the existing social order with them being positioned differently within it. For example, during the category of 'executive realness' one of the contestants acknowledges that while in real life you can't get an executive job without the right social background and education, in the ballroom you can show the straight world that you know how to (appear to) be an executive. The crucial word here is clearly 'appear' since it is uncertain whether these men can do the work associated with such an identity, and so no matter how much they may look like an executive, they cannot be an executive, and one wonders how long they would survive if they exchanged places with the CEO of a New York corporation. In other words, enacting the desire to be a part of that community via a constructed image can never be 'real' except in the ballroom.
Like the 'new rich' in New York 100 years earlier, this is a group of people striving for a sense of community and creating it through shared consumption habits. In other words, just as The House of Mirth represents a group of straight white middle-class people at the turn of the century constructing an identity through consumerism, so too Paris is Burning shows homosexual working-class people doing the same thing. Clearly there are differences between Lily Bart constructing herself as a beautiful woman and Venus Xtravaganza (a gay man) doing the same thing. But nevertheless, the fact remains that despite the different patterns of consumption enacted in these two texts, they both end up at the same place. They are two groups of people trying to create a sense of community by creating images through shopping.
The balls in Paris is Burning take place in fashion 'houses' which literally become the new homes and families for the participants, many of whom, like Lily Bart, are outcasts from the social class of which they wish to be a part. The categories in which the contestants participate are reminiscent of the 'tableaux vivants' in The House of Mirth. In both, the aim is to imitate as perfectly as possible the visual appearance of someone or something else. In Wharton's novel the category is famous works of art; in Paris is Burning the categories are various modes of dress such as 'military', 'town and country', 'real women', and 'executive dress'. Lily neither becomes, nor is, 'Mrs. Lloyd' in her re-presentation of Reynolds' picture, but rather chooses this image as a vehicle to express and articulate her identity; the men in Paris is Burning equate the 'real' identities with constructed versions of them. Jennie Livingston's film, and the way it represents the investment these men have in consumption, fashion and beauty as a form of power, suggests that the politics of style should not be dismissed as any less meaningful than other forms of social transformation. By adopting 'transgressive' identities, and creating them though consumer goods, these men are not merely cultural dupes, or passive consumers of mass culture, but are actively adopting and selecting certain images and styles over others. Paris is Burning represents a form of sub-culture that provides gay men with an important source of pleasure and a form of empowerment unavailable elsewhere. However, we should be clear about what exactly this empowerment is, and what it represents; we are invited to celebrate a community whose shared goal is the fantasy of cross dressing as straight and/or white and/or middle-class. Indeed, the ultimate claim to 'realness' is to be able to pass as straight.
There is nothing new or radical about people in western culture constructing an identity via consumer items. Women in particular have been expected to 'make-up' their faces and bodies with clothes, cosmetics and accessories in order to attain male standards of beauty. However, whereas early feminists argued that women who do this are capitulating to patriarchy, more recently the performative aspect of such acts has been emphasized, the argument being that actively constructing an identity for oneself can be part of an oppositional politics. Most famously Judith Butler argues that images of femininity and masculinity can be reclaimed to subvert essentialist notions of gender and sexuality. This is important in comparing The House of Mirth with Paris is Burning, since the latter clearly has the greater subversive potential in terms of ideologies of gender and sexuality. However, it is still unclear whether or how the identity constructions taking place in the drag balls can challenge the existing social order.
It is true that rejecting the realm of fashion and beauty as a potential arena of political action falls into the trap of trivializing cultural actions that are coded feminine, also that when these cultural practices are treated as meaningless, the ideological processes at work have succeeded in becoming invisible, which can make them all the more dangerous. However, despite the subversive possibilities, a reclaiming of the performativity of identities still relies upon the link, in capitalism, between identities and the commodity. Thus Lily Bart in The House of Mirth, and the gay men in Paris is Burning, in desiring to make themselves into a perfect object using commodities, are all interpellated as ideal subjects of capitalism. They may resist, subvert or redesign some element of the ideological practice, but they are still, as Louis Althusser would say, interpellated as 'good subjects'.
