Artificial Desires

In Alex Shakar’s The Savage Girl, the ideal commodity is an absence: a product that promises everything, precisely because it is nothing. This product is called diet water or Litewater. It’s “an artificial form of water… that passes through the body completely unabsorbed. It’s completely inert, completely harmless,” and has no effect on the body whatsoever. It doesn’t actually quench thirst; but as a result, it also doesn’t add to the drinker’s weight, and doesn’t make her feel bloated. If you still feel thirsty after a drink of Litewater — and you will — all you have to do is “buy more.” Consumers needn’t worry about the consequences of imbibing; they “can drink all they want, guilt-free.” Litewater is the ideal commodity, then, precisely because it “is, in its very essence, the opposite of consumption. Consuming [it] is like consuming nothing at all.” This means that it is a figure of pure desire, scrupulously detached from any use or need. All it does is make sure that circulation continues: the circulation of money through the economy, and of fluids in and out of the body. Litewater is the perfect product for a world beyond scarcity, beyond irony, and beyond guilt. No matter how abundant it becomes, the demand for it is never satiated.

We shouldn’t take the story of Litewater as merely a satire on capitalism’s incitement of “artifical desires.” For of course all desires are artificial, in the standard social-constructivist sense that they belong to culture rather than nature, that they aim for something more than mere subsistence, and that they are irreducible to “reproductive strategies” or other forms of biological need. We should therefore say, together with Philip Pullman, that “nothing is natural any more, and nothing is artificial. It’s a false dichotomy, and we should forget about it.” In fact, when people denounce capitalism for instilling artificial needs or desires, what they are really objecting to is not artifice, so much as wastefulness. This sort of criticism ought to give us pause, however. For the drive to reduce or eliminate waste is itself intrinsic to capitalism, and only to capitalism. Only managers and neoclassical economists are obsessed with “efficiency.” As Bataille pointed out long ago, part of what makes capitalism unique is that it is the only socio-economic system in human history to regard waste as “shameful,” and the only one whose ruling class refuses the otherwise universal “obligation of functional expenditure.” Of course there is sumptuous waste in capitalism nonetheless: mostly in the form of what Veblen (with his own curious aversion to waste) called conspicuous consumption. But it seems misguided to reproach capitalism for wastefulness, as if the problem with it were the abundance that it provides, rather than the scarcity that it counter-produces in order to rein in and control this abundance.

The language of capitalism is the language of desire, and utopia, and salvation. And that is the secret of its success. The market always leaves us unsatisfied; but for this very reason it always gets us to come back for more. In the last analysis, there is no arguing against desire. Leftists won’t get very far by urging people to live within their means, or by telling them to settle for what they need instead of what they want. We should leave such exhortations to the Federal Reserve Bank. But also — and this is the most difficult part — we won’t get away from the logic of commodities and the market by appealing to utopian yearnings and hopes of redemption. For these longings are the very ones that motivate us to go shopping. They have been subsumed, all too successfully, within the circuits of consumption. The only way out is the way through. The only answer to capitalist desire’s constant cries of “more!” is to up the ante still further, as in Blake’s aphorism: “More! More! is the cry of a mistaken soul, less than All cannot satisfy Man.”

It is therefore only by embracing the logic of capitalist (and specifically, post-Fordist) aestheticism that we can hope to open a path ‘beyond’ it. The best guide in these matters is Andy Warhol, who wrote that “buying is much more American than thinking… Americans are not so interested in selling — in fact, they’d rather throw out than sell. What they really like to do is buy — people, money, countries.” The supply-side way of encouraging people to buy is beauty, style, or more precisely cool. When leftist critics denounce the market’s promotion of style over substance, when they deplore, as Stuart Ewen does, “the cycle of waste upon which the market is built,” they are missing the point that this wastefulness is not a bug, but a feature. It’s flexible accumulation’s answer to the dilemma of overproduction. Without it, the whole system would come tumbling down — and not in a way that would lead to a change for the better. We need to be wasteful, to throw things out, in order to clear room in our closets for new stuff. And we need to change our fashions, and upgrade our gadgets, as often as possible, in order (as Virginia Postrel puts it) to “reinvent ourselves, emphasizing and developing previously unknown or subordinate aspects of our personalities.” Far from creating scarcity by diverting resources, conspicuous waste is our only exemption from the ruthless reign of Malthusian scarcity, Darwinian struggle, and “the discipline of the market.” A visit to the mall puts beauty into our otherwise blighted lives.

The thing to remember is that, even when we strive to resist the commodity’s allure, and the ubiquitous domination of the marketplace, it is only in the terms set forth by the commodity itself that we can do so. We must say of the commodity what Derrida says of metaphysics: “We have no language — no syntax and no lexicon — which is foreign to this history; we can pronounce not a single destructive proposition which has not already had to slip into the form, the logic, and the implicit postulations of precisely what it seeks to contest.” The Situationist strategy of radical negativity and absolute refusal is a self-congratulatory self-deception, or at best a show of empty bravado. Like it or not, the situation that we face today is the opposite of the one described by Audre Lord: for it is only with the master’s tools that we can possibly hope to dismantle the master’s house.

4 Responses to “Artificial Desires”

  1. chuk says:

    what a good post!

    but the last sentence seems sort of misleading as if your objective were revolution (dismantling the house), when i think the argument is more interested in remodeling.

    i love the bit about efficiency, wonderful, but capitalism isn’t the only efficiency pusher, there’s also fascism and city planning and computer hacking. but yeah the connection is strong.

  2. Sean says:

    Litewater is an interesting metaphor, but what about Larry Cohen’s 1985 film THE STUFF, in which a mysterious substance is commodified as food? The film has something to say about fears about and credulity over what we put in our bodies as food and drink. There’s an inspired moment at the end where, after the Stuff’s side effects are known, the company tries to repackage the phenomenon as The Taste, which tastes like the Stuff but, you know, doesn’t come from a meteor or kill you.

  3. Steven Shaviro says:

    Yes, I love THE STUFF, and I agree as to its relevance to this discussion.

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