Commodities aren’t just objects in the world that we – detached, autonomous subjects – would apprehend from a distance. Rather, commodities, as animate beings, are somehow already inside us, molding us from within, present before we are there to respond to them. Parasites. Brands “provide their customers with little epiphanies – moments of recognition that put images, sounds, and feelings on barely perceptible desires” (Douglas Holt). This is not to say, crassly, that advertising “manipulates” us by creating “artificial” desires. It’s much subtler than that: it is only in the space of advertising and branding that I can recognize and express my desires in the first place. Saussure says that “psychologically our thought – apart from its expression in words – is only a shapeless and indistinct mass. . . Without language, thought is a vague, uncharted nebula. There are no pre-existing ideas, and nothing is distinct before the appearance of language.” Whether or not this is true for language in general in relation to thought in general, it is true for commodities in relation to our desires. Inchoate, “barely perceptible” strivings only take form, only get articulated, when they are embodied in the “images, sounds, and feelings” provided by commodities, advertisements, and brands. Our commodified desires are indeed arbitrary, in precisely the way that Saussure says linguistic signs are arbitrary. But there is no natural, non-arbitrary, uncommodified desire, just as there is no “private language” (Wittgenstein), and just as there is no “state of nature” prior to human sociality.
Burroughs tells us that language is a virus. But he adds that, specifically, “it is the human virus“: the mutation that makes us what we are, the otherness that separates us from the apes. Language is not, as Steven Pinker would have it, an “instinct”; for, as a viral supplement to our genome, it makes us into beings who no longer act according to instinct. And much the same can be said about commodities. Today, consumerism – like language itself – is universal: not that it is intrinsic to human nature, but precisely because it is not. Not all cultures are consumerist ones, and not all economies are centered on commodities. But consumerism is a powerful vector of infection, and the commodity is a virus that quickly spreads wherever it is introduced. No culture, no economy, is immune to it. At best, Burroughs says, the human virus is a peaceful symbiont: we’ve had “many thousands of years of more or less benign coexistence” with it. But today it is “once again on the verge of malignant mutation.” The commodity form really started spreading in the eighteenth century, which for Burroughs was the last time when a utopian alternative was still possible. But in the last few decades it has raged across the world with renewed virulence, a “virgin soil epidemic” of incalculable consequences.
Consumerism has entirely overwritten the programming of the human soul. This means that it is both inessential to human nature, and inextricable from it. In other words, consumerism follows a Derridean logic (which isn’t all that far from a Burroughsian one). Derrida defines the supplement as being both extraneous and necessary. It is entirely superfluous, and yet it somehow plays a crucial role, by standing in for something that – in its turn – is supposed to be essential, but that is nonetheless missing. The supplement is merely a substitute, but it is one for which the original – the thing for which it substitutes – cannot be found. Derrida, commenting on Rousseau, cites writing (a substitute for the supposed full presence of speech) and masturbation (a substitute for the supposed full presence of sex with a partner) as examples of the supplement. For it turns out that even the most earnest and spontaneous speech is riddled with the same gaps and indirections and rhetorical slippages and ambiguities as writing; and even the most complete and satisfying sexual intimacy is less a perfect communion than it is the mere contiguity, in space and time, of two solipsistic orgasms.
Today, shopping at the mall follows the same supplemental pattern. It’s one of the most satisfying things that we do, and yet there is always something empty or fake about it. This is because shopping is ostensibly a utilitarian activity, whose purpose lies outside of itself: acquiring goods for subsequent consumption. And yet we enjoy the experience of shopping – of buying things, or even of looking at them without buying, checking them out, trying them on, moving from one possible purchase to the next – more than we do the act of actually consuming the goods we’ve bought. Everyone knows, as James Twitchell puts it, that “people buy so they can shop, not shop so they can buy,” and that “the purchase of goods may be incidental to the experience of shopping.” Once I’ve gotten the stuff home, its value is exhausted. Now that I have it, I no longer desire it. What excites me instead is the prospect of going shopping again. Andy Warhol had the right idea. At the end of each month, he’d pack all the stuff he had bought into a box, and ship the box to permanent storage in a warehouse in New Jersey, never to be opened again.