According to Althusser, ideology functions by transforming individual people into social subjects by acts of 'hailing' or 'interpellation'. Cultural practices hail us with messages that we interpret according to where we are situated in the social system. Interpellated subjects know where they fit into the prevailing ideology and act in ways that reinforce the status quo. In other words, to invoke the title of this very publication, while 'bad subjects' upset the machinery of ideological practices, 'good subjects' work all right 'all by themselves'. Using Athusser's notion of ideology, both of these micro-cultures of New York function as ideological practices. They offer pleasure and escape from the usual social order, but ultimately return the participants to their previous place in that social order, and they function ideologically by reproducing the social conditions and social relations necessary for patriarchal capitalism to continue. Any transgressive element that may occur remains within the parameters of the sub-cultures. Thus Lily and Selden can only admit their love for each other during the tableaux vivants. Since neither of them is rich, such a declaration, within the context of the middle-class society of which they are a part, transgresses existing social norms. However, once the moment has passed they must return to the outside world, Lily on her quest to find a rich husband and Selden to his uneventful life. By the time they have realized that they really care for each other it is too late, Lily has completed her downward spiral to life in the working classes and, finally, dies of an overdose of chloral. Lily makes a valiant effort to 'become' what she 'appears' but without the necessary material and social status her individualized acts of consumption will never be enough to alter the social order of which she longs to be a part.
Similarly, in Paris is Burning, the men may act out their fantasy lives for a few hours during the ball, but once it is over they all return to their regular lives. They may want the lives that the constructed identities represent, but they do not have access to them. This is most poignantly demonstrated by the murder of Venus Xtravaganza while tricking. During the film we learnt that his fantasy was to be 'a spoiled, rich white girl' who, he says, 'get what they want whenever they want it and they don't have to really struggle with finances... I want to get married in a church, in white, and live with my husband'. Venus' ambitions clearly contain an element of truth because of the comparative privileges and advantages between white, middle-class women and the men who participate in drag balls. However, despite him wanting this life, and constructing an identity for himself as if he had (or was going to have) this life, his fantasy is completely undermined by the fact that he hustled to make a living, was strangled to death in a hotel room, and found by a stranger four days later. Venus believed that his individual act of identity formation would be enough to transform his life, but it wasn't. The wider social order, of which he was a part, remained (by and large) untouched by his individual transformative act and, finally, he was murdered by a john.
Probably the only person who has really capitalized on the consumer culture of the New York drag ball scene is Madonna. When she popularized the 'voguing' of the Harlem balls, she alone was able to use such a constructed identity to 'really' be a part of the glamorous world it imitates. The big difference, however, is that Madonna was already part of that world, and so no matter how ironically or subversively she may 'perform' such gendered roles, the meanings of her actions are bound to be different. Indeed, by the time Madonna performed 'Vogue' for the 1990 MTV awards, she restaged it not as an imitation of the voguing of drag balls but instead (interestingly enough) as a tableaux vivant, complete with period European costumes, thereby imitating the wealthy of another era, an era when movement between classes was probably even more difficult than it is now. Like the men in Paris is Burning, Madonna may be enacting a desire for shared community, but the era she is nostalgic for is one in which gay, black working-class men would have been even more invisible and disempowered than they are today. Ultimately, the difference between gay men appropriating straight middle-class culture and Madonna (and other celebrities) appropriating gay working-class culture should be obvious. The images may travel in both directions but the material wealth does not. Both can experience pleasure and escape and a sense of community by 'appearing' to be other people, but one group of people remain in the same place within the social order while the other rakes in the millions. Ultimately, both Edith Wharton and Jennie Livingston naturalize and normalize social inequality by fetishizing the lifestyles of the working classes. I have already discussed how the unproblematic representation of drag in Paris is Burning celebrates and fetishizes the 'victim' status of gay men, but Wharton has her own particular twist on the issue.
