Alex Shakar‘s The Savage Girl is a novel about advertising, marketing, and coolhunting. The landscape is allegorical (a purgatorial city built on the slopes of a live volcano), but the details of life are recognizably present-day American. I was less interested in the characters and plot than in the way the book (like much SF) works as a kind of social theory.
The world of The Savage Girl is dominated, not by scarcity and need, but by abundance, aesthetics, and artificially created desires. Thanks to consumer capitalism, human beings have passed from the realm of Necessity to the realm of Freedom. We stand on the verge of the “Light Age” — sometimes spelled the “Lite Age” — “a renaissance of self-creation,” when, thanks to the wonders of niche marketing, “we’ll be able to totally customize our life experience — our beliefs, our rituals, our tribes, our whole personal mythology — and we’ll choose everything that makes us who we are from a vast array of choices” (24). In such an Age, “beauty is the PR campaign of the human soul” (25), inspiring us to aspire to more and more. Virginia Postrel herself couldn’t have put it any better; only Shakar is dramatizing the ambiguities and ironies of what Postrel proclaims all too smugly and self-congratulatorily.
I just mentioned “ironies”; but Shakar suggests that this utopia of product differentiation has as its correlate a “postironic” consciousness. (All the enthusiastic theorizing in the novel is done by the various characters; which allows Shakar’s narrative voice, by contrast, to remain perfectly poker-faced and deadpan). This is something emerging on the far side of the pervasive, David Letterman-esque irony that informs advertising today. For “our culture has become so saturated with ironic doubt that it is beginning to doubt its own mode of doubting… Postironists create their own set of serviceable realities and live in them independently of any facets of the outside world that they choose to ignore… Practitioners of postironic consciousness blur the boundaries between irony and earnestness in ways we traditional ironists can scarcely understand, creating a state of consciousness wherein critical and uncritical responses are indistinguishable. Postirony seeks not to demystify, but to befuddle…” (140). This sounds a lot like the Bush White House, and its supporters in the “faith-based community.” But Shakar suggests that it is much more applicable, even for “reality-based” liberals, because it is in process of becoming the universal mode of being of the consumer. Postirony leads to “a mystical relationship with consumption.” The commodity is sublime. In a world without scarcity or need, it is only through the products we purchase that we can maintain a relationship with the Infinite.
Shakar’s other, related crucial idea is that of the paradessence (short for “paradoxical essence”). “Every product has this paradoxical essence. Two opposing desires that it can promise to satisfy simultaneously.” The paradessence is the “schismatic core” or “broken soul” of every consumer product. Thus coffee promises both “stimulation and relaxation”; ice cream connotes both “eroticism and innocence,” or (more psychoanalytically) both “semen and mother’s milk” (60-61). The paradessence is not a dialectical contradiction; its opposing terms do not interact, conflict, or produce some higher synthesis. Nothing changes or evolves. Rather, the paradessence is a matter of “having everything both ways and every way and getting everything [one] wants” (179). This is a promise that only the commodity can make; it’s a way of being that cannot be sustained in natural, ‘unalienated’ life, but only through the artificial paradise of consumerism. I don’t know how familiar Shakar is with Deleuze and Guattari; but his analysis runs parallel to theirs, when he has his marketing-guru character declare that the pure form of postirony and paradessence is literally schizophrenia (141).
The Savage Girl centers around an advertising campaign for a product that promises everything, precisely because it is literally nothing. This product is called “diet water”: “an artificial form of water… that passes through the body completely unabsorbed. It’s completely inert, completely harmless”, and has no effect whatsoever. It doesn’t actually quench thirst; but as a result, it also doesn’t add to the drinker’s weight, doesn’t make her feel bloated. If you still feel thirsty after a drink of diet water, all you have to do is “buy more.” The consumers “can drink all they want, guilt-free” (44).
Diet water is pure exchange value, image value, and sign value. It’s the perfect product for a world beyond scarcity, as beyond guilt: for it remains scrupulously apart from any use or need. The wildly successful advertising campaign for diet water simultaneously manipulates images of schizophrenic breakdown and primitivist innocence. The ads express the paradessence of diet water; more, they underline how diet water, the perfect commodity, is postironic paradessence personified.
There’s more, like the idea of trans-temporal marketing: marketers from the future have come back in time to colonize us, so that we purchase their not-yet-existent products, which consumer decision on our part will cause those products to come into being, together with the controlling marketers themselves. But I won’t summarize the book’s concepts (or its plot) any further. For the most important thing about The Savage Girl is the way it situates us (the readers/consumers) in relation to the practices it depicts. For Shakar, there’s no outside to the world of commodity culture, no escape from the paradise of marketing that it depicts. There’s no external point from which to launch a critique, no way to make an ironic dismissal that isn’t already compromised.
And I think this is precisely right; the market society can’t be dismantled by stepping outside of its premises. Anti-commercial activists always come off sounding puritanical and moralistic; telling people to stop shopping is no way to build an oppositional political movement. We can only change things when we begin by affirming the whole extent of our own implication in the system we say we are trying to change. We get nowhere by criticizing capitalism for its abundance, or by accusing it of lacking ‘lack.’ If consumerist capitalism is an empty utopia, as I think it is, it’s only by exploiting and expanding its utopianism, rather than rejecting it, that we can hope to move it beyond its limits, and dislocate it from itself.