Wharton sees the working classes as living an idealized and idyllic life, and this is most clearly demonstrated in the rather sentimental conclusion to her novel. Lily has been reduced to working in a hat shop. Here, more than ever, her beauty is not enough to help her survive; she is slow, clumsy and inept and gains little satisfaction from attaining her identity from what she (albeit unsuccessfully) produces. When she loses her job and realizes that she cannot even earn a meager living for herself, her downward spiral from her former life is complete. She has gone from a much courted member of high society, to a disinherited woman with no friends, home or prospects. She is found, walking the streets, by Nettie Struther, a working-class woman who had previously met Lily when she was living in the home for poor women to which Lily had occasionally donated money. Nettie, like the gay men in Harlem, idealizes the wealthy society of which she assumes Lily is a part. But it is the working classes which, through Lily, Wharton herself idealizes. Nettie, her baby and her 'solid' husband (who, unlike Lily's friends, stood by Nettie when she appeared to be unvirtuous) are a poor, but close, family who in a humble dwelling and, unlike Lily, can survive on the kind of living possible from working in a hat shop. Indeed, they not only survive, but, as Wharton presents it, have carved out some sort of idealized virtuous life outside of the problems of the marketplace. In other words, it is the middle-classes that Wharton sees as being the victims of capitalism. This final twist, and depressingly sentimental ending, almost completely undermines the possibility of any oppositional reading of The House of Mirth. Throughout her work Wharton makes clear how detestable she finds capitalism and consumer culture. However, by naturalizing and celebrating the working classes in this way she is reinforcing the very inequalities that the detestable system of capitalism creates. She sees the working classes as the saviors and idealized future of the world, not because of the working class struggle to overthrow capitalism, but because they already live virtuous and idyllic lives.
I want to now return to the distinction I made early on in this article, in the context of The House of Mirth, and that is the distinction between being a producer and a consumer. While this distinction has often been coded in gendered terms, so that men are producers and women are consumers, such a simplistic division belies the more complicated way in which capitalism works, especially when inflected by race, class and gender. Thus in Wharton's novel the middle-classes are divided into producers and consumers along gender lines, but this is not true of the working classes. For example, at one point Lily compares her life with that of her maid saying that they do the same work and the only difference is that they Lily gets 'paid' less frequently. However, what Lily fails to recognize is that her maid sells her labor for a wage, and she produces something — a service to Lily. All Lily ever produces, by contrast, is an image. Similarly, Paris is Burning, may focus on men, but all they produce are their 'tableaux vivants'. Thus, even though Livingston shows the men making their costumes (i.e., 'producing' a garment) the purpose of it is not to make a living but merely to construct an image.
What seems so interesting about Edith Wharton therefore, and the way in which she wanted both critical acclaim and to be known as a best-selling author, is that she participated as much in consumer culture as Lily Bart and the gay men in Harlem, but she did so as a producer, not as a consumer. It is clear that, right from the start, Wharton understood her position as a writer as being completely inextricable from the workings of the marketplace. She did not merely write books, but created a product. In other words, she was not only interested in writing books but also in promoting them and selling them, lots of them. She is well known for taking an extremely active interest in the promotion and sales of her works: she kept up on the weekly sales figures, the best-seller lists, knew which stores and libraries stocked her books, and was a keen advocate of energetic promotion and advertising. She changed publishers mid-career in order to get bigger advances and better magazine deals and she blamed poor sales on bad advertising, rather than the quality of her writing.
What makes this connection even more interesting is the fact that Edith Wharton's books were often satirical exposés on the very communities in which she was participating: high society (such as The House of Mirth) and the world of publishing. Therefore, although she was aware of the intimate relationship between one's social identity and the marketplace, she simultaneously embraced and disavowed the connection in her own personal life, and problematized such connections in her books. Wharton may have enjoyed the fame of being a writer but she never wanted to be a 'celebrity'. Thus, for Wharton, capitalism may be detestable, but it is better to participate as a producer than as a consumer. This is why Lily's unashamed marketing of her 'self' in search of a husband is quite different from Wharton marketing her identity as a writer to sell her books. In making herself a beautiful object, Lily may be involved in both acts of production and consumption, but all that she 'produces' by 'consuming' commodities is an image, to be admired and collected. While 'keeping up with the Joneses' may represent the enactment of competitive pathological consumption, its utopian aspect is in the desire to participate in the world and experience of one's friends. The conspicuous consumption in which Lily and her milieu participate can be read as their desire for a sense of community enacted via their shared identities as consumers in the marketplace. Thus the relationship between the consumer and commodity has utopian social dimensions, even if they are contained within the system of capitalism. However, while such a desire for shared experience is admirable, to what extent it is really possible to create a sense of community via shared shopping habits? And what kind of community exactly can it create?
Throughout this article I have repeatedly shown how problematic it is to construct, and understand, one's identity via the marketplace. Edith Wharton understood this well, but her way of dealing with it was to first locate, within her work, the morals and values (but not politics) of society within the working classes; but second, to celebrate and encourage her own relationship to the marketplace. Thus, on a political level Wharton advocates the eradication of capitalism and idealizes relationships that supposedly occur 'outside' of the marketplace, but in the 'real world' she strategically embraces the identity of a producer within capitalism for herself. In contrast, the men in Paris is Burning see few problems with constructing an identity through commodities and, clearly, get a lot of pleasure from enacting middle-class identities. However, the best that such actions can lead to is a temporary escape from a disempowered life, and, in the case of Venus, the worst is death.
Of course it's impossible to construct an identity in contemporary life outside of the marketplace. Who doesn't use clothing to identify people we consider will have similar lifestyles and interests to us? Or peruse a new acquaintance's bookshelf or record collection to get an idea if she has similar taste or politics to us? Likewise, I am quite sure I am not alone in finding the purchase of consumer goods to often be extremely pleasurable experience. Shopping is fun, and pleasure is a good thing — we all need plenty of it. But the kinds of pleasures associated with consuming, while often very 'real' can only ever be transitory and precarious. We always want more, this is the basis of capitalism. By contrast, the pleasures associated with production (such as having an enjoyable job and producing something more tangible than an image) can be more concrete and long-lasting. Also, I would emphasize that it is one thing to construct an identity via commodities, but it is quite another to attempt to construct a community in the same way. A community based on shared consumer habits can never be more than an enclave of shoppers. In issue #1 of Bad Subjects (September 1992), Joe Sartelle discussed how two ostensibly different groups of people (gay men and lesbians, and Star Trek fans) nevertheless have in common the fact that they have constructed their identities (in part) using consumer goods, creating a 'virtual' community via the marketplace. However, as he argued then, and I want to reiterate here, no matter how 'real' such a community may feel, being part of a market is not the same thing as being part of a community. No matter how conventional or transgressive the patterns of consumption may be (e.g. The House of Mirth vs. Paris is Burning) and no matter how such acts may represent a shared, repressed, desire for community and equality, without political action such desires never leave the shopping enclave.
Indeed, Edith Wharton's own project to be a best-selling author of quality fiction while not particularly 'transgressive' , still seems to be more useful than the projects of either Lily Bart or the gay men in Paris is Burning. What Lily and the gay men do is 'cope', but with little success (remember both Lily and Venus die). They are situated in a particular historical moment and, given the material conditions of their existence, participate in their societies as best they can. They have choices (albeit limited ones) and they choose to construct their identities via patterns of consumption. Clearly the options available to us are not limitless: different kinds of identities are available at different times, and while they are not all equally 'chooseable' (e.g. we cannot just 'choose' to be an executive of a company), choices are available to us within the parameters of our social existence. But both Lily and the gay men choose to construct their identities via consumption. Edith Wharton, on the other hand, although the product of the same historical moment as Lily, chooses to construct her identity via production, specifically to be a producer of books. This is her way of coping with capitalism: to act in the world and create a product, rather than appear in it and create an image. We cannot avoid consumption but we can avoid 'buying into it' as an authentic way of constructing an identity.
Conventional and transgressive consumer habits alike (as represented in the works of Edith Wharton and Jennie Livingston) normalize and naturalize existing social inequalities. The consumer behavior enacted in cultural practices may contain within them a utopic vision of tomorrow, and hence a critique of today, but by packaging these alternative wish-fulfillments within the 'discourse' of shopping, the potential for broader social, political and economic change is negated. Envisioning a future where gender, sexual orientation, class and race do not adversely affect a person's position in the social order is an extremely worthwhile vision to have, and vicariously enacting such a utopic vision through shared consumer habits is understandable, but to imagine that such acts of consumerism can also transform the social and economic fabric of capitalism seems to me unrealistic. As Frederic Jameson has argued, it is tempting is to assume that the mere discovery of utopia in mass culture somehow constitutes the transformation of daily life.
However, the real struggle is to use the recognition of utopia as impetus for fundamental social change. Consumption may help us cope with capitalism, but who wants to merely cope? Coping is just a version of avoidance. All that consumer identity enclaves can ever do is make (what should be) the unbearable conditions of existence within capitalism bearable. Perhaps we need to be reminded of these unbearable conditions a bit more often and, instead of avoiding and denying them through shopping, channel some of that energy into transforming the social, political and economic basis of society.
Jillian Sandell is a member of the Bad Subjects collective. She is a graduate of the Australian National University and is currently employed as a reader in the film studies program at UC-Berkeley. She can be reached at the following Internet address: firstname.lastname@example.